Why negotiate with bandits?

…Dialogue only option to end banditry – Sheikh Gumi, …Negotiation exercise in futility – el-Rufa’I, …We didn’t authorise any meeting with bandits – FG

Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, an Islamic cleric, recently ventured into forests in Zamfara, Kaduna and Niger states to hold discussions with bandits who have for long created a climate of fear in the North. BENJAMIN SAMSON in this report takes a look at the arguments for and against the initiative.

Background, Gumi’s admonition

Kaduna-based Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmad Mahmud Gumi recently urged the federal government to give amnesty to the bandits terrorising the country. Gumi, who in recent time met with different groups of bandits in the North-west, said dialogue is the only option that can end banditry and insurgency in the country.

Addressing journalists, Gumi said that negotiation was the only option that could bring peace in the country, particularly in the Northern part of the country. He maintained that the use of force would never end the insecurity challenge and called on the government at all levels to dialogue with both the bandits and the insurgents.

Gumi stated further that most of the bandits he came in contact with during his visit to Zamfara forests had declared interest to surrender and embrace peace, but lamented that there was no room for negotiations.

“Many of them told me that they are not comfortable with staying in the forest and want to come out and join other people, but are afraid of being attacked by the communities, especially the Yansakai,” he said.

He, therefore, called on the federal government to give amnesty to the bandits as done to the people of the Niger Delta. “If the bandits are given amnesty, the issue of banditry would soon be a thing of the past,” he said.

Circles of attacks

Criminal gangs known locally as ‘bandits’ in the North-west and North-central parts of the country have scaled up attacks in recent years, killing, kidnapping and burning houses. A gang last week seized 53 people, including 20 women and nine children, who were travelling on a state-owned bus in Kundu village in Niger state.

In a separate incident, 42 people including 27 schoolboys were abducted from a secondary school in Kagara, Niger state. Also, in December 2020, bandits invaded Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, in Kankara local government area of Katsina state and kidnapped hundreds of students.

 Speaking with Blueprint Weekend on the spike in banditry incidents in the North, a security expert, Col. Abdullahi Bako (retd.), decried the myriads of security challenges confronting the North, saying: “For the past decade and more, Nigeria has been battling the deadly Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in an insurgency that has cost up to 30,000 lives and displaced 2.3 million people in and around the North-east region of the country.

“The group, which has carried out attacks in the country’s capital Abuja as well as in neighbouring countries of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, remains very active in the North-east even after splintering into the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Jamaa’atul Ahlis Sunnah (JAS), with both carrying out attacks on civilians, aid workers, and the military.”

He continued: “However, for the past five years, the north-western part of Nigeria has also become gradually engulfed by violence, with much less media coverage because these attacks have been carried out by groups that have been described locally as ‘bandits.’ These are not Islamist terrorist groups with international affiliations which would more easily capture the imagination of global media.

“Bandit is used here as a catch-all term to describe numerous groups that have carried out vicious attacks on local communities, killing scores of people, and have also been kidnapping as many as they can for ransoms. Zamfara, Katsina, Niger and Kaduna states are the epicentres of the growing crisis. The genesis of the lawlessness is not as clear-cut as the Boko Haram insurgency as it is a combination of various factors.”

Previous amnesty

This is not the first time the government has offered amnesty to the armed group. The amnesty programme which involves de-radicalisation of criminals and their re-integration into the society has been embraced by the federal government and some state governments. For instance, the Zamfara state governor has already granted amnesty to Auwalun Daudawa, a notorious bandit who led his gang to abduct over 300 schoolboys from Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, in December last year..

Also, the federal government granted amnesty to 600 repentant Boko Haram terrorists last year, a development that attracted nationwide outrage with civil society organisations accusing the government for pampering terrorists who are supposed to be punished for committing crimes.

A minister’s view

In his reaction, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has thrown his weight behind the states that offered amnesty to bandits, saying that “if granting amnesty to a warlord will lead to the surrendering of many others I will take that decision.”

The minister has also insisted that the country “is safer today than it was prior to the coming of the All Progressives Congress (APC) government in 2015.”

Speaking on a live TV programme monitored by our reporter, Mohammed said before 2015, the entire Northern Nigeria was no-go-area, adding that even the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) was not safe for residents.

“Before the APC government came on board in 2015, bombs were going off everywhere including in the heart of the FCT. During that time as a minister, before you go to the mosque in Abuja, we’re whisked before you enter for Juma’at. It was that serious then but our government has stopped all that now”, he said.

The minister argued that the government has worked very hard to degrade and subdue the insurgents just as he said the neutralisation of the bandits and insurgents by security agencies are under-reported.

“The insurgents have been dealt a serious blow and when these bandits who are not settled at a place are neutralised nobody hears about it. Our security agencies have been dealing with the insecurity and they have been succeeding.”

Reacting to the issue of some governors granting amnesty to armed gangs, he said: “When dealing with a situation like an insurgency and banditry you do certain things in the interest of peace. If granting amnesty to a warlord will lead to the surrendering of many others I will take that decision.”

