The federal government recently shut down telecom services in Zamfara to enable security agencies to flush out bandits and other criminal elements terrorising the state. BENJAMIN SAMSON in this report examines the successes of the military’s offensive.
For many years, some states in the North-west of Nigeria have been facing myriads of security challenges, ranging from armed group violence to kidnappings and banditry, which has affected most of the population living in Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto, Kaduna and Niger states.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Maradi, Niger office, as of June last year, the crisis had forced more than 80,000 civilians to flee their communities and find refuge in the Niger Republic.
The recent spate of banditry-related violence began in 2014 with cattle rustling activity, but the insecurity took a new dimension in early 2016 when the bandits started killing local miners in Zamfara communities.
However, the attacks now affect the entire North West region and Niger state. In what has become a reoccurring tragedy, not only have thousands been killed, but women have been raped, children have become orphans, villages have been sacked and destroyed, farm produce has been destroyed, property has been stolen, and civilians have been kidnapped for ransom.
In an attempt to stem the tide of insecurity in the North-west region and Niger state, the affected states established a committee headed by Muhammad Abubakar, a former inspector-general of police.
The committee estimated that between 2011 and 2019, 4,983 women were widowed, 25,050 children were orphaned, and more than 190,340 people were displaced in Zamfara due to armed banditry.
Similarly, a former governor of Zamfara state, Abdulaziz Yari, said nearly 500 villages and 13,000 hectares of land were destroyed and 2,835 people were killed in his state between 2011 and 2018 by bandits and other criminal elements.
The Rugu, Kamara, Kunduma, and Sububu forests which transverse the North- West region are strategic areas from where banditry groups carry out their attacks.
Determined to end the bedevilling the region, the Defence Headquarters established Operation Hadarin Daji, a joint task force comprising land and air component of the Nigerian military working in synergy with the Nigeria police, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and other security agencies.
So far, the operation has recorded some level of successes with many bandits and kidnappers neutralised and some others arrested. Troops have also recovered arms/ammunition while thousands of rustled cattle have been recovered. However, the successes of the operations have been limited by the activities of informants who disclosed troop’s movement and other vital information to the bandits.
However, in a renewed effort to fight banditry and other forms of insecurity in Zamfara state especially, its forest barely six months after declaring the state a ‘no-fly zone’, the federal government at the request of the Zamfara state government and security agencies shut down all telecom activities in Zamfara state. The shutdown which began on September 3 is expected to end September 17.
The shutdown has affected banking services, mobile telephone services; internet and other related services have also been suspended.
Likewise, the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) has said despite the outcry that greeted the shutdown, the result has justified the government’s action as it has paralysed the activities of bandits. Some Nigerians, however, criticised the move, saying the measures might not bring the desired result.
But in an interview with a national daily, the director of defence information, Maj.-Gen. Benjamin Sawyerr, said the suspension of GSM service had helped to block the leakage of information to the bandits.
He said, “The operation is still ongoing. We can’t say anything for now. Now that we are seeing the result, let us await the completion of the operation. Unlike what we used to have when they say troops should go and carry out operations, before they move out of their barracks, everybody is aware and those they are to go after will go and lay ambush for them.
“There was an outcry when telecommunication service was shut down but now, Nigerians can see the result it has brought.”
Similarly, the Zamfara state Commissioner for Information, Ibrahim Dosara, said the military onslaught against the bandits is yielding tremendous success especially since the shutdown of telecoms services in the state.
“The Zamfara state government in efforts to ensure the crashing of the bandits has requested for the closing down of all networks in the state and this has been effective. The security officials are finding it very easy to deal with the bandits in their enclaves in the forests. The bandits are releasing their captives; they are abandoning their motorcycles after running out of fuel. Many of the bandits have been killed by the security forces and the security personnel will sustain the offensive against them until we wipe them out from Zamfara,” he said.
He said some identified camps were destroyed by the Air Force while the Army is also on the ground to neutralise those who managed to escape through footpaths.
Speaking further, the commissioner said other measures have also been taken based on credible information and intelligence available to the government.
“These include the immediate closure of the following places suspected to be harbouring bandits and their collaborators.”
According to him, such places include some illegal motor parks and roadside markets, especially those at Kauran Namoda-Jibia road, Lambar Bakura junction, Mayanchi-Anka junction, Garejin Mai Lena, as well as Filin Jirgi rice and vegetables market in Gusau Metropolitan.
In the same vein, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Oladayo Amao, has said the current onslaught against bandits and their activities is yielding results.
Amao also charged the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) component of Operation Hadarin Daji (OPHD) to remain focused, disciplined and extra- vigilant until the security situation improves.
