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Toxic mix of bandits, arms, drugs and terrorism is alarming Nigerians: what now?

Women and children walking briskly with bags delicately balanced on their heads.
Residents fleeing their homes in Plateau State, north central Nigeria, on April 12, 2022 after their houses were burnt during an attack by bandits. AFP via GettyImages

Banditry in Nigeria emerged as an isolated rural phenomenon in the late 2000s. It’s now evolved into sophisticated violent criminality, characterised by syndicates with immense reach across regions and countries.

The trend of recent attacks in northern Nigeria suggest it has now become an aggravated threat, driven by a nexus of banditry, arms, drugs and terrorism.

There is evidence of a tacit synergy between terrorist elements and bandits in northern Nigeria, a synergy based on tactical opportunism or pragmatism.

In the early 2010s, bandits were largely roving brigands that marauded communities in the hinterlands. They engaged in cattle rustling, high-way and market routes robbery, localised village raids and mercenary militancy.

By the late 2010s, they had developed into organised tribes of semi-sedentary criminals that maintained pockets of underworld fiefdoms. This was particularly the case in parts of Zamfara and Katsina states in northwestern Nigeria. The transformation of banditry into a sophisticated pattern of organised criminality has been enabled by a number of factors, including its nexus with arms, drugs and jihadi extremism.

Currently, bandits operate in many states of northwestern and north-central Nigeria. The critical hotbeds are Zamfara, Katsina, Kebbi, Kaduna, Sokoto, Nasarawa and Niger. The Kaduna-Katsina-Zamfara axis, with its epicentre at the Birinin Gwari area, has been particularly deadly in terms of fatal incidents.

In these states, notorious crimelords and clans of bandits affiliated to them control swathes of rural enclaves. There they’ve foisted a regime of brigandage, and an underground economy based on illicit franchise.

The bandits are getting more audacious and virulent by the day. And they appear to be buoyed by their apparent criminal impunity in the context of a receding state.

They have engaged in mass abduction of villagers and school children, attacked markets and raided mines, kidnapped for ransom, as well as carried out highway robberies.

They have graduated from attacking vulnerable communities and commuters in the countryside to targeting critical national infrastructures and military facilities in peri-urban areas.

On March 28, 2022 bandits succeeded in demobilising and attacking a Kaduna-Abuja train after bombing its tracks. The attack underscored not only the intractability of the banditry crisis but also its deteriorating dynamics.

Central and regional governments have responded through a variety of strategies. These have ranged from militarised to non-militarised operations. For example, governments of the affected states have sought to assuage the bandits through peace initiatives and amnesty deals. This has been to no avail.

How can authorities in Nigeria reposition its fight against banditry in order to ensure greater efficiency? What were the challenges of the previously implemented strategies and measures? What needs to be done differently? Is there any prospects for a more effective counter-banditry regime in Nigeria?

My research has focused on the incidence and implications of banditry in northern Nigeria. Based on my insights, I would argue that the banditry crisis has festered owing to the continued decline in the coercive capabilities of the Nigerian state. The crisis has prevailed largely because of the complacency and lethargy with which the Nigerian government has responded to it.

Breaking the vicious cycle will only happen if the right and enabling strategies are developed. These need to be pragmatic, efficient and designed to tackle the multiple factors that underline the political economy of banditry in the country.

What’s missing

In November 2021, the Federal Government of Nigeria designated the bandits as terrorists. This enabled it to reposition its counter-banditry and terrorism drive. The military can now deploy maximum military force in confronting the bandits. But this is just one of a series of woefully reactive steps taken by the central government.

Here’s what’s been missing and crucially needed in its response.

Firstly, the banditry crisis is a situation of warfare, and ought to be understood and treated as such. It is a dire national emergency. The response to it should therefore bear the seriousness of wartime.

The complacent attitude of the Nigerian state to the crisis should be substituted with pragmatic aggressiveness. Exceptional military and non-military measures should be deployed urgently to put the bandits on the run. For example, urgent steps must be taken to confront the bandits head on. Such steps could include degrading their enabling structures as well as plugging their critical supplies.

Secondly, there is a need to change the prevailing posture of being reactive to one of being proactive. The bandits have taken the lead in the battle while the government security forces have simply reacted, often lethargically and in an uncoordinated way.

A more proactive and pragmatic approach is needed. This will entail ensuring a combat-ready attitude. And putting in place procedures that are driven by intelligence-driven, supported by communities and are well funded.

A specialised, consolidated, community-based combat squad comprising members of the intelligence, defence, policing, and vigilante services capable of preemptive and rapid response is a desideratum in this regard.

Thirdly, the entrenched militarised approach to counter-banditry should be substituted for something more pragmatic. Military operations have resulted in the destruction of a number of bandits’ enclaves and hideouts. These have included such as localised reconnaissance, air and land raids, as well as armed patrols.

But they haven’t succeeded. In fact, they have led to the dispersal of bandits across the northern states. This has occasioned the need to fight bandits on multiple fronts.

There is also a need to coordinate operations in the affected states. Focal priorities should include: concerns about drugs and arms trafficking, illicit mining, smuggling, cattle rustling, as well as forestland and borderland policing.

Finally, there is a need to rethink the country’s internal and national security architectures. Originally, the public security forces in Nigeria were designed to respond to conventional threats. But the banditry challenge is an unconventional threat. Its dynamics have exposed the inadequacies of the public security agencies in the country.

Addressing this challenge will require a consolidated approach to counter-banditry that stresses inter-agency collaboration, community policing and strategic volunteering.

The security agencies must work in close and functional synergy. And they must enlist community goodwill, support and participation.

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