Congo-Kinshasa: The Gangs of Gombe

24 February 2023

Birthed by democracy, recruited by rival politicians, they have operated with impunity. This election season has been no different.

On 12 December last year, the campaign office of Gombe State's People's Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate, Atiku Dan Barde was set ablaze. Political thuggery was suspected. Junaidu Usman Abubakar, a senior communications official in Dan Barde's campaign team pointed the finger at hoodlums working for state governor, Inuwa Muhammad of the All People's Congress.

In Gombe state, northeast Nigeria, they go by the names Yan-Kalare - thugs, some as young as 14 years, in the pay of politicians. Elsewhere in the north, they are called Yan-tauri, Sara-Suka, Yan-Daba and ECOMOG. They go by different names in other parts of the country: Area Boys in Lagos; Egbesu in Bayelsa; Bakassi Boys in Abia State.

Political thuggery has long been a part of Nigerian election politics. Politicians hire the thugs as a show of muscle. They intimidate and sometimes even abduct rivals, stuff ballot boxes, chase and intimidate voters. After 20 years of this vicious circle of violence, the cumulative effect has been to entrench a culture of violence in the election cycle, which ends up promoting voter apathy while normalising human rights violations.

Yan-Kalare has been in existence since at least 2003, the year of the second elections after the return of civilian rule four years previously. It was also the year that the Gombe Elders Forum, composed of former federal and state ministers, civil servants and local professionals, commissioned a study into the impact of gang violence in the state.

Undeterred by local efforts to curb their activities, the Kalare Boys, consisting of unemployed youth and school drop-outs, have over the past 20 years become a fixture on the local political scene. A study shows that politicians recruit these boys during campaigns and election campaigns. Their own children study abroad.

After playing an important role in the rigging of the 2003 Gombe gubernatorial incumbent, All Peoples Party (APP) Governor Abubakar Hashidu, paving the way for the installation of Danjuma Goje of the PDP, observed Human Rights Watch in a 2007 post-election report, the Kalare Boys periodically resurfaced during election seasons frequently in the employ of incumbents to inaugurate new cycles of violence.

In September 2006, Kalare Boys attacked the convoy of the national secretary of the All Nigeria Peoples Party, Senator Saidi Umar Kumo, destroying over 20 vehicles and injuring many of his followers.

Not only do they operate with impunity, observed HRW in the report, but they were also on Gombe state and government payrolls. The report cited former senior state officials and politicians as its sources.

Efforts to end the cycle of violence appeared to have been successful when In 2011, the new governor, Ibrahim Hassan Dankwambo of the PDP, announced the banning of the two main gangs, Yan-Kalare and Yan-Sara Suka. He then embarked on an ambitious youth rehabilitation programme, involving over 1,000 youths enrolled in skills development and entrepreneurship training.

The hunter becomes the hunted

But the gangs are back. In November 2021, a clash between suspected members of Yan-Kalare and Yan-Sara Suka left seven people dead.

And then they attacked Gombe Senator, Muhammad Danjuma Goje - he had been fingered for recruiting the same gangs less than a decade earlier when he ran for the Gombe gubernatorial - while he was en route to a wedding in Gombe city from the airport, on November 5, 2021. He escaped an ambush laid by the Kalare boys, his windscreen smashed with a machete.

And during this election cycle, political violence is once again woven into the fabric of the campaigns, posing a threat to many.

The bloody clash between the APC chieftain, Goje, and the incumbent Governor, Inuwa Yahaya's loyalists reportedly led to the death of five people, leaving many others injured.

Turning against the people

The problem doesn't always end there. After all, once elections are over, the boys resort to all sorts of crime to make ends meet.

From politically-sponsored crimes, they turned to raping, assault, extortion, and maiming innocent civilians with impunity during robbery (phone snatching), especially after elections. Mobile phone theft is especially favoured

Armed with knives, machetes, or daggers, between 2003 and 2022, they killed hundreds of people and injured scores of innocent civilians or members of rival gangs.

Humangle Media, a Nigerian newspaper that focuses on conflict, reported that about 2000 lives have been lost to election violence in Nigeria since its return to democratic rule in 1999.

Research by Human Rights Watch indicates that since the early 2000s, the groups have built a formidable arsenal of small weapons. Their ranks have also swelled with more school dropouts and jobless youth enlisting. As does the body count, especially during election season.

Zainab Ibrahim had two different encounters with Yan-Kalare. She escaped unharmed that first time, carrying the psychic wounds to the next encounter, which occurred in 2013, by which point she was already a senior. On her way back to school together with her friends, she met the boys sitting in a quarry. The girls fled when they saw them.

She recalls: "As senior students, we went to chase students back to their classes when the boys stopped us in the same location, saying that we must tell them our names before they let us pass."

The girls refused. Serendipitously, one of the Kalare Boys called out to the two guys accosting the girls.

"That's how we were saved - after they ran to answer his call," she says.

Not all the girls escaped unscathed. Some were left with scars and knife-cuts on their bodies.

After Muhammadu Garba observed Asr prayer in Pantami on Independence Day 2021, he took out his Keke Napep, a tricycle, to transport passengers.

His first customers were three boys headed to the Federal College of Education Junction in Gombe. On their way, they asked that he take them to the Gombe main market road. Still, they stopped him, arguing that they wanted to buy yams. Then they told him to take them to FCE junction again. At this point, he began to get suspicious.

"The following day, Sunday, I was working around Pantami GSM Village when I encountered one of the guys. He asked whether I recognized him. I answered in the affirmative. He accused me of taking them to their enemies the day before. I denied it and pleaded for forgiveness. He refused. "

The boy used a machete: "I was stabbed in my stomach and both of my hands," he says. He was rushed to hospital where he spent more than 10 days before he was discharged. His wounds only healed seven months later.

The Armed Forces are not spared either

These human rights violations have not spared members of the armed forces either. On Sunday, 25 September 2022, there was a clash between police and the Kalare Boys. Two police were injured.

ASP Mahid Muazu Abubakar, the Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), at Gombe State Command, told this reporter that the Command is doing everything possible to curb the menace of thuggery in the state.

"On Kalare issues, we are tirelessly working with other critical stakeholders to address it. The command under the present dispensation will not allow thuggery to have a place in Gombe."

Mr. Muaza said their men are well prepared for ensuring the safety and security of lives and properties during and after the forthcoming general elections.

"We are ready for the election and therefore seek support from good citizens of the state and warn all criminally minded individuals to stay away from committing crime in Gombe."

Muhammad Auwal Ibrahim is a multiple award-winning investigative journalist and creative writer based in Gombe, Nigeria. He specializes in investigative, data, solutions and development journalism. In 2021, he took 4 highly competitive journalism awards home at both national and international levels: inaugural edition of Lekan Otufodunrin Journalists Award; West African Media Excellence Conference and Awards; ICIR Data/Investigative Journalism Award; and Youths Digest Journalism Awards.

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