Who are the ‘bandits’ terrorising Nigeria’s ‘Wild Wild West’? | Muhammadu Buhari

On Monday, a train bound for the northern city of Kaduna from the Nigerian capital Abuja was ambushed by robbers suspected of having bombed its tracks. Dozens of passengers were kidnapped and several unconfirmed people were killed in the attack.

The incident happened just days after the local daily Premium Times report that unidentified gunmen stormed Kaduna airport, killing an official on the tarmac. Soldiers are said to have repelled the attack and the airport was closed.

Monday’s train attack was the second attack in six months on the same route after explosives were placed on the tracks last October. Witnesses said the train hobbled to the finish line after that.

Since the railway opened in 2016, it has created an alternative connection between the two largest cities in the north. For many civil servants living in Kaduna and working in Abuja, it has become a much safer alternative as aggressive “bandits” take over the roads to the north.

Even senators and other rank-and-file politicians have grown accustomed to standing in coaches whenever they are congested, rather than traveling the highways in their luxury cars with convoys. security.

But sometimes the good things don’t last.

The NRC announced Tuesday that it will be suspending operations on this route – one of the most popular in the nation – until further notice.

‘Wild West’

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, but witnesses say they are “bandits”, a term commonly used to refer to criminal gangs that masterminded kidnappings, assaults and violence. sex and kill citizens over large swathes of northern Nigeria.

They number in the tens of thousands and often announce their presence with Mostly motorbikes – and sometimes horses – into the towns and villages they infiltrate with seemingly endless supplies of ammunition. Many groups are thought to consist mainly of ethnic Fulani, including herders and mercenaries from the region as well as neighboring Chad and the Niger Republic.

In some cases, they have kidnapped students in various parts of the Nigerian states of Niger, Kebbi and Yobe. But in their kidnapping and ransom scheme, the “bandits” also abducted people from all walks of life, from politicians and their family members to prisoners, clerics. , security personnel and farmers.

In May 2019, the prefect of Daura, the hometown of President Muhammadu Buhari, was kidnapped. He was released after two months. Presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said the incident was proof that Duara did not receive preferential treatment and that insecurity was a national problem.

According to the Wisconsin-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), one of the world’s most trusted conflict data aggregators, there are 18 kidnapping events targeted to students across northern Nigeria from January 2018 to April 2021.

ACLED data also shows that robbers killed more than 2,600 civilians in 2021, an increase of more than 250% from 2020. This is lower than the civilian deaths recorded for both Boko Haram and the State. Islamic province of West Africa in the same year.

Between December 2020 and August 2021, more than 1,000 students and school staff were abducted. According to data from the state government.

Although the axis of the tragedy cuts across the southern regions, the central region and especially northwest Nigeria continue to be hardest hit. Residents of the area say that the “robbers” operate as if they are obeying the law. In some villages, they have even become law and locality on a regular basis.

‘Bandits’, ‘terrorists’ or a cocktail?

For nearly a century, small groups of cattle herders have invaded villages to the north for cows and food. That often puts them in direct conflict with farmers in these areas.

However, around 2011, everything changed when a series of armed attacks starting in the state of Zamfara. Experts say the manual mining activities there have attracted gold thieves, who then begin infiltrating villages at night.

Other criminal groups also joined the war for various reasons.

“The bandits are [now] Ayisha Osori, director of Open Society Foundations and former president of Open Society West Africa, told Al Jazeera, a sophisticated mix of displaced people. “People displaced by violence lasting more than a decade in the northeast and those displaced by climate change – unable to farm, fish, trade.”

“[There are] ranchers – who were tired of their cattle being licked and wars with farmers – found a more lucrative revenue-generating activity: kidnapping for ransom and the monstrous trade. father to pay back the community,” she added. “The robbers also include criminal-minded opportunists who may or may not be supported by certain members of the Nigerian security forces who, in a declining economy, collapse, also see this as a profitable exploitation of the Nigerian people.”

It is also possible that some are remnants of the Abubakar Shekau faction of Boko Haram in the northeast, who have been dislodged by another faction of the group, now affiliated with ISIL as ISWAP.

Several state governments have halted monthly payments to vigilantes and ethnic militias – whom they have tasked with fighting “bandits” – and implemented disarmament agreements. to collect firearms paid for by government funds. Disgruntled members of these groups are now also in the mix.

Ibrahim Dosara, Zamfara government spokesman told Al Jazeera: “After the ban on Yan Banga (vigilant soldiers) and our allowance stopped, some turned into Yan Sakai (volunteers) to pay enemies of the Fulani and some became criminals. “When we discovered that they were now part of the problem, the government banned them again.”

“We are dealing with well-funded and networked groups who are likely to be supported by powerful people, including those invested in gold mining in Zamfara – the heart of the world. violence in the northwest,” Osori said.

But while the band has stretched to accommodate all sorts of criminal elements, the name remains inelastic.

‘The void has not been crossed’

Much of the region’s forests, especially the twin forests of Mashema to the north of Zamfara bordering the nearby Republic of Niger and Birnin Gwari to the south leading to the neighboring, equally safe state of Kaduna, have become bases for robbers to store sophisticated weapons.

These places, and some of the villages that suffered frequent attacks, are now commonly referred to by analysts as “unmanaged space,” “managed space,” and “Wild West.”

On paper, Nigeria operates as a federation but Abuja still provides a drip feed for 36 states. In addition, corruption and incompetent leadership can be found at all levels of government. This, among other things, has led to a feeling of economic and political marginalization, actual or perceived, among different segments of the population. And many have been left to their own devices.

A few years ago, security forces announced a crackdown, which included air strikes and shut down telecommunications in areas of the northwest in an attempt to drive criminal gangs out of hiding. hide in their forest.

But Nigeria’s under-equipped and well-equipped military is stretched thin by troop deployments elsewhere in the country, especially to quell Boko Haram activities in the northeast, incitements of separatism in the southeast and the livestock crisis in central Nigeria.

The country’s land and sea borders, hitherto very porous, remain conduits for small and light weapons to be transported into the country for armed groups operations.

In January, the government declare the bandits to be terrorists.

In its official gazette, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government labeled the activities of Yan Bindiga and Yan Ta’adda – Hausa references to gunmen – as “terrorist and illegal acts”. “.

But that designation hardly changes anything.

A few days after the announcement, an estimated 200 people were killed and 10,000 displaced in attacks by gunmen in Zamfara following army air strikes on their hideout last week.

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