Some villages in Gusau felt an unusual sense of safety on February 10. Policemen and their patrol vans became conspicuous in parts of the town. Helicopters were hovering around; soldiers were stationed at checkpoints. The security presence was fierce, depicting a determination to crush any unfortunate bandit who chose the day to wreak havoc.
“Military choppers were flying round the town,” said a disappointed resident.
This was only a façade — a momentary necessity to ensure the safety of a single man. President Muhammadu Buhari was in the city to campaign for votes as part of his reelection bid. Five days earlier, February 5 precisely, bandits had attacked villages in Gusau Local Government Area, where Buhari — guarded with heavily armed military personnel — had attended his party’s mega rally. Fourteen people, including a senator’s sister, were killed; seven were kidnapped; hundreds were displaced, and houses and farm lands razed.
But throughout the 18 minutes, 14 seconds that Buhari canvassed votes in this city, he made no mention of the unholy incident that had claimed innocent lives barely a week ago; neither did he offer any solution to the carnage in the state. The denial was clear, but also cleared were doubts about the inaction of the federal and state governments towards providing adequate security in Zamfara State.
The government at both levels had been repeatedly accused of doing too little to end the massacre of people in the state. While the President plays to the gallery, the Governor, Abdulaziz Yari, has repeatedly admitted inability to end the killings.
The security apparatus in the state are inhibited by the perennial problem of lack of weapons and necessary intelligence to wipe out the bandits.
Inadequate Security Presence: A Policeman to 914 Residents
Zaria Kabiru, a mother of four, sat on a mat as she attended to her youngest child suckling at her breast. Zaria was thankful to have left Mallamawa alive. She had left the dreadful village months ago. So time had started healing her pains. She now can smile. In fact, she laced some of her responses with some humour.
But, this warm, receptive countenance suddenly changed when asked what assistance the village got from any of the security agencies. Zaria and other women, who had been listening quietly throughout the interview, were now angry. They spoke almost in unison like they did not trust one another to tell the tales of desertion they had suffered.
“The security agents have never spent a day in our village when they come, they spend some hours and leave at night when the bandits would come and kill us,” the women said.
Many of the communities in Zamfara do not have a single police station. Investigations revealed that there are only two to four designated police out-forces in a local government, except for Gusau, the state capital. The 14 LGAs in Zamfara State have five area commands with an estimated police strength of 3,610 personnel. Zamfara State has a population of 3.3 million, according to the 2006 census. This implies that a policeman is responsible for 914 defenceless civilians.
Zamfara State, with a land mass of 38,418 square kilometers, is the seventh largest state in Nigeria. Most of the communities are separated by long stretches of thick forests and farmlands. Driving through the communities, across eight LGAs — Anka, Birnin Magaji, Gusau, Maradun, Maru, Shinkafi, Tsafe, and Zurmi — the apparent lack of security presence in the state was jarring.
Between Anka and Maradu, two LGAs hit hard by the unrest, there was no security operative seen throughout the 75 kilometer drive, except for few vigilantes by the road sides. The well-tarred road was flanked, on both sides, by thick forests. The villagers claimed these forests are perfect hideouts for highway bandits.
Hundreds of road users had been kidnapped, maimed and — in worse cases — killed on Zamfara roads. Many of the incidents went unreported to the police.
Twenty days into 2019, Halidu, a commercial cab driver was coming from Kaduna when he was shot, dragged out of his car and left to die. He was rescued by a Good Samaritan road user who noticed his almost lifeless body by the highway.
“The bandits shot me and the car stumbled,” he said as he wriggled to balance his left hand draped with a bandage on his chest. Halidu’s car was stolen and its six passengers were kidnapped. No security official came to their aid, he explained on his hospital bed.
Police PRO: Villages in Zamfara are remote and inaccessible
The Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Zamfara State Police Command, Mohammed Shehu, refused to speak on these issues. He asked that all questions be sent to him via text message so that the commissioner can prepare ‘robust’ response. When the questions were sent, the command gave no response, neither did Shehu respond to multiple follow up calls to his phone number.
Back at the State Police Command in Gusau, Shehu said sending interview questions before hand was the procedure for seeking the command’s comment on issues. He rambled through his phone and read out prior questions sent by reporters who wanted clarifications on issues.
“That’s how we do it, so that we can give accurate information and the position of the command” Shehu claimed.
However, the police PRO struggled to reconcile his words with his countenance as he tried to defend the command. Shehu became defensive —and a little irritated— when told that sending interview questions beforehand was not the practice at the Lagos State Police Command, where the reporter is based.
