Since the advent of Boko Haram insurgency in the country more than 10 years ago, different layers of insecurity have been allowed to fester, with the escalation of herders’-farmer’ clashes, armed robbery, cattle rustling and now, mass abduction of students from their hostels at night. This new wave of kidnapping by bandits, who are taking advantage of the dearth of effective policing in rural areas and the proliferation of arms, appears to have become an industry for the army of unemployed youths. Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI examines this trend, what led to it. Experts also proffered some solutions to the problem.
When Boko Haram insurgents kidnapped more than 300 schoolgirls from Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State in the wee hours of April 15, 2014, there was a global outrage over the incident. It was an ideology motivated kidnapping, which took the world by storm because the group had indicated that it is against the spread of Western education. Spontaneously, hundreds of citizens came together and began to protest daily in the nation’s capital, Abuja, calling on the authorities to rescue the girls. This resonated globally, sparking one of the biggest social media campaigns, with the hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls. The then United States First Lady, Michelle Obama and many other important personalities joined in the campaign.
Some of the abducted girls managed to escape after they were seized. But, 103 of the abducted Chibok girls later regained their freedom, after negotiations brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They were believed to have been freed in exchange for Boko Haram militants that were languishing in jail before then.
Means of survival:
Today, there is a new wave of kidnapping in town. Unlike the Chibok abduction, this one is purely a business venture by criminal elements in the society described as bandits. They storm a rural community in their hundreds on motorbikes and Hilux vehicles in the wee hours of the day and kidnap girls or boys en masse from their school hostels. But, unlike the Chibok abduction, within a matter of days, all the abducted students are returned to government officials, following days of fruitful negotiations and presumably payment of the agreed ransom.
It is no longer an aberration; it has become a regular occurrence. With the level of marginalization of the populace, kidnappings have become an industry and means of survival for the growing army of unemployed youths, who are taking advantage of the dearth of effective policing and the easy availability of guns.
Zamfara State appears to be the epicentre of mass kidnappings at the moment. The latest abduction is the one that took place at Government Girls Science Secondary School, Jangebe, in Talata Mafara Local Government Area of Zamfara State three Fridays ago. They were released five days after. Local residents were quoted as saying that more than 100 bandits armed with guns arrived at the school at 1 a.m. The gunmen, according to reports, remained for hours before leaving with the schoolchildren. The gunmen also reportedly attacked a nearby military camp and checkpoint in order to prevent military intervention during the raid.
The Jangebe abduction is the third mass kidnappings in less than three months. It came at a time of massive laydown of weapons by bandits in Zamfara State. It also came a night after the Federal Government threatened to deal squarely with bandits perpetuating such despicable acts. It occurred about two weeks after dozens of students and staff members were abducted by armed bandits from a school in Kagara, Niger State. The students in Niger were also released after negotiation with the bandits several days later.
Based on the experience of the mass abductions in Chikok, Dapchi in Yobe State, Kankara in Katsina State, Kagara in Niger and now Kangebe in Zamfara State, the confidence of the bandits carrying out the nefarious act is growing by the day. At least, they know there would be no punishment for the wrongdoing and that they would be paid for their “magnanimity” for returning the students unscathed. At least, that was the position of the controversial Islamic cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Gumi when he indicated in an interview with BBC that the abduction of students by bandits is a lesser evil.
Living in fear:
There is anarchy on the loose. Nigerians are living in constant fear because no one and nowhere appears to be safe anymore. The new style of kidnapping is like a script from a Nollywood film. The upsurge in the rate of organised crime, such as banditry, kidnapping and armed robbery, has fuelled a lucrative economy in the trafficking of small arms, light weapons and other contraband. It has also created a perfect atmosphere for Boko Haram insurgents, who are taking advantage of the unresolved and escalating local conflicts and rising organised crime to expand and recruit.
How did Nigeria come to such a sorry pass? One of the factors that have contributed to this is what has been dubbed the failure of intelligence and lack of collaboration among the various security agencies. Those that are conversant with the situation in the North, which is the centre of insecurity in the country, say security agencies have failed in their duty to protect the lives and properties of the populace.
