The scale of Boko Haram's insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has long been clear. But it took the abduction last month of more than 340 schoolboys for many people – even within Nigeria – to appreciate just how bad the insecurity has become in the country’s neglected northwest.
The abductors pulled up on motorbikes at the all-boys secondary school in Kankara, in Katsina State, spent an hour rounding up the students who didn’t manage to bolt, and then marched them into Rugu forest in neighbouring Zamfara State.
In a video message, the kidnappers said they were Boko Haram, a claim endorsed by the jihadist group. But that connection was quickly debunked. The group was identified as known “bandits” – one of the scores of armed gangs that have killed, raped, and plundered across the northwest, forcing more than 200,000 people from their homes.
There was a happy end to the schoolboys’ six-day ordeal. Surrounded by the army, unable to escape, the kidnappers released them – with the government insisting no ransom was paid. But the raid underlined the “utter vulnerability of people to the bandits, who can do whatever they want”, Zamfara-based analyst Yusuf Anka told The New Humanitarian.
At the heart of the rot of banditry in Nigeria’s northwest is lawlessness in Zamfara State, where the governor, Bello Matawalle, has staked his political future on bringing it to an end. The jury is out on whether he will succeed.
The Kankara raid was out of the ordinary only because of its scale and audaciousness. But it was no aberration. Across the under-policed northwest, there has been an alarming erosion of government authority that organised crime has exploited.
The crisis in resource-rich but developmentally-starved Zamfara has been at least a decade in the making, but analysts warn the window is rapidly closing to finding a solution.
No peace will mean more criminality, more sexual violence, further recruitment of children, the accelerated spread of insecurity south, and potentially formal links established with the jihadists in the northeast.
“I’m travelling to Katsina tomorrow. It’s just a two-hour journey, but still you have to fear,” academic and Zamfara banditry researcher Murtala Rufa’i told TNH. “Kidnapping can happen at any point at any time.” What’s worse, he added, it can be your greedy friends or relatives that sell you out.
Kidnapping is now an established criminal industry in Zamfara, overtaking cattle rustling – an earlier but riskier money-spinner. Criminal gangs inhabit the vast forests that fringe the state – where there is little to no government presence and clandestine paths criss-cross the region.
“If they wanted to, the bandits could overrun this town in an hour.”
The military has launched repeated operations, but all too limited in scale to secure the state’s 40,000 square kilometres. Helicopter gunships and ground-attack jets have strafed and bombed suspected bandit hideouts, but it’s boots on the ground and a political response that is needed, analysts argue.
“If they wanted to, the bandits could overrun this town in an hour,” Anka said, referring to Gusau, the Zamfara State capital. “But military [might] alone is not the answer. What will bring success is for the government to resolve the [underlying] issues.”
Start of the trouble
In Zamfara, as in the rest of the northwest, the term “bandit” is shorthand for nomadic Fulani pastoralists. The elision not only stigmatises an entire community but skates over a complicated shared history with the politically dominant majority Hausa population.
Competition with Hausa farmers has sharpened over the past decade with both the intensification of agriculture and a drying climate. The expansion of farms across stock routes has meant access to both grazing and water have become issues of lethal contention.
Fulani herders are typically accused of ignoring boundaries, and their young men of being quick to violence. But the Fulani have also been victims of land-grabbing by the well-connected, and of extortion by local authorities when it comes to the levying of fines.
Organised Fulani raids began on Hausa villages from around 2014 in an escalation of what had been more localised conflicts. In self-defence, vigilante groups formed with the backing of the state government, but their revenge was often indiscriminate – turning towns into no-go areas and driving some Fulani communities into the forests.
Fulani militia responded with even greater ferocity – and better weaponry – calling on nomadic kin from across the region for assistance. Sweeping into Hausa villages on motorbikes, they typically killed all the men they could find, on the assumption they were all vigilantes.
One man’s bandit ...
What has resulted from the mayhem are two groups of forest-based armed men who both kill. There are Fulani militia that claim to defend their own, but equally intimidate their communities; and then there are hardcore armed criminals that are predominantly Fulani, but include Hausa – and anyone else attracted to making money.
