Abubakar Sanusi, 22, still trembles. He is still at a loss for words, a month after he was abducted in his village in Sokoto, Northwest Nigeria, by a group of terrorists, known locally as ‘bandits.’ Anytime he recounts the long thirteen days he spent with the group in captivity, he shudders as beads of sweat settle on his forehead.
The time was 11:30 p.m. on the last Friday of August. Goronyo was in its usual quietness until the moment the terror group attacked the village. They came riding motorcycles, shooting sporadically into the air. Sanusi, in his room with three other friends, heard a bang on the door. He was unmoved and furious.
His anger, however, thawed the moment one of his friends, Faruk Jibo, 25, dashed back into the room gasping for words to relay the horror he saw when he peeked through the window.
“We all heard that someone was at the door and Faruk went to check through the window only to find out that someone dressed as an armed robber, holding a torchlight was outside. He then rushed back and locked the door,” Sanusi recalled while speaking with HumAngle, adding that their heavy grunts alerted the terror group who forced their way into the room.
“Lie down and face the ground,” one of the men ordered the startled friends. His face wore a menacing scowl. “If anyone tried to stand or make any move to escape, he would be shot dead,” he declared and went to invade the next room, Sanusi narrated.
Kidnapping for ransom has been on the rise in Nigeria’s Northwest lately. Early in the year, a total of 2,944 victims were abducted across the country. Sanusi was kidnapped alongside his aged father, three friends, and a neighbour.
Theatre of fear, blood, and death
That night marked the beginning of Sanusi’s horrific ordeal at the hands of the terrorists. When they began the journey, he said members of the terror group covered their faces with rags so they could not recognise them and walked them into the forest where they passed the night.
“We walked for about four hours before we got to a hill where they stopped us. They tied our hands and legs and covered our faces before asking us to sleep. Later, I heard their boss saying to one of them to bring him water to gargle his mouth; then we realized it was daybreak. They untied our hands and legs.”
But it wasn’t their final stop. They moved for another long hour and stopped at a shade to rest. There, they asked his father, Abubakar Danjuma, the amount he could afford to secure their release. “₦1 million naira ($2,430 USD),” he replied.
This infuriated their abductors who claimed the old man was lying because their ‘informant’ had told them the 65-year-old man just purchased a car worth ₦7 million naira ($17,000). They said: “He has houses in places like Abuja, Sokoto, and Minna and that they can get huge amounts of money from him,” Sanusi recalled, his voice breaking intermittently. He said their abductors became impatient and started torturing them. His father and Nafiu Seidu, their neighbour, eventually agreed to pay a ransom fee of ₦50 million naira ($121,533), altogether.
“They told our neighbour they were aware that he was in charge of salary disbursement to security operatives in both Sokoto and Zamfara. So for that reason, he is to pay the sum of ₦40 million ($97,226) for ransom while my father would pay the sum of ₦10 million naira ($24,300).”
The terrorists asked them to contact their relatives and gave an ultimatum of two days to pay the amount. However, the families were only able to gather ₦2.5 million ($6,076). The group would not bulge. “They said if our people are not ready to have us, they should let them know so that they can kill us and move on.”
This happened on the twelfth night in the bush with the terror group, feeding on two meals per day. They also got them water to drink. When the kidnappers eventually removed the hood on their face, Sanusi discovered they were already in Kalgo, Zamfara state. The family continued haggling with the abductors until the terror group finally settled for ₦3 million ($7,293). They, however, killed his friend, Faruk Jibo, and one other person, because “the amount was too small” compared to what they had demanded.
Sanusi’s experience is similar to several others’ in villages across the Northwest as armed groups continue the reign of terror in the region unrestrained. Activities of the groups have forced more than 80,000 civilians to flee their communities and find refuge in the Niger Republic. More than 8,000 people have been killed since 2011.
Last month, the governments of the northwestern states of Sokoto, Katsina, Zamfara, and Kaduna, took stringent measures to finally end terrorism and banditry in the region. These include the shutdown of telecom services, ban on weekly markets, among other measures
The region has nevertheless continued to record unprecedented attacks on civilians and military formations. In Sokoto, most villages in the eastern flank have become strongholds of the terror groups.
In September, terrorists killed no fewer than 50 people including security operatives in the state. Worried at the spate of attacks on their villages, hundreds of civilians in the bandit-hit part of the state have signed up to protect their communities, acquiring locally-made guns and other weapons.
Residents go rogue, embrace self-help
Isa Ibrahim* is still paranoid. The last time he passed the night with his two eyes closed was eight months ago. In February, an armed group invaded the home of his close relative, shot him in the leg and abducted three of his daughters. Since then, he has been more vigilant. Ibrahim disclosed that he acquired a locally-made gun to protect himself.
“I’ve spent almost a year now that I cannot properly sleep at night. The gory memory of how my brother was shot in the leg by those bandits who also abducted three of his children, still haunts me. He gave out millions of naira before they were released. At night, I just have to come out, be vigilant of what is happening in the community,” he told HumAngle, stressing that he would rather defend himself than run from his home.
He is not alone.
