Written by MOHAMMED MOMOH
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari may not be seen as a failure. But his two-term tenure as a civilian leader of Nigeria may be punctuated with the toll banditry and terrorism has had on his security agencies.
Hardly a week passes before the forces declare killings of bandits, or terrorists. But the terror gangs also, occasionally take a toll on the forces and civilians.
In one recent attack, the bandits saw 83 civilians killed, most of them women and children and according to a statement from the Nigerian military, the bandits had used the civilians as human shields in a battle with forces.
The surge in banditry has forced the military to deploy aerial firepower in some cases to tackle menace in the 12 states in North Central and North West Nigeria.
Caught in crossfire
But the 83 killed on Tuesday, December 20, 2022, in Mutunji in Maru Local Government Area of North West Zamfara States shows the dangers of it. The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) jets dropped bombs that killed 215 persons, most of them bandits in their hide out.
It was indiscriminate.
Bandits who were fleeing from NAF airstrikes ran into a small village called Mutunji to take refuge but were hit by bombs, a military dispatch indicated. “
Mr Zailani Bappa, the Special Adviser on Public Enlightenment, Media and Communications to Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara, delivered condolences and heartfelt sympathy to the families of victims caught in military crossfire against the bandits.
The incident, one of the worst so far, is an indication that military is becoming more desperate in its offensive against bandits that have been legally declared terrorists, Mr Agboola Olayinka, a security expert, told The EastAfrican in Abuja on Tuesday.
Nigeria had been battling whether to classify bandits as terrorists or just as criminals keen on kidnapping for ransom. Recently, officials decided to categorise bandits as terrorists which would allow security forces to consider their threats as dangerous and use weapons which would otherwise draw criticism.
Besides atrocities, bandits have seized some remote communities in the 12 states of North West and North Central, imposed illegal levies and taxes on people as well as destroyed social infrastructure especially schools, telecom and electricity facilities.
In Kwata, a small farming settlement in Zurmi local government area of Zamfara state and Shirroro in Niger state bandits invaded, forcing peasant farmers to abandon their homes and farmlands.
The bandits, as known terrorists like Boko Haram, kill, maim, kidnap, and rape women in the troubled states of Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina, Kaduna, Niger, Kaduna, Kogi, Benue, Jigawa, Plateau and part of FCT.
Banditry is, however, older than Buhari’s administration. It started as a farmers-versus-herders crisis in 2011, and initially considered to be a passing cloud. But it has ballooned into full-blown terrorism displacing over 2.1 million people.
In Zamfara state for instance, about 69,000 Internally Displaced Persons, Kaduna 71,000, Katsina 61,000, Sokoto 45,000, while at least 3,000 have crossed the borders through the axis of Maradi to take refuge in Niger and Chad Republics.
One of the farmers in Shiroro, Mr Tarka Mohamed, said the bandits demanded farmers to pay N1.2 million ($2,500) to allow them to access and cultivate farmlands.
Mr Usman Kelly, another farmer in Zamfara, who said many farmers have fled their stead, said they were forced to pay levies, yet the bandits prevent them from entering their farms.
The Nigerian Red Cross Society has confirmed the fear of imminent food insecurity in the North West and North Central saying: “The situation is critical and is one that needs immediate attention.”
Buhari, expected to leave his post in 2023, had said he wants forces to eliminate the banditry problem before end of 2022, a missed deadline.
“The military is now strong, well-fortified and impregnable. If anyone or group dares to test our will now, they may not live to regret it,” argued Nigerian Interior Minister, Rauf Aregbesola, in Abuja.
But governors of the affected states are frustrated the problem is increasing.
Governor Abubakar Sani Bello of Niger state expressed his helplessness over the incessant invasion of bandits of various communities. In his state, some 50 villages are now occupied by bandits.
Ibrahim Dan-Musa, spokesperson of northern youth lobby Northern Ethnic Group Assembly, NEYGA, says the police is poorly funded and poorly motivated, and the military, which is fighting a decade-long insurgency in the North East, appears to be at the end of their wits on how to curtail the spiralling insecurity.
The war on banditry may be helped, however. Originial terror groups Boko Haram and ISIS in West Africa are in a deadly battle of supremacy which has seen fighters kill one another in a bid to carve out an Islamic state.
Mohammed Momoh is a Nation Media Group’s correspondent in Nigeria.