Armed ViolenceNews

Zamfara Communities Restive Over Government Ban on Vigilante Groups

'Yan Sakai' in Zamfara, Northwest Nigeria used to fill the vacuum created by security forces in ungoverned spaces but are forced to stop.

Mallam Abdullahi (not his real name), is a local chief in one of the communities exposed to frequent attacks by bandits in Anka Local Government Area of Zamfara State, Northwest  Nigeria. His community is defenceless: his subjects, their farmsteads and habitations are under frequent attacks by bandits with whom the government claims to have negotiated peace.

HumAngle listened to his frustrations on a visit to some of the communities in the state, last week. “What is happening now is free rein for the bandits. This government has banned Yan Sakai (vigilantes) but they don’t have enough soldiers and security to police our communities, yet they keep saying peace is restored. Every night the bandits attack us. If our people try to take arms to protect themselves the government will say no!”

Zamfara state has had a recent spike in banditry and kidnappings throughout communities. Residents are now speaking out and demanding the restoration of vigilante groups, known in local parlance as Yan Sakai.

Sani Mai Mashi, formerly a local hunter, has joined several other local people across communities in Anka, Gummi Bungudu and Maru that bear the brunt of attacks from the bandits who are speaking against the government’s ban on vigilantism.

The ban on vigilantism was a curious first demand by groups of bandits at the inception of the negotiations with Governor Bello Mattawalle.

Mai Marshi recalls the early mission of the local Yan Sakai stating, “what we knew before now was to get our torchlights, hunting guns and watch over our communities. There was nothing like going out to look for any perceived criminal.”

However, as the crisis took a different turn, some vigilantes became more combative, pushing into the fringes of their various communities, laying ambushes against bandits in defence of their communities and farmsteads.

But with leverage comes some accompanying temptations. Some members of the Yan Sakai, emboldened by the weapons they now wielded, started an operation of elimination by association, by which Fulanis, or those who are considered associates by ethnicity or other affinities to bandits (generally considered Fulani extracts), started a campaign of targeted extra-judicial killings of Fulanis.

Soon enough, the crisis outline took a total colouration of ethnic confrontation. Hausas, who constituted the bulk of farmers and community dwellers and by extension, the vigilantes, were pitted inextricably in a war of attrition against the Fulanis, whose poster image suddenly became one of banditry and kidnapping. Governor Mattawalle, at the inception of his administration, was faced with this challenge.

Lacking the sophistication and group voice of the bandits who were now being wooed by the government, the vigilantes were outmanoeuvred at the negotiating meeting with the leaders of the bandits held in neighbouring Katsina, Katsina State.

Bubbling with newfound energy, Governor Mattawalle who announced the outcome of the negotiations to the press, declared: “All the Governors of this region (Northwest) present here have agreed to ban all activities of vigilantism. We are to go back to our respective states to enforce this ban.”

He continued, “however to you, the Fulani, you must not use this opportunity because we are banning them so they stop victimizing you, don’t victimise the people. You must tell your children in the forest not to kill, kidnap or rustle any person’s animals.”

In a vast area of space not secured by the government, the yan sakai structure is the only recourse open to the people to defend themselves against the ravaging onslaught of bandits. With the ban on vigilantes by the government, whilst the attacks by bandits are not abating, several people in the Zamfara communities are crying out for the return of Yan Sakai.

Sa’idu Maiso, a former member of Yan Sakai, recalls that “before this dialogue with the government, the bandits could not even attack us directly. They only came here once and we pushed them back in 2018.”

According to Maiso, “the bandits will only come around farms and pick people but today our communities are displaced because they can storm at any time. What we did was we had our own security arrangements which will not allow them to penetrate here but today it’s not allowed. The soldiers cannot handle them. The bandits are too many and they move from this place to another place very fast, you can hardly predict their movements.”

Many communities have come under intense attacks in towns like Anka, Gummi Bungudu and Maru with residents displaced. Mal Muazu Bakemawa, a resident of Bakenawa who spoke with our reporter said that “if the Government is going to be honest there’s a need to review this ban, kidnappings are returning in my own community. Of course, the kidnappers don’t kill. when you talk about excesses even the Nigerian Police and the Military have several bad elements among them.”

Sufyanu Gummi, a youth activist in Gummi, where violent activities are escalating, is calling for the lifting of the ban on yan sakai in the state. Idris Muhammad, a researcher on violent conflicts at the Usman Danfodio University, Sokoto, told HumAngle that “the very idea of engaging vigilante is a clear message of government’s failure to secure the people and their properties. Arming or disarming both have serious implications on the country. Even with the local arms they possess it’s unconstitutional.”

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