LAGOS, Nigeria—“This gun, our forefathers used to use it for catching animals,” said the elderly man as he handled the decrepit rifle.
“The bandits will be firing at us with AK-47s, AK-49s, and other sorts of machine guns. But those vigilantes who are well equipped with the grass root,” he said, now holding up some herbs, “the bullet doesn’t penetrate their body.”
Mustafa, whose name has been changed to preserve his anonymity, is a 35-year veteran of the local vigilante force in Niger state, a large, predominantly rural area in northwestern Nigeria. With overstretched federal security forces handling Nigeria’s myriad security challenges, local vigilantes like Mustafa are on the front lines of a nebulous battle with so-called bandits whose violence has killed thousands of people and displaced many more in the northwest over the past decade. Patrolling the bush with old hunting rifles and incense-laden amulets believed to provide mystical powers, Mustafa and his men go head to head with heavily armed criminals whose attacks increasingly look like those of organized insurgents.
Boko Haram’s decade-long insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has overshadowed a growing security crisis in the country’s northwest. Kidnapping for ransom, cattle rustling, and terrorist-like violence—all lumped together and characterized as “banditry” by the Nigerian government and media alike—have increased dramatically in the region since the mid-2010s. The bandits boldly attack security forces throughout the countryside and ransack whole villages. The military, unable to secure the vast, rural region on foot, is increasingly responding with air power. (In Kaduna state, 150 air missions were flown in the first quarter of 2021 alone.)
The violence in the northwest does not appear to be religiously motivated, although this has not stopped Nigeria’s jihadists from attempting to benefit from the instability. There is growing evidence that jihadists have been in contact with bandits to make inroads into the Muslim-majority northwest, which would mirror approaches deployed by jihadists elsewhere in West Africa. But it is unclear how successful the jihadists’ overtures have been. Indeed, the situation in the northwest remains ambiguous, with officials expressing uncertainty about the identities, relationships, and objectives of many of the bandits.
As one Nigerian official put it: “In the northeast, we know the enemy is Boko Haram. In the northwest, it’s like the Wild West.”
The banditry crisis has arisen from several interrelated factors, among them conflicts over land use and cattle, an overstretched and often abusive security sector, and an influx of military-grade weaponry from Libya and the Sahel.
Many of the bandits come from the pastoralist Fulani community, though some are also members of northern Nigeria’s Hausa majority while others still are suspected of being Nigeriens or Malians who have taken advantage of Nigeria’s porous borders. Cattle rustling has long been a problem among the Fulani, and over the past decade, rustlers have begun engaging in more lucrative kidnappings for ransom as well, particularly targeting highways. Many Fulani accuse the Hausa elite in the northwest of dispossessing them of their cattle and building on grazing routes, driving Fulani youth into destitution and criminality.
Large-scale kidnappings of dozens or even hundreds of people, including a kidnapping of over 130 students in Niger state on May 30, have become easier to stage as the flow of weapons from North Africa and the Sahel has increased since Libya’s civil war in 2011. Officials complain the bandits are often better armed than local security forces. On a recent trip to Kaduna, I saw a typical weapons cache police had captured from bandits that included significant amounts of machine gun and anti-aircraft ammunition.
Some bandits have also purchased weapons from policemen and soldiers, either directly or through black market intermediaries, as Boko Haram has historically done in the northeast. Corruption, often at the highest levels, has long bedeviled Nigeria’s efforts to combat insecurity. A former national security advisor and a former air force chief, among others, have gone to court for embezzlement in the fight against Boko Haram.
Security forces in the northwest are overstretched and often fail to respond to attacks. Officials blame manpower and funding shortages, particularly among police, though these are compounded by questionable allocations of existing resources. Many police are concentrated in state capitals, where they guard government offices as well as VIPs and businesses that can afford to hire protection. Military units have taken on much of the burden of conducting patrols (sometimes in coordination with police and paramilitaries) as well as offensives on bandit enclaves. With active deployments in approximately 30 out of 36 states, the military can spare few men for the northwest. In Kaduna, special air force units have been called in to bolster the limited army presence.
Niger state, Nigeria’s largest state in terms of landmass, has only 4,000 police officers, with 10 divisions concentrated in the state capital. The bandits travel on motorbikes along little-known cattle paths, giving them more mobility than heavier police and military vehicles. In Kaduna’s state capital, where bandits recently kidnapped 39 college students just down the road from the Nigerian Defence Academy, many long-time residents are worried to even move around town. “It used to be that parents would let their kids go out and play all day without any supervision. Now, we don’t even trust okada [motor taxi] drivers,” said resident Anne Mutuah.
