Sometime in August this year, news broke that governors of North-west states were negotiating with bandits, who had been terrorising their people, killing thousands and destroying property worth millions of Naira. The social critic space was agog with criticism of the initiative. But the arrowhead of the initiative, Governor Aminu Masari of Katsina State, in this interview with Bolaji Adebiyi, Peter Ishaka and Francis Sardauna, explains the rationale behind the move and its expected outcome
Why did the first amnesty fail? Why are you negotiating with outlaws?
You can call it negotiation. But what we are doing is more than negotiation. Initially, we were dealing with cattle rustling when we came on board in 2015 although the problem was at its highest level.
And part of the promises we made was to restore normalcy especially in the affected frontline local government areas. We succeeded in having an understanding and we granted amnesty to those suspected cattle rustlers that had not been convicted and it worked very well.
In January 2017, we were able to recover over 400 arms mainly AK47s and others. We were also able to recover 36,000 cattle that were returned to the owners, some of them from Niger Republic.
It was working well but unfortunately, at that time, it was only Katsina that granted amnesty to them. So Zamfara, Kebbi, Niger and Kaduna were not on board. Over 80 per cent of forest areas where these bandits hide are in Zamfara and Kaduna, so gradually the bandits in Zamfara, in particular, killed all the leaders of our amnesty programme.
The young ones started another conflict because their leaders were being killed. So, some of them went back to the forest and joined the Zamfara gang. All bandits camps are located in Zamfara except one that is located in Katsina State. So, the amnesty programme then failed.
It was very clear before the 2019 election that the programme has failed because we were having daily attacks mainly from Zamfara angle and the herdsmen too were busy killing their brothers in the forest.
After 2019 election, you know what happened in Zamfara? The Supreme Court ruling brought an entirely new leadership. So, when the new governor came, he said he also wanted to dialogue with the bandits to stop the killings in his state.
We also discussed with the Inspector General of Police, who later came here, and all the seven governors of North-west were here. The governor of Niger, Plateau and Taraba, were on sympathy visit to the state, met the meeting and also joined.
After a successful meeting with the IG, we all agreed to go and hold similar meetings in our states. In Katsina, we held the meeting and the Emir of Katsina and Daura were there and some of the bandits were also around, all the village heads, Ardos and religious leaders were also present during the meeting.
At that time, we realised that some of the bandits' leaders were either afraid or do not believe in the peace initiative. We, therefore, suggested that the bandits should select a place in each of the frontline local governments convenient for them for the meeting.
They did and I went together with the Brigade Commander, Commissioner of Police, Director of DSS, Commandant of Nigeria Security and Civil Defense and other top government officials.
We visited each of the eight frontline local governments and met with the bandits in places they felt was safe for them. Surprisingly, 90 per cent of them came out and expressed their readiness to surrender their arms.
What did they say were the reasons for taking to criminality?
They also mentioned to us some of their grievances. They said we have destroyed their grazing areas; the cattle routes have been destroyed and that even on the highways they can't move with their cattle on the shoulder of the roads because farmers have planted up to the shoulder of the roads.
They totally lack schools and clinics. They also said for the past 30 years, there have been so many interventions by local, state and federal governments to farmers such as schools, vocational centres and water supply for people living in villages and towns but that there has never been any form of intervention to herders living in the forest.
They also complained that they are being hunted like animals, their women cannot come to the market and they cannot even come out. And if they do, a police officer or any security man will arrest them and demand for two to three million Naira before they are released.
So, they said they were being harassed by security men and again, these volunteers were killing them. Anywhere they saw a Fulani man they would kill him and burn him and nothing would happen.
On the part of the government, they said whenever they attacked a village, we would go and sympathize with the villagers, assist them financially and materially but none of us has ever thought that in this country there are Fulani people who are also affected. These, they said necessitated their heinous acts.
Who restricted them from coming out of the forest?
You know when the volunteers see a Fulani man in town, they kill him. They are being hunted like dogs because of their banditry activities. You know when bandits come and attack a village, most of them are herders from the forest so no Fulani man can come to that village again.
It is reprisal killings. They (bandits) told me that they were not kidnapping before. And that they were taught kidnapping by security personnel. I asked them how? They said when they (security personnel) see a Fulani man, they will arrest him and detain him and his people must pay between N2 to N5 million before they can release such person.
And sometimes, they said when they go to bail their relatives the security personnel will also arrest them. So, they said since these people are holding guns, it is the guns that they are holding that is making them richer so they will also hold guns. If you arrest a Fulani man, they will arrest whom they call a Hausa man. Unfortunately for them, 70 per cent of people you see in Katsina are Fulani.
By 1987, the population of Katsina State was only 3.7 million. Today we are talking about 7 to 7.5 million. So, the land remains the same, therefore, the competition for land and its resources among people and animals is highly competitive and we did not prepare for this.
