INTERVIEW WITH THE blueinknews EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, LAWAL SAIDU FUNTUA THAT MET ARMED BANDITS IN THEIR HIDEOUT IN DUNGUN MU’AZU FOREST IN SABUWA LOCAL GOVERNMENT, KATSINA . THE INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED TWO YEARS AGO
By Our Special Correspondent
Can you tell us how your journey and meeting with the bandits in their hideout went?
What actually happened was that the vigilantes and bandits at their own level in Dungun Mu’azu, Dankolo in Sabuwa Local government and Dandume local government realized the farming season is around the corner and if there is no peace between them and the bandits, definitely they cannot cultivate their farmlands. So the communities there initiated a meeting so that they can have an understanding that the bandits should allow them go to their farms while in the alternative the bandits would be allowed to move freely especially to visit markets for their businesses.
So when they held that meeting, they should invite somebody in the media. And you know I am from Funtua, virtually I am known locally there as a journalist. They suggested that they should get in contact with me so that I can come and witness what happened and report it to the outside world. So they sent a lower ranking personality within them to come and meet me. When he met me, he said I should speak with their leader, Idris Miyaya on the phone. I said no, I don’t want that idea because if I am speaking on the phone I can not ascertain with whom are my speaking. So, I said I will come to you, face to face and see you. They are even shock and said are you not afraid? I said I am not afraid since you gave me this trust, I will try to contribute my own quota to ensure that there is peace and peace return in those areas. So this is how it started.
It was on a Monday, so I promised to be there by Saturday. By Friday, I left Katsina to Funtua, where my family are based. I passed the night in Funtua. On Saturday, for strategic and security reasons, I refuse to go there. When they called me, I said I was on my way from Katsina to Funtua but I will arrive late so I cannot make it to them on that Saturday. And this is strategic. Even if there is any evil plan, I have dislodged it. So on Sunday, I left to Dandume, from Dandume to danger zone which is around Machika, Maigora. There is one village that was completely dismantled by the bandits at Dankolo village but promised that we should meet at the Primary school. I was there I didn’t see them. I called their number and they told me because of strategic and security reasons they are not there but they can see me from afar. After about two to three minutes, they resurfaced with their motorcycles, fully armed with AK47. So when they came, I said why can’t we meet here? They said I have to join them to their camp inside the bush. It was even the bandit leader, Alhaji Idris Miyaya that gave me executive ride into the forest. We went there, we sat down and before we start the conversation, I told them that here, I am wearing to caps – I am here as a journalist and a volunteer adviser to them. That this bloodshed certainly will not last, and you are destroying your economy and relationship with your local communities. So you have to find a way of settling this issues. And that was when they told me categorically they are tired of this situation and so they need peace. And that was why they initiated peace with Dunbun Muazu, Dankolo and other communities living within their camp.
So when we started discussing, what happened and what do they want? Then they said what they wanted is that they have two leaders, Alhaji Lawal Bardu and Alhaji Ibrahim Nakutama. That they were arrested by security agencies two years ago in Katsina while returning from Hajj. Along the line, they could not trace them. So they said these two leaders are important to the area because they have influence to tell them to cease fire and they will stop. So they asked for the release of their leaders. Secondly, the vigilantes should desist from attacking them when they come into the town.
Luckily, I was there when the Chairman of the Vigilante of Dandume also came to the camp in relation to the peace initiative. These is how we discussed with them. They are fully armed and you cannot estimate their numbers but by what I saw they are over 1,000. And almost of them are carrying AK47. And youths. You will see a boy of 14 years carrying AK47. Some of them are under influence of drug.
Where did the person they send to you met you?
He came and met me in Katsina. And wants me to talk to their leader on phone. But I obliged to go.
So you met with leaders of both sides? How many of them?
Yes, the leader of the bandits, leader of the vigilante and another.
Did they tell you exactly why they were doing this?
Yes, it is clear, their two leaders were arrested.
I mean before their leaders were arrested?
If you observe it from afar, for long Fulani’s have suffered, especially in the hands of security agencies, socio-cultural group, Miyyeti Allah and traditional. Most of this Fulani’s were cheated by these group of people. A Fulani man will be having about 100 cows, the moment they sited he has these cows, they would initiate a kind of plot that they made him to lose these cows. So, these Fulani’s were pushed to the wall.
Again, their cattle routes, were taken over by farmers especially rich farmers. Over time, even those in government were allocating these plots as farmlands. So, if they cannot move, anywhere they move, they would say they have encroached into farmlands. Definitely, there are going to be crisis. So this is actually what you could see from afar.
When you were going, did you inform any security agencies?
