‘WE NEED GUNS NOT BOOKS’
Aliyu, 17, wanted to be a legend. So, he burned his father’s cat to a charred skull to create his legend out of rage. His father, Jatau, railed at him for killing the cat (mage) and Aliyu charged back at him, daring him to retaliate. After burning the cat, he pounded its charred remains into dust and made an amulet from it. “Whenever it is around my neck, no bullet can kill me,” he said, fingering the talisman made of animal hide and bone fragments.
Aliyu knew his father treasured the cat. But it had to die. “I killed it to teach him (his father) a lesson,” he said.
The 17-year-old had seen his father crouch in fear, cuddling the cat, while his mother and sisters got raped. In that moment, he renounced his respect for the father. Aliyu swore he would never be like him and jettisoned his dream of following in his steps as a rice farmer. The man who he embraced as his childhood hero was nothing but a frantic coward, he thought.
“That man was a coward. He watched them (bandits) rape his wife and daughters – my mother and two sisters. Afterwards, they (bandits) came back to abduct them. They said they were ‘too sweet’ to be left behind. My father did nothing. He was a coward,” Aliyu said, fiddling the safety of his rifle.
In a predawn attack on his village, Birane, in Zurmi LGA, armed bandits stormed his home and raped his mother and two sisters. Afterwards, they shot his grandpa and cousin in the head, and his father on the left foot. Then they abducted his mother and two sisters.
Furious and spoiling for revenge, Aliyu joined the Yansakai, a local vigilance group fighting armed banditry in Zamfara’s rural communities. But he believed that “they were too slow.” The leader of the branch that he patrolled with, also refused to commit the group to Aliyu’s quest to rescue his mother and two sisters.
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“He said they did not know where the bandits took them. But he was simply afraid. They (Yansakai) are always too afraid to face the bandits,” said Aliyu.
Subsequently, he quit the vigilance group and warmed his way into the fold of a local gang loyal to Dan Karami, a bandit kingpin.
But since he joined the group, Aliyu hasn’t found his mother and two sisters. “There is no word about them from anywhere. I have searched everywhere,” he said, adding nonchalantly, recently, he heard that his father was killed by another bandit group laying siege across communities in Zurmi LGA. Aliyu hopes to quit armed banditry after he rescues his mother and sisters. “Once, I do that, I will drop the gun,” he said.
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Scores of boys, like Aliyu, abound in Zamfara. Many of them would gladly choose the bloody life of a bandit than the punctured peace of the strife-ravaged communities.
“Most of them are children pretending to be hard men. They all want to carry guns and raid villages. They want to rape people’s wives and daughters. It’s all they ever talk about,” said Hussein, 43, a displaced resident of Zurmi.
Armed banditry plaguing Zamfara and neighbouring northwestern states, Katsina and Sokoto has consumed more than 8,000 lives – mainly in Zamfara – with over 60,000 fleeing into Niger Republic in the last decade, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Indeed, a new gale of bleakness pervades the nooks and crannies of Zamfara. A thick pall of fear hangs like a dark cloud over several communities in the state, “particularly the villages on the outskirts,” said Adamu Garba, a displaced farmer in Tsafe.
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A dangerous trend ensued with the influx of teenagers into bandit gangs across the state. “Every where you go, you will see them. Many of them start by loafing around looking to cause trouble. They don’t care about anyone. They don’t respect their elders. They all want to become bandits. They love the life,” said Nusaiba Baushe, who fled her village after bandits killed her husband and two sons.
The storm this time
If there is another storm that the northwest should be worried about, it’s in the influx of teenage boys into armed banditry. “There are too many boys pretending to be hard men. Many of them eventually enter the bush and join forest bandits. It’s a sad development,” said an inspector with the police command in Gusau.
Just recently, the Police Command in Zamfara arrested two students, 15-year-old Donatus Ejeh and Tukur Bashir, in connection with their threats to abduct a staff, principal and students of their respective schools, the Dominican College and the Federal Government College (FGC), Anka.
The State Commissioner of Police (CP), Hussaini Rabi’u, said that they were arrested following reports of their threats from authorities of the affected schools.
He disclosed that on June 25, 2021, a letter was found close to the suggestion box of the Dominican College, located in Sha’iskawa area, Gusau. The letter contained a threat to kidnap the Principal of the school, Rev. Sister Chinyere, and some students of the school. After receiving a report on the incident from the school management, police detectives swung into action and arrested 15-year-old Ejeh, as the principal suspect. During interrogation, it was discovered that he was an SS3 student of the school, said the police commissioner.
In a separate incident, the Principal of FGC, Anka, reported to the police that an unknown person called her and demanded a N3million ransom to prevent the abduction of some students of the school.
