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The Other Insurgency: Northwest Nigeria's Worsening Bandit Crisis – War on the Rocks

In September, several Nigerian social media accounts known for their pro-military slant began reporting that a notorious bandit named Turji Gidde had been captured. It appeared to be a rare and dramatic victory in the military’s renewed campaign against the criminal insurgents who have terrorized swathes of northwestern Nigerian in recent years.
The problem is that Turji Gidde does not exist. His name may be an amalgamation of two of the northwest’s most powerful bandits, Kachalla Turji and Dogo Gide. Or it may be a misspelling of one of Turji’s many noms de guerre. In any event, neither Turji nor Dogo Gide was captured. In fact, only a few leaders of the more than 120 gangs operating in the northwest have been killed or captured since the start of recent operations. As we have seen during our recent field research in Nigeria’s northwest, banditry remain as deadly as ever, and may even be evolving in dangerous ways.
 
 
Northwestern Nigeria is suffering from an intense, destabilizing conflict that has flown under the radar of international policymakers and analysts. Since the mid-2010s, fighting has killed at least 12,000 (the true toll is likely much higher), displaced over a million people, and led to the shuttering of hundreds of schools and colleges across the region. The Nigerian state is all but absent from large swathes of the northwest, with even the federal highways unsafe for government officials and their armed escorts. The bandits number in the low 10,000s, making them more numerous than the country’s jihadists, and they have developed surprising fighting capacity, shooting down military jets and breaching the Nigerian Defence Academy.
Yet when it comes to insecurity in Nigeria (of which there is no shortage) the overwhelming priority for Western policymakers is northeastern Nigeria, site of the Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province insurgencies. These are serious threats too. The conflict in the northeast is driving an acute humanitarian crisis, tying up a significant chunk of Nigeria’s security resources, and adding to fears of a regional metastasization of Salafi-jihadism. But the conflict in the northwest should not be ignored simply because it doesn’t fit within the still-potent “Global War on Terror” paradigm and because its participants are not broadcasting their propaganda on global jihadi channels.
Part of the challenge is that the militancy in northwest Nigeria does not fit neatly within any of the paradigms through which Western observers generally frame African conflicts. Indeed, the term “bandits” is itself one that may sound romantic or quaint to many Westerners, obscuring the intense nature of the conflict. The banditry crisis contains elements of criminality, interethnic conflict, terrorism, and warlordism, and, what’s more, the salience of these various dimensions changes over time and between individual actors. Many Nigerians, even those directly affected by the conflict, do not have a clear idea of who the “bandits” are and what they hope to achieve.
The Nigerian government is currently engaged in a renewed crackdown on banditry, deploying soldiers, cutting off cellphone networks and promoting anti-bandit vigilantes. Yet this campaign risks inadvertently strengthening the bandits and giving them a newfound unity. A more effective campaign to defeat banditry requires a better understanding of the factors that drive it.
Rise of the Bandits
Today’s banditry crisis is the culmination of years of deteriorating political, economic, and security conditions in northern Nigeria. As a rural region and hub of trans-Saharan trade, what is today northwestern Nigeria has experienced cattle rustling and highway robbery since pre-colonial times. But as recently as fifteen years ago, crime remained a generally non-lethal problem in the region and bandits were few in number. Since then, however, the presence of armed gangs has grown dramatically as a result of increased tensions between farmers and herders and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons throughout West Africa, exacerbated by Libya’s collapse in 2011.
Land-use conflict in northwest Nigeria has increased dramatically in recent decades, driving a wedge between Hausa and Fulani communities. Though the divisions are often blurry in practice, farmers belong largely to the Hausa community and herders to the Fulani. Environmental degradation and population growth have helped fuel a sense of resource scarcity, though residents and community leaders mostly identify government corruption in apportioning land titles and settling of disputes as factors that pushed both farmers and herders to begin arming themselves. As a result, between 2011 and 2014, an increasing number of herders found themselves joining criminal gangs or forming pastoralist militias. Some were motivated by the need for self-defense, others by sentiments of ethnic solidarity, and still others, including non-Fulani, by simple economic opportunism. The line between criminal gangs and Fulani militias has long since blurred, with all the militants colloquially lumped together under the label of “bandits.”
