Northwest Nigeria Has a Banditry Problem. What’s Driving It?

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.

The Nigerian government formally declared bandits as terrorists in November 2021. This designation meant tougher sanctions under the terrorism prevention act for suspected bandit gunmen, as well as their informants and supporters, such as those caught in providing these criminals with arms, fuel, and food. More importantly, the federal government has considered counterinsurgency operations and the human rights imperatives of deploying sophisticated military hardware against the bandits (in the context of international convention regarding how, when, and against whom such hardware can be used).

This article’s glimpse into the bandits’ world ties in with theoretical explanations on organized violence, and can hopefully provide useful information to scholars and policymakers.

Figure 1. Map of Nigeria showing incidents of armed attacks by bandits in the northwest. Source: Author’s compilation from ACLED, generated through Arcmap

Impacts of Attacks
The frequency of bandit attacks in the northwest has been steadily increasing since 2018 (see Figures 1 and 2). The rise of bandits and their easy access to illicit weapons have destabilized the region. Armed bandit attacks impoverish farmers and hamper agricultural activities and trades in rural communities. Their violent activities and the continued expansion of conflict zones represent a major risk to the socioeconomic outlook in the northwest.

Based on data compiled by the ACLED project, bandit attacks were sporadic from 2010 to 2017, reaching their peak in 2014 with 64 incidents (see Figures 1 and 2). However, since 2018, the number of attacks has been steadily escalating, surging from 124 incidents in 2018 to 1,031 incidents in 2022. The ACLED estimate reveals a staggering 13,485 deaths attributed to banditry between 2010 and May 19, 2023. And actual numbers may be higher, since the ACLED data rely on information provided by local groups and media reports.

This escalation has had a significant impact on Nigeria’s cross-border trade and agribusiness with neighboring countries such as Niger and Benin. The Jibia border, known as a bustling commercial center, has seen a sharp decline in activities. Importers and exporters have been completely avoiding this area, leading to a substantial decrease in border revenues as reported by the Nigeria Customs Service. This decline can be attributed to the continuous attacks by bandits in border communities. The once-thriving agricultural sector in Jibia, with its numerous large-scale farmers exporting produce to various parts of Africa, including Niger, Mali, and Benin, has been severely affected as well. Many farmers have abandoned their farms and relocated due to the escalating incidents.

Figure 2. Trends of violent attacks by bandits across the study area outlined in Figure 1 (2010 – May 2023) Source: Authors’ compilation from ACLED

Evolution and Enablers
The evolution of banditry in northwest Nigeria can be analyzed through a few distinct streams of argument. A very recent history traced its emergence to an extra-judicial killing in April 2013 of the leader of a pastoralist group in Zamfara state by a Hausa-dominated vigilante group, on the allegation of harboring and supporting cattle rustlers. Subsequently, his followers mobilized fighters and invited affiliated gangs for reprisal attacks. Members of the gang grew in number, acquired weapons, and strengthened their connections in 2013. In 2016, they also drew members from neighboring countries such as Niger, Mali and Chad, mostly Tuaregs with links to Sahelian rebels. There has been a gradual transformation from the elementary and isolated roots of banditry to a complex, transnational security threat.

The evolution of banditry can also be situated in the context of farmer-herder conflict—the constant struggle over access to land for grazing and farming between Fulani herders and Hausa farmers. The situation has worsened over time due to climate change. Lastly, banditry has evolved and escalated as a result of poor governance, unemployment, and rapid population growth, coupled with the burden of poverty. For instance, official data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows that five of the ten poorest states in Nigeria are in the northwest region. On key governance indicators and measurements, which include capacity for internally generated revenue, infrastructural development, literacy level, and security, these states lagged behind in a recent assessment. Population growth, poor governance, and higher incidence of poverty have also rendered many unemployed youths vulnerable to recruitment by bandits.

While these factors shaped banditry’s evolution, its critical enablers are arms trafficking and border porosity. Generally, in West Africa, the porosity of the region’s borders favors the circulation of small arms and ammunitions. As banditry evolves, it is sustained by unfettered access to illicit arms in the underground economy. More importantly, the challenge of arms trafficking is accentuated by border porosity, lack of human and technological capacity for surveillance, and cross-border activities of armed groups. For instance, Nigeria’s border with Niger, which spans 1,497 km, is poorly policed by the Nigeria Custom and Immigration Services. The porosity of these frontiers deepens the spread of armed groups into Nigeria from Central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger). This also coincided with the post-Gaddafi era, when arms started pouring out of Libya into the Sahel, destabilizing the entire region.

Modus Operandi: Recruitment, Tactics, and Funding
Bandits have adopted three principal strategies to populate their cells: economic incentive, coercion, and social relations. They exploit the socioeconomic vulnerability of the rural residents and burgeoning youth population trapped in pervasive unemployment, recruiting new members by offering vulnerable youths 5,000 naira (barely $3 USD). They also place potential recruits under close surveillance over a fixed period of time.