The regular pattern is to respond after the crime has been committed, instead of being proactive by nipping it in the bud, through intelligence gathering, sharing of such intelligence and intervention at the appropriate time. This has helped to create an atmosphere for the various layers of insecurity to fester. The so-called herders’-farmers’ clashes have been an age-long problem, which successive governments in the past failed to address. But, it has assumed a different dimension in recent times. The Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast has also been allowed to destabilize the entire region and spread to the Northwest and elsewhere in the country.
Now there is a new layer of insecurity in the form of the mass abduction of students from their boarding houses in rural parts of the North. This is different from the ideology-based kidnapping by the Islamist Boko Haram sect witnessed in 2014 in Chibok, Borno State. This new layer of insecurity is strictly business to the so-called bandits who are common criminals exploiting the lax security situation in the country to make money. It is becoming more and more frequent in recent times. In the last three months, more than 600 school boys and girls and other citizens travelling from one part of the country to another have been kidnapped in four separate incidents.
Each time, there were negotiations prior to the release of the victims. Like the ones before the Jangebe abduction, the Zamfara State government has refuted claims that ransom was paid to secure the release of the 279 girls. Analysts are of the view that if there was no motivation to spur the bandits to carry our fresh abductions, as the authorities want Nigerians to believe, the kidnappings will not be so frequent. But, Nigerians are not fooled. The release of the Jangebe girls followed the same pattern as previous ones; there was negotiation with the bandits prior to their being set free. Indeed, the Zamfara State government has admitted that repentant bandits facilitated the negotiation.
The government does not appear to have a strategy for stopping the abductions from taking place. As a result, schools in the rural parts of the North are more vulnerable than they have ever been. The “Safe School Initiative”, which was launched with fanfare after the Chibok girls were abducted to bolster security in schools by building fences around them, appears to have been abandoned.
There appears to be an absolute breakdown of law and order in Nigeria. For instance, armed gangs that rob and kidnap for ransom, commonly described as “bandits” are on the rampage across the Northwest. Such groups killed more than 1,100 people in the first half of last year, according to the international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International. If the intelligence community, working with other security agencies, had done their job, the country would not find itself in such a mess. Owing to this development, the forests are a safe haven for bandits because security agencies do not pursue them into such places. Apart from the lax security situation, the bandits are emboldened by the fact that there are hardly consequences for such wrongdoing in Nigeria.
Conspiracy of silence:
Observers also believe the North has been bedevilled by a conspiracy of silence over the years. The hierarchical nature of northern society makes the people, including political leaders subservient to the prevailing views of the elite, as well as traditional and religious leaders. When Boko Haram started more than 10 years ago, the different levels of leadership in the North refused to speak against their heinous acts or condemn it. In fact, when former President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the Northeast and tried to use military might to confront the insurgents, some prominent northern leaders declared the move an attempt to exterminate northern elements for political reasons.
A human rights activist, Dr. Naseer Kura said anything pertaining to religion is complex and controversial; hence people are reluctant to comment on such issues. Nevertheless, he said the refusal of northern leaders initially to condemn Islamist Boko Haram activities when it started over 10 years ago was not proper, “as leaders are not expected to celebrate the killing of innocent souls”. He added: “Religion is such a critical and complex issue. There are a lot of tendencies and people hardly want to make comments, founded or unfounded, for fear of being accused of being sectional or condemning the religion.”
Another factor that has helped to fuel the insurgency in the country is the high incidence of corruption and failure of leadership at various levels in the country. This has kept the country from fully realising its potentials. Observers say there is a lot of marginalisation and exclusion of a large segment of the society in the day-to-day running of the affairs of the country. Comrade Kura, an Executive Director of Basic Rights Action, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), agrees that the failure of leadership at all levels across the country is responsible.
He said: “This is exacerbated by the problem of poverty and ignorance. Related to this failure of leadership is a lack of planning on the part of the government and its agents. Thirdly, it also has to do with some cultural practices that are not in tandem with present-day realities. I say so because there are some cultural practices or economic activities like pastoralism which need to be modified; they need to be guided by government policies and programmes so that it can fall in line with present-day economic realities or the country’s policy on development.
