Late Village Head of Chonoko, Muhammadu Gomo Damisa and Mukhtar Ya'u Madobi
Travelogue: An Investigative Excursion To Banditry Zone, By Mukhtar Ya’u Madobi

Mukhtar Ya’u Madobi

Background

In today’s Nigeria, everyone knows that lingering insecurity seems to have defied all workable solutions. It seems to have no end in sight. And the rampaging activities of non-state actors such as Boko Haram insurgents, armed bandits, kidnappers, ethnic militias, ritualists, cultists, robbers, internet scammers, have only deteriorated the security situation in the country.

In particular, banditry and kidnapping for ransom have turned States in the Northwest into a no-go area. Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto, Kaduna, Kebbi and Niger, in the Northcentral, have since become a hub and safe haven for bandits and kidnappers, where they operate at will and with impunity.

In the aforementioned States, hundred of thousands of people have been sacked from their ancestral homes, and now dwell in IDP camps. Worse still, valuable properties have been destroyed by bandits who have maimed countless lives.

The terrorist elements, either in North East or Northwest or Northcentral, are holding many innocent citizens to hostage, with many of their captives not thinking of regaining freedom, anytime soon.

It is apt to state that most victims of banditry, in particular, lack communication channels to tell their stories about their plights. And this may be why the attention of critical stakeholders has not been shifted to them, tremendously.

Conceiving the Idea

It is on this note that PRNigeria under the leadership of Mallam Yushau Shuaib decided to take a bold step in changing the narrative. Initially, arrangements were in pipeline for me to travel to Gwada IDPs camp in Shiroro Local Government Area of Niger State to examine the predicaments of some victims of banditry, but it wasn’t fated due to some reasons.

Thus, it was one Saturday’s morning when myself and the boss were discussing in his office when a call came through his mobile phone which he did not hesitate to pick and equally put it on speaker mode.

The caller was an indigene of Chonoko town in Danko/Wasagu LGA in Zuru Emirates, Kebbi state. I am sure that the reader is aware that the Zuru axis is one of the banditry-ravaged areas in Kebbi state. You can just tag it as a NO-GO territory.

In an agonizing tune, he was narrating to the boss how many villages around his community were sacked by bandits, thereby forcing the residents to swarm into Chonoko, a situation leading to humanitarian crises of great magnitude with a lot of ramifications. Alas, all those carnages that had happened were not covered by the media.

However, I was able to notice the justification for such under-reportage by the media after visiting the community, the reason which the reader would also get to know in the next part of this article.

In a nutshell, the caller was demanding for media intervention to come and cover their awful situation and tell the world about their ‘sorry state’ with a good hope that government relief agencies as well as local and international donor organizations would come to their aid, just as how they have been providing succor to the victims of insurgency in northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe respectively.

Not to my surprise, Malam Shuaib response was positive as he granted the man’s request, assuring him that PRNigeria will spotlight the issue to the public space. He [the Boss] then dropped his phone and said to me; “Mukhtar, you are going to cover this assignment” which I boldly replied with “Yes Sir” while clearly knowing the kind of uncertainties and herculean task that awaits me in embarking on such an adventure.

Meanwhile, a lot of people will question my decision on why I advanced on such a risky mission without giving it a second thought, but to me I was just seeing it as a golden opportunity to have a grasp of what the fieldwork experience is all about, having craved for such opportunity for so long since ever when I joined media industry from my earlier science background.

DAY 1

In a matter of few days, we were through with preparation, involving mapping and studying the routes to our study area as well as establishing a nexus between myself and some contact persons in Chonoko, i.e. the Village Head and the Ward Councilor.

That day has finally arrived, thus, on Monday, April 11, 2022, myself as the lead reporter and colleague, Salisu Muhammad Manager who served as the technical assistant, set out in the early morning and left Abuja for Suleja. On reaching there, we boarded a motorcycle that took us to a motor park called ‘Kwamba Garage’ where we are expected to get a vehicle that will convey us to ‘Kontagora.’

After paying our transport fare to the park official and waited for not long before the vehicle was full of passengers and ready to take-off. At exactly 09:01am we zoomed out of the garage for a 398km journey to Kontagora which took not less than 5 hours of our precious time.

We passed through Minna, the Niger State capital before reaching ‘Zungeru,’ an ancient town which served as the seat of power to the first Governor General of Nigeria during the colonial era, Sir Fredrick Lord Lugard.  It was also the capital city of the northern region during the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates in 1914.

