Saving Zamfara State

Abdulaziz Yari


With Maryam Mohammed

It is no longer a matter of debate that large swathes of land in Zamfara state are under the control of criminal gangs, bandits and economic saboteurs who are illegally mining mineral resources to the disadvantage of the Nigerian State. These groups have for years become a State unto themselves as they prey on civilians without let, and perpetuate conflict with considerable cost to civilians.

The tragedy of the Zamfara quagmire is that for years government’s capacity to deal with the problem has had little effect. Because of the failure to deal with the growing threat especially relating to Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM), we now have a situation that will further stretch even thinner the nation’s security architecture. As things are presently, the country’s military is porously thin because of nationwide security challenges.

For those who know little about the tragedy that has become of Zamfara state, it is much about the failure of leaders as it is about lucrative illegal mining and cattle rustling. While it is a trite constitutional guarantee that the welfare and security of the people are the primary purpose of government, those charged with the responsibility of ensuring that these demands of their offices are realized rather focused on religious dogmas as a cover for their personal failures. Ordinarily, if they had demonstrated fidelity to the religious laws and obligations which they so faithfully implemented, they would have known it confers an obligation on them to be forthright, honest and accountable to the people.

So for the political overlords, religion became a smokescreen to indulge in forbidden pleasures while always lying through their teeth that “it is the will of Allah.” The will of the Almighty remains that the governor, lawmakers and traditional rulers build synergy and have a common front for the welfare and security of the people. But what Zamfara has witnessed in the past 16 years and in particular the last 8 years is an aberration of what governance ought to be. Many Nigerians are unaware that even as the federal government moves to arrest the ugly situation of armed banditry in the state, Governor Abdulazzi Yari was away in the United States. Doing what exactly? Oh, I forgot, he has since abdicated his responsibility as the Chief Security Officer of the State. It is an irony of sorts that the governor can find the energy to drive the clamour for issuance of certificates of return to elected officials of the state, but lacks the drive to stay put and coordinate or even observe the ongoing efforts to rid the state of the malfeasance of banditry and other criminal enterprises.

However, it is easy to situate the worsening situation on the state government for not engaging constantly and creatively with the locals, but the issue of conflict resources is a global headache. The Congo is a perfect exemplar of how not to manage resource conflict and hopefully can offer a lesson or two to the federal government’s pushback in Zamfara state.

The Congo has been perpetually at war with itself and neigbhours because of mineral conflict. The grim story, the disease and poverty of the minerals-rich country is not so different from the grim reality in Zamfara.

It beggars belief that almost a decade after over 400 children died of lead poisoning, nothing substantial was done to tackle the menace of child fatalities in Zamfara state. It is left to the imagination how much more have died because those elected and paid to protect the vulnerable failed them miserably.

If anyone thought that lessons have been learnt, then it was a mere wish as wanton killings of natives supposedly by people who share the same affinities in terms of culture, religion and language in communities far flung from the hundreds of illegal mining sites in the state are swiftly executed and nobody is yet to be held accountable for such unspeakable atrocities.

It is in this regard that the Nigerian government should begin to interrogate the involvement of foreign powers in the orgy of violence that has gripped Zamfara state. While it is now a known fact that the country is awash with small and light weapons, it is pertinent to ask who are those really fuelling the carnage? Why are they so intent in wiping out whole communities? Is it to denude the areas of human existence so they can have unfettered access to the mineral resources or there is a more sinister force at play?

These questions are in response to the claims of the Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan-Ali, who incidentally hails from the state, that some traditional rulers are in league with the bandit elements.

According to a press statement from his ministry, Dan-Ali said, “However, in spite of the concerted efforts of the armed forces and other security agencies, some unpatriotic persons, including highly placed traditional rulers in the areas, were identified as helping the bandits with intelligence to perpetuate their nefarious actions or to compromise military operations.” (Emphasis mine). If I were to say I feel sorry for the defence chief, it will be an understatement. Here is a minister with the full weight of the Nigerian State on his side admitting to the fact that bandits are getting help from some ‘faceless’ (one would assume) traditional rulers, but Dan-Ali has admitted they are known, yet nothing, absolutely nothing, other than a lame warning has been done.

By now, ought not the identified collaborators be in military detention?  Why is it so much of a difficult task in showing examples of those that have upended the lives of thousands and engaged in economic sabotage? Or is it simply that the defence minister knows much more than he is letting out?

