Banditry is on the increase in northern Nigeria. This is a region with many security problems, chief among them Boko Haram's insurgency. In the north-central region, herdsmen militancy has become a key security concern. Northwest Nigeria, which used to be the bastion of security and stability, has been hit hard by rural banditry.
I have explored this situation and its attendant threat in my research.
Rural banditry refers to armed violence driven principally by the criminal intent to steal and plunder. It is motivated by the quest for economic accumulation. The victims are individuals and communities with material valuables. The most common examples of rural banditry in Nigeria are armed robbery, kidnapping, cattle rustling and village raids.
Rural banditry in the northwestern states of Zamfara, Kaduna and Katsina has reached alarming heights in recent years. Bandits terrorise villages with impunity. They have actually settled in the Zamfara state, setting up fortified enclaves in the hinterland and on the frontiers, from where they plot and carry out their operations.
What drives rural banditry?
Crime thrives in contexts where there's little deterrence. In most of Nigeria's rural communities, there are many opportunities for criminal activity. For one thing, some of these communities are located in remote areas where there is little or no government presence. More importantly, households are in some cases separated by and interspersed with forest areas. This renders them vulnerable to banditry.
This situation is made worse by the absence of effective community policing mechanisms capable of addressing the hinterlands' peculiar security challenges.
In effect, the incidence and prevalence of rural banditry in northwest Nigeria raises a fundamental question about the government's ability to govern effectively. The state security machinery has so far failed to tackle the scourge of banditry. This failure stems from a lack of political will and operational challenges.
Essentially, the prevailing socio-existential conditions in northwestern Nigeria have complicated the security situation. The rural pastoral sector is not well regulated. Illicit artisanal mining and the proliferation of arms in the region are also veritable factors.
Geography plays a role, too. Northwestern Nigeria's forestlands are vast, rugged and hazardous. They are also grossly under-policed. Some of the forests run alongside the diverse porous borderlines on the region's frontiers. Borders are poorly delineated, under-policed and thus not well governed. The consequence of this is an abundance of nefarious activity, often facilitated by criminal syndicates.
Rural banditry in northwestern Nigeria also derives impetus from the poorly governed mining and small arms sector. Bandits have been drawn to the region by illicit and artisanal mining in states like Zamfara where bandits have been raiding mining sites for gold and cash.
The federal government has recognised the apparent linkage between rural banditry and illicit mining. It suspended all forms of mining in Zamfara State in early April of 2019.
Transhumance - the movement of cattle - is poorly regulated. This has seen it being infiltrated by criminals, which has led to the intensification of cattle rustling in the region. In states such as Kaduna, Katsina, Zamfara and Kebbi, there exists a clan of livestock bandits who specialise in mass cattle raids.
While some of these cattle rustling gangs are affiliated to local and transnational syndicates, a number of them are mercenaries of Boko Haram. Cattle rustling constitutes a valuable source of funding for the terror group.
Impacts, implications and solution
Banditry and other causes of insecurity in northern Nigeria have been allowed to degenerate into a complex national emergency with dire territorial implications. This mirrors exactly what happened with the Boko Haram insurgency. From sporadic incidents, Boko Haram began launching systematic attacks targeted at individuals, communities and, eventually, the state.
There's no more effective solution than forceful inland and frontier policing. Such policing must deal with the region's peculiar circumstances of diverse borderlines, forestlands and hinterlands. This requires a tactical synergy between grassroots vigilantes and the state security operatives.
The federal government's current counter banditry effort, based on military reconnaissance and raids, is good and commendable. But it has failed to bring about the needed respite, owing largely to the operational challenges arising from insufficient knowledge of the terrain. This makes the involvement of local vigilantes and community watch groups, who have a better knowledge of the terrain, more important.
However, to guard against possible excesses and abuse, people in these structures must be properly trained, equipped and supervised. The way forward, then, is the development of grassroots policing, enriched by local personnel and intelligence.
The success of the Civilian Joint Task Force, comprising local vigilantes and volunteer neighbourhood watchers, in combating the Boko Haram insurgency in the lower Lake Chad Basin shows the possible value of this sort of community policing.