By James Barnett
December 1, 2021
A rare look inside the lives and minds of those responsible for killing and displacing thousands of civilians in Nigeria
Sitting in a plastic chair under the shade of a large rosewood tree, Alhaji Auta apologizes that he cannot serve me a full meal.
He had planned to slaughter a ram in anticipation of our interview, but he was distracted by airstrikes that morning that killed some of his cattle.
“The airstrikes never hit us,” the 38-year-old says as he gestures to the gun-toting figures surrounding him. In fact, Auta claims, the Nigerian military never comes into the bush for a fair fight.
“They just scatter our herds and harass innocent people in the villages.”
Beyond this group of 50 or so fighters crammed under the tree’s shade, I can see nothing but shrubby grassland and some hills in the distance, behind which lies the virtually unmarked border with Niger.
I know we must be near Auta’s camp, but he does not trust me enough to take me to that forested militant community.
Moments later, one of his boys materializes out of the bushes on motorbike, a live ram lying across his lap.
Auta explains that in lieu of a meal, he is sending me and my colleague home with this gift.
The ram is Auta’s way of welcoming his visitors, who ventured deep into the bush for this interview.
It is his way of telling me that he is a man of means, a community leader who upholds pastoralists’ traditions of hospitality and a friend to anyone who will listen to his story.
He is many things except, he insists, that which the rest of Nigerian society would call him.
Northwestern Nigeria is experiencing a devastating conflict that most observers are still struggling to characterize.
The violence has received far less international attention than the jihadist insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast, perhaps in part because these militants defy easy categorization.
Most Nigerians refer to them as bandits, though the phrase itself carries varied connotations.
Historically, those who have been called bandits include Robin Hood-like figures and nationalist revolutionaries, as well as the nihilistic scalp-hunters who inspired “Blood Meridian.” Nigeria’s bandits are neither, or maybe a bit of both. It is hard to say, because there are so many of them, and their conflict is constantly evolving.
The bandits may number up to 30,000, spread across dozens of gangs ranging in size from 10 fighters to more than a thousand, most of whom are based in Zamfara state.
They are driving a humanitarian crisis through their brutal raids on civilians and mass kidnappings while using heavy weaponry to combat overstretched security forces.
They mostly hail from one ethnic group, the Fulani, and many of them had the same lifestyle, pastoralism, prior to their turn to criminality, though there are opportunists of various ethnicities and nationalities among their ranks as well.
By any reasonable interpretation, they constitute an insurgency — one that is more geographically dispersed than Boko Haram — but their political objectives are incoherent.
Most of the bandits claim to have taken up arms to redress the marginalization of the Fulani, but they are not typical ethno-nationalists.
Many bandits do not speak the Fulani language, and they attack their fellow pastoralists without shame.
They seem to mostly fight for personal wealth and influence — and they fight each other as much as the government — but they live in the bush rather than in gilded villas.
The conflict in the northwest has taken an immense toll.
Estimates of the dead range from 12,000 to 19,000, though the true number could be higher.
Last year, nearly 1,000 civilians were killed and just under 2,000 kidnapped in Kaduna alone, which is the only state to publish regular data on the conflict.
The number of displaced is equally hard to gauge owing to the lack of significant NGO presence on the ground and the state governments’ tendency to downplay the humanitarian crisis.
A partial tally of northwestern and north-central states from mid-2021 brings the number of displaced due to banditry and farmer-herder clashes to just below 750,000.
Deaths and displacement only tell part of the story, however.
According to UNICEF, 1 million children are at risk of losing education this year as schools shutter over the threat of mass kidnappings, while the U.S. Agency for International Development predicts that food insecurity will soon reach “catastrophe” levels (aka famine) in parts of the region. Sexual violence has also skyrocketed to untold levels as women are raped, kidnapped or commodified by families who give their daughters to bandits in exchange for protection.
There is an additional, overlooked burden that victims in the northwest bear: They often don’t understand why they were attacked.
The violence in the northwest frequently appears, on the surface, to lack strategic rationale, leaving Nigerians to fear and speculate who the bandits are and what they seek to achieve.
