John Adams, Minna

The recent escalation of banditry in Shiroro, Munya and Rafi local government areas of Niger State has raised a concerns for the government, political leaders, traditional institution and other stakeholders in the state.

In the last few months, the activities of bandits has swelled the number of internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) in the six different camps across the three local government areas of the state which have been the epic center of bandits attacks.

In the last two months alone, no fewer than 3,600 villagers have been forced to relocate from their homes and are now taking refuge in camps at primary schools in Kuta and Zumba in Shiroro LGA, Bosso, in Bosso LGA, and Kagara in Kagara LGA.

More are trooping in daily as the bandits intensify attacks with impunity and security agents struggle in vain to contain the situation.

This number is apart from the 10,000 people that were earlier displaced from their homes between November and December last year across the three local government areas, with some already taking permanent refuge with their relations, promising never to return home.

Asebe Musa, a 42-year-old mother of four whose husband was shot in her presence during one of the bandits’ invasions, who said she is yet to overcome the trauma, is one of those who promised never to return to her village.

In Hausa language, Asebe told our correspondent that, with the death of her husband of 17 years, there is nothing to take from the village, adding: “I am not going back. Do you want my children to be killed too?”

Camps of regret

The dehumanising conditions at the IDP camps has also triggered fears of outbreak of epidemics. A visit to some of the camps showed that the camp in Kuta, the headquarters of Shiroro LGA, hosts the largest number of the IDPs, over 3,000, with the possibility of this number increasing anymoment as the attacks continues, and at the Bosso Primary School camp, which is hosting recently displaced people, accommodating over 2,500.

There are other IDP camps in Zumba, Kagara and Erena towns, with each of them accommodating no fewer than 2,000 people. The conditions at the IDP camps, our correspondent observed from the places visited, are better imagined than experienced. Apart from shortage of food and water, basic amenities are almost absent.

At the Kuta IDP camp, for instance, there are only two toilets for over 3,000 people. Children defecate openly behind the classrooms serving as their homes. Women are not left out this open defecation but hold on to it  until in the night, according to one of them. This situation is the same in almost all the camps across the three LGAs.

It was observed that about 80 women and children were made to share one classroom, making it difficult to observe any social distancing as a preventive measure against COVID– 19.

The desk officer of the Kuta IDP camp, Yusuf Bala Kuta, claimed that those in the camp have been adequately sensitized on the existence of coronavirus, stressing: “The Shiroro local government has provided hand washing materials, including the sinking of bore hole at the camps to provide clean water.”

He nonetheless described the situation at the camp as “pathetic and worrisome.” He explained that government has tried to make some food available even though not enough. “The personal hygiene and sanitation in the camp is getting out of hand,” he said.

The situation at the Bosso camp was no different from what obtained in Kuta as every available space in school had been taken over due to daily influx of displaced people. And there seems to be no solution in sight to the bandits’ attacks.

Five years of torture

For five years, anarchy was loosed upon the poor farmers of these communities. They have lost everything and relocated from their ancestral homes to become refuges in their own land.

Those who managed to escape from the bandits’ onslaught and have found a safe heaven with relations in other areas have lost their farming occupation. Food crisis is, therefore, eminent as the people can no longer farm. For five years, wives have been made widows, husbands turned widowers and children rendered orphans. Women were raped in front of their husbands, and families forced to separate in search of safe abode as bandits unleashed terror on the people.

Over 84 communities in the eight affected wards of Shiroro, 56 communities in Rafi and 36 communities in Munya LGAs have lost their peace and can no longer sleep with their two eyes closed. These communities remain a “no-go area” as they are under the control of bandits.

History of the attacks

What started like mere criminal activities in 2015 with cattle rustling has turned to a full-blown war against the defenceless civilians, with every farmland turned to burial ground due to the endless killings, and there seems no end in sight. The bandits have sustained the attacks with no week passing without an attack on the people.

