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Fight against terror in Africa: Offering amnesty to Nigerian bandits means that they will have their cake and eat it

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Azubuike Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of Nigeria’s national daily newspaper, LEADERSHIP, based in Abuja.

In the past decade since banditry became a major industry in northern Nigeria, 8,000 people have been killed in the states of Kebbi, Sokoto, Niger and Zamfara alone. The highest death toll has been in Zamfara, with a record topped only by Borno State in the northeast, where killings by Boko Haram are in a savage class of their own. And now there is a proposal to offer the bandits amnesty.

The fight against terror in Nigeria has been a theatre of the absurd. What began as a tiny spark of itinerant fanatics taking a pledge against Western education mutated into a full-fledged non-state army currently ranked as the third deadliest globally. Yet, banditry is another fast-growing franchise.

State response has also been as bewildering as it has been absurd. It has ranged from denial to extra-judicial killings and from regional joint task forces to the use of prayer warriors and mercenaries.

And just when you thought the absurdity had reached its limits, a new idea is added to the toolbox: compensation to bandits as incentive for them to lay down their arms.

We don’t know the size of the compensation, yet. But if what Islamic cleric Sheikh Ahmad Gumi says is anything to go by, bandits in Zamfara State, northwest Nigeria, may expect a big payout in return for stopping the killings.

It’s weird that killers, and not their victims, should demand compensation. It’s even weirder that the mediator can actually bring the matter to the public, thinking that after years of paying ransoms and bribes without results, compensation might finally set us free from criminals.

It’s the victim’s nightmare recompense: a loved one is murdered, and then you watch the perpetrator of the crime paid compensation by the state – a state that is supposed to have prevented the crime in the first place.

Gumi didn’t say how much compensation might be offered. But anyone who has seen videos of the bandits – dressed like the Taliban, armed with automatic weapons with bandoliers of live rounds strapped to their bodies – would know that they’ll need to be paid handsomely to forgo their lifestyle of audacious criminality.

As Gumi finished his meeting with over 500 of the bandits in a forested area of Zamfara recently, he said he was sure that if the bandits were given money, and perhaps amnesty into the bargain, they would lay down their arms and we can all live happily ever after.

I don’t know where the good cleric got that idea from. Perhaps he wasn’t listening, or didn’t believe the chairperson of a local government not far from where he met the bandits, who said the community had already paid bandits 200-million naira in ransom, yet things only got worse.

It’s not only the local government chairperson who has been paying the bandits without results. Governor Bello Matawalle has been doing the same – 1-million naira here, 2-million there, a couple of cows, maybe a place to lay their heads. Lucky folks.

Often targeted at rank-and-file bandits, the governor’s token payments have proved to be nothing compared to the huge piles of cash the kingpins make from ransom payments – and the pleasure they get from killing for sport.

How much more can a distressed, impoverished state pay bandits to lay down their arms?

If the price was in human lives, the bandits should have had enough by now. According to a BBC report in July, in the last decade since banditry became a major industry in northern Nigeria, 8,000 people have been killed in the states of Kebbi, Sokoto, Niger and Zamfara alone.

The highest death toll has been in Zamfara, with a record topped only by Borno State in the northeast, where killings by Boko Haram are in a savage class of their own.

Apart from the cost in human lives, which means nothing to the bandits, the price in misery for the living has been just as high. Thousands have been maimed, traumatised, displaced and impoverished by the bandits reducing the state, which is bigger in size than Belgium, to a shell of its once-thriving self.

About two years ago, the state set up a committee headed by a former inspector general of police, Mohammad Abubakar, to get to the root of the problem.

The committee found out what most people already knew – that banditry was not just organised crime: it was also the most prosperous industry in Zamfara.

According to the committee, the criminal gang had made more than 3-billion naira in ransom payments from 3,672 relatives of victims. The gang also had a network that included traditional rulers and high-profile people in the state. The committee recommended that a judicial panel be set up to investigate those involved.

If we don’t end the nonsense now, nothing stops another group of violent rogues from another part of the country from stealing, looting, murdering – even making a secession bid – and then staking a claim for compensation.