“Lagos is easy to police” a defensive Shehu said. “What happen in Lagos are routine crimes but Zamfara is different. We are dealing with insurgency here.”
In his bid to protect the image of the command as his job requires, Shehu validated claims that the state is heavily under-policed. “Zamfara is 70 percent bush; the villages are in remote and inaccessible places,” he said.
Although he was mindful of his words, as his job requires him to protect the image of the command, every attempt to reject comparison with the Lagos State Command revealed the complete helplessness of the Zamfara State Police Command against the bandits.
He hinted about the lack of equipment to adequately combat the bandits and how many policemen easily get killed in ambushes.
“These people understand the terrain more than us. They set ambush for our men when they are going to attend to distress calls. Sometimes, before we manage to get to point of distress, the culprits are gone. You cannot compare Zamfara with Lagos. Lagos has everything,” he said.
Soldiers: We are outnumbered by Bandits
The Nigerian Army, expected to crush out the bandits and fill in for the inadequacies of the Nigeria Police Force, are also hapless due to lack of adequate ammunition and enough foot soldiers, a soldier serving in Zamfara lamented.
The soldier, an experienced foot soldier who has faced the fiery darts of the bandits, argued that it would have be easier to defeat the bandit but for inadequate ammunition. “It is not that we cannot fight these people (bandits),” he said.
“We can fight them. They should not even take us two days to clear out but there is no equipment. You see soldiers with one magazine while bandits are carrying three or six magazines. If you want to fight with five people, you have to go with 15 soldiers. If not, you cannot fight. Bandits are more than 400; you will see them like this. How can you go with a hundred soldiers and without supporting weapons?” he asked.
Another officer, more senior in rank, corroborated the claim. He revealed that the Nigerian Army does not have the numerical strength to defeat these bandits, who he claimed have arrays of ammunition.
This senior officer had suffered multiple gun injuries from armed bandits in a recent ambush. He believed that the sound of the gunshots he heard during his attack could only have been from sophisticated rifles. He recalled that the bandits were over a hundred against him and 12 other soldiers.
“They have our type of weapons and other ones that we don’t even have,” he said. “When they attacked us, their strength was much… they were about 100 and we were 13. How can 13 [soldiers] face 100 people?” he also asked.
Ona Ekhomu, a security expert, reckoned that invasion ration of soldiers fighting rebels in the encamped region should be 3:1 or 2:1 at the minimum. Soldiers being 3. However, Ekhomu said the lack of intelligence within the Nigerian security agencies makes proper estimation difficult.
“First of all,” he began. “We don’t know the size of the enemy, so how do we know what is their one and what should be our three? We are flying blind. This is where intelligence comes in. if we have good intelligence, they will be able to tell the terrorists in each foliage, so that we can more expertly use our resources.”
The absence of this intelligence, Ekhomu said is one of the reasons Nigerian soldiers, combating the bandits, are being killed in their numbers.
In June of 2018, following a spat of attacks in Zamfara State, the presidency came under harsh criticism from Nigerians. President Buhari, through series of tweets, announced that he had ordered deployment of 1,000 military personnel to quell the insurgency. Many Nigerians thought 1000 soldiers was a piecemeal effort. Of course, scores have been killed since this claimed deployment.
Five months after the president’s announcement, the state governor revealed that there were only 1600 military personnel in the state.
A senior officer in the Nigerian Army said this number, even if accurate, is grossly inadequate to muscle out the bandits in Zamfara State. He revealed that the Nigerian Army is overstretched with crisis in different pockets of the country, hence the deployment of soldiers is rationed.
“This is not just in Zamfara,” he said. “Soldiers in all the crisis prone areas are bound to be outnumbered. The army is overstretched. So where 50 soldiers ought to be deployed, they would deploy 10 or 15… That is the situation everywhere.
“The only solution to this is for soldiers to get modern weapons to fight with. That will supplement the foot soldiers. If they have more fatal weapon, advance weapons, the number of soldiers you are supposed to deploy will be minimal because the weapons will do the job. For instance, if there is an apache helicopter, the helicopter can be fighting from Lagos and hitting its targets in Ibadan. This will reduce the number of soldiers to deploy.”
Forced to pick up arms
With almost non-present police attention and sparse military presence, the people resolved to self help. The men in the villages dropped their implements and picked up machetes and guns. They became watch over themselves and their family members.
For some of the vigilante members, they have lost too many; their family members and means of livelihood have been destroyed. Imrana Abubakar is a young Hausa man who seems in his early twenties. He was red eyed as he retold the traumatic story of how his father, two brothers and favorite friends were slaughtered all in the space of a week.