No, I did not inform any for my own security. You know in Nigeria, you cannot trust anybody. There are situations where security man will leak information. It is a known fact. If you are going in this kind of mission, you have to be very careful, because you can talk to someone and may leak the information and put your life in danger. So, it was kept highly confidential.
Did you know who they send over to invite you?
No, I don’t know him. Because I am not part of them. Because they knew that I am a journalist from that axis, that is why they send him to me in Katsina. He also took risk because can be arrested in the way. But because they are tired of this situation, they want peace that was why took risk of sending their member to come and inform me.
Ever since you returned, any effort to. ..?
The effort I made, I have written a story as a journalist. I have granted series of interviews with local and international media to tell them what I have seen.
What about the government? Have you also reach out to them?
The government is listening to radio, if they have interest in the peace they should have consulted me but I am very careful, any move you made may be misinterpreted. That is why I kept to myself.
Ever since you returned, are you still in touch with them?
Obviously, i am in touch with them. They use to call me. Even the day I left them, when I got to my house, they called to find out how was my journey? The day after, when I was leaving Funtua to Katsina, they called me that are my returning to Katsina? I told them I have left and they use to contact me because they are worried about these two leaders. And at that time, I came with a promise that God willing I will reflect it in my story. And government will see it and take action. So, what is now left for government is to look at a way to reach them. Because I was told that based on my journey and the agreement we had with them, last Sunday, those Fulani’s especially their women they came to Dandume unlike before. In the past and when they sack them, they will attack them and kill some of them. But they were there, they came in, sell their Fura da Nono and went back home safely. So there is an achievement. What is left is for government to initiate dialogue and concertise the dialogue between them and their neighbouring communities.
You made us understand some of the communities also contribute to why the bandits attack them?
Initially, some of this communities use to release out information to security agencies to attack them. Some of the communities attack them physically and have this quarrel over farmlands. It’s something that build up over the years. So that is why they are attacking this communities because there is one community that is completely dismantled then I ask why was this community dismantled? They said community use to interfere with their activities and therefore they feel threatened.
My worry is that you will see a boy of 14 years old carrying gun under the influence of drug. And what you should ask yourself is where are they getting these guns. Because I even told their leaders that I hope if I am going you will give one AK47? He laughed that if I give you, security will hold you on the way. He said secondly, it is too expensive that they used to buy it N750,000 but did not tell me from where they bought it.
Again, even if you have peace with them. How can you mop up these arms they are carrying?
Certainly, it will move to another group. Another kind of threat may arise. So they told me that they are worried, that whenever they come to town, people attack them. Now, because of the agreement reached with the communities, they no longer kidnap, commit armed robbery and rustle cattles. So, they are confined to one area. They cannot come to the town. They no longer kidnap for ransom, armed robbery or cattle rustling, so they have a kind of cash crunch now where to go and get cash to buy food, Omo or Maggie. And that is why the leader said that there are limits they can control the youth under them because they as leaders they know how to bypass and get Cash. But this youth when they are pressed, they can go back to their old ways. And that is why government has to come in quickly and use expert to address the situation whereby the pressure on these people will be reduced. And it is easy to do that.
If you say the government should come in, can you be specific?
Let the government quietly facilitate the peace agreement between them and their local communities. It is very important. And let the government buy their confidence and let them release these arms. Because their major fear is if they release these arms, other groups and local communities may attack them. And that is why they are still holding on to the arms. Because somebody among them said, these guns we are holding is a necessity, we don’t like it because a Fulani man is known with sticks. But if we don’t have these guns, our rival Fulani groups and local communities may attack us. So, the government can come in, buy their confidence and assure their safety so that they can hand over. Because holding peace without handing over these guns is just a mirage. It will not last.
But do you see that working?
It will work. You will engage experts.
Looking at the amnesty programme in place in the state?
We all knew how the amnesty was done and the Governor recently said most of the leaders that were part of the program were killed. If leaders were killed and amnesty died, certainly you should ask yourself there is something wrong during the agreement.
If because leadership was killed and amnesty collapsed, certainly, during the initial stage of that agreement, there is something missing. Because it has to be whosltic.
You know these leaders, they may use that amnesty as home exploitation over the youths. And you know the youths the moment they know they would say so you people are benefiting and we are not part of it. They would go after them and that is why they killed most of them.
So, if there is amnesty, it has to be wholistic. Because they said they want an agreement whereby government will go into it with the fear of God because they would also go into it with the fear of God in order to have permanent peace.
But don’t you think if there is an agreement with this set of bandits, another set of bandits would wake up someday that they want…?
