Bandits are sophisticated money launderers, use drones, CCTV for surveillance – Sokoto varsity don, Dr Rufa’i

Published 19 September 2021

A lecturer in the Department of History, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, Dr Murtala Rufa’i, whose decade-long researches in rural economy brought him in contacts with bandits, speaks about their mode of operations, in this interview with ADENIYI OLUGBEMI

You recently delivered a seminar paper titled ‘I am a bandit,’on campus. Why did you choose such a topic, knowing how sensitive the issue of banditry is in the country at this time?

Before I arrived at the topic of my presentation, I sought legal opinions and interpretation of that particular title. I consulted legal practitioners and experts on the implication of the title, describing myself and my 10 years experience with different groups of bandits. My lawyer, thereafter, advised me there is no title I can give the presentation that would be as good as ‘I am a bandit.’

You said you have a 10-year experience interacting with bandits. Being a scholar, what were you doing with bandits?

For the umpteenth time, I need to clarify that I am not a bandit. We do not clearly understand these people called bandits. They are simply a community of pastoralists who used to live in settlements but transformed overnight into bandit gangs and these are settlements that have been existing for decades. In the course of my research from 2010, which centred on rural economy and entails going into rural areas, interacting with the rural communities and also understanding their challenges, I was able to interact with a lot of them (bandits) on this basis that. But they were not bandits at the time.

We became friends and exchanged contacts. They became bandits overnight with emerging phenomenon but this did not truncate our friendship or our interactions. It was when I finished my research on rural economy that I picked interest in the transformation of this people. This is how I was able to generate the necessary information and data presented at the seminar because I related with them (bandits) and they gave me lots of confidential information.

You described your seminar presentation as just a tip of the iceberg, in terms of information on banditry at your disposal.  Will you be willing to assist security agencies with this information you have?

Definitely, the information I gathered will be useless if it doesn’t contribute towards efforts to stop the unwarranted killings around us. I will gladly share the information at my disposal with whoever is coming to end this problem. But without any gainsaying, I believe the security agencies, through their intelligence gathering networks, would have more information than I do. But whoever is ready to end banditry, I am ready and willing to collaborate with them. I am duty-bound to share my knowledge towards providing solutions because part of my appointment as a lecturer in the university is to teach, conduct research and go out for community service.

You said you believe that the security agencies have the needed information about these bandits. Why then do you think it is taking them this long to crush these bandits?

 It is taking so long because it is a problem that has been allowed to grow out of proportions and it now has multiple chains and it can no longer be solved with a one-line approach. The solution now is to adopt the kinetic and non-kinetic approaches. The security agencies need to be strategic and scientific in adopting these options.

What do you think of the restrictions being imposed by governments of Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto, Kaduna and lately, Jigawa states as part of anti-banditry strategies?

 Some of these measures being adopted, though not new, are good in the sense that they are based on findings of scientific researches. If there is anything crucial to the sustenance of banditry, it is availability of petrol and open market. Had it been it is only the communications networks that were shut down without cutting off supply of petrol and closure of markets, the bandits would not feel the heat because the traditional centre for dissemination and sourcing for information, especially to pastoralists, in the rural areas is the market. The life of an average pastoralist revolves around the market place. That is where they borrow and pay back the money. It is at the market that a pastoralist meets his wife and announces his date of wedding and the birth of his children. The market closure and ban on the sale of petrol in rural areas are two crucial and sensitive decisions taken, that will enhance the needed results.

Recent reports indicated that most bandits are abandoning their motorbikes due to the shutting down of filling stations around the bandits’ zone. This measure alone is enough to end rural insecurity because no attack could be carried out without fuel; that is critical to the running of their motorbikes.

Do you have an insight into how these bandits get the quantum of arms and ammunition in their possession?

 The issue of how they source their arms and ammunition is a different thing entirely. A large part of what they collect as ransoms and a substantial part of the animals they rustle are either sold to get money or exchanged for weapons. It will be hard for people to understand that bandits are sophisticated money launderers. Their modus operandi is to rustle cows, sell the rustle cows, buy more robust, well-fed cows and take them to neighbouring countries for sale. The proceeds, they invest in acquiring more arms and ammunition.

Studies have shown that there are over 100,000 arms and ammunition in the hands of the bandits. A bandit leader once said there are more weapons than cattle in Zamfara, considering the large number and membership of the armed groups. Weapons like anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenade tubes, machine guns, AK-47, AK-49, G3 magazines, among several others, are found across different camps in the state. For you to know how sophisticated these bandits are, camps like that of Turji, Halilu and Shehu Rekep used drones and CCTV cameras for surveillance and intelligence gathering. In another camp at Birnin Magaji, there was a local ICT expert in charge of solar panels and monitoring of the CCTV.

