It all happened so fast.
A motorised tricycle darted out onto the main road and headed at a neck-breaking speed towards the next junction.
Following it came another three-wheeled auto rickshaw, bursting into the street, chasing the first down, speeding along the road.
Heads turned to see what was happening. The high-pitched scream from the 150cc four-stroke engines of the tricycles, known as Keke Napep, alerted people’s attention.
They hit the roundabout, but instead of heading straight on, the driver of the fleeing Keke instead snapped into the opposing lane of traffic. Now he was driving against the oncoming vehicles, weaving in and out of cars coming head-on, their horns blaring.
The chasing tricycle kept pace, only separated from their quarry by the raised median.
Barrelling toward the next roundabout the chaser tried to get ahead; suddenly the quarry broke left, off the main road and into a narrow alley.
Faked-out for a second time, the pursuer screeched to a halt and a man in a white shirt leaped from the tricycle. He ran into the other lane, dodging cars as he went, to continue the chase on foot.
When he arrived at the junction with the alley, he cried out; his phone had been snatched by the occupants of the tricycle they had been chasing. He begged for help to apprehend the culprits.
But it was futile, they had escaped.
The robbers were part of a notorious criminal gang called the Marlians, who have been terrorising Maiduguri like this for months. The situation is made worse, observers say, by growing pressure laid down by the increase in the cost of fuel.
Grab and dash
This happened in July, but it has become a daily occurrence in the capital of Borno State, North East Nigeria.
The Marlians are known for disguising themselves as drivers of taxis and Keke Napep. They use the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws to sneak up to their victims, snatch a phone or flashy jewellery and then get away. Or they operate under subterfuge, driving around town with a thief planted in the back, picking on the unwary.
In some cases, people have been killed trying to resist.
The dramatic chase happened only a short distance away from Government House in Maiduguri, and was witnessed firsthand by a reporter from HumAngle. It occurred less than 24 hours after the Borno state government urged security forces to clamp down on the gang.
But the Marlians, named by the disillusioned youths for their love of smoking marijuana, are being aided by economic forces. Their stock-in-trade includes extortion and robbery, for which they are getting a name, and the economic crisis means more young men are pushed toward them.
Their campaign of grab-and-dash thefts are aided and abetted by Keke Napep drivers, tempted into criminality with the promise of payoffs from the gang for the use of their vehicles.
It’s all too attractive when the costs associated with their ordinary business are rising and squeezing their living to nothing.
The escalating daily thefts and violence have spurred fears that their actions could grow in ferocity. In Maiduguri memories of the atrocities committed by Boko Haram are still fresh and no one wants to see a gang develop, their power unchecked.
Already the Marlians have stirred uncomfortable memories as members were seen in a trending video where they mobbed and disarmed a policeman, and then beat him to death.
The clip has stirred a public outrage, prompting the government to act, but there are fears they could be dealing with forces beyond their control, and any violence employed against the gang could make things worse.
The tactics employed by the Marlians have left residents in constant fear. Victims recount terrifying encounters with the gang.
One such theft operation employing a Keke Napep involved a young woman who fell victim to the deception.
“After being robbed of her bag and phone, she was callously pushed out of the moving tricycle, sustaining a deep cut wound,” a source, familiar with the details but who did not want to be identified, said.
“Another unsuspecting passenger boarded a tricycle, unaware that the driver and other passengers were all members of the Marlian gang. By the time he reached his destination, his phone had vanished, stolen by the very individuals he had unknowingly placed his trust in,” another source said.
HumAngle learned that the Marlians’ operational strategy involves recruiting commercial tricyclists to aid their criminal activities. They are particularly vulnerable to the gang’s offer, as they are currently shouldering the cost of the fuel increase.
This unholy alliance between the Marlians and the tricycle drivers has further amplified the gang’s reach and effectiveness.
Most tricycle operators do not own their own machines, they pay a daily rent to the owner. Because of the increase in their costs, the payments are becoming unaffordable. Once they can no longer pay, the owner will take the Keke back.
“These tricycle operators, enticed by the promise of substantial daily payments amounting to N30,000, assist the gang in carrying out their robberies and facilitate their swift escape with stolen items,” said a top police officer who would only speak to HumAngle if we agreed not to use his name.
It’s an unfortunate reality, tricycle union leaders concede.
Abba Terrab, the Secretary of the Commercial Tricycle Taxi Riders in Borno state, discussed the issue of criminal activities occurring in the town and the steps being taken to address the situation. In an interview with HumAngle, Terrab highlighted the concerns surrounding individuals who were using their association’s name to carry out illegal acts.
“I cannot confirm to you with certainty if any of our members are conniving with the so-called Marlians to rob people, but one cannot rule out the possibility that some of them may be pushed by the current economic hardship in town to commit such crimes,” he said.
The actions of a few individuals are “unfairly tarnishing” the reputation of other law-abiding members of their association, he said. Terrab expressed the commitment of the association to cooperate with law enforcement agencies and provide any necessary support to help curb the problem.
He said the union intends to collaborate with relevant security agencies to track down errant members or those masquerading as their members to commit crimes.
The economic situation in Maiduguri has played a significant role in driving young people into the clutches of criminal gangs like the Marlians, Ahmed Shehu, a leader of the Civil Society Organisations in Borno State said.
