Zamfara state, Nigeria – Besides Boko Haram attacks in northeastern Nigeria and the pastoralist crisis across the central region’s lush vegetation belt, a lesser-known conflict is brewing in the northwest, and casualties are rising.
Cattle thieves are carrying out daily killings and kidnappings in Zamfara state.
Hundreds have died this year alone.
In early August, 22-year-old Zuleiya Kura braved a two-day trek in the bush with her four children – including 40-day-old twins – to escape the violence.
The young family fled their village of Kanya to Zurmi town, both in Zamfara state, after cattle rustlers on motorcycles stormed her hometown with AK47s.
Her husband, the family’s breadwinner, is missing. He had stayed behind with other men to defend Kanya and no one knows if they were killed or managed to escape.
“We all deserted the town after we heard that the bandits have come,” says Kura, from the safety of a government-owned Arabic school housing more than 6,000 displaced people from across the state – all of whom were impacted by the same violence. “They were chanting Allahu Akbar.”
Zamfara state is home to 4.1 million people and more than 90 percent are Muslim. It was the first Nigerian state to adopt Islamic law, in 2000.
Cattle rustling, which has long afflicted northern Nigeria, has assumed a dangerous dimension in recent years, say residents and analysts.
The many forests in the area, especially the twin forests of Mashema in Zamfara’s north bordering nearby Niger Republic and Birnin Gwari to the south leading to the neighbouring, equally insecure state of Kaduna, have served as bases for criminals who stockpile sophisticated weapons.
According to an estimate from Amnesty International, at least 371 people have been killed in Zamfara state alone since January.
Zamfara is our laboratory for conflict resolution. How we resolve it, if we can resolve it, will determine whether we can resolve future conflicts.
In July this year, young people incensed by the frequent killings burned down a police station in the town of Zurmi after policemen refused to release three suspected bandits to them for vigilante justice.
“The situation in Zamfara is nothing new and has been building for years since the state adopted [Islamic] law as a placebo to respond to economic challenges,” explains Cheta Nwanze, head of research at Lagos-based SBM Intelligence.
“Zamfara is one of Nigeria’s poorest states, and there is circumstantial evidence that some of the perpetrators of violence may have been part of the enforcement brigade of that law almost two decades ago. Having said that, the seeming escalation is indicative of the wider issue in Nigeria where there is less money to go round and a larger population struggling for dwindling resources.”
Nigeria’s law enforcement agencies are understaffed and with its army stretched thin by other conflicts, the cattle-rustler crisis has continued unabated mostly in Zamfara but also Kaduna, Katsina, Niger and, recently, Sokoto states.
Two military exercises codenamed Operations Sharan Daji (Hausa for Sweep the Forest) and Harbin Kunama (Hausa for Scorpion Sting) set up in previous years, have proved unable to curb the attacks.
A dusk to dawn curfew, imposed again after being lifted in 2016, is not fully enforced either.
Encouraged by the failure to stem the violence, the perpetrators have also taken to indiscriminate kidnapping-for-ransom schemes across major highways, killing locals in communities after stealing their cows and abducting women and forcing them into sex slavery. There have also been a few cases of artisanal gold miners being robbed of their gold and then killed.
The attackers tend to arrive on Honda motorcycles, says Sokoto-based taxi driver Abdullahi Abubakar.
“They park across the road and look inside vehicles they stop for those with fine skin or well-dressed [people] that look like they have money. Then they kidnap you and ask you to call your people to pay millions. Recently, they took one expatriate engineer working on a project in [Zamfara] and kept him for 12 days, feeding him well until a ransom of N30 million ($83,100) was paid.”
Young people in several affected communities have formed local vigilante groups, arming themselves with sticks, Dane guns and crude weapons available for self-defence in case of reprisal attacks by ethnic militia.
The bandits are mostly Fulani mercenaries attacking predominantly Hausa settlements, with some criminal elements among the ethnic militia also instigating their own attacks in similar patterns, says the state government.
“After our ban of Yan Banga (vigilante) and allowances stopped, some transformed into Yan Sakai (volunteer forces) to revenge on Fulani people and some of them became criminals,” said Ibrahim Dosara, a government spokesperson. “When we discovered that they were now part of the problem, the government banned them again.”
The crisis has largely gone under the radar as both media and the government focus on rumblings elsewhere in northern Nigeria.
Some analysts also believe the conflict is considered less pressing because it is an example of “Muslim-on-Muslim” violence.
“In Nigeria, we like our binary fixtures – Muslim versus Christian, Igbo versus Hausa, Fulani versus Yoruba,” said Nwanze, the researcher. “Most of us can’t process anything outside of those binaries, and since Zamfara doesn’t fit any of those binaries, and is our equivalent of black-on-black crime, it is largely ignored. However, Zamfara is our laboratory for conflict resolution. How we resolve it, if we can resolve it, will determine whether we can resolve future conflicts.”
In June, apparently frustrated by the situation, Zamfara governor Abdulazeez Yari told reporters that he was powerless in his role as chief security officer of the state.
“We have been facing serious security challenges over the years, but in spite of being governor and Chief Security Officer of the state, I cannot direct security officers on what to do nor sanction them when they err,” he said.
Yari, who has been criticised for weak leadership and living outside his state on a regular basis, has no control over the internal security infrastructure because, in accordance with Nigeria’s constitution, law enforcement apparatus is controlled wholly by the federal government.
Dosara, the government spokesperson, says in 2016, the state government convened a series of reconciliatory meetings with two main suspected leaders of the attacks, Dogo Gide and Buharin Daji. Both are Fulani.
“We initiated a disarmament and reconciliation process which succeeded in recovering over 3,000 different types of arms comprising machine guns, AK47s, locally made pistols, revolvers and other ammunition … and they took payments. Just about four months ago, they [the weapons] were destroyed before international organisations.”
Not long after the suspected leaders surrendered their weapons and were paid off an undeclared sum, Daji broke the brief ceasefire.
Nicknamed General Buharin to mimic the title of Muhammadu Buhari, the retired general and Nigeria’s president, Dajin went rogue.
One of the communities he attacked and stole cows from was a small village in the Dansadau area of the state, the hometown of Gide’s wife.
Gide, exasperated by Daji’s refusal to return his booty, pretended to extend an olive branch to his former ally – and killed him.
A few weeks ago, the army shot dead Daji’s teenage heir after a run-in between his gang and security officials.
Still, the kidnappings, killings and general instability are yet to end.
Calls for communal policing have resurfaced as the government at state and federal levels deliberate on how to ease the crisis.
“It is both a case for communal policing since the locals know many of the perpetrators, and a cautionary tale about communal policing without proper training and funding. Eventually, these people will turn those weapons against the very people they are meant to protect,” warns Nwanze.
In a belated response in July, President Buhari – who came to power in 2015 vowing to tackle insecurity – deployed a 1,000-man strong military contingent from the army and air force to embark on yet another military exercise, Operation Diran Mikiya (Hausa for Eagle Fighting).
“Buharin Daji is the main rustling and kidnapping guy in-country and he’s supposedly a Nigerian,” says Beegeagles, a popular anonymous military intelligence blogger.
“In northern Zamfara, there are far more menacing guys coming in from Niger [Republic] … most of whom go unchallenged, given the negligible security. Everything that spells cash – gold, cattle, kidnapping – feeds into the conflict.”