The bandits do not constitute an ethnonationalist insurgency, or a coherent insurgency of any sort Rather than unite and turn their guns on the state, they spend a good deal of time fighting each other. They compete for wealth and status and many of them lord over swathes of the countryside as de facto sovereigns. Gangs often mobilize recruits and appeal to communities by espousing anti-government rhetoric, particularly related to the grievances of Fulani herders, but they lack a coherent political agenda and most show no compunction about brutally raiding their fellow herders. Despite the geographic proximity to jihadist hotspots such as northeastern Nigeria and southern Niger, the conflict in the northwest remains distinct from any jihadist insurgency for now. Multiple bandits have cooperated with jihadists, accepting weapons and tactical guidance, but our research suggests the cooperation is less meaningful than many observers assume. The majority of bandits have shown little interest in adopting a jihadist ideology or political economy. For the time being, most bandits are driven less by any ideology than by wealth and power. That has not made them any easier to defeat.
The government’s militarized response has further exacerbated the banditry crisis. Since the launch of Operation Harbin Kunama (“scorpion sting”) in 2016, the Nigerian military has intermittently conducted anti-banditry campaigns in the northwest. These have often produced brief periods of calm as bandits are forced to relocate and regroup. But despite these temporary gains, military operations have also contributed to herders’ resentment and, by extension, aided the bandits’ recruitment. Lacking knowledge of the local communities, military units often get their intelligence from local officials or vigilantes — who often harbor their own grudges and prejudices. When bandits abandon their camps under military pressure, they often use villagers or herders as human shields. However cynical this is, when government forces attack and produce collateral damage, it nonetheless creates newly aggrieved civilians, some of whom are recruited by the bandits. A classified 2019 report commissioned by the Zamfara state government claimed that soldiers and security agents have engaged in arbitrary executions, disappearances, and cattle rustling in the northwest, with the report recommending 10 military officers in particular for court martial.
Non-kinetic efforts to curtail banditry have not proven more successful, however. Several northwestern governors have undertaken a series of amnesties since 2016 in which bandits lay down their arms and “repent” in return for promises of their freedom (and often some material incentives). Each of these amnesties has eventually collapsed as both the bandits and the state government accuse the other of bad faith. All but a few of the once “repentant” bandits have resumed their armed activities.
Renewed Onslaught
In September, following a rise in violence and a record number of mass kidnappings specifically targeting schools, Nigeria launched a renewed anti-banditry campaign – an “onslaught in the preferred language of Nigerian officials and media. This campaign seems to have been initiated by the Zamfara state government rather than the military, however. Starting on September 3, Zamfara imposed a bevy of restrictions aimed at curtailing banditry, including bans on the sale of fuel in jerricans and transportation of cattle, the closure of cattle markets, limits on motorbike usage, and the shutdown of cellular networks. The neighboring states of Sokoto, Katsina, and Kaduna later followed suit, imposing restrictions in the worst-hit parts of their states.
The network shutdowns make it difficult to gain a precise picture of the situation on the ground, but our own fieldwork in these states, continued contact with sources across the region, and the dogged work of some Nigerian journalists helps clarify the state of play. While the bandits were initially caught off-guard by the intense restrictions, many gangs soon found ways to circumvent them. The new troop deployments have secured some communities but are too thinly spread and defensive in nature to deny the bandits sanctuary. Renegade vigilantes have filled the security vacuum, antagonizing ordinary Fulani and thus exacerbating the grievances that drive banditry.
The impact of these anti-banditry measures was felt most acutely in the first few weeks of September. The restrictions on food and fuel sales hurt the bandits more than anything else, forcing some rank-and-file fighters based in Zamfara to disperse into neighboring states in search of supplies (though many bandit commanders appear to have remained in Zamfara). Some gangs were also forced to ditch their bikes on the roadside for lack of fuel. Many gangs have suffered at least a few casualties while security forces have arrested some of the informants who supply them with information. Several bandits were also forced to release captives and flee their bases. A former kidnapping victim in Katsina explained to one of the authors that he was able to escape when, over the first two weeks of September, bandits began trickling out of their camp in search of food until just one fighter was left to guard him. The state governments’ restrictions were initially welcomed by many communities, though frustration has since grown, especially as the restrictions coincide with the seasonal harvest. The bandits are increasingly looting foodstuffs from villages and imposing heavier levies on harvests, causing acute price inflation and exacerbating already severe food insecurity.