The minister also commented on Sheikh Abubakar Gumi’s amnesty proposal for bandits, saying that “anyone can go on that mission if it will bring peace.” He, however, declared that the federal government did not authorise the meeting in the first place.

Northern coalition backs move

Also, the coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) has thrown its weight behind the Sheikh Ahmad Gumi initiative. The group also expressed worry over the rising threats of attacks and ejection of Fulani herdsmen in the Southern part of the country.

The group’s spokesperson, Abdul Azeez Suleiman, stated this in a statement in Abuja.

“We solidly stand with the Sheikh Ahmed Gumi initiative for any engagement that could lead to amnesty, re-orientation, re-integration, assimilation for those who embraced peace and a complete crackdown on those who reject peace.

“In this regard, we support and encourage the efforts of the Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi and other reasonable state governments that prefer dialogue to the hardcore counter-productive use of force for further bloodshed,” he said.

No mercy

However, the Kaduna state governor, Malam Nasir el-Rufa’i, said efforts being made by Sheikh Gumi to woo bandits to lay down arms and embrace peace may be an exercise in futility. The governor said the bandits were used to getting big money and would find it difficult to repent after all.

El-Rufa’i insisted that his administration was at war with the bandits and, therefore, had no room for negotiations, adding that any bandit arrested in the state would be killed. The governor stated these in an interview with the BBC Hausa in Kaduna.

“My administration is at war with the bandits and so we cannot negotiate. Eliminating them is the only solution to banditry,” he said. According to him, Gumi is wasting his time as there won’t be any forgiveness and compensation for bandits.

“I never believed that a Fulani herdsman who ventured into banditry and is collecting millions of Naira as ransom will repent. I spoke to Dr. Gumi, who is my friend; I explained that the majority of these bandits don’t believe in religion. That is why they kill mercilessly.

“Anybody who thinks a Fulani herdsman that was used to only getting N100,000 in a year, after selling a cow, but is now getting millions through kidnapping for ransom will stop is only wasting his time,” he said.

The governor also lamented over the division amongst governors in the North-west region on the synergy to confront the criminal elements in the North. He said while some of his colleagues preferred dialogue with bandits as a solution, he and other governors thought otherwise.

“We the governors lack unity among ourselves in this region in working as one to neutralise the bandits. We in Kaduna and Niger state are talking on how to end the problem. The governor of Niger state called me and we are discussing. Anybody that thinks a Fulani man that ventured into kidnapping for ransom and he is earning millions of Naira would go back to his former life of getting N100,000 after selling a cow in a year must be deceiving himself.

“Why should they be compensated after killing people? They destroyed their houses. Who offended them? Ahmad Gumi is my friend and this is what I told him. I told him that the majority of these Fulani bandits don’t believe in religion. Therefore, I don’t believe in what he is doing; that they should be forgiven and compensated. If any ‎bandit is arrested in Kaduna state, the bandit will be killed because Kaduna is at war with bandits. They kill without mercy, they don’t believe in the religion.”

South, Middle Belt leaders kick

The Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum (SMBLF) also rejected the amnesty proposal for bandits. The Forum was reacting to Sheikh Gumi’s statement, saying the bandits were fighting injustices meted to the North in Nigeria.

The spokesmen of the groups, Yinka Odumakin (South-west), Chief Guy Ikokwu (South-east), Senator Bassey Henshaw (South-south) and Dr Isuwa Dogo (Middle Belt), in a statement, disagreed with Gumi, saying instead it was the Fulani and the core North doing “pure injustice” to other parts of Nigeria.

This, they said, explained why the Forum was in court to challenge the alleged nepotism and lopsidedness in the running of the country’s affairs. The Forum in a sarcastic tone said, “Part of those injustices must have been electing Buhari twice as president in spite of his scant regard for the sensitivity required of a multiple country like Nigeria.”

According to them, “The country, for almost six years, has been soaking in all manner of lopsidedness and nepotism. The injustices that Nigeria has done to the North are too much for the bandits to do what they are doing to the rest of us and for Buhari to be looking the other way.”

Beyond amnesty

Meanwhile, speaking this reporter, a public affairs analyst, Mr. Bright Iyoha, tasked the government to solve the roots causes of banditry across the country instead of mere amnesty, saying this would bring lasting peace to the troubled regions.

He said, “As a precaution, state governments with support from the federal government should examine the inherent realities in the affected North western states that continue to fuel banditry. These include the issue of indigene-settler dichotomy, pastoralism, exclusion, inter-communal and inter-tribal wars, unemployment, out-of-school children and other damaging socio-economic factors.

“Without urgent holistic policy action, the North-west region is poised to remain the unofficial theatre of violence in the country. This may be the incentive for bandits to embrace peace deals as some of the violence may result from grievance. The failed and choking peace deals in the past should guide the government to seek a more robust and sustainable approach to peace.”

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