In fact, when I arrived in Nigeria months ago, I posed this question to one government official: What are the bandits’ objectives? He furrowed his brow and after a long pause replied, “I don’t know. But they seem very angry. I suppose in this country, many people are angry.”
Banditry is not a new phenomenon in northwestern Nigeria. Sitting on the southern edge of the trans-Saharan caravan routes, the region has historically been a promising land for cattle rustlers and highway robbers who are memorialized in local folklore.
But today’s conflict is different, distinguished from previous epochs by the scale and terroristic nature of the violence.
The present insurgency is rooted to a notable extent in farmer-herder conflicts, which have increased across West Africa in recent years with climate change aggravating the situation.
But that is not the whole picture. In Nigeria, corruption and cutthroat politics added fuel to the fire.
Venal leaders in the northwest have opportunistically sold land on restricted grazing areas and encouraged the rise of ethnic militias to advance their personal ambitions, creating a climate in which, by the early 2010s, the state was helpless to control tit-for-tat violence between Hausa farmers and Fulani herders.
Entrepreneurial bandits took advantage, conscripting young herders through appeals to ethnic solidarity or promises of wealth, wives and revenge.
Other herders formed militias for self-defense and subsequently drifted into criminality as a means of sustaining themselves, leading to a gradual convergence of bandits and ethnic Fulani militias. The gangs became flush with weapons from Libya by the mid-2010s while Nigeria’s security forces were largely absent in the northwestern countryside, the military busy fighting Boko Haram and the police serving as praetorian guards to the country’s elites.
The experience of one former bandit is illustrative. I interviewed Buhari (several names in this article have been changed to preserve anonymity) over tea one August night in Gusau, Zamfara’s state capital. Now nearing 30, Buhari was in his early 20s when a gang of fellow Fulani rustled his family’s herd.
He could not turn to the police, he says, since they would extort any herder who approached them.
Semi-itinerant, often illiterate, their wealth tied up in a difficult-to-trace commodity, herders like Buhari are easy prey for rapacious officials, of whom there is no shortage in Nigeria.
So, Buhari joined the gang that stole his herd in order to retrieve it. Besides, the security forces and local Hausa vigilantes had long been profiling him. Given this treatment, and given that many of his friends were joining gangs, he suggests with a self-conscious shrug that “there was no reason not to become a bandit.”
The morning after I interview Buhari, I head to Birnin Magaji, a local government to Gusau’s northeast. I am traveling with a colleague, Dr. Murtala Rufa’i, an academic from neighboring Sokoto state who has been researching banditry for years. He feels at ease in Zamfara, even though the state’s roads are considered among the most dangerous in the country. Rufa’i assures me we are safe today.
Yes, we are being watched, he explains, but that is good.
These bandits, having granted an incredibly rare in-person interview, are expecting us. It would be an affront to their authority if something happened to their visitors on the road.
Herein lies one shortcoming of the word “bandit”: It understates the extent to which many of these militants act as warlords.
Herein lies one shortcoming of the word “bandit”: It understates the extent to which many of these militants act as warlords.
The northwest’s problem is not “ungoverned spaces,” as wonks like to say, but spaces governed by criminal sovereigns.
Some bandits have purely extractive relationships with the local populace: Give the bandit money, cattle, wives or boys for his gang, and he won’t torch your village. In other instances, the protection racket is more proto-statel, as the bandit assumes responsibility for security, arbitration and the means of production in his region. One bandit leader, Dogo Gide, regulates farming through neo-feudal sharecropping arrangements. Another, Turji, builds mosques in local villages while dispensing harsh justice against petty criminals. In another part of Zamfara, the bandit Dankarami holds court with local politicians, hearing their petitions like a Saxon king. The examples are plentiful.
As Rufa’i and I turn off the federal highway onto the dirt roads of Birnin Magaji, we enter the bandits’ turf. We are driving with an intermediary from this area, the man who unexpectedly offered to arrange our interview the day before. But this man does not have direct access to the bandits. We must first connect with someone they trust.
