Some people sold their father’s land to purchase guns; now that war is in their home, they are begging for where to stand on to use the weapons. I got that sense from an elder some days ago as we agonised over the destruction of the country’s peace by its unhinged children. In horrific details, Niger State governor, Abubakar Sani-Bello, lamented last week that in his state in the first two weeks of this year, bandits attacked more than 300 communities, killed at least 220 people and abducted more than 200 persons in more than 50 attacks. Among the dead, the governor said, were 25 security men. And we have not even finished the first month of the year! To think that a minute into January 1, 2022 we all shouted ‘Happy New Year’ and danced away the blight of the spent! Now, how ‘happy’ is the New Year for the dead and how ‘merry’ is it for the abducted and their relations?
And, you know, because a leper’s fingers are never disgusting to him, he would not mind putting them in your mouth if you let him. Were we not told to accommodate the murderers when they started their campaign of death? ‘Do not treat my terrorist as a terrorist; he is just a freedom fighter, a social criminal.’ That was the official attitude that landed Nigeria on this shore of ceaseless bloodletting and unremitting misery. The authorities indulged the outlaws so much that they felt (and still feel) they could do anything and get away with it. Now the governors and the governed are overwhelmed; they are running from pillar to post; there is a frantic, futile search for sanctuary from bandits and their terror. But it is too late for Omóye, he has walked naked into the market square; the insanity of the unclad is forever. And it is not as if there was not enough warning. We played politics with our security and rejected all calls to let the law deal with the outlaws – now they’ve grown beyond what the law can handle. “What I realised is that they (bandits) have been taking us on a merry-go-round. When we deal with them in Niger, they move to Kaduna. When Kaduna deals with them, they move to Katsina. They have been hibernating in the forest,” Governor Sani-Bello said while adding that “they take advantage of the cattle routes which they already know. They move on motorcycles.”
When you heard the governor mention ‘cattle routes’, what came to your mind? When he said the murderers already knew the cattle routes, who came to your mind as the perpetrators of the plundering, the killings and kidnappings?
‘Cattle grazing route’ is a metaphor for plunder and banditry in Nigeria. You remember there is an unending call by the president to reestablish ‘grazing routes’ for herdsmen and for peace. You also know that every call for such from the president has always attracted an outcry and rebuke from the South and silence from the North. The herdsmen too get energised when they know they have official support for the route they claim. They tell themselves: How could anyone stop us from grazing our cows, trekking from Nguru to Lagos? Their ancestors did that, they must too. There is a problem with people who push back against the law and civilisation. Pre-colonial Algerian forest dwellers felt so too. They did what was known as ‘kcar’ – set fire to the forest every four years to clear it of underbrush and open up the forest for other activities. The French came and outlawed it. The Algerians revolted and wondered why anyone would stop them from living in the forest and doing what their ancestors did to the ecosystem. David Prochaska quoted the French as telling the angry Algerians: “You can live in the forest as long as you don’t set fire to it.” And the Algerians countered: “How can we live in the forest without setting fire to it?”
It is difficult to hear those figures from the Niger State governor and not weep. If 300 communities went down in two weeks in a state, what will remain of the entire state in 52 weeks that make a year? What the governor released was not mere statistics. He spoke about human beings and pointed at the near hopelessness of a nation in (total) ruins. I think I should quote the governor directly: “In January this year alone, we suffered not less than 50 reported attacks and loss of lives between 1st and 17th January. Within the same period, not less than 300 communities have been invaded by bandits. The number of people kidnapped is 200, including three Chinese nationals. We also lost some security personnel. Their number is 25. Unfortunately, we lost about 165 civilians and 30 local vigilantes.” Read him again. He spoke only of casualties from “reported” attacks. Many more could go unreported, especially where reporting is deemed suicidal for villagers. What that means is that the figures could be higher. The English were right; in seasons like this, “it never rains, but it pours.”
The taste of truth is acrid. Oscar Wilde warned that “if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.” A former Chief of Army Staff, General Theophilus Danjuma, did not take to Wilde’s counsel on March 24, 2018 when he warned that we would “die one by one” unless we went for self-defence. General Danjuma’s voice was very lonely but it was shrill. At that year’s convocation ceremony of the Taraba State University, he asked terrorised Nigerians to rise up and stop bandits who were killing everyone everywhere every day in relentless, endless savagery. The killers were not yet known as bandits that time. The popular name for those practitioners of plunder, murder and abduction for ransom was ‘herdsmen.’ They operated with the impunity of ‘government pikin.’ They were pampered goats of the king that could feed on any farm without consequences. “We must resist it,” Danjuma bellowed while railing against official inaction against banditry. “We must stop it. Every one of us must rise up.” He spoke, got applauded; he paused for effect, then dropped the bomb: “If you are depending on the Armed Forces to stop the killings, you will all die one by one.” There were gasps; then silence.
