Who are the ‘bandits’ terrorising Nigeria’s ‘Wild Wild West’?

Armed gangs have been terrorising northwest Nigeria for years. But what does the catchall phrase ‘bandits’ encompass?

The mother of Muhammad Bello, one the students who was abducted by gunmen, reacts in Kankara, in northwestern Katsina state
The mother of Muhammad Bello, one of the students who was abducted by gunmen in December 2020, reacts in Kankara, in northwestern Katsina state, Nigeria [Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

On Monday, a train heading for the northern city of Kaduna from Nigeria’s capital Abuja was ambushed by suspected bandits who bombed its tracks. Dozens of passengers were abducted and an unconfirmed number of people were killed during the attack. Many are still missing.

The incident happened only a couple of days after local daily Premium Times reported that unidentified gunmen had stormed the Kaduna airport, killing an official on the runway. Soldiers reportedly repelled the attack and the airport was shut down.

Monday’s train attack was the second in six months on the same route after explosives were laid on the tracks last October. Witnesses say that time, the train hobbled on to its destination afterwards.

Since the rail route launched in 2016, it has presented an alternative connection between two of the largest cities in the north. For many civil servants living in Kaduna and working in Abuja, it became the far more secure alternative as rampaging “bandits” took over the roads in the north.

Even senators and other ranking politicians became accustomed to standing in the coaches whenever they were congested, rather than taking the highways in their luxury cars with security convoys.

But sometimes good things don’t last.

The NRC announced on Tuesday that it was suspending operations on the route – one of the most popular ones nationwide – until further notice.

‘Wild Wild West’

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks but witnesses have attributed it to “bandits”, the catchall phrase for criminal gangs masterminding frequent bouts of abduction, maiming, sexual violence and killings of citizens across vast swaths of northern Nigeria.

They number in the tens of thousands but go around in dozens, sometimes more. They also often announce their presence by riding mostly motorcycles – and sometimes horses – into towns and villages they invade, with a seemingly endless supply of ammunition.

Many of the groups are believed to comprise mostly ethnic Fulanis, including pastoralists and mercenaries from the region as well as neighbouring Chad and the Niger Republic.

On several occasions, they have kidnapped schoolchildren in various parts of Nigeria’s Niger, Kebbi and Yobe states. Other victims of their kidnapping-for-ransom scheme range across all social classes, from politicians and members of their families to imams, clergymen, security guards and farmers.

In May 2019, the district head of Daura, President Muhammadu Buhari’s hometown, was kidnapped. He was freed after two months. Presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said the incident was evidence that Duara was not receiving preferential treatment and that insecurity was a national problem.

According to the Wisconsin-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), one of the world’s most reliable conflict data aggregators, there were 18 abduction events targeting students across northern Nigeria between January 2018 and April 2021.

ACLED data also shows that the bandits killed more than 2,600 civilians in 2021, an increase of over 250% from 2020. This number dwarfs that of civilian deaths credited to Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province in the same year.

In the period between December 2020 and August 2021, more than 1,000 students and school staff were abducted. Within the next six months, as many as 343 people were killed, while 830 others were abducted by bandits between July and September 2021 in Kaduna state alone, according to figures from the state government.

Even though the axis of tragedy cuts across parts of the south, it is central and especially northwest Nigeria that continue to suffer the most. Residents of the latter region say the “bandits” operate as if they are above the law.

In some villages, they have even become the law, taxing locals on a regular basis.

‘Bandits’, ‘terrorists’ or a cocktail?

For nearly a century, small bands of cattle rustlers have been invading villages in the north for cows and food. That has often led them into direct conflict with farmers and other locals in these areas.

However, around 2011, things changed as a spate of armed attacks began in Zamfara state and rapidly intensified. Experts say the artisanal mining operations there had attracted gold thieves who then began marauding the villages at night.

Other criminal groups – and ethnicities – have since joined the fray, for various reasons.

“The bandits are [now] a motley mix of the displaced”, Ayisha Osori, director at Open Society Foundations and former chairperson of Open Society West Africa, told Al Jazeera.  “Those displaced by the over a decade-long violence in the northeast and those displaced by climate change – unable to farm, fish, trade.”

“[There are] also herders who – tired of their cattle being rustled and the fights with farmers – have found a more lucrative revenue-generating operation: kidnapping for ransom and trading terror for community payoffs,” she added. “The bandits also include the opportunistic – so criminally minded men, who may or may not be supported by some members of the Nigerian security force who, in a gradually collapsing economy, also find this a lucrative way of exploiting Nigerians.”

There is also the possibility that some are remnants of the Abubakar Shekau faction of Boko Haram in the northeast, who have been dislodged by the group’s other faction, now aligned to ISIL as ISWAP.

Some state governments halted monthly payments of salaries to vigilantes and ethnic militias – whom they had tasked with fighting the “bandits” – and struck disarmament deals to collect the weapons paid for with government funds. Disgruntled members of these groups are now also in the mix.

“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,” Ibrahim Dosara, a spokesperson for the Zamfara government told Al Jazeera. “When we discovered that they were now part of the problem, the government banned them again.”

“We are dealing with well-funded and networked groups who are likely being supported by powerful people, including those invested in gold mining in Zamfara – which is the epicentre of the violence in the northwest,” Osori said.

But while the band has stretched to accommodate all kinds of criminal elements, the name has remained inelastic.

‘Ungoverned spaces’

The many forests in the northwest, especially the twin forests of Mashema in Zamfara’s north bordering the nearby Niger Republic and Birnin Gwari to the south leading to the neighbouring, equally insecure, state of Kaduna, have served as bases for the bandits to stockpile sophisticated weapons.

These, and some of the villages being routinely attacked, are now often referred to in analyst-speak as “ungoverned spaces”, “under-governed spaces” and the “Wild Wild West”.

On paper, Nigeria operates as a federation but Abuja still drip-feeds the 36 states. Additionally, corruption and incompetent leadership can be found at all tiers of government. This, among other things, has led to feelings of economic and political marginalisation, real or perceived, among various parts of the population. And many have been left to their own devices.

A couple of years ago, security forces announced a crackdown, including air raids and a telecoms shutdown in parts of the northwest in an attempt to flush the criminal gangs from their forest hideouts.

But Nigeria’s underfunded and under-equipped military is stretched thin because of soldier deployments elsewhere in the country, particularly to quell activities of Boko Haram in the northeast, separatist agitations in the southeast and a pastoralist crisis in central Nigeria.

The country’s land and sea borders, ever so porous, remain conduit pipes for the small and light weapons being trafficked into the country for operations by the armed groups.

In January, the government proscribed the bandits as terrorists.

In the official gazette, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government labelled the activities of Yan Bindiga and Yan Ta’adda – references in the Hausa language to bandit gunmen – “as acts of terrorism and illegality”.

But that designation has barely changed anything.

Days after the announcement, an estimated 200 people were killed and 10,000 displaced in attacks by gunmen in Zamfara following military air raids on their hideouts the previous week.

Follow Eromo Egbejule on Twitter: @EromoEgbejule

Source: Al Jazeera