He said picking up the weapon was his only option.
“I had no other option,” he said. “They slaughtered my father just three days after he visited me in an Islamic school. My father was killed on a Tuesday in Dan Jibga.”
Friday of the same week, Abubakar lost his brother and a friend.
“I left my elder brother Muhammdu Lawali on Friday, I told him that I want to travel to Gusau and he wished me good luck. I had not got to my destination when they called me that my brother, Lawalli, had also been slaughtered, along with his friend Mallam Musa Mai Rafanai.
“Also, my junior brother Ishaq was killed nine days after he came back from Kano State and went to work on his groundnuts farm. The bandits met him there, he tried to escape but the bandits killed him.
“I don’t know how many people we have lost due to these attacks. We are holding these local guns to protect our lives. We don’t sleep in our homes anymore. Our wives are no more with us because every day we are in the bush. I abandoned my business as a bread baker because of this disruption. Now, I don’t have any business I am doing; because even if we bake, people are not buying as they are leaving the village.”
They face AK47 with Sticks, Cutlasses and a Praise Singer
Governor Yari recruited 8,500 young people from the 17 emirates in Zamfara State as civilian Joint Task Force, also known as JTFs, in 2018. These young men, 500 from each emirate, were promised a token of N15, 000 monthly. They were never trained neither were they provided with any weapon, no matter how crude.
Kabiru Adamu was one of the 8, 500 recruited. He is the head of the vigilante group in Unguwar Maza village in Bungundu LGA. Adamu and his boys know they are no match for the bandits’ AK47 riffles, but they face them anyway; with their crude weapons and emboldened by the melodious eulogies of their praise singer.
“It is not possible to face AK47, 49 with sticks” Adamu admitted. But, every night they — knowing they are disadvantaged — climb trees and hide in bushes to keep watch over their village. “It is done for protection of people. We step forward as it is known to everyone,” he added.
This boldness is not insulated from danger. Many of Adamu’s boys had lost their lives to the bandits’ bullets. Some have been maimed. Rabi’u, one of the boys, had been perforated in many parts by bandits’ bullets. He was just healing from a gunshot on his left knee when he spoke with SaharaReporters.
Another of Adamu’s boys, Shehu, has a bullet lodged in his left eye. The wound, swollen, one could see yellow puss leaking out of the bandage. His brown teeth were held together with iron braces. As he struggled to narrate his experiences, he dabbed a dribble of saliva from his mouth. Rabiu and Shehu were shot on the same night. The bandits had come for their boss, who escaped by a whisker.
“They came purposely to attack our leader, Rabi’u said. “We were in the room when they attacked us. This one (pointing to Shehu) did not know it was not our leader. He went ahead and opened the door. They entered and continued raining ammunitions. One of them dazzled me with torchlight and said that there was someone here. Before I realized, they shoot on my leg. I fell down at one side. Again I got another shoot here (pointing to his chest).
“They shot me three times. They thought I was dead. One of them touched me to see if I was dead but I pretended. Then they went away. From there, I don’t know what happened next, I only found myself in the hospital the next day.”
Asked if they ever feared losing their lives. Shehu, with his left eye gone, said he was ready to give his life for “community service”.
This brazenness is partly induced by the melodious eulogies of Musa, the praise singer. After a dreadful incident, Musa would remind the group of their exploits, psyching them out of their pains and miseries.
“We feel courageous by the songs,” Adamu said. “We can enter the forest that we wouldn’t have been able to when he praises us. We do remember what happened before because he sings about your previous victories, therefore you have to be courageous.”
Indeed, the moment Musa started singing, Shehu, overtaken by emotions, began trembling.
The blind vigilante who shoots in any direction
Salisu Aliyu is one of the vigilantes in Dan Jibga. Aliyu has similar story with many of the other men who joined the local security group out of frustration. He had lost his brother, brother-in-law, son and wife to the banditry. He has also lost his business and means of livelihood. All his cows were stolen and his poultry farm burnt to the ground.
However, unlike the other men in the village security group, Aliyu is blind but that would not stop him nor make others stop him.
One need not be told to know Aliyu is blind. He has a glittery green shine in his pupils that gave away the fakeness of the eyeballs. Although Aliyu claimed he lost his sight due to depression caused by the loss he had suffered, a medical expert said his claim is far-fetched.
He said his colleagues help him around, and once he hears gunshots, he shoots in the direction of the sound. As the harsh Zamfara sun subdued for a darker cloud, accompanied bythe much cooler breeze, the vigilantes got ready for their hideouts where they take watch every night. Aliyu was guided on both sides by two men. They were his eyes as he meticulously followed the flow of their movement.
