Ideas Untrapped
Ideas Untrapped


Conversation with James Barnett and Dr Muritala Rufai on Banditry in Northwestern Nigeria

If you ask any Nigerian today what the number one problem that they think political leadership should tackle - I am fairly certain security will be the overwhelming answer. In the last week alone there have been two deadly attacks in the Ondo state and Kaduna state with scores of people murdered in their homes and places of worship. Go back a week further, and the number of such murderous attacks would have risen to six. What many Nigerians depressing is that the problem is worsening and spreading to all parts of the country without any sign that it might abate anytime soon. Politicians seeking elective positions in next year's elections are making promises to end the crisis, but given how much it has gotten worse under the current administration despite similar promises leaves very little room for optimism. It is in the light of this that I speak to my guests on the podcast today James Barnett and Dr. Muritala Rufai. Our conversation is about what is now known as banditry in the Northwest of Nigeria. We talked about the origins of banditry, the nuances of the many factors at play, corruption, and the failure of local governance. Dr. Murtala Rufai is a professor of history at Usman Danfodiyo University in Sokoto.



So I'll start right at the end, which is not the most recent attack, but the Kaduna train attack was heavy in people's memory, and mentality, and maybe because of the status of some of the people that were involved.

And in the weeks after there has been suggestions that the banditry issue is sort of evolving into something rather different. Maybe something akin to Boko Haram or ISWAP tactics. And some have even suggested that there are some evidence that both groups are now working together.

So I like to take it from there because in both your paper your article on this, you suggested that this is a problem that has the potential to evolve even more dangerously. So is this part of that evolution? And if so, what can you tell us about the background to that and where it's likely to go next?


...In terms of the kind of the relationship between the bandits and Boko Haram, you know, the term that we talk more generally about jihadist because, really, there're kind of at least three different primary factions of what was once Boko Haram in Nigeria, today. There's ISWAP, there's the original Boko Haram, which we use the acronym JAS, which was led by Abubakar Shekau until May of last year when he was killed.

And then there's also the Ansaru splinter faction of Boko Haram. So when looking at relationships between bandits and jihadists, I think if anything, our study was maybe a bit more skeptical of some of the claims that, you know, by 2021 (by last year) there was already more speculation.

You had more comments from government officials, commentators, journalists saying, you know, the bandits, they are being recruited by Boko Haram, they're working together. I think our study was, in some ways, a bit more skeptical of the degree of, I would say, co-optation.

You know, we kind of pushed back to some extent against this idea that the jihadists were coming in and recruiting all the bandits and that they were kind of transforming the conflict. I think our argument was that the conflict in the Northwest for now is very much still one being driven by the bandits rather than by Boko Haram or the jihadists.

We do note, as you say, I think there's definitely room for closer potential cooperation. I think that from what we're beginning to see of the Kaduna train attack, the evidence so far, the details I've heard so far, there are kind of concerning issues there. But I think that for now, you know, even recognizing that the Kaduna train attack is a notable attack, a very serious one and obviously, the situation is still ongoing in terms of the the situation with the hostages, negotiations. So I think it's good to kind of avoid commenting too much right now as the situation is rather uncertain.

But I think my view is still that one of the impediments that has, kind of, historically prevented the jihadists from getting closer to the bandits is that the bandits, for the most part, they really prized their autonomy. It's very much part of their modus operandi to operate very independently, they will cooperate with, you know, different gangs, will cooperate with each other, but banditry is definitely an activity that in some ways, kind of rewards autonomy.

You know, the groups are not as rigidly structured as a jihadist organizations. It's an area where many people today if they want to get rich, they can take up arms and become a bandit. And so I think, because the bandits kind of value their autonomy, and also just given the fact that they've become, frankly, so powerful in recent years, they are not necessarily in such desperate need to kind of be recruited or trained or equipped or supported by jihadist.

So I think my view is that there are opportunities from the perspective of Jihadist to work with bandits in certain instances, you know, to cooperate on certain operations. But I think, as we've seen with for example, especially the group Ansaru, which has tried in the past several years to recruit bandits to say, 'you should stop acting like bandits, you should join our group. Your fight is not with Muslim people. It's with the Nigerian government.'

They go on this preaching tours and their efforts have really fallen flat. The bandits have not been interested in joining Ansaru. And so there have actually been many clashes. And recently, I think, as recently as a week ago, was the last one. And so, you know, the situation in Northwest is very volatile, many different militants, many different gangs, and sometimes they work together, sometimes they fight together, but I think for the foreseeable future, that the jihadist element to the northwest - this Boko Haram, this's a problem, it's a challenge and makes things more complicated for sure.

