John Adams in Minna
After months of assault, torture, killings and raping or women, communities in Niger State can now heave a sigh of relief as peace is gradually returning to communities, towns and villages that have been under siege from armed bandits.
The respite is the first fruit of the comprehensive peace deal struck by the government with leaders of the groups of bandits, in an effort to end the killings and maiming of residents of the state.
While the mayhem lasted, people in the communities lost everything and were forced to relocate from their ancestral homes to refugee camps in various local government areas of the state.
In the last three months, women have been made widows, men turned into widowers, children orphaned; families were forced to separate in the search for safe abode as the armed bandits unleashed terror on the people with impunity.
Records show that over 100 people, including women and children have been killed, 200 injured, over 10 women were serially raped and some killed in the process. Over 2,000 people were displaced from their homes and in the process they lost property their property and had their homes destroyed in several instances.
Well over 50 communities in two local government areas of Shiroro and Rafi were the worst hit by the banditry.
In Shiroro LGA for example, on Sunday, June 9, eight communities, namely Kwaki, Barden dawaki, Ajatawyi, Gwassa, Ajayin, Bataro, Bwailo, Baton and Giji were woken up by massive gunfire by the bandits. Who were said to have numbered about 100 and heavily armed. They stormed the communities on 52 motorcycles in commando fashion in the wee hours of the day.
When sound of the guns died down after three hours of well coordinated attacks, 12 people were killed as 20 others were seriously injured in Kwaki village during the first attack on Sunday night.
Again, the next day, Monday, in broad day light, another neighboring community, Ajayi Kwaki came under attack in what the people said was a reprisal attack after youths from the area had earlier repelled attacks on Kwaki community.
When the dust settled, 58 people were killed while about 100 others sustained injuries. Most of the survivors were those who were lucky to escape into the bushes during the first attack on Sunday.
Worried by this development, the state governor, Alhaji Abubakar Sani Bello decided to take a number of measures aimed at addressing the security challenges, which almost brought the state and the people to their knees.
One critical measure was to establish a 24-hour one-stop security response call center equipped with state of the art equipment to coordinate and respond to all distress calls from all parts of the state.
This security response call centre has security personnel drawn from all the security outfits in the state with the sole aim of managing all the distress calls. The state government also moved to enact legislation on the formation of vigilance groups with a view to harmonizing private security services in the state.
The government went further and reinvigorated its support to the standing joint operations by providing necessary logistics and welfare to enable them clear the crisis prone communities in Rafi, Shiroro and Munya local government areas of the state under siege by bandits.
All these measures are to complement the existing federal military operations in the state, like Operation Karamin Goro, Operation 777, Operation Whirlpunch, Operation MESA, Ayem Akpatuma, Operation Sharan Daj and Girgizan Daji, among others.
The governor, during a stakeholders interactive session on the general affairs of the state in Minna, acknowledged that the issue of security had become a grave concern to the government and everybody. Hence, he considered it necessary to reconsider the government’s strategies.
“Niger shares boundary with some Northwestern states that are neck deep in insecurity challenges. This has made policing very cumbersome due to the influx of some criminal elements, taking advantage of the large expanse of forests in our state,” the governor said, adding, “crime and criminality in the 21st century have assumed sophisticated dimensions, and for this reason, as stakeholders, we need to think ahead and deploy appropriate strategies towards curbing the menace.”
In compliance with the recent resolutions by the 19 governors of the northern states after a peace summit in Zamfara, the governor decided to go into a peace deal with the bandits with a view to engaging them in dialogue as a way of finding solution to banditry in the state.
The governor acknowledged that military operations, though not completely ruled out, it cannot bring permanent solution to the current insecurity situation in the state.
Even though he made it abundantly clear that the peace deal was not a sign of weakness on the part of the government, rather the peace approach became necessary given the negative impact of banditry activities on the people and pressure on the state government to provide safe and secure environment for its citizens. More importantly, he said that no sacrifice was too much for peace to reign, especially now that no region of the country is safe due to one form of violence or the other.
The governor said further: “In the north east, we are faced with the Boko Haram menace which has continued to take human lives; in the north west, we are experiencing cattle rustling and banditry, and until recently herdsmen and farmers engaged in bloody conflicts in the north central.
“The people of the south east and south west are faced with cases of kidnapping, ritual killings and other heinous crimes and the Niger Delta crisis in the south-south is still food for thought.”
The governor expressed worry that these violent crimes have destructive effects on the very fabric that holds the country together as a nation, and reasoned that every possible measure must be explored, including dialogue so as to minimize the terrible situation.
Nevertheless, the governor said the government was mindful of the need to deploy long term, more holistic approach to tackling security challenges in parts of the state, stressing that, “finding lasting solutions to the violent crimes rests squarely on the shoulders of the government.”
The governor, in demonstration of his commitment to the peace deal, released 13 bandits who had been in custody in Minna as part of activities that marked the World Peace Day.
The release of the bandits seems to have paid off as 35 other bandits voluntarily surrendered their weapons (at a quiet ceremony, as requested by the bandits) and expressed their willingness to be rehabilitated and reabsorbed into the society. This happened less than two weeks after the peace deal took effect.
The bandits, it was gathered, told the government that more of them were ready to surrender their arms but needed the government’s assurance of rehabilitating them. The development has brought great relief to some of these communities as the people are now gradually returning to their homes after months living at the IDP camps.
People in the communities said the government’s peace deal with the bandits was long overdue. They expressed joy over the relief that has come their way after months of onslaught by armed men.
They showered praises on the government for taking the bold step towards ensuring that peace returned to the communities. Some community leaders who spoke with Sunday Sun described the peace deal as a welcome development that would enable them resume to their farming business.
Adamu Abdullahi from Kusherki community said all he wanted from the government is to ensure peace in their community.
“We thank God for this development at least we can now go back to our homes. We want the government to continue with these efforts because we are tired. We have lost everything to these bandits. But now we can sleep with our eyes closed. I lost much property during the attacks but I thank God peace has finally come,” Abdullahi said.
The Secretary to the State Government, Alhaji Matane, whose office is in charge of security architecture in the state, while commenting on the efforts made by the government so far towards addressing the security challenges, noted that the past few months were a great challenge to the government because of the activities of the armed bandits.
He said: “The government embarked on the procurement of equipment for the security agencies to enable them deal with situation. The government had also identified some places where these bandits were using as their hideout, like the Alawa forest, and the state government wrote to the federal government and sought assistance in securing the place.
“Right now as I speak to you, there is heavy presence of security personnel from all the security outfits and the forest is well secured now with regular patrol by a helicopter gunship. But fundamentally, the government decided to engage the bandits in dialogue and we started this with some of their leaders around Kontakoro, in Mariga Local Government Area which shares borders with Kebbi and Zamfara states.
He said that the government realized that some of the bandits actually reside in those neighboring states but only migrate occasionally to wreack havoc in Niger State, adding, “That is why we needed to dialogue with them and in compliance with the Inspector General of Police who recommended dialogue. “In the spirit of that dialogue, the state government decided to symbolically release about 13 bandits that were earlier apprehended and held in police custody. They also promised us that there would be no further kidnapping, cattle rustling and other forms of banditry. Thank God there has been relative peace since then and we hope that we will achieve absolute peace in the area of security. We will extend this dialogue approach to other areas like Shiroro and Munya LGAs and hope that this measure will yield results at the end of the day.”
Above all the SSG assured that the government will continue to reinforce security across the state, adding that despite the peace initiatives, some bad eggs amongst the bandits might want to spring surprises. However, he assured that the government would maintain vigilance.