“The practice of pastoralism, unlike manufacturing or other economic activities, has been seriously neglected to the extent that herders are never taken into consideration in government budgets over the years. This has affected their general well-being and life. In fact, it was worsened in the last 10 years when cattle rustling became rampant and some of the herders had no choice but to be roaming aimlessly without their herd of cattle. This, in a way, paved the way for their radicalisation, which led to banditry and what have you. So, it is a combination of so many factors; social, economic and, more importantly, administrative.”
He also blamed the almajiri system of education, which he described as an urban menace, “because it can only be found in urban areas”, just like other street urchins or beggars that can be found in other societies, which are uneducated and catered for”. The human rights activist added: “But herders are those whose lives are tied to the cattle under their care and supervision. So, if these cattle are no more there, many of them would resort to crime.”
The human rights activist said he is not satisfied with the way both the Federal Government and the affected state governments are handling the matter, “I must be very frank with you”. When asked to elaborate on that, he said: “I am not happy in the sense that, one, a government has to be both responsible and responsive. When there are issues, the government has to respond at the appropriate time, rather than allowing such issues to degenerate into something else at the detriment of lives, peace and properties of citizens.
“All these are indications of failure of leadership. If there are leaderships with correct perspectives and a clear understanding of issues and an elaborate programme of tackling these issues, this banditry would have been nipped in the bud long ago. So, the fire brigade approach by government and its agencies, both at federal and state levels, is not the very best.”
Failure of leadership:
Similarly, a coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) indicated in Lagos recently that it was the failure of leadership on the part of former Governor Abdulaziz Yari and other previous governors that have plunged Zamfara State into insecurity. Comrade Olufemi Lawson, the executive director of the Centre for Public Accountability, who spoke on behalf of the 16-member coalition, said it is the wanton looting by successive governors that is responsible for the current cases of kidnapping, armed robbery and banditry that is currently plaguing the state.
Lawson drew a correlation between what he described as the massive corruption in Zamfara State under Yari (from 2011 to 2019) and the current insecurity in the state. He said if the N22.5 billion allegedly diverted by Yari in the twilight of his administration had been ploughed back into the state, “it is capable of boosting the economy to create employment opportunities for the teeming masses of Zamfara residents who are at the receiving end of bad governance over the years”. He said the money was part of the refund from the Federal Government for money expended on federal roads by the state. He challenged the new chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Abdurasheed Bawa, to conclude the probe of the former governor, so that he will have his days in court.
In the same vein, an NGO, the Zamfara State chapter of the Child Protection Network has blamed the marginalization of a large chunk of the population in the North, including Zamfara State, for the insecurity ravaging the region. Its coordinator, Bachiru Sarki Fulani said the root causes of insecurity in Zamfara and elsewhere in the North is the millions of children of school-age that are roaming the streets. This, he added, fuels the army of unemployed youths that are eventually recruited to work for one dissident group or the other.
He said there is marginalisation because the resources in the North, including Zamfara State, are used mainly to cater for the interests of the governing class. He said: “Seventy-five per cent of herdsmen in the country are not educated; and as long as there is a huge gap in terms of educational standards between herdsmen and the other people in the society, we will continue to have problems. We need to go back to the root of the problem. When you look at the budget of most of the northern states, what goes to herdsmen is almost zero. There is no security for herdsmen all over the country. Look at the issue of open grazing, that method of grazing cannot continue in this modern day. So, we have to change the system of open grazing across the country.”
However, the Director-General on Press Affairs to Governor Bello Matawalle, Mr Yusuf Idris, is of the view that the Jangebe school abduction has nothing to do with poverty or unemployment. Idris who spoke on a current affairs programme on Raypower said there are different reasons why people take to kidnapping. His words: “Some are doing it for terrorism, others as a source of livelihood because of unemployment and abject poverty and some others are engaged in it for political influence. But, in the case of Zamfara, we believe what is happening is pure terrorism because the state had been peaceful since the coming of this administration. We have made efforts to see how we can restore peace in the state. We have been employing a carrot and stick approach; we don’t normally fight the ones that agree to lay down their arms. We engage them and try to rehabilitate them to become useful citizens in society. But we confront with arms the ones that refuse to accept the peace process.