Bandits also resort to civilian victimization, threats, and coercion as a veritable recruitment strategy. They often resort to violence as a tool of recruitment, resource acquisition, and control because they possess fewer non-coercive strategies to achieve these objectives. By establishing a climate of fear, bandits make it difficult for community members to resist recruitment efforts. Lastly, recruitment is undergirded by the principle of social connection that guides relationships between community members and criminal groups in the larger society. Bandits recruit youth with whom they have lived in their local communities for many years. The new members are subjected to a process of socialization that opposes many of the values and norms of the general society. This makes them socially tied to the groups and estranged from their home communities.

Why Bandits Carry Out Mass Attacks
The primary motivations for mass attacks by bandits vary and are often overlapping, fluctuating depending on the circumstances and conditions. Banditry manifests through the deployment of large-scale violence and is strongly undergirded by a criminal economy. The principal source of funding is kidnapping for ransom. Data on the criminal economy of ransom payment in Nigeria reveals a complex challenge. Between 2011 and April 2020, Nigerians lost at least $18.34 million in payments to secure the release of their family members from bandits. In April 2021, the Zamfara government disclosed that bandits collected N970,000,000 as ransom from victims’ families between 2011 and 2019. The figure is likely higher than reported because of the clandestine negotiations and opacity that undergird ransom payment and the fact that not every payment made to the bandits is reported.

Bandits also carry out mass attacks to foster an atmosphere of fear, as the attacks help bandits to project force and serve as a means to pillage resources in vulnerable communities. Mass attack has become a strategy that projects bandits as ruthless; forces people into perpetual submission; and makes civilians more amenable and willing to cooperate with bandits before, during, and after attacks. Mass abduction also attracts global media coverage, embarrassing the government and emboldening bandits. Many times, this publicity reveals the ineffectiveness of state capability and response.

Bandit attacks covered widely in the media also have significant political repercussions. Leaders and political parties are judged based on their handling of the situation, impacting elections and public approval ratings. A recent Afrobarometer survey confirmed that an overwhelming majority of respondents (84 percent) considered abductions a serious problem in their country.

Many bandits also hold the view that they are freedom fighters for the emancipation of the Fulani tribes in Nigeria’s northwest. Such groups are carrying out mass attacks with a view to avenging the years of attacks on their kinsmen. This is rooted in the long-standing grievances over land and resources, as well as a sense of injustice among some bandits of Fulani origin who claim they are retaliating against perceived wrongs committed by Hausa ethnic groups against their tribe.

The Way Forward
To address these challenges, it is necessary to be cognizant of the drivers and enablers of banditry—perceived injustice, governance deficit, proliferation of weapons, and extreme poverty. This would require three strategies: a peacebuilding approach, security sector reform, and development. The starting point is to foster and encourage negotiated settlements between Fulani herder and Hausa farmer communities in the rural areas. The historical and multigenerational grievances that have characterized their relationship must be addressed to achieve peaceful coexistence.

The federal government of Nigeria must capacitate border policing and law enforcement agencies by improving security and intelligence, gathering infrastructure, and deploying extensive contraband-detecting technologies at land borders. Deploying electronic border surveillance systems to strengthen existing customs and immigration checks would enhance security at unmanned border corridors. Concerted efforts to recruit, train, and post adequately equipped security personnel to the borders could boost surveillance and stem the free flow of arms into the country, which bandits rely on to carry out attacks and abduct civilians.  Civil society organizations and media across the region can also assist governments in preventing, combating, and eradicating the illicit trade in weapons through advocacy campaigns in communities and the media.

Addressing this crisis in the northwest rests on the renewed call for broader security sector reform in the country. Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu and other stakeholders have now recognized that policing remains critical in rolling back the mayhem and wider insecurity that envelop the society. Therefore, the ongoing review for the amendment of Section 214 of Nigeria’s constitution, which centralizes policing power within the federal government, must be followed through. Decentralized policing can create a localized and community-focused policing system that allows for input from the community on organizational, operational, and human resources.

Furthermore, federal and state governments must also prioritize short- and long-term programs to curb banditry in the region. Short-term programs would encompass targeted socioeconomic interventions to ameliorate poverty and lack of opportunities that affect the youths who are being recruited into banditry. The state governments in the region could develop a social register for vulnerable households in rural communities to implement direct cash transfers to poor families in high-risk areas to alleviate immediate financial deprivation and reduce the lure of banditry. The government could also launch short-term employment programs, such as public works projects, to provide immediate income opportunities. More importantly, mass investment in agriculture, infrastructure, education, and other avenues to increase youth employment is essential to stem these problems.

Oluwole Ojewale is the central Africa coordinator for the ENACT program at the Institute for Security Studies in Dakar, Senegal.