Rabi’u said that during investigations, the police arrested Bashir. “We discovered him to be an SSS1 student of the college. Investigation is ongoing to arrest other members of his gang for prosecution,” said the police commissioner.
In another incident, a young boy narrated, in a viral video, how he was taught to shoot and kill by one Alhaji in Gidan Kaso village in the Birnin Magaji area of Zamfara State.
The teenager claimed he had used his rifle uncountable times, adding that members of his gang, had kidnapped so many women. Some of those abducted were raped and killed, he said.
This comes a few months after the Zamfara Governor, Bello Matawalle, lamented that teen bandits were terrorising the state.
Aliyu Daji, a sociologist and humanitarian volunteer, argued that the situation in Zamfara is particularly worrisome due to the absence of stable family structures.
“Insecurity takes its toll on everything, especially the family. The family unit has been completely destroyed. As it falls apart, everything else falls apart: school, religion, local government, community. Family is the thread holding them all together. When it is severed, life, everything ends as we know it. There is no community without family,” he said.
According to him, children have no one to look up to anymore. Everyday, they see their parents in flight, running for their lives. Fathers, who used to be seen as powerful authority figures are established as cowards in such situations; many of them are beaten and killed by younger men and even teenage boys, all these in the presence of their wives and children.
Consequently, children don’t see their parents as authority figures anymore, the fathers in particular, leading to tension within several families.
Several boys at the cusp of adolescence and young adulthood suddenly discover that their parents are actually very weak and defenseless before the brute force of armed bandits. Thus they see no reason to fear them anymore. They don’t listen to anyone. There is no father figure. No model of authority. Nothing.
In a sad twist, they have taken criminals and bandit leaders as their role models and heroes. They see a lot to admire and covet in the latter’s bristling notoriety. Eventually, many of them aspire to similar infamy.
“That is why we see a lot of boys joining criminal gangs. The northwest is a mess right now,” said Daji.
Several boys interviewed from Kadamutsa, Tsafe, Maru, Jangebe, Bakura, Talata Mafara, Gidan Zago Dansadau, rued the attacks that cost them their peace, education and homes, and extolled the notoriety and perceived courage of their favourite bandit leaders in same breath.
“I don’t need to go to school. What will I be if I go to school? A teacher? Doctor? Engineer? Fighters make all the big money. They have all the power. Politician fear them. Government fears them. See, my father was a politician. He promised to make me a councillor. He is dead now. Bandits killed him and my stepbrothers. Then they took my stepmother away to be their forest wife. Bandits have all the power today. I will become a bandit leader, make big money and retire very young,” said Nasir Kwatarkwashi. The 16-year-old nursed dreams of relocating to Nassarawa to work as a butcher, until the bandits struck.
Likewise, Aminu Badarawa, 18, “would like to be a bandit. I will be rich. I will make money and live in Dubai. I will keep one family there and one family in Nigeria. When I am away, my boys will work for me and collect,” he said.
Banditry kingpins have attained repute in the estimation of a growing number of boys in the northwest region. Teenagers speak glowingly about bandits’ leaders including Dogo Gide, Kachalla Turji, Adamu Yankuzo, Dan Karami, Dan Hasarshi, and Ali Kachalla to mention a few.
Ali Kachalla, is particularly a teen favourite; it was his group that shot down a Nigerian Air Force (NAF) alpha jet on June 18, 2021 and subsequently burned a Mowag Piranha armoured personnel carrier in Dansadau on July 23 2021. Rather than be repulsed by his armed violence, the teenagers whose lives had been ripped apart by the carnage he perpetrates, aspire to be armed bandits and forest warlords on the watch of the bandit kingpin.
Kachalla’s group, numbering more than 200, operates from the Kuyambana forest and an improvised base – made up of a couple of huts – along the Goron Dutse river, about 25 km south of Dansadau.
His gang directly controls the villages of Dandalla, Madada, and Gobirawa Kwacha, from where he launches attacks on Dansadau and other neighbouring communities. Kachalla’s gang reportedly has an alliance with Dogo Gide’s nomadic gang.
Dogo Gide, on his part, leads a group of bandits stationed near Dansadau. He attained notoriety for killing fellow bandit leader, Buharin Daji and 24 of his goons, after tricking them to a peace meeting to settle a rift between their gangs.
Then there is Dan Karami, who leads bandits and runs a robust kidnap-for-ransom operation with the support of his father. Dan Karami’s group operates from different forest camps straddling Zurmi and Birnin Magaji LGAs in Zamfara and Jibia LGA in neighbouring Katsina State.
