Banditry: Inside The Delicate World Of Mediators, Informants

With the authorities and security agents still battling to find the right solution to the riddle of banditry ravaging some states in northern Nigeria, civilians serving as mediators and those providing information against the bandits find themselves on a tight rope. Daily Trust on Sunday reports

Alhaji Ali (not real name) winces as he speaks. He is in-between despair and regret as he reflects on his dreadful experience. He cannot stand straight, having spent over a month in a compact dungeon, where he, and other inmates, were packed in like dead bodies. Though he was not physically molested, he says he could not walk or stand on his feet when he was released three weeks ago.

“No one could stand up or stretch out to sleep. We were seated throughout those days. We fed on only four spoonfuls of garri served once daily, in the afternoon,” he says, recalling his 33 days in detention.

The pains and deprivation from the incarceration remain. These were cells where high value suspects—from hardened armed robbers to bandits—are kept for interrogation, for weeks and months. In September, Ali was taken to two of these facilities, first in Kaduna, and later, in Abuja.

Speaking to Daily Trust on Sunday, Ali recalls this encounter with men of the Nigerian police, which, he says will linger forever in his mind.

He was lured into the police custody, having been framed up by another person. He was given out as a collaborator for bandits —the same people he has spent at least the past three years fighting, through the back channels.

“It all started with a call on a Monday afternoon. The caller asked me to meet him at the junction, that he was hastening on his way somewhere. I had no suspicion because he was someone I had been communicating with. I locked up my shop and headed there,” he recalls.

As Ali exchanged pleasantries with this acquaintance and about to turn back, policemen appeared and bundled him up to a waiting vehicle while the informant jumped onto a motorcycle and disappeared.

“I was blindfolded and did not know where we were headed until the inmates I met in the cell told me the place was Kaduna,” he says.

Ali, by his admission, had at some point in his life picked up arms and joined gangs of bandits, mainly engaging in cattle rustling around Fulani settlements in Zamfara. That was before the exacerbation of the petty crimes, then prevalent among Fulani youths, into effusive banditry that had also become the more sophisticated with arms getting into the hands of the actors. Ali had gone on to repent and settle back in his community, establishing a family and keeping a modest herd of cattle, which helped the family’s upkeep.

But with increasing violence around the rural communities where he lived, Ali felt the need to move out from his increasingly perilous community to avoid being targeted by the gunmen, or by security agents hunting the bandits.

“I moved out with my family and came here to start life afresh. I enrolled my children in school so that they have a life different from what I had,” he says from his small room in the 3-room house he lives in a suburb of Zaria, in Kaduna State.

By leaving the communication line open, the 41-year-old Fulani man maintained communication with his friends, family members and acquaintances who live in hamlets dotting the forests occupied by bandits in Zamfara, Katsina and Niger states. Some of them had gone on to become influential warlords in these areas.

This places him in a position of knowledge, and rather than use it to benefit from the criminal conducts of these old contacts, Ali decided otherwise.

“I gave out any information I got to security agencies” he says, recalling how information he provided to military chiefs in the troubled areas, at different times, led to arrest of gun-runners and interception of bandits moving to attack targeted villages. He also played a key role in the successful release of scores of students abducted by a notorious bandit and surrendering of a number of the gunmen, including one whose surrender was widely celebrated for his notoriety. A senior state government official had confirmed Ali’s role in these cases to Daily Trust on Sunday, prior to arrest of the latter.

During the time he spent in captivity, detectives interrogated him for days on alleged connivance with bandits. But with his phones taken away from him, immediately he was arrested, he was not given the chance to communicate his plight to persons who knew him for what he was, including an army general and back channel negotiators in Kaduna and Abuja. His travail ended when he luckily ran into a Fulani leader who is himself working with the police authorities in cracking the ranks of the bandits. The visitor knew Ali, having worked with him in previous mediations.

The recuperating informant lies desolate at home and unsure of his next step. But one thing he dreads from this experience, he tells Daily Trust on Sunday, is getting driven back to the bush because of the stigma in the aftermath of his long detention, or getting killed by suspicious neighbours.

“They have been talking about my incarceration since my return. I am scared that they could come and attack me because I was told some neighbours are spreading information that I was arrested because of links with bandits. Only recently, someone was killed along with his family because of the suspicion the he was relating with bandits. That is my fear,” he says by telephone.

