When and how did Northern Nigeria become the Ground Zero of insecurity in Nigeria, playground for insurgents, kidnappers, cattle rustlers, bandits, armed robbers, epicenter of senseless killings, burning of villages and springing up of IDP camps in every available school building and open space?

How did things turn around such that today, Southern Nigerian politicians, clerics, activists, columnists and even leaders of militant and secessionist groups are the ones advising the North on how to get its act together and stop destabilising the whole country?

Up until the 1980s, Northerners used to think that criminality and violence were Southern Nigerian phenomena. There were almost no armed robbers in the North. During our school days in the 1970s, we read about armed robbery only in Daily Times, Tribune, Sketch and Punch newspapers. All the spectacular robbery incidents that we heard about took place in Lagos, East Central and Midwestern states.

We hardly ever saw a Northern name among the armed robbers that were caught and executed under the Robbery and Firearms [Special Military Tribunals] Decree. Although Lagos was the Federal Capital and was full of economic opportunities, most Northerners did not want to go there because they thought it was a crime hotspot. Northern cattle and kolanut merchants who went to kurmi, as they called Lagos and the South, returned and told stories about crime rate that further discouraged others.

Even though military governments had been executing armed robbers since 1970, the first execution of armed robbers in Sokoto only took place in 1985 when three men were shot at the old airport. They were not even armed robbers, properly speaking. They were policemen on night patrol whose corrupt instincts to dispossess a traveler from Kano of his N8,000 turned into a case of robbery when he tried to seize his bag and run and the cops hit him with the butt of a gun. All the Military Governors were under pressure from Major General Tunde Idiagbon to set an example, so these men in Sokoto were hauled before the tribunal, convicted and swiftly executed.

Now, the rate of ordinary crime was much lower in the North in those days but the region had its own problems, such as violent political contests during the First Republic, including the Tiv riots; frequent intercommunal clashes, among the worst being the Kafanchan riots of 1987; and the violent Maitatsine religious sect that first struck at Yan Awaki, Kano in 1980 and later at Bulunkutu, Maiduguri in 1982; Tudun Wada, Kaduna in 1982; Yola in 1984; Gombe in 1985 and finally in Funtua in 1993.

Among the North’s many ethnic groups, the pastoral Fulani were once thought to be the simplest, most peaceful and most obedient while the Kanuri of Borno were thought to be the best embodiments of Islamic culture and learning. Thousands of Hausa youths “went east” to Borno every year to learn the Qur’an. Borno was also the gateway to the hajj in Saudi Arabia in the days when pilgrims went on foot or horseback. How did it come about today that Boko Haram is associated with Kanuri while the Northwestern bandits are ethnic Fulani?

The first time that I sensed that trouble was brewing was in 1998, when I was editor of New Nigerian Weekly in Kaduna. My features editor Ali Alkali suggested a story about young Fulani herders that, at the end of a day’s grazing, left their cattle in an open space outside Kabala West in Kaduna and flooded the beer parlours to drink. At first I couldn’t believe it; Fulani cattle herders drinking beer? Around the same time, some friends who were robbed on the Kaduna-Abuja highway told me that the men who robbed them were Fulani. Again it was difficult to believe, except that an ethnic Hausa man knows the Fulfulde accent very well.

So much for old stories. Here we are today, with the North in flames from one end to another. Last week alone was a terrible shock because Boko Haram killed 81 people at Faduma Kolomdi village in Borno State while bandits in the Northwest killed scores of people, including a traditional ruler, in numerous villages all the way from Katsina through northern Zamfara to northern Sokoto states. In Kaduna, Niger and Kogi states too, bandits and inter-communal warriors attacked villages and killed scores of people. In all these cases there was no security intervention until the deed was done.

No wonder that many Northerners have now found their voices, and I think the Buhari Administration is facing its worst public perception crisis in the region where it once had rock solid reputation and which was the bastion of its political support. Since last week, a wide assortment of clerics, activists, politicians and community leaders are saying the North has been abandoned to its fate. A Borno Elders Forum spokesman even said there is a plot by someone to decimate the North and its people.

By who? This same charge was made by numerous Northerners against the Jonathan regime in 2011-2015. It was the powerful sentiment that helped to sweep away the regime at the polls. This time it is a difficult argument to make because the President and virtually all the security chiefs, including the Defence Minister and National Security Adviser, are Northerners. They cannot possibly be plotting to decimate the North, but they are woefully unable to protect Northerners.

I agree that the Buhari Presidency is not even making the right noises. Instead of reeling out road and agricultural projects, the president should have devoted his entire Democracy Day speech last Friday to insecurity. These killings are more serious than COVID. It took the virus many weeks to kill the 81 people that Boko Haram killed in Faduma Kolomdi in one night, so which one is more urgent? Most probably, Boko Haram did those killings for propaganda purposes because Army Chief Buratai was in Abuja talking about the successes he recorded. Next time, Oga Buratai should stop boasting and just act. Also, the army’s “final push” in Borno did not progress with the same speed as Chadian President Idris Deby Itno’s blitzkrieg that, in a few days, rid his country of insurgents.

They are both equal opportunity killers, otherwise there is a qualitative difference between the Northeastern Boko Haram and the Northwestern bandits. The former has political objectives whereas the latter have purely criminal aims. Many things have been said about the military and security agencies’ inability to rout them, despite the Airforce’s shock bombing runs in the sub-region. Clearly, there aren’t enough soldiers to fight Boko Haram, bandits and other criminals all over the country. What was the government doing for ten years that it did not augment their numbers? The Nigerian Army grew from 15,000 men at the start of the Civil War in 1967 to 250,000 men within 30 months. How come that we can’t do today what General Yakubu Gowon did 50 years ago?

Of course, weapons, equipment, mobility, communications and welfare are even more important than numbers. One-time Kaduna State Police Commissioner Raphael Osanaiye once said that ten cops with weapons, a good vehicle and radios was more important than 100 cops scattered around without such. We know that Gaddafi’s scattered armoury is a big problem but we must cut the bandits’ and Boko Haram’s supply of weapons.

If the Federal Government accords priority attention to this matter, it has the time and resources, notwithstanding the pandemic, to build up the security forces to wipe out both insurgents and the bandits. Maiwada Danmallam suggested, for example, that the N13 billion that the Federal Executive Council approved last week for pest control should be diverted to security agencies because in any case, no farming is going on in key agricultural states due to banditry.

One final reminder in case the government needs it. Without security of lives and property, economic, social, political, cultural or even religious life as we know it is not possible. Without securing lives from bandits and insurgents, no other achievement of the Buhari Administration is going to count in the minds of Northerners, even if it builds German-style autobahns and underground Metros from the Atlantic to the Sahara.

Monday Column, June 15, 2020.

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