After the public outrage that followed the report, the bandits took a recess and the government went back to sleep. The bandits have since returned in full force, killing over a thousand people last year and raping and pillaging their way through scores of villages in broad daylight.

Journalist Kadaria Ahmed said in a video broadcast by the BBC that “every day, we bury between 30, 40, 50 people”. With a police/civilian population ratio of 1:1,500 in Zamfara, communities are on their own.

Perhaps that was why Gumi, who is from Zamfara, took it upon himself to mediate with the bandits. But where did this talk of compensation come from?

Gumi is obviously copying from former president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s playbook on the Niger Delta crisis. But the militants in the Niger Delta, however despicable and obnoxious, were Nigerians. The bandits, especially those in the Zamfara area, are mostly armed Malian caravans that have taken advantage of weak policing and porous borders to infiltrate the country, mostly through Katsina.

They have slowly but steadily built themselves into an occupying force, routing entire communities in their path, planting flags, and collecting taxes and levies from local communities whose rulers sometimes pledge their loyalty in order to survive.

A village elder told Amnesty International that he received a call from bandits to tell all villagers near the forest to vacate their homes and farms and come and pay levies. 

“He said the only way they’d allow the villagers to stay is if they paid them 5-million naira,” Amnesty reported the man as saying. 

Ransom is a way of life in Zamfara.

Whatever Gumi’s motivation, however, it’s important to remember that Yar’Adua did not offer compensation to the militants. He offered them amnesty in exchange for laying down their arms. And even that amnesty was justifiably opposed on the grounds that it would form the basis in future for criminal gangs to hold the government to ransom.

That precedent has come back to haunt us. 

Today, there are other franchises of official capitulation and indulgence, such as governor Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai of Kaduna State paying off criminal herders who lost their cows, while turning a blind eye to other members of the community who were the real victims.

However well-meaning Gumi’s intentions may be, it rubs salt in the wounds of thousands of bereaved families to suggest that those who killed their loved ones should be compensated for their savagery.

If the bandits have already squeezed 3-billion naira from victims’ families and are not satisfied – if they have extracted over 200-million naira from just one out of 14 local governments and are still not satisfied; if they have rustled cows and looted farms and yet won’t lay down their arms – it’s obvious that nothing short of a seat in the Government House, Gusau, along with the state’s cheque book, all presigned, will appease them.

And for what? What did they lose that they should be compensated? What offence was committed by the thousands they have killed that their memories deserve such brazen indignity?

It’s time to end this nonsense and confront the bandits head-on. 

I’m shocked that President Muhammadu Buhari’s government is not outraged: outraged by the billions of naira paid to bandits for nothing, outraged by bandits – most of whom have been officially described as foreigners – collecting ransom from citizens, or outraged that bandits who have received more in ransom than the government spends on maintaining internally displaced persons, still want compensation on top of amnesty.

They want to be paid not just for the atrocities for which they ought to be held accountable, but also because they think that they deserve a flag for making themselves a parallel government. Where else in the world does that happen?

If we don’t end the nonsense now, nothing stops another group of violent rogues from another part of the country from stealing, looting, murdering – even making a secession bid – and then staking a claim for compensation.

Zamfara is a crime scene. Buhari cannot entertain any suggestion, however well meaning, that those who have monetised criminality should be compensated. DM

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  • This article has me thinking about our necessity to do things differently, and often those new ideas come across at first as ludicrous, until one starts to see with a new lens, a wider perspective. And I tried to find that in this article. But I cant. What it does remind me of is a fantastic article I read in the financial times about 15 years ago. I lost the author and the hard copy and wish that it could be found because its message was profound and far reaching on many macro economic issues. The gist of the article was about a looming change in dispensation. The author explained how the status quo “old money” institutions would drip away through the technocratic boom of tech power elite to finally when the stock market bear share would be owned by drug cartels and illicit money schemes. He spoke of crime as if it was the new prince elite in the future because of the power these cartels weild within the economy. And reading this article made me wish I had kept that article for reference and current scrutiny. Maybe someone ?