For speaking out, Danjuma was serially attacked by the Nigerian state and its agents. The old man simply soldiered on, minding his business. Four years down the line, his call and warning have remained prescient. There is a deluge of killings and misery; the dam has collapsed; those who condemned Danjuma’s call are remaking the call now. He deserves their apology.
Cartoons, sometimes, are graffitied truth. In one, concerned crow asks parrot: “Why are you in a cage?” And parrot replies: “Because I speak.” Speaking out in a season of silence takes a lot of courage. It is risky and only risk-takers dare to. That was what Danjuma did four years ago when he deplored killings by privileged bandits and called for self-defence: “If you are depending on the Armed Forces to stop the killings, you will all die one by one.” The nation heard Danjuma loud and clear but those who should have benefitted from the urgent wisdom in the General’s warning doubled down in abusing him. They said he was against their beloved government. The government accused him of “exploitation of emotional sentiments” – whatever that means. Supporters of government said in calling on Nigerians to defend themselves against terrorists, he had become a bad elder whose call would “embolden criminal gangs.” Then, from that day, he was pigeonholed as an enemy. The small men who spoke against Danjuma’s call for self-defence forgot that the General had the years and also the experience to sniff trouble from afar. They forgot that a child high up in NASA’s space station cannot see what an elder sees sitting down in his parlour. Now, between that March 24, 2018 and today, January 24, 2022 – one thousand four hundred and one days (1,401 days) apart – how many of the regime hailers who said in the open and in secret that the mouth of the elder was smelly are alive today? How many of them are in IDP camps, wasting away in want and frustration? How many more will fall?
Everyone is afraid because nowhere is safe again. Governor Aminu Masari of Katsina State last month in frustration embraced Danjuma’s option without an apology to the General. He asked his people to buy guns and defend themselves. Masari said: “security is everybody’s affair, irrespective of political difference. Therefore, we are calling on whoever wants to protect himself and his family to acquire arms…” Then he made the call sound like a holy war, like a Jihad: “The religion of Islam has allowed a person to protect himself and his property and family. If you die in the course of protecting yourself, you die a martyr.” He was angry that “bandits have access to guns and good people don’t have access to these guns…to protect themselves and their families.” That was a month ago. At an earlier occasion, the same governor declared that “people cannot fold their arms and watch themselves being killed. If they abandon their villages, where will they go and when will the killings end?”
Truly, when will the killings end? We all ask that question with no one to offer an answer. But another North-West Governor, Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State, gave a hint on this last week. He went to the Presidential Villa to see the president, came out and declared no end soon to murder and plunder by the bad boys: “So you see, with the kind of people we have in Zamfara State, I don’t think this issue of banditry will end very soon because, already, some people are behind it. Some people are using it.” He did not tell us who was using the killings and for what purpose. The only thing he was categorical about was that banditry would not be over very soon. His state had, some days earlier, lost at least 200 lives to bandits but he said ‘only 58’ people died.
How will all these end for Nigeria, particularly for the zones of evil? A short reminder here and I draw from the spring of men and women of knowledge. Distinguished professor of history, Olayemi Akinwumi’s ‘Princes as Highway Men’ (2001: 333-350) gives a copious, sobering warning. I paraphrase it: There was a very prosperous country called Borgu. It was a centre of commerce and an intersection of trade attracting people far and near. Then, at a point in its history, a special breed of violent men grew waylaying, robbing, killing and plundering everyone in sight. The plunderers had the support of the land’s noblemen who patronised and protected them. The bad boys were known by the Batonu as the Swadio – people who survived on the road, looting goods of caravan traders. Hugh Clapperton went there in 1826 and was shocked at the degree of lawlessness wreaked by the country’s violent men. He named the place a nation of robbers (Clapperton 1829:67). Soon, its markets were deserted. The lucrative Kano-Gonja and Sokoto-Badagry caravan trade routes which went through Borgu were also abandoned. The result is that by the close of the 19th century, activities of the bandits had destroyed not only Borgu’s economy and reputation, its thriving cities had also become miserable villages.
In a way, historians are prophets. They use the pen of yesterday to sketch what tomorrow looks like. That is what I read in Akinwumi’s 21-year-old paper. The Borgu bandits did exactly what today’s bandits are doing to Nigeria’s North-West and the North-Central. Today’s markets are deserted; the farms are abandoned and the roads ghostly, ghastly and frightful. Should I then bother to ask again how all these will end?