Just recently the young bandit leader, presumably in his 30s, made the news as he bragged about his reasons for initially shunning peace overtures from the deposed Emir of Gurmi, Atiku Abubakar, saying that the Emir sent troops to attack him and his gang.
He said, “I was in front of my house when the troops were taken to the forest (his camp). Four days later, when some of the troops were returning from Gusau, I laid ambush on them and killed scores of them, and destroyed their operational vehicles. Days later, the troops attacked me very early in the morning but my boys overpowered them and we killed an unspecified number among them.”
According to him, on another occasion, troops of the Nigerian armed forces and their Nigerien counterparts, launched an attack on his gang. “Yet we killed scores of them. After all these, it became clear to the Emir of Zurmi that the troops cannot win the war against us. He called me for another peace deal, and from then I ceased fire,” Dan Karami said.
Economics of armed banditry, kidnap for ransom
One reason why kidnap for ransom thrives is the economics surrounding it. The sheer number of small incidents, at the heel of major coups scored by kidnap kingpins has established that the kidnap economy has become very lucrative.
For instance, about 2,371 persons were kidnapped and the sum of N10 billion demanded in ransom, in Nigeria, in the first half of 2021, according to a report by SBM Intelligence, an economic research firm in its 2021 half-year kidnap report.
Nearly 1,000 school kids have been kidnapped in Nigeria’s northwest since December 2020. SBM Intelligence research and analysis of data covering the period from June 2011 to the end of March 2020 – using a collection of public sources, police and media reports – also shows that between June 2011 and the end of March 2020, at least $18.34 million had been paid to kidnappers as ransom. Even more frightening is that the larger proportion of that figure ( just below $11 million), was paid out between January 2016 and March 2020, indicating that kidnapping has becoming very lucrative in the country.
The Kaduna conundrum
Like Zamfara, Kaduna presents a sorry case of a state in the severe grip of armed bandits. While presenting a security report for the second quarter of 2021 to the state governor, Nasir El Rufai, recently, Samuel Aruwan, the State Commissioner for Internal Security and Home Affairs, said 774 people were kidnapped and 222 killed between April and June 2021, in the State. He said that Kaduna Central and Kaduna South senatorial zones recorded 159 and 54 deaths respectively, while Kaduna North had nine.
In his first quarter report, Aruwan stated that 323 people were killed and 949 others kidnapped by gunmen within three months in the state. The true nature of armed banditry in Kaduna is further highlighted by the recent bandit attack on the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA).
The bandits invaded the military academy in Kaduna, around 1am on July 24, killing two officers and abducting another senior officer, Major Christopher Datong. Aside from the officers killed and kidnapped, some others sustained gunshot injuries and are currently receiving treatment at the NDA hospital. The attack on the military facility comes amidst heightened insecurity in the northwest, with Kaduna State at the epicenter.
A perilous trip to a bandits’ den in Kidandan
Of the bandit dens in Kaduna, Kidandan festers like a thick welt on the breast of the State. The village features on the radar of prime time TV, due to the persistent and often bloody attacks carried out in the area by armed bandits.
A trip to Kidandan manifests as a pilgrimage of sort. The fixer led the way across a rough tract and stopped at a mountain. From nowhere, a squad of armed bandits, about 40 of them, emerged travelling on bikes while their AK-47 rifles dangled menacingly strapped to their backs.
The fuel tanks of their motorcycles were covered with thick pads of animal skin and woollen material, apparently to protect it from exploding when hit by bullets during gun battles with the Nigerian military.
The motorcycle tyres were also wrapped in animal skin to enable them move easily along the mountainous region. Findings revealed that the leather protects the tyres from the sands and harsh terrain. It also makes it difficult to track them.
The armed bandits did not cover their faces. One of the gang held tons of cash in a vice grip, smoking Indian Hemp like the rest of his colleagues. Several members of the gang gulped psychotropic substances including formalin and codeine.
They inquired in bold, harsh tenor, what a journalist seeks in their domain. Despite the spirited explanation by the fixer and his emphatic mention of a mutual acquaintance’s name, they refused to be interviewed citing fears of being identified and killed by security agents.
However, they approved snapshots of their weapons, which included lots of AK-47 rifles, new motorcycles and a RPG rocket launcher. They boasted that they had lots of money and enough sophisticated weapons to strike fear in the hearts of Nigeria’s armed forces.
“The only reason you would be allowed to go unharmed is because you mentioned our very good friend’s name,” said the leader of the squad.
Less than 1,000 metres from the bandits’ camp in Kidandan, there is a checkpoint manned by about 11 soldiers and policemen. As the fixer led the way back from the bandits’ domain, the policemen asked how the team managed to return unscathed. They admitted that they never expected anyone to return alive.