Labaran Tela has not had any encounters with the terror groups, but for the fear of the unknown. He has also gotten himself a locally-made handgun which he carries all day. Every night, he joins other residents to keep guard in their community.
“There was a week when bandits attacked us consecutively. We realised they were attacking us because we were not standing up to them. This made us start night patrols and it involved all the members of our community.
“Had it been you were here in the night, you’d have heard rounds of bullets being shot into the air. I shoot like four to five rounds every night,” he boasted, flashing his brown teeth.
A handgun goes for as little as ₦3,500 – ₦5,000 ($8.51 – $12.15) while a medium-sized Dane Gun costs ₦7,000 ($17.01) upwards. A long hunting rifle costs nothing less than ₦25,000 ($60.77).
The defence headquarters had cautioned that local blacksmiths who manufacture assorted and sophisticated rifles such as AK-47, revolvers, pistols, improvised explosive devices, pose a significant threat to the country’s security, as extant law prohibits unlawful manufacture of firearms.
But villagers like Sanusi, who have been affected by insecurity, would disagree. They said their communities resorted to self-help because the security operatives have failed to protect them.
“The security situation has never been this bad,” Bashir Ibrahim stated. “We’re now more vulnerable than ever. From Teke to Gidan Bawa and Shinkafi, the security operatives are not enough. Their numbers are insufficient to confront these bandits with their sophisticated weapons and large population. Although the local guns may not be sophisticated enough, it is better than none. At least, we can defend ourselves,” the resident of Sabon Birnin, a community 138 km from Sokoto town, said.
Some government officials have been at the forefront of the call for Nigerians to arm themselves to overcome the rising insecurity. In February, this year, Minister of Defence, Bashir Magashi, told victims to defend themselves against the marauding bandits. Similar calls were made by Taraba State Governor, Darius Ishaku, and his Benue counterpart, Samuel Ortom.
“I don’t know why people are running away from minor, minor, minor things like that,” he said.
“They should stand. Let these people know that even the villagers have the competence and capability to defend themselves,” Magashi, a retired army major, said.
Constitutional and human rights lawyer, Festus Ogun, said individuals bearing arms to protect themselves show that the government lacks the capacity to protect the lives and properties of the citizens.
“It is only natural for people constrained to their fates to look for extraordinary means to protect themselves. It is quite unfortunate that this is the situation we have found ourselves in. Self-defence is a bitter fruit of state failure.
“While I do not encourage citizens to illegally take up arms, the tragedy of today is that for citizens to take up arms in protection of themselves and their families is not merely desirable, it is indeed imperative. And this is because the government constitutionally mandated to protect the people has failed,” he submitted, warning that the proliferation of arms would only make the country less safe than ever.
Implications on gun control
On Sept. 15, President Muhammadu Buhari transmitted two bills to the senate: the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons Bill 2021; and Explosives Bill 2021. The bills seek to control the proliferation of arms and regulate the importation and exportation of explosives in the country.
Earlier, the federal government had also established a national centre for the control of small arms in the country.
Analysts have noted that the activities of local blacksmiths and arms suppliers would limit the government’s efforts to control guns, especially in the porous border state. It is estimated that 70 per cent of over 10 million illegal weapons in circulation in West Africa are in Nigeria.
The Firearms Act allows for the individual ownership of certain guns such as Dane guns – unrifled and muzzle-loading, Flint-lock guns etc. – which the residents use, except it is prohibited by the Inspector General of Police.
A security expert, Timothy Avele, fears that the need to match the lethal arms wielded by the terror groups may tempt locals to acquire more sophisticated weapons to protect themselves.
“As bad as it may be, it’s only natural that people protect themselves against harm, especially when the government and its security agencies fail to do so. The situation is expected to worsen in the coming months because from easily acquiring locally made guns, they will improve to getting sophisticated weapons to match the bandits tormenting them,” he said.
This would be a soft option for the residents as there are 1,497 illegal routes across different Nigerian borders which criminals use for smuggling of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALWs), a recent study by Muritala Rufa’i, a lecturer at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, shows.
A long road to peace
The security analyst projects that this development would result in a breakdown of law. Drawing an analogy from the security situation in Somalia, Mr Avele says the Nigerian government needs to rejig intelligence gathering to salvage the situation.
“The long-term is even scarier, Somalia will be a child’s play. The government would not be able to handle the crisis with a limited number of security operatives. It’s possible for some areas and even some states in the country to become ungovernable if things continue this way entering 2022.
“The security agencies, especially the Intelligence agencies, must do everything possible to block and disrupt the supply of sophisticated weapons in the country. The police through its Intelligence unit should be closer to the people to disrupt local weapons manufacturers.”
However, as long as their lives hang by a thread, Labaran, Isa and others are poised to end the terror “We won’t stop until all this is over,” Labaran vowed.
Isa pointed at his bloodshot eyes and expressed his desire for peace.
“Look at these eyes. I want to sleep with my eyes closed at night. I want to rest. I want to go back to our normal lives.”
*An exchange rate of $1USD = ₦413.50, was used in this story.
*Names with asterisks have been changed to protect subjects’ identity
This report was originally published by Campus Reporter, a project of the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ).
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