I give credit to our first generation of Nigerian leaders especially what they did here and even the colonialists, they saw that this roaming about by herders cannot continue so they created grazing areas. In every community, there was community grazing area. Those leaders had foresight; they knew this could not continue.
What are the terms of the peace settlement you had with the bandits?
Part of the agreements we had with them was that they should release all the people they had kidnapped. They also demanded from us that their members who had not been convicted by any court of law should be released by us.
There was rampant arrest of Fulani people by security agencies in the state. The security personnel and these volunteers will go to a Fulani settlement and arrest everybody.
There was a critical case in Sabuwa, some people went to pilgrimage and they returned in 2017 and they were arrested here at the airport and taken to Kaduna where they spent two years and some months without being charged to court.
No offense was established against them, they were just detained. So, we went there and intervened and the military had to bring them back to Katsina. Most of the people that were detained by police and DSS were people pointed by volunteers that these are Fulani bandits.
To be a Fulani in Katsina, you are automatically qualified as a bandit. Another factor here is that the Nigerien bandits have cross over to Nigeria. Some are committing the crime here; some they have based here and go and commit the crime in Niger Republic and come back here. That is why in continuation of the peace process we met with the Governor of Maradi, Sokoto, Zamfara and myself in Maradi with our security chiefs.
The government of Maradi has also keyed into the peace process because on Tuesday (this week) a delegation from Niger Republic and a delegation from Katsina State Government in Nigeria will meet in Jibia local government area with leaders of the bandits from Niger Republic.
The outcome of the meeting will enable me meet with the Governor of Maradi and see how we can sit with them to address this menace facing the two countries. Now we don't have banditry attack, all the attacks are being carried out in Niger.
How many bandits have so far benefited from the peace deal?
We secured the release of about 15 bandits that were arrested and detained by security personnel without being charged to court. And the bandits in turn, have so far released 70 captives in their custody.
Now, I am waiting for the remaining 13 persons in their custody because we don't know the Nigerien bandits, who kidnapped them from Jibia local government, but we are doing our best to identify their kidnappers so that we can rescue them.
To a large extent, there has been no new attacks but the whole process is still fragile. So, we need to maintain and sustain it to a certain level before we can say all is quiet.
What we are doing now is to restore confidence and normalcy. It is only when you restore confidence that the bandits will be able to surrender their arms and under this fragile situation it will be very difficult for them to even handover their arms except those who are willing.
But what we know what is currently going on in the forest is that the bandits' commanders have started retrieving arms and ammunitions from their boys in different forests within Katsina and Zamfara States. So, after we restore normalcy, they will now surrender the arms recovered from their boys.
The second thing we are doing is to disarm all the bandits and rehabilitate them. Disarmament has to go hand-in-hand with rehabilitation because somebody who lost over 200 cattle and he has laid down his arms, what can he do to earn a living?
So, we are working on a kind of rehabilitation that would go hand-in-hand with disarmament. We have started building schools for them. We built 10 for them when we had the initial amnesty, we started but unfortunately because of the reoccurrence of crisis the schools were abandoned, some of them have become the camp headquarters of the bandits.
The school where we had the first meeting in Sabuwa local government, they said for eight months nobody would dare go there but now we are rehabilitating the school, increasing numbers of classes, faxing it and providing borehole.
And we are going to make it a comprehensive primary school as soon as possible with a hope that by next year they will start admitting JSS one to JSS three students.
The last stage we are going to do is total integration. This means that nobody will be hindered from moving from one part of the state to another. So, the integration stage would involve Nigerian NGOs that would help us in re-establishing and abolishing artificial barriers between the waring groups.
Do you have timelines for the implementation of the terms of settlement?
There is need for us as a government to show good will. Now 90 per cent of them are no longer attacking anybody. They have made critical demands; the issue of rehabilitation of earth dams in the forest so that it can store water for their animals and this is something I believe we can do for them. We have so far spent N200 million in demarcating the grazing areas and cattle routes. The last phase of the exercise will be done in Southern Katsina around Sabuwa local government area.
By the beginning of dry season, we are going to kick start the programme again and if the repentant bandits see us rendering some of these services to them, they will have more confidence in us as a government. We have to discuss the issue with the Inspector General of Police and other governors again with active participation of federal government because some of the issues are federal in nature. We need the federal government to directly come in. The demands are more than what the state government can afford financially, we are talking about improved variety of cattle and overall security of the affected areas. Definitely, before the year ends, some activities must commence because I am afraid of the large army of uneducated and unemployed youth living in the forest. We cannot leave them without activities that can engage or hold them for a very long time. But my greatest concern is the way people are looking at this problem, they have brought ethnicity and religion into it. Where does religion or ethnicity come in? If we believe that this is one Nigeria and we don't stop this problem from here it will escalate to Niger, Kogi and from Kogi it will go to South-east or South-west.
