By Emeka OMEIHE
It is getting clearer that this country is home to a verity of the sovereignty of bandits. Call them by whatever name; the reign of bandits or herdsmen especially in the north, is fast conveying the miserable impression that there exists a bandits’ republic within the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Sadly, the body language of the leadership to this manifest challenge to their authority seems to be exacerbating the matter. Since many of these forests are largely ungoverned, bandits took control and established strong authority from where they now dictate the rules of engagement with the government of the day.
But the bandits’ territory is not a normal republic where rule of law and due process form the basis for political action. What you find is a republic that shares common features with the Hobbesian state of nature where life has at once become nasty, short and brutish. This republic is governed by the law of the jungle, war of man against man reinforced by bestial and survivalist predilections.
No serious economic enterprise goes on in that jungle. Neither are the inmates under the dominion of a singular authority. But adjoining this jungle republic is a modern republic which the warlords are rebelling against. And from that jungle, they invade the territories of the more established and legitimate government with the latter seemingly and inexplicably helpless.
Curiously, this lethargy is rationalized on some tenuous grounds. The most canvassed is that hostage taking is a complex matrix requiring extreme care so as not to harm victims and innocent settlements in the forests. This has been the rationalization even as we are also regaled with the touted capacity of the government to decisively tame the monster.
Of recent, there emerged the laughable excuse from the Minister of Information Lai Mohammed that the government is being cautious in attacking the bandits’ enclaves for fear of destroying the ecosystem even as he pointed out that kidnapping also takes place in the United States of America and elsewhere. The purport of the latter part of this statement is that there is nothing special with the serial invasion of schools and abduction of pupils in their numbers since kidnappings also takes place in advanced countries. That is the kind of tepid, puerile and insensitive rationalizations that have exposed our citizens to the mercy of the marauding bandits.
This attitude is a measure of the dilemma we face in the festering insurgency of the bandits and herdsmen that has put the legitimacy of the government to serious test. Not unexpectedly, events have taken place in several fronts to depict unambiguously how helpless and hopeless we have become as the reign of the bandits looms larger than life.
Bandits seem to have perfected a devious technology for the serial abduction of school pupils’ and other innocent citizens in their hundreds with the nation’s security architecture offering no resistance. There was the Kankara abduction of about 400 school children in Katsina State on the very day President Buhari arrived that state for some rest.
As the dust of the Kankara abduction was about to settle, the government college in Kagara, Niger State became a victim when 42 students, staff and their relations were abducted in similar circumstance. Before the Kagara incident, travelers in Niger State mass transit bus had suffered the same predictable fate. Negotiations for the release of the travelers and the students went on contemporaneously.
That is not all. Zamfara State which had been at the epicenter of the bandits’ scourge had students’ abduction visited on it when over 300 students of Government College, Jangebe were abducted and ferried into the forest in similar circumstances with one student shot dead. Elsewhere in Kaduna, Plateau and Sokoto states, it has been a sorry tale of serial killings and kidnapping for ransom. As I write, reports of kidnappings and killings have continued to make the headlines in our national dailies despite the pledge by the president that the Jangebe abduction will be the last one. About seven states in the north have shut down schools as a result of the kidnapping spree.
Why kidnappers target school children is not very clear. Speculation has it that it is to discourage school enrolment in those areas. This is also obvious from the closure of schools and confessions of some of the abductees who said they will not return to their former schools.
That takes us to the question as to whether there exists a link between the so-called bandits and Boko Haram insurgents that see education as evil. There is also the theory that bandits are lured into school children abduction because of the huge money they make from it especially given the sentiments associated with long incarceration of children in dangerous forests.
Curiously, the raging state of anarchy is being compounded by the inexplicable posturing of state and non-state actors. Even as the scourge of banditry has been with us for some years now, there is lack of unanimity on who these bandits are, what they really want or what their grouses are. Even then, there does not seem much difference between those termed bandits in the northern parts of the country and the herdsmen that are at the center of the mounting criminality in the south. The only difference is in their degree of criminality and territorial control. This difference can also be explained by environmental variables. We shall return to it.
The interface of Islamic scholar, Sheik Ahmad Gumi with Zamfara bandits, opened new dimensions to the bandits’ question. The two camps he met and had discussions with in the forests were those of the bandits and the Fulani. But in the presentations of their nebulous grievances, leaders of the bandits spoke for the Fulani. They fingered cattle rustling and attacks on Fulani by the military and Zamfara indigenes as part of their grievances. There was nothing in the report presented by Gumi that showed a difference between the bandits and the Fulani herdsmen. They struck as just two sides of the same coin.
This fact is relevant to understand the character of those termed bandits in the north and herdsmen in the south. It was largely on the same score that Gumi’s recommendation of amnesty for the bandits and the similarities he sought to draw between them and the Niger Delta militants failed to fly. Not with his disclosure that the bandits were on the verge of acquiring anti-aircraft ammunitions. If anything, revelations from Gumi reinforce the feeling that bandits have become law unto themselves; and we run the same risk in the south unless quick action is taken to tame the monster.
But there were some unintended payoffs from Gumi’s visit. It is evident that the interests and grouses of the bandits are similar with those of the herdsmen in northern forests Gumi visited. These interests are not dissimilar with events in southern forests and bushes occupied by the herdsmen. But their grouses and lethality of criminal attacks against host communities in the south vary because of environmental factors. And this is quite understandable.
In the north, both the bandits and herdsmen share the same cultural traits with the local population. They are entrenched within those environments on account of cultural affinity and religion. That gives them wider latitude to operate undetected. Their occupation of the forests had long been accepted as a way of life.
The situation is a different ball game in the south. Herdsmen in the south do not share these features with their host communities. The forests belong to the host communities and they are regularly aware of the presence of the visitors. For the same reasons, it is not possible for herdsmen to embark on serial abduction of school children in high numbers without being detected. That may have been the constraint.
There is everything to suspect those causing trouble from the southern forests are a cell of the bandits. The risk of a bandits’ republic in the south in the same manner it is in the north must be avoided like a plague. Forests are our greatest challenge in the festering insecurity. President Buhari’s order to shoot bandits with AK-47 riffle though belated is nonetheless the way to go.