Bandits and the force of ideas

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*Rev. Yakusak. latest high-profile kidnap victim

Kayode Komolafe

Among the many victims of violent crimes in the last few days is a Catholic priest, Rev. Fr. Luka Benson Yakusak. He was abducted on Monday evening by gunmen who invaded his house in the Ikulu Chiefdom of Zangon Kataf Local Government Area of Kaduna State. The kidnap happened two days after the killing of Rev. Silas Y. Ali of the ECWA Church of Zango town in the same local government area. Members of the Christian community in the area are reportedly full of prayers for the freedom of Fr. Yakusak.

Killings and kidnaps are reported as statistics virtually every day from various parts of Nigeria in varying degrees. The names of the victims are rarely mentioned unlike in the cases of Fr. Yakusak and Rev. Ali. Scores of other victims have been reported as statistics in the last few days. For instance, 24 hours before the abduction of Fr. Yakusak, the village of Apiye Jim was attacked and 11 persons were kidnapped. This tragedy also reportedly happened in the same Zangon-Kataf Local Government.

The bloodletting continues despite the efforts of the Kaduna State government to tackle insecurity in addition to the intense military activities in parts of the state. Perhaps, Kaduna is the only state having a commissioner with a security portfolio.

Yesterday marked the 90th day in captivity for no fewer than 90 students of the Federal Government College (FGC), Birni Yauri in Kebbi State. About 150 bandits invaded the college in the afternoon of June 17 this year. Female and male students and three members of staff were abducted. The suffering of the students in captivity and the anguish of their helpless parents can only be imagined.

According to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), out of the more 1, 000 students abducted since December 2020 over 200 of them are still in captivity. The students are languishing in bandit’s den just like the army officer recently abducted from the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA).

This is a serious test of the competence of the Nigerian state.

The humanitarian consequences of the festering insecurity in the land can hardly be covered by mere statistics of the victims. Even at that, some opinion leaders in the northwest have alleged that violent crimes are underreported especially in the rural areas. This lack of adequate attention to the grand assault inflicted on our collective humanity by the criminals rampaging the land is also reflected in the totality of the official response to the agony of the victims.

It has been the tragic lot of poor parents of kidnapped students to raise millions of naira to be paid as ransom to kidnappers. The names, (much less the faces), of most of those killed are not known. Will there ever be a proper documentation of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the land?

In the discussion of the problem, the use of categories is even imprecise. For instance, some security experts and analysts say the prevalent criminality plaguing the northwest is banditry. Others have insisted that what is troubling the zone is actually terrorism. The argument goes like this: the criminals who could bring down military aircraft and invade the defence academy share the same characteristics as terrorists. In another categorisation made by some other experts, the activities of Boko Haram in the northeast are termed terrorism while the killings and kidnaps in the northwest are said to be banditry. As a matter of fact, the Nigerian state was reluctant in the early days of Boko Haram war to categorise the non-state actors perpetrating violence in the northeast as terrorists. This was believed to be due to the diplomatic implications of such a label. Nigeria did not want to be grouped by western powers among the nations in which terrorists operated. The Boko Haram terrorists were described as insurgents.

Now, this problem of definition is not peculiar to Nigeria. The official American definition of terrorism is not identical to the British formulation on the problem. There are political and legal dimensions to the definition. For example, a British scholar, Charles Townshend, reported that over a hundred definitions of terrorism were compiled in a survey that eventually concluded “that the search for ‘adequate’ definition was still on” in the view of some experts.

Some of the several definitions are derived from the characteristics of terror. According to Townshend in his book, Terrorism: An Introduction, a common characteristic of terror is the act “intended to threaten the ability of a state to ensure the security of its members -and thus its claim to legitimacy…”

Well, some may argue that the Nigerian state that is seemingly overwhelmed in many fronts cannot afford the luxury of making a scholastic distinction between terrorism and banditry. For instance, terrorists and bandits alike employ kidnap as a method, extracting ransom from traumatized people.

Yet beyond the daily torrents of grim statistics and endless chats in the public sphere, the problem of insecurity requires deeper reflections and scientific studies. For clarity, a lot of researches have been conducted by universities, think tanks and other non-governmental organisations and individuals on the question of insecurity in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, volumes could be published from the reports of studies and researches already conducted on the problem. International organisations have also published some reports.

What is not clear, however, is if the authorities are sufficiently harvesting the ideas generated by the academic studies of the climate of insecurity spreading in the country. Are the defence and security authorities paying enough attention to the production of ideas by our social scientists, historians, philosophers and other scholars and experts?

The point at issue here is not that those who shape defence and security policies should buy uncritically the views of the experts. What is important is the official awareness of the highly informed discussions and debates about the problem. The government should stop looking in the exogenous direction for solutions to all problems. It is time the government listened to Nigerian scholars.

