Despite the scale of violent attacks by bandits in northwestern Nigeria, the policy response has failed to acknowledge the significant and disproportionate impact on women and children. Adequate policy directives must conform with international humanitarian law, say Oluwole Ojewale and Omolara Balogun, and reinvigorate the Safe School Initiative programme to promote protected education.
Insecurity in Nigeria has gone full circle in recent years, due to the countrywide emergence and domination of various non-state armed groups. With differing rationales, objectives and modus operandi, these actors includes criminal gangs, separatist groups, Islamic fundamentalists and amorphous kidnappers, dubbed ‘unknown gunmen’ in Nigerian media. Now the country’s most pressing security challenge is described as ‘banditry’ by state officials – a composite crime including armed robbery, kidnapping, murder, rape and illegal possession of firearms.
The activities of bandits directly affect the seven states of north-western Nigeria – Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara – and is fast spreading to states in the north-central region, particularly Niger State. Emerging evidence alludes to the increasing nexus between bandits and terrorists in Nigeria’s northwest through recruitment tactics and the mutual deployment of logistics and arms, combined with the region’s geographical advantage for carrying out attacks and a similar mastery of the political economy of ‘kidnap for ransom’, used to fund criminal enterprises. Estimates put the number of bandits at about 30,000, spread across scores of gangs ranging in size from 10 fighters to over a thousand.
The broader humanitarian fallout of banditry
Mass kidnappings and brutal raids on civilians in vulnerable villages by bandits are driving a humanitarian crisis. In September 2021, bandits placed a levy of twenty million naira (about US$50,000) on five villages to avoid their attacks. Government failings leave rural communities at these bandits’ mercy. At least 1,126 villagers were killed as a result of these tactics from January to June 2020. In early January 2022, at least 200 villagers were killed by bandits in Zamfara state, in one of the region’s worst recorded atrocities. While these attacks pose threats to food security in rural areas, failures to bring killers to justice also fuels feelings of impunity, according to a report by Amnesty International.
In what appears lately as a shifting geography of violence, attacks have been concentrated in villages and peri-urban areas of major towns and cities in Sokoto State. In less than a week, over 40 persons were kidnapped in December 2021 in Wurno, a small local government area in the state. An eyewitness notes ‘the vicious attack on villages is becoming overwhelming for the vulnerable residents and spreading like a wild fire’. On 6 December 2021, 23 persons died after bandits shot at a bus carrying travellers from Sokoto to Kaduna in an attack at Gidan Bawa village in Isa local government area of Sokoto State.
Banditry’s impacts on women and children
In spite of the scale of violent attacks by bandits, the significant toll of the impact on women and children is yet to receive sufficient attention in policy responses. This is despite escalating attacks often targeting vulnerable women and children and endangering the latter’s right to education. For instance, more than 61 children are still in captivity months after a mass abduction for ransom by bandits of more than 780 children in 2021, while many schools were shutdown indefinitely, according to a recent report. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says at least one million children will likely stay away from school because of the threat of violence, following the targeting of pupils in 2021 alone. This trajectory portends serious implication for Nigeria – a country blighted by endemic poverty in the northwest and reputed to house the highest number of out-of-school children in sub-Saharan Africa.
Amid these attacks, women and girls bear the most significant burden of banditry in the region. Sexual violence has skyrocketed with women frequently raped, kidnapped or commodified by families who are forced to exchange their daughters for protection. For instance, at least 30 women and girls were raped indiscriminately across five communities in Shiroro Local Government Area of Niger State. A similar act was carried out in Tsafe Local Government Area of Zamfara State in response to communities refusing to pay a N3 million levy (approximately US$5,000). Additionally, the humanitarian toll of banditry extends to livelihoods relied on by women, with markets and farms often raided. Victims’ highlight the effect of rape and hunger in the midst of rising insecurity and the desperate need of food, protection, shelter and clothes. Access to water has also become increasingly difficult in congested camps for displaced persons.
In the unfolding events, bandits are also co-opting women for their criminal activities. In November 2021, the Nigeria Police Force arrested a woman for supplying 991 rounds of AK-47 live ammunition and drugs to bandits in Zamfara. This isolated arrest suggests the copying of operational methodologies, which has long been perfected by Boko Haram in the northeast.
Rolling back the crisis
The plight of women and children can only be stopped through coordinated interagency responses. The starting point is to revisit and reinvigorate the Safe School Initiative (SSI) program, unveiled in 2014 by the federal government in collaboration with the United Nations, with a view to rebuilding, rehabilitating and restoring normalcy to learning in safe spaces.
To be effective, SSI must place local communities at the nucleus of its implementation. They possess contextual knowledge about local security dynamics and are best suited to devise practical solutions, helping to negotiate, advocate and monitor schools as peaceful and protected spaces, utilising local relationships and community agency. Such community-based interventions would also provide cost-effective measures cardinal for prevention and protection of schools. The federal government should redirect the mandate of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) to take the lead on this initiative by providing full-proof security for schools as directed.
Furthermore, the protection of women against violent attacks by bandits and wider humanitarian fallouts must be guided by robust justice and security initiatives that are fully responsive to women’s needs. A practical law enforcement solution must include the concerted prosecution of all bandits perpetrating crimes of sexual violence directed at women and girls in Nigeria’s northwest.
Government policy directives regarding the protection of women as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) must, further, conform with the international humanitarian laws and the fundamental rights of IDPs as enshrined in such protocols. Their rights to water, sanitation and hygiene must be safeguarded and implemented to ensure maximum practicable convenience in IDP camps. Moreover, the rights of such persons under international humanitarian law not to be forcefully returned to the places where they face attacks by bandits must be sacrosanct, until normalcy returns to their community and their safety is guaranteed.
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