The increasing reign of banditry in many parts of the country as exemplified in the recent killings in Zamfara State, should not just worry the authorities, but stoke them into action, writes Shola Oyeyipo
Nigeria has already sustained brutal bruises from militants, terrorists and the likes and is therefore not in a position to add another burden to the weight of its insecurity challenges with the growing rate of banditry in many parts of the country, Zamfara State being the centre of it all.
Although some have branded it farmers-herders clash, to many others, it is just another vista of terror attacks. But whatever it is, lives are being lost and their means of livelihood disrupted.
Stories of killings by armed bandits from Zamfara State are growing everyday and indeed niggling. Since early 2018 till today, suspected armed bandits have been killing innocent residents in the state. On December 20, they killed about 25 people in attacks on two villages in Birnin Magaji local government area (LGA) of Zamfara State.
Unsuspecting farmers harvesting sweet potatoes on their farms at Garin Halilu village became victims of the motor bike riding killers, who opened fire on them, killing nine on the spot.
Not satisfied or perhaps hoping to instill more fear in the people, the killers made their ways back to the community and killed three more around 5:00pm, when the bodies of the slain farmers were being prepared for burials.
There have been reports of pockets of attacks that have claimed many lives recently and it is obvious that efforts by the police to stem the tide are not without telling consequences on the force.
Police in Zamfara confirmed that 16 of its personnel were killed in the November 29 clash between the command and bandits in the state.
Although the state Police Command Public Relations Officer, Superintendent Muhammad Shehu, said the clash was as a result of a raid on criminals’ hideouts in the state by the police during, which 104 bandits were killed by policemen. The perpetrators are however daring. The onslaught against innocent Zamfara residents is deliberate and well planned.
Governor Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara is obviously perplexed by these killings and is surely looking for ways to address the problem. First, he blamed the continued killings on informants, who support the bandits and kidnappers hence he implored the people of the state to support government in tackling the situation.
According to the governor, who is no longer averse to an emergency declaration in the state, while the state and federal governments as well as security agencies were making frantic efforts to address the situation, informants had made it difficult for security agencies in the state to operate effectively.
He said President Muhammadu Buhari had been doing his best to address the situation and had deployed more security personnel to the state, noting that, “Before Buhari’s administration, we have few security personnel in this state, but today we have about 4000 security personnel including Army, Police and Civil Defence.”
Also, in search of solution, the Zamfara State government had suspended four traditional rulers over their alleged involvement with bandits terrorising the state and Governor Yari vowed that more heads would roll if found culpable in the banditry afflicting the state.
In yet another move to reduce the spate of attacks, Yari announced a reward of N1 million on every illegal AK 47 rifle returned to the state government. When he was asked recently if the policy had yielded result, he said he had paid N1m for one AK47 surrendered.
However, with no concrete evidence that these efforts were yielding noticeable results, Nigerians are already calling on government at all levels to review their strategy.
For instance, the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights and the Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, recently suggested that the federal government should deploy Special Forces to curb the insecurity before it grows out of proportion.
The duo of CDHR National President, Mr. Malachy Ugwumadu and the Executive Chairman, CACOL, Mr. Debo Adeniran, were unanimous in their call to the federal government to step up the deployment of security forces in the troubled areas.
Though Governor Yari was initially against the call for a state of emergency in his state, convinced that stronger measures were required to stop the growing rate of violence, he has shifted his position. He said on December 26 that he supports the call on President Buhari to declare a state of emergency in the state.
The governor, who told newsmen at a press briefing in Gusau, the state capital, said he would do anything within his power to end the security challenge confronting Zamfara.
“I am in support of the declaration of state of emergency if it will save the lives of people of the state,” Yari said, warning that the situation should not be politicised.
As it is, the situation in the North-west state is quite disturbing as it epitomises the failure of the government in the management of security. Going by the words of the Director, Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, at least 371 people had been killed in the crisis since it started in January 2018. Today, the killings are widespread.
She said: “The crisis in Zamfara is making life hell for villagers, yet it is clearly low down on the list of government’s priorities. These killings must stop immediately, and those suspected of criminal responsibility must be brought to justice in fair trials. The Nigerian authorities have a responsibility to protect the lives of everybody in the country, including people in poor and rural communities.”
According to her, villagers gave the impression that they were helpless and on edge and preparing themselves for attacks, saying “Men said they are sleeping outside their homes and in trees as a way of keeping vigilant, while women and children are sleeping together in groups for protection.”
Another worrying revelation by the Amnesty International director was that despite the deployment of security personnel by the federal government, the crisis between herders and farmers in the state had not reduced.
“Previous military interventions failed to end the killings, especially in rural areas of Zamfara. At least 371 people have been killed in Zamfara in 2018 alone, and at least 238 of these killings took place after the deployment of the Nigerian Air Force. The government is still neglecting the most vulnerable communities in this region,” she said, pointing fingers at government.
She said during a visit to Zamfara, villagers told the agency that before some attacks, the bandits wrote threat letters to the communities, which were relayed to the government but no concrete action was taken.