In that moment, it became clear that the law enforcers were aware of the bandits’ presence in the area but they were apparently past caring about its import for a community that had suffered persistent carnage and bloody onslaught from armed bandits.
While the Kaduna bandits may be making a killing from ransom money, armed bandits in Zamfara seem more organised than their peers in Kaduna. In Kaduna, there are frequent intra-bandit squabbles and cases of insubordination among the criminal rank and file whereas in Zamfara, perpetrators have been known to abide by gang rules and code of conduct.
The more organised nature of the criminal gangs in Zamfara has been adduced to the long history of banditry in the state – practice makes perfect.
In the beginning…
Armed banditry erupted in Zamfara around 2009 but it escalated in 2011 after the general elections. During that period, there were frequent theft of domestic animals by local bandits across many local government areas of the state. The bandits used to carry Dane guns, cutlasses and sticks for their operations and most of their activities were targeted at cattle owners found in isolated villages and forest regions.
The affected rural communities subsequently organised a local vigilance group known as “Yansakai” to checkmate the activities of the bandits. Subsequent clashes between the vigilance group and suspected bandits led to deaths in some villages including Kizara, Lilo, Kwokaya, Gidan kaso, Lingyado, Bagega, Unguwar Galadima, Tungar Baushe, Guru, Badarawa, Rakumi Mallamawa, Kagarawa, Cigama, Malmo, ‘Yargada, Jangeme, Madaba, Mutunji, Mashema, Dangulbi, Birnin-Magaji, Filinga, Kabaro, Tungar Rakumi, and Wonaka, where a total of about 729 persons including two police officers were killed, according to Mustapha Nadama, a research specialist on banditry.
Overall, Zamfara became less safe by each passing year as armed banditry and kidnap for ransom escalated across its major townships and rural areas.
Bandits’ modus operandi
Further investigations revealed that rural communities constitute the major targets of bandit attacks. They prowl different routes across Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, Niger, Sokoto, and Kebbi States and their major hideout is the Sububu forest in Maradun LGA, in Zamfara. From Sububu forest, disclosed Nadama, they spread terror through the state passing through Rudunu, Indulmu and Tangila villages to Dandabi forest in Shinkafi LGA.
From Dandabi forest, they move to Dumburum forest into Zurmi, one of the hotbeds of banditry in the state and proceed eastwards towards Batsari forest in Katsina State or move southwards towards Shamushalle thick forest in Birnin-Magaji LGA in Zamfara.
From there, they enter Mai Jan-ido forest, through Tsabre forest to Gusami forest. From Gusami forest, they continue their journey either eastwards towards Batsari forest in Katsina State or westwards to Ajja forest, which is another thick forest situated in Mada Area Development Council (ADC) of Gusau LGA. From Ajja forest, the bandits move southwards to Wonaka forest and to Fegin-mahe forest. From this point, they move eastwards heading to Akuzo forest. From Akuzo, they move to Danmusa forest in Katsina State. They move further towards Gurbin-Maikiya and Maidabino forests to Zangon-Pauwa forest in Kankara LGA of Katsina.
Subsequently, they move to ‘Yanwaren Daji forest in Tsafe LGA in Zamfara, through the Akuzo forest in Mada ADC in Gusau or via Zango-Pauwa forest in Kankara, Katsina State.
They move westwards to ‘Yankuzo and Hayin Alhaji forest in Tsafe. Then southwards to ‘Yartalata forest in Kankara up to ‘Yarmalamai/Dan’aji forest, where they burst out at ‘Yankara/Sheme forest in Faskari. From there, they enter Fankama forest, also in Faskari and subsequently traverse Bilbis/Magazu forest in Tsafe.
They also follow cattle routes from Magazu forest to KunchinKalgo/Danjibga forest, where they move towards Marbe forest, all in Tsafe. From Marbe forest, they follow cattle route to Rijiya-Tsakardawa, Tofa/Jangeme forest and Wanke forest all in Gusau.
From Wanke forest, the armed bandits follow a feeder road to Kekun-waje forest, Bingi forest, Bare-bari village and Gobirawa forest, all in Bungudu LGA. From Gobirawa forest, they enter Maru through Bindin forest, where they follow cattle route to Dangulbi forest and pass through Daraga forest, Mutunji forest, Kabaro forest, Sangeku forest, and then Kajiji forest in Doka village, under Dansadau in Maru LGA.
