Monday, February 15, 2021

Northwest: Armed banditry or Boko Haram expansionism?, by Abdulhaleem Ishaq Ringim

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North West Nigeria has for the past four to five decades suffered from waves of crisis and violence. The trajectory of such violence started with ethnoreligious clashes and moved through electoral violence, farmer-herder conflagrations and most recently, armed banditry/kidnappings. The region has also had its fair share of extremist attacks especially between 2011 and 2015.

Of all these forms of violence, the most prevalent in today’s North West Nigeria remains armed banditry and kidnapping for ransom. One could attribute this menace to the uncontrolled and poorly managed farmer-herder crises.

North West Nigeria is home to 7 states of the federation, gulping more than 25% of the country’s landmass, and harboring an estimated population of more than 35 Million. The region is endowed with a huge arable land and holds a substantial amount of solid mineral deposits, mostly unexploited.

The region’s mostly savannah climate (with characteristic huge forests) makes it home to both farmers and pastoralists. But with the recent changes in climatic and environmental conditions, arable land and pasture seem to have started getting substantially lost to the deserts due to shorter rainy seasons and subsequent water source shortages.

These prevailing conditions have precipitated competition for farming and grazing lands among the inhabitants of the increasingly populated region and have led to violent clashes between the predominantly Fulani pastoralist and Hausa Farmers.

Other factors that have catalyzed this violence are some government policies that sought to allocate huge lands to farmers and clear a vast amount of forests and grazing reserves. These have eventually resulted in the displacement of many Fulani hamlets and the blockage of their grazing routes. And, without alternatives, such blockages have paved the way for increased cases of trespassing and destruction of crops by Fulani pastoralists.

The violence escalated to the extent that both sides created armed groups in their defense. The Fulani group was tagged as “Yan Bindiga” while the farmer group was tagged as “Yan Sa kai”. Both groups have carried out deadly attacks and reprisals against each other and are both often described as “bandits” by the media.

The poor management of this crisis by the government and the unfortunate proliferation of firearms due to porous borders had encouraged the establishment of a “third force”. This group which draws its membership from both Hausa and Fulani extracts (and even other tribes) established a criminal presence in the region and usually engage in illicit activities such as cattle rustling, robbery and kidnapping for ransom. These criminals hold no affiliation to any of the ethnic groups and fight for no ideology. They are just organized criminals and are also referred to as “bandits” or “kidnappers”.

According to the United Nations, about 1400 lives were lost to banditry and kidnappings in the first quarter of 2019. About 685 kidnappings occurred in the same period, costing families hundreds of millions of Naira and rendering many of them financially impotent in this current harsh economic condition.

However, the level of organization and coordination of attacks recently conducted by the “bandits”; the well-established interstate networks and syndication and their sophisticated weaponry have started sparking a question of whether northwest Nigeria is dealing with “Banditry” in conventional terms or it has metamorphosed into a higher form of organized terror.

These bandits are said to have acquired advanced tactical skills and sophisticated weaponry, including anti-aircraft missiles which they use in shooting down helicopters (as in the case of a police helicopter shot in Kaduna on 5th February 2020).

It should be recalled that North-East Nigeria has been battling with Boko Haram for more than a decade. From 2007 to date, the Boko Haram group had split into 3 groups, namely; The Shekau Led Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (JASLWJ), The Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) supported Jama’atu Ansaril Muslimina fi Biladis Sudan (Ansaru) and The Islamic State (IS) supported Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).

Although these 3 factions all had their bases in North-East Nigeria, all of them have had operations in the North Central and North-Western part of the country within 2010 and 2015. For example, Khalid Al-Barnawi and Kambar led Ansaru executed almost 20 suicide bombing operations in North Western states of Kaduna, Kano, etc. Shekau’s faction had also executed operations in the North West as in the Kano Government Building attacks.  ISWAP which was formed in 2015 had also staged some attacks in the Northwest region. For instance, the attack on a Shia troupe during their procession between Kaduna and Kano was carried out by the ISWAP.

However, it is believed that the Boko Haram campaign in the North West and Central region ended in 2014 as a consequence of “factionalism” which befell the group. While Shekau’s faction and ISWAP sustained their campaign in the North East, Ansaru went into hibernation. Although, it is reported that Ansaru created hideouts in the Northwest and instituted training and assimilation campaigns on Fulani bandits in the region.

Just as in the first instance where mismanaged farmer-herder crisis birthed a more criminal-based syndicate of kidnappers and bandits, it is believed that same mismanagement have given room for Boko Haram expansionism towards the Northwest once again leveraging on the already existing local conflicts and security flops.

In the last 5 years, all of the 3 Boko Haram factions have claimed responsibility for one attack or the other in the Northwest region and have displayed hints of their integration with the region’s armed bandits. For instance, in October 2019, ISWAP claimed responsibility for an attack on the Nigerian police in Sokoto. In February 2020, some bandits attacked Maishegu and Shiroro Local Government Areas, the villagers claimed that those bandits were members of ISWAP.

The United Nations Security Council in one of its reports announced the reactivation of Ansaru in October 2019. This hints at the possibility of collaboration between ISWAP and Ansaru fighters during the October Sokoto attack.

Ansaru also recently claimed responsibility for an attack on the convoy of a Yobe State monarch along the Zaria-Kaduna highway in the usual “Northwest Bandits” style. This indeed confirms their reactivation and integration with the Northwest armed bandits group.

Most recently, Shekau’s faction claimed responsibility for the abduction of 344 schoolboys in Kankara, Katsina State. “I am Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping in Katsina,” Shekau said. A few days later, the boys were released after rigorous negotiations through some other repentant bandit groups facilitated by Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State.

Moreover, reports have shown that there exists a transactional relationship between Boko Haram and ISWAP and Northwest bandits, especially in the exchanges of firearms and ammunition since 2019. This is evidenced by the fact that some of the weapons gotten from captured armed bandits seem to be the same models used by Chadian forces in their fight against Boko Haram (this suggests the fact that perhaps these weapons are those seized from the Chadian forces by Boko Haram fighters operating in the lake chad region).

Are these armed bandits the persons Shekau was referring to as “our brothers” in his message? These recent incidences have got concerned citizens wondering in fear, of a possible renaissance of Boko Haram expansionism towards the Northwest in their quest towards fusing the entirety of Northern Nigeria with the rest of the terror base in the Niger Republic and broader Sahel controlled by Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Mr Ringim is a political and public affairs analyst. He writes from Zaria and can be reached through [email protected].

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