In Tsafe, about an hour out of Gusau, is the run-down office of the local chapter of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACABAN) – the main lobby group for Fulani pastoralists. There’s a hole in the ceiling, outdated calendars on the walls, and the only furniture is a wobbly chair for guests.
“Some of the bandits have gone too far, but they are still part of us.”
The men gathered to talk try to thread a needle between disavowing the violence, but also argue that the militia are their only protection against what they see as ethnic cleansing by the local Hausa community and the security forces that turn a blind eye.
“Some of the bandits have gone too far, but they are still part of us,” said Bello Muhammed, the local finance secretary. “They are killing for a cause – any place there is killing means there is a bigger problem.”
That cause, they said, is to force the government to provide services and to end Fulani “marginalisation” – a word repeatedly used. “Bring schools, roads, and development and [the insecurity] is over,” said Umah Mohammed, the association chair, in the embrace of a more settled lifestyle.
The challenge to building peace in Zamfara is to correctly identify the two groups in the forest, and then deal with them separately and distinctly, said pastoralist researcher Mohammed Tukur.
“Those who have genuine grievances, you address them,” he told TNH. “The criminals: You have to address them through legal mechanisms.”
The previous state government tried a simpler approach. It introduced an amnesty and guns-for-cash programme in 2016 for all the armed men. This initially seemed to work, but within two years the programme had fallen apart.
The money incentivised gun ownership, creating more criminals, which a negligent state government then failed to pay. Some bandits – being bandits – also cheated and only pretended to quit, returning to crime full-time when the cash ran out.
Retired police commissioner Maman Anka – the uncle of the analyst – lives in a modest home in Gusau and drives a badly dented car parked on the narrow street outside his house: not the usual state of affairs for powerful public servants, even those on pensions.
Anka was part of a commission of inquiry examining the causes of banditry and tasked with finding solutions. Its report in 2019 sensationally accused five emirs, 33 district heads, and 10 military officers of being implicated – laying bare the governance vacuum in Zamfara that is both a consequence and enabler of the chaos.
Sitting comfortably on the carpet in his living room, Anka explained how traditional systems of security and surveillance have unravelled over the years and left emirs and chiefs – a key rung of local authority – cowed or co-opted by criminal gangs that now operate with impunity.
“[Traditional rulers] are just in their big gowns and turbans, but really they are very vulnerable,” he told TNH. “What protection do they have when the nearest police post is miles away – and the police themselves have been penetrated by the bandits?”
The politics of peace
The commission of inquiry was ordered by the new governor, Matawalle. He came to power in an electoral fluke in 2019 – awarded victory by the Supreme Court on a technicality after losing the actual ballot.
Matawalle has relaunched the mismanaged amnesty programme – this time promising cows rather than cash for every AK-47 returned. He has also ordered the disarming of the vigilantes, and pledged support to Fulani communities through a federal government initiative aimed at settling pastoralists on land reserves and then bringing in development services.
The Fulani men in the MACABAN office in Tsafe believe Matawalle is sincere but recognise that success is far from guaranteed. “Politics is the problem,” said Muhammed, the finance secretary, referring to the widespread perception that the opposition will work to frustrate the governor – to boost their electoral chances in 2023.
“What protection do they have when the nearest police post is miles away – and the police themselves have been penetrated by the bandits?”
Hausa communities are even more wary – worried that in granting amnesties the governor may be rewarding men responsible for mass killings. “They [the government] are underestimating the gravity and scale of the problem,” said Rufa’i, the academic.
Yet Matwalle can point to some early success – it was “repentant” bandits that helped negotiate the release of the Kankara schoolboys.
Amnesty on its own is not enough, argues Chitra Nagarajan, who investigated the violence in Zamfara in a study last year.
"You need proper DDRR (disarmament, demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration) processes, and to build social cohesion and transitional justice that allows communities to reconcile and heal,” she told TNH – although it’s unclear if the state government really has the capacity to deliver this.
There are some quick wins the governor could implement to ease the grievances of both communities, including the restocking of stolen herds and returning land to the dispossessed, which would help calm frustrations and build confidence – but time is running out.
This is the year the state government “must deliver” on its promises to stop Zamfara’s collapse, said Anka, the analyst: “We simply have to find a way out of this criminality before it’s too late.”