We therefore stop at the home of Alhaji Ardo Nashaware, an older “repentant” bandit who fought for years alongside Birnin Magaji’s warlords. He accepted the governor’s offer of amnesty in 2019 in return for laying down arms (one of several short-lived peace deals attempted in the northwest) but remains an informal powerbroker in his district.
With Nashaware now in our SUV, we drive to another community, where we are greeted by the residents in what passes for the village square.
On one side stands a simple mosque; on the other side, a decrepit building painted with the logo of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), one of those two near-identical vessels for elite interests that constitute Nigeria’s primary political factions (Zamfara’s governor was PDP before he defected to the president’s party earlier this year; apparently, this does not change much for the rural masses).
No bandits are visible, though several young men arrive on motorbike and peer at us over the gaggle of villagers that has assembled around our car. The men look like ordinary okada drivers, as Nigerians call bike taxis. One of them pulls out a cellphone, makes a call and then drives away with the others.
They return some 20 minutes later and tell us to hop on. The four of us — Rufa’i, Nashaware, our intermediary and I — each mount the back of a bike and exit the village.
We travel along the rough, bramble-strewn cattle paths that cut through the surrounding farmland, passing the occasional villager carrying bundles of firewood. It being late in the rainy season, the foliage is lush, and the sky is clear that afternoon.
Any aircraft overhead would enjoy great visibility, but the bandits move without much concern (later in the day we will travel in a convoy of roughly 30 bikes).
The airstrikes are just for show, they claim, so there is no need to hide our movements.
I know this is an overstatement — bandits have died in airstrikes — but with the military overstretched as it is, there does seem to be a certain aimlessness to its operations in the northwest.
The planes that scattered Auta’s cattle that morning were seemingly responding to an attack conducted by a separate gang in a neighboring district the previous evening.
The cows themselves were likely rustled from some poor herder at one point or another.
Now they’ve been removed from the supply chain in a region afflicted by hunger where the bandits profit from any increase in the price of beef.
There may be a way to defeat the bandits militarily. I doubt this is it.
After a few minutes, our bikes pull over beside some thick brush as my driver, in the lead, gives a whistle.
Four other bikes emerge, their drivers carrying two AK-47s apiece.
Each of our drivers takes one gun before continuing down the path, the four other bikes now following us.
That the bandits leave their weapons in the bush before entering the village seems to be both a gesture of respect and a demonstration of power. They do not need to lord over the villagers as wardens, as no one questions who is in charge.
After another 20 minutes of traveling on the bikes, we arrive at a small cluster of trees nestled between some maize fields. A couple dozen well-armed young men are milling about, lounging on parked bikes or leaning against trees, smoking weed and cigarettes. Many of them look like teenagers. A few look stoned.
Or maybe it’s PTSD. In any event, they seem happy to have visitors.
A young, turbaned fighter approaches me and starts chatting through Rufa’i, who translates. Within 30 seconds he has asked me, half-jokingly, a question I am accustomed to in Nigeria: Can you take me to your country?
I don’t know what to offer other than a noncommittal “inshallah,” which makes him laugh and call out something to the others, who also laugh. I wonder if they are making fun of me. That would be OK, I think, since they have all the guns.
It is a few minutes before the first warlord appears. Alhaji Shehu Shingi, a veteran bandit of 10 years said to command a thousand fighters (he claims it is 5,000), walks out of a maize field, his hands dirty from farming. Without any weapon he looks like an ordinary 30-something villager. And he is beaming.
He claims to have never met a bature (pronounced ba-tor-ray), which means white people in the Hausa language, and he tells me that even if he were to die in an airstrike today, he would be happy because someone has come all the way from America to meet him. (I wonder if I should mention that I live in Lagos.)
He also has an insatiable curiosity. He asks that I unbutton my shirt so he can see my tattoos, which his fighters enjoy. He asks me if there are many farms and cattle in my land, to which I reply that there are. In fact, the whiff of cow manure I detect evokes memories of my childhood, I tell him, as I spent summers on a family farm. He is happy to hear this.
He then asks me about the bature. Are they all of one nation, or are they of many nations and languages like in Nigeria?
There are many different nations and languages spoken by white people, I tell him.
Do they get along, or is there trouble between them, like in Nigeria?
