By Ehichioya Ezomon
Nigeria has become a land of the absurd. Foreign non-state actors, parading as herdsmen-turned-bandits-kidnappers, have taken over the country, roaming freely from North to South.
They leave in their wake an orgy of violence: Rape, maim and kill indiscriminately. Destroy farmlands and communities. Seize and rename ancestral and communal lands and forest reserves.
The bandits use the woodlands as staging posts to kidnap and hide victims, including hundreds of school children seized in the past weeks in Katsina, Niger and Zamfara. Survivors speak of forests littered with decomposing bodies of victims of kidnapping.
What have we done in the face of these assaults by bandits from neighbouring countries that depend on Nigeria’s “Father Christmas” generosity for their economic survival and sustenance?
Our leaders, rather than meet the bandits, force with force, tell us: “Let’s dialogue, appease and forgive the marauders so they lay down their arms and be ‘reintegrated’ into the society.”
Do the bandits belong in Nigeria to be “reintegrated”? Even if they do, should we negotiate with the criminals for terrorising a sovereign State, so they’d not take over the entire country?
Curiouser is that the purported initiative of a Kaduna-based Islamic scholar, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, who has lately frequented the bandits’ hideouts in the North, has a tacit official blessing.
Series of photographs have emerged in the media, showing Sheikh Gumi, in consultation with the bandits. In the first photograph, he’s seated, and flanked on both sides and behind by armed bandits.
In some of the latest photographs, Sheikh Gumi is handing over leather pouches (said to contain money) to a bandit leader; he’s chatting with some bandits; and one’s paying obeisance to him.
Is this for real? A deadly bandit leader kowtowing to Sheikh Gumi? Is that genuine reverence or there’s more than meets the eye in the scenes playing out between the cleric and bandits?
Due to his antecedent of stoking religious embers with his preachings, Sheikh Gumi, posing as an “ambassador of peace,” may have some scratching their heads in disbelief.
And owing to the lucrativeness of kidnapping, labels as the “new oil well” for criminals, it’s easy to conjecture that Sheikh Gumi, a “go-between,” has some pecuniary interest in these negotiations.
But who wouldn’t exploit such a unique position of having the eye and ear of the bandits, who’ve turned kidnapping into an ATM to siphon millions, if not billions from the government coffer?
Surely, Sheikh Gumi is playing a dual role in his negotiations with the bandits to lay down their arms for amnesty: A voice for the deviants and an unofficial representative of the authorities.
Yet, more worrisome are Sheikh Gumi’s revelations and utterances on the go. First: That contrary to public perception, the government, and security agencies know the bandits’ hideouts.
Second: That the Fulani herdsmen are fighting for existence, as they’ve been killed in hundreds. Hence, “they cross borders (into Nigeria) to defend their kinsmen each time they are attacked.”
Third: That Muslim soldiers, deployed to combat the bandits, don’t shoot at the criminals. Thus, inferring that only non-Muslim (read Christian) soldiers shoot and kill Fulani herdsmen.
Fourth: That in revenge, the bandits shouldn’t randomly kill people – both Muslim and non-Muslim – but target the non-Muslims, particularly among the security operatives.
Fifth: That the herdsmen are “militants” comparable with the Niger Delta militants, who, for years, kidnapped oil workers for ransom and attacked and destroyed oil installations in the zone.
Six: That the bandits should be treated like the Niger Delta militants, and granted amnesty in order to lay down their arms, for peace to return to the North-West and elsewhere.
Seven: That only appeasement (for instance, paying out millions in ransom and/or buying off the bandits) and amnesty could stop the bandits from their kidnapping enterprise.
Polity watchers have repeatedly asked: How come Sheikh Gumi knows the bandits’ enclaves in the forests spanning many states that the government and security operatives do not know?
Sheikh Gumi has told us the truth: The authorities know the bandits’ hideouts, but are afraid to make the past mistake of attacking them. This time, they prefer to negotiate with the bandits.
That the Fulani are fighting for existence is baloney. Nobody threatens Fulani’s existence. Are school children threatening their existence? Concerned citizens only want to stop herdsmen from banditry, kidnapping, destruction, killing, and seizure of lands.
Sheikh Gumi’s claim that only non-Muslim soldiers kill bandits is better left for the Military to handle, but his advice for bandits to target non-Muslims in their revenge has exposed him as a religious fundamentalist, using the bandits to advance selfish agenda.
Sheikh Gumi’s off-the-cuff assertion that the bandits are “militants” is fallacious. How could the bandits, killing Nigerians without provocation, be compared with the Niger Delta militants?
The Niger Delta militants, whose operations were virtually limited to the South-South, didn’t needlessly and recklessly kill Nigerians, but attacked economic interests, such as oil installations, in the zone.
The militants kidnapped some expatriate and Nigerian oil workers, to draw attention to the plight of the Niger Delta, the cash-cow of Nigeria, and yet neglected in all facets of development index.
So, the Niger Delta militants were fighting for a cause, and that’s why they’re styled “Freedom Fighters.” What cause are the herdsmen-bandits-kidnappers fighting for?
Is it to be allowed to cattle-graze Nigeria from North to South, or to rape, kill and kidnap for ransoms, and seize and rename indigenous communal lands and forest reserves as their own?
No wonder Sheikh Gumi’s misconception of the bandits as deserving of amnesty, which he’s sold to state governors and federal authorities that’ve fallen for the gambit!
What the authorities don’t admit openly is that negotiating with bandits or terrorists entails spending millions/billions in the hope of buying off future criminal operations by the bad guys.
But as Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State has counselled in an interview on the Hausa Service of the BBC, it’s impossible to reform a Fulani man, who has tasted millions from kidnapping.
“Whoever tells me that the Fulani man that started kidnapping, and receiving millions will go back to his old ways (to earn N100,000 a year after selling his cow), is only deceiving himself,” el-Rufai said.
El-Rufai, who dismissed appeasement of bandits, which Sheikh Gumi had sold to him, wants a “hold-no-prisoner” approach to dealing with the issue of herdsmen’s banditry and kidnapping.
“I want a situation where security outfits will launch a coordinated war against them by going into the forests to bomb their hideouts once and for all. Anything short of that will not end the current security situation,” el-Rufai said.
“Why should they (bandits) be compensated after killing people (and) they destroyed their houses? Who offended them? Therefore, I don’t believe in what he (Gumi) is doing: that they should be forgiven and compensated.
“In fact, if any bandit is arrested in Kaduna State, he will be killed because Kaduna is at war with bandits. They kill without mercy; they don’t believe in the (Islam) religion.”
El-Rufai’s radical proposal is borne out of experience, having paid out millions to appease cross-border bandits that attacked Kaduna State. The monetary appeasement didn’t stop the bandits’ menace.
But Sheikh Gumi says appeasement is the cure-all for bandit-terrorism, and the federal and state authorities are falling over themselves to follow his counsel. Why?
Perhaps because of Sheikh Gumi’s dire warning: “Fulani bandits are not Boko Haram, but we have to be very careful. If the pressure is too much, I am afraid they can be influenced by Boko Ham. We have seen the signs that Boko Haram is going to infiltrate them.”
Is this the game Nigeria wants to play with criminals spreading death and destruction from cattle herding to kidnapping and to seizure of lands of indigenous peoples? What absurdity!
Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos