Small arms and light weapons recovered from bandits during Operation Safe Haven and during the military mop up in Jos and surrounding areas in Plateau State in northcentral Nigeria. (Photo taken on April 21, 2022 by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images)

The past decade has seen the growth and escalation of a new manifestation of violence in West Africa—criminal gangs in ungoverned areas of northwest Nigeria, which state security agents and media commonly refer to as bandits. Banditry now joins Nigeria’s list of problematic non-state armed groups which includes Boko Haram factions, Niger Delta militants in Nigeria’s south, and separatist groups in the country’s southeast. Though some of the kinds of activities these groups engage in are similar, each of them has distinct motives, objectives, and methods, and encompasses a wide range of actors.

It is estimated that there are about 30,000 bandits spread across numerous groups in northwest Nigeria, with the groups’ numbers ranging from 10 to over 1,000 fighters. Banditry is a composite crime that includes kidnapping, massacre, rape, cattle rustling, and the illegal possession of firearms. The impact of their actions has been devastating, with a staggering 1,087,875 individuals in rural communities displaced as of December 2022. Furthermore, between 2010 and May 2023, approximately 13,485 deaths have been attributed to banditry.

While the last ten years has produced numerous studies on banditry, there is a dearth of primary sources on its inner workings. This anomaly, as scholars have noted, precludes detailed analysis of the conflict-violence nexus of banditry. The following article (based on my longer one on the topic) looks at banditry’s recruitment strategies, command structures, and motivations for mass casualty attacks in northwest Nigeria, as well as possible actions by the Nigerian government to address this criminal activity. Read more