Indications have emerged that there are still incidences of killings and kidnappings in Zamfara State despite the shutdown of telecom sites in the state.
While the shutdown and the efforts of the military have diminished the activities of the bandits and decimated the criminals, some residents of the state told BBC Hausa that attacks and abductions by the bandits had continued.
Thus, in spite of their pleas to the state government for a ceasefire, as revealed by Governor Bello Matawalle on September 10, the bandits have continued to attack residents of the state.
The governor had after attending Jumat at the Dalala Mosque in Gusau, the state capital, disclosed that the bandits sent a powerful committee to plead with the government to cease fire and allow the supply of food and other essential commodities but that he refused. “What we are doing to bandits is to send them to God, so they can answer for their actions,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Sarkin Shanu of Shinkafi, Dr Suleiman Shuaibu, told BBC Hausa that bandits had attacked at least eight villages, adding that at least 400 people had either been killed or abducted by the bandits. He stressed that the bandits were still killing the residents.
The community leader stated that the number of security operatives was not enough, adding that the local government area which had over 150 villages had less than 50 soldiers and policemen.
Shuaibu added, “In Shinkafi Local Government, we are in a helpless situation. In our position as the people who live in and know Shinkafi, there are no soldiers in Shinkafi. The soldiers earlier moved to protect Shinkafi and its environs were withdrawn after three days. Only the old soldiers who have been with us, not more than 20, were left.
“We have over 150 villages here; what can 20 soldiers do? Even the policemen for the entire Shinkafi Local Government are not more than 18-20 people; all these are our problems.
“I can assure you that these bandits are still killing our people. Even the day before yesterday (Thursday), they came into Shinkafi; a man who went to the farm to get millet to eat, they shot and killed him and shot his 12- to 13-year-old son who is still receiving treatment in hospital.
“They (bandits) attacked eight villages recently. They attacked Shanawa, Katuru, Kursasa, Ganjeru, Bula, Batoli. In all these towns, they attacked and killed people in Kamarawa in Isa Local Government near us. They attacked, killed and kidnapped almost 400 people.
“We go to Sokoto to make telephone calls. We take transport from here in Shinkafi through bad roads and travel to Sokoto to make telephone calls just to let the world know what is happening, to speak to those we believe can save us and for the world to hear.”
The community leader explained that the measures put in place by the government had yielded some results as they had made life difficult for the bandits, but that more needed to be done so the attacks could become a thing of the past.
He added, “What we understand is that the government of Zamfara State is overwhelmed with what is happening. Governor Bello Matawalle has put in place laws stopping the use of motorcycles for transportation, the operation of markets in some places and the illegal sale of petrol and others, including restricting the use of mobile phones.
“We believe all of these measures are working by making life difficult for the criminals but they should keep taking them on by taking advantage of the dire situation to hunt them down. When they feel the heat, they leave the forests and come into town to steal food and treat us the way they want and go back into the forest. We are at the receiving end and that is why we are pleading with the Federal Government to help us.”
It was learnt that due to a lack of telecommunications network, it is difficult to assess the security situation in Zamfara State.
However, figures obtained from the Nigeria Security Tracker, a project of the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think tank, and edited by a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, showed that some abductions and killings had continued in Zamfara State.
On September 3, on the day the communications blackout came into effect, four persons were said to have been killed while about 50 others were abducted when gunmen attacked Ruwan Doruwa district in Maru Local Government Area of the state. However, three days later, soldiers were reported to have killed about 20 bandits in an airstrike in Shinkafi.
Bandits also killed four in Bugundu, Zamfara State after attacking a police station. On September 11, bandits killed 12 soldiers in Mutumji, Maru Local Government area of Zamfara State. They also killed seven civilians in Shinkafi and Zurmi local governments on September 16, burning down the home of the Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Nasiru Magarya, at Magarya community.