A statement by NAF’s director of public relations and information, Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet, quoted Amao to have stated this Tuesday during an operational tour of Zamfara state. He charged troops to remain focused and vigilant as they made concerted efforts towards ridding the entire North West of bandits and other criminal elements.
He said, “This is not the time for you to be complacent or assume that we have overcome the enemy. Rather times like this call for utmost discipline, alertness and extra focus on the task ahead.”
Air Marshal Amao also commended the troops for their gallantry, dedication to duty and resolve towards ensuring that the fight against banditry in the North- west is brought to a conclusive end. The CAS also took time to visit wounded airmen at the Federal Medical Centre and 207 Quick Response Group, Gusau where he assured them of NAF’s commitment towards their medical attention and complete recovery.
Earlier, the Joint Task Force Commander of OPHD who also doubles as the General Officer Commanding 8 Division of the Nigerian Army, Maj.-Gen. U.U Bassey, briefed the CAS on the on-going operations in Zamfara state and the entire North -west.
He informed the CAS that the operations have continued to yield the requisite results with bandits hideouts being destroyed and decimated.
Maj.-Gen. Bassey also thanked the CAS for ensuring that the Air Component as well as the NAF Special Forces is well-trained and equipped for deployment to operational areas in the region.
According to Maj.-Gen. Bassey, the renewed vigour exhibited by both Air and ground troops will no doubt be instrumental towards bringing the security situation in Zamfara state and environs to an end.
No room for negotiations
Meanwhile, the sustained military offensive has forced armed bandits to seek a peace dialogue with the government of Zamfara state.
Governor Bello Matawalle who disclosed the new development however said that his government is no longer interested in dialoguing with bandits as they rejected the olive branch stretched at them earlier.
According to him, the joint security operation is going on smoothly in flushing out criminal gangs from the state. He said the bandits’ emissaries informed him that they had repented and would want to dialogue with the government.
He noted that some of the bandits were running out of Zamfara to other states as a result of the new security measures introduced by the state government.
“My administration will no longer grant amnesty to bandits as they have failed to embrace the peace initiative earlier extended to them,” he said.
Matawalle warned politicians against giving any form of support to bandits, stressing that, “politicians should fear God and stop buying motorcycles to distribute to people who, in turn, sell to bandits to perpetuate their evil acts.’’
The governor also said the Zamfara government would prosecute any politician caught in the act.
Significantly, residents of the states have said they were ready to bear the socio-economic cost of the shutdown if the measure will bring an end to banditry in the state.
Some of them even expressed anger that issues on ‘effect of the shutdown’ were being raised, when such a decisive measure was aimed at safeguarding lives and property.
Although the inconveniences occasioned by the shutdown were obvious, they said the inconveniences were ‘too inconsequential’ compared with the desire to regain their freedom from killers and kidnappers.
A lawyer, Abubakar Sani, said, “No doubt the shut will interfere with the rights to freedom of expression and access to information. But all these rights can be suspended for the sake of national security. You will agree with me that banditry in the North-west is a threat to national security.
“I am sure the negative effect will revolve around hindrance of social and economic activities; by the time bandits kill you and you are no longer alive, how do you engage in those activities?
“In any case, even if you are lucky to remain alive under the atmosphere of threat by bandits, how do you engage in social and economic activities?” one of the respondents who did not want his name in the press queried.
One of the residents, Alhaji Muhammad Iliyasu, said although communication with relations had become difficult, he had sought for other options, and was prepared to make such sacrifice. According to him, they are ready to make whatever sacrifice that will guarantee their safety from the many years of killings by bandits.
“We consider the development (shutdown) as a bitter pill, which we have to swallow to be free from the clutches of bandits terrorising and killing our brothers and sisters.
“If you can recollect, many years ago, Nivaquine tablet used to be the bitterest pill to swallow, but it was the most effective remedy against malaria fever disease.
“We were closing our eyes and swallowing it to get well because we did not want malaria to kill us; in the current scenario, I see the ‘telecommunication shutdown’ as the Nivaquine tablet, and the bandits are the ‘Malaria’ disease,” he said.
Another resident, Alhaji Nasiru Bena, a businessman, said it was unthinkable and annoying that some people are even viewing the telecom shutdown as a ‘worrisome development.’
“We do not consider the shutdown as a measure that has resulted in hardship or any difficulty; we had already been facing the worst of these (hardships) as a result of attacks and kidnappings by bandits.
“We lost our relatives, brothers and sisters to banditry on a daily basis, and our businesses have not been striving, hence, we are not only happy with the measures taken, but also participating in providing information to security agents.”