The Effort of Aliyu and Co is the way out for Zamfara
Despite the lack of trainings and weapons for the civilian JTF to adequately protect their communities, Ekhomu, a security expert, said the civilian force is about the only right decision the government has taken against the banditry.
However, for the initiative to be efficient, Ekhomu said adequate training must be given to the vigilantes. adding that there must be proper control of all the vigilantes’ weaponry to prevent other cases of gun violence in the nearest future.
“We need to get to the level of having vigilante services in every community… it is only vigilante that can solve it [banditry] because we don’t have enough police personnel to police every community or even soldiers. JTFs in every community is an effective model… but there must be control of the arms.”
Similarly, Captain Bish Johnson, a retired U.S. Army, said the local security groups must be properly trained and equipped to provide adequate security for their community. He, however, said the vigilante groups must institutionalize into a well trained and equipped state police.
Of course, this is hardly the came in Zamfara State. The vigilante groups sourced their guns independently. Kabiru, the head of the group inUnguwar Maza village, said he buys gun power from the stipend he receives from the state government.
‘Bandits’ Say No Retreat, No surrender
As the state government grapple with ineffective and poorly executed security strategies, the bandits are determined to unleash more violence. Residents of some of the villages visited said the bandits are not any least frightened by the Nigerian military.
One of the bandits whom SaharaReporters contacted through a phone number that called Bakenawa village to deliver a threat, said their attacks are reprisal for years of segregation the Fulanis have suffered in the communities.
“The government cannot do anything to us,” the who simply identified himself as Buhari said. “If they will treat us like citizens, we will stop killing them. For 5 years, the villagers were killing us, the government did nothing about it. We Fulani were being segregated from having full citizenship rights. Now, that we are killing them, the government want us to stop.
“We are not scared of the soldiers. We have guns just like the soldiers. Our leaders get them from the city. We are not afraid of them at all. The soldiers have guns; we have guns too. Our leaders always give us gun. We are not afraid.”
These bandits are emboldened by the strength of their ammunition. The sources in the military all said the bandits have sophisticated assault rifles. Many of the kidnapped victims who were lucky to be released after millions of naira was paid in ransom, also claimed the bandits are well armed.
Wasilat, one of the 16 women kidnapped from Kayayi village, recalled an encounter the bandits had with the soldiers. It was one of the usual military air raid that Wasilat had witnessed.
“The hideout is inside a forest and there are a lot of weapons there. Sometimes, securities aircraft use to fly around. There was a time the bandits were attacked by air force, but only one of them [bandits] was killed. They were hailing and shouting that the government cannot do anything to them. Every day, weapons get delivered to them by their colleagues living in the cities.”
When Wasilat and others in the bandits’ custody saw the military aircraft, they were excited. They had thought their rescue was finally in sight. This feeling was short lived as the military was unable to overpower the bandits. Shortly after the bandit engaged in counter-attack, Wasilat said they noticed the sound from the fighting jet became distant, signaling that it was disengaging from the battle field.
“We gave up and knew we were all going to die when the soldiers left,” Wasilat said.
Captain Johnson, suggested a secure border — particularly in the northern part of the country— as the only way to restrict the bandits’ access to ammunition.
He reasoned that the porosity of the Nigerian borders aids arms smuggling which is the source of weaponry for bandits and other militant groups in the country.
Security experts and security focused Non-Governmental Organizations agreed that the crisis in Zamfara state can only be tackled with a two prong approach. Murtala Abubakar the Project Coordinator of Arewa Research and Development Project (ARDP), a non-governmental organization with a focus on highlighting issues that affect the northern states, said both the manifestation and the root cause of crisis must be addressed simultaneously.
He said the case of banditry which has become rife in the state is a consequence of the poor educational system and high rate of unemployment in the state.
Zamfara State is one of the states with the least educated person in Nigeria. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) only 19.16% of the entire population in Zamfara state are literate. This simply implies that 2.7 million of the state population can neither read nor write.
“The root-causes need to be dealt with first and one of the areas that should be given attention [are] the education… and creating jobs for the teeming youth,” he said. “Also, dealing with the manifestation requires, perhaps, more redeployment of troops and there has to be justice. People must be able to get justice, particularly those in the rural areas who are at the mercy of these bandits.
“Government need to deploy intelligence to understudy the dynamics of the crisis and the identified culprits must be brought to book. If this is done, it will discourage so many people who have the desire to go into this thing [banditry].”