For instance, Shiroro, which has witnessed the highest number of attacks since the first incident in some communities in March 2015, when 30 gunmen stormed the area, killing 20 villagers, has remained under siege

A 64-year-old native, Dauda Ibrahim, from Kokoki village, lost two of children. He said: “That was my first time of seeing such a thing happening. For over 100 years of the existence of this village, we have never witnessed such a thing. It was difficult to believe, and ever since then there has never being peace in this village.”

In 2015 alone, between March and December, 40 communities came under attack from bandits, making life meaningless to the people. No fewer than 38 people, including women, were killed and hundreds escaped from their homes to safety.

The bandits stiole about 2,000 cows and 300 sheep. Also, 15 people were kidnapped and their relations paid ransom of about N11 million to frre them.

The development attracted sharp reaction and the alarm raised by the former senator representing Niger East Senatorial District then, Senator David Umaru, forced the then former governor of the state, Dr. Muazu Babangida Aliyu, to convene a meeting of stakeholders comprising all the local government chairmen, emirs, district heads, village heads and representative of Miyatti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, Niger State.

The meeting was to, among other things, discuss how to check and closely monitor the movement and activities of armed herdsmen, with a view to preventing the spread of criminal activities in the state. From the security reports available to the government then, it was suggested that those behind the killings in parts of the state were not normal herdsmen.

The meeting did not yield the desired results, and, in 2016, it was business as usual as the bandits resumed their attacks and hell was let loose again.

About 36 bloody attacks were carried out in about 70 communities across the three local government areas. Communities like Kaure, Kukoki, Ajata and Kwaki, all in Shiroro LGA, became theatres of war. Pandogeri, Alawa and Madaka in Rafi LGA were not spared the bandits’ wrath.

More than 50 people were killed, 2,600 cattle rustled, 12 people kidnapped and N5 million ransom paid by relations to secure the release of the victims in 2016.

This again sparked outrage and Senator Umaru vehemently protested the killing of his people to the security high command in the state and in Abuja, with a personal visit to demand their intervention.

The moves by the former senator led to some action from the security agencies as the then Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, immediately directed the former Commissioner of Police in the state, Muazu Zubairu, to flush out the criminals. Acting on the directive, the police led other sister security agencies to launch a manhunt for the bandits, leading about 300 security agents to the flashpoints in an operation code named “Puff Adder,” backed by helicopter coverage from the IGR’s office and it brought some respite to the communities.

However in 2017, on January 15, the bandits struck again, killing nine people, and 6,000 people were forced out of their homes. In that attack, the first that year, five people were abducted and N3 million ransom was later paid to secure their release. Between April and June 2017, 11 people were killed, about N30 million was paid as ransom by the villagers to secure the release of their loved ones, 1,000 cattle were rustled and 150 sheep stolen.

However, between September and December 2017, at least 20 villages in Zagzaga community in Munya LGA, with about 250,000 inhabitants, became a safe abode for the bandits. Within three months of besieging the communities, the bandits wreaked havoc, killed six people, abducted 19 people, including an SS2 female student of Day Secondary School, Zagzaga, who served as cook for abducted persons for two weeks before her ransom was paid and she was released.

The communities paid N11 million to secure the release of all those kidnapped after selling almost all their farm produce. This situation forced 90 per cent of the 250,000 inhabitants to relocate to neighbouring communities.

After the attacks, Governor Abubakar Sani Bello promised to take action against the continued killings by those he described as “criminal elements” but the governor’s effort did not yield any results.

The deteriorating security situation pitted Senator Umaru against the state government, as he insisted that enough security measures had not been taken to rescue the people from the bandits’ siege. The former senator completely rubbished the claim by the governor during the Sallah homage (to the governor) by traditional rulers in the state that he had expended N2.4 billion on security agents in the state between 2018 and 2019.

The governor was quoted then as saying that he had lost confidence in the security agents because, after spending N100 million every month on security between 2018 and 2019, there was still no improvement.