But I think that, in my view, the primary challenge in the Northwest is still bandits. It's not Boko Haram.

Dr Rufai;

I should just continue from where he stopped. You see, the fundamental problem is that the bandits are not in any way a monolithic criminal formation. There are quite a number of bandit gangs and also bandit groups operating separately and individually.

Now having the unity of the bandits into a one united organization, for instance, is indeed a very difficult exercise. Because when we talk about a bandit group or a bandit gang, we've seen cases and instances where three, four, five people, for instance, form up a gang.

And they have their own independent and absolute autonomy. They could actually do and undo, they may decide to go on attack, they may decide to carry out abduction, they may decide to do whatever they feel like doing.

So now, putting all these bandits together into a one single platform - it is indeed a very difficult exercise. And there are also quite a number of them that consider this jihadist group including Boko Haram, Ansaru and ISWAP that he pointed out clearly, as their traditional enemies, and on several locations attempts by these groups to bring to the fore the members of the bandits, for instance, became so much challenging to the extent that some of the bandit groups and also bandit leaders were making it very clear to them that our problem as you were arguing is not with the Nigerian state - that is what we fail to understand.

The problem of banditry is basically and fundamentally local. Until probably recently, that the whole conflict is now taking a more national dimension. You go to the rural areas, you interact with the pundits, they will tell you that their problem is local and solution to their problem also remain local.

Local in the sense that they more or less have problem with the an sake - with the vigilante - and other local authorities than even with their state governors. So now, my argument has always been: bringing this bandits, about 120 gangs operating separately and loosely, individually, into a one single platform to probably relate with any of the jihadist groups or any of the criminal group like the case of Boko Haram, ISWAP and Ansaru is actually going to be a very difficult exercise.

But I am also not disputing the fact that there are very few number of these bandits that subscribe to the view of either Ansaru or Boko Haram. For instance, the general believe and also accusation which is actually not confirm about the train attack is actually something executed and conducted under the leadership of Ali Kachalla. Ali Kachalla has been a very good friend of Dogo Gide, who were all initially bandits under the control of Buharin Daji.

Now, there is that possibility of having that continuity in the relationship between Ali Kachalla, who was until probably recently, a bandit, relating with Dogo Gide who is actually his traditional friend while they were under the leadership and control of Buharin Daji.

Of course, going by the pattern of the attack. In terms of the train attack, for instance, we've seen actually certain features and characteristics that differ slightly the case of the bandit. And that is why people have the belief that there must be actually connections with [an]other international terrorist group like ISWAP... some said it's ISWAP. some are even talking about Ansaru, and people also talking about the involvement of Boko Haram.

But we've also seen historically, as far back as 2016 - 2017, when some Boko Haram elements were sent to the northwest to come and actually recruit and create a certain ideology on the bandits. At the end of the day, some of these members of Boko Haram became bandits. Because of what? Because they feel there is comfort, there is joy, there is freedom, and also there is wealth in banditry compared to Boko Haram.

And that has to do with nothing other than the level of independence and autonomy that is within the bandit world.


I would just jump in really quickly. I think he did a very good job of explaining how the bandits prize their autonomy and that issue with the jihadists. He brought up the character Dogo Gide who I think is worth describing very quickly.

He's an interesting figure in terms of understanding, okay, who's a bandit, who's a jihadist, maybe [for] some of the listeners who don't follow these issues as closely. But he's someone that we profiled a bit in our article, our study for the CTC Sentinel, which is a big research report on the bandit-jihadist relations.

And he's someone very interesting because he's a bandit, but he has had very close ties with jihadists for several years. There are disagreements, you know, different sources, different people will place his first contact with jihadists at different points. But he's someone that a couple of years ago, he was mostly saying, 'I don't have any ties with Boko Haram.'

He is denying any relationship with the jihadist. But now in the past year or so he started to act as if he is a jihadist. But even as we did when we were digging through and doing our analysis, what we found is that he is maybe even now pretending to be more of a jihadist than he really is.

Because he will release these videos or he will be communicating with intermediaries, he will be trying to sound like a jihadist, but he doesn't actually even know the proper Arabic phrases. In one instance, he refers to the leader of ISIS to suggest that he is a member of Daesh or ISIS, but he's referring to the dead leader, who's been dead for over a year. And so I think it's one of the challenges of doing this research in the northwest. It's why I think it's good to be very cautious and skeptical and try to kind of scrutinize all the data coming out.

