Some days ago, a video from a dialogue between the government and bandits in Zamfara made the rounds online. In the video, an unidentified leader of one of the bandit groups boasted of its invincibility, that “no military operations” could stop his activities. This was met by a shocking applause.
Unabated armed banditry and violence in Northwest Nigeria has ravaged the region, leaving many casualties and leading to forced displacement in rural communities. Zamfara and Katsina are the worst affected states, However, the crisis has managed to spill over into parts of the neighboring States, including; Kaduna, Niger and Sokoto.
The Nigerian government over the years have employed several military strategies in its bid to stop the violent activities of the bandits including killings, cattle rustling, robbery and abductions of villagers and travelers.
The Nigerian Army has continued to target bandit safe havens while conducting raids and patrols in frontline communities. The Nigerian Airforce maintains a light infantry branch that conducts ground operations primarily to protect the bases from which it deploys its combat, surveillance and reconnaissance aircrafts that target bandit camps in remote forest areas and support ground operations. Likewise, the police conducts a law enforcement operation known as Operation Puff Adder, which is involved in arrest bandits and collaborators, recovery and interception of weapons. In spite of these efforts and interventions, the violence continues to threaten well being and livelihoods of the people.
In a bid to stem the violence, it appears that the government is considering a different approach that would involve mediation and dialogue with the bandits. But this is not an entirely new approach.
Commissioner of Police in Zamfara State, Mr Usman Nagogo who leads the recent dialogue efforts, is historically in favour of dialogue over the use of fire power.
During his tenure as police deputy, CP Nagogo led the now disbanded Special Committee on Disarmament and Amnesty which was set up by governor Abdulaziz Yari in 2016 to broker peace between warring bandits and vigilantes factions.
The effort which involved the police, bandit commanders, leaders of Fulani ethnic groups, the Civilian Joint Task Force and local vigilantes known as ‘Yansakai” resulted in some relative calm. This saw kidnapped villagers released and allowed farmers to cultivate their land. But the results were short-lived.
Long term peace in Zamfara, Katsina and other parts of the Northwest goes beyond dialogue and ceasefire. The process must consider the multiple underlying factors and engage them with multidimensional strategies.
These underlying factors include poverty and the loss of livelihoods, underdevelopment, porous borders, arms proliferation and ungoverned spaces. This has resulted in the intense battle for control over resources such as livestock, land and water, and minerals (majorly gold). Weak government and traditional institutions have resulted in the rise of vigilantism – a natural reaction to the security vacuum and dysfunctional criminal justice system.
Improving government’s presence through social and economic development projects is vital. In addition to this is the need to strengthen border security and law enforcement capacities.
One of the things to consider is the strategic management of the forest range in Northwestern Nigeria. Efforts must be made to preserve biodiversity and avoid its use as harbor and transit areas by criminals and bandits. State and community based land restoration efforts will ease resource conflict.
Furthermore, formalizing and developing the mining sector will provide badly needed funds for development and rural revitalization.
In order to tackle cattle rustling, the Ministry of Agriculture and departments in the north should engage in the use of smart animal tracking and identification systems to oversee certification of cattle and traders and monitor cattle movement, markets and abattoirs. This approach will prevent, disrupt and affect the movement of stolen cattle within or outside Nigeria.
While the government continues to engage in dialogue, it must not ignore the need to engage the ex-combatants by providing humanitarian assistance and justice and reconciliation for victims of violent and extra-judicial activities of bandits and vigilantes.
As Nigeria moves towards adopting community policing to improve internal security, neighborhood groups could serve as critical source of intelligence to prevent and respond to crimes. Therefore, it is important for government to properly define the role of vigilante groups and provide documentation, supervision and regulation for all groups and their members. The use of weapons or trial of arrested suspects by non-state actors should not be permitted.
The government must continue to show leadership and dialogue from the position of strength and not surrender.