By Nairalovers Nigeria
On the day he was decorated with his new rank of Lieutenant-General, Chief of Army Staff, Farouk Yahaya, made a proud boast. The army, he said, had sent many bandits and other criminals undermining national security “to God to go and answer for their crimes.”
It’s been two weeks since those remarks; the litany of atrocities and frequency of attacks, suggest he’s not made enough appointments for them with their maker.
At a time when we’ve become well-nigh unshockable, many were stunned by reports on Monday of how intense gunfire from bandits brought down a Nigerian Air Force jet returning from a bombing raid on targets in the forests between Zamfara and Kaduna States.
Thankfully, the pilot who ejected from his disabled craft was rescued. The military high command has celebrated the heroics and bravery of Flight Lieutenant Abayomi Dairo as is appropriate. But the larger significance of this incident must not be lost.
Nigeria is no longer dealing with ragtag armed gangs in the Northwest. You don’t bring down a military jet with a pistol or Dane gun. Many photographs of bandits with their victims in recent times have shown them strutting around with RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and AK47s. But to perpetrate what they did two days ago would have required something of the calibre of shoulder-held Surface-To-Air Missiles (SAM).
You don’t acquire this kind of capacity overnight and you can’t without adequate funds. So while governments and influential individuals in the region pursued wrongheaded initiatives that appeased the criminals, or pushed a narrative that the society had somehow offended them, they pressed on with their real agenda – stocking up for war, because you don’t take an RPG to a social gathering.
In another example that the gunmen mean business, they ambushed and killed 13 policemen in a single attack in Bungudu Local Government Area last Sunday.
That same weekend a certain bandit leader Kachalla Turji made headlines after he and his men seized 150 persons from several villages in retaliation for the arrest of his father. He had in a meeting with noted cleric Sheikh Ahmad Gumi in February bragged that his gang had enough weapons in their possession to paralyse Zamfara.
Although they’ve been linked to attacks on police stations and security forces in the Southeast, for all their aggressive rhetoric, for all the hype and demonisation, Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) militants are yet to scale up to the level of shooting down fighter jets. As for Sunday Igboho’s forces, they are content to deploy African magic and associated disappearing arts.
I fear, however, that the government would continue to find it tough going against the bandits. They are a different animal from foes it’s contending with in the Northeast, Southwest and Southeast because their motivations are neither political nor religious but economic.
Ransom is more addictive than any opiate because it’s easy money. For as long as there are people, isolated institutions and communities, it will keep coming. With the parlous state of the economy, there are very few enterprises that guarantee the return that hostage-taking does – not even crude oil.
That’s why talk of amnesty for the bloodthirsty hounds always comes to nothing. Such an arrangement modelled after what currently exists in the Niger Delta would only offer paltry government handouts to multimillionaire criminals. It’s not enough incentive for those who can make mindboggling money from pinching fellow human beings.
In April, Auwal Daudawa, who masterminded the abduction in December 2020 of over 300 schoolboys in Kankara, Katsina State, took up arms again just weeks after claiming he had repented. His excuse? Frustration over “lack of proper engagement” for him and his family after the Zamfara government undertook to cater for his welfare.
A brief recap of some recent cases better illustrates the ransom economics. Parents of 16 Greenfield University students abducted in April paid a whooping N180 million to secure the release of their wards after 38 days in captivity. That’s a tidy return for five weeks’ works irrespective of the number of goons recruited for this assignment.
After 28 days in their kidnappers’ den seven staff and students of Nuhu Bamalli Polytechnic in the same state were freed after payment of N10 million.
The parents of 120 students of Bethel Baptist Secondary School, Kaduna, are currently sourcing a ransom of N60 million – at N500,000 per child – to bring them home.
The more ambitious abductors of the Emir of Kajuru have set an asking price of N200 million to release members his household still in their custody, having cut the traditional ruler loose as a gesture of goodwill.
The business is relatively risk-free because its promoters have all the cards in their hands: they can press emotional buttons of their victims’ families while government postures and emits empty threats.
Bandits have one major advantage in the sense that the authorities underrate them and underestimate their capabilities. For while the convenient narrative is that they are led by illiterate warlords, we see in their actions bands operating with increasing sophistication. They may appear rash and irrational but execute their missions in ways that are clearly well-thought out.
For instance, in most recent cases the gangs have swooped on isolated secondary schools and villages, riding scores of motorcycles for easy get away into the dense forests. Even while negotiating with the families of hostages seized from Greenfield University, they requested brand new motorcycles clearly for operational use.
This suggests a better understanding of the terrain they operate in and the crimes they have chosen to perpetrate, than those who are attempting to bring them to heel. So far, government seems content to strafe them from air – with limited accuracy – whereas their quarry can appear and disappear once the jet has returned to base.
There’s a limit to what can be achieved this way, suggesting an urgent rethinking of approach. Government should be worried because the longer the bandits retain these advantages the worse the problem becomes. Once upon a time Boko Haram was an irritant limited to Maiduguri; twelve years after it’s a malignant rash spread all over the Northeast.
Today, the government’s recent successes have boxed it into a corner. With IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu and Igboho restrained, all attention would be focused on the bandits. President Muhammadu Buhari and his team must now answer those wondering how their long arms can pluck foes from Kenya and Benin, but can’t seem to do the same in the wild, wild Northwest.