As I approached Kura, about 80 kilometres from Kano city in north-western Nigeria, I thought I had escaped all the horrors of insecurity that have now extended to Zaria-Kaduna from the Abuja-Kaduna Road. And then I received a disturbing call from my mother, an elderly but well-informed woman who is always gluing her ears to her radio set, about the menace of phone-snatching in the state.
“Put your phone in your trousers’ pocket,” she advised, knowing full well that I was always staring at my phone’s screen, scrolling up and down with my fingers, or taking pictures of my surroundings for a photo story. “Okay, ma,” I replied, taking her words with a pinch of salt and thinking she was exaggerating what I already knew and had reported. You know mothers are too caring and, sometimes, overprotective, especially if you are the baby of the house.
But I was mistaken.
Cases of phone snatching have never been so prevalent in Kano state as they are now — starting some few months ago. Previously, the snatchers preyed on unlucky victims at night, mostly on commercial tricycles known locally as A daidaita sahu. They held small daggers and pointed them at the victim, threatening to stab them if they did not hand over their phone. Countless people who refused to hand over their belongings were stabbed or killed.
In June, a 40-year-old man, Umar Muhammad Ahmad, was assassinated by teenagers suspected to be phone snatchers. According to eyewitnesses, the incident occurred beneath a bridge under construction near the popular Kantin Kwari textile market in the state capital. One eyewitness said he saw the man struggling to free himself from a group of thugs who were attempting to steal his phone, but he couldn’t escape.
Many people have been stabbed to death, while others have been severely injured. Atiku Shuaibu Ringim, a physiotherapist at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, was, for example, stabbed to death in Gwale Local Government Area (LGA) in Sept. 2020 by hoodlums attempting to steal his phone.
Many also say they have lost important documents and contacts because of the robberies.
Phone snatching has become a state-wide epidemic. Nobody escapes. Even the current commander of vigilante groups working to restore sanity in Kano admitted to BBC Hausa that he was a victim as well. His phone had been stolen by the same people he was fighting. Kwamanda Abdussalam Kamfa, however, vowed to continue and step up the fight.
When I was in a traffic jam around Kofar Dan-agundi, one of the notorious spots known for phone snatching, a few months ago, I witnessed robbers unsuccessfully attempting to seize someone’s phone while he was riding in a tricycle. A teenager with a scarred face approached the tricycle. The man appeared to be aware of his surroundings and held the phone tightly. As the young thug reached for the phone, he yelled, drawing the attention of nearby security officers, and the thug fled with his two accomplices.
Gausullahi Buhari, a tricycle rider, told me that no one is safe in Kano these days. The phone snatchers operate in broad daylight. “When you see two men in one tricycle, don’t trust the operator,” he said. “The phone snatchers have now resorted to disguising themselves as commercial operators.” If they take passengers to an area where there are no people, they threaten them with daggers and seize their phones.”
There has also been an increase in the number of gang snatchers. They move in tens and sometimes more than that to overpower small groups of security guards, usually no more than 10 at a time, who are stationed to resist them. “They ask you to give them your phone or whatever you have that they can see if you wind down your car glasses,” Buhari said. “If you are an unfortunate tricycle operator, they ask you to give even the money you earned that day,” he went on.
Phone snatchers in Kano do not restrict themselves to the roads. They move into nooks and crannies to prey on unsuspecting victims, mostly women and children. In Dorayi Babba, one of the new GRAs given the fancy name “Sabuwar Abuja” (New Abuja), homeowners had to hire local guards to protect the area during the day.
Phone snatchers will even cross the walls of houses if the doors are closed in areas where there are no local guards, such as Dandinshe, a highly congested area in Dala LGA. This made living in the areas extremely difficult. “Sometimes, when you go out, you have to turn on the radio set to indicate you are in the house because without any sound, they will cross and steal your properties while looking for phones,” Mariya, a housewife in Unguwar Dabai, said.
Politicians are being blamed for Kano’s rampant insecurity. According to residents, they let them loose as political thugs during the 2019 election. Several people reported that thugs accompanying politicians were stealing phones and other valuables from passers-by during the 2019 general election campaign. After the election, the then-aspirants abandoned them on the roads, thus turning them into a social hazard.
In 2011, the previous administration of Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso in Kano faced a similar problem, but the situation was not as severe as it is now. The governor then established the Kano Reformatory Institute in Kiru LGA, but it was closed down for an unspecified reason suspected to be related to political squabbles between the former governor and his successor, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje.
The police, who frequently arraign the arrested phone snatchers, have so far been unsuccessful at bringing an end to the crisis. “It’s as if their numbers are multiplying,” Usman Oruma said. The government announced several months ago that it had deployed technology called “City Watch” to monitor everything that happens in the state, especially at congested market areas. However, it appears as if no single phone thief has been traced by the technology.
Knowing it is no longer safe to walk around Kano with your phone or take photos without being aware of your surroundings, I quickly returned to Abuja, fleeing the state to escape an unprepared calamity. You’re not just risking your phone by bringing it out; you’re risking your life.
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