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Bandits in Nigeria: how protection payments to militias escalate conflict in the north-west

Guns piled in a triangle
Weapons recovered from bandits during Operation Safe Haven in Nigeria. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

North-western Nigeria has become increasingly violent. This is due to the activities of militias, known locally as “bandits”. These are loosely organised armed groups, reportedly over 120 factions with 28 to 2,500 members. They are now deadlier than the well-known Boko Haram, which operates in north-eastern Nigeria.

The origins of the conflict in north-western Nigeria can be traced back to 2011 following disagreements between Hausa farmers and Fulani pastoralists over changes in land ownership and encroachment on grazing routes, primarily due to environmental and climatic factors. They were characterised by small-scale disputes and isolated hit-and-run attacks resulting in crop damage and livestock theft. This conflict also included skirmishes with primitive weapons, such as sticks, daggers and locally crafted Dane guns.

And then in 2018, many Hausa-dominated communities in the region formed “peace committees” to engage the Fulani militias. Through these committees, they entered an ad-hoc agreement to give the militias “protection payment” – levies in cash or kind, in exchange for protection from attacks.

The militias send letters to village heads for payment, leaving a phone number to contact when the villagers were ready to pay. The village heads would call their council and peace committee members to determine how much each resident should contribute. The system was comparable to how rural communities in pre-colonial Nigeria paid farm and livestock taxes and levies to traditional leaders.

But unlike standard taxation, the protection payment does not imply support for militias. Many residents attempted to avoid direct involvement while adhering to the terms of the agreement. The militias are also not motivated by a desire to rule over the communities. Instead of advancing a political or ideological cause, their primary goal is to enrich themselves.

Dangerous consequences

In a recently published article which is based on my PhD research on the dynamics of political violence in Nigeria, I argued that payments to the militias provided some communities with short-term safety. But that, in the long term, they are leading to dangerous consequences.

The strategy resulted in less violence for the first few months and encouraged more communities to pay the protection levies. However, the militias gradually began to demand more payment, and more militia groups emerged (competing against one another) to forcefully demand protection against their attacks.

As a result, violence against civilians increased, including rising fatalities, sexual violence, population displacement, asset destruction and economic disruption.


Read more: What can be done to fight rural banditry in northern Nigeria


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Protection payment pathways

I explained that the protection payment escalates the conflict in the region through two pathways: acquiescence and resistance. Acquiescence occurs when a community pays a militia to protect them from other militias. This leads to increased predation and demands for more payments. Resistance occurs when a community pays a militia to protect them. If they refuse to continue payments, the militia responds with violence to punish the community and instil fear.

While many communities initially paid the militias as a self-protection strategy, it has become extortion as the militias became predatory over time. They are now demanding more money than initially agreed and adopting a criminal mode of operation. They forced the villagers to pay additional “harvest fees”, buy fertiliser or work on militia farms before they could till their land.

A 2022 investigation in hard-to-reach communities of Zamfara and Sokoto states identified civilian protection payments as one of the primary sources of revenue that militias use to finance their operations. Journalists estimated that communities in 13 of the 14 local government areas of Zamfara had paid over 538 million Naira (about US$711,080) in protection levies in less than a year.

The militias spend the money on more guns, readily available on the region’s illicit arms market, primarily smuggled in from the Sahel through porous borders. They also use the protection payment to pay “informants”, civilian collaborators who go about their daily lives while providing intelligence. When communities refuse to pay additional fees, they attack them with lethal weapons such as assault rifles and submachine guns, often killing many civilians in one attack.

When I conducted field research in Zamfara last summer, many vulnerable communities fled or continued to pay protection levies.


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Next steps

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the conflict, my research indicates that paying militias for protection is risky. It escalates conflict and violence against communities.

Instead, planned flight to safer areas is suggested as a safer alternative to protect civilians during armed conflicts. The government must also step up efforts to safeguard smaller towns and villages, which are frequently more vulnerable to attacks than state capitals. This could be done by deploying more security forces and, if possible, through dialogue with the militias.

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