Moriki, Nigeria – When bandits attacked Moriki – a small farming community in Nigeria‘s northwestern state of Zamfara – last year and killed 25 villagers, Shamsu Musa did not weep. He stood beside their graves, feeling the weight of Moriki’s sorrow on his shoulders.
Few days after, he surveyed the hills and plain of Moriki – wondering over what will happen to the little kids, widows and the old people when the assailants return.
The bandits had left a note of warning, threatening to wipe out the remnants, and burn down the barns and silos and the lands upon which his harvest of millet, guinea corn and maize has flourished from birth.
“I won’t live to see the fall of Moriki like some people who abandon their birthplace during the time of trouble,” said 25-year-old Musa. “But if a man runs away from his home, who would defend it?”
This crisis began as a small tit-for-tat community clash in 2011 between Hausa farmers and Fulani nomadic herdsmen over cattle rustling.
Poor handling by local authorities, who have been accused by both sides of bias, resulted in distrust that partly led to its escalation.
Since 2011, the conflict has left more than 4,000 people dead, destroyed farmlands, rustled more than 25,000 cattle and impacted about 500 villages, according to state Governor Abdulaziz Yari.
The herdsmen have also accused villagers of killing their cattle.
The crisis peaked this year, claiming more than 300 lives so far, security experts said. And the toll might exceed 411 civilians who died in clashes with armed group Boko Haram in all of 2018, according to Amnesty International.
Musa convinced other young people into forming a local civilian militia to protect their communities. The 35-man team, made up of young farmers, have watched over Moriki for the past one year, repelling attacks from the bandits.
“We waited for the government, but their help wasn’t coming. The bandits were taking advantage of this gap to burn down houses and kill innocent people. That’s why we started protecting our own communities,” he said.
By and large, the security structure put in place in Moriki is becoming a model for many impacted communities in Zamfara. Young people, who have lost confidence in the government are at the centre of their own security and that of their communities.
The government has launched multiple military operations in the region since 2017 – covering northwestern states of Katsina, Kaduna Niger, Kano and Sokoto – all threatened by the conflict.
The interventions have not recorded much progress because the government stepped into the crisis too late, said Adamu Abubaker of the Centre for Community Excellence (CCE), an NGO working to unite all the actors in the crisis for the past two years.
“If the government had done the right thing at the beginning, the situation would have been resolved,” Abubaker said.
“It was a conflict that needed dialogue, negotiations and proper administration of justice system. But there was never that political will to even solve the issue in the first place,” he told Al Jazeera.
Complexity of the crisis
The spokesperson of the Nigeria Police Force in Katsina, one of the worst-hit states, Gambo Isa said that despite the “immense progress” recorded by multiple ongoing military operations in the region, the complexity of the crisis and short supply of military manpower and ammunition has slowed success.
“We cannot say we have stopped the attacks altogether, but we have curtailed them considerably. There are a lot of dimensions to this crisis (security operations is only one). There are political and economic dimensions. But we also have challenges of manpower and insufficient equipment,” he said.
While experts blame the government, Abubaker Muhammed, a local tricycle driver has perfected plans to restore Gobarcali – his small village overrun by the bandits two years ago. He is leading over 30 youths who are willing to train under him to restore their communities.
For them, the first journey leads to Tsafe – a small village at the outskirt of Gusau city, which is notorious for its powerful charms and local gun factories and markets.
Tsafe, a two-hour drive from Gusau, the capital city of Zamfara, wears a typical native look: the mud huts, planted between the bevy of rocks, deep valleys and scanty baobab trees.
“This is a conflict against hardworking people. No one is asking the government to give us food. We did not grow up hoping for any help from them. But if they provide peace, we can fend for ourselves,” said 32-year-old Muhammed.
Former farmers roam jobless in Gusau, and many of them want to return. But most of their areas are now governed by bandits.
Many other communities are now emulating the success of Moriki community in tackling the bandit threat.
Booming gun market
To feed their mission, guns and charms markets are booming in many parts of the state and even the entire northwest region. These weapons, largely made by local blacksmiths, sell for $15-30.
The trade is able to thrive because the government security forces are not in control of most of the regions – remote villages largely – where the small-scale weapon manufacturing and marketing happen.
There is also a popular local charm, called odieshi, which is believed to make one impregnable in the face of attacks from material weapons. It comes in a powdery form and sells for $2. At Tsefa, there is a room where young people who receive this charm are tested with guns.
It is in this small room – capped with rusted zinc, a small opening and a cement wall – that thousands of disenchanted youths find strength.
“Some people who received this charm have gone back to retake their communities. It is a good and tested charm. I have taken it. If you have gun, shoot me in the head, and the bullet will not enter,” boasts Danladi Almed.
“Nearly everyone in Zamfara state has a weapon. People will remain armed even if the issue of the bandits is addressed. What will hungry and unemployed people do with guns? This conflict is surely breeding a bigger one,” said Abubaker from the NGO.
One in every five people in Nigeria rural communities owns weapons while one in every 10 people owns weapons in the urban areas, according to the Small Arms Survey group.
Some of the weapons available in the market, it says, are muzzle-loading “Dane guns”, 9mm semi-automatic pistols, assault rifles and sub-machine guns as well as shotguns.
But getting charms and guns is just one part of the story.
Musa, for instance, undergoes tough drills on shooting, aiming, running and taking cover every week. The peak of his work starts at 8pm when each smaller group of five is assigned one of the community entry points.
They hang in tall trees, rock beds and tunnels to monitor unfamiliar movements till dawn, while the women and kids sleep at home.
But without the women, the efforts to keep the community safe would have collapsed, said Musa.
Every morning, the women go to the farms, while their men take some rest at home as attacks don’t often occur in the daytime. Assisted by their sons and daughters, the women are able to make profits from the sales of their farm products which are used to feed the family and support their husbands.
“We are happy with what the women do every day. Though I am almost jobless doing this duty, my wife has carried the burden of the family. It is also the women who contribute to feed us every night,” he said.
Musa has emerged as a hero for the Moriki community.
“… I can’t let these people down even if death comes along the way,” Musa said, his small eyes turning watery.
But people like Kabiru Adamu, who heads Abuja-based American Society for Industrial Security, is worried about leaving security operations largely in the hands of the militia.
Adamu said the nobility of the role these militia groups play today may be abused in the future as weapons may end up in the hands of criminals.
Hausa militia has since been accused of extrajudicial killings, extortion and persecution of Fulani and other ethnic minorities in northern Nigeria.
The conflict started because the government left security in the hands of the people. And there is no guarantee that things won’t get worse in the future, Adamu, the security risk consultant, warned.