The only commercial bank in Kagara was shut down since September 2, 2020 when it was raided by bandits who carted away the cash they found in the vaults.
Ahmad Abubakar narrowly escaped being killed on his farm in Madaka, near Kagara, in 2020. The retired secondary school teacher resides in Kagara, the headquarters of Rafi Local Government Area of Niger State, where 42 persons, including 27 schoolboys, were abducted from Government Science College on February 17.
The year before Mr Abubakar's encounter with bandits, they had killed his younger brother along the Kaduna-Kagara road.
"They rode on bikes and I was just on my farm. I hid somewhere and saw the bandits pass close to where I was hiding. I was shaking," the septuagenarian told our reporter.
The bandits stole his farm produce and rode away.
Mr Abubakar said his younger brother was kidnapped in a neighbouring village to Kagara the previous year. The bandits demanded a ransom of N5 million but later reduced it to N500,000 when they realized the family had no such money. Still, the family could not raise the reduced ransom on time.
"Where would I get the money? They kept calling me," Mr Abubakar recalled.
A few days later, another victim who had secured his own release told Mr Abubakar that the bandits had killed his brother.
"He said they chained his legs to a tree and shot him," Mr Abubakar said.
Kagara and its adjoining villages have been under the siege of bandits for more than two years. However, it was the kidnapping of the schoolboys that brought the ordeals and sorrow of the community to national attention.
In that incident at the public secondary school on the outskirts of Kagara town, bandits abducted 42 persons, including the 27 students, three staff members and 12 members of their families.
The bandits raided two of the five hostels in the school, Barde and Lafene halls, to ferret out the students, in the process killing one of them, Benjamin Habilah.
The incident drew swift condemnations, including from the United Nations which described attacks on schools and other educational facilities as "abhorrent and unacceptable." It also urged the Nigerian government to "spare no effort in rescuing those abducted and holding to account those responsible for this act".
The state and federal governments have said they were negotiating the release of the abducted persons with the bandits.
A familiar terrain
Kidnapping for ransom has become rampant in many parts of Nigeria.
In Niger and many other states in North-central and North-west Nigeria, bandits kill and kidnap at will despite the efforts of security agencies to check the menace.
Residents of Kagara said they had lost count of kidnapping incidents in the area.
They said on some days, people would leave their houses at night to avoid the risk of abduction. But even taking such precautions did not often guarantee safety.
Killing, kidnapping spree
A day before the attack on Government Science College, bandits killed the district head of Kushirki, a town about 20 kilometres from Kagara. Musa Kwabe, a Kagara leader who is also a younger brother to the deceased, said one person was yet to be accounted for in that incident.
"He was killed around 3 a.m., not far from his residence, inside the bush," Mr Kwabe told our reporter on Saturday. "One of our brothers, Mai Wada, was also taken away and up till now, the bandits are asking us for ransom."
This newspaper reported how the district head of Madaka, Zakariyau Idris, two of children and three other persons were also kidnapped in December 2019.
The bandits asked their families to pay N4 million as ransom, "and it was not negotiable."
"They were there for four weeks before the ₦4 million was paid and they were released," an official had told PREMIUM TIMES in August, 2020.
Nearly a year after the 2019 attack, the district head was kidnapped for a second time.
A former council chairman and relation, Muhammad Hussein, said the bandits killed the district head on December 21, 2020. Mr Hussein said the family had raised the N850,000 the bandits demanded as ransom before they got to know he had been murdered.
"We demanded to speak with him before paying the money. That was when we realised that he had been killed. We had contributed N850,000. But someone told us that he had been killed so we told them to put us through to him but they did not. That was why we did not later pay the money."
The household of the murdered district head relocated to Minna, the state capital, after the incident, Mr Hussein added.
Another district head, Abdulhamid Danyaro of Gumna (Yakila), is yet to be released, two months after his abductors collected a ransom of N3 million for his release.
Mr Danyaro was abducted on December 10, 2020. Those familiar with his case told PREMIUM TIMES that those who took the ransom to the kidnappers were harassed and beaten but allowed to return home empty-handed.
It is uncertain whether Mr Danyaro is still alive or has been killed by his abductors.
Empty health facility
The impact of the menace of banditry on Kagara and its environs is easy to notice even for a visitor.
With no obstruction at the security post and at the partially opened gate, one would have thought the hospital was open to patients any time of the day. But nobody was found in the facility that sunny afternoon.
"They have not been around for weeks," a dark-skinned woman wearing a multi-coloured scarf told our reporter.
Ruth, as she later identified herself, sells food outside the hospital. According to her, the management and staff abandoned the hospital because of recurring attacks and kidnapping for ransom by bandits in the community.
Before they fled the facility weeks before PREMIUM TIMES' visit, the health workers only attended to out-patients for security reasons.
"For more than two months now, they only treated you but they could not admit you because of bandits," Ms Ruth said.
She, however, added that the health workers may resume work the following week.
For the 30 minutes our reporter spent in the facility, no one appeared to notice his presence. Some of the offices, including the record section where the files are kept, were opened. The dust on the files and equipment indicated it had been a while any activity last took place there.