They have link, use these link. Because I was made to understand they have over four camps in that southern area of the state (Faskari, Dandume, Kankara and Sabuwa all through to part of Birnin Gwari in Kaduna). During the meeting, I was made to understand, that three camps gang up and killed the leadership of the fourth camp and absorb members of his group. So, since they have a link, if I will be part of government, what I will ask this group is to bring the other side so we engage them. There is no harm in stretching the agreement either over time or resources.
Let me tell you, in that area there are farmlands people harvest 10,000 to 100,000 bags of maize, so if there is no farming there, certainly, it will create another problem. So no amount of time and resources will be too much in restoring peace in that area.
And even if you go into agreement with this people, in the past we are looking at this people as spirit but now we know who they are, we know their leadership and how they operate, even that is useful to the government. Because if I as an individual will go there and ask them certain questions and they respond to me, I believe they would open up to the government. Because before I left, I advise them that whenever they are going into discussion with the government don’t hesitate to table all your grevience. Let the government look at it.
And that is the only way, because you don’t even security, so if you say you will leave it like this and use naked power to coerce them, definitely, you are endegering the lives of the rural communities and their economic base. Because about 99 to 100% of people living in that area depended largely on farming, so if they cannot go to farm for fear of these bandits, so what do you expect during harvest season? What will happen? Certainly, another security threat would crop up. So, this is the situation. Government can come in and engage experts (experts in the areas of crises, experts in bandit and community relations, negotiations, disarmament). Let them give their advice.
Look at what they did in Dunbun Muazu, when I was there formerly you cannot see a vehicle going along Dandume to Birnin Gwari road, but that they I saw a lot of them. And I even saw these trucks carrying firewood in the bush. Initially, they kill them when they go to fetch firewood. Passengers going on their way from Birnin Gwari to Lagos.
Then, what I advise the vigilante, since the fear of these people KS when they come to town you will attack them, you have mosque in Dandume, go there and ask the imams to make announcement after every prayers that nobody should attack this Fulani people because we have reached an agreement with them. And vice versa, If we go to the bush and lie farmlands, they will not attack us.
Government should build on that because there are mischief makers. It’s not all bandits that have interest in this peace agreement and even among the vigilantes. The vigilante leader, Alhaji Lawal Tsoho told me that even among the vigilantes, there are some that are not happy with this agreement because some are benefiting from the situation.
So what should be done in that regard?
What should be done is get the leaders talking. If somebody is protesting about something that will benefit the society, maybe he didn’t understand the contest. Encourage the leaders and train them how to talk and engage them and win them over. Those that are opposed to these, what are their fears? Allow them to express themselves.
Lastly, what is the distance of the camp of the bandits to the town?
It is a deep forest. It will take you like an hour because it is a rugged terrain, narrow path. They are farmlands. Between this farmland and the other, you will see a narrow path. And even if you have motorcycle, they will not allow you to ride into their camp. That is why when I was leaving where they would pick me, I even drop my ID card inside the car. So that I will not give them any element of suspicion. Because within their midst, any time anything can happen. So you don’t have to give room for any suspicion. Because when I was writing or taking down notes, a boy of 14 years met me and said, I loves the way I write and he needs to go back to school. That education is good. Most of them are under drug influence and there too, if we want to overcome violent crimes, certainly, we have to control how are being supply in this country because these drugs make people to kill without feeling anything. Certainly, we must do something about these.
It is expanse of forest. Thick forest and they have these their thatch houses. That’s how they are living with their cows.
What about food?
They have some members of the communities who supply food to them because they cannot come into the town.
Some of their (Fulani) settlements too were sacked, so they moved to the forest. There may be a Fulani man who is not a bandit but when they sacked them they are forced to all move into the camps because that is the only place they feel safe. Because these are kinsmen.
Was there network service there in the forest?
Yes, I was even in their midst when somebody called me. There is network. No service failure.
How do they get their bullets?
They buy each bullet N1,000. And most of them are carrying about 200 in their bags.
Did they tell you how they get it?
Our borders are porous. This forest from there you can reach as far as Central Africa, East Africa, Libya, North Africa as far as Mali, without coming to the main road.
And you said they are normal humans?
They are normal human beings because we joke with them, play and laugh. In fact, if you are their midst you will feel comfortable and safe. They will talk to you, no harsh words. Because when the leader took me, I didn’t look at his face but when we are about to start he told me he know me in Katsina. I received shock of my life when he told me he knew me as a journalist in Katsina. They were arrested, paraded and freed.
What encouraged me was nobody went to them to hear their greviences.
Since when I left Funtua, they were trailing me. And they told me that if they were not aware of my coming, they would shoot my head off. I saw motorcyclist around on my way, they are their foot soldiers.
When I was going I didn’t tell anybody not even my wife. It was when I came back that I told her.
Did you see victims in their camp?
No, no. I didn’t see any victim. Maybe they hide them somewhere but I don’t know.