President Bola Tinubu’s most significant appointments till date have been those of the Service Chiefs. The import of this is understandable: the level of insecurity in the country is still perilous. Wanton killings and kidnapping for ransom by non-state actors have continued on an industrial scale. The high level of insecurity in the country has defied all military solutions so far and made every administration the butt of jokes and snide jabs. For these reasons, the Tinubu Presidency must embrace new strategies to change the narrative.
Statistics of this anomaly within his first two weeks in office are petrifying. A total of 120 people were mindlessly killed, Amnesty International has reported. The macabre theatres of these nefarious acts were earlier Zamfara, Kaduna, Sokoto, Rivers, Ogun states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. More kidnappings and massacres have occurred since then, underscored by the recent bloodletting in Mangu, Plateau State, which left about 24 people dead.
Undoubtedly, the never-ending menace in Zamfara State, informed its former governor, Sani Yerima’s visit to the president recently, during which he urged him to open negotiations or dialogue with the bandits, for peace to reign. Armed with AK47 rifles and other sophisticated weapons, these outlaws routinely attack villages, rape women and girls, steal their livestock and food, and burn down their houses. The bandits send the people letters with demands to pay protection taxes or they will not be allowed to farm. These criminals also ambush travellers, to abduct or kill them. Ransom in millions of naira are demanded and paid by families of the victims, just as countless number of communities have been razed for being incapable of paying up levies imposed on them. The homeless are taking refuge in internally displaced persons’ camps scattered across the northern parts of the country. Intriguingly, children and the aged are also affected.
This evil enterprise is now predominant in the North-western states of Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, Sokoto, and Niger. Plateau and Benue states in the North-Central and Taraba in the North-East also fall into this malevolent loop. In Yerima’s prognosis, the country can end the mayhem “if it comes up with a rehabilitation programme,” preceded by a successful negotiation with the bandits. According to him, poverty and ignorance are the major drivers of these felonious activities. Sadly, the ex-governor sidestepped the most causative factors – the abysmal failure of governance and abuse of power across the states and the centre. Yerima was in the saddle of leadership in the state from 1999 to 2007 and his performance was mediocre.
Indeed, thousands of lives have been needlessly wasted by bandits in all the six geo-political zones. Unarguably, Muhammadu Buhari’s regime earned the dubious distinction of being the worst in protecting the lives of citizens from these merchants of violence. Data from Nigerian National Tracker indicate that 89,920 people were killed in the first seven years of his administration – from 29 May, 2015 to May 2022. President Tinubu would need to arrest this drift to total chaos with the injection of new ideas into Nigeria’s security strategy or template.
Last Tuesday, the Chief of Army Staff (CAS), Taoreed Lagbaja, however neutered Yerima’s proposition when he hosted Governor Dauda Lawal of Zamfara, who came to seek more military help for the state. But the buck really stops at the president’s table. The CAS’ misgiving about negotiating with outlaws stems from the fact that previous negotiations and even declarations of amnesty for the criminals, in Zamfara and Katsina states, never paid off as these actors subsequently reneged on the deals reached, prompting the states to thereafter enact laws that classified kidnapping as a capital offence. Lagbaja also noted that the break periods often afforded the bandits the opportunities to re-strategise and rearm for their renewed offensives.
Yet, tough talks and sustained kinetic operations by the military in these troubled zones have not been able to resolve the crises. Buhari, for instance, deployed troops several times to Zamfara and Katsina states on special missions against the bandits, which did not yield the needed result. Amnesty International (AI) had drawn attention to this in 2017 when its team visited Zamfara State at the height of bloodletting there. Its Director in Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, had then observed: “Although security forces were present in the state capital Gusau, researchers saw soldiers and air force personnel in only two of the villages they visited, Birane and Bagega.” The kidnapping and killings are largely carried out in far-flung rural communities. With large swathes of ungoverned territory, the bandits are always ahead of the military and police. For this reason, the Yerima recipe is a propitious bait, which the President should take in the interest of peace.
In pushing the advocacy, we are not under any illusion that this is an easy or popular recourse. Such engagement is tantamount to walking a tight rope, as is always in other jurisdictions where this has been adopted. It demands serious planning and execution by a select team of patriotic Nigerians with unquestionable integrity. The late president, Umaru Yar’Adua pulled out all the stops in his administration’s negotiation with Niger Delta militants in 2009, which restored normalcy of sorts in the oil-rich region. Those who embraced the mediation surrendered their weapons and were granted amnesty, given cash incentives and vocational training, which helped to rehabilitate and re-integrate them into the society.
Some critics might argue that bandits, however, cannot be associated with any cause being pursue, unlike the militants who were fighting against marginalisation, environmental degradation and exploitation of their region’s oil resources at that point in time. But the bandits’ lives of privation and ignorance, which Yerima alluded to, pose clear national security concerns. For instance, one of the failed negotiations, which the Zamfara State government under ex-Governor Bello Matawalle entered into with bandit leader, Kachalla Turji, who was then in charge of the Shinkafi/Sokoto conurbation, included the provision of boreholes, meaning that basic water supply is non-existent for most rural dwellers. The deal contained 10 packages. Sheikh Gumi, who led the charge, claimed that the government’s failure to implement the nine other promises forced Turji and his criminal cohorts to abandon the peace process.
Besides, the release of 344 students of Government Science College Kagara in early 2021, was through Gumi’s deft negotiation. He engaged a lot of the bandits operating along the Zaria-Giwa Road and led government delegation to their hideouts in Zamfara forests in a short-lived rapprochement. Nigerians were critical of the Sheikh’s role in granting amnesty to the felons and demanded maximal penal clampdown on them. Among the critics was the then governor of Kaduna State, Mallam el-Rufai. Gumi ended his self-assigned task amid official indifference from Abuja and the tag of terrorists on the bandits by a court.
Lessons could be learnt from the release of 82 Chibok School girls in 2017, out of the 276 kidnapped in 2014. It was a product of the Federal Government’s sustained negotiation with Boko Haram in a swap deal with their members and commanders in government’s custody. Evidently, the Federal Government went into that deal from a position of strength. In other words, all the options – kinetic, human development and negotiation must be on the table. A replication of this is not impracticable. The truth is: a government that is worth its salt will not allow criminal or terror groups to hold the society to ransom indefinitely. States that have enacted punitive sanctions against banditry and kidnapping should enforce them to enable deterrence. Ironically, they are not doing so, thus helping the nefarious acts to fester.
Above all, the strength of bandits lies in the influx of small and light weapons into the country through the Sahelian region spanning Chad, Niger and Benin Republic, helped by Nigeria’s porous borders with these countries. Ominously, arms smuggling through the ports have been increasing in recent years. These sources of small arms and light weapons must be identified and blocked.
The President has charged the newly appointed service chiefs – for the Army, Air Force, Navy, alongside the Chief of Defence Staff and Inspector General of Police – to deliver on national security, with assurance of his absolute support to them. He would make his job as the nation’s chief security officer, and theirs, a lot easier, by opening that Pandora Box – of prosecuting the 400 terror financiers identified by the Buhari regime in April 2022, which it hypocritically abandoned. To protect these conflict entrepreneurs and be committing billions of naira to counter-insurgency efforts is a contradiction in terms. It is a Buhari legacy that Tinubu should spurn; otherwise, his administration’s plan to reset the country for peace, stability and economic resurgence will be another mirage.
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