Nigeria’s Zamfara State Should Not Arm Civilians to Counter Bandits

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The activities of armed bandits, as they are commonly known in Nigeria, have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and the displacement of many more. In 2021 alone, more than 2,600 civilians have been killed due to the nefarious activities of these groups, and some 11,500 Nigerians have been forcibly displaced to neighboring Niger. Concentrated mainly in the North West region of Nigeria and parts of its North Central region, the armed bandits are mainly motivated by economic opportunism rather than political ideology, which differentiates them from terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP).

It also explains the common kidnappings for ransom, cattle rustling and robberies that are often associated with these groups. However, this does not negate the potential for adoption of political ideology by armed bandits. There is growing evidence of collaboration between armed bandits and violent extremist organizations in Nigeria. However, due to differences in goals, this type of alliance is not expected to take root anytime soon. The prospect of armed bandits collaborating with terrorist groups is only tenable if they have common goals and objectives within an organized hierarchical leadership structure.

The trend of armed banditry in Zamfara State and throughout the North West region has its roots in part in the farmers and herders crisis in Nigeria, which forced herders to move onto farmland by indiscriminate grazing, often damaging farmers’ crops in the process and creating increased tension and conflict. . This resulted in the formation of local vigilante groups by the farmers to provide protection against armed bandits. This year, the Nigerian federal government outlawed armed bandits as terrorists, paving the way for the use of force against these groups, as part of its broader military strategy. This political decision could potentially trigger cooperation between armed bandits and terrorists.

The activities of armed bandits, as they are commonly known in Nigeria, have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and the displacement of many more. In 2021 alone, more than 2,600 civilians have been killed due to the nefarious activities of these groups, and some 11,500 Nigerians have been forcibly displaced to neighboring Niger. Concentrated mainly in the North West region of Nigeria and parts of its North Central region, the armed bandits are mainly motivated by economic opportunism rather than political ideology, which differentiates them from terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP).

It also explains the common kidnappings for ransom, cattle rustling and robberies that are often associated with these groups. However, this does not negate the potential for adoption of political ideology by armed bandits. There is growing evidence of collaboration between armed bandits and violent extremist organizations in Nigeria. However, due to differences in goals, this type of alliance is not expected to take root anytime soon. The prospect of armed bandits collaborating with terrorist groups is only tenable if they have common goals and objectives within an organized hierarchical leadership structure.

The trend of armed banditry in Zamfara State and throughout the North West region has its roots in part in the farmers and herders crisis in Nigeria, which forced herders to move onto farmland by indiscriminate grazing, often damaging farmers’ crops in the process and creating increased tension and conflict. . This resulted in the formation of local vigilante groups by the farmers to provide protection against armed bandits. This year, the Nigerian federal government outlawed armed bandits as terrorists, paving the way for the use of force against these groups, as part of its broader military strategy. This political decision could potentially trigger cooperation between armed bandits and terrorists.

Numbering in the thousands – with as many as 30,000 armed bandits in Zamfara, the epicenter of the crisis, and five other northern states – these bandits have also imposed eviction notices on local residents in addition to perpetuating acts sexual violence against women and girls. These concerns have led state governments to uncoordinated efforts to end the scourge of armed banditry, including failed amnesty initiatives targeting so-called repentant armed bandits, and other tougher government measures. federal government, such as disabling telecommunications in areas where armed bandits are known to operate.

The Zamfara state government’s recent call for its residents to take up arms to protect themselves against armed bandits, a move the military clearly does not like, could potentially lead to the proliferation of more unobtainable weapons in the North West region. .

The state government’s decision speaks to the desperate need for survival in a climate where subnational entities have found themselves mostly unable to provide any form of protection of life and property without overreliance on federal security structures. By calling on citizens to protect themselves from armed bandits, the Zamfara State government has essentially given up its monopoly on the use of force – it has given up ensuring the safety and protection of its people.

The immediate consequences are that this could further embolden armed bandits within the state. Indeed, arming civilians against them would be interpreted as a direct affront to their ability to use force as non-state actors. This could very quickly lead them to embark on a killing spree targeting more civilians and vulnerable local communities, potentially worsening an already worsening humanitarian crisis on the ground. Added to this is the inevitable likelihood of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the North West region.

Some might be inclined to argue for the decision to arm civilians in response to the threat posed by armed bandits. After all, armed civilians working closely with the military as part of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) successfully repelled Boko Haram and ISWAP attacks in the troubled North East region of Nigeria. . The difference in this case, however, is that the Zamfara state government is not calling for the creation of a structured entity like the CJTF, but rather the arming of civilians without any form of military or paramilitary training. . The state government does not appear to have any intention of providing paramilitary training on the use of these weapons for combat in fragile environments.

The porous nature of the region’s borders and the challenges associated with the ungovernability of these borders further complicate matters. This also creates another challenge: the transnational nexus between organized crime and terrorism, which could see foreign terrorist fighters from the Sahel region gravitating towards Zamfara State.

With the influx of additional weapons – which could eventually fall into the hands of armed bandits, violent extremists and other criminal groups seeking to profit from the chaos in the North West region – the situation is likely to deteriorate. get worse. This over-militarization approach to combating armed banditry is not only flawed, it fails to consider how the distribution of these weapons would be properly monitored through a comprehensive database.

As difficult as this goal is to achieve, it is achievable. Through a deliberate effort by the Zamfara State government in close collaboration with the Office of the National Security Advisor and the National Identity Management Commission, such an initiative can work. This would undoubtedly help to ensure peace and security in the state and the entire North West region.

Furthermore, the Zamfara State government’s decision to arm civilians has the potential to attract, rather than repel, other criminal gangs and terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and ISWAP in the North- East, as well as Ansaru, which operates mainly in the North West region, as they seek to move into Zamfara in a bid to acquire more weapons. The proliferation of weapons in the Northwest offers those who wish to seize them ample opportunity to do so.

As citizens become increasingly desperate for survival, they could turn to the black markets that would most likely be created because of this political decision. The existence of black markets for the sale and purchase of arms also means the emergence of criminal ringleaders and warlords who would seek to exercise control and influence over disputed territories within the state. . These are probably the same people who are already profiting from armed banditry in the North West region.

Rather than adopting an approach that contributes to the over-militarization of the crisis, the Zamfara State government should focus on addressing the underlying political and socio-economic drivers of armed banditry within the state, by starting with issues of poor governance, poverty, illiteracy, inequality and the links between armed banditry and illicit gold mining. This will require a whole-of-society approach in the medium to long term. For this approach to work, it must reflect the voices of victims, including those of women and girls. This should also include deliberate efforts to discredit and expose armed bandits for what they really are – terrorists – through targeted media and awareness campaigns.

To do this effectively, the state government must also engage in a quest to regain its legitimacy. The same goes for the federal government, which is mostly seen as failing to protect lives and property not only in the Northwest region, but also across the country. Putting weapons in the hands of civilians in response to the threat of armed banditry is not only counterproductive, but invites total chaos. This would, more than anything else, result in the loss of more lives and further aggravate the already protracted violent conflict in Zamfara State and the North West region in general.

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