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The Banditry Discourse: A dissonant narrative and matters arising

The quartet of Sheik (Dr.) Ahmed Gumi, Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State, the Minister of Defense, General Bashir Magashi and General Babagana Mugono, Nigeria’s National Security Adviser have in the past few days made far-reaching contributions to the discourse on banditry in the country. Dr. Ahmed Gumi’s foray and encounters with bandits in the forests of Northern Nigeria has thrown up additional knowledge on banditry and Fulani criminality in parts of the country. Accounts of the encounters indicate the grievances of the Fulani and others who have taken to banditry and are holding the country by the jugular. We can fairly profile these bandits as those who have been dispossessed of their cattle by rustlers, others have been displaced from their abodes and their settlements destroyed bythe Nigerian Army (Christian elements according to Dr. Gumi)or vigilante gangs. Additionally, many of them have lost relations and are literally in the cold and claim to have been forced into banditry.

Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State is not particularly an articulate person but in an extended television interview with Channels Television some days back was able to throw further light on the bandits operating within the borders of his State. According to him, there are now two parts in the body of bandits in his State. There are those who have repented as bandits, laid down their arms and are actively collaborating with him and security agencies in the state to revolve the challenges the state is facing. These repentant bandits are also those going between the Government and the second part that is still in the bush heavily armed and doing havoc. The Governor collaborated Dr. Gumi by arguing that this second part in the forests are people who have been displaced and dispossessed of their cattle and forced into the life of the bandit.

The Defense Minister on his part has confirmed at the highest level that the Fulani has abandoned his signature shepherd stick for the AK-47 and transmuted into a bandit. Even though, this information coming from a high-ranking member of Government is not new, in volunteering the information, the Minister dropped a bombshell. He said AK-47 wielding bandits would continue to haunt citizens of the country unless we summon enough courage and abandon our cowardice to fight these bandits head on. A Minister of Defense with a military record, calling citizens cowards in the face of AK-47 wielding bandits may have a point probably because while in the army, he could have been was trained to fight with bare hands those with military grade weapons, yet, asking defenseless citizens in the name of courage to face bandits with AK-47 is foolhardy advise.

The last of the quartet, General Babagana Muguno a few days back rose from a meeting of the National Security Council to announce some out of the box initiative against Banditry in the country.  Zamfara was specifically targeted in the announcement.  A no flight zone was established over the state and an embargo placed on mining activities in the state. This has changed the entire banditry narrative in both Zamfara and other parts of the country. Prior to this announcement, unconfirmed reports in Benue, Nasarawa, Southern Kaduna and other parts of the country had indicated that bandits and armed Fulani herdsmen operating in the forests and rural areas of the country were receiving logistics and supplies from helicopters. Government dismissed these reports with disdain. What the no fly zone on Zamfara means is that Government is no longer able to dismiss such reports. Not only that, the no fly zone over Zamfara reinforces the fact that we are not dealing with an ordinary bandit here but one well connected enough to be supplied from the air. We must think deeply on this particular bandit. We know that he is a displaced person. His Ruga has been completely burnt down. He is dispossessed of his cows and his close kin have been killed. Yet instead of staying in some internally displaced persons’ camp, as thousands of others in Benue, Plateau, Kaduna, Oyo, Yobe, Taraba and Bornu are doing, he has chosen to rise in arms against the state and people of this country. Even if one argues as with Nasir El Rufai that this displaced person never forgives and forgets an injury and must return for his pound of flesh it is unthinkable for one dispossessed and homeless to arm himself to the teeth and do the damage this bandit is known for. We know that the cattle this bandit had when he was a Fulani herdsman with a stick were not his own. They belonged to the ‘big Fulani man’ in town. Could that ‘big Fulani man’ be the ultimate one sponsoring the bandit through the procurement of military grade weapons? Or do we place premium on the bandit whose confession has gone viral on this matter? This particular bandit confesses that it is ‘government’ that procures and distributes the AK-47 to bandits.

Incidentally, when the Press asked Governor Bello Matawalle to comment on this confession, he hedged. According to Bello, the bandit whose confession implicated the ‘government’ was confessing from Niger State and not from Zamfara.  Bello’s response is as lame as they come.He wants to disambiguate the Zamfara state bandit from the Niger state bandit.This seems a difficult task in Nigeria today when the lines between the armed Fulani herdsman, the bandit, the insurgent and Boko Haram are blurred. All of them seem to be coalescing into one tendency and the prospects are frightening.