“When we visited the region, villagers told us that they had pleaded with the government to help them after receiving warning letters from the bandits ahead of attacks but had received no protection. The Nigerian authorities have repeatedly claimed to be tackling the situation, but the mounting death toll tells a different story,” she said.
She added that on Friday, July 27, 18 villages in the Mashema, Kwashabawa and Birane districts of Zurmi local government area of Zamfara State were attacked, leaving at least 42 people dead.
Ojigho said at least 18,000 residents of the affected villages, who were displaced took refuge at various locations in the local government headquarters. The following day, 15 people were kidnapped in Maradun local government area.
“On Saturday, July 28, President Muhammadu Buhari announced the deployment of 1,000 troops to Zamfara. This is the third time since November 2017 that the authorities have deployed the military in response to attacks, but villagers told Amnesty International that this had not translated into protection for remote, vulnerable communities,” Ojigho said.
A major fear, already underscored by the federal government is that the persistent attacks on residents of Zamfara State by bandits will affect food security in the country, but such a statement is being considered defeatist and irresponsible in some quarters, because rather than tackle the menace headlong, government has begun to create excuses for inefficiency.
Minister of Interior, Alhaji Abdulrahman Dambazau, said during an on-the-spot assessment of the activities of the bandits in the state that “Since those affected by the killings are largely the agrarian rural dwellers, the activities of bandits will have a serious impact on agriculture and food security.”
He issued a final warning to the bandits to stop attacking innocent citizens, saying the federal government would descend upon them and “I want to assure them that they cannot withstand the consequences.”
He said stakeholders in the security sector in the state would meet to fine-tune the new measures that would be used in tackling the threat posed by the bandits and as such advised the hoodlums to immediately surrender and embrace peace.
“This administration will continue to go to any length to protect the lives and properties of the citizens, because any single innocent life lost has a devastating effect on the nation and is unacceptable,” Dambazau said, even when the threat has yielded no results.
President Buhari’s leadership has witnessed series of violence across Nigeria and as usual, he merely condemned the killings, saying “These horrendous acts of violence are crimes against humanity. This violence must stop.”
Expressing his deepest condolences to the families of those killed, the government and people of Zamfara State, the President also wished those injured a speedy recovery.
He has since ordered the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshall Abubakar Baba Sadiq to carry out an assessment trip to Zamfara and Sokoto States on Christmas and Boxing days, reassuring residents of the two states as well as Kaduna, Niger and Taraba, who have been victims of armed banditry that their safety was an enduring commitment of his administration and would continue to ensure that security agencies work round the clock to protect local populations.
Already, a special operation by the Nigerian Armed Forces, Police, Department of State Services and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, is being put together to ensure that peace and stability is returned in the region.
The president is particularly optimistic that the Special Forces deployed in each of the local governments in Zamfara State would respond to the security challenges in the North-central and North-west. He hoped that the measures, among others, would be intensified to flush out the bandits from wherever they are.
It was against this development that the Nigerian Air Force deployed two attack helicopters to its base in Zamfara. The helicopters were received at the NAF 207 Quick Response Group, Gusau, and by the Commander, Group Captain Caleb Olayera, who noted that the facilities would help in tracking and arresting criminal elements disturbing the state.
The NAF consequently constructed two helipads at the base, in preparation for the combat helicopter gunships to be fully operational from Gusau and this would boost air operations within the state and environs.
The Air Officer Commanding, Special Operations Command, Air Vice Marshal Ismaila Kaita, said the Air Force would collaborate with other security agencies to tackle the security challenges in the state.
But opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has labelled the recent killings in the state as part of major failures of the administration.
In a statement by its spokesman, Kola Ologbondiyan, PDP said it shared in the anguish of the victims and relations of the slain, who daily live with the devastating trauma of the escalated bloodletting and killing of their loved ones, by marauders, who still roam the area “in spite of the propaganda and lip service by the Muhammadu Buhari administration.”
The party said the ugly situation in the country is an undisputed testimony of the failure of President Buhari’s administration to provide adequate security for Nigerians, especially in the troubled states, despite his promises as well as the huge resources at his disposal to tackle insurgency.
Also, President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki has condemned the killings and described them as “barbaric and unacceptable.” Saraki said the killings were a major threat to the nation’s democracy, hence the need for security agencies to come up with a strategy to tackle the menace.
Speaking through his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Yusuph Olaniyonu, Saraki said the Zamfara killings were not getting enough attention from the media and the non-governmental organisations.
No doubt, Nigeria has had too many issues of insecurity and so, government must spare the citizenry the misfortune of yet another horror that is gradually building up in Zamfara by being proactive in addressing the killings.
Of course, there are many theories about the factors fuelling the crisis in the state, one of which is the speculation that the illegal mining of gold in the state by some highly placed persons is largely responsible for the increase in the bandits in the state as the foot soldiers used for the illegality are usually heavily armed to discharge their duties. It has also been identified as one reason the military operation in the state has not been effective because of vested interest.
This is why government must look beyond issuing terse statements or mere condemnation of the killings but get cracking with the ultimate goal of containing the menace of banditry.