“The ones that carried out this traumatic kidnap of over 300 girls are not among those that we have engaged with before. The kidnapping in Jangebe is taking a new dimension. The school where the abduction took place is just 10 metres away from a military formation. There is a roadblock as you are entering the town and there is another roadblock when you are also going out of town.”
Failure of intelligence:
The failure of intelligence and the lack of collaboration among security agencies have also been blamed for the festering of insecurity in the country. Emmanuel Gabari, a Kano-based social worker and human rights activist, who shares this viewpoint, blames security agencies for failing to own up to their responsibilities. He said: “How can security agencies funded by the tax payers’ money refuse to do what they are supposed to do? We have several security agencies, what are they doing to solve the problem of insecurity? Money is budgeted yearly to fund organisations such as the police, army, navy, the air force and the DSS, what are their responsibilities?
“We wait for events to happen before we jump at it. What is the purpose of intelligence gathering? We should be proactive. With what has been happening in our schools, they are supposed to be closed, until an adequate arrangement has been made to secure the students and their teachers. It is appalling that the authorities still allowed schools to be open, in spite of the incessant cases of kidnappings. Those who blame it on corruption or leadership failure may have a point, but the fact remains that a group of people are not doing their job, for about 300 schoolboys or girls to be kidnapped and for them to disappear into thin air just like that; are they breeze? Somehow, they must be transported from the scene to another environment but how come nobody saw them being taken away?”
A security expert and presidential candidate of Grassroots Development Party of Nigeria (GDPN) in the last general elections, Dr. Davidson Akhimien said it is the responsibility of government to ensure the security of lives and property of ALL Nigerians, irrespective of class, creed or ethnicity as it is enshrined in the constitution. He added: “Where a government fails to do this in the face of glaring cases of insecurity, it may be concluded that it is giving tacit approval to the actions of the perpetrators of these violent acts. The state is endowed with the monopoly of the machinery of violence and non-state actors should not be seen to overwhelm the state in this regard.”
He blamed the incessant cases of kidnapping in the country on the political class, saying they deliberately polarised the polity for selfish ends because “they failed to condemn in clear language the actions of the perpetrators and act justifiably by going after them and bringing them to book”.
A slap on Nigeria’s image:
Gabari, who is also the Executive Director of African Focus for Youth Development (AFFYD), an organisation that tackles issues that affect youth, women and children, said the pervasive insecurity in Nigeria does not speak well of a country that claims to be the giant of Africa. He said: “It obvious that everyone seems to know what the problem is but they are not doing anything to tackle it. It doesn’t speak well of us in the international community because the body language of our leaders suggest that insecurity is business as usual; you hear of an abduction today, negotiations tomorrow and the next day the victims are released by the abductors. In fact, these days, when you hear about the abduction in a particular place, the question that comes to your mind is, where is it going to be next?
“The current situation does not auger well for education too. Before now, the northern part of the country has been trying to catch up with the rest of the country education-wise. With the rate of the abduction of students from their boarding schools, are the bandits trying to pass across a message that people should not go to school anymore? Since both boys and girls’ schools have been affected, parents are likely to be discouraged from sending their children to school.”
Gabari, a recipient of an international award for peace said it sounds incredible when stories about what is happening in Nigeria are splashed in the international media. He added: “People outside the country will look at Nigeria with suspicion.”
He said the frequent mass abduction of students from their hostels has a huge implication for education and the development of the country in general. His words: “Education is tied to many things; so it goes beyond education. Once there is insecurity, people cannot go to the farm because they will also be afraid that the bandits will kidnap them. As a result, in a not too distant future, we will start having a scarcity of food. It also affects the general well-being of people because they can no longer travel for fear of being kidnapped. So, these things are interwoven. As the saying goes, an injustice to one is an injustice to all. This is no rhetoric; it is a reality. The impact on education may not be a big deal because you can learn through the virtual method, you might decide not to send your child to school and you get a teacher to teach him or her at home. But, would you stay at home and farm or do other forms of work that cannot be done virtually?”