Apart from that, I also heard so many vital facts about this important town, because the first northern military cemetery was established in Zungeru. It is also a town where some influential Nigerians including; Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first President of Nigeria and Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the leader of the defunct Biafra nation were born.

As we are bidding farewell to the town, driving across a bridge, I sighted an ever-increasing water flow which is an extension of Zungeru Dam from which a 700MW hydroelectric power plant is being constructed, the second to the largest after Kainji Dam that provides 760MW.

From there we started heading toward the bandits-infested towns starting with Tegina. You can recall that, it is the same town where bandits stormed in August 2021 and abducted not less than 90 pupils from Salihu Tanko Islamiyyah.

However, I witnessed some level of security measures along the roads as there were presence of several checkpoints here and there manned by operatives who are monitoring the vehicles’ movement.

As we are moving, the driver parked by the roadside to refill his gallon from an old historic ‘Nagwamachi well’ in Borgu LGA.  According to one of the passengers, the well precedes Sokoto State. It was named after its founder who is also a warrior, but was ousted from his community in the northern part of present Sokoto. The remain of the warrior was said to be buried beside the well.

On reaching Kontagora, we prayed, rested a little and proceeded to Riba in Kebbi state, a 105km journey that took us more than 3 hours owing to the deplorable condition of the road.

We passed through Warari town where I sighted a military base with many armored vehicles ready for combat in order to beef up security around the community.

Next is Rijau LGA, another bandit-infested area where I also noticed a military detachment with many gallant soldiers at their youthful age who sacrificed their lives for us to live in peace.

From there we bade farewell to Niger and crossed into Dirin Daji in Sakaba LGA, Kebbi state. Don’t forget, that was the town where bandit-terrorists waylaid and killed not less than 63 vigilantes in their own pool of blood in early March.

From there we reached Riba town, a few minutes’ journey to Chonoko, where we got a motorcyclist who transported us to the study location.

As we are heading to Chonoko, I kept on ruminating that today I passed through some of these bandits-infested areas which before I used to only hear about them in the news when terrorists launch an attack on such communities.

I just couldn’t believe it. Meanwhile we had a short conversation with the motorcyclist where he revealed to us how the security situation deteriorated recently around Zuru Emirates due to incessant bandits’ attacks.

The most eye-catching scene that caught my eyes on reaching Chonoko was the presence of overcrowded settlements made up of small rooms of considerable sizes. Guess what, they were all occupied by about 10,000 IDPs who were sacked from the neighboring villages by the bandits-terrorists.

Chonoko Palace

We arrived at Chonoko palace a few minutes to Iftaar and luckily enough, the Village Head, Muhammadu Damisa Dudu was there to receive us. We waited so long for the arrival of Bamaiyi Bawada, the councilor of Chonoko who is our second contact person after the village head.

While we were discussing, they revealed to us how the bandits have been operating in the area with impunity where they sacked not less 42 communities around Chonoko, while utilizing some of the deserted villages as their safe haven where they fall back after carrying out their heinous acts around the area.

Late Village Head of Chonoko, Muhammadu Damisa Gomo

We spent a lot of time mapping out strategies on how to go about conducting our investigation starting early in the morning. They promised to accompany us to some of the sacked villages whom they are sure of reasonable security that can guarantee our safety so as to witness some of the damages done on the communities by the bandits and equally grant interviews to some of the victims.

Alas, unknown to our knowledge, the councilor called and briefed the Chairman of Danko/Wasagu LGA of our arrival and the objectives we intend to achieve. Upon learning about the presence of journalists in Chonoko all the way from Abuja, the Council Chairman wasn’t happy about it, emphasizing that our report might sabotage government policy.

During my lengthy phone conversation with him, I tried to sensitize his mind about our good intentions, saying; “We are here to help, not to undermine your efforts. We want to draw the attention of the world to know the kind of humanitarian crises that are happening here, hoping to attract reaction from donor agencies just like how they are providing relief to victims of insurgency in northeastern states.”

In spite of all these efforts, the Chairman remains adamant and refuse to shift ground about his earlier stand. After a while, the councilor upon discussing with his boss, turned to us and said; “You cannot start this work until you get clearance from the Chairman, let’s wait for him tomorrow morning, he will come and join you. Feel free, you can spend as many days as possible here until you achieve your goals.”