If the bandit in Zamfara  is supplied from the air and we agree with GarbaShehu that there are strong suspicions that gold is swapped for weapons in Zamfara how will a no fly zone over Zamfara help matters? What stops the swap from taking place in Katsina airspace, or Kaduna, Kebbi or Sokoto? At another level, if the Zamfara bandit is supplied with weapons and logistics from the air, what stops the bandit from Katsina, Kaduna, Kebbi, Sokoto, Plateau, Nasarawa, Benue and Taraba to also seek supplies and logistic support from the air? This is one reason why the Arewa Consultative Forum led by Chief AuduOgbeh came out to request the no fly zone to be also extended to other states where banditry is also a major security concern. In any case, is our air defense system so weak as not to detect a security breach of this nature? How effective will this no fly zone over Zamfara be in containing banditry in Zamfara and other parts of the country? Is the order not coming late? What about the many illegal border points into the country through which smuggling of weapons takes place on the backs of livestock? Why is the country silent on the originating countries from where weapons are smuggled into Nigeria?  Why are we silent on the foreign bandit who comes deep into Nigeria to cause havoc? What is his beef with us and does he also expect to be given amnesty? Why has the ‘government’ not come out to clear the air on the allegations that Fulani mercenaries were brought in to help rig elections for President MuhammaduBuhariin 2015 and that these are some of the people terrorizing the rural areas as bandits today?

When the President orders that the bandit carrying the AK-47 should be shot at sight, does he appreciate the low morale of the Army and what we are hearing of their commitment to the fight against insurgency? At a recent meeting of Governors of the North East, Professor Babagana Zulum of Bornu State alluded elaborately to the lack of commitment to the fight against insurgency and Boko Haram in the country. He canvassed for the use of mercenaries against insurgents and Boko Haram. It is noteworthy that Nigeria had engaged mercenaries before in the fight against Boko Haram in the tail end of the Jonathan Presidency. Though these mercenaries were making appreciable progress, the idea did not sit well with the Buhari Presidency leading to the termination of the contract with the mercenaries. Today, the matter is being muted again against the background of the lack of commitment of our troops, a concern that is a fall out of the recent Marte and Dikwa attacks. Following attacks on Marte and Dikwa by Boko Haram, the Nigerian Army reported that 12 of their officers and 86 soldiers had absconded. While the military battles these deserters, it is clear from the sidelines that promises to degrade Boko Haram are not only in breach, the entire strategy against the group and other insurgents is not working.

While others argue, the military is compromised; some others think Boko Haram and insurgents are better armed. Worse, Boko Haram members that were de radicalized and managed in ‘safe corridors’ are breaking out of these corridors and trooping back to the group to pick up arms after studying the vulnerabilities of communities and the security fighting them.

Though one is not opposed to resolving the banditry challenge in the country peacefully including amnesty for the bandit, three points must be made before the challenge can be amicably resolved. First we cannot resolve this challenge by blackmail. Arguments by Dr. Ahmad Gumi, the ‘Chief Priest’ of bandits to the effect that others have been pardoned and given amnesty in the country and the bandit must be pardoned as a condition for peace is an argument clothed in blackmail. Pardon and amnesty must be canvassed on their merit and those who seek these for the bandit must be invited to show why this is reasonable and is not going to backfire. The second point is on the nationality of the bandits. It is generally known that some of these bandits are foreign nationals yet there is little attempt to track them and flush them out. When amnesty is canvassed for the bandit, it is not clear whether it includes the foreign bandit and if it does no one is willing to justify why he deserves amnesty and or whether he should also be ‘resettled’ on Nigerian soil alongside the Nigerian bandit. The third point is to disabuse our minds on the logic of the bandit as canvassed by their ‘Chief Priest’ and others speaking in their favour. The argument that the bandit has been pushed into banditry does great injustice to other internally displaced persons in the country. It overlooks the entire circumstances that displaced others within the country and how they have been struggling with life in makeshift camps away from their ancestral lands. We must in attempting to resolve the challenge of the bandit appreciate the fact that if all internally displaced people in the country decided to turn into bandits, we would have had no country today.

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