According to Mr Hussein, the community now depends on primary healthcare centres in the area. For any serious health complaint, however, a patient has to travel through the unsafe routes to Minna, he said.
Economic, academic activities grounded
The incessant attacks have taken a toll on the economy of the agrarian community. Many farmers have abandoned their farms as bandits stole or destroyed their produce.
"Many farmers have not cultivated crops because of the issue. To harvest has become a problem. This local government area is proud of farming but now, it is difficult for farmers. We don't know when next we can go to farm," Abdullahi Balarabe, a commercial farmer, said.
Yunusa Acha, a resident who sells agro-chemicals, said his business has been badly affected by the security crisis.
"It is when people go to farms that they can buy agro-chemicals," he said.
"Those who took the risk of going to farm could not harvest. Their produce has been burnt. Now, when bandits come to your place and they don't get anything, they burn the house."
The only commercial bank in the community was shut down since September 2, 2020 when it was raided by bandits who carted away the cash they found in the vaults.
The robbery lasted about 12 hours, between 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. before the bandits withdrew to their hideouts in adjoining forests, Vanguard newspaper had reported.
Mr Kwabe said the bank's security officer was killed in the incident. "More would have died but thank God, the manager acted fast. He had told them to close early that day," he said.
Also, many schools in the community have not opened for more than a year due to the security situation and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Our children have not gone to school for more than a year. More than eleven schools, both primary and secondary schools, are closed," Salihu Danladi, a resident of Kagara, told our reporter.
Confidence in local vigilantes
However, many of the residents interviewed said the situation would have been worse without the heroic efforts of local vigilantes.
"Some of these bandits are from Zamfara and other states. They work with some of our people and it is easier for the vigilantes to know their hideouts, compared to the police and other security agencies," Mr Kwabe said.
Aside from that, the community leader said the people have lost confidence in the police, alleging complicity of some officers in the banditry.
"All these while, no bandits have been arrested. Instead, they arrest the vigilantes. Once they kill bandits, it becomes a problem. It is as if they are there to protect the bandits and not the people."
He urged the government to empower and support the vigilantes.
"Our people do not have guns while these people are using AK-47. Before the vigilante can think of loading his gun again, these bandits have fired several shots," Mr Kwabe said.
He also condemned the negotiations by the government with bandits and the demand for an amnesty for them made by Abubakar Gumi, an Islamic scholar. Mr Gumi has been mediating between the government and the bandits for the release of those kidnapped in Kagara.
"There should be another way to negotiate with the bandits -- the way the government dealt with the Niger-Delta (militants). There must be a process. These bandits should be allowed to go through the process so that the kind of drugs and the kind of things they do... They should be rehabilitated before being integrated back into the society," Mr Gumi said recently.
Mr Balarabe, the commercial farmer, called for devolution of power to give local authorities control over security outfits.
"The DPO (divisional police officer) is waiting for the area commander. The area commander is receiving orders from the commissioner of police who acts on the orders of the IG (Inspector General of Police)... . Let there be decentralisation of the system, where you are not waiting for Abuja to talk," Mr Balarabe said.
But according to the Executive Director of Brain Builders Youth Development Initiative, Abideen Olasupo, what is needed is synergy between local vigilante and the security forces.
"There can't be banditry in a community without the connivance or intelligence report of local people. So there is a need to activate the local vigilantes and empower people, especially traditional and religious institutions, to work together."
He said fighting banditry needs a holistic approach and neighbouring states should also be on alert.
Mr Olasupo also kicked against the demands for amnesty for bandits.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited the police station in Kagara, the most senior officer on duty refused to speak. He directed our reporter to the spokesperson of the police in the state command headquarters.
But our reporter saw a fleet of new motorcycles, which Abdullahi, one of the officers who spoke with our reporter unofficially, said were brought to the community to aid the activities of the police.
More will also be sent to the town, he added.
PREMIUM TIMES also observed the deployment of officers to different parts of the town.
When contacted for his reaction, Abiodun Wasiu, the spokesperson of the police in Niger State, referred our reporter to a statement from the police headquarters in Abuja.
In the statement signed by Frank Mba, the police spokesperson, "the Inspector-General of Police ordered the deployment of additional tactical, intelligence and investigative assets of the Force, including four (4) units of Police Mobile Force (PMF) attached to Operation Puff Adder II, one (1) Unit of Police Special Forces, personnel of the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) and operatives from the Force Intelligence Bureau and the Force Criminal Investigations Department."
Also, one police aerial surveillance helicopter was deployed.
"The Police component of the search and rescue operation is being coordinated by the Commissioner of Police, Niger State who is effectively harnessing all the deployed resources and working in sync with the Military and other law enforcement agents in ensuring an intelligence-driven, focused and result-oriented ground and aerial surveillance in the rescue operations and to bring the perpetrators to book.
"The Inspector General of Police, while calling for calm, has enjoined members of the community to provide the Force and the security community with useful, relevant and timely information that can assist in the ongoing search and rescue operations," the statement read.