At this juncture, myself and the other colleague were very sure that the Chairman will not give us a nod to embark on such an investigation based on reasons best known to him. Therefore, we spent the night mapping out strategies on how to discreetly gather essential data regarding what we intended to achieve for establishing a presence in that community.

DAY 2

Without notifying the councilor, we set out early in the morning and arrived at Chonoko palace and started granting interviews to some victims.

Surprisingly, our first interviewee was Tanko Magaze who doubled as the Chief hunter and leader of vigilantes in Chonoko town.

PRNigeria Reporter with Tanko Magaze

Tanko was among the few survivors when bandits ambushed and killed 63 vigilantes in Dirin Daji during the month of March.

He narrated the horrific experience they faced during the attack and how he and some of his few colleagues were able to escape by a whisker. He however blamed lack of sophisticated arms and informants who compromised their mission by giving intelligence to the terrorists about their movement.

During our lengthy up-close and personal with the Chonoko village head, he outlined in his sorrowful voice how the bandits have been attacking the villages, rustling cattle and sheep, razing down shelters and plundering their valuable items for three years in a row without being confronted by security forces.

It is disheartening to also learn that, even the village head lost his son, who has filled an application form to join the Nigerian Air Force, to this carnage by bandits.

He mentioned several plights of the IDPs which I and my colleagues were able to notice for the short time that we arrived at the community.

These include but not limited to water scarcity, as there are only two boreholes meant to supply water to entire Chonoko community, in fact the IDPs used to queue from dawn to sunset in order to fetch water for domestic purposes; looming food crisis that is facing the community as many farmers were forced to abandon their vast hectares of land, thus drastically reducing the quantity of agricultural supplies. Many children observed have signs of malnutrition.

Other predicaments being faced by the displaced persons as mentioned by the village head are; insecurity as no any security forces was seen in the community; many schools remained closed while others were turned to IDPs shelter, thereby threatening educational status of the community; overcrowded settlement where disease can easily spread in the event of outbreak, lack of medical supplies and absence of relief agencies among others.

He also told us about how ladies were kidnapped from neighboring communities by the bandits and only released after payment of ransom.

Late Chonoko Village Head with some Wards’ Heads

Similarly, the two other interviewees briefed us on how they were dislodged from their villages, their relatives killed and properties carted away. To a 70-year old Mai Anguwa Mai Zuwa, his house was razed down including 70 bags of guinea corn, bags of cements and 1million naira among other valuable items.

Meanwhile, Musa Kadebo has lost his eldest heir alongside other children to these wanton killings.

These revelations were only a tip of an iceberg of what we were able to observed.

The village head also decried how Zamfara government is not being cooperative with security forces in stemming the rising tides of the carnage.

Security Threats

While in the middle of granting an interview to the village head, I received a call from the person who brought the idea of this investigation to our boss, which I didn’t answer hoping to call him back later.

After about 15minutes, I checked my inbox only to have found a lengthy text message from him notifying us that henceforth we should not trust anybody in the community, not even the councilor and the village head.

In fact, he asked us to quickly leave the community right away and not to disclose any information regarding our next movement to anybody.

Some of Chonoko IDPs who are mostly orphans

In a nutshell, I and my colleague were able to decipher the message and understood that we were being ‘compromised’. Upon learning about this development, we diplomatically withdrew from that community and retreated to Zuru town, which is 30km away from Chonoko where we spent the night.

DAY 3

The next day, i.e. Wednesday, April 13, 2022, we were able to grant interviews through mobile phones to some IDPs in Chonoko with the help of some locals whom we established rapport with at the time we arrived.

They helped us in identifying some of the victims within the community comprising of females and children who told us about their plights and what they are expecting from the government and other stakeholders.

The gory tales of the victims of bandit attacks in Kebbi, and particularly, the communities we visited, are soul-touching.

Both the Kebbi Government and the Federal Government work do more, in concert, to ameliorate the plights of the displaced villagers of Chonoko.

The story of their wretchedness and haplessness in the aftermath of violent attacks targeted at them by bandits will definitely be served, in no mean time, by PRNigeria.

But the report of government’s intervention to forestall a recurrence of the type of carnage at Chonoko, or perhaps to permanently end banditry, not only in Kebbi States, but across the North West and North Central is one juicy story PRNigeria  will relish serving. Someday.

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