By Lawal Sa’idu Funtua
The most burdensome crisis inherited by the Masari-led administration when it came on board in 2015 was the land mine of insecurity that was buried by years of inattentiveness to the very critical issue of security at community level which was already brim with tension and mutual suspicion between pastoralists and the local community in moat parts of the central and southern parts of the state. This tension was bred by cattle rustling and occasional communal strife. The most devastating banditry attack in the state’s history, to this day, was the catastrophic butchery that happened at Sabon Layin Galadima and neighboring villages in Faskari Local Government Area. In that attack over a hundred and sixty people were killed in one swoop and thousands others displaced – on a day when the whole security apparatus was moved to Katsina to provide security for the then president, Goodluck Jonathan, whose 2015 campaign train was in the town.
Such was the horror Katsina had to cope with for half a decade; as the crisis was made worse by its regional dimension, as it affected almost the whole of the North-west and Niger state. It still appears like a fiction movie how the federal and state governments simply folded their arms and watched as farms were wrecked, animals stolen, women abducted and raped, settlements vandalized, and commuters and rural dwellers robbed and displaced.
The security situation led to a lock down on agriculture and the local economy, pushing thousands of families below the poverty line. The government of the day also allowed the bandits to export the scourge to next-door Niger Republic, as cattle rustlers formed an alliance with trans-border criminals who deal in arms and drugs, as well as human traffickers and illegal animal traders who operate along the border. These illicit ventures thrived until they were cut by the advent of the Masari administration when the electorate effected change at the polls.
By the time he came on board, Masari already had a well thought-out solution at hand. He met with every stakeholder from Jibia to Sabuwa, then rolled out a joint security operation tagged ‘Operation Sharan Daji’ – a Hausa phrase for ‘bush clearing’ – where the state government drafted the police, civil defence, the SSS, and military formations in the state to work with local vigilante groups who were conversant with the terrains to tame the menace. This vigorous operation succeeded by eighty percent, leading to the recovery of thousands of animals which were returned to their owners through a special anti-cattle rustling committee.
Nonetheless, there is a limit to the application of force in containing an intra-communal conflict and, more importantly, the Rugu forests is populated by men and women who produce children that could grow up in an unhealthy atmosphere of mutual communal hostilities. Thus the state government realized that a protracted military campaign was not rational, and therefore considered negotiating a peace deal with the cattle rustlers. And indeed around the world, insurgencies, rebellions, and other forms of armed conflicts are sometimes best resolved on the negotiation table.
Therefore after months of confrontation with cattle rustlers which produced an undesirable number of casualties, the operation was partly suspended to minimize damage on pastoral communities in the forest while the administration called for a dialogue to call off hostilities and reconcile farmers with their Fulani neighbours in the interest of the local economy.
Subsequently, the state government rolled out an Amnesty program where the state government officials met with erstwhile notorious gang leaders of the bandits and mobilised them for the negotiations. The long and short of it was: a complete ceasefire was achieved; the cattle rustlers submitted their weapons; stolen animals were returned to their owners; abducted people released and reunited with their families; hundreds of kilometers of fertile and mineral land of the Rugu territories reclaimed; Fulani dwellers of the forest were reconciled with their centuries’ old neighbours, patronizing markets and attending prayers in village mosques; and, most importantly, farmers, pastoralists and traders were put back to business.
That enabled the economy to pick up on fast gear, driven by the speedy revival of crop and livestock agriculture, trade, and smooth social cohabitation. Likely more than ever before, the 2017 and 2018 Hajj goers in the state were predominantly farmers and pastoralists that reaped from the gains of the Amnesty Program. Interestingly, at the launch of the program, Governor Masari threw an open invitation to other north-west state governments to experiment with the Katsina approach which could stamp out banditry, kidnapping and cattle rustling in the region.
Masari had forseen the downside of a lone approach, rather than a collective one — soon enough, cattle rustlers that could no longer prey on people’s cattle fled Katsina and resettled mostly in Zamfara and Kaduna States. A kidnapper once arrested by the police in Safana axis of the Rugu forest narrated how he left Katsina State in 2016 and resettled at the outskirts of Dansadau forest in Zamfara State where he was drilled in the crime of banditry.
By early 2018, armed bandits and kidnappers drilled in the neighborhoods returned to Katsina State more ruthless and more numerous, and erased most of the gains the state had recorded on the security front. This featured a new wave of attacks that included kidnappings, armed robbery, and attack on villages thta led to usually large number of casualties, a trend that peaked in ewrly 2019.
This prompted Governor Masari to initiate another attempt at dialogue late in 2019, which also resulted in relative peace which was, however, short-lived due to to simple unwillingness of the bandits to respect the terms of the amnesty agreement. This breach of trust made the state government to repeal the pact and instruct security agencies to be ruthless with bandits, and since then hundreds of them have been neutralized, hundreds of kidnap victims rescued, and thousand of IDPs resettled in their villages.
Most instructive in this regard was the ingenuity employed in rescuing the 344 abducted Kankara school boys where a blend of force and negotiation were employed with the mediation of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, MACBAN. Since then this approach has been used to rescue over 150 kidnap victims including indigenes of neighboring states and citizens of Niger Republic.
However there still needs to be a sub-regional cooperation by North-west and Niger State governments in the fight against armed banditry and other forms of violent crime. A simultaneous approach coordinated by the state governments or the federal government will prove much more effective bin combatting the menace.
However one of the major obstacles in the fight against banditry as identified by Governor Masari was the state governors lack of control of the federal government security agencies.
There is therefore the need to review the constitution to give state governors powers over the control of the security forces.