You talk about grazing routes. Why not key into the federal government's national livestock programme?
We have keyed into the programme and we have selected a consultant for the project. We have equally written to the Office of the Vice President that is handling it. As I said earlier, before the end of this season if the Fulani people do not see any project or activities on the ground it would shake their confidence. I know within the next one or two months I will start rebuilding primary schools and clinics but that is not enough. Few days ago, I met with consultants who are going to do the study of broken earth dams along the Nigerian land border with Zamfara to see how much it would cost me to start rehabilitating these dams. Today, if you go to these forests you will find all forms of drugs and alcohol with Fulani people. So, you can imagine the magnitude of what they can do after taking such alcoholic drinks. Those who were kidnapped and released by the repentant bandits told us their experiences in their custody. Even yesterday (Thursday) four women were brought back. They were kidnapped from Batsari local government and taken to far away Dan-Isa a border town between Niger Republic and Nigeria because the people who kidnapped them were Nigerien nationale. How did they escape? They escaped because their abductors became drunk and they took away the keys from them and unlocked themselves and ran away. So, this is what is happening in the forest, all forms of illicit drugs and all the arms and ammunitions coming into Nigeria are from Mali through Libya.
You are seeking the intervention of UNICEF too. What are the areas the areas you want the NGOs to intervene?
You know UNICEF is investing in rural water supply and sanitation. They are also involved in education, which for us is our number one priority. So, I want them to look at these disadvantaged areas where this conflict has made education very difficult, to see what they can do to improve the level of education in those eight frontline local government areas that border the forest.
And again, the herders complained of lack of access to potable water and under the UNICEF, we have an arrangement with the rural water supply agency where they execute water projects in communities across the state. We want funds and more involvement of all these local governments because they are selecting local governments under their water and sanitation project.
Specifically, these are the two areas I called for their attention and interventions since they are here. They are already intervening in girl-child education and so many other areas supported by federal government.
You secured the release of 23 victims of human trafficking that were sold into slavery in Burkina Faso. How did that happen?
We are still trying to apprehend the slave trader. What he did was that he collected about 31 people, 10 of them from Zamfara State and gave them N2,000 each to keep for their family members that he had been given a job that he wanted them to go and do for him in Burkina Faso. He took them to that country, (you can see the porous nature of our land borders) without a single paper and he sold them to a woman. The woman also got some labour contracts in Burkina Faso and the victims were there doing hard labour for her. Luckily for them there was a Hausa community very close to the village and they had a leader who happened to be a Nigerian. So, they went and reported to him and he went and reported the matter to Nigerian embassy. The embassy quickly came in.
The embassy had no resources, they were only able to facilitate the return of six of them. When I was told, I called them and they said if we gave them N1.5 million they would be able to bring them back. I called the ambassador and told her we would go there and bring them and hand them over to their families but if we gave them money anything could happen.
I informed my special adviser on drugs, narcotics and human trafficking and we brought a bus and gave him money. He went to Burkina Faso with Immigration officers and met the Sarkin Hausawa and from there they went to the embassy and did what they call emergency traveller's certificate for all of them.
But their main agent refused to follow them because he knew if he came here he would be arrested. So, that was how we were able to bring back 23 of them. 10 of them, who are from Zamfara were handed over to the Secretary to Zamfara State Government and he gave us acknowledgement letter.
Each of them from Katsina State was given N50, 000 and the chairman of Kankara local government has taken them home. Even those from Zamfara, we gave N30,000 each so that they did not go home empty handed, at least they needed something to start life with.
Why have you not formed your cabinet?
We have started the process and by next week definitely the list of the cabinet members would be presented to the State House of Assembly. It came a bit late because we were dealing with this security situation and the cabinet of second term should be a cabinet that would be less politics but more work, so we are bringing in people of proven integrity and hardworking.
We are not dropping those that had worked for the party but we are changing some to ensure that we put the right person in the right place. Even the special adviser on drugs, narcotics and human trafficking, he was the Commissioner of information before but his training has been with the NDLEA throughout. So, we repositioned him for optimal productivity. If you look at all our special advisers probably with the exception of one person, he is the only person that we can say he may not have relevant experience, but being a former local government chairman, we think he should know more about skill acquisitions.
So, we are trying as much as we can to ensure that even if we are bringing someone on board, such person will be put where he or she would add value to the state. The cabinet would include those who decamped from other political parties to APC because they have paid their dues.
1. They (bandits) told me that they were not kidnapping before. And that they were taught kidnapping by security personnel
2. What we are doing now is to restore confidence and normalcy. It is only when you restore confidence that the bandits will be able to surrender their arms and under this fragile situation it will be very difficult for them to even handover their arms except those who are willing