Because on the one hand, sometimes like Dogo Gide a couple of years ago, he would have understated his contacts with jihadists. He would have pretended that he doesn't have any at all. Whereas in fact, we do know that he has.

He has been in contact with various jihadists for some time. But then he could also maybe overstate his level of influence. Because there are instances in which the bandits find it advantageous to maybe assume the appearance of jihadists because they think it will make them seem more powerful, or because they think that it will give them some sort of advantage in negotiations, for example.

That was the case with the Kankara abductions back in December 2020 that was conducted by Awwal Daudawa in Katsina. So it's a very important question, you know, how much are these bandits and jihadists working together? And it's one that I think requires a bit of a skeptical eye.

Because sometimes things are not necessarily as they appear on the surface. And sometimes these bandits… they have [a] complicated kind of calculus that will determine how they interact with jihadists, whether they want to give you the jihadists credit for an operation or something like that. So I think that the Dogo Gide example is a very interesting one.


The sense I'm getting is 'this a bit hard to predict, because the tactics and the motives are constantly changing.' So before I draw you guys into the issue of causality, which is going to be my next question, briefly, given where James stopped, do you think that's part of the reason why the government and security forces have not been able to deal with this issue? Because it's constantly in flux, it's unpredictable? And like he said, there is need for a patient and cautious strategy.

Also, and this is a bit speculative, are there people in government to your knowledge who are also aware, and why is that not reflecting in the security approach?

Dr. Rufai;

Well, you see, what is important about the approach to this particular security threat, in my opinion, is to have a detailed, deeper, and clearer understanding of the issues. And even within the bandit cycle, for instance, we've seen people in the rural areas with AK 47 and AK 49, 24/7, that are not bandits.

You can see a major problem now. When you define a bandit on the basis of weapon, for instance, you've completely missed the issue. Why? Because some of these people bearing these weapons are, basically, and fundamentally, using them for self-defense.

Without these weapons, for instance, the bandits will within a twinkle of an eye, wipe them out. And that becomes a very serious problem and also challenging to the Nigerian security operatives as well. So, now, the government actually, in my opinion, the security operatives are doing their utmost best, but their best is not enough.

It is not enough because there is still a gap. And what is that gap? A knowledge gap of what actually is happening in the field. It is not just about going kinetic. Before you go kinetic, before you take the kinetic approach, for instance, it is far more important to have an underground knowledge of what is obtainable in the rural areas.

For instance, the Gide we are talking about, a long time ago, has established a mutual relationship and understanding with the rural communities. And I'm telling you, the rural communities around Dansadau, around Baba Doka, around Birnin Gwari, around Madada, around Dandala will never or have never seen Dogo Gide as a problem or as a threat.

That, rather, what he is after is the abduction of school children, abduction of expatriates, and his major problem is with the federal government. And as long as he will keep on fighting the State, the local communities have no problem with him, they may even decide to support him.

And at times, getting credible intelligence from the rural areas by the security agencies becomes a very serious problem, because the rurals will rather relate with the bandits than with the Nigerian state. You can see a major problem, a major problem here.

And again, because of this level of intermingling between the bandits, where areas that are dominated by the bandits. And also, with Boko Haram elements, where areas dominated by the Boko Haram elements with the rural communities, it becomes a very difficult exercise for the security agencies to execute operations in those areas.

And the major dilemma they are facing today, I'm talking about the agencies - the security agencies - is the issue of the collateral damage. If at all you are going to address this issue head-on, then definitely the issue of the collateral damage will be 100%. Why, because, you cannot differentiate who is a bandit and who is not? Who is a member of Boko Haram, and who is not? Who is a passive and active collaborator of these people? And these are some of the issues that actually compounded the issue more.

So we cannot say that the security agencies are not doing anything in the field. But, in my opinion, what they are doing is not enough. What is important is not going to kinetic alone, but let us have a clearer and deeper understanding of the issues.

And for that to be done, a lot of underground research(es) needs to be conducted, and a lot of sensitization and mobilization, and winning the support and confidence of the rurals or the locals must be done without which I think we are likely going to continue this war to a foreseeable future.


You want to weigh in James?


Yeah, I guess I would just add... I think in addition to everything that Dr. Rufai has just said, one other challenge, as Dr Rufai noted in a previous answer to your question that, you know, the issue with banditry in many ways is very local. But it's also become much more of a national issue. And this also, in some ways, complicates the response of the state because the state itself is not monolithic, right.

