By Owei Lakemfa.
BANDITS have taken over parts of the country, especially the North West, in a determined effort to make banditry the most lucrative industry in the country. While they are united in their efforts and are growing bolder, the governors of the states are divided. Some governors see the bandits as victims of ethnic cleansing, others argue that there should be negotiations, amnesty and compensation for them.
However, Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, disagrees, arguing that bandits are criminals who must face the wrath of the law and justice. He said rather than negotiating with them, bandits and other criminal elements “must be degraded and decimated to a state of unconditional submission to constituted authority”. He submitted that criminal gangs, bandits, insurgents and ethno-religious militias in making a conscious decision to challenge the country’s sovereignty and terrorise the citizenry must be wiped out immediately and without hesitation. He says banditry has driven farmers from their land, putting food security at risk, displaced communities, stolen property and deprived people of their right to life and that a stop must be put to these criminal acts so the people can live in peace.
To achieve these objectives, El-Rufai advocates better training and equipment for the security forces, increasing their numbers, upgrading them technologically and modernising their armaments. He argued that the security of communities depends on the robust projection of state power and the ability to overawe and deter criminals. He emphasised that: “The prerogatives of the state need to be asserted, not merely proclaimed. The people we put in uniform must never be placed in avoidable danger, outgunned or outnumbered by non-state actors.”
He also made the sensible argument that policing a large country like Nigeria with a 923,768 square-kilometre land-mass in a unitary manner is not pragmatic. So, the establishment of state police and other levels of policing, is inevitable.
He regretted the lack of synergy among the governors in the North West on how to fight banditry, pointing out that a: “State like Zamfara adopted a policy of dialogue with the gunmen, giving them amnesty, which I don’t believe in. With this, we have differences on how to tackle the situation.” He submits that: “It is deceitful to believe that a person who is now counting millions as gains from ransom will embrace dialogue and return to his previous lifestyle where he saw little money occasionally.”
He warned his fellow governors who are prevaricating that if they do not unite and let the Federal Government provide the states with soldiers and police to go after the bandits in the forests and eliminate them, it will be difficult to defeat banditry.
I was so enamoured with El-Rufai’s principled, foresighted and statesmanlike position that I almost hit the road to Kaduna to go shake his hand, salute his courage and pledge my support. The only restraint was that owing to activities of bandits on the Abuja-Kaduna highway, I needed to go into days of fasting and prayers. Then, doubts started creeping in; should El-Rufai’s position be taken on face value when less than five years ago he had a completely different position?
In 2016 as bandits ravaged Kaduna State, El-Rufai as the governor rather than use or rely on the security forces to restore law and order, choose to negotiate and pay off the killers, in some cases sending state funds to pay them in neigbouring countries. He told journalists this rather bizarre story himself: “For Southern Kaduna, we didn’t understand what was going on and we decided to set up a committee under Gen. Martin Luther Agwai (retd) to find out what was going on there. What was established was that the root of the problem has a history starting from the 2011 post-election violence. “Fulani herdsmen from across Africa bring their cattle down towards the Middle Belt and Southern Nigeria. The moment the rains start around March, April, they start moving them up to go back to their various communities and countries. “Unfortunately, it was when they were moving up with their cattle across Southern Kaduna that the elections of 2011 took place and the crisis trapped some of them. Some of them were from Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Mali and Senegal. Fulanis are in 14 African countries and they traverse this country with the cattle. So many of these people were killed, cattle lost and they organised themselves and came back to revenge. So a lot of what was happening in Southern Kaduna was actually from outside Nigeria… We took certain steps. We got a group of people that were going round trying to trace some of these people in Cameroon, Niger Republic and so on to tell them that there is a new governor who is Fulani like them and has no problem paying compensations for lives lost and he is begging them to stop killing. “In most of the communities, once that appeal was made to them, they said they have forgiven. There are one or two that asked for monetary compensation. They said they have forgiven the death of human beings, but want compensation for cattle. We said no problem, and we paid some.”
There is no record that like the foreign herders, he also paid the local farmers and citizens, some of who were also killed with their farms and homes destroyed. The identity of the killers El-Rufai paid and how much they were paid is not certain. It is also not known if they used the so-called compensation to buy more arms. However, what is certain is that the terror attacks did not abate.
So which of the El-Rufai positions is his true position? Is it the one five years ago when he presented the bandits as victims for whom he crossed borders into countries like Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Mali and Senegal not only to ask them to forgive Nigerians, but also pay them to stop coming to kill Nigerians, or what he is espousing now which is that these killers are mere criminals with whom there should be no negotiations, no amnesty given and no ransom paid? Did he have a change of mind, in which case he needs to so express and explain why? I think as humans, we can make mistakes, but he should own up to his mistakes and not to act as if this has always been his position.
I am trying to work out in my mind whether El-Rufai’s current position that banditry should be taken headlong and stamped out is a principled one or one dictated by the 2023 presidential election which he is rumoured to be interested in either as candidate or running mate. If you know the truth, please tell us.
-Owei Lakemfa, journalist, labour activist and human rights crusader, writes from Lagos.