One of the solutions that have been advanced by some stakeholders in the North is to grant amnesty to the bandits, as the late President Umaru Yar’Adua did to Niger Delta militants in 2009 and effectively ended militancy in the region. Sheikh Gumi who helped to negotiate the release of the kidnapped Kagara schoolboys in Niger State is one of such persons. The Director-General on Press Affairs to Governor Matawalle, Idris, also canvassed for amnesty for the bandits. He said the Federal Government should engage the bandits “because it is when you dialogue with somebody that you will understand his reasons for what he is doing”. He also wants the government to provide social amenities to all the rural dwellers and educate them about the dangers of engaging in criminal activities.
He added: “The last issue is that of employment. The government should try to provide employment opportunities for the citizens. When you look at it critically, even some who are graduates cannot secure jobs and, as the saying goes, the idle mind is the devil’s workshop. So, in my opinion, the government should try to address the problem of kidnapping in a more holistic manner by offering the bandits the kind of amnesty that was granted to Niger Delta militants by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. This is because it is when you dialogue with somebody that you will understand his reasons for what he is doing. When you look back, kidnapping was started in Nigeria by Niger Delta militants.”
Dr Ja’afaru said if granting amnesty to the bandits is the solution to the problem of the current insecurity in the country, it should be granted to them in the overall interest of Nigerians. This, he said, is against the background that the country has many problems and that prolonging the banditry tendency is not in the overall interest of the country. He added: “When there was a similar situation in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta, former President Olusegun Obasanjo tried to use force to quell the militancy, but it did not produce positive results.
“But, when the late President Umaru Yar’Adua came on board, he extended a hand of fellowship to them in the form of the amnesty programme. This was done in the best interest of the country.”
Meanwhile, the steps taken recently by both the Federal Government and the Zamfara State government to stem the tide of the situation in Zamfara State, which is the latest flashpoint of banditry, have received mixed reactions. For instance, observers believe the idea of paying a ransom to secure the release of abducted persons may not be the very best but given the delicate situation the government found itself, the bid to secure the release of the schoolgirls at all cost appears reasonable. But, the government, they added, ought to adopt a carrot and stick approach to reining in the activities of the bandits after the students have been released.
Indeed, that appears to be the message Buhari, who has declared that the Zamfara abduction would be the last, has been trying to pass across with his recent shoot-at-sight order. While expressing gratitude for the efforts that led to the Jangebe girls, he reiterated that it is a military approach that is needed to resolve the matter. He had also some time ago warned state governors to stop rewarding bandits with money and vehicles.
Similarly, Buhari recently brought in new Service Chiefs in the face of the widespread public outcry that the former military commanders had outlived their usefulness in the war against insurgency in the country.
The government’s imposition of a no-fly zone restriction on the airspace around Zamfara has also been hailed. But, experts say the government must go beyond rhetoric this time around by ensuring that the order is implemented to the letter. Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu said there were strong indications that gold was being swapped for arms.
A development consultant, Najim Animashaun is also of the view that one of the reasons why the Federal Government shut the airspace around Zamfara is to prevent small aircrafts which usually land on the road leading out of Gusau, the state capital, to Jibia, in Katsina State. In an interview with France24.com, a Paris, France-based television network, Animashaun said light aircrafts usually pick up gold in the middle of the night, which is often taken to the Middle East, specifically Dubai.
Dr Kura gave a historical background of insecurity in Nigeria. He said: “Since the Iranian revolution, there have always been attempts by radical persons, mostly youths, to try to express their own different interpretation of the religion. That was what led to the emergence, in the 1980s, of the El Zakzaky group, who are now termed as Shiites. Also in the 1980s, another extremist group, the Maitatsine, also emerged. In the 1990s, an off-shoot of the Maitatsine followers wreaked havoc in parts of Adamawa and Kaduna states.
“In the late 1990s, the founder of Boko Haram, the late Mohammed Yusuf also came up and camped with his followers in Yobe State. By then, the group was just preaching against the negative impact of Western Civilization on African culture. But, it was after their clash with the police in Borno State that they took up arms. So, tendencies keep emerging and it is the government’s responsibility to come up with ways to manage them.