…two-week shutdown extended
Meanwhile, the shutdown of all telecommunications sites in the state, as directed by the Nigerian Communications Commission, seems to have been extended. This is because efforts to reach many residents of the state failed as calls to the mobile lines of many residents failed to connect, despite the fact that the shutdown was to last for two weeks “in the first instance”.
As of Saturday evening, September 25, several calls by our correspondents to different people in the state failed to connect, which signalled that the shutdown has not been lifted in Zamfara State. Shuaibu also said in his interview that they had been travelling to Sokoto State to make phone calls as they had been unable to do so in their own state.
Saturday PUNCH had exclusively reported on September 4 that a leaked memo signed by the Executive Vice-Chairman of the NCC, Prof Umar Danbatta, which was addressed to one of the telecom operators on Friday, stated that the immediate shutdown of all telecommunications services had become necessary due to the insecurity in the state.
In the letter titled, ‘Re: Shutdown of all telecom sites in Zamfara State’, the NCC boss stated that the shutdown, which was to last from September 3 to September 17 in the first instance, was to enable relevant security agencies to carry out required activities towards addressing the security challenge in the state.
The memo partly read, “In line with the requirement, you are hereby directed to shut down all sites in Zamfara State and any site(s) in neighbouring states that could provide telecommunications service in Zamfara State. The site shutdown is for two weeks (September 3 – 17, 2021) in the first instance. Your urgent action in this regard is required.”
Sunday PUNCH had on September 5 reported that the action taken by the NCC was its response to a request letter from the Office of the Governor of Zamfara State to the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy.
Sunday PUNCH had subsequently reported that over 240 base stations were shut down in Zamfara State.
Prior to the network shutdown, Zamfara State and some other states in the North-West, including Kaduna, Katsina and Sokoto as well as Niger State in the North Central had come under heavy attacks from the bandits. Apart from invading schools to kidnap schoolchildren coupled with the abduction of women and men for ransoms, the bandits had also killed several residents and security agents.
The bandits have also become more brazen as they shot down a fighter jet belonging to the Nigerian Air Force on July 18. Even though the pilot of the aircraft, Flight Lieutenant Abayomi Dairo, was able to escape, the bandits continued their attacks on him until he was able to escape.
NAF spokesperson, Edward Gabkwet, said in a statement, “On 18 July 2021, at about 12.45 pm, a Nigerian Air Force Alpha Jet aircraft, returning from a successful air interdiction mission between the boundaries of Zamfara and Kaduna State, came under intense enemy fire which led to its crash in Zamfara State.
“Luckily, the gallant pilot of the aircraft, Flight Lieutenant Abayomi Dairo, successfully ejected from the aircraft. Using his survival instincts, the pilot, who came under intense ground fire from the bandits, was able to evade them and sought refuge in nearby settlements awaiting sunset.
“Using the cover of darkness and his phone set for navigation, Flight Lieutenant Dairo was able to elude several bandits’ strongholds and manoeuvred his way to a Nigerian Army Unit, where he was finally rescued.”
The activities of the bandits reached their crescendo on August 24 when the armed criminals in the early hours of the day assaulted the country’s military college, Nigerian Defence Academy, in Kaduna and killed two officers while they kidnapped one senior officer, Major Christopher Datong.
Expert worried as base stations in 41 LGAs down in anti-banditry operation
Speaking with one of our correspondents, Fiscal Policy Partner and Africa Tax Leader at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Mr Taiwo Oyedele, said the Information and Communications Technology sector was instrumental to the economic recovery of the country and that shutting down base stations was counter-productive.
Oyedele stated that rather than shut down telecommunications, it should be used in tracking bandits.
He said, “With the insecurity we have around the country, I struggle to see why you need to shut down base stations because you don’t want terrorists and bandits to call one another to arrange attacks when there is another option of allowing them to make the calls and then you track what they are saying.
“So, there are countries where words have been made into algorithms. So, you make a call and you just mention that word, it flags your phone and the authorities start monitoring all that you are doing. If they said some villagers are calling bandits and giving them information, you monitor them. That is simple. You can monitor what people are saying.
