Rise in banditry has led to a dramatic increase in sexual and gender-based violence, which was already high due to prevailing cultural norms, in the Northwest says a report by the Centre for Democracy Development (CDD).
The report which is, titled ‘Northwest Nigeria’s Bandit Problem: Explaining the conflict drivers’ obtained by The ICIR also noted that there are around 100 bandits groups constituting between 10,000 and 30,000 militants operating in the region.
It highlighted the historical factors and root drivers of conflict, the identities, motivations, and modus operandi of the bandits, and the role of additional conflict actors such as anti-bandit vigilantes and the federal security forces.
The report also entailed the roles of traditional rulers and institutions, the relationship between bandits and jihadists, the gender dimensions of insecurity in the northwest and the inadequacy of current government efforts to address the conflict.
On the gender dimension of the conflict, the report noted that the rise of banditry has led to a dramatic increase in sexual and gender-based violence, which was already high due to prevailing cultural norms, adding that bandits in the Northwest frequently rape women and capture “war brides” in their raids.
“The conflict has exacerbated the commodification of women, as some families give their daughters (many of whom are still children) to bandits as brides in return for protection.
“Children are also victims of the conflict, both in terms of direct violence and because many become orphans or are forced out of school,” the report noted.
Although women and children have been victims of banditry, they are not entirely passive actors in the conflict.
“Children have joined the bandits as well as Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN) and Yan Sakai in large numbers, often against their will. In one bandit outfit, the youngest fighter was nine years old. Some women also work with the bandits, serving as informants, wives, and camp attendants, or, in rarer cases, fighters,” the report read in part.
The report further read that women have also smuggled food and weapons for bandits and will conduct reconnaissance and infiltrate communities disguised as traders or beggars ahead of attacks.
It added that women have also lured victims to their kidnapping; although some are coerced, others do it for financial gains.
“Beyond banditry, some women are involved in criminality in the northwest on their initiative. One of the biggest drug dealers in Sokoto state is a woman known by the name of Mama Jazina,” the report noted.
100 bandit groups, 30,000 militants operating in Northwest
As the highpoint of banditry in Nigeria, the report found that at least 100 bandit groups are operating in the northwest, constituting between 10,000 and 30,000 militants.
Although the bandits are predominantly Fulani, they also include Hausa, Kanuri, and Tuareg, who engage in illegal activity, are adaptable, and wield sophisticated weapons, possibly more than the Nigerian security agencies.
“Some bandits command more than 1,000 fighters, though such groups tend to be loosely organised, granting significant autonomy to sub-commanders, often colloquially called lieutenants.
One former bandit noted that in some groups, lieutenants may even seek their commanders’ permission to form their group once they get enough weapons and fighters. If the commander believes his lieutenant “has demonstrated his courage” then the commander may give his blessing for them to form their own group,” the report stated.
While they have been responsible for thousands of deaths and destruction, the report noted that bandits such as notorious gun runner Shehu Rekep have tried to mobilise support around political grievances, but they do not promote a coherent or proactive political agenda such as regime change, secession, or greater ethnic autonomy.
“Many bandits claim to be fighting in defence of the Fulani and demand that the government respect the rights of pastoralists by respecting traditional grazing arrangements, disbanding the Yan Sakai, and otherwise ceasing the harassment of Fulani,” the report read in part.
Conflict drivers and why banditry persists in Northwest
The report further noted that the vigilantism and activities of the Yan Sakai have been central to the growth of conflict in the northwest, which has fueled tit-for-tat violence.
It stated that Yan Sakai and vigilantes have engaged in behaviours similar to the bandits in the Northwest.
“In addition to their ethnic profiling, harassment, and extrajudicial killings, vigilantes and Yan Sakai have at times engaged in behaviour like that of the bandits, including cattle rustling, looting and kidnapping for ransom,” the report noted.
It stated that although there are not sufficient explanations for the origin of the conflict, it is currently rooted, to a large extent, in land-use disputes that have escalated and taken on an increasingly ethnic dimension because of official corruption, the security sector’s lack of capacity and professionalism, the failures of the criminal justice system, environmental degradation and a breakdown of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms between farmers and herders.
The report stated that the formation and intervention of self-help groups such as the Yan Sakai and vigilante forces as either state or community responses indiscriminately targeted ethnic Fulani, further heightening conflict as well as the proliferation of small arms and light weapons had contributed significantly to the breakdown of law and order currently being experienced.
“These factors have not produced a coherent insurgency or mere conflict between farmers and herders, but instead, criminal violence in the form of banditry has increased dramatically because of the general breakdown in intercommunal relations and law and order. This section offers a detailed overview of the following drivers of insecurity in the northwest,” it read.
The report noted that any solution to the banditry crisis would be contingent on security sector reform and improving trust between security agencies and local communities to bring peace to the Northwest.
It noted that the bandits would continue to find recruits as long as the Yan Sakai operate as violently as they have and should rather look to the experience of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) militias in northeastern Nigeria for lessons on how to temper the excesses of vigilantes and make them more accountable, although the CJTF should not be used as a rigid template for the Yan Sakai without consideration of unique local factors.
The report also stated that any future peace agreement or amnesty involving the bandits and the state governments should be closely coordinated with the federal government and formally documented to avoid the pitfalls of previous agreements.
It further said that due to the harm, dispossession, and trauma that communities have suffered due to the conflict, federal and state authorities should consider how a transitional justice initiative might begin to rebuild trust and social cohesion in a post-conflict setting.
“There is a need for accountability. More pressing, however, are the humanitarian priorities. State government officials have often downplayed the severity of the humanitarian crisis in the northwest, refusing to acknowledge the high number of IDPs or establish a transit IDP camp. But the humanitarian condition is worsening daily and trust in the government is dwindling,” the report noted, among other recommendations.