These are strange times in Nigeria. We live in an era when strangeness has become the new order. Untoward developments have become the new way of seeing and knowing. The unfamiliar has become so familiar that we have come to accept it as axiomatic.
It is in this era of strangeness in Nigeria that high-level criminality, which has practically brought a section of the country to its knees, is euphemistically referred to as banditry.
Regardless of the veiled attempt to make a bad situation look tolerable, the story of banditry remains stranger than fiction. Like all evils, banditry in northern Nigeria had very small beginnings. When it began to rear its ugly head, it was no more than a tolerable menace. Some street urchins had then merely constituted themselves into some kind of nuisance. They occasionally appeared at street corners and open markets with light weapons, harassing law-abiding members of the public into submission. They took what was possible to take away and dissolved into the nearest neighbourhood. His action was seen as that of a hungry, decrepit fellow who was trying to eke out a living in a very crude and unconventional way. While this was taking place, some prominent northern leaders had cause to express worry over the menace of the bandit.
But that was then. The bandit that concerned northern leaders worried about has metamorphosed into a full-blown monster. Strangely, again, if you thought that those who were worried by his initial irritation would rise against the strange development, you are utterly mistaken. Those who used to complain about the irritations of the bandit with a face and voice have melted into thin air in the face of the menacing overreach of the monstrous and faceless bandit. The voice of the concerned northern elder, which once raised objections about the evils of banditry, has gone shrill. He does not appear perturbed anymore. The bandit has left the confined arena. He is now the owner of the environment where he operates. Everybody is scared stiff of him. He is the most talked about anti-social element in Nigeria of today. In the North where he operates, no territory is too sacred to be invaded. He has ventured into hitherto sacrosanct places. He has violated everything that we hold dear.
When he went beyond what he was originally thought to be incapable of, our original response bordered on disbelief. That was the time the criminal gang began to abduct schoolchildren without let or hindrance. They even dared it in President Muhammadu Buhari’s Katsina State when the President was visiting the state. The naive Nigerian was shocked by the effrontery but the President treated the incident as a non-issue. The uninitiated Nigerian found the President’s disposition strange. Other abductions were to follow in quick succession. From Zamfara to Niger and beyond. Having established his hold on a number of states, particularly those in the North-West, the bandit then settled for Kaduna as the most fertile ground for his criminal activities.
When this whole thing started, especially the initial abductions, Nigerians thought that government would rise to the occasion. They expected government to intervene decisively. Government, obviously, did not fully disappoint. At least, it gave the people the impression that something was being done, that it would rescue the abducted schoolchildren. That was to happen in a matter of days. But nobody told a clear story. Were the schoolchildren released by their abductors or were they recused by security forces? No clarification came. We moved on in the typical Nigerian fashion without probing into the development.
However, with the safe return of the schoolchildren, Nigerians thought that the next step to take was for government to dislodge the bandits from their operational base and liquidate them. But that did not happen. Then we began to wonder again why government was incapable of any decisive action. When no clear answer came, we concluded that our security agents did not know where the bandits were. But Sheik Abubakar Gumi, the spokesman of the bandits, was quick to tell us the true state of affairs. He told us in clear terms that government knew where the bandits were. That was strange. If government knows where the criminals are, why has it not gone for them? Why have the security agencies not launched an attack on them? Why do they operate from a safe haven? We wondered loudly.
We were still trying to meander out of this confusing scenario when the bandit consolidated his hold on Kaduna State. The gang invaded Federal College of Forestry Mechanization, Afaka, and abducted some students. The dust raised by the Afaka incident was yet to settle when the hoodlums pounced on Greenfield University. In all of this, all that we heard bordered on payment of ransom to the abductors. Government has never talked tough. It has never expressed surprise or embarrassment at the goings-on. It has not made any attempt to go for the bandits or attack their hideout, wherever it may be. So, where does this bandit who is wreaking havoc on the land operate from? Is he an invisible creature? Does he live in the air? If he has a face and location, why does government talk about him as an abstract entity? If he has flesh and blood, why is government not interested in neutralizing his hold on our land? These questions are clearly begging for answers.
It is strange that the bandit stepped forward the other day to tell Nigerians that he needs some N100 million to effect the release of the abducted students of Greenfield University. He threatened to kill the rest of them, if the money was not paid within 48 hours. The gang also demanded 10 motorbikes as a condition that must be met before the release of the students. The deadline given by the bandits has passed. Strangely, again, Gumi has told us that they (who are these people?) have convinced the bandits not to kill the students. In other words, they should exercise some patience while efforts are being made to meet their demands. There must be something strange about this whole drama. Why is our government entertaining us with this strangeness? Why are we being coerced into playing a role in a story whose plot we do not understand?
Going by the strangeness that underlies the activities of the bandit, it is becoming clearer by the day that banditry in the North has the backing of some powerful forces from the region. That perhaps explains why there is studied silence from northern leaders over the matter. Maybe, the region has a plan which the rest of the country does not understand. You could also say that there is something that some elements in Nigerian government knows about banditry which the rest of us, the uninitiated, do not know. That is probably the reason security agents are not after the criminals. The criminal silence of the government over the criminality of the bandit is strange through and through.