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But Senator Umau faulted the governor, saying that, rather than condemning the security agents, government should provide more logistics to enable them withstand the superior firepower of the bandits, adding that much of the terrains was very difficult to access, and they would, therefore, need better logistics. Senator Umaru then took the deteriorating security situation in his constituency up with the military high command, which led to the establishment of a military base in Zagzaga and two other places in the troubled communities.

The security challenges, however, continued in 2018, though not in Zazzaga, as security arrangements put in place were not enough to check the activities of the criminals, who continued to shift base.

The climax of the attacks in 2018 was the abduction of 13 All Progressives Congress (APC) chieftains from Munya LGA on their way to a political stakeholders’ meeting in Sarkin Pawa, the council headquarters.

The kidnappers demanded N30 million for their release but later settled for N13 million before they were able to regain their freedom. Also, a divisional police officer attached to Sarkin Pawa Division was abducted and unconfirmed reports had it that the state government paid N4 million for his release. This was immediately followed with the abduction of three sisters of the former Munya LG chairman, Alhaji Yauza Mohammed, from their home in broad daylight. After much pleading from the former council boss, N3 million was paid to secure their release.

Between January and March 2018, 20 people were kidnapped and N19 million ransom was paid; four people lost their lives.

In 2019, the beat went on, as murder, kidnaping and cattle rustling remained the pastime of the bandits. Those who crossed their way, including security agents, paid the supreme price. Their activities almost thwarted the conduct of the 2019 general election in the affected communities.

Arguably, 2019 was the darkest year in the five years of bloodletting in the communities. Between February and December, at least 100 people were killed, 70 in one single attack on Kwaki, Barden, Dawaki, Ajayin, Ajatai, Bataro, Bwailo and Giji communities, simultaneously.

That attack, on June 9, could be described as the mother of all attacks in Shiroro communities in 2019. Apart from the number of casualties, which renewed the verbal war between former Senator Umaru and the state government, 3,500 people were displaced.

While government made attempts to play down the number of casualties in the attacks, claiming that only 12 people were killed and 22 injured, Umaru insisted that over 70 people were killed in that single attack, saying: “I am in touch with my people as far as this attack is concerned. The figure is higher than what the government is claiming.”

After that bloody attack, the state government deployed a joint security patrol to the affected communities to restore normalcy but the difficult terrain almost frustrated their efforts even though some level of normalcy was achieved.

But on September 12, in what could be described as coordinated attacks by the bandits across the three LGAs, Shiroro, Rafi and Munya, 80 people were killed, 100 others wounded and about 1,000 people fled from their homes.

That attack attracted serious reactions and condemnation from the government and some political leaders from the areas, including the current senator representing the zone, Senator Sani Musa, who called for military action against the bandits, saying it was unacceptable that some criminal elements could hold the people to ransom.

Desperate for peace, the state government made a deal with the bandits and ‘amnesty’ was offered the bandits, with the release of 13 of them earlier arrested by security agents in parts of the state.

No fewer than 40 of them were said to have surrendered their arms to government as part of the peace deal.

But less than a month after the so-called peace deal, “another set of bandits” attacked some communities in Rafi, leaving four people killed, 20 people injured and six taken.

This led to a wide protests by the youths in Kagara, who violently rejected relief materials donated to the displaced people by the state government. The youths said what they wanted from government was security to enable them go back to their communities, adding that “we are not happy staying here, what we need is security of lives and property and not relief materials.”

However this year, 2020, the attacks have assumed a different dimension and, since January, there has been no week without one attack or the other, with the attendant consequences. Apart from Chanchaga, Bosso, Suleja, Tafa and Gawun Babangida, the remaining local government areas in Zone B Senatorial District have been taken over by bandits.

Worried by this development, political leaders from the areas, notable among them Senator Sani, personally took the protest to the floor of the Senate, where he told his colleagues at the Red Chamber that his entire constituency was under siege of bandits.

“My people are being killed every day and nobody is saying anything. The time to act is now; my people have been forced out of their homes and killed like animals,” he thundered.