One of such scholars is Dr. Murtala Ahmed Rufa’i, a historian of the Usmanu Danfodiyo University , Sokoto. He traced the historical roots of banditry in a paper presented last Thursday at the university’s 15th Seminar Series. The presentation of Rufa’i is curiously entitled “ ‘I am a Bandit:’ A Decade of Research in Zamfara State Bandit’s Den.” He reported that over 10, 000 bandits operating in Zamfara State alone have killed over 12, 000 people, destroyed 120 villages and stolen 250, 000 livestock while about 50, 000 persons have been internally displaced. What’s particularly remarkable about the paper of Rufa’i, which is richly illustrated with facts on ground, is the somewhat optimistic note of the summation of his decade-long research. He is rather upbeat about the activities of the military in the state to deal with the bandits in the rural area “in the language they understand,” apparently borrowing from President Muhammadu Buhari.

Rufa’i seems to agree to the highly perceptive position of a senior journalist, Mahmud Jega, in another forum. Jega posits legitimately that it is possible to exterminate banditry by military might. Jega cited the examples of conflicts in history that ended with the defeat of a weaker side by the stronger military power.

Despite his optimism, Rufa’i makes a point that should attract the utmost attention of those in charge of defence and security policies: “Unfortunately, the more the efforts (of the military and security agencies), the stronger and deadlier they (the bandits) become, due to the involvement of multiple ‘invisible factors and actors’ benefiting from the conflict.”

Incidentally, only yesterday the United Arab Emirates named six Nigerians among the “global sponsors of terrorism.” It would be interesting to see how the office of the federal attorney- general and the security agencies respond to this revelation by another country. The lack of diligent prosecution of the arrested bandits and terrorists has unwittingly nourished the landscape of impunity in which terrorists, bandits and other violent criminals luxuriate.

Significantly, Rufa’i traced how arms flow to the den of the bandits. He located the Nigeria – Niger border, for instance, as a source. Foreign mining companies are also sources of arms. The historian also reported the culture of arms renting for a fee. He quoted a bandit saying that “there are more weapons than cattle in Zamfara state.” As a result, having a gun is more profitable than owning a herd of cattle.

According to Rufa’i, the factors driving banditry in Zamfara could also be distinctly located. First, the elephant in the room that seems not to have been given adequate attention by the Nigerian state is illicit mining. As stated above, Rufa’i traced the arms flow in Zamfara to the foreign mining companies. Politicians , traditional rulers and other members of the socio-economic elite are seriously implicated in the warfare that illegal mining of gold has become in Zamfara. The ban imposed in 2018 on illegal mining by the federal government came too late. A lot of damage had been done to the socio-economic make-up of Zamfara State before the responses.

Secondly, there is the well-known theory that some of those who turned to banditry were once employed as political thugs. The thugs were later abandoned by the politicians. The reality of material vulnerability is believed to have driven some of the abandoned thugs into banditry. Another second factor is that of the historical injustice visited on the pastoral community. Interestingly, according to Rufa’i the herders/farmers clashes in Zamfara are rooted in history. The pastoralists are said to have the view that cases are often decided against them and in favour of farmers. The pastoral community is said to have inherited this legacy of injustice.

There is also the factor of the vigilante groups which rose in defence of the besieged communities. Members of these groups allegedly executed arrested bandits in the market place. Rufa’i said this worsened the atmosphere of insecurity especially with the steady rise of the armed groups.

Rufa’i also profiled some of the bandits situating them squarely in the social context of their emergence in Zamfara State. He told the story of the emergence of the armed groups beginning from 2011.

Appropriately, the gender dimension of the crisis is also well documented especially the question of sexual violence.

There are, of course, a lot to interrogate in the Rufa’i interpretation of the Zamfara situation. For instance, the peculiarities that have made banditry seemingly endemic to Zamfara are not adequately explained.

But what cannot be denied is that Rufa’i like other scholars are devoting time and energy to think and study the problems. That trend should be encouraged. This is because ideas about the socio-economic and political situation constitute a force that should complement the military campaigns. Such ideas are sorely needed to illuminate the process of defence and security policy formulation. Superior ideas are also needed to equip those who are saddled with the enterprise of the “deradicalisation” of arrested terrorists and bandits. The debate on the fate of “repentant terrorists and bandits” should be informed by solid ideas. It could be ultimately dangerous granting “amnesty” blindly to mass murderers and kidnappers.

So in addition to equipping and motivating the defence and security forces, there should be a place for the force of ideas in formulating the strategy against terrorism, banditry and other activities of non-state actors. To borrow from Professor Biodun Jeyifo in this respect, the attention of the “Buhari’s handlers” should be specially drawn to this proposition given the primacy of security to all the issues bedevilling the Nigerian nation.

The President and his handlers should pay attention to the important force of ideas in the war to keep Nigeria secure.

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