Last week, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said that in last month (April), the banditry and violence in parts of Northwest region has forced about 23,000 Nigerians to seek safety and security in Niger Republic.
The new entrants fuelled Nigerian refugee figures there to 60,000, as desperate women and children flee bandits’ attacks from Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara states during the month of April to take sanctuary in neighbouring Niger Republic Maradi region. The Nigerian refugees speak of the bandits’ extreme violence against civilians; murder, kidnapping for ransom and pillaging and looting of villages.
UNHCR Spokesperson, Babar Baloch, on Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, expressed the Agency’s concerns about deteriorating security inside Nigeria.
These attacks showed that the gunmen attacked several villages in several local government areas with the deadliest attack claiming 47 lives in Kankara, Danmusa and Dutsin-ma Local Government Areas in Katsina State.
The UNHR said that the refugees are being allowed into Niger Republic despite border closures due to the rampaging coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, adding that the new arrivals are in urgent need of water, food and access to health services, as well as shelter and clothing. Many, it said, were barely able to carry anything in the rush to save lives.
The UN agency stated that it is working closely with authorities in Niger Republic to relocate at least 7,000 refugees to safety, in villages 20 kilometres away from the border, where water, food, shelter, access to health and other essential assistance can be provided.
Desperate for solutions, some governors of the region had negotiated with the bandits, extracting generous concessions from the government. But the more concessions they receive, the more violent they become. It is so bad that no day passes without reports of major attacks against farmers or settlements in the region.
Finally, on Sunday, President Muhammadu Buhari authorised the commencement of a major military operation to sweep bandits and kidnappers out of Katsina State.
Already, a planning team is in the State, selecting targets and preparing for the execution of the “unprecedented” operation with Chief of Defence Staff, General Gabriel Olonisakin, giving the President full briefing on the plan he “intends to flag off shortly.”
While commending the President for approving the military operations against the bandits, it may seem to be coming late. The lethargy to take a decisive action on the recurring savagery was what forced governors of Zamfara and Katsina to resort to negotiating with them. The failure of a central policy guidelines and operational mobilisation to stop the criminality and brigandage led the governors to grant concessions to those killing their people, just to have a semblance of peace.
The negotiation was simply a terrible mistake as it is a lie to say that they were disgruntled because of perceived injustice when they had been criminal over time. Experience has shown that a normal Fulani man would rather die than resort to crime such as banditry and kidnapping.
In any case, the present Presidential order to rout bandits only in Katsina State is fraught with risks of their relocating to other states once the heat starts. The military had similar experience with Exercise HARBIN KUNAMA in Zamfara State where the criminal bandits simply relocated to neighboring states of Katsina, Kaduna and even Niger Republic.
The truth is that a regional operation, not just a Katsina offensive, is needed to rout the bandits out of the region. The refugees in Niger Republic are from the region and not just in one state.
Next time, such operation should not be announced in advance as the bandits have well-knit information and intelligence network that would give enough room to sneak out of the state. So, while hailing the commencement of the Katsina offensive, what Nigerians are waiting for is the launching of a regional operation with enough effective blocking force against the bandits that would guarantee peace and bring the refugees back.