Abu Abel* would not have embarked on the journey if he had known danger loomed ahead. It was like a movie scene to him when terrorists, locally called bandits, laid ambush.
“Bullets penetrated my front screen and my hand was hit, but Alhamdulillah I am still alive,” he said, adding that two bullets got stuck in the steering wheel after passing through his fingers.
His attackers are youths in the neighbourhood, many of whom he knew since childhood.
“Those boys are between 15 and 16 years of age, holding rifles and AK-47,” he said.
Everyone ran into the bush, but one of the passengers was hit in the arm and leg before he could escape.
Other passengers were not so lucky. The terrorists killed a few and kidnapped others. But there was no time to mourn anyone: It was survival of the luckiest.
Before now, Abel used to drive past Zurmi, Kaura Namoda, Birnin Magaji, Shinkafin, and Talata Mafara, all in Zamfara State, Northwest Nigeria where terrorists are residents. But not anymore.
“All the policemen in Shinkafin are not even up to 15,” he said, adding that villagers in bandit territory are left to their fate.
A driver who spoke under anonymity said he no longer plies the routes for fear of being attacked.
“I used to ply areas where bandits now inhabited. But now, it is like a suicidal mission. I will only drop passengers halfway in other towns so they can board another bus.”
He, however, stated that their associations (NURTW) across the state are seeking help to improve security.
Lateef, a frustrated commercial driver, said the recurring attacks by bandits has greatly affected their work.
“Last week, up to eight of our members were killed. Today is Tangaza (local market day), but we dare not go there,” he said.
He added that he has never encountered bandits before but what he has heard from victims scares him. Lateef urged the government to find a lasting solution to the menace.
A passenger, AbdulWarith, 23, had an encounter with bandits in July. They had just left Bungudu Local Government Area (LGA) and were on their way to Mafara when they started hearing gunshots and everyone scampered for safety. One passenger was hit.
“On banditry, Buhari is biased”
According to Abel, he said the Buhari-led administration is never ready to tackle the problem of banditry, and alleged that the president is biased.
“We no longer hear of Boko Haram again as bandit issues are now rampant but Buhari is not teaching them in a language they would understand. If he declared them as terrorists, the army would engage them differently. Now, where are all the fighter jets or tucano they claimed to have ordered?”
He also criticised the decision to shut down telecommunication services in the state. He said one of his friends from Mafara told him that their situation is getting worse because whenever bandits operate, they cannot seek reinforcement.
As someone who had once worked in MTN telecommunication service, Abel said the devices used by bandits can be tracked via recharge cards that were sent to them and loaded or through last call(s) made.
“But Nigeria is not ready to do anything concerning this issue,” he said.
Bello Gudde Turji is a top bandit commander terrorising Sokoto, Niger and Zamfara.
“Turji that they declared wanted and dead would even announce to some villages that he will raid on a particular day and do so. Turji visits Sokoto to raid, visits parts of the Niger border to raid and nothing would happen. Then why is the government mute? And again, Yan-Sakai who are local vigilantes that are protecting their own towns, the government always allege they (Yan-Sakai) are taking laws into their own hands.”
According to experts and a security field researcher’s analysis, most attacks by bandits are reprisal in nature. For example, in late September, Yan-Sakai, local vigilantes from Goronyo raided Mamande community in Gwadabawa LGA in Sokoto State, killing 11 Fulanis they accused of banditry or serving as bandits’ informants. This, among other reasons, led to retaliation by Turji who then conducted a revenge strike in Goronyo, killing approximately 60 people.
Dr Murtala Rufa’i, a renowned security field researcher who had also had contact with bandits during his course of research, said they are mostly pastoralists and claimed they “have no forgiving soul.”
“You cheat a pastoralist today, thinking he has forgotten, when he has the opportunity 10 years later, he will certainly fight back. They don’t forgive and they are never ready to forgive.”
But then, what is the fate of innocent people like commercial drivers working for their source of livelihood?
NURTW officials, execs speak
Officials of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) at Central Park, Gusau, Zamfara State were unwilling to give details concerning banditry.
”The government said we shouldn’t say anything to anybody, particularly newsmen, and more so, we have higher officials who can speak on our behalf or you can go to other places,” an official told HumAngle.
A driver who dared to speak but under anonymity, said “So, one of the major steps the government has taken is that passengers that want to travel must come to the park and not stay on the roadside. This is because the park has receipts with names, phone numbers, and other details of passengers’ closest family,” he said.
He said this is necessary because drivers and passengers going from Zamfara to Sokoto, are often attacked by bandits around Shuni or Denge from where they are led into the forest.
To minimise attacks, the state government set up 11 committees, such as luggage, livestock, light and weapon committee, and several others to look into transportation matters within Zamfara.
He urged the government to do more because bandits’ activities have affected the economy.
At the Zamfara NURTW State Secretariat, Alhaji Musbau Abdulazeez, National Liaison Officer from the national headquarters spoke about challenges faced by members of his association.
Abdulazeez said almost 98 percent of the drivers have changed routes because many roads are linked to bandit strongholds.
Abdulazeez wondered how villagers in bandit hotspots survive since many drivers now avoid the areas. Although the government has taken some measures, there is no significant change yet.
“The only thing the government can do is to eradicate them, that is the only solution, so that our drivers will have the rest of mind in following where it is easiest for them,” he said.
Alhaji Suleiman Ibrahim, Zamfara NURTW State Secretary, also reinforced the views of the National Liaison Officer. He said commercial drivers are mainly responsible for the supply of cash crops and movement of people to various destinations, and lamented how banditry has crippled the sector.
He wondered why it is taking the government a long time to curb the menace. He further revealed that prayers alone cannot solve it, and hence all hands must be on deck.
“Everybody has a role to play,” he said, stating that every sector and all tiers of government must cooperate.
Ibrahim further stated that the union had warned and advised their drivers to avoid night journeys.
“We have advised our drivers that once it is dark, they should find somewhere to sleep, and continue the next morning by 6:00am.”
Terrorism continues despite government effort
Despite shutting down telecom services, closing weekly local markets, banning sale of petrol in jerry-cans and other measures by Zamfara and Sokoto state governments, terrorism continues.
In early September, Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara stated that his administration is no longer interested in engaging in dialogue with bandits who are kidnapping civilians after they turned down an olive branch handed to them previously, and that instead, security personnel would flush them out of the state.
But contrary to his assertion, the terrorists still operate. One of the recent attacks was on Kwarin Mai Saje community in Tsafe LGA in retaliation for the residents’ refusal to pay a N3 million levy imposed by terrorists. Goods were plundered, women raped, and six people kidnapped.
In Sokoto, levies paid to terrorists are not new. Honourable Idris Muhammed Gobir, a former chairman of Sabon Birni LGA of Sokoto State, and currently a special assistant to the Minister for Police Affairs, recently revealed how terrorists control and collect tax in over 59 Sokoto communities.
Efforts to get a comment from the Zamfara State Ministry of Works and Transport were not successful.
*Names with asterisks are changed to protect subjects’ identity
This report is supported by Free Press Unlimited through the Campus Reporter Project of Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism.
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