James Barnett, a researcher with the University of Lagos and the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) in Abuja, says intermediaries like Ali “exist in a very precarious spot.”

The situation, he says, “makes it difficult for intermediaries who may be tasked by one set of officials with a legitimate task, such as reaching out to the bandits to negotiate the release of hostages. However, others will see this individual communicating with bandit—maybe the security forces will find his number on a bandit’s phone and assume they are communicating for nefarious purposes. So, intermediaries risk getting arrested or even killed, even when their overtures are approved at some official level.”

A Katsina-based journalist who follows the security situation in the state closely, Muhammad Danjuma, explains that, “For bandits, anyone confirmed to be giving information to government, the punishment is death.” In most cases, mere suspicion is enough to attract such summary execution.

This was the fate that befell Alhaji Adamu, who lived around Kidandan in Igabi Local Government Area of Kaduna State. The man was ambushed and killed while he was returning from a market in early September.

Adamu and his friend, Abdullahi, were working with backdoor agents and Fulani leaders on finding a non-military solution to the violence being orchestrated cheaply by young Fulani bandits in the vast forests straddling a large chunk of Kaduna State.

One of the notorious kingpins is Boderi, a young man said to be in his 20s, whose father, Alhaji Isyaku, is reportedly a renowned cattle rustler in his youth.

The two mediators, disturbed by the activities of bandits like Boderi, had been having talks with some of the key players and elders they thought would play vital roles in bringing the situation under control.

“They were merely Good Samaritans who were disturbed by how the forests—their natural habitat—was turned into a war zone, a jungle where nothing happen but atrocities within themselves and encounters with vigilantes and security forces,” said a source familiar with the duo.

Two months ago, Abdullahi travelled from his base in the Rijana area to meet his friend, Adamu, for them to undertake the mission to Alhaji Isyaku in their bid to have him speak to his cantankerous son, who had become a nemesis for many residents of the state. They had earlier engaged some leaders of the Fulani communities in the area, but everyone’s advice was for Isyaku to be reached out to. He is seen as the only one who could bring his son under some control.

As they left the meeting with Isyaku and his son, gunmen were sent to trail and kill the two men because, according to Boderi, the duo’s intention was suspicious. He suspected that the two were informants who could ‘betray’ him by leaking information to the authorities in Kaduna. The assailants were, however, unlucky as the two men rode their motorcycle in a direction different from the usual, thereby escaping the bullets that could have ended their lives.

But the escape was shortlived for Adamu, who resides in the forests off Rigachukun, not far from Boderi’s hideouts. He was trailed one Sunday as he was coming back from a village market and gunned down in a drive-by shooting. All fingers pointed at Boderi, who had threatened Adamu on the phone and pledged to kill him, after his men failed to eliminate the two intercessors.

Abdullahi had to also flee his known address after the murder of Adamu, and it took the intervention of Boderi’s uncle, Gana’i, for Abdullahi to recover his cattle driven away by Boderi when he could not get hold of the man.

Another intermediary working to secure release of school children abducted by the notorious bandit, Dogo Gide, was almost killed in one of his trips to meet the infamous kingpin, Daily Trust on Sunday gathered.

“Dogo was called by some other bandits and told that he should finish off the man because he was giving information to security agents. He confessed to the man face to face, but said he would not give him chance since he had no direct evidence to act on. Had Dogo listened to the calls he received, the man could have been history by now,” a mediator who is familiar with the encounter told Daily Trust on Sunday.

This difficult position for the intermediaries, as seen in these cases, makes it pertinent for those involved in such activities to learn to walk on a tightrope because while their relationship with the bandits remain delicate, they also don’t know when they run foul of the same government’s security agents, especially those different from the ones they ‘work’ with.

“The bandits,” says Barnett “are a particularly suspicious lot, and intermediaries run no small risk anytime they might agree to meet with the bandits on the government’s behalf. Some bandits who have entered into talks with the state governments have been targeted by other gangs, and of course, if the bandits find anyone informing on them to security forces, they will be quite merciless.

“The issue is especially complex as the Fulani, particularly herders, are often the best placed to serve as informants or mediators for the government. This does not only put them at the risk of being exposed or otherwise drawing the ire of bandits, but their ethnicity alone also makes them targets for security officials and Yan Sakai vigilantes in particular.

