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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 March 2021

Nigerians live in fear as government stumbles on banditry attacks

Kidnappings are on the rise as state governments struggle to contain criminal groups

On the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, gunmen believed to be bandits abducted about 50 bus passengers travelling home from a wedding in Nigeria’s Niger State.

The kidnapping – less than 60 kilometres from Minna, the state capital – should have made international news.

But 72 hours later another group of bandits broke into a school in Kagara, less than a kilometre from the site of the first attack, abducting hundreds of schoolboys and their teachers.

Such incidents are becoming almost routine in northern Nigeria, where bandits and extremists hound the friends and relatives of their captives for ransom money.

A day after the bus attack, the bandits released a one-minute video showing what appeared to be scores of men, women and children sitting under armed guard in a forest. Their captors wield rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles, addressing the camera in the local Hausa language.

The message: Give us 500 million naira ($1.2m) and we’ll return your loved ones.

A week later, the wedding guests were released, but the schoolboys and their teachers are still being held hostage.

This attack and others in recent months have contributed to an atmosphere of dread in the region. Groups of men brandishing guns and other weapons are sweeping large groups away, or attacking important community figureheads to make a fast buck.

Ummulsa’ada Aliyu, whose town, Kusherki, was raided in the same week as the bus and school attacks, said her great-uncle was the target of a recent raid.

“They broke into the house and ransacked everywhere but couldn’t find anyone inside. So they went in search of the village head, who happens to be our father’s uncle,” she said.

“They found him and shot him in his mouth, and the bullet ripped through his head because he showed resistance. They then took my dad’s younger brother, who is still in their custody.” Ms Aliyu told The National. Her great-uncle died of his injuries.

Since the abduction, the bandits have demanded a ransom of 20 million naira.

The attack has heightened fears of future raids.

“Whether you are directly affected or not, the most important thing you would hold dear is your safety,” Ms Aliyu said.

“We are just living in fear, but that fear disappeared when soldiers were deployed to Kagara Local Government Secretariat. However, the attack at Kagara Government Science College raised our fears of a likely repeat in Kusherki. Nobody trusts anyone,” she said.

Solving an entrenched problem

Northern Nigeria has been plagued by insecurity and organised crime for decades.

Kidnappings show no signs of falling, and government-led initiatives like a short-term gun amnesty in 2016 have done little to stop the free-for-all.

As state and national governments grapple with the challenge, residents of Zamfara, Kaduna, Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina and Niger states suffer.

Acaps, a consortium comprising the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children and Mercy Corps, estimates 21 million people living in these states have been affected by bandit attacks. International Crisis Group says more than 200,000 people have been displaced by the frequent attacks.

Idris Mohammed, who researchers and lectures on violent conflict at Usmanu Danfodio University Sokoto, said banditry has become a profitable business in the north of Nigeria because the government continually negotiates the payment of ransoms.

“I think the government is intentionally not looking into this crisis, if you look at it critically, [you will see that] there are so many factors that contribute to this crisis that the government is turning its eyes away from.”

“The government is always interested in granting the bandits amnesty, sometimes using soft approaches.”

Dr Kabiru Adamu, an analyst of West African defence and security, and who founded security and intelligence firm Beacon Consulting Nigeria, says the country’s centralised security apparatus is to blame for the explosion of criminal groups in the region.

He said only the federal government has the power to mobilise security officers to troubled regions, states and communities. It distributes “security votes” – monthly cash allowances tailored to each state to pay for security costs.

“The states have had a realisation that it’s only the federal government can take care of the problem … that’s why you see the [state] governors coming to Abuja to meet the President to discuss security matters. That’s why you see them make use of monies made available to them as security votes.”

“No matter how effective the security vote is, if the security agencies don’t support it, it is not likely to work. That is why the problem has continued for so long.”

He said regional security forces are woefully outgunned by the groups they are fighting.

“Sometimes state governors enter into an arrangement with the federal government to obtain pump-action rifles. These are rifles that can shoot one or two rounds before you reload them, but the enemies they are dealing with have combat weapons like AK47s and other sophisticated military weapons,” he said.

In the meantime, state governors try other methods. The governor of Zamfara recently relaunched the gun amnesty, promising cows to those who handed in machineguns.

Last Thursday, immediate past Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, said it would take Nigeria 20 years to address her security challenges.

Dr Adamu said the military alone would not be enough to conduct the counterterrorism operation.

“What most of us are not happy about is the fact that while he was in office as the Chief of Army Staff, he kept on saying that the Boko Haram terrorist group has been defeated,” he told The National.

“Now that he is no longer in office, he’s saying it would take 20 years to tackle insecurity, which shows the level of dishonesty in the fight.”

Updated: February 23, 2021 09:14 PM

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