If you look at, you know, who is involved in trying to address this issue of banditry, very often these issues are occurring at a very local level, within a particular district within a particular emirate within a particular local government area. But also, it's become much more of a national issue.

The security forces, particularly the military, since the launch of the first major military offensive operation [...] - that was now what? six, seven years ago. The military has also been engaged in the northwest in these anti-banditry operations. And so sometimes, there have been issues of a lack of coordination between all the various stakeholders on the side of, you know, the governments, if you will - broadly defined to include district officials, traditional rulers, local stakeholders like that - where sometimes you'll have one community [that] is actually attempting to negotiate something like a peace deal with some of the local bandits or an amnesty with the local bandits at the same time that the military is conducting a military offensive in the area. And so this kind of erodes trust. Or likewise, there will be times where, you know, a certain area is being really badly affected by the bandits, but the military's focusing on another area because their forces are overstretched.

And so I think it's one of the challenges that Nigeria faces so far is looking at, okay, who are the authorities or the stakeholders that are tasked with addressing this issue of banditry? And how can you increase the coordination between the state governments; but also between the state and the federal governments; between the states and the local governments; between the formal authorities and the more informal or traditional authorities which in many regions still have very significant informal influence. So that's also been one of the challenges.

And it's reflected to some extent, as he noted in the very fractured nature of the bandits themselves. We were discussing this yesterday with some colleagues of mine here at Unilag after the presentation, one of whom is from the Niger Delta area, and we're comparing and contrasting. He was saying, why can't they do what they did in the Delta? You know, what is the difference between what's happening in the Delta and what's happening in the Northwest?

And Dr. Rufai put it very well. He said, you know, in the Delta, the militants can speak with one or two or three voices. But this is a big challenge for the bandits. So, anyone can form a gang these days, there are just so many bandits that there's no one person you can talk to, that represents all the bandits and you can negotiate.

Dr. Rufai;

And I think, added to the issue of interagency rivalry that he's talking about, it is actually a major challenge. And when you look at the operations against banditry in the northwest today, it has become a military affair.

And if all is well, if teams are moving the way they should, this is an issue that's supposed to be addressed by the police. But where are the Nigerian police force today when you're talking about banditry? Nobody talks about the police. And not even the police, for instance, we have the Civil Defense.

These are very local problems, local security challenges that actually supposed to be addressed by these people. But as we speak today, it is actually the military that is in charge of addressing some of these issues. And look at it, the role of the military, within the context of provision of internal security, for instance... virtually there are so many operations taking place, virtually in every part of the country.

36 states, including Abuja, for instance, you'll find different military operations. Look at the number of the military within the context of the increasing rate of crime and the violence, insecurity, for instance, the two cannot in any way match. And that becomes a very serious problem. And by extension, the military [personnel] are overstretched and overwhelmed by the level of conflict taking place in the country.

And not only that, this problem of banditry just like I said earlier, is basically a local problem. And it is something that actually requires the activities of special forces. Do we really have the special forces within even the military, for instance, to address this issue?

Because there's not just an affair of [the military]. Of course, nobody is talking about the State Department and the underground role they are supposed to play in this. So virtually, it is the military operating alone.

And this same military [personnel] we're talking about are gradually overwhelmed by the volume, and also the gravity of the problem. They don't even know, in some cases, where to start from. Identifying who is their friend and who is their enemy becomes a problem.

The attack on the train, the Abuja-Kaduna train we are talking about, is not in any way aimed at the victims. Rather, to send a danger signal to the Nigerian state. And they've actually succeeded in doing that. And as we speak, identifying where these people are, becomes a huge problem to virtually all the security agencies. Simply because of what? Because of lack of harmony, lack of coordination, and lack of peaceful working relations amongst all the security agencies.


I don't want to lean too hard on the security angle, at least for now. Because I mean, primarily, you guys are researchers, not policy advisors, at least for the purpose of this conversation. So let's go back for a little bit. Because in your work, you guys stated that the manifestation of this is multi-dimensional.

There’s elements of criminality going on, economic opportunism in inter-ethnic clashes, you know, there's also the issue of climate change and damage to the environment and the strain that puts on resources between farmers and herders and many other interests.

But what ties these all together? Right? How did this become such a national Flashpoint? Because I recall, maybe, 2016 when these attacks started blasting on the pages of newspapers, we don't even know the word bandit. Right? Bandit made it into the national Zeitgeist much later.

It was always herders, Fulani herdsmen, you know. At some point, the presidency was claiming that they're actually foreigners who come to attack locals and carry out criminality and all that. So help me in as many words as you can untangle the causality of