While the precise number of troops in the region is unknown, several thousand additional forces have most likely deployed to the northwest since September while those already stationed in the region seem to have left their garrisons for a more visible presence in the towns and highways. Anecdotally, in late September, we witnessed a column of between 100 and 200 soldiers along one highway linking Sokoto to Zamfara, whereas in late August, we saw virtually no soldiers while driving throughout these two states. These troop deployments help block the movement of bandits along major highways and interdict some of their supplies through checkpoints.
However, the Nigerian military’s efforts are hamstrung by severe resource constraints, and it has not been able to pressure the bandits to the degree that most locals (and some military officers) would like. As the governor of Katsina lamented, the Nigerian military is seriously overstretched. It is deployed in effectively every state to compensate for the lack of adequate police forces and is fighting an intense conflict in the northeast to contain the jihadist threat. Waging a prolonged and proactive counterinsurgency in the northwest is not realistic, raising the question of how long the current troop posture will persist. Furthermore, the northwest is simply too large, and its population too dispersed across small settlements, for the military to protect everyone even if it had twice the manpower it does. This raises the possibility that even if the force levels remain consistent in the northwest, the troops will resort to a stalemated “super camp” posture like in the northeast.
Some units in the northwest are taking the initiative to pursue bandits into the bush. But residents in several of the worst-hit parts of the northwest tell us that many units have avoided targeted offensive operations, focusing rather on denying bandits access to major population centers and conducting patrols in certain areas as a deterrent. This defensive posture has enabled the bandits to reconnoiter the positions of security forces and discover vulnerabilities. After several weeks of avoiding contact with newly deployed military forces, bandits overwhelmed a security outpost in the region of Sabon Birni in Sokoto on September 26, killing nearly two dozen soldiers, police, and paramilitaries. Without additional reinforcements, other units in the northwest will be similarly vulnerable, and indeed, the rate of attrition among soldiers is rising.
The Nigerian Air Force has improved its ground attack capabilities in recent years while becoming increasingly engaged in the northwest. The pace of airstrikes in the northwest seems to have increased since September, which our sources both in local security forces and close to the bandits suggest have been responsible for most of the militants’ casualties. The airstrikes seem to be somewhat scattershot, however, and locals have complained that the strikes scare away their herds of livestock, aggravating poverty and food insecurity. The network shutdown makes communication between military units and local communities even more difficult, which hinders intelligence-driven airstrikes.
It would be wrong to focus solely on the military, however. The bandits are adapting in dangerous ways, becoming even deadlier adversaries. For example, the bandits have begun demanding fuel and foodstuffs as ransom rather than money. Whereas bandits generally travel on motorbike, some have responded to the increased military presence by capturing gun trucks to achieve parity in firepower. The bandits have also gone low-tech when necessary, sending letters or even hostages to negotiate ransoms instead of communicating by phone. And while many bandits have used either satellite phones or tapped into the cell networks in neighboring Niger to communicate, ordinary civilians have had less luck circumventing the telecoms blackouts. Ironically, this makes it difficult for them to warn neighbors or security forces of impending bandit attacks. In Katsina state, villagers lamented that this left communities located away from military outposts at risk of raids, particularly at night.
More worryingly, certain bandits have put aside their personal grudges in the face of the newest containment measures. For example two rival bandit kingpins who are active in the region of Shinkafi, Halilu Sububu and Turji, recently started cooperating, as seen in their joint attack in Sabon Birni. An attack on a market in the neighboring district of Goronyo on October 17 likewise involved multiple gangs that worked together and exploited the network shutdown to kill more than 50 people. Whether this cooperation will last is an open question, as the bandits are a fractious lot. But if one result of the military onslaught is that the bandits achieve even a marginally greater degree of unity, it will be to Nigeria’s detriment.
