Argument

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Arming Civilians in Northern Nigeria Is a Bad Idea

Zamfara state’s decision to provide weapons to untrained individuals could lead to more small-arms proliferation and widespread violence.

By , a doctoral candidate at the African Leadership Centre at King’s College London.
Members of the Yansakai vigilante group bring their weapons into the Zamfara State Government house as they members surrendered more than 500 guns on Dec. 3, 2019.
Members of the Yansakai vigilante group bring their weapons into the Zamfara State Government house as they members surrendered more than 500 guns on Dec. 3, 2019.
Members of the Yansakai vigilante group bring their weapons into the Zamfara State Government house as they members surrendered more than 500 guns on Dec. 3, 2019. KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty Images

The activities of armed bandits, as they are popularly called in Nigeria, have led to the deaths of thousands of people and the displacement of many others. In 2021 alone, more than 2,600 civilians were killed due to the nefarious activities of these groups, and some 11,500 Nigerians have been forcefully displaced to neighboring Niger. Concentrated mostly in Nigeria’s North West region and parts of its North Central region, armed bandits are predominantly driven by economic opportunism, rather than political ideology, which differentiates them from terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State-West Africa Province (ISWAP).

This also explains the prevalent kidnappings for ransom, cattle-rustling, and thefts that are often associated with these groups. However, it does not negate the potential for the adoption of a political ideology by armed bandits. There is increasing evidence pointing to collaboration between armed bandits and violent extremist organizations in Nigeria. However, due to differences in objectives, this sort of alliance is not expected to take firm root anytime soon. The prospect of armed bandits collaborating with terrorist groups is only tenable if they have common goals and objectives under an organized hierarchical leadership structure.

The trend of armed banditry in Zamfara state and across the North West region partly has its origins in Nigeria’s farmer-herder crisis, which has forced herders into farmlands through indiscriminate grazing, thereby often damaging farmers’ crops in the process and creating heightened tensions and conflict. This resulted in the formation of local vigilante groups by farmers to provide protection against armed bandits. This year, Nigeria’s federal government proscribed armed bandits as terrorists, paving the way for the use of force against these groups, as part of its broader military strategy. This policy decision could potentially trigger cooperation between armed bandits and terrorists.

The activities of armed bandits, as they are popularly called in Nigeria, have led to the deaths of thousands of people and the displacement of many others. In 2021 alone, more than 2,600 civilians were killed due to the nefarious activities of these groups, and some 11,500 Nigerians have been forcefully displaced to neighboring Niger. Concentrated mostly in Nigeria’s North West region and parts of its North Central region, armed bandits are predominantly driven by economic opportunism, rather than political ideology, which differentiates them from terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State-West Africa Province (ISWAP).

This also explains the prevalent kidnappings for ransom, cattle-rustling, and thefts that are often associated with these groups. However, it does not negate the potential for the adoption of a political ideology by armed bandits. There is increasing evidence pointing to collaboration between armed bandits and violent extremist organizations in Nigeria. However, due to differences in objectives, this sort of alliance is not expected to take firm root anytime soon. The prospect of armed bandits collaborating with terrorist groups is only tenable if they have common goals and objectives under an organized hierarchical leadership structure.

The trend of armed banditry in Zamfara state and across the North West region partly has its origins in Nigeria’s farmer-herder crisis, which has forced herders into farmlands through indiscriminate grazing, thereby often damaging farmers’ crops in the process and creating heightened tensions and conflict. This resulted in the formation of local vigilante groups by farmers to provide protection against armed bandits. This year, Nigeria’s federal government proscribed armed bandits as terrorists, paving the way for the use of force against these groups, as part of its broader military strategy. This policy decision could potentially trigger cooperation between armed bandits and terrorists.

Numbering in the thousands—with as many as 30,000 armed bandits in Zamfara, the epicenter of the crisis, and five other northern states—these bandits have also imposed eviction notices on local inhabitants in addition to perpetuating acts of sexual violence against women and girls. These concerns have led to uncoordinated efforts by state governments to bring an end to the scourge of armed banditry, including the failed amnesty initiatives targeted at so-called repentant armed bandits, and other, more stringent measures by the federal government, such as disabling telecommunications in areas where armed bandits are known to operate.

The call by the Zamfara state government for residents to pick up arms to protect themselves against bandits could lead to the proliferation of untraceable weapons across the North West region.

