“The past 18 months have been some of the most difficult periods in the history of Nigeria," President Muhammadu Buhari said on Friday.
Since the civil war of 1967-1970, “I doubt whether we have seen a period of more heightened challenges than what we have witnessed in this period,” embattled 78-year-old lamented in his Independence Day broadcast on October 1, 2021.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, also said: “Today our path has been dogged by conflict; religious, ethnic and economic challenges; and insurgencies and banditry that have caused much darkness, many valleys, and many thorns.’’
The founding fathers laid out a vision, that the many nations and ethnicities, North and South of Nigeria, 300 languages or more, differing tribes, and religions, would by the grace of God become one nation.
But in 2021, Nigeria seems to be loaded with a lot of surprises and the security threat is just as visible as the sky.
In the last couple of months, kidnapping for ransom has become increasingly uncontrollable that no day passed without reports of such emanating from any of the 19 states of North West, North Central and North East.
Farmers are slaughtered, cattle rustled, crops stolen or wasted and farmlands destroyed, schools attacked, students abducted and teachers killed, all compounding the woes of Nigerians.
Farms and schools have been turned to grave yards by bandits, causing food insufficiency, hunger and starvation and making menace of little efforts to spur education in the disadvantaged North.
For example, there are more than 10,000 bandits operating and tormenting the people in North West Zamfara State alone, Governor Bello Matawalle reported.
He said the heinous activities of the bandits have led to the death of over 4,000 people, resulted in over 8,000 married women becoming widows, and over 16,000 children to become orphans.
“These bandits, investigations have shown, are hypnotised and so they are directionless; they don’t care about themselves that is why they are killing people recklessly,” he said.
He said bandits have made most of the roads and schools inaccessible because the people are afraid of losing their lives.
Besides crippling agriculture, economic and social activities, banditry and terrorism have done incalculable damage to education and further compounding the deplorable education situation in Northern Nigeria.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) more than 600 schools have been closed this year; 10.5 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are out of school in Nigeria; and the number has increased by more than three million.
Sixty per cent of the out-of-school children are girls, mostly from northern Nigeria and that continuing attacks on educational institutions and kidnapping of students is not only exacerbating the situation, but killing education.
The attacks and student abduction have instilled fear among communities stopping at least one million children from returning to school, Mr Peter Hawkins, the Unicef Representative in Nigeria, said in a statement on September 22, 2021.
There have been 20 attacks on schools this year, leading to the abduction of 436 children, 16 deaths and more than 200 children missing, Hawkins said.
The United States Institute for Peace posted on its website that mass kidnapping of schoolchildren underscores the crumbling of human security in Africa’s most populous nation.
It said the situation is "worsening a deeper impairment, hollowing out Nigeria’s education system to create a lost generation of youth across much of the country’’.
The National President of the Association of United Farm Products, Traders and Livestock Dealers of Nigeria, Mr Stephen Akombo, attributed the shortage of food production to attacks on farmers across the nation by bandits and herdsmen.
Mr Akombo warned that the nation already witnessing a spiral in prices of food could be plunged into acute famine if immediate action was not taken.
“Farmers are afraid of going to their farms due to incessant attacks on them. Nobody wants to die. Because of that, there has been a gross shortage of food production.’’
Mr Bola Tinubu, 69, the National Leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), urged Nigerians to unite to fight bandits and terrorists to save the country from disintegration and food shortage.
The former Lagos State Governor urged agricultural stakeholders to ensure that farmlands and schools are not turned into battlegrounds, saying: “Terrible people and strong forces want to break Nigeria’s appointment with its greater destiny.’’
Governments had been lethargic in handling the crisis since 1999 until festered out of control; but strategies had been adopted in the last three weeks to salvage the situation.
Apart from deploying ground troops and Air Force (NAF) to tackle bandits, affected North West and North Central states have recruited 3,000 special vigilantes to complement the efforts of the military.
According to Katsina state governor, Mr Bello Masari, the vigilantes trained by the Nigeria Police Force are recruited by Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi, Kaduna, Niger, Katsina and Nasarawa states.
