Governor Abubakar Bello of Niger State yesterday drew the attention of the federal government to the rising wave of criminal activities of bandits with a pledge that the state government would ruthlessly deal with them. He has also vowed not to negotiate with the bandits, adding that necessary punishments would be meted to village heads found to be harbouring the bandits in the state.
Bello, who spoke with reporters after meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari to seek urgent federal government intervention to security and infrastructural challenges in the state, noted that banditry has taken a dangerous dimension with the recent influx of bandits from neighbouring states and Benin Republic.
The governor stressed that the state government will be ruthless in dealing with the bandits “as we will now take the battle to their hideouts”.
He also accused locals including village heads of aiding and abetting the bandits in recent times.
His words: “The bandits are being invited by some locals. In fact, we have arrested some village heads. Now if a whole village head invites bandits or habours bandits, then where are we headed to? The village head is supposed to secure the village. So, we are going to be ruthless with any village head found wanting in this regard, because there is no way we can make progress if the traditional institution at the lowest level becomes part of it and I’m in discussions with the Emirs, first class Emirs to dethrone or stripe any village head of his appointment once being caught.
“So, going forward with the efforts of the Nigerian police, with the community policing, with the local vigilantes if you have them across the entire state, even though they are not properly armed but we’ve lost quite a few vigilantes. You cannot compare somebody with Dane gun and somebody carrying AK47 and AK49. But they are determined to protect their families and their farmlands. So, we’ve seen some results, some success when it comes to local vigilantes and I think we should give them some more support so that they will do more because the traditional, military and police we have their numbers are limited. They cannot cover the entire state. So, they need the support of the vigilantes to augment their efforts. And in some cases the vigilantes and the hunters act as guide to our forces because they understand the forests”.
Bello stated that he got firm assurances from the president that the issues he raised with him will be given urgent attention.
Said he: “I want to use this opportunity to discuss matters surrounding security situation in Niger State. Recently, we have been experiencing influx of bandits from neighbouring states and even though our security agencies are doing their best, I found it necessarily to update Mr. President on the situation. So we had a very fruitful discussion and the president has also pledged more support to the state on security matters so that within the shortest possible time we will address the security situation.
“We also discussed the issue of infrastructure in Niger State. At the moment, 80 per cent or more of traffic from the South passes through Niger State especially through Minna, the state capital. Over time we have witnessed some of our culverts, bridges and roads have been seriously destroyed because of the weight of trucks. So we try to get encourage truckers to carry a maximum of 30 tonnes or 32 tonnes that should be able to keep our roads functioning for sometime. However, the state of all the roads in Niger State is in a deplorable condition, so there is need for federal intervention. Most of the roads are federal roads but because the federal roads are bad, trailers have resorted to using state roads. So most of the federal and state roads at the moment have become very bad.
“So we discussed that as well and we hope before the raining season, something will be done about it.”
On how bad the security situation is in the state, Bello quipped: “The situation is very bad. Niger is 73,000 square kilometers, it’s the size of the entire South-south or South-east. So, first of all we have limited number of security personnel and I think we have to start thinking of increasing the numbers so that we are able to cover most of the local government within the state. Some of our local governments are up to 6,000 to 7,000 square kilometres; one local government. For example the Bobi grazing reserve which is a programme between state government, CBN and the federal government, where we encourage herders to move their cattle so as to stop the movement of cattle from one area to the other so as to avoid herders, farmers conflict has become a target. Because that is the only location where you can find in one constituency 5,000 to 6,000 herds of cows. So most of the bandits have started focusing their attention on the Bobi grazing reserve which I have also discussed with Mr. President. Because we have investors that have started investing in terms of money, equipment, processing facilities. We do not want to discourage them so we applied most of our resources and efforts towards protecting the grazing reserve.
“But we are having influx of bandits from neigbouring states especially Zamfara and Kaduna states. It is difficult to patrol those areas because vehicles do not go there and there are deep in the forest. Which means we will need the federal might especially the Air Force. By the way, the Air Force has been doing extremely well in recent times to support our ground operations.