At Kajiji/Doka forest, the bandits either move eastwards leading to Sabuwa forest in Katsina State or head towards south to Ayu forest in Bena District of Kebbi State or move towards south-west to Kotonkoro forest in Niger State. At the end, the bandits converge at Janbiri forest which serves as their permanent base. Janbiri forest is a thick forest located in Birnin Gwari L.G.A. of Kaduna State which shares boundary with Dansadau Area of Maru L.G.A. of Zamfara State and Sabuwa L.G.A. of Katsina State.
There is no gainsaying Nigeria’s large swathes of ungoverned spaces compounds its banditry problem; there are several land tracts in the country without government or security presence, which puts residents at the mercy of armed bandits and other criminal elements. Kidnap syndicates operating out of the northwest rely on big forests as their operational base.
In response, governors from the northwest alongside their Niger State counterpart have jointly endorsed the deployment of trained vigilantes in their respective states, to shore up the presence of security personnel in the rural communities.
According to Katsina Governor, Aminu Masari, “Deploying vigilantes to the grassroots can help tackle banditry if governments within the region work towards achieving the desired goal.”
And to check armed banditry in Zamfara, the state government recently announced the suspension of weekly markets and restriction of fuel sales to the state capital and the headquarters of the local government areas of the state. In addition, no filling station is allowed to sell fuel in jerrycans, or of more than N10,000 to a single customer. The Kaduna State government has also ordered the suspension of weekly markets in Birnin Gwari, Chikun, Giwa, Igabi and Kajuru LGAs and banned sale of petrol in jerrycans in communities across the five local government areas.
In addition to deploying hard solutions, the SBM Intelligence recommended the inclusion of more effective training, equipment and deployment of police and military assets into banditry hot spots – while the government addresses inter-agency conflict in order to foster better cooperation and capacity development of Nigeria’s armed forces.
State governments should take the lead in promoting harmonious relations with long neglected communities – which will aid intelligence gathering – while partnering with the federal government to develop policies supportive of industries within their jurisdiction. This will increase capacities of businesses with comparative advantages and create a diversity of economic opportunities across the country, according to expert opinion.
But that is in the long run, in the short run, the government must urgently address the dangerous trend of teenagers taking to banditry in Zamfara and other parts of the northwest.
More worrisome is the case of suspected girl bandit, Maryam Sani, 16, who was recently arrested alongside her male accomplice, Haruna by a patrol team of vigilantes and officers of the Niger State Police Command.
Spokesperson of the command, ASP Wasiu Abiodun, said the suspects were arrested with two locally fabricated revolver rifles in Mariga LGA of the state.
During interrogation, Haruna attempted to escape and was gunned down by the Police. Teen bandits, no doubt, pose a serious threat to the war to end banditry in Nigeria northwest. Worried by the situation, Zamfara Governor, Bello Matawalle, recently sounded the alarm that teen bandits were terrorising his state.
Ultimately, they constitute a scary outcrop of the region’s insecurity scourge even as their individual tragedies blend into the hobbling footprints of the region’s failed agricultural economy. It’s harder to digest, however, their glowing admiration of bandit personae who harnessed their hitherto mundane, promising lives with strife.
The fates of Aliyu, 17, Badarawa, 18, and Kwatarkwashi, 16, among others, resonate a tragedy so intense it manifests as a protracted wail. Before he fell in love with bullets and the gun, Aliyu dreamt of being “a very big rice farmer.” Then he embraced banditry and strife, and his life transformed into a constant blur of anti-bullet charms, AK-47s, mindless rape and bloody raids on defenceless villages.
Caught in the fast thrill of the forest, he often tells himself, that he’s on a mission to rescue his mother and sisters abducted by fellow bandits. Everyday, he prowls the fringes of the northwest on a mission only ruins could reveal; the forest heat kneading the rage in his heart and fat on his skin into liquid beads of carnage and sweat.
Life as a bandit oft becomes heated and extremely dangerous but Aliyu is ready to die with the gun. In his reckless, macabre life, peace is overrated and school, a terrible bore. However, his loaded rifle spits nutriment to his malnourished mind. In Aliyu’s world, bullets glow like ‘dabino’ and a rocket launcher excites his thirst for mayhem.
Strife has poured into him its metal and chaos in queer doses. And Aliyu will give them back, first, in bitty slugs of rampage. Then, in mammoth dispensations of carnage and bloodlust.
“After I rescue my mother and sisters, I will leave this life,” he said, in the tenor of a boy afflicted by sudden recollection of his life before rage deflowered him and he pawned his innocence to the wild hoot of the forest.
This detailed and illuminating. Impressive journalism into an increasingly degenerate and degenerating sociology of child banditry and senseless life of violence in the North is an eye opener!
Olatunji OLOLADE, Associate Editor, The Nation Newspaper.