The crisis-stricken region of Northern Nigeria has witnessed rising incidences of banditry over the past few years, culminating recently with a series of kidnappings. Communities in this region are facing an ever-increasing threat of banditry, a type of organized crime that includes kidnapping, armed robbery, murder, rape, cattle-rustling, and the exploitation of environmental resources. Armed banditry has become a central security challenge to Nigeria’s northwest, made complex by the myriad of factors at play in the region including Islamic terrorism and the agrarian uprising that began in 2011. Some of these factors are well-known, some are less-known and some are not known at all, which makes coming up with effective, long-term solutions very challenging. But complex security challenges are nothing new. 20 years ago, former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld found himself in a similar situation at a Department of Defence news briefing about the lack of evidence linking Saddam Hussain's regime in Iraq to the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organizations. He explained: "there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know." This series of statements have become known as the Rumsfeld paradox in the field of security. This article will focus on two parts of Rumsfeld’s paradox: the known knowns, and the known unknowns, in the context of the ongoing banditry crisis in Northern Nigeria.
The recent surge in mass kidnappings of school children is not entirely unprecedented. In 2014, the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram kidnapped 300 girls from a boarding school in Chibok. The kidnapping was subject to widespread media coverage and led to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which Michelle Obama supported. Since then, Boko Haram has expanded its control beyond northeast Nigeria to neighbouring countries, including Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The group's motive is the rejection of western education, which it considers un-Islamic.
The problem of banditry plaguing Nigeria today also stems from the Nigerian agrarian crisis of 2011 when groups of farmers and herders took up arms to express their distress, which arose due to fierce competition for scarce resources as well as dissatisfaction with a corrupt and ineffective government in Abuja, the nation’s capital. Communal differences among herders further exacerbated the problem, as environmental conditions in the region continued to worsen coupled with dwindling water and land resources. In the past, this conflict, initially limited by communal rivalry, has transformed into lethal warfare between communities, with hundreds of innocent civilians being killed in this bloodbath each year.
Banditry has now become a source of livelihood for these communities seeing as the areas where bandits operate are riddled with problems such as youth unemployment, poverty and income inequality. According to Nkasi Wodu, a prominent lawyer in the region, these factors, coupled with the proliferation of small arms, illicit weapon arsenals and artisanal mining, have worsened life in the conflict-ridden region. The Nigerian Security Forces have also been reluctant to help maintain security and stability in the states. Some state governors did initiate talks with the bandits, but most of these ended in a stalemate.
Despite the ongoing conflict, armed banditry and kidnapping are relatively recent problems. The Nigerian government has been incapable of containing the situation, which has continued to worsen over the years. The American Security Project (ASP) estimates violence in Northwestern Nigeria will further escalate as the threat of banditry increases. ACAPS has also warned the international community about the unprecedented crisis further brewing in Northwestern Nigeria. Recent kidnappings in Kaduna are just one in a series of abductions and lootings affecting the province and also the neighboring provinces of Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto, Niger, and Kebbi. Frequent kidnappings in these states have created an atmosphere of fear and underscored the high levels of insecurity. At times, students have been killed even after the payment of ransom money.
With the death toll surging year after year in this uncivil war, the Council on Foreign Relations estimates that the conflict has caused more than 5000 fatalities in these six states since 2018. Moreover, the figures from the UNHCR suggest that more than 247,000 people have been internally displaced so far due to the conflict.
Although banditry in Northern Nigeria shows some similarities to banditry in other countries in the region such as Niger and Chad, it remains starkly different from other acts of bandit violence due to its lack of unified leadership, an unwillingness to compromise, poor governance and deteriorating socio-economic conditions. Despite having sufficient knowledge of the underlying causes of these problems, there still remains a great deal that we don't know. In many conflicts, including the one in Afghanistan, one can deduce the future of the conflict by analysing current trends and anticipating threats. Unfortunately, in the case of Nigeria, one cannot deduce future attacks due to their spontaneity and lack of coherence of incidents of banditry. Hence, one cannot predict what the outcome will be for the Kaduna province or even Nigeria as a whole after the use of certain strategies from peaceful negotiations to rigorous counter-insurgency operations in the region. This unpredictability and the lack of a cohesive structure among bandits make the Nigerian population especially vulnerable to violence. Any solution also carries the risk of aggravating the already fragile situation if the talks reach another stalemate. So in a sense, the decision before the Nigerian administration when proposing measures to end the bloodbath is a judgment that considers the balance of risk and assesses the costs and benefits.
No end in sight?
Agrarian conflicts across the world usually generate a great deal of sympathy for their cause, due to the integral role that farmers play in society, but the conflict in Nigeria has been an exception, owing to the gruesome turn that many of these conflicts have taken in the recent past which has, due to surging bloodshed and violence, put the lives of many civilians at risk. A number of issues need to be dealt with in order to address the problem of banditry in Nigeria, which is unique on many levels. To bring a lasting solution to the problem, fundamental changes are needed in the Nigerian political establishment, including the flushing out of bandit sympathizers who have allowed banditry to flourish in the region for such a long time.
Moreover, the security forces would have to be strengthened to secure the porous border. Security personnel would also have to be trained to better deal with human and arms trafficking, which might force the bandits to surrender due to a lack of resources. Security forces are also often faced with the difficulty of being unable to distinguish between ordinary farmers and bandits during raids due to the duality of their roles. The use of new measures, including drone surveillance and anti-banditry bombardment, would also be integral in this regard.
Only through concerted efforts both economically and militarily can this violent and protracted problem be brought to an end. Despite the enormous bloodshed in the region, the international community has remained silent and the conflict receives far less attention compared to Afghanistan. The International Community must play a greater role by exerting greater pressure on the Nigerian government to bring the conflict to an end.