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  • Writer's picturePerri Grace

The Battle Against Bandits: Nigeria's War in the North

Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari is calling for a crackdown on so-called bandits in the country’s north. These armed groups have been terrorising locals in brazen attacks for years, from notorious motorcycle attacks on villages to the kidnapping and ransoming of children taken from schools. Now, there is growing evidence that some of these bandits are teaming up with the government's other major enemy: Boko Haram. With alliances being formed between the two groups, many are questioning if Nigeria can stop a potential spiral into wider insecurity.

Who are the so-called bandits?

Lingering ethnic tensions dating back more than a decade between the Fulani and Hausa tribes created a source of militants establishing criminal enterprises scattered across the northeast of the country. These networks often seeped across international borders. As water remained scarce and the region was hit with environmental issues, competition for resources between communities in the area intensified. Exacerbating problems, the centralised Nigerian government lacks authority and the ability to maintain control within rural localities, leaving the struggle to maintain the rule of law to local populations. Some question if bandits is the correct word, given it understates the sophistication of the attacks being coordinated across the area.

A bandit at the outskirts of a controlled community in Zurmi, Zamfara, Nigeria. Credit: Yusuf Anka/Al Jazeera

The bandits have succeeded by taking advantage of geography. Nigeria's northeast is lined with forests where these networks have the ability to evade and conceal themselves from federal and local forces, who are under-equipped and unsure how to approach these groups. Groups of bandits often coordinate attacks to occur simultaneously to further prevent an effective response; entering villages on motorcycles, taxing farmers, kidnapping and killing those who attempt to stop them.

Some question if bandits is the correct word, given it understates the sophistication of the attacks being coordinated across the area.

Victims of these attacks, as well as members of the security sector, allege that many of these bandit groups have been expanding. Foreign Fulani have crossed the border into the country in a bid to strengthen the grip of bandits over communities. Their anti-government sentiment has caught the attention of militants seeking to take advantage and form an alliance.

Areas in red mark where Boko Haram have historically been most active within Nigeria.

Boko Haram is one of the world’s deadliest terror groups, causing widespread displacement and igniting fear among civilians. The group has even contributed to the famine and food crisis in the north-eastern region of the country which has spilled into neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

There is evidence of a growing relationship between Boko Haram and the bandits. Nigerian government intelligence indicates that Boko Haram has been training bandits and in some cases providing equipment. The growing alliance is concerning as it emboldens Boko Haram’s efforts, creating more decentralisation in the country, while also allowing the booming arms trade to continue in the northwest of the country. There are six well-known bandit groups operating and it is speculated that many of them have been trained or at least consulted by Boko Haram to use explosives and anti-aircraft guns.

Who is the winner in all of this?

Between the government forces, bandits, Boko Haram militants and the innocent people caught in the middle, there are no winners. The Nigerian people are left hurting and looking for other options. Boko Haram and the bandits, though united over certain anti-government sentiment, have different objectives and their shared ambitions are limited.

Nigerian security forces on patrol in Zamfara. Credit: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Ties between Boko Haram and other Islamic extremist groups are growing; the organisation, which aims to create an Islamic state with a religiously-ruled sharia government, is urging muslims to join West Africa’s “liberation”. Any impact on Nigeria’s stability is not merely confined to a regional issue; the country is the largest oil producer in Africa. The government have ramped up their response but deep concerns remain for the potential for civilians to be impacted. An inaccurate airstrike in February aimed at Boko Haram militants near the border with Niger killed seven children and wounded five.

Earlier this year, President Buhari designated the bandits as “terrorists” whilst calling for a crackdown. But as their moves become more widespread, more frequent and more deadly, simultaneously battling Boko Haram and the bandits will challenge priorities and resources. Some view Buhari’s move as too late and accuse him of sympathising with bandits after being reluctant for years to use stronger language.

Boko Haram and the bandits, though united over certain anti-government sentiment, have different objectives and their shared ambitions are limited.

The government has begun implementing communication blackouts and air raids in a bid to squeeze the bandits and militants out of their positions but a lack of coordination and scattered partnerships with security agents means most of the counter operations fall short. Strong institutional action is essential to address the insecurity in the country’s northwest.

As tit-for-tat attacks by Boko Haram and bandits groups creep into international headlines, it will be hard to determine if success against the attacks is occurring in reality. The broader insecurity of the region and the pressure being felt by the Nigerian government will likely create further obstacles to an accurate assessment.

The distrust between the military and locals is a gap only growing wider leading to the sad possibility that further attacks will multiply in the security vacuum. As the disconnect between the two grows wider, we may struggle to hear about future attacks and the situation on the ground for civilians.

For those in north-eastern Nigeria, a long wait for stability lies ahead.


Written by Perri Grace

Edited by Wade McCagh


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