“So, when they said some bandits kidnapped schoolchildren and wanted bicycles or motorbikes, I said wow. That is a very good opportunity; just plant trackers and recorders. It makes it easy so that for one or two weeks you are gathering data and intelligence on where they are, who they are talking to and how many people are there.”
Oyedele said Nigeria needed to change its way of tackling issues.
“This approach in Nigeria that you cut off the head once there is a headache can never solve the problem,” he added.
Telecom blackout may extend to more LGAs
Meanwhile, some analysts have predicted that more states battling banditry in the north-west may also shut down their telecommunications networks given the dwindled attacks in the states and local governments that already adopted the measure.
The analysts told Sunday PUNCH in separate interviews that since the strategy had helped in some states, others might adopt it. They also predicted that in the states where networks had been shut down, the governors might extend it to other local governments if the need arose.
Already, after the networks’ shutdown in Zamfara, Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State said on Monday that the state had shut down telecom networks in 14 out of the 23 local government areas of the state as part of the efforts to combat banditry in the state. He noted that the affected council areas were the most vulnerable to bandit attacks in the state.
In an interview with Voice of America Hausa Service, the governor said the state secured approval from the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, before enforcing the ban on Monday.
The telecommunications blackout in Zamfara, Katsina and Sokoto states currently affected 41 local government areas in the three states. Katsina and Sokoto – also shut down telecommunications networks in their states in 13 and 14 LGAs respectively, bringing the total number of local governments so far to 41.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria had a total of 192,413,613 active voice subscribers and 144,949,194 active internet subscribers in the first quarter of 2021. Zamfara State, with a landmass of 15,352 square miles and a population of 4,353,533, had 2,177,431 active voice subscribers and 1,592,746 active internet subscribers.
With the addition of 27 LGAs in Katsina and Zamfara, the number of subscribers affected may be as high as three million.
Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State also revealed last week that the seven governors of the North-West had all endorsed the practice of shutting down base stations to fight insecurity, an indication that more could be shut down soon.
B’Haram fighters train bandits in anti-aircraft gun use – Military sources
In a related development, a large group of Boko Haram jihadists have moved out of their base in the North-East to join forces with criminal gangs in the North-West, where they are engaged in weapons training and kidnapping, military sources told AFP on Friday.
Boko Haram’s Islamic State-allied rivals have been consolidating their grip on the North-East after the death of Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, this year in a major shift in Nigeria’s 12-year insurgency battle.
Islamic State West Africa Province has been moving into Boko Haram’s territory, fighting Shekau loyalists, assimilating some or forcing others to surrender to the armed forces, security sources said.
Details of the Boko Haram fighters moving could be the latest sign of cooperation between jihadists and criminal armed groups in the North-West, who raid and loot villages and conduct mass abductions for ransom.
Two military sources said a faction loyal to Shekau based in Borno State had dispatched two commanders and 250 fighters to the Rijana forests in northwestern Kaduna State.
Both commanders are allied with Bakoura Buduma, a Boko Haram chief who remains loyal to Shekau and whose fighters are resisting ISWAP consolidation, according to security sources.
“They are the masterminds behind some of the abductions in the North-West,” one of the military sources said.
Both sources said Boko Haram militants were also training the gangs, known locally as bandits, in the use of anti-aircraft guns and explosives and other weapons.
Military spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment. Kaduna State officials also did not immediately reply to a request for confirmation.
A Nigerian security agency communiqué earlier this month warned that a Boko Haram commander and foot soldiers were moving across the country from their base in Borno State to Kaduna State in the North-West.
Analysts said there had been growing signs that jihadists and bandit gangs were developing deeper ties where both stood to gain: Jihadists supply arms while profiting from criminal activity.
North-West Nigeria has long been plagued by bandit groups, but this year, attacks and kidnappings have surged.