Home Opinion Banditry documentaries and the tragicomedy of government censorship, By Calixthus Okoruwa

Banditry documentaries and the tragicomedy of government censorship, By Calixthus Okoruwa

“I remember how he raised his head to look at me while he was in that painful condition…then he put his head back…it pains me, how much my boy suffered. I have struggled with nightmares for a long time.”

The little boy being mourned by the father above, was not killed by the bandits, hunger or disease. He was felled by a stray bullet from soldiers needlessly firing their guns.

This lament of a father, was captured in the BBC documentary on banditry in Nigeria (“The Bandit Warlords of Zamfara”) which so riled the Nigerian Government that it has now slammed a fine of N5m on broadcast houses that have aired the documentary. The BBC documentary was released on July 25. Ostensibly, in order not to be accused of witch-hunting the BBC, the government also slammed the same fine on Media Trust, owners of Trust TV which had aired a similar documentary of the banditry problem (“Nigeria’s Banditry, the Inside Story”) last February. Both documentaries, by the way, are freely available on YouTube and appear to be gaining ever more popularity since the “sanctions” were announced recently.

The little boy’s unfortunate death is a reflection of the human tragedy that banditry continues to spawn in Nigeria. It is also an end-result of the government chicanery that has come to underscore this crisis. Bandits had gone to Government Secondary School in Jangebe in Zamfara State and abducted 280 girls. The government, despite its repeated denials, secretly engaged the bandits and paid a ransom of N60m for their release. Upon their release, instead of allowing the poor traumatised girls time to reunite happily with their families, Zamfara State Government officials quickly herded them into a hall for ceremonial speeches. No prize for guessing what the subject of these speeches must have been – self-adulation and unwarranted counsel. 

As the speeches wore on to no end and with nightfall ominously approaching, angry parents desperate to travel back home with their daughters, stormed the hall. In the ensuing melee, stones are said to have been thrown at some of the government officials’ vehicles. This was the trigger the security men needed to open fire.

At the end of the day, while the father got his abducted daughter back he lost his son.

This is just one manifestation of a crisis that has raged for over a decade, worsening by the year and which these media organisations have toiled for months to bring to the attention of the world.

The nomadic Fulani claim to have taken to banditry in protest against injustices against them. Giving vent to what is a global concern around climate change and its aftermath, they lament that land for grazing has shrunk alarmingly while so-called “cattle routes” have disappeared. To make matters worse, there are no veterinary hospitals for their cattle. They also quarrel about what appears to be a stereotyping of all Fulani as bandits with resultant discrimination by the rest of society and outright attempts to eliminate the Fulani via a combination of attacks by vigilantes dominated by the Hausa and frequent air raids by the Nigerian military.

The Hausas on the other hand resorted to forming vigilante groups in response to acts of banditry perpetrated by the Fulani. Unfortunately, in carrying out their tit-for-tat activities, it would appear that the vigilantes hardly bothered to discriminate between the bandit Fulani and the regular law-abiding Fulani with whom they had been neighbours and friends for centuries. Entire hamlets were sometimes razed to the ground in revenge for similar nefarious acts carried out by bandits.

The result has been a self-perpetuating orgy of violence and destruction at huge cost to society.

Thousands of people have now been killed and maimed in the course of this crisis and hundreds of thousands more, traumatised and displaced. Primary schools have long been shut down and the society is in the throes of producing a generation of illiterates. Travel is risky and so is staying at home as entire villages have often been raided especially at night with men, women and children ruthlessly killed. Sometimes communities are raided for several hours without any help or rescue effort by the government, a development that has driven communities to self-help efforts like the formation of vigilante groups which unfortunately, the government is yet unable to properly monitor, equip and organise.

The government’s only real interest in the problem appears to be how much political capital its operatives can derive from it, as eminently showcased in its desperate showboating efforts in the wake of the rescue of the Jangebe girls. BBC’s documentary notes that the government initially ignored the self-help attempt by the people to form vigilantes to stem the rising tide of banditry. With time, however, the government provided support including funding to these vigilantes. Now it has outlawed them.

Accounts of the several talking heads in the documentary also show that the government typically under-reports casualty figures of the crisis.

As the crisis has escalated over the years, money has inevitably become a major defining influence. The bandits have come to realise how hopelessly insecure the Nigerian State is and perhaps how ineffectual and dishonest its leaders are. They recognise that they can amass millions of naira in ransoms for kidnapping people and with such monies procure more arms to facilitate more kidnappings.

Abu Sanni, a bandit and self-confessed perpetrator of the Jangebe abductions, said as much in his interview. “It has become a business, that’s why things are deteriorating.” He adds that “the government gets money and we also get money, though for our money, blood is spilled.”

That the government indeed “gets money” is further tragically reinforced by the paradox of the numerous eye-witness accounts that show that the bandits are typically better armed than the soldiers. While the bandits fund their arms purchases from proceeds of kidnappings the Nigerian military supposedly commits trillions of naira annually to defence spending. The bandit did not need to say it explicitly, but clearly not all of the monies budgeted for defence spending is actually being deployed as such. A huge chunk of these monies is apparently going into private pockets, leaving our soldiers at the frontline, under-equipped and inadequately motivated to confront these terrorists.

The BBC documentary attempts to hear out a few other bandits apart from Abu Sanni above. Hassan, one of the earliest warlords who first began the importation of AK-47 rifles into the country from the Niger Republic for reprisals and other acts of banditry after his uncle was killed, laid down his arms for a while. But with such peace efforts not intelligently, competently and honestly overseen and managed by government, he has again returned to banditry in the aftermath of the destruction of the hamlet in which he lived upon embracing peace.

The documentaries have been very brave efforts by both media organisations to elaborately examine the increasingly complex crisis of banditry and provide illumination on a legion of issues that need to be resolved. 

Have there been any attempts to glamorise the acts of banditry and terrorism as the Nigerian government accuses the media organisations? Certainly not, in my opinion. The terrorists are filmed either sitting on mats in the bush or in the vicinity of their huts – locations where they have been accessed by the journalists and before them, government intermediaries as well as prominent Islamic cleric, Sheikh Gumi. There is therefore, no allusion to their invincibility.

There is no reference to having committed their funds to any acts of ostentation except to procure more arms. Instructively, in the BBC documentary, the interviewer asks a bandit the deliberately provocative question: “what kind of a person goes into a room to abduct sleeping girls just because he has a problem with someone else?” To this, the bandit concedes, even if indirectly, that this was indeed, an evil act.

BBC’s reporting of the crisis, especially, has been an eye-opener for me and I believe for many others. BBC, like Media Trust, therefore, deserves commendation for the investment in time, money and effort they committed to this project in the face of enormous risk all in a bid to enable Nigeria better understand the complexity of the banditry issue as part of efforts towards evolving a definitive solution to it.

Men and women of goodwill need to upbraid the Nigerian government for its shortsighted and self-serving act of attempting to intimidate and censor these media houses. Media Trust should consider going to court for an interpretation of the clauses in the Nigerian Broadcasting Code under which the government purports to have imposed the sanctions. So should the other media organisations that have been slammed the same fine for merely broadcasting any of the documentaries.

Nigeria’s democracy, despite its faltering starts and stops has come a long way and assaults on free speech such as the government regularly slams on the media need to be stringently resisted.

Okoruwa is a communications professional in Lagos