I assure him that bature have spent much of their history killing one another and that in certain failed states, like Belgium, the different tribes cannot form a functioning government.
He seems pleasantly surprised at this, and he quickly launches into a rant against the Nigerian government, repeating a litany of grievances that will be repeated throughout the day: The politicians do not care for herders; they break their promises and allow encroachment onto grazing routes.
The local vigilantes harass or kill any Fulani they see, and the police are “nothing but kidnappers.” All we want is peace, to be able to leave the bush and see our families.
OK, I say. So, what are your demands?
Before he can answer, the second warlord, Auta, drives up with a dozen bikes in tow. Auta is wearing a purple turban, carries an AK-47 and is thrilled when I address him by name.
Several of his fighters are lugging heavy machine guns or rocket-propelled grenades, which he is eager to show off. The bandits measure their power in part through their weaponry (and cattle). Smaller gangs will sometimes travel hours just to see a larger gang’s arsenal, a kind of intra-militant tourism.
Throughout the day the bandits ask me to photograph their guns, striking poses without covering their faces. “The authorities know us,” one militant says with a chuckle.
We do not stay much longer in the clearing between the maize fields. Auta and Shingi assemble their men and state that we are going to rendezvous nearby with Alhaji Nashama and some of his boys.
Once we are there, Auta says, we can do a proper interview with the warlords of Birnin Magaji.
As we begin to mount our bikes, Shingi casually let slip something that confirms the rumors I’d heard, rumors that had me on edge.
He works with Boko Haram. Sort of.
The question of the bandits’ ties to jihadists has prompted much speculation from analysts as well as concern from ordinary Nigerians, many of whom see Fulani herders and Boko Haram as a singular, monolithic threat. In a country with manifold social divisions, where citizens have a well-founded suspicion of authority, conspiracies and sensational narratives predominate.
I have heard some version of the following theory from illiterate farmers and senior government officials alike: The Fulani are conquest-driven Islamic extremists. Fulani and Boko Haram are two sides of the same coin, it’s just that the herders keep their radical alliance with jihadists concealed.
Except Shingi is apparently horrible at keeping secrets, and in the presence of an infidel like me, no less.
Chatting with Rufa’i as his men grab their bikes, Shingi mentions that he’s helping some of Abubakar Shekau’s lieutenants reach Zamfara, an almost exasperated look on his face as if to say, “these jihadists don’t know how to read a map properly.”
Shekau, the terrorist infamous for his school kidnappings and use of child suicide bombers, had been killed in May by a rival jihadist faction in the northeast.
Rather than join their rivals, some of Shekau’s lieutenants apparently reached out to Shingi (not for the first time) seeking to make the westward trek.
For Shingi, the decision to welcome the jihadists seems more pragmatic than ideological. These are experienced fighters who bring valuable skills and contacts.
Better to welcome them into his gang, he explains, than let them end up elsewhere in the northwest joining one of his rivals.
Shingi’s decision fits into a broader pattern in which bandits welcome tactical assistance from jihadists, some of whom have set up camp in the northwest.
However, the bandits have mostly not, contrary to many predictions, adopted a jihadist modus operandi. But jihadists are welcome to become bandits, as many Boko Haram fighters have.
As the Zamfara-based journalist Yusuf Anka put it to me one recent evening, “These bandits will fight to the death to prevent another bandit — a fellow Fulani from the next district — from setting up a camp next to theirs.
So why would they let some Kanuri man from Borno [in the northeast] tell them how to behave?”
If the bandits are obstinate and territorial, they can also be, in a sense, democratic within their own gangs.
After riding with Shingi, Nashaware, Auta and assembled fighters, we reach a large rosewood tree under which we will conduct our group interview, although Nashama arrives late.
For the next hour, I sit on a portable lawn chair Auta provides me under the shade, trying to keep up with the free-flowing conversation.
Everyone pays traditional respect to the commanders, kneeling before a seated Auta upon arrival, for example. But the bandits — the senior ones, at least — speak freely, often interrupting or poking fun at one another. Shingi has to repeatedly step out to field phone calls related to the ransom of a local dignitary abducted by another gang. As an elder bandit, he often acts as an intermediary in these matters, much as he mediates disputes between gangs.
