Gangs of heavily armed bandits prowl the vast Dajin Rugu forest which spans several hundred square kilometres across Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna states and Niger State in central Nigeria, according to Fulani leaders.
In February 2012 alone, over 23,000 Fulani herders poured into Cameroon from Nigeria's northeastern state of Taraba, following deadly clashes with farming communities, according to the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), an umbrella association of Fulani herders. The gangs steal herds, loot and burn homes, and assault women in the attacks, according to Fulani leaders.
Many of the armed bandits are Fulanis who have joined gangs involved in cross-border armed robbery and cattle-rustling in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Senegal and Mali.
"Twenty years of conflict has bred criminals among the Fulani who have lost their cattle. All they know is herding, and without cattle, life is devoid of meaning," said Saleh Bayeri, national secretary of MACBAN. "So they turn to highway robbery and raiding the herds of their kinsmen whom they begrudge for not coming to their aid in their predicament."
Thousands of herders in northern Nigeria's Kaduna State have fled their homes since 8 June 2013 following raids by cattle rustlers over May and June that killed at least 16 people, according to officials and local vigilantes. On 13 June armed bandits launched a pre-dawn raid on Kwasa-Kwasa village in Birnin Gwari District of Kaduna State, killing five people, including two soldiers and three local vigilantes guarding the village against possible attacks, Adamu Sarkin-Noma, head of a vigilante group in the village, told IRIN.
"This ugly trend is compounding the dilemma of the Fulani herders who are caught in a vicious cycle of conflict, with farmers over-grazing land that has forced thousands of nomads to flee into neighbouring Cameroon, along with their cattle," Bayeri said.
The level of violence - both between these gangs and between Fulani nomads and farmers - has been stepped up over recent years as guns proliferate.
|Timeline of recent raids|
|13 June 2013: Bandits raid Kwasa-Kwasa village in Birnin Gwari District of Kaduna State, killing five people, including two soldiers and three local vigilantes, Adamu Sarkin-Noma, head of a vigilante group in the village, told IRIN.|
|8 June 2013: Bandits attack three villages in Birnin Gwari District, Kaduna State, killing seven residents and carting away over 300 cattle , according to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). The attacks displaced 3,000 residents who are now sheltering in a primary school, NEMA's northwest Nigeria spokesperson, Musa Illallah, told IRIN.|
|19 May 2013: Around 2,000 residents of six nomadic villages in Faskari District, Katsina State, abandoned their homes after raids by gunmen in which four people were killed and scores of cattle were stolen in the latest of a series of raids by cattle rustlers, according to Shehu Hammayidi, a community leader from Unguwar Tsamiya, a nomadic village in Katsina State.|
|5 January 2013: Thirty gunmen on motorcycles gunned down seven people in raids on Makera and Usi villages in Birnin-Magaji District, Zamfara State, in retaliation for killings of their gang members, according to government officials.|
|12 June 2012: Scores of motorcycle-riding bandits shot dead 23 residents of Dangulbi village in Dansadau District, Zamfara State, in an early morning raid which the authorities described as a reprisal killing for the deaths of suspected bandits by the village's vigilante group.|
|14 October 2012: Following the killing of 20 people in an attack on Dogon Dawa village in Birnin Gwari District by bandits (in retaliation for killings of suspected bandits by local vigilantes), the Kaduna State government deployed a military battalion to seek out bandits hiding in the forest.|
Boko Haram (BH) leader Abubakar Shekau has, in several video messages, made reference to the ethno-religious killings in Plateau State, including the attacks on Fulani nomads, and has threatened to avenge the killings of Muslims in the region. Although BH has carried out bombings on churches and some Christian neighbourhoods in Jos (Plateau's capital), none was linked to the nomads-farmers conflict.
However, BH claimed rersponsibility for the 8 July 2012 attack on a funeral of some 50 Christians killed in reprisal attacks by suspected Fulani nomads the day before in Gashis District, Plateau State. Many people, including the Nigerian government dismissed BH claims as cheap propaganda.
Villagers in the affected areas, particularly Zamfara and Kaduna states, have formed vigilante gangs to combat the bandits. Kwara runs a vigilante outfit that hunts down bandits across the north alongside the police. "Looking at the sophisticated guns the Fulani bandits are using in their operations it is clear they have sponsors and some of them are among the elite in society, including MACBAN," he told IRIN.
According to Kwara, much of the cattle rustling is controlled and funded by a cartel including chiefs, politicians and lawyers who can provide legal aid to the bandits in court when arrested.
Bayeri agrees with Kwara. "It is a fact that in some areas Fulani leaders are complicit. This is why we want to be involved in the government effort at combating this menace by exposing them."
Kwara also accused police of supplying weapons to the bandits in return for money. "On many occasions armed robbers we arrested mentioned the names of their arms suppliers, including policemen who we reported to the police authorities."
But some of the vigilante groups have also been accused of carrying out extra-judicial killings of suspected bandits, which in turn, lead to reprisal killings.
Call for joint military, police unit
More coordinated efforts by the local authorities and security forces is needed to try to temper the violence, said Kaduna State information commissioner Saidu Adamu. "A military battalion is grossly inadequate to patrol the vast forest. We are in touch with Zamfara, Katsina and Niger state governments to forge a common front in dealing with this security threat," he told IRIN.
Shehu Hammayidi, a community leader from Unguwar Tsamiya, a village in Faskari District, Katsina State, urged the Nigerian government to establish a special joint military and police unit on cattle rustling as an effective approach to quelling the violence.
But any efforts that do not involve MACBAN will not work, warned Bayeri, saying that only it can mobilize community surveillance to track bandits on the scale needed.
"These criminals are a transnational syndicate of renegade Fulani nomads who know the forest very well, and no amount of military deployment can check their activities without the involvement of MACBAN," he said.
MACBAN knows who some of the criminals are and is willing to expose them, he said, but has been rebuffed by local authorities whom, he says, mistakenly blame all of MACBAN for being complicit in the violence.