By Luka Binniyat
Residents erupted in joyful noise, last Tuesday, as Governor Nasir El Rufai of Kaduna State emerged from his vehicle in Birnin Gwari -the beleaguered headquarters of Birnin Gwari Local Government Area, LGA, of the state, about 120km west of Kaduna metropolis.
In the estimation of the people who had thronged there, El Rufai was a liberator. The reason was not far-fetched: They had been held under the pincer-grip of murderous gangsters for years. The gunmen had scoffed at the feeble attempts by the police and the military to chase them out.
But, that day, seated on the rain soaked ground before the governor and his entourage were nine half-stripped men, some with wide scars on their heads and parts of their exposed bodies – a signature of their violent trade. They were, according to official accounts, among the administrators of the reign of terror that had been unleashed on Birnin Gwari and a much larger area that borders four other states. Behind the suspected gangsters were the alleged evidence of their greed and criminality– about 50 cows.
The recovered cows, swathing flies with their tails, and unaware of the excitement around them, were just a fraction of the over 2,000 cows recovered from the suspected serial rustlers and their fleeing accomplices as would be later revealed in this story.
El Rufai had arrived the place with some state officials to ascertain the success of a joint security initiative arranged by him, in collaboration with the governments of Kaduna, Kebbi, Zamfara, Niger and Katsina states.
400 troops searching for rustlers
It was an operation that involved at least 400 operatives from the military, the police, State Security Service, and the Civil Defence Corps. The objective was to rout, kill or arrest and bring to book hundreds of suspected bandits, kidnappers, terrorists, rapists, and other assorted criminals who have found the savannah, and forest stretches that bound the five states a haven for their heinous crimes for years, as El Rufai once announced while the consultation was ongoing last month.
The other Sambisa forest
This swath of land had become the literal equivalent of the infamous Sambisa forest for these states – and with haunting facts to match.
Stitching together the accounts of victims, this area of criminals’ haven may cover a landmass bigger than Abia and half of Imo State combined. It contains game reserves, hills, valleys and endless plains of savannah with its rich fodder for livestock.
The area is served by perennial streams, rivers and even the 230 km2 Shiroro Dam in Niger State.
There are hundreds of isolated villages, with primitive roads networks, no communication facilities and hundreds of miles away from the nearest police post, not to mention the absence of basic essential services. They are hardly noticed by governments and politicians, except, of course, during elections, as many have complained.
The size of the “forest” may have been very discouraging for security agencies to comb, more so that the attention of government was fully drawn to fighting Boko Haram terrorists in the real Sambisa forest and parts of the North-East.
But, the impunity of the criminals in the Kaduna ‘ Sambisa forest’ is no less grim, widespread and indictment of government’s lack of interest in the security and well-being of its people living there.
There were reports of brigands capturing villages in this circle, and camping there for weeks unchallenged, to leisurely move to the next target.
There were also stories of how they would enslave villagers, kill the men, serially rape their women and loot villages dry. At this time, they would lay siege to village markets, killing and carting away booties. Cows are their favourite’s trophies. That is not all, motorists and passengers on the major highways passing through these areas are always under the siege of these gunmen.
One account said they would move with their wives and children, complete with house-hold materials, and even power generating sets. Another account said that they would capture a school teacher who would be forced to teach their children basic learning skills. Health workers were also said to have been forced to join them.
They were believed to be made up of rogue Fulani men, Chadians, Malians and Nigeriens.
The thieves, it was learnt, operated in scores, at times numbering about a hundred, well armed with good logistics.
Most of the stolen thousands of cows in northern Nigeria allegedly found their way to these bushes, where they were sold into an elaborate network of black markets, with the complicity of law enforcement officials.
The affected areas, ironically, are blessed with rich soil and weather. This had encouraged commercial crops and animal farming by rich northerners, side-by-side with the subsistent farming of the locals. That had in turn attracted allied businesses and services, and had made Birnin Gwari, for example, a budding commercial town.
But all that has stopped for now. All the big farms had closed after serial attacks by the criminals. All the Banks in Birnin Gwari are now closed after many attacks on them. On January 31, 2013, three policemen were killed and two banks robbed, then set ablaze by the marauders.
The bandits operated with curious boldness robbing on the Kaduna-Birnin-Gwari highway almost on daily basis. At times they would rob a few kilometres to Kaduna town and around 8am unchallenged for hours, residents said.
In June, 2013, the Emir of Birnin Gwari said cried to the then Kaduna State governor, Alh. Mukhtar Ramalan Yero, that rustlers had seized his emirate and were in full control of most areas.
The response of Yero was not known. But by all accounts, nothing changed under the former governor.
El-Rufai to the rescue
Captain A. Ujah, who took El Rufai around some of the liberated areas, on behalf of Brig. Gen. Samuel Malu, the man in charge of the operation, said that after an exchange of gunfire between the thieves and operatives, three of the suspects died and nine were apprehended while the rest fled. He did not mention where the encounter took place. He said 2,000 cows had so been recovered among other suspected stolen valuables. He added that the affected areas of the five states would be combed in a sustainable manner to stamp out outlaws.
Speaking to newsmen later, said: “So far so good. We are very proud of the work done by the armed forces and other security agencies in trying to solve this lingering problem.
“We ask our people to pray for the security agencies carrying out this operation so that there will be minimal damages on their part, for it is an obvious serious operation like any encounter with well armed, desperate groups.
“The operation is a joint one currently going on in five states, Kebbi, Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, Niger that have forests where bandits are hiding to commit crime.
“The army, the air force, the police, State Security Service, SSS, Civil Defence are involved in this operation.
“We are very confident that we shall deal with this menace in a decisive way, so that people can go about their normal businesses in peace and with dignity”.
It was good outing for El Rufai. And it would seem like the only initiative the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, has introduced without igniting controversy since he became the governor of Kaduna state.
Timeline of killings
August 2011: Armed robbers go from house to house in search of members of vigilante groups in some villages under Dansadau Emirate, Maru LGA. Ten persons are killed in the attack.
October 2011: Bandits return, kill 23 persons and injur many others in the same villages, and escaped.
January 2012: 15 traders are ambushed and killed; their corpses burnt in Birnin Magaji local government area of Zamfara State allegedly by the same gang.
June 2012: The same gang return to Dansadau, going from house to house, killing the residents and setting their houses ablaze unchallenged for hours by security agencies. 27 residents are killed in that orgy of bloodbath.
In October 2012: Not less than 24 people are murdered by bandist in Dogon Hawa, in Birnin Gwari LGA of Kaduna State.
In April 2014: Grieving Emir of Dansadau, Alhaji Hussaini Adamu, tells Governor Abdullaziz Yari of Zamfara State that 105 villagers were killed by cattle rustlers in Yargaladima village in Dansadau Emirate of Maru Local government area of Zamfara State within three days.
On May 2, 2015, suspected bandist kill 20 people and set houses ablaze in Gworon Dutse village, Birnin Gwari LGA.