Nashama is the only bandit who frightens me. He barely speaks. He just stares at me intensely through gold-rimmed sunglasses, holding an AK-47 and wearing a boonie hat he is said to have taken off a soldier’s corpse. He has a sly grin on his face, as if he’s thinking, “I could get a lot for this foreigner.”
I struggle to discern any clear chain of command among these warlords. I mention that I have heard that Shingi is the top bandit in this area, which elicits a brief silence. Shingi then points to Auta and says, “he’s my boss,” prompting laughter. Auta later says that all the guns I see belong to Shingi, who may collect them whenever he wishes.
Nashaware is the oldest, and while officially a repentant, he speaks as though he is still a peer of the other warlords.
I consider my conversation the previous evening with Buhari, who explained with a tinge of nostalgia how there exists a form of apprenticeship within banditry.
After fighting for enough time under a kingpin, a lieutenant who oversees significant arms and fighters may seek the big man’s blessing to form his own outfit with the understanding that he will remain close to his mentor, answering any calls for support that may arise. It is similar, one influential herder tells me, to how pastoralist families grant significant freedom and responsibility to young men as they travel with their herds.
Granted, bandits are ambitious and vain, and their gangs often rupture violently. But on the whole, they seem to eschew rigid hierarchy and privilege autonomy.
I manage to get in a few questions over the course of an hour, but the bandits dominate the conversation, which often meanders into unexpected territory.
While complaining about the government of President Muhammadu Buhari (“a false Fulani”), Shingi mentions that the previous president, the Christian southerner Goodluck Jonathan, was far better. Nashaware then interjects to say that “That first president — what was his name?” was also good.
“Obasanjo! He was the best!” remarks Nashaware to murmurs of agreement.
I am admittedly a bit perplexed by this, coming on the heels of Shingi’s casual mention of his Boko Haram connections. Perhaps the bandits are trying to fool the foreigner. Or perhaps they see no contradiction between praising Olusegun Obasanjo, an Evangelical whose northern opponents accused him of stifling Islam, and cooperating with a jihadist outfit for whom the very notion of elections is an affront against God. Not everyone has the luxury of thinking so deeply about their politics, I suppose.
The most unsettling moment of the day comes when I ask about the age of the fighters. Shingi says the eldest bandit in his crew is 40, while the youngest is 9.
I am not surprised, but I am nonetheless unprepared to see Shingi bring forward a timid child with a soft grin. He is shouldering a rifle the size of his torso. Shingi makes a seemingly lighthearted joke, to which everyone, the child included, laughs. But I fail to record it in my notes. I am fixated on the kid, who is too shy to look me in the eyes.
It is getting late when Auta concludes the interview with his offering of the ram. I feel awkward accepting it, but to refuse would be to disrespect the man who, at that moment, holds my life in his hands.
We return to the village with the same boys who brought us into the bush, the grunting animal strapped to a bike. We spend several minutes struggling to fit it into Rufa’i’s SUV before we begin our drive back to Gusau, debating what to do with the gift as I feel an occasional thud behind my seat.
No self-respecting hotel will let us keep a living, breathing and presumably defecating ram in our room, so we settle on dropping it in a nearby village, where Rufa’i can theoretically retrieve it at a later date.
Reflecting on the interview during our drive, Rufa’i and I agree that the bandits were trying to indirectly signal to the governor that they are ready for a new amnesty. They emphasized that the current governor seems “peace-loving” compared with his predecessor.
Besides, Hausa and Fulani now get along in these parts, Nashaware claimed, because the Hausa realize that the Fulani of Birnin Magaji are strong and should not be bothered, which is all the bandits ask.
He also emphasized that none of the Birnin Magaji bandits have conducted a mass kidnapping, although Shingi hinted this might change so long as the government “is pushing us against the wall.”
In general, the interview followed a pattern of efforts to soften the bandits’ image — “we’re fighting for justice and peace” — interspersed with unsubtle threats and the signaling of strength — “look at our weapons,” “all the farmland here belongs to us,” “did we mention we’re in touch with Boko Haram?”
