North Western Nigeria is in the throes of an existential challenge which calls for prompt action to avoid a situation that is capable of making a bad situation even worse. Statistics of human development for the region are already some of the worst in the country and the current rule of bandits across large swathe of the area is creating a big economic mess with basic activities like trading, travel,crop farming and animal husbandry near impossible. This follows many years of low level rustling and kidnappings which has further pauperized one of the country’s poorest regions.
Now added to that is the increasing bestiality in some of the banditry like the reported gauging of eyes of 8 passengers in a commercial bus on the dreaded Funtua-Birnin Gwari road just 2 days ago. In the space of another 2 days this week, up to 60 members of vigilante groups in Kankara and Dandume local governments of Katsina state were killed in a gruesome manner by bandits who rule the roost.
All these incidents are not in Zamfara state, that has become bandit territory where they strike at will, leaving sorrow, tears and blood. The state’s residents often wonder if there is still a government to protect them from the marauders who kill, maim, rape and burn grain stores turning proud peasants into beggars living on the margins of life.
And it is not as if government has been doing nothing. Only that clearly all it has done so far only seem to make the bandits even more daring.
Just on Friday, Acting Police Inspector General Mohammed Adamu launched Operation Puff Adder on the Abuja-Kaduna highway.
This special operation is meant to subdue kidnappers and bandits that plague the major highways, villages, towns and bushes in the North West states of Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna, especially. Four days later, Nigeria Air Force also launched Operation Tsaftar Daji in Katsina, in succession to Operation Sharan Daji which it launched last year. Only days earlier, the military launched another operation called Harbin Kunama III in Zamfara State. It is the successor to two earlier operations, Harbin Kunama I and II, launched in the state since 2016 to curb banditry.
The launching of these security operations, the whirlwind tour of affected states by the IG and military commanders, as well as the ban on mining and accusations against traditional rulers, together seem to fall short of a comprehensive government response to the problem. In our view the response so far, is far short of what is required to address the problem of banditry and kidnapping that have brought economic and social life in the North West region to a virtual halt. Commerce is suffering badly because people are afraid to travel. Almost all the major and minor roads in the region are infested by bandits. Market days, the fulcrum of the rural economy, are severely threatened because bandits target them for special robbery and kidnap operations.
Last Sunday, the Federal Government clamped a ban on mining operations in Zamfara State and ordered all miners to close shop and quit the quarries. The police said intelligence reports linked the miners with bandit activities. Two days ago, the Defence Minister Mansur Dan-Ali accused prominent traditional rulers in the region of collaborating with the bandits. He did not name names or provide evidence to support this strange allegation, even though the Zamfara State Government had earlier this year suspended some village heads for alleged collaboration with bandits. We expect that if the government has evidence against any traditional ruler, it should apprehend him, haul him before the courts and punish him accordingly. Vague accusations only complicate matters in a situation where the cooperation of royal fathers is badly needed in the fight against bandits.
As Daily Trust reported on Monday, serious danger also looms on the agricultural front. For several years now, commercial farmers all over the region are afraid of going to their farms for fear of kidnappers. Now, ordinary rural farmers are abandoning their farms in droves, for the same reason. Bandits all too frequently snatch farmers from their farms and demand ransom payment from the victims’ hapless relatives. If the situation persists, thousands of farms will not be cultivated in this year’s farming season. Hunger and famine are lurking not far behind.
President Muhammadu Buhari was quoted as saying that he holds regular meetings with his security chiefs in order to address the problem. He also said he listens to the security agencies’ requirements. The fact that banditry and kidnapping have gone from bad to worse since early this year shows that the measures adopted by the administration fall way short of what is needed.
The administration’s approach is clearly not leading to the desired result. Granted the President’s style of not sacking officials who fall short of expectations, it is still necessary for him to make lethargic public officers and security chiefs to understand the urgency of the situation especially such as this one where life and death are concerned. That the president spent nearly a week on foreign travels in the midst of this crisis sent a very wrong message, especially to the hapless citizens caught up in the bandits’ bloody grip. No foreign investor could be attracted to this country if insecurity continues to worsen. The government also fell far short in showing empathy or in rendering help to the affected communities, leading to much anger and frustration in the region.
Clearly, a radical change in approach is required in order to address this existential problem that is facing the North West states. It must begin with a declaration of war on kidnappers and bandits. A simultaneous all out war should be launched at all bandit locations in the affected states in order to bring to an end their asphyxiating grip. This means that both the affected states and the federal government have to be on the same page in order for the effort to succeed.
The local communities will have to be involved through the local vigilantes who for all practical purpose have for some time now being the only ones checkmating the bandits. The lesson from the fight against Boko Haram clearly shows that the tide began to turn against the insurgents when the civilian JTF became a part of the strategy of isolating and dealing with that menace.
There is no doubt that for the effort to succeed, we need a new resolve, a new body language, a new appreciation of the situation and total commitment from the affected state governors, President Muhammadu Buhari and the Federal Government. And we need them very fast. Where necessary, the president can invoke emergency powers as spelt out in the constitution, to order the armed forces to mount a co-ordinated operation that sweeps and neutralize criminals in the affected area within a given time frame.
As pointed out in our earlier coverage of the problem, there is need to mend the broken pastoralist way of life even as the livelihood of farmers are protected in order for all to co-exist and prosper in a safe environment. That can only be possible when the rule of law and not of bandits, kidnappers and other outlaws is what obtains in the affected area. As the growing incidents of kidnappings on the Kaduna-Abuja expressway show, the problem will keep growing and consume us all if all we do is lament, condemn and hope it will disappear on its own.