By Azu Ishiekwene*
The fight against terror in Nigeria has been a theatre of the absurd. What began as a tiny spark of itinerant fanatics taking a pledge against western education mutated into a full-fledged non-state army currently ranked as the third deadliest globally. Yet, banditry is another fast-growing franchise.
State response has also been as bewildering as it has been absurd. It has ranged from denial to extra-judicial killings and from regional joint task forces to the use of prayer warriors and mercenaries.
And when you thought absurdity had reached its limits, a new idea has been added to the toolbox: compensation to bandits as incentive for them to lay down their arms.
We don’t know how big, yet. But if what the well-known Islamic cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, is saying is anything to go by, bandits in Zamfara State, North west Nigeria, may expect a big payout as compensation to stop the killings.
It’s weird that killers, and not their victims, should demand compensation. It’s even weirder that the mediator can actually bring the matter to the public, thinking that after years of paying ransom and bribes without results, compensation might finally set us free from criminals.
It’s the victim’s nightmare recompense: A loved one is murdered, and then, you watch the perpetrator of the crime paid compensation by the state that is supposed to have prevented the crime in the first place.
Gumi didn’t say how much compensation. But anyone who has seen videos of the bandits dressed like the Taliban, armed with automatic weapons and caches of live rounds strapped to their bodies, would know that they’ll need to be paid handsomely to forgo their lifestyle of audacious criminality.
As Gumi finished his meeting with over 500 of the bandits in some forest area of Zamfara recently, he said he was sure that if the bandits got some money, and perhaps amnesty to the bargain, they would lay down their arms and we can live happily ever after.
I don’t know where the good cleric got that idea from. Perhaps he wasn’t listening or didn’t believe the chairman of a local government not far from where he met the bandits, who said the community had paid bandits N200m in ransom, yet things only got worse.
It’s not only the local government chairman that has been paying bandits without results. Governor Bello Matawalle has also been paying the bandits – one million naira here, two there – a herd of two or three cows to start them off and a place to lay their heads. Lucky folks.
But the governor’s token, often targeted at rank-and-file bandits, has proved to be nothing compared to the huge piles of cash the kingpins make from ransom and the pleasure they get from killing for sport.
How much more can a distressed, impoverished state pay bandits to lay down their arms?
If the price was in human lives, the bandits should have had enough by now. According to a BBC report in July, in the last decade since banditry became a major industry in Northern Nigeria, 8,000 have been killed in the states of Kebbi, Sokoto, Niger and Zamfara alone.
The highest death toll has been in Zamfara, with a record topped only by Borno State in the North east, where killings by Boko Haram are in a savage class of their own.
Apart from the cost in human lives, which means nothing to the bandits, the price in misery for the living has been just as high. Thousands have been maimed, traumatised, displaced and impoverished by the bandits reducing the state, which is bigger in size than Belgium, to a shell of its once thriving self.
About two years ago, the state set up a committee headed by a former Inspector General of Police, Mohammad Abubakar, to get to the root of the problem.
The committee found out what most people already know but brought figures, faces and insights that established beyond a doubt that banditry was not just a well-organised crime, it was also the most prosperous industry in Zamfara.
According to the committee, the criminal gang had made more than N3billion from 3,672 relatives of victims and the gang also had a network that covered even traditional rulers and influential persons in the state. The committee recommended that a judicial panel should be set up to investigate those involved in the crime.
After the public outrage that followed the report, the bandits took a recess, and the government went to sleep. The bandits have since returned in full force killing over 1,000 people last year alone and raping and looting scores of villages in daylight.
Journalist, Kadaria Ahmed, said in a video broadcast by the BBC, that “every day, we bury between 30, 40 and 50 people.” With a police-civilian population ratio of 1:1,500 in Zamfara, the communities are on their own.
Perhaps that was why Gumi, who is from Zamfara, took it upon himself to mediate with the bandits. But where did the talk about compensation come from?
Gumi is obviously copying from former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s playbook on the Niger Delta crisis. But the militants in the Niger Delta, however despicable and obnoxious, were Nigerians. The bandits, especially those in the Zamfara area, are mostly armed Malian caravans that have taken advantage of weak policing and porous borders to infiltrate the country largely through Katsina.
They have slowly but steadily built themselves into an occupying force, routing whole communities along their path, planting flags at one time, and collecting taxes and levies from local communities whose rulers sometimes pledge their loyalty to survive.
A village elder told Amnesty International that he received a call from bandits to tell all villagers close to the forest to vacate their homes and farms and come and pay levies. “He said the only way they’d allow the villagers to continue staying is if they paid them five million naira,” Amnesty reported the man as saying. Ransom is a way of life in Zamfara.
Whatever Gumi’s motivation, however, it’s important to remember that Yar’Adua did not offer compensation to the militants. He offered them amnesty in exchange for laying down their arms. And even that amnesty was justifiably opposed on the ground that it would form the basis in future for criminal gangs to hold government to ransom.
That precedent has come back to haunt us. Today, there are other franchises of official capitulation and indulgence like Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State paying off criminal herders who lost their cows, while turning a blind eye to other members of the community who were actually the victims.
However well-meaning Gumi’s intentions may be, it rubs salt in the injury of the thousands of bereaved families to suggest that those who killed their loved ones should be compensated for the bestiality.
If the bandits have squeezed N3billion from victims’ families and are not satisfied, if they have extracted over N200million from just one out of 14 local governments and are not satisfied, if they have rustled cows and looted farms and yet won’t lay down their arms, it’s obvious that nothing short of a seat in the Government House, Gusau, along with the state’s cheque book, all pre-signed, would appease them.
And for what? What did they lose for which they should be compensated or what offense did the thousands they have killed commit that their memories deserve such brazen indignity?
It’s time to end the nonsense and confront the bandits head-on. I’m shocked that President Muhammadu Buhari’s government is not outraged by the billions of naira paid out to bandits for nothing, not outraged by bandits most of whom have been officially described as foreigners collecting ransom from citizens. And it is clearly not outraged that bandits who have received more in ransom than the government uses to maintain internally displaced persons, still want compensation on top of amnesty.
They want to be paid not just for the atrocities for which they ought to be held accountable, but also because they think that they deserve a flag for making themselves a parallel government. Where does that happen?
If we don’t end the nonsense now, nothing stops another group of violent rogues from some part of the country from stealing, looting, murdering – even making a secession bid – and then staking a claim for compensation.
Zamfara is a crime scene. Buhari cannot entertain any suggestion, however well meaning, that those who have monetised criminality should be compensated.
*The writer is the Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The Interview magazine based in Abuja, Nigeria.