• Monday, April 22, 2024
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Exploring the nexus between “banditry and jihadism” in northern Nigeria

Recent headlines shock and awe about the intensity and scope of the banditry that has held Nigeria ransom in the northeast and other parts of northern Nigeria. It stretches from Benue State through Niger State, both in north-central Nigeria, to Kaduna in the north-west and their traditional grazing ground in the northeast.

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“They assert that Nigerian bandits have grown so powerful that they do not need the cover or support of jihadists.”

Bandits have become audacious in their atrocities against the Nigerian people. They were in Benue State again on March 21, 2024. They despoiled nine communities in Apa Local Government. Abu Umoru, the area’s lawmaker, raised his hands in confusion and defeat.

Representative Umoru told the media: “About 95 percent of a section of my community is displaced, and I can mention them. The entire Edikpo community has been displaced. The entire Opaha, where I come from, has nobody in that community; in Odugbo, nobody is there; in Akpete, Ikobi, Akpata, Idiaha, Ochumekwu, and Adiga, nobody is in those communities.

“Every day, they will be burning houses in Akpete. As I speak to you, for three consecutive days, they have been going to Akpete and burning houses after chasing them out of their ancestral homes.”

Read also: Insecurity: Farmers pay N140m to bandits in four years

It played out similarly in Niger State, where bandits renewed attacks on villages in Shiroro Local Government in February. They burned 30 houses, abducted scores of people, and rustled cows.

Banditry in Nigeria has grown muscles. They act with impunity and perform several crimes; the kidnapping of schoolchildren, such as the Kuriga pupils, is probably the most lucrative. They took away an initial 285 pupils. The government reduced the number to 137 following the surprising release of the children. Their activities include cattle rustling, looting of villages, extortion of local communities, and kidnapping for ransom.

Jihadist groups carry out some of the boldest crimes. Nigeria is the base of the Jihadi terror group ISWAP. Is there a link between the escalating banditry and jihadism? Have the bandits and the jihadists merged into one force?

Recent scholarship on the subject notes the growth of a “complex and volatile insurgency leading to more civilian deaths in 2021 than the conflict in the northeast.” Scholars James Barret, Murtala Ahmed Rufai, and Abdulaziz Abdulaziz (2022) asked the critical question, Northwestern Nigeria: A Jihadization of Banditry Banditization of Jihad? Their essay appeared in a publication of the renowned Combating Terrorism Centre at the US Military Academy West Point.

The analysts conclude that Nigeria has a more significant banditry challenge than the authorities have dared to acknowledge. They assert that Nigerian bandits have grown so powerful that they do not need the cover or support of jihadists.

“Well-armed bandits are terrorising communities and wearing down overstretched security forces, getting rich through criminal activity such as kidnapping for ransom, and assuming de facto sovereignty over swathes of the region. Most of the militants are Fulani herders who claim to be fighting to redress the government’s neglect of pastoralist communities. But to the extent the violence can be classified as such, their insurgency is fractured into dozens of competing bandit groups loosely organised around warlords of varying power.”

Conversion has gone the other way, from jihadists turning to bandits rather than bandits becoming jihadists. “The bandits’ gangs are so numerous and loosely organised, and bandits fight among each other so frequently over parochial issues that jihadis would have difficulty co-opting more than a handful of gangs at a time. Additionally, differences in the modus operandi and objectives of bandits and jihadis render jihadism unappealing to bandits: while bandits have no coherent political agenda and have managed to grow rich and powerful by plundering Muslim communities in the northwest, jihadis are deeply committed to a revolutionary political project and, particularly in the case of ISWAP and Ansaru, seek to gain popular support from the sorts of vulnerable Muslim communities that bandits prey on.”

The three primary jihadi outfits that operate in Nigeria today—JAS, ISWAP, and Ansaru—each emerged from the original JAS, or “Boko Haram,” that gradually evolved from a mass political preaching movement into a jihadi insurgency between approximately 2002 and 2009. At no point in history have the insurgents officially called themselves “Boko Haram.” This name, which translates loosely from Hausa (the lingua franca of northern Nigeria) into English as “Western education is haram (forbidden),” was initially a pejorative used by the movement’s detractors and has since become the popular name among Nigerians and many analysts for Shekau’s JAS faction, if not all jihadis in Nigeria.

JAS and ISWAP regrouped in Niger State in 2020, and that explains the higher number of incidents therein. They want to “own” Niger State as Jihadi territory. Unless they run into a more determined force.