Enter the Vigilantes
Many residents of the northwest enthusiastically welcomed the military operations, with communities that were previously under the bandits’ sway cooperating with the security forces to identify camps and bandit movements. Various sources in Zamfara, including individuals close to Halilu and Turji, say that the two bandits were enraged when they saw villagers supporting security forces in early September, especially as both their gangs had made efforts to build local legitimacy through service provision and arbitration of community disputes. While this shows that the state retains more legitimacy than the bandits when it makes itself present, some of these same communities have had little choice but to again submit to the bandits as military units reposition and move on. Their only alternative is to take up arms themselves.
The security vacuum in the northwest has been increasingly filled by local Hausa vigilantes called Yan Sakai (“volunteer guards”). The Yan Sakai are a leaderless, grassroots, and theoretically illegal movement with no formal accountability mechanisms. In Zamfara, and even more so in Sokoto and now Katsina, they have effectively merged with the local branches of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria (an official organ of the federal security sector), giving their actions tacit state-backing.
The Yan Sakai historically played a major role in fueling the crisis of banditry. As many Yan Sakai will themselves admit, beginning in the late 2000s in Zamfara, these vigilantes would target Fulani for harassment, extortion, or extrajudicial killing based solely on the ethnicity of the suspect, often as a form of retaliation against some crime committed by unrelated bandits. The abuses of the Yan Sakai would trigger Fulani to themselves retaliate, often disproportionately, in a classic example of tit-for-tat violence. Each of the bandits and former bandits that we have interviewed claim that the harassment and violence of the Yan Sakai (and often other security forces) were major factors in their decision to first take up arms. These vigilantes have also been coopted by local politicians or traditional rulers to violently settle personal disputes, most notoriously in 2012 when a member of the hereditary elite in Zamfara used the Yan Sakai to murder an influential Fulani leader, prompting a wave of retaliatory violence. Yet even as they have been declared illegal by different state governments, the Yan Sakai persist because many vulnerable communities have no other recourse for self-defense.
With the ongoing anti-banditry efforts, the Yan Sakai are effectively usurping the state’s role of security provision in ways they have not previously. Driving through Sokoto state in recent weeks, we have passed through numerous Yan Sakai checkpoints on federal highways. While Yan Sakai have long patrolled backcountry roads, they are now confident enough to be establishing checkpoints where police are supposed to be stationed. The Yan Sakai are currently making a new recruiting push while in certain communities local officials and community leaders are raising funds to construct homemade guns for the Yan Sakai (including truck-mounted cannons).
Since the start of the government’s containment measures in September, Yan Sakai have intensified their targeting innocent Fulani and bandits have intensified their retaliatory violence against innocent Hausa. Any increase in the salience of ethnicity within this conflict is dangerous for Nigeria. If the bandits achieve greater operational cooperation and can convincingly present themselves as the only defenders of Fulani and traditional pastoralism more broadly, they will pose a graver threat to the stability of Africa’s most populous country.
Conclusion
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for banditry. The military cannot kill its way out of the mess in the northwest, but improved security is a prerequisite for the sorts of non-kinetic measures favored by international donors and NGOs. At minimum, any effort to entice the bandits to disarm and demobilize needs to be well-coordinated between federal and state authorities. Previous governor-initiated amnesties suffered due to a lack of coordination between different branches of the Nigerian state. These amnesties were not even formally documented but simply existed as gentlemen’s agreements that various parties found easy to breach.
More broadly, Nigerian authorities need to begin to address questions of land use and accountable security provision in the northwest if they hope to erode the strength of the bandits. Tempering the behavior of vigilante forces like the Yan Sakai will not be easy, but modest progress has been made in similar situations, for example with the Civilian Joint Task Force militias in northeastern Nigeria.
Efforts to address the underlying drivers of insecurity will have to start small, and they will require uncomfortable trade-offs. But the alternative is to perpetuate the cycle of conflict and ephemeral truces that has plagued the northwest for the past decade. At such a precarious moment Nigeria cannot afford to continue down this path.
 
 
James Barnett is a Nigeria-based Fulbright researcher and a non-resident research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. Murtala Rufai, PhD., is a professor of history at Usman Danfodiyo University in Sokoto, Nigeria.
Image: Xinhua (Photo by Olatunji Saliu)
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