“I have no doubts in my mind that with a little support with regards to personnel, mostly personnel so that we are able to deploy them in various parts of the state. Again, our border with Benin Republic, this is new. We recently started experiencing influx of bandits from Benin Republic border, we never use to experience that before. They find the national park very attractive. The national park alone is 5,000 square kilometers, so is a good call for bandits. Like I said, with limited resources we are doing the little we can to see that we secure lives and property. We have lost a few people, we still have people being kidnapped. Even today we have not less than 30 people that have been kidnapped but most times we are able to rescue them.
I believe there is great value in working with the federal authorities in addressing this security challenges.”
Asked if he will be willing to negotiate with the bandits, the governor said: “To be honest, even when the process of negotiation was being advised, I recommended or agree to it. I have attended one meeting where the bandits were there and I cannot imagine myself as a state governor and chief security officer of a state, sitting down and negotiating with bandits. They have never been honest in their talks even when they were given the opportunity they failed to keep the agreement. And whenever they will surrender their arms and they don’t ask anything in return, then you can tell it is not an honest negotiation.
“Because, someone that is used to carrying arms to go and rob is now telling you he will drop his arms without asking for anything in return, I don’t think there is any sincerity in that. So, I have never subscribed to that negotiation. In any case, the bandits are mostly Fulanis that have no one to control them even their parents cannot control them. We call them bandits but these are common criminals, they are armed robbers. I don’t see how someone who is used to robbing at gun point or killing, will say let’s go to negotiating table, I will drop my arms, I will just move on with my life without asking for some a kind of support as an alternative to their activities.
“I tried it once reluctantly it never worked, so I don’t think…unless I see some evidence of sincerity but I am really not in such negotiations.”
Asked to paint a picture of the kind of mayhem these bandits had caused in the state, Bello said: “This is a very important question because the dynamics of the criminal activities have changed. They started with armed robbery then they moved to cattle rustling and then to kidnapping as a means of getting money. But recently the trend has changed, they started burning farms and animals. So this has given me some concerns and at the same time it has kept me thinking, what is the motive. I can understand if you kidnap you are looking for money but when you burn farms, then there is something else happening. Or when you kill animals. They go to villages and kill animals, they don’t steal. So if you stop people from going to farms it means you are trying to deprive that nation of food security. Why will someone wants to deprive people of food security? Niger State has the capacity of feeding the entire country. We have the water bodies for dry season farming, we produce a lot of rice, maize but I am worried because last year most of the farmers did not have the opportunity to go to their farms to harvest even when they planted. So the bandits torch the farms, they just burnt everything.
“So back to your question, this is a serious one because it does not affect Niger alone, it affects the entire country. So when we are not able to feed our nation, then it becomes a major challenge. So, this is the kind of mayhem being unleashed on the people. I have been discussing this, we have noted this down. We have been able to address one of the mayhems because at some point they stopped farmers from going to farms until they pay ransom. So, what they do is that they go to a community and say we will allow you go to farm but you have to pay some money. But we have been able to address that because we have been able to identify their camps and those camps have been destroyed to some extent because some of the farmers especially in the mandila area have been able to return to their farms.
“But we are not out of the woods yet, they come in pockets this time around and on a daily basis we have five to six attacks. Again, you cannot attached values to human lives, and they kill innocent people. When you rob and leave them alive is one thing but when you go and just kill, that also sends a very terrible signal. So there is serious mayhem being caused by these bandits.”
On the possible solutions to banditry, Bello said responsibilities have been shifted to the communities.
“Let me tell you what has worked so far and we have made a lot of progress. I moved the responsibility of security to the community level. And at the community level they know themselves. Vigilantes are controlled by the local government and sometimes by the ministry and they have been doing very well. And for so many reasons. One, they are defending their farmlands, they are defending their families. It is different when you send someone from somewhere, the enthusiasm to really fight and motivate people to protect their environment is usually better when you deal with locals. Yes, I found the locals security at the lowest level very helpful. But again, one major challenge that we found out is that in some cases the locals have adopted to a kind of business and that is even more difficult”.