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Why the ban on gold mining will not solve the Zamfara crisis

Young boy at illegal gold mine

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Why the ban on gold mining will not solve the Zamfara crisis

Over the weekend, the Nigerian government announced a ban on mining in Zamfara state as a result of the heightened spate of killings by bandits. This followed a public pressure campaign urging the government to act.

Security has utterly collapsed in Zamfara: Just this week, the Zamfara Governor Abdulaziz Yari disclosed that bandits have killed 3,526 persons in the state in the last five years, nearly 500 villages have been devastated, 8,219 persons injured with some in critical condition, and over 13,000 hectares of farmlands had been destroyed.

Bearing that in mind, it makes sense for the government to act, but… The move by the government is a simplistic approach to a non-linear and complex problem, with multiple underlying factors mutually reinforcing each other.

An anatomy of violence: The situation in the Zamfara-Kamuku-Kwaiambana area is a complex mix of rural banditry, a thriving multi-billion naira kidnapping industry, cattle rustling, revenge killings, battle for control over resources such as livestock, land and water, and gold and trade related extortion.

  • The lawlessness is induced by crushing poverty and failure of governance, a porous border, unconstrained arms proliferation, and ungoverned spaces which form the hubs of criminal activities.
  • Other factors include: The competition over limited environmental resources, as a result of rapid population growth with no corresponding development; the resource scarcity especially land and water; and climate change related environmental degradation.

Flashback: Competition over land and water sources between farmers and herders is not new in Zamfara. In the past, traditional institutions provided the mediation mechanism but in recent years, perceived marginalization and the rise in activities of  non-state actors have made violent confrontation common. The weak law enforcement and dysfunctional criminal justice system has resulted in the formation of an alternative justice system.

Local dimensions of the criminality: Huge swathes of Zamfara-Kamuku Forest and Kwaiambana forest reserves are relatively ungoverned with armed  bandits, kidnappers, armed robbers and rustlers, exploiting the natural cover and geography as safe haven to launch raids and attacks on travellers  and rural communities. Stolen cattle and kidnapped victims are hidden in these areas. In Birnin Magaji and Zurmi LGAs of the state also lies the expansive and dangerous Ajja Forest which extends to Batsari and Safana LGAs in the neighbouring Katsina State, from where armed bandits have carried out several deadly attacks on herding and farming communities. 

The violence over the years has resulted in severe hostilities between the Hausa and the Fulani. The Hausa communities suspect the Fulanis of passive and active association with the bandits responsible for the degradation – including arson, rape, looting and kidnapping – of their communities. The weak law enforcement and criminal justice system contributed to the creation of ad hoc security (vigilantes) system that has ignited a new dimension of revenge and targeted killings.

It is ironic that the vigilantes that were initially formed to ensure security of lives and properties of the people in the absence of state agents would eventually turn rogue. 

In Zamfara State, the insecurity created by cattle rustling and rural banditry created the opportunity for the vigilantes to either witch-hunt their old foes or amass illegal wealth. Both the bandits and the Fulbe pastoralists complain of constant harassment by the vigilantes. There has been allegations of extra-judicial killings of pastoralists; confiscation of livestock; burning and looting of pastoral households and forced evictions perpetrated by the vigilantes. It is this form of jungle justice that has escalated the rural armed banditry in Zamfara State.

Spillover and cross border violence 

Seven Nigerian states are directly affected by the violence and criminality in Kamuku/Kwaiambana forest with Jibia and Kankara parts of Katsina and Birnin Gwari forest in Kaduna worst hit. The violence has forced more herders into the middle belt thereby increasing tension in the fragile belt, while states like Niger, Kano and Sokoto remain threatened by their activities. 

The forest range in Northwestern Nigeria connects with Madarounfa District in Maradi Region of Niger Republic, where bandits have actively used as a base and supply channel – exploiting existing border openings and cultural similarities to move unrestrained between the regions in Nigeria and Niger. In September 2018, a Nigerian Air Force aircraft targeted bandits in Maradi region in a bid to rescue hostages held in the Dumbroum area of Southern Maradi in Niger republic. At least five soldiers were killed in this joint operationby Nigerian and Nigerian armed forces. The Nigerien government has since created a battalion at Madarounfa with three forward positions at Dan Kano, Baban Rafi, and Shirgué, along the border with Nigeria.

Where is the Gold connection?Artisanal and illegal mining fluorish in Zamfara despite the continued neglect of the mining sector especially as more people in rural communities had to find new source of income due to deteriorating micro economy and loss of farmlands or livestocks. These unregulated activities have led to environmental and health degradation. The cash based nature of the transactions also attracts criminals who either tax miners or steal from them.

It is yet to be seen how government can successfully ban these mining operations.

  • It will be hard to enforce this order due to the irregular and remote nature of mining activities.
  • Any successful ban on mining will make the thousands of  people already involved in the mining activities and their beneficiaries vulnerable to exploitation and recruitment by bandits or other non-state actors in region.

A close look at the alternative approaches

The ongoing ad-hoc security operations including air operation Diran Mikiya, and ground operations Sharan Daji and Harbin Kunana in Zamfara and the North west  are important to maintain military pressure. However, these are not sustainable security arrangements and are unable to solve the key drivers of  the violence.

  • Tackling this violence would require aggressive multi-sectorial intervention to revamp rural economy and provide development for the local population.
  • Improvement of border security to help curb illicit firearms, and  prevent the movement of violent groups would be critical.
  • Government must be seen to restore law and order by immediately disbanding the vigilantes alongside providing justice and humanitarian assistance to victims. This would go a long way toward rebuilding public trust.

To tackle cattle rustling, smart animal tracking and identification systems run by ministry of agriculture and departments in the north to oversee certification of cattle and traders, monitor cattle movement, markets and abattoirs. This approach will prevent, disrupt and affect the movement of stolen cattle within or outside Nigeria.

Also, there is a case for expanding multinational military operations in the Northwest Nigeria-Niger border region.

While a lot has been said about animal tracking and identification systems to prevent the movement of stolen livestock, it is important to address competition over resources through mediation, compensation and promotion of green projects to increase land and water availability. Mobilising local communities to manage parks and forest reserves with government intervention hold a great potential for cohesion and development.  Furthermore, formalizing and developing the mining sector could prove more productive in terms of stimulating the economy. 

The Nigerian government is encouraged to consider the implications of the ban on the people of Zamfara state and reverse this action. It  should rather adopt a more strategic and empathetic approach to this complex crisis. 

Murtala Abdullahi is a climate security expert and analyst at the Global Initiative For Civil Stabilisation (GICS).

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