 Most arguments on the source of weapons revolve around the porous border thesis and the inability of the security to man the over 1,950 official borders. There is a plausible assumption that arms supply in Zamfara is majorly from the Nigeria-Niger Republic borders located around Zamfara, Sokoto and Katsina axis. Some of the illicit traffickers are well-known in their communities and calamity could befall any community that exposes these suppliers to security agencies. There is also the use of women and children as couriers of arms along the border. Depending on the size and distance, an AK-47 rifle is transported into a nearby village from the border at the rate of N20,000, while a bag containing 100 rounds of ammunition is transported at the cost of N5,000.

 At the point of interviews, most members of the armed groups could heard giving the prices of weapons in their possession because they are largely quantified and values by either cattle or full-grown bull. On the average, some gave out two to three cattle for AK-47 or their price equivalent. Those that accept cattle, mostly Fulani retailers, have the chances of getting more costumers and huge profit margins than those who only exchange for money.

From your interactions, what will you say gave rise to banditry, in the first place?

Contemporary armed groups in Zamfara are traceable to politicians, who sponsored and armed youths as political thugs to achieve their ambition in 2011. The youths were later abandoned and they resorted to self-help and drugs.

The second factor is traceable to injustice – injustice from all angles, from everybody and from every stratum of society. Society considers the pastoralists as ignorant, uncivilised, barbaric people, who don’t actually know what they are doing but, they are very clever and highly intelligent. You cheat a pastoralist today, thinking he has forgotten, when he has the opportunity 10 years later, he will certainly fight back. They don’t forgive and they are never ready to forgive.

Pastoralists are left unattended to, with no provision or arrangements for their welfare in recent times. Nigeria has a substantial budget for agriculturalist (farmers), what provisions is being made for the herders? They are being harassed by the police, jailed by courts and decimated by the army. Nomadic education is not meant for pastoralists. Grazing routes, grazing reserves, wells and water points have been taken over by politicians and military elites.

You listed 16 major bandits camps within the North-West; how do they operate?

 Historically, the first armed group evolved in 2011, led by Kundu and the notorious Buharin Daji, both of Fulani background. The group operated underground in the forest, but its real motive started to manifest itself in 2012, when cases of cattle rustling began in Zamfara State. At the onset, membership of the group was restricted to the Fulani, especially during the recruitment exercise between 2011 to 2012. Recruitment was through conscription, use of cash and cow, promise for sex and leisure as well as intimidation of other Fulani people.

What is confounding about these bandits is that, although they are united for same purpose, they are paradoxically divided along different camps. The quest for more sophisticated weapons was not largely motivated by the fashion for attack and killings, but largely against other rival groups. Arms procurement and inter-gang rivalry is a common feature of the groups.

Young and junior group members have free access to weapons and could organise minor attacks, raids and kidnappings without the consent of the leaders. Consequently, to minimise inter-gang squabbles, the entire North-West was divided into bandits camps and each area/zone allocated to a particular leader.

 Niger and Kaduna states are Abubakar Abdallah’s (alias Dogo Gide) territory; under him are smaller camps with loyalty and allegiance to individual leaders. Katsina was controlled by the late Auwalun Daudawa and Dangote Bazamfare, under them also are large members of mini gang leaders. Sokoto State, particularly the eastern flank, is under the jurisdiction of Turji, while there are numerous leaders in Zamfara State.

Boko Haram and ISWAP hold sway in the North-East and bandits are lords in parts of the North-West and North Central. Is there any link in their modes of operation?

Fortunately for us as a nation, there is no operational synergy between these groups. All of them operate on different ideologies and the link that would have brought them together was jettisoned in 2016. In my findings, there were several attempts by Boko Haram to infiltrate the bandits but the attempts broke down. Bandits operate independently from Boko Haram and ISWAP. I can authoritatively reveal to you that some Boko Haram members sent in 2016 by Shekau, to come down and train some of the bandits eventually aligned with the bandits and stay put, having realised that there is money in banditry, there is freedom of operation in banditry, unlike in Boko Haram, where you have to subscribe to an ideology and it is what the leader tells you to do, that you must do. Failure to adhere to the dictates of the leader attracts severe repercussions.

Bandits, however, are autonomous groups, operating in different camps and answerable to different leaders. Whenever someone feels he can form his own bandit gang, he can decide to go his own way but, this is contrary to the ideology of Boko Haram.

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Adeniyi Olugbemi