Rural banditry, urban violence and the rise of oligarchy, by Prof. Abubakar Liman

Professor Abubakar Aliyu Liman
Professor Abubakar Aliyu Liman

Nigeria is haunted by a tripartite evil of rural banditry, urban violence and oligarchy. We have not arrived where we are all of a sudden without some historical antecedents. The process of collective abuse of our being as Nigerians has always been slow, gradual and painful. All this is emanating from our usual habit of ignoring breaches inflicted on our system and, above all, our criminal neglect of the importance of law and order as the ultimate guarantor of the survival of the socio-political systems we have tried to put in place. So far, from flag independence to date there were serious infractions of all the political systems that we have attempted to operate. As we are witnessing Nigeria’s slide into state of anarchy, no system seems to be good enough for Nigeria, no matter its pragmatic dexterity. It can be seen starkly by whoever is perceptive to see things with clarity that even the democratic system we are operating is a democracy only in name. The system is completely hijacked by visible and invisible forces that express their power by breaking the existing rules, regulations, laws and protocols cohering the Nigerian society. Consequently, all aspects of our social life are now negatively impacted by our own choice to mimic the lawlessness of powerful individuals in society.

In a discussion with Professor Murray Last of University College London sometimes in the winter of 2013, he admitted to me that as far back as the 1930s there was outbreak of rural banditry in northern Nigeria under colonial administration, but it was resolutely tackled through the apparatus of violence in the hands of colonial administrators. In those days, wayfarers and merchants travelling along our local economic roads usually faced the threats and dangers of ambush from nondescript bandits. Armed bandits and criminals were known to be targeting goods ferried on the back of donkeys, camels and ox carts. Those bandits on our trade routes would forcefully take those goods and disappear into the bush. That is just one dimension of the problem then. In other instances, the bandits would sometimes raid farming communities and villages with the intent of willful killing and wanton destruction of property. During such raids, the bandits would destroy virtually everything in their path, including valuables, farm produce, etc. This subculture has been in existence even before the coming of colonialists to the territories of northern Nigeria.

Abubakar Imam, the most celebrated Hausa storyteller who was in the class of his own amongst the artists writing in our indigenous languages, has crafted a number of written tales in Hausa around the leitmotif of rural banditry and the culture of thievery in Hausa land. The escapades of famous thieves that operated in towns and villages were the stuff with which such Hausa classics as Magana Jari Ce was made. In Hausa folksongs, artists such as Kassu Zurmi and Muhammadu Gambo Fagada (Mai Wakar Barayi) have rhythmically textured tales woven around famous thieves, thieves who are known for their daring actions in their proscribed professional calling. Indeed, the phenomenon of rural banditry has been around with us from time immemorial. Therefore, what we are seeing today is not something that is historically unprecedented. What is new however is the incapacity, indifference or unwillingness of the Nigerian State to put the resurgence of rural banditry under its effective control. This is one of the security challenges threatening the survival of Nigeria.

Closely trailing the criminality of rural banditry is farmers and herders conflicts. For centuries, this conflict has been simmering in the whole of Sahel region of West Africa often with so much bloodletting and serious fatalities. But it was always grossly underreported and neglected by authorities that were only paying lip service to it. Claims to proffering concrete solutions to rural banditry always receive ad hoc response. Now, climate change and rapid devastation of desertification on grazing lands have compelled pastoralists of all sheds to migrate into the savannah and forest environments of West Africa in search of pasture. Attempts by borderless pastoralists to treat farming communities as usual with disdain as they used to indiscriminately unleash their herds on farmlands have all alone been brewing tensions. Violent conflicts have been erupting as a result of the negligence of authorities. Here again, the indifference of government to the menace of herders has led to violent conflicts that should have been nipped in the bud through realistic policies and programs. Instead, conflicts were allowed to fester resulting in unintended consequences, with communities taking laws into their own hands to protect themselves. Similarly, politicians also hide behind this ugly development to build militias that they use to further their political interests, and ironically to fracture a very weak polity.   

The other threat is urban violence. That too is not something new. Colonial urbanization in Nigeria is a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly. Again, like all modern cities, the underbelly of our postcolonial cities is glaringly putrid. The brutal realities of life in the city are the main source of the sense of disillusionment and hopelessness building amongst the poorly educated and unemployed youth. In the cities, underprivileged youth faced mammoth difficulties arising from lack of opportunities for the realization of their dreams of good life, material acquisition and the allurements of modernity. Nigeria has for sometimes now lost the capacity to manage the growing pool of its unemployed youth. Our government has since surrendered its sovereign rights of taking independent initiatives, of tackling its own social problems as they arise in our development processes to foreign agents. Perhaps, this is due to the way we naively accept external prescriptions from the managers of imperialist global institutions of control. The rights to address our own problems are ceded to invisible forces operating beyond our borders. This is of course how economic liberalization, nay globalization, has gradually eroded all the gains of the welfare system we inherited from colonial administrators.

In our brand of democracy also, political culture is another trigger of urban violence. Politicians are everywhere flagrantly instigating their supporters to engage in violent acts, especially against their opponents. Between 1999 and 2018, there was rapid militarization of political culture all over the country with each demagogue building his own private army of thugs that are unleashed on innocent people and opponents. Recent happenings in the political altercation between Ganduje and Kwankwaso are instructive enough. It was quite embarrassing when two political associates wash their dirty linen in public. As if that was not bad enough, a sitting governor was shown on television with his army of thugs wielding dangerous weapons in a show of force against opponents. Drug addiction is another negative dimension of our politics. Cocktail of drugs are purchased for the consumption of groups of thugs belonging to different political camps. Many political parties in Nigeria engage in this unacceptable behavior. It is often reported in the media that political thugs do not engage in dastardly acts of violence without getting high on some dangerous drugs. Major contending political parties have offices where drugs for the consumption of party thugs are budgeted and purchased for onward transmission to thugs who are often unemployed youth roaming our streets.

In the midst of all this, the only beneficiary is the oligarchy that is emerging in politics, in economy and in all things that matter most to us as a nation. Apparently, there appears to be no cohesion amongst the different segments of our political elite. However, they pretend to be divided only overtly as they come together to fleece Nigeria dry, covertly. Things are so bad for Nigeria that the people that become our leaders, despite the seeming functionality of our democratic structures, are no longer products of our own democratic choices. Our leaders are now decided for us from places beyond the shores of Nigeria. The neocolonial elite have since resigned themselves to becoming mere tributes as they worked assiduously towards the weakening of our national institutions and values. This is how low it is for us in a country whose future is mortgaged to foreign vested interests.

Nigeria has indeed reached a crossroad in which patriots must of necessity (as a matter of urgency) identify and organize their own kinds from different parts of Nigeria for positive action. People that truly believe in Nigeria must come forward with practical solutions to the social quagmire that the country is plunged into by incompetent and bad leaders, leaders that are incapable of seeing things beyond the contours of their ethnic or religious enclaves. We have tried doing things from the prism of our variegated ethno-religious angles but failed woefully. Anyway, we are slowly discovering that each group has its own fair share of bad leaders.