REPORTED frustration by the Defence Headquarters over the United States’ opposition to deploying newly-supplied Tucano military planes amid fresh terrorist activities by “bandits,” and the government’s ambiguous responses, demonstrate why Nigeria’s war on terrorism is floundering. Refusing so far to officially designate the fiendish killers as terrorists, the government is constrained by America forbidding the use of the US-made Super Tucano warplanes against the so-called bandits entrenched in the forests and ungoverned areas of the North-West and North-Central regions. The President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should stop the dangerous pussyfooting today, designate the insurgents and mass murderers as terrorists that they are, and unleash the full coercive arsenal of the state against them.
A report quoting federal lawmakers confirmed that US human rights-driven regulations foreclose deployment of the recently supplied A-29 Super Tucano aircraft by the Nigerian Air Force against “bandits.” The US government and Congress approved their long-withheld sale to Nigeria only for use against terrorists and insurgents, and for normal military operations. Reporting on feedback from a service chief, a member of the House of Representatives told The PUNCH: “He told us that the equipment is meant for the war against terrorists and insurgents and since these are bandits, they (Tucano planes) cannot be deployed.” He reported further that once the savages are appropriately designated terrorists, “they would be wiped out.” The tag “bandits” suggests ordinary criminals and therefore non-combatants, and American law forbids using its heavy weapons against citizens.
Who then are these “bandits”? Numbering hundreds of thousands–30,000 in Zamfara State alone, says Governor Bello Matawalle; and 120,000 in only six Northern states, they have murdered thousands of innocent citizens, kidnapped thousands of others for ransom, burnt down entire villages and, depopulated farms, and sacked officials from scores of communities in the North-West and North-Central states.
Many intelligence reports have linked terror groups in the North-East to gangs of bandits in the North-West and the North-Central regions. As far as their modus operandi is concerned, terrorists and insurgents are the same. The primary activities of these groups are indiscriminate mass murder, creation of fear and instability, the destabilisation of established society and general rapine. The US Central Intelligence Agency defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence against non-combatants….” Motivated primarily by impetus for forcible seizure of land and profit, bandits and Fulani herdsmen have also forged links with terrorists seeking religious cum political suzerainty through bloody conquest. Global anti-terrorism experts under the auspices of the United Nations identify three key elements of terrorism: the perpetration of a criminal act such as murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, arson, or the threat of such acts; intent to spread fear and panic among the population or coerce a national, international, or sub-national authority to take, or refrain from taking an action; and when the criminal act has a transnational element.
International agencies have long recognised the bandits as fulfilling all three. The Global Terrorism Index has ranked Boko Haram and its offshoot, ISWAP, and Fulani herdsmen among the world’s five most deadly terrorist groups. Between them, they murdered 1,100 in the North-West in 2018, 2,200 in 2019, and 1,600 from January to June 2020. In June this year alone, they slaughtered 283 persons; 1,525 persons were killed in the first six weeks of this year, said the Nigerian Security Tracker. Of the 123 persons killed by non-state actors across the country from September 24 to October 2 this year, bandits perpetrated 90 per cent of the slaughter. Last week, bandits attacked a market in Sokoto State and randomly murdered 31 persons. In sheer body count, they have surpassed major global terror franchises. Moreover, many of them are not even Nigerians, who have flocked into the fragile country from all over West and Central Africa.
In mass kidnapping, the herder-killers are even more prolific, outshining their allies, Boko Haram, in the numbers and frequency of abductions of school children and adults alike. Hundreds have been abducted in brazen daylight and night-time operations, one just over 100 kilometres away from Daura, Katsina State, where Buhari was vacationing. Bandit atrocities have displaced 247,000 persons, 200,000 to neighbouring states and 41,000 in neighbouring countries.
Critical stakeholders, including this newspaper, have long called for their designation as terrorists. Several northern state governors who had hitherto engaged in the dangerous tactics of appeasement, ethnic, religious, and sectional politics have retraced their steps, as the insurgents overrun local government areas, render highways, farms, and communities unsafe. They have now joined the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir el-Rufai, who has been steadfast in opposing the butchers, in seeking their designation as terrorists.
Both chambers of the National Assembly in September renewed calls for their designation as terrorists. The Speakers of the 36 state houses of assembly have jointly made the same call. Intelligence agencies and think tanks across the world have for years identified strong bonds between Boko Haram and the bandits. DHQ too recently admitted that ISWAP, and other local affiliates of global terror groups were training the bandits. It is standard Salafi jihadist strategy to align with other violent non-state actors to achieve their goal of a global caliphate. Their credentials as terrorists are no longer in doubt. Yet, just as it indulges murderous, land-grabbing Fulani militants, the regime hesitates to tag them as terrorists.
Heavily armed, they just bombed rail tracks and attacked a Kano-Kaduna train. In July, with an anti-aircraft gun, they brought down a NAF Alpha fighter jet in Zamfara State. Though hotly denied by DHQ, the Wall Street Journal insists that the military paid N20 million to ransom an anti-aircraft gun captured by bandits they feared could be used to bring down the presidential aircraft. These are not acts of common criminals.
But living as usual in denial, instead of designating the felons as terrorists, the Buhari regime is fixated on branding self-determination groups and activists as “terrorists,” desperately alleging tenuous links with terrorists. Frustratingly, Buhari, through his spokesman, admitted that in impact, bandits were no different from terrorists but came short of officially declaring them so. Clearly, as usual, ethnicity, sectionalism and religion are beclouding clear-headed decision-making in fighting terrorism and criminality. Buhari should understand that state failure is beckoning. A recent report said bandit camps have sprung up all over the outskirts of the Federal Capital Territory. Like in the North-East, the economy of the North-West and North-Central is tottering and schooling has been disrupted all over the North that was already the world’s capital for out-of-school children and extreme poverty.
The failed policy of appeasement should stop. Terrorists have no legitimate political, social, or economic demand that can be met by a sovereign state. Retaining a monopoly over the means of coercion is an essential characteristic of a viable state, the government should officially designate the so-called bandits by their proper name of terrorists, mobilise the population and the international community to unleash the full might of the state on them.
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