The recent call by the Zamfara state government for its residents to pick up arms to protect themselves against armed bandits, a decision that clearly does not go down well with the military, could potentially lead to the proliferation of more untraceable weapons across the North West region.

The state government’s move attests to the desperate need for survival in a climate where sub-national entities have found themselves mostly incapacitated to provide any form of protection to lives and property without the overreliance on the federal security structures. By calling on citizens to protect themselves against armed bandits, the Zamfara state government has essentially relinquished its monopoly over the use of force—it has given up on ensuring the safety and protection of its residents.

The immediate consequences are that it could further embolden armed bandits within the state. This is because arming civilians against them would be interpreted as a direct affront to their ability to wield force as nonstate actors. This could very quickly lead them to embark on a killing spree targeting more civilians and vulnerable local communities, which could escalate an already worsening humanitarian crisis on the ground. In addition to this is the inevitable likelihood of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons across the North West region.

Some may be inclined to argue in favor of the decision to arm civilians as a response to the threat posed by armed bandits. After all, armed civilians working closely with the military under the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) have been able to successfully repel attacks by Boko Haram and ISWAP in Nigeria’s troubled North East region. The difference in this case, however, is that the Zamfara state government is not calling for the establishment of a structured entity like the CJTF but rather the arming of civilians without any form of military or paramilitary training. The state government does not appear to have any plans to provide paramilitary training on the use of these arms for combat in fragile settings.

The porous nature of the region’s borders and the challenges associated with the ungovernability of these borders further complicate matters. This also creates another challenge: the transnational organized crime-terrorism nexus, which could see foreign terrorist fighters from the Sahel region gravitating toward Zamfara state.

With the influx of additional arms—which could eventually fall into the hands of armed bandits, violent extremists, and other criminal groups looking to take advantage of the chaos in the North West region—there is every tendency for the situation to become worse. This overmilitarization approach to addressing armed banditry is not only flawed, but it fails to account for how the distribution of these arms would be adequately monitored through a comprehensive database.

Difficult as this goal may be to accomplish, it is attainable. Through a deliberate effort by the Zamfara state government working closely with the Office of the National Security Advisor and the National Identity Management Commission, such an initiative can work. This would no doubt go a long way to ensuring peace and security in the state and across the North West region.

Furthermore, the decision by the Zamfara state government to arm civilians has the potential of attracting, rather than repelling, other criminal gangs and terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and ISWAP in the North East region, as well as Ansaru, which mostly operates in the North West region, as they seek to move into Zamfara with the goal of acquiring more weapons. The proliferation of arms in the North West affords those wishing to seize them ample opportunity to do so.Rather than adopting an approach that contributes to overmilitarization of the crisis, the Zamfara state government should address the underlying political and socio-economic drivers of armed banditry.

As citizens become increasingly desperate for survival, they might turn to the black markets that would very likely be created because of this policy decision. The existence of black markets for the sale and purchase of arms also means the emergence of kingpins and criminal warlords who would seek to exert control and influence over contested territories within the state. These are likely to be the same people already profiting from armed banditry across the North West region.

Rather than adopting an approach that contributes to the overmilitarization of the crisis, the Zamfara state government should focus on addressing the underlying political and socioeconomic drivers of armed banditry within the state, starting with the issues of poor governance, poverty, illiteracy, inequality, and the linkages between armed banditry and illicit gold mining. It will require a whole-of-society approach in the medium to long term. For this approach to work, it must reflect the voices of victims, including those of women and girls. It should also include deliberate efforts aimed at discrediting and exposing armed bandits for what they truly are—terrorists—through targeted media and awareness campaigns.

To do this effectively, the state government must also embark on a quest to regain its legitimacy. The same also applies to the federal government, which is mostly perceived as failing to protect lives and property not just in the North West region but nationwide as well. Putting arms in the hands of civilians in response to the threat of armed banditry is not only counterproductive but an invitation for all-out chaos. It would, more than anything else, lead to the loss of more lives and further entrench the already protracted violent conflict in Zamfara state and the North West region at large.

Folahanmi Aina is a doctoral candidate at the African Leadership Centre at King’s College London. His research interests include terrorism, extremism, and insurgency in Nigeria, the Lake Chad Basin, and the Sahel region. Twitter: @folanski

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