“On the other hand, we also have such tendencies in the Christian religion, in the form of the Pentecostals who are revolting against the orthodox churches, with their focus on materialism. This is quite distinct from the approach of conservative Catholics, for instance. These are dynamics that gave birth to the current insecurity in the country.”
The way foward:
All told, Dr. Akhimien, a retired military intelligence officer and the immediate past National President of the Association of Licensed Private Security Practitioners of Nigeria (ALPSPN), has given an elaborate exposition, from his repertoire of knowledge about how the rising number of the mass kidnapping of students in the country can be curbed. He said the government must be strategic in its effort, by adopting a multi-pronged approach to stamp out the menace. He said: “However, no approach can succeed without the political will at the level of the Federal Government and the affected state governments. The Federal Government, which exercises control over the security apparati, must at this point design a collaborative template involving all security agencies, with a clear mandate for each and reporting lines ending at the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) who should coordinate the Special Anti-Kidnap Operations.
A multi-pronged approach:
“The office of the Department of State Services (DSS) should embark on infiltration measures, intensifying information gathering towards identifying locations of the marauding force, identifying dramatis personae/leaders and sponsors, sources of equipment, arms, ammunition and rations of the marauders, and produce intelligence from these critical items of information for further action by the topmost echelon of the operations. The police could work with the information so provided, as it relates to arrest, detention, interrogation of arrested key suspects, either of the foot soldiers or the sponsors. The revelations from this exercise will aid in further tracking the kidnappers.
“The army special forces and others trained in jungle warfare can then be deployed to engage the criminals wherever credible intelligence identifies them to be anywhere in the country. Each case should be isolated in order not to spread the force thin. As each band of bandits is neutralized and routed, the Special Forces move to the next location of assignment. Adequate logistical support must be made available to this special force. The operations must be strictly military and not politicised.”
The retired military intelligence officer said the Airforce must provide air support to these ground forces, ranging from air surveillance of locations and hideouts, aerial bombardments as is necessary, satellite imagery of movements within camps and air to surface communication for proper coordination of the joint operations. In addition, he said Customs must be provided with high-tech fixed and movable scanning assets to be deployed at entry points into the country, especially at those fringes where we experience a preponderance of bandits’ incursions with small and light weapons. “The manpower levels of custom officers at these points should be shored up to enable a deterrence posture and avail officers of reinforcements in case of eventualities.”
Dr. Akhimien has also enjoined immigration officers to show greater patriotism in the discharge of their mandates at entry points into the country. He said: “With our extensive borders, especially at the northern fringes, the service must embrace available technology in the surveillance of persons and groups crossing unmanned portions of our extensive borders. The service needs to be equipped with more helicopters for routine border patrol at this stage in the evolution of our nation’s security challenges, the Federal Government may need to consider establishing a special border patrol organization with officers drawn from relevant agencies with the necessary skill-set and tool-set for the job. Such officers would be made to undergo requisite training to suit them for the onerous task at hand.”
Role of state governments:
In view of the nature of targets being hit recently by the bandits (schools), he advised the government at state levels to enhance security around educational institutions that are most vulnerable to attack. He added: “A sound, professional vulnerability assessment will be able to determine measures to be put in place ranging from physical measures to electronic security measures. State governments will do well to consult professional security practitioners/consultants on how to proceed. State security agencies can also seek professional advice on modern security applications that are now commonly used in other climes to deal with challenges such as ours.
“Another step the state governments can take is to establish local security outfits that will complement the work of existing federal security agencies. Such units must come into existence by relevant laws, be exposed to sound training, and given an unambiguous role in the security effort. These units will be very effective in community policing and may morph into the state’s police should the Federal Government eventually decide on the necessity of s state policing system. Care must however be taken so that these units, when established, do not turn to ethnic militia, nor tools in the hands of incumbents to intimidate political opponents, the opposition or persons from other ethnic groups residing in the states. Their mandate must be clear, their conduct ethical, and their operations guided by a standard operations procedure (SOP) designed within appropriate frameworks.”