This attracted the attention of President Muhammedu Buhari, who, in February, ordered air strikes on the bandits’ locations in the state. However, this, the villagers said, has not yielded any results, as they accused the Air Force of always bombing wrong targets while the bandits have a field day

In addition to the air strikes ordered by the President, the governor recently empowered local vigilance groups with vehicles and motorcycles to help complement the efforts of the security agencies.

Despite all these measures, the criminal situation in these LGAs has defied any security arrangement, with security agents paying the supreme sacrifice on a daily basuis, and they are now being cautious in their approach towards the bandits.

The height of all attacks this year was the killing of 11 soldiers and 17 mobile policemen on March 26 in Erena in circumstances that remains unclear, with different accounts of their death. The killing of the security personnel came barely two months after an Army Captain and four other soldiers were ambushed and killed by the bandits in Munya when they had gone to answer a distress call from a community under attack.

That was followed by the invasion of some communities in Shiroro in April, where no fewer than 15 people were killed, eight abducted and about 2,000 rendered homeless.

In all, between January and April 2020, 58 people, including the 32 security personnel (15 soldiers and 17 Mobile policemen) and seven local vigilantes, paid the supreme price.

In addition to this, 70 people have been kidnapped and N40 million paid to secure to their freedom. Many more are still in the bandit’ custody. The number of displaced people has also tripled across the three LGAs.

District Head of Beni, Alhaji Jafaru Umar Sarki, who had two of his daughters kidnapped two days to their wedding, recounted to our correspondent how he sold all his farm produce before he could raised N2.5 million to secure their release after one week in captivity with serious plea.

“The armed men came to the village in the early morning and were shooting sporadically and five of them entered my house and asked me bring money. I told them I don’t have money and they threatened to shoot me but later they took my two daughters and asked me to go and bring N10 million. But after much begging I was able to gather N2.5 million from the proceeds of my farm produce before they released my two daughters. They spent one week in the bush with the bandits. It was a traumatic moment for me,” he said.

Political leaders and other stakeholders from the affected areas are now uncomfortable with the daily massacre of their people, and are beginning to lose confidence in the ability of the government to address the situation.

Senator Umaru told our correspondent in an intervie, “My heart bleeds each time I hear the killing of my people by these criminals. In the last fiver years, I have tried everything humanly possible to stop these killings but the situation remains the same.”

Apart from providing logistic support to the security agents, he pointed out that “you know I don’t control the security structure; mine is to provide the necessary logistic supports to enable them do their work, and this I have been doing since the escalation of the bandits’ attacks.”

Also, Senator Musa believed that the only solution to the frequent attacks was the Federal Government establishing a military base in the zone, stressing that all the makeshift security arrangements have failed, because, according to him, “the makeshift security arrangements” have failed.

“The President promised to put a military base in that location where these bandits are having a field day, to curb the incessant attacks and the killings, but nothing has been done. The situation is getting out of hand,” he said.

Also, youths from the affected communities, under the auspices of Concern Shiroro Youths, have expressed their displeasure over the deteriorating security situation in their communities, and have heaped the blame on the doorstep of government.

The youths specifically accused President Buhari of not even issuing a single statement to condemn the series of attacks that have claimed hundreds of lives, like he has done for other states, especially Katsina State.

They equally accused Governor Sani Bello of paying lip service to the security situation in their communities, saying he had “never found it expedient to visit any of the communities attacked by bandits or even the internally displaced people’s camp in Kuta, whereas he got the second highest votes from the local government in the governorship election.”

Their spokesmen, Bello Ibrahim and Sani Yussuf Kokki, said the Concerned Shiroro Youths believe, “Without reservation the Federal Government has been indifferent to our plights.”

“There has been no commensurate effort specifically aimed at flushing out criminal elements in our communities, thereby casting doubts in the minds of our people as to whether we are still part of the entity called Nigeria.

“As a matter of fact, we are no longer secure and safe in Shiroro Local Government. What is only left for these bandits is to foist their flag and lay claim to Shiroro Local Government

“Our patience is exhausted. Must government at all levels wait until we are exterminated and our communities and villages wiped out on the world map before doing the needful?” the angry youths queried.