The bandits claimed that their only demands are that the government stop harassing Fulani and make good on its pledges to support pastoralist communities. These concerns are not trivial. I have interviewed plenty of vigilantes across the northwest who espouse unabashed contempt for Fulani and will freely admit to war crimes. That the northwestern governors have variously urged vigilantism gives these militias tacit state-backing, even as some outfits are nominally outlawed.
There are also instances of bandits accepting an amnesty, only to later be arrested or killed by security forces or vigilantes, often in a neighboring state that has no amnesty policy. That the bandits I interviewed mistrust the government is no surprise.
But implicit in their demands is the expectation that the bandits will enjoy the stature and wealth of the warlords they are in any post-conflict setting. And herein lies the problem.
Even if one accepts that many of the bandits first took up arms to redress genuine grievances, the conflict has morphed into more of a criminal enterprise.
The average bandit enjoys greater wealth and influence when he holds a rifle than when he wields a herder’s stick. Auta claims that he is already rich and needs no material incentives to enter a dialogue. He even has a Toyota Hilux in the city, he explained.
But the previous amnesties, all short-lived, suggest that many of the bandits expect to be bought off. Some “repentant” bandits were granted titles as state security advisers as a justification for giving them a stipend. Even Auta’s Hilux was gifted by the governor as part of a short-lived amnesty.
In other instances, the state governments have quietly outsourced security to ex-bandits, whom they send into the bush to fight rival gangs.
The amnesties have thus been a way to co-opt, and by extension legitimate, warlords. If that is the path the northwest is on, its future could look a bit like Chechnya, or Afghanistan, or, at best, Nigeria’s oil-rich and perennially unstable delta states.
It is possible that this would be the least horrible future among realistic alternatives.
But it is a depressing prospect. And it would certainly represent a failure to deliver any modicum of justice to the bandits’ many victims.
A little over a week after my interview in Birnin Magaji, the Zamfara state government announced a bevy of restrictions on movement and commerce that, coupled with new troop deployments and the shutdown of cellular service, are intended to decisively squeeze the bandits.
The reality has been different. I traveled around two states that neighbor Zamfara, Sokoto and Katsina, in September and October.
Both have witnessed an influx of hungry, marauding bandits who have mostly managed to evade the newly deployed troops. Nearly all the major gang leaders remain at large.
It is hard not to feel pessimistic. The federal government hasn’t demonstrated the capacity to tackle the insurgency, while state officials are often in denial of the humanitarian crisis, which is being compounded by the latest restrictions.
Few internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the northwest receive support from United Nations’ agencies or NGOs like those in the northeast. They are left to fend for themselves, squatting in abandoned buildings and depending on local benefactors for their meager meals.
In a half-constructed house in the Katsina state capital, over 50 IDPs from a nearby district have been trying to eke out an existence for three years. Amina, a middle-aged mother and former small business owner, nurses an infant on her lap while explaining the hardships she faces as an IDP. Most of all, she suffers anxiety knowing she may be evicted from this plot at any moment. She then begins to describe the attack that forced her to flee three years ago.
The bandits came to her village at night, shooting wildly and taunting any vigilantes to come out and fight. They grabbed livestock, grains and women, to whom they would proceed to do unspeakable things.
“The confusion was too much,” recounts Amina. One woman tried to pick up her son as she fled but mistakenly grabbed a small goat. “She carried the goat out of the village, thinking it was her son.”
My mind goes to a prayer session I attended in August at a Baptist school in Kaduna where bandits had kidnapped over 120 students.
With his booming voice, a congregation leader sought to reassure the distraught parents by reminding them how God tested Abraham’s faith by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac, only to grant Abraham a ram at the last moment to slaughter in place of his child. In a cruel inversion of the Old Testament, Amina’s neighbor lost a son to unwittingly save a piece of meat.
And then it occurs to me that in a small village in rural Zamfara, the ram that Auta gifted me remains tethered to someone’s doorstep.
Or maybe it was killed in an airstrike.
James Barnett is a Fulbright researcher in Nigeria affiliated with the University of Lagos and the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja. He is also a nonresident fellow with the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.