Agaju Madugba, Katsina
The Presidency recently said it had authorised the commencement of a major military operation to rid Katsina State of bandits and kidnappers. The report must have come to the state governor, Aminu Bello Masari, as a major relief.
For some time, there has been sustained bloodletting in the state perpetrated by bandits and other hoodlums on defenceless residents across a number of communities.
At least, eight of the 34 local government areas in Katsina State have remained under varying degrees of siege for several months as bandits embark on raids of villages, killing people in cold blood, rustling animals, razing houses razed, with a number of residents taken hostage.
Apparently exploiting the proximity of most of these villages to the Rugu Forest, the attackers, after their bloody campaigns, often retreat to the bowels of the forest, which has consistently been described as impenetrable. The security forces have been largely unable to confront and tackle the menace of banditry, cattle rustling and kidnapping in the state.
Statistics from the Coalition of Civil Society organisations in Katsina indicated that bandits and kidnappers launched a total of 26 attacks on communities and individuals between December 2019 and January 5, 2020 alone. In the process, they tended to also expand their areas of operations with incursions into more territories from the initial eight frontline local government areas and infiltrating Batagarawa Local Government Area, which shares boundaries with Katsina, the capital.
The figures have since become obsolete. In recent times, hardly does a day pass without reports of gruesome attacks on communities of Safana, Batsari, Jibia, Dan-Musa, Kurfi, Dutsima, Kankakara, Dandume, Faskari, Sabuwa, Kurfi, Rimi, Danja, Kafur, Matazu, Kaita and Malumfashi local government areas.
And, according to the Katsina State Independent Security Situation Report, bandits killed a total of 61 persons and kidnapped 65 others, with more than 800 residents displaced across Batsari, Safana, Faskari, Dutsima, Dan-Musa, Kankara and Sabuwa LGAs, between May 2 and May 15, 2020, with well over 3,000 cattle rustled within the period.
The civil society groups in their report noted: “Should this situation continue, the people may be left with no other options than to take the law into their hands to protect themselves. This may spell doom for the future of security in the state.”
Masari had expressed similar fears during a recent interaction with the media, at Government House, Katsina. Admitting that he was indeed confused and helpless, the governor said: “I am very sad and I have started running out of words because life has become nightmarish for communities around the dreaded Rugu Forest in the state, as bloody attacks by bandits have become routine.
“Our people living in the villages bordering the forest are going through very difficult times. For most of them, it is not about coronavirus. It is about the bandits virus. Yesterday, the divisional police officer at Faskari was nearly killed but he is now at the Orthopaedic Hospital, suffering from two gunshot wounds and we hope he will survive it. That same night, in a village in Sabuwa Local Government Area, five people were killed and all their animals rustled. The same night, bandits kidnapped the head of Danmusa Local Government Area from his house and, two weeks ago, we lost over 50 people in similar attacks in various parts of the state.
“The people are losing confidence in us and they are threatening to take up arms, but the bandits have more sophisticated weapons and the people cannot confront them with dane guns. The bandits are worse than animals because they lack any forms of education. They claim to be Muslims but they do not know the tenets of Islam and they do not behave as Muslims even in this month of Ramadan. They have no knowledge of Western education. The people who are doing this to us are known, their leaders are known and they no longer hide themselves. The only thing is that they live in areas that are difficult for the military to access and there is shortage of equipment, hindering progress.
“I am disturbed, more so as the coronavirus phenomenon has tended to divert attention from the killings. Otherwise, the attention of Nigeria and indeed the world would have been on Katsina State in particular and the nation’s North-West zone in general.”
In fact, graphic details from accounts of survivors of some of the attacks remain as bizarre and beyond explanation as what may possibly constitute the real or perceived intentions of the bandits. In some instances, suckling babies are snatched from mothers and flung into raging fire, while the attackers embark on slaughtering spree of residents. In some other cases, based on eyewitness accounts, the bandits invade communities, chase away residents and set their houses on fire, shoot or slaughter their animals and dare the villagers to return. And, during some of the raids still, the bandits strike in some communities, take some hostages and disappear with them into the forest, devoid of any killings.”
But the Masari administration has not been resting on its oars. Several steps have been taken in the past to check banditry in the state.
In August 2019, Masari, against all odds, went deep into the various forest locations in parts of the state in a bid to woo the criminals into surrendering their arms and adopt dialogue. The initiative might not have yielded the expected results, for, according to a report by the civil society groups, “the dialogue done with the bandits, initiated in good faith, became efficient for a while because it was neither professional nor built on any defined framework.” But while explaining the apparent failure of the initiative, Masari noted that, “Not all those living in the forests embraced the peace process. Those that didn’t join, who are not more than 10 to 15 per cent, are still holding unto their weapons and are leaders in the forest. If you say those who embraced the peace should hand over their arms, the other groups still holding unto their arms may kill them or force them to go back to banditry. What those 10 to 15 per cent group want is for the repentant bandits to come back and continue with them. The only way they can protect themselves is by holding unto their weapons.”
Apart from the failed dialogue option, Masari had in January signed into law a bill restricting the use of motorcycles and tricycles in the state. According to the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Alhaji Ahmed El-Marzuq, the law prohibits the use of motorcycles and tricycles between the hours of 7 pm and 6am and violators of the law are liable on conviction to one year jail term or fine or both.
“Government took the decision because of the discovery that most of the kidnappings are being carried out by tricycle and motorcycle operators in not only the eight frontline local governments but in the entire state,” the commissioner said. And, government has, since August 2019, banned the sale of the Boxer brand of motorcycles popularly called “Boko Haram” in all parts of the state, as part of measures to curtail crime and criminality.
Reports describe the Boxer motorcycle as rugged and capable of withstanding rough terrains and bush paths, thereby making it a choice vehicle for bandits and other criminal elements.
Moreover, a recent law stipulating the death penalty for banditry and some other offences still subsists but an embattled Masari sums up his helplessness thus: “I have signed the law. If police and other agencies don’t take a matter to court, I will not go and arrest an offender and take him to court. I have given them the ammunition to take offenders to court and see if I will not sign when the court pronounces the death or related sentence on an individual. Whether it is cattle rustling or kidnapping or rape, I am ready to sign the maximum or related sentences once it comes to me. But the issue is that the police need to take a matter to court and there needs to be prosecution before I can do anything.”
Details are still sketchy regarding the scope of the Federal Government’s intervention in the Katsina banditry and kidnapping saga.
A press statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, noted that “a planning team is in the state selecting targets and making preparations for the execution of an unprecedented operation. President Muhammadu Buhari, who expressed sadness over the recent attacks in the state, has extended his condolences to the families of those killed and prayed for the recovery of the injured.”