Nigeria has branded criminal gangs known locally as bandits that are blamed for mass abductions of schoolchildren as “terrorist” groups, a designation aimed at containing growing insecurity in the north.
The country’s northwest and north-central states have long been afflicted by violence fuelled by disputes over access to land and resources, among other factors. Heavily armed gangs have taken advantage of the lack of effective policing to launch attacks, pillage villages, steal cattle and kidnap for ransom.
But violence has recently become more widespread, piling pressure on the federal government – already battling the Boko Haram armed group and its offshoot in the northeast for more than a decade – to do more to halt the attacks.
In the official gazette on Wednesday, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government labelled activities of Yan Bindiga and Yan Ta’adda – references in the Hausa language to bandit gunmen – “as acts of terrorism and illegality”.
“I think the only language they understand – we have discussed it thoroughly with the law enforcement agencies; the security chiefs, the inspector general of police – is to go after them,” Buhari told Channels Television, according to its website on Wednesday.
“We labelled them terrorists … we are going to deal with them as such.”
The official gazette referred to criminal gangs who carry out mass kidnappings of students, abduction for ransom, cattle rustling and destruction of property, among other crimes.
The definition will mean tougher sanctions under the terrorism prevention act for suspected bandit gunmen, their informants and supporters such as those caught supplying them with fuel and food.
Nigerian daily newspapers often carry stories about bandit raids on villages and communities, where they steal cattle, kidnap families and terrorise residents.
Security forces have announced a crackdown, including air raids and a telecoms shutdown in parts of the country’s northwest in an attempt to flush criminal gangs from their forest hideouts.
On Tuesday, police announced they had rescued nearly 100 kidnap victims in two raids on bandit camps in northwestern Zamfara state.
Last year, bandit gangs made international headlines with a series of high-profile attacks of schools and colleges to kidnap scores of pupils for ransom. Some of those students are still being held.
The criminal gangs behind the abductions seem to not be driven by ideological motives but by financial gains. Between June 2011 and March 2020, at least $18m was paid to kidnappers as ransom, according to a report (PDF) by SB Morgen.
Nigeria’s bandit violence has its roots in clashes between nomadic cattle herders and sedentary farmers over land and resources. But tit-for-tat attacks have over the years spiralled into broader criminality.