The other measures taken to cripple the activities of bandits, included the shutdown of mobile telecommunication networks to cut off informants of bandits and kidnappers.
Executive orders have been issued banning sale of petroleum products at filling stations around the land borders and also prohibited sale of petrol in jerry cans as well as restricted movement and sale of motorcycles to make it impossible for the bandits to move freely.
Aside from the imposition of curfew, the movement of cattle and food have also been banned as well as shutting down some weekly markets; stoppage in movement of agricultural products within some boundaries to cut off supplies to bandits who are held up in forests.
Additional measures have been taken in Zamfara State as Police on October 1, 2021 announced the ban on unauthorised installation of cyber networks.
The Commissioner of Police in the State, Mr Ayuba Elkanah, said security agencies had uncovered some unauthorized individuals and groups installing cyber networks in their homes and business places where suspected groups of bandits use.
Also the Emirs of Katsina and Daura, Mr Abdulmumini Usman and Mr Faruk Umar-Farouk respectively have ordered against sale of houses or plots of land to people with unknown identities.
The traditional rulers said the bandits in their numbers were leaving the forests to towns and cities to buy plots of land and houses so as to live among the people.
As the offensive against bandits and terrorists continue, Nigeria has succeeded in blocking terrorism financing, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami, said on September 25, 2021.
Mr Malami said the federal government had also succeeded in identifying and detaining “high profile individuals” responsible for funding banditry and terrorists’ activities.
“Bandits are being decimated to a larger degree. All these are indeed the effect of what we have done,” he said.
Reviewing the operation, governors from the 12 states in North Central and North West, report that the new measures are working and they are winning the war against banditry.
“Aside bombardment, hunger is making bandits move in drove towards communities around the forest area,’’ the governors alerted.
Fleeing bandits are setting up illegal checkpoints on highways, robbing haulage trucks of food and siphoning fuel from vehicles.
“In the last few days we have witnessed the increased presence of armed bandits on motorcycles in our area,” said Ashiru Bawa, a resident in Kankara district.
“The bandits have been coming in mostly on foot, looking hungry and distraught, and heading deep inside the forest,” said Husseini Ibrahim, a resident of Udawa in Birnin Gwari district.
Resumption of schools located in suburbs in many areas in the North had been put on hold since schools resumed on September 20, 2021 until security was restored.
All Farmers’ Association of Nigeria (AFAN), said it was encouraged by the military action against the bandits.
The National President of AFAN, Mr Farouk Mudi, said on October 2, 2021: “I believe we are number one victim of insecurity because many of our members have been killed in the farms.’’
Girls and Women Empowerment Network, a Minna-based NGO, in Niger state, North Central Nigeria also commended the government for its commitment to winning the war against banditry.
Founder of the NGO, Mrs Maryam Mustapha, said the current bold moves by the government had no doubt begun to yield the needed results, as there had been a sharp drop in the activities of bandits.
Encouraged by the offensive, Governor Matawalle said the state had withdrawn the olive branch extended to the bandits.
“My administration will no longer grant amnesty to bandits as they have failed to embrace the peace initiative earlier extended to them,’’ the governor said on October 2, 2021.
But a popular Islamic cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, disagreed with the governor, asking the Nigerian government to grant amnesty to bandits.
Mr Gumi, who has been visiting bandits in the forests to negotiate a peace deal, argued that military action “will only worsen the situation” as bandits want justice, equity and a sense of belonging.
A petition by four international human rights bodies, said that UK and Nigerian governments must “act decisively” to protect schools from terrorist attacks and prevent further abductions of schoolchildren.
The four human rights groups, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART); International Organisation for Peace building and Social Justice (PSJ-UK); IA-Foundation; and CSW, launched the petition on September 27, 2021.
They urged the Nigerian Government to fully implement the Safe Schools Declaration – not just a commitment in word but a commitment in deed.
“Every child in Nigeria deserves a safe education, without fear of violence or abduction”, said Ayo Adedoyin, Chief Executive of PSJ-UK.
Mervyn Thomas, Founder President of CSW, accused Nigeria of merely shutting schools instead of providing security to fend off a rash of attacks on schools.