Abuses and misconduct on the part of security forces have also exacerbated the security situation in the northwest. During an intervention in the hard-hit state of Zamfara back in 2016, the military reportedly engaged in numerous extrajudicial killings. According to one retired general who requested anonymity, this operation undermined Zamfara’s then-governor, Abdulaziz Yari, in the eyes of the local population and helped drive some family members of those who had been killed into the fold of the bandits in a quest for retribution. This would not be the first time heavy handedness has backfired on the Nigerian government, pushing potentially cooperative communities to support militants instead.
Speculation and rumors about the bandits’ motives abound. Many Nigerians, including senior officials, suspect politicians or businesspeople in the northwest are sponsoring the bandits in one way or another, whether for personal enrichment, to harm the interests of political rivals, to coerce populations into voting a certain way, or to reward Fulani herders for previous political support. (Yari was often accused of making such calculations. ) Officials also suspect a nexus between the bandits and illegal gold mining activities. in the northwest.
Nigeria’s jihadists are also attempting to play the banditry crisis to their advantage. Boko Haram has not sustained operations in the northwest since 2014, two years before it split into two factions. The leader of one faction, Abubakar Shekau (who was reportedly killed in May by the rival Islamic State-aligned faction), subsequently attempted to woo Fulani as a means of reasserting his presence in the northwest. His faction succeeded in forming an arrangement—however temporary or transactional—with at least one set of bandits who kidnapped schoolchildren in Katsina state in a December 2020 operation claimed by Shekau. (The mastermind of this kidnapping was killed by rival bandits in February.)
In Niger state, testimonies from displaced villagers suggest Shekau’s faction might have a foothold in the state. Furthermore, Ansaru, a one-time splinter of Boko Haram linked to al Qaeda, has cells in the northwest and is suspected of having a hand in some kidnappings. One bandit commander named Dogo Gide, who operates across Niger, Kaduna, and Zamfara states, has been in contact with both factions of Boko Haram to discuss forming a pragmatic alliance, according to two senior government officials who reviewed relevant communications intercepts and prefer to remain anonymous.
Officials state former Boko Haram fighters have joined the bandits, though their motivations could well be material rather than ideological. One senior official told me some bandits clashed with Ansaru in Kaduna because the jihadists were “trying to force their religion” on them. S.E. Danmman, a police commander in Niger state, acknowledged police are unable to distinguish which militants are Boko Haram and which are bandits but stated “we see banditry as an offshoot of Boko Haram.”
Whatever their ideology, the bandits clearly feel emboldened. In Zamfara, bandits have taken over villages and reportedly conscripted residents to work on the farms of bandit commanders. Across the northwest, they attack communities that resist their will or cooperate with local authorities. Early last year, the residents of Kerawa village in Kaduna foiled a kidnapping attempt. Shortly thereafter, the bandits returned and killed 57 villagers.
Banditry has become another lightning rod in Nigeria’s perennially polarized politics. Many Nigerians view bandits and ordinary Fulani herders as two sides of the same coin, pointing to widespread farmer-herder violence across the country as evidence of Fulani aggression or even genocide. (That Fulani also fall victim to banditry is often ignored.)
The complex local dimensions of violence are frequently overlooked as a narrative takes hold that Fulani are conspiring to Islamize the country, possibly with the support of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani. The leader of an Igbo separatist group, which the government has blamed for a string of recent attacks in the southeast, stokes fears of a Fulani jihad to justify forming a breakaway state of Biafra.
Those less inclined to conspiracy theories nonetheless see the government’s inability to stem insecurity as evidence of state failure and worry about deepening ethnic and religious divisions. In the bustling commercial capital of Lagos, residents are far removed from the conflicts of the north, yet it is common to hear people from all walks of life casually predict a coming civil war.
Fears of Nigeria’s impending collapse are as old as the state itself, which is reason enough to temper the most pessimistic predictions. But there are no quick fixes to the country’s insecurity, as the banditry crisis attests. The Nigerian government has unveiled an ambitious plan to create special cattle ranches to mitigate farmer-herder violence, which most believe is the key to reducing banditry.
Officials hope delineated grazing areas will reduce contact and thus friction between farmers and herders while modernizing Nigeria’s livestock industry and bolstering Fulani socioeconomic development by means of schools and health clinics—things that a semi-nomadic people often lack reliable access to.
But the plan faces several challenges, including the fact that herders seem reluctant to abandon their traditional pastoralism. Tukur Mamu, a Kaduna-based journalist and occasional intermediary between the government and bandits, acknowledges it will be a “gradual process for the herders to see the benefits of the ranches.”
In the meantime, Nigeria’s northwest is unlikely to see peace.