By Yung Alhaji
On April 13, a group of armed assailants reportedly raided the College of Health and Technology in Tsafe LGA, in Zamfara State, abducting several students, many of whom were women. This is only the latest in a seemingly unending string of kidnappings that have intensified in Northwest Nigeria since 2019.
However, while northern states — and the northwest in particular — are the hardest-hit by armed gangs, “terrorists”, and criminal groups, crime and militancy now appears to encompass the entirety of Nigeria. No state has been spared of brazen criminal attacks and mass casualty events. Hardly a week now passes without news coming to light that another harrowing massacre of Nigerians has taken place.
In addition, resulting from and intensifying this insecurity have been the rise of armed secessionist groups in south-west and south-east Nigeria, who have engaged in open confrontations with the state security forces, leading to several injuries and casualties. So frequent have violent clashes and attacks grown in Nigeria that they now almost appear to have become a normalized aspect of Nigerian life, with each new report of a mass killing or kidnapping garnering diminishing public outrage.
Yet, for working Nigerians who lack the luxury of private security and VIP protection reserved for politicians and business people, several crucial, unanswered questions continue to echo in conversations within their homes and workplaces: Why has life in Nigeria become so cheap? What is the cause of this seeming epidemic of insecurity? And what can be done to resolve it?
A recent report entitled “Multiple Nodes: Common Causes” and published by the Center for Democracy and Development (CDD) a research and advocacy organization in Abuja, has attempted to answer these questions. The report, which is national in its scope, seeks to investigate similarities and differences among the various insecurity hotspots in Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones. It finds that, while there are specific local circumstances that trigger conflict there are also various issues common across the Nigeria which contribute to sustaining insecurity. Usefully, the report also seeks to debunk some prevalent myths that have not only divided and mislead Nigerians, but also contributed to worsening the general climate of panic, tension, and mutual distrust.
One important myth debunked by the report is the claim that insecurity particularly in Northwest Nigeria, the worse hit region, is being treated with “kid gloves” and that, instead, what is required is a more militarized approach that will “smoke out” bandits and terrorists once and for all.
The argument is often explicitly based on the belief that the president Buhari, being ethnically Fulani, is shielding bandit groups because many of them are peopled by his ethnic kin-folk. Implicitly, this argument also assumes that the security agencies almost literally possess a “magic bullet” that, if only they would use it, can resolve conflict in the region, and that security agencies have both the capacity and the legitimacy to successfully carry out such an operation.
However, the findings presented in the report challenge both of these assumptions. In the first place, the report points out that both the federal government and state governments have, for years, primarily relied on federal security agencies and local vigilantes and hunters to fight insecurity.
In fact, a campaign of air strikes has been carried out by the Nigerian air-force, particularly intensely through much of 2021, ostensibly targeting criminal hideouts and bandit camps. The military has also launched a series of offensives in the region, with the current one, named Operation Hadarin Daji, frequently claiming to have led to the “clearing” or “bursting” of bandit syndicates.
While some bandit kingpins have been (extra-judicially) killed in the process, this only appears to have led to the proliferation of groups who reorganize around new leaders. At the same time, state governments and local businesspeople have intensified the practice of empowering vigilante groups — most notably the largely Hausa group called Yan Sakai — providing them with money, political access, and legal cover to act with impunity in their attacks against perceived bandits.
However, from the point of view of bringing an end to the conflict, these responses have not only been spectacularly unsuccessful, but they have even been counterproductive. In fact, the federal air strikes have reportedly killed more civilians (and cattle) than armed groups.
At the same time, Yan Sakai and other vigilante groups have increasingly meted out collective punishment on Fulani communities, thereby both ethnisizing the conflict and reducing the likelihood that bandit prone communities will be willing to corporate with state agencies seen to be funding such brutality.
Thus, while government sponsored, heavy-handed responses have ultimately served to weaken trust in the state security forces and contributed to intensifying tensions between local Hausa and Fulani communities, they have done very little to actually slow down banditry.
What these findings suggest is that the northwest has much in common with the north-east, north-central, south-east, south-west, and south-south; in all cases, militarized responses to insecurity have only made matters worse rather than better. In fact, the over-utilization of state security forces across the varied conflicts in Nigeria only contributes to their overstretched nature, further weakening their capacity and professionalism where they are deployed. This suggests, then, that across all regions, the demands for the government to “not treat them with kid gloves” are at best misguided, and at worse disastrous.
A second important myth that the report debunks is the notion that the insecurity has a single cause, be it tied to a particular politician, a single economic interest (for instance, gold mining), or a single ideological motivation (e.g. jihadism, islamization, etc). Instead, through tracing the history and dynamics of conflicts in Nigeria’s major hotspots, the report points to a multiplicity of overlapping factors — including state violence, the failure of criminal justice systems, the proliferation of arms and ammunition — rather than relying on conspiratorial narratives.
While cautioning against the continued reliance on militarized responses to the problem — be they in the form of local vigilantes or federal security forces — the report also makes important recommendations for alternative methods of resolving the crisis. These include the use of transitional justice mechanisms. Ideally, such mechanisms not only create an opportunity for both victims and perpetrators to offer public testimony, but also for major instigators of violence (both within and outside of government) to be held accountable.
Mechanisms such as this can be chaired by locally-based arbitrators, negotiators, and peace committees, selected by the frontline communities based on their knowledge of the crisis and degree of impartiality. In contexts such as Nigeria, where both federal and state officials are widely seen as illegitimate and ineffective, such local, community, or non-state approaches to resolving conflict may go a longer way.
The study also proposes that, in addition to creating better economic conditions for ordinary Nigerians, initiatives to investigate, prosecute perpetrators, and mop up widely available arms and ammunitions can have a more enduring impact in lowering crime than can episodic military operations or the funding of local vigilantes.
The full report is available from: