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ISS TODAY OP-ED

Nigeria bandits recruit women traffickers for gunrunning as poverty bites vulnerable citizens

Nigeria bandits recruit women traffickers for gunrunning as poverty bites vulnerable citizens
Assault rifles and other firearms are seen in a pile of illegal firearms. Several news reports on illegal arms movements and sales in northwest Nigeria over the past three years involve women traffickers. (Photo: Supplied)

In a strategy honed by Boko Haram, bandits are enlisting women for arms trafficking in Nigeria’s northwest. 

Women are increasingly involved in banditry-linked arms trafficking in Nigeria’s northwest. Between December 2022 and February 2023, police arrested several female gunrunners in Nigeria’s Zamfara State for allegedly supplying arms and ammunition to bandits. 

Banditry — a composite crime that includes armed robbery, kidnapping, murder, rape and the illegal possession of firearms — is Nigeria’s most pressing security challenge.

Several news reports on illegal arms movements and sales in northwest Nigeria over the past three years involve women traffickers. In October 2021, a 30-year-old woman who specialised in supplying guns to bandits in Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi, Kaduna, Katsina and Niger states was arrested with 991 rounds of AK-47 ammunition. She was trafficking the contraband from Dabagi Village in Sokoto State to a notorious bandit kingpin responsible for terrorising Zamfara and neighbouring states.

In March 2022, Nigerian police arrested a 38-year-old female in connection with arms and ammunition smuggling from Plateau State to various bandit camps in Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara. Eight locally made AK-revolver guns, submachine guns and 400 rounds of AK-47 ammunition were recovered from the suspect.  

Nigeria northwest - gunrunning, women traffickers

States in Nigeria where bandits are active. (Graphic: ISS)

An estimated 30,000 bandits in groups ranging from 10 to over 1,000 fighters operate in northwest Nigeria. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (Acled) project, attacks by these groups increased by 731% between 2018 and 2022 (from 124 to 1,031 incidents). There were around 13,485 banditry-related deaths between 2010 and May 2023. Acled data relies on local sources and media reports, which means many incidents may go unrecorded.

Banditry pervades Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Niger, Sokoto and Zamfara states and is fast spreading to parts of north-central Nigeria and southwest Niger. A combination of factors makes Nigeria’s northwest susceptible to attacks. These include poorly managed security resources, conflicts between pastoralists and farmers, illegal gold mining, declining rural livelihoods, poor management of Nigeria’s international borders, weak law enforcement and a failure of security intelligence.

State officials say the major enablers of banditry are porous borders and arms trafficking. As far back as 2019, Nigeria’s information minister at the time, Lai Mohammed, said 95% of weapons used for terrorism and kidnapping are trafficked through the country’s borders, emanating borders, emanating from Libya and other war-torn sub-Saharan African states. 

Poverty driving women to criminality

The recent increase in women’s involvement in arms trafficking should be viewed in the context of north-west Nigeria’s economic downturn, which disproportionately impacts women, says Umaima Abdurrahman, a gender activist in Kaduna State. She told the Enact project that poverty is a significant driver of women’s links to criminal activities such as drugs and gunrunning.

The most recent Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) shows that 80% of people in north-west Nigeria are poor. Although the MPI doesn’t disaggregate by gender, women bear the brunt of poverty in Nigeria. Most women in the country’s rural north depend on subsistence farming for food and income, and comprise the bulk of people experiencing poverty in rural communities.

Credit constraints also limit women’s economic potential in the northwest. About 70% of women are likely to be excluded from access to financial services and the formal economy. Poverty among women is also rooted in the low rates of girls enrolled in school — only 47% receive primary education in the north-west. 

Women have limited livelihood options, receive lower salaries (if at all) and are often trapped in intergenerational cycles of poverty. Abdurrahman says bandits take advantage of this poverty, enticing women into arms trafficking for money or other valuable materials.

According to Larai Garba Talbu, a journalist in Sokoto State, banditry is male-dominated, and the few women involved are mostly the gangsters’ friends or associates with whom they might share ransom money.

Bandits co-opt women into their criminal activities by copying Boko Haram’s methods in north-east Nigeria. As police and soldiers uncover smuggling operations and routes, terrorists recruit women as arms couriers because they are less likely to raise suspicion. The women hide AK-47 rifles under their veils or conceal improvised explosive devices on their backs as if they were babies.

The increasing involvement of women in gunrunning is a challenge that security operatives can unravel through strategic intelligence gathering. Because women are rarely perceived to be involved in organised crime, especially as leaders, traffickers or recruiters, they are more likely to fly under the radar of law enforcement. Organised criminals exploit this gap in policing intelligence and investigation.

In his 29 May inaugural address, president Bola Ahmed Tinubu said security would be his administration’s top priority. He promised to invest more in security personnel by providing better training, equipment, pay and firepower. While these promises are commendable, the dynamics of insecurity are changing fast, and addressing the gendered dimensions of banditry calls for a holistic approach.

Female security and law enforcement agents must be recruited, trained and resourced to aid intelligence gathering in local communities. These officers should search women at checkpoints and engage with those arrested for their involvement in organised crime. 

Civil society groups and community leaders should raise awareness among women in affected communities about the personal and widespread harms of associating with bandits and arms traffickers.

And most important is the need for government to address the gendered disparity in education and the impact of poverty, both of which make women vulnerable to recruitment by Nigeria’s armed groups. DM

Oluwole Ojewale, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and Mahmud Malami Sadiq, Independent Researcher, Sokoto, Nigeria.

First published by ISS Today.

Enact is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with Interpol and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. 

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