“You have instances of the Fulani who work for the government and help secure the release of hostages, but they are profiled as bandits by the simple fact of their ethnicity and killed by vigilantes, whose ostensible purpose is to combat banditry.”

According to Danjuma, “An informant would have to protect his life because once there is loss of trust, the consequence is death. That is why they don’t open up.”

The chase for Mamman

Our reporter experienced the closely-guarded life of the intermediaries when he set out to track down one of the well-known figures involved in scooping information on the movement and activities of bandits in one of the north-western states.

Mamman (real name withheld), was instrumental to a number of security operations against the bandits in Zamfara, including the arrest of the father of a banditry kingpin, Turji, as a way of muzzling the bandits to release scores of residents under his custody. He himself is accused of living a double life—a common charge against most intermediaries. He is said to still have his men in the forest while acting as informant against rival groups.

In mid September, a contact was made with Mamman, but he said he would only talk to our reporter when there is permission from the highest authorities in the state. That took a long time coming, and when the reporter reached out to Mamman again with another plea to agree to talk, even under anonymity, he requested that as an alternative, the reporter should get any top official of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) to intercede.

Our reporter and Mamman agreed to meet in the capital of a neighbouring state, but when our reporter arrived and called Mamman in the night of October 3, he buckled down despite confirming speaking to a high official who guaranteed the reporter. It was another round of persuasions before he reluctantly agreed to a meeting the next morning.

Repeated calls placed to his line in the morning of October 4 were not answered. The line later became unreachable and Mamman did not return the calls till date.

Mamman’s slippery conduct points to the fear and suspicion mediators like him paddle through every day.

“It is a dangerous role they are playing; and unfortunately, neither the government nor the local communities understand the intricacies of it,” says Yusuf Anka, a researcher on northern Nigerian security challenges.

The intermediaries, he says, are usually villagers who have some history with the actors; usually trade or marital ties, which they explore in mediating. But exploring these relationships to serve as go-betweens, he says, comes with a high risk, especially due to “lack of seriousness” on the part of state actors who sometimes get the mediators to make commitments to the bandits, which they failed.

Such failures, he says, put the life of the mediators at risk in the hands of the bandits, and “because they would not want the relationship to go sour, they sometimes go extra mile, to the extent of committing illegalities to appease the bandits.

“They are seen with suspicion on all fronts: the communities don’t understand their roles, the security agents are suspicious of them, the Yan Sakai (volunteer guards) are anxious to descend on them, and the gunmen themselves can kill one at any time,” Anka says.

For this reason, many of those involved tread with caution in order not to land on what can be likened to a landmine.

This is partly responsible for the reason many persons have either abandoned mediatory roles or are careful not to dabble into it, in the first place, according to informed sources.

‘What should be done’

But it is essential, security experts say, that the government guarantees safety of persons who risk their lives to provide useful information, especially as intelligence is key to any anticipated victory in the fight against the bandits.

A security expert, Dr Kabiru Adamu, suggests creation of structures “to guide the implementation of this relationship between security departments and the public, especially those who declare information.” The structures, he says, should include elements of operational security, such as confidentiality and the concept of need-to-know, as a way of confidence building.

“In addition, the relationship between the two sides should be mutually reinforcing and not seen as one party doing a favour to the other. To ensure probity, an oversight body such as an ombudsman should be appointed to ensure compliance and strict observance of the policies and procedures that have been designed for the structures,” Adamu further explains.

There is need for sincerity  – Gummi  

An Islamic cleric, Dr Ahmad Gummi, who is the most renowned mediator in the conflict, bemoans insincerity on the part of “politicians” for lack of headway in non-military solutions to the problem. He says solving the problem would require sincerity on the part of political leadership, and supporting those making efforts to end the conflict.

Gummi alleges sabotage against the effort he leads, saying some highly placed persons do not want the success out of the effort to deny him and those he works with the credit.

Though he says he would not give up in his efforts, Gummi, however, explains that his present decision is to soft-pedal, a sort of resignation, while developing a blueprint “for the next government.”

Gummi’s sentiment is shared by few others who spoke anonymously. They point to rivalry within and between security agencies and the fight for credit at different levels, and how the enmity constitutes an impending force in the unregulated work done by mediators and informants.

By Daily Trust

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