It is something of a cheer that the traditional rulers in Zamfara have elected not to be made scapegoats by the defiance minister as they have challenged him to come clean on those allegedly behind the carnage in the state. Two days after the telling accusation, the Zamfara State Council of Chiefs in a communiqué signed by the Emir of Anka and chairman of the state’s council of chiefs, Alhaji Attahiru Muhammad Ahmad held an emergency meeting in Gusau the state capital to make their position known.

One appreciates the swiftness of the royal fathers in asking Dan-Ali to name and shame, if any, the traditional rulers colluding with the bandits. But it is also pertinent to ask why for so long did they play the Ostrich as to what has been happening in their domains? Is it that there have asked for military intervention behind the scene and their pleas were ignored? They cannot be wholly excused from the malady given that they stand in good stead to have been more strident for the kind of action that has been launched.

Also worrying is the finger pointing between the emirs and the military in how the barely one week battle against the criminal elements is going. For the traditional rulers to accuse the airforce of missing the actual culprits and hitting “many innocent villagers” in ‘misdirected airstrikes,’ calls for more stakeholders engagement.

“Reports from Mutu in Gusau and Tsafe local government areas, Tangaram in Anka local government and Dumburum in Zurmi local area, among others, are that the areas shelled were not the actual hideouts of the bandits and the victims were innocent civilians. We call on the federal government to come to the aid of the state, especially the people in our rural communities who are in very dire need of life supporting material. Thousands have left their homes, and farming and all economic activities have been put to standstill in most rural areas,” the emirs were quoted as saying.

This should not be taken lightly. For any meaningful outcome in salvaging the tenuous situation, no side should be treated in a cavalier manner. The traditional rulers ought to be temperate in their words as it could pitch the people against the military. More so, it is incumbent on the military to work towards winning hearts as intelligence is crucial in dislodging the bandits, and this critical information needed can only come from the natives.

Similarly, while President Buhari has ordered the military to deal ‘ruthlessly’ with the armed gangs of Zamfara and other North Western states including Katsina, it is instructive he goes a little step further by giving specific timeline of what should be achieved at every stage of the operation. Leaving it open ended as it were will not galvanise the military commanders to be swift, decisive and result oriented. This is against the seeming renewed onslaught of Boko Haram in Yobe and Borno states.

It is gratifying to note that the military has launched a full scale operation- Exercise Harbin Kunama IV in not only Zamfara, but Katsina and Sokoto states as well – to tackle the banditry that has left many a village deserted and social interaction severely damaged.

What the government and all should not lose sight of is the dire implication of food security and social cohesion that has been threatened. Evidence abound that villagers can no longer farm, community life is gradually, if not already, dying, religious obligations as well cannot be performed because it is uncertain when the next attack will happen.

By taking the drastic step to halt Artisanal and Small-scale Mining as well as asking all foreigners to leave the conflict area is commendable. But does that mean that military operation is the viable legitimate option available? Would it not have been more rewarding to take a census of all foreigners operating in the area, determine those that are duly licenced to operate and sieve those who perhaps have fuelled conflict for their own profit more reasonable?

Let’s assume that the foreigners have left, what security guarantee for Nigerians, who may have been victims in the first instance but caught in the resource conflict? Are they now expendables in government’s efforts in clearing the mess in Zamfara? It would be interesting for government to unveil its long term plans for the state and other contiguous areas so that there is clarity as to what comes after the military operations. Without a doubt, the military cannot stay in the area for long as it is already too stretched. It is in this regard that the federal government should hold a broad stakeholders engagement on how they can be part of restoring sanity to the area. More than that, it should work towards the designation of gold and other minerals illegally harvested in Zamfara as conflict resource as was done with the Blood Diamonds of Liberia, the Coltan and other minerals of Congo etc.

To achieve this requires international synergy and highlighting how Western patronage is fuelling crisis, poverty and disease in communities in Zamfara. This is against several accounts of helicopter and light planes landing in the mining sites to ferry out gold. It is best to imagine the volume of revenue loss to the Nigerian government. At a time the federal government is seeking to expand its revenue base, there is the urgency to plug the loopholes not just in the Zamfara mines, but across the country.

If we have dithered in the past in taking concrete actions, now is the hour to show balls not only to save Zamfara, but to say, ‘Enough is enough!’