“Borno state has grappled with insurgency problems for over a decade. This extended period of conflict has resulted in widespread loss of livelihoods, leaving many people impoverished,” he said.
“The situation has been further compounded by the recent surge in fuel prices,” Shehu explained. “The economic hardships have forced many, especially the youth, to resort to criminal activities as a desperate measure to survive.”
Local social systems, like kinship groups and family ties, are not strong enough to stop people falling into the under-world, and the government needs to do more, Shehu said.
“In communities emerging from conflict and facing economic hardships, you must expect situations like this. We should have had shock-absorber mechanisms in place to prevent such outcomes,” he added.
“The youth, who are often the breadwinners of their families, are particularly affected. They have lost their means of livelihood due to the Boko Haram conflict, and there are no opportunities for them to rebuild their lives. They have people waiting for them to bring food to the table, and yet the recent fuel crisis has come to widen the stress they have to go through to make ends meet. So, they are forced to go to any length to ensure their families’ survival,” Shehu said.
The civil society leader stressed the need for a concerted, community-wide effort to break this vicious cycle.
“In addition, it is crucial for the government to support an effective system. Many individuals who have been affected by Boko Haram, including those who have disengaged from the group, require employment opportunities. However, the government’s decision to eliminate the fuel subsidy, which was the only policy that provided some relief and made life more manageable, has had a detrimental impact,” he added.
“We need to provide soft loans to these guys, give them guidance, set up a mechanism to contain them in a service-specific tool, empower them overall,” he stressed.
Shehu said to effectively tackle this issue, it is crucial to address the underlying economic challenges while also implementing robust law enforcement measures.
Investigations into the Marlians’ operations have revealed certain hotspots where their activities are concentrated.
Most gang members reside in densely populated neighbourhoods such as Gwange and Ngomari-Costain. Additionally, they maintain a network of agents operating within the Jagwal mobile phone markets, where stolen phones are swiftly and discreetly disposed of at significantly reduced prices.
“Gwange is one of the largest political wards in Nigeria, and it is one with the largest collections of criminals in Borno state today; in fact, there are areas within Gwange that if you enter, there is a 100 per cent guarantee that you can’t come out with your phone,” said Atiku Galadima, a media practitioner who lives in Maiduguri.
The dire situation has compelled some citizens to take matters into their own hands. Frustrated by the lack of swift justice and the seemingly lenient treatment of arrested Marlians, residents have resorted to vigilantism.
On multiple occasions, caught Marlians have been beaten to a pulp by enraged citizens before being handed over to the police. This has sparked intense debate and raised serious questions about the efficacy of the police force in handling these cases.
Arrested Marlians are often seen back on the streets just a short time later, free to continue their criminal activities and potentially plot new operations.
Such a disheartening reality has further heightened the public’s fear and mistrust. The apparent loophole in the justice system has left many unprotected and uncertain about their safety.
This month a viral clip went around showing a group of young men identified as belonging to the Marlians, apparently beating a policeman to death.
The perpetrators are young, some in their very early teens. They clamour round the desperate man, who tries several times to get up and escape, before he collapses in a heap.
The brazen killing became so high profile, it spurred the government into action.
In response the state government called a special meeting. The state governor Babagana Zulum expressed deep concern over the emerging security threat and outlined the government’s commitment to restoring peace and ensuring the safety of all residents.
“I have summoned this emergency security council meeting to address the emerging security threat that is bedevilling the Maiduguri metropolis and parts of Jere Local government, coming up with additional implementable strategies to guarantee the needed peace and security,” Governor Zulum informed journalists after the meeting.
Reports from various intelligence sources have indicated a surge in youth gangsterism in several parts of the state capital and Jere Local Government, the governor said.
Governor Zulum expressed his deep concerns about the escalating violence and promised swift and decisive action.
“I want to assure the general public that the Government of Borno State, under my leadership, will not allow such a matter to deteriorate,” Zulum said. “I have received assurances from the security operatives of their commitment to tame such cowardly acts, and our administration is ever committed to dealing with such matters within the shortest possible time.”
But the government could be swimming against the tide of increasing hardship suddenly caused by the increase in the cost of fuel.
Citizens are also apprehensive about the potential for increased violence as the crackdown intensifies. “We are hoping for the best, but we are also preparing for the worst,” said a local store owner who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “These are desperate people, and they might respond to the crackdown with more violence.”
Mohammed Kawule, a civil society leader based in Maiduguri, said that while the government’s crackdown is necessary, it is essential to recognize the flaws in the current approach.
He warned that if caution is not exercised, the situation could potentially give rise to another version of Boko Haram, the terrorists evolved out of a cult-like group in the city in the early 2000’s.
Kawule stressed the importance of offering viable alternatives to the young individuals involved and addressing the underlying conditions that compelled their association with such a gang.
“Failure to do so,” he said, “would be repeating past mistakes that resulted in the Boko Haram crisis.”
Support Our Journalism
There are millions of ordinary people affected by conflict in Africa whose stories are missing in the mainstream media. HumAngle is determined to tell those challenging and under-reported stories, hoping that the people impacted by these conflicts will find the safety and security they deserve.
To ensure that we continue to provide public service coverage, we have a small favour to ask you. We want you to be part of our journalistic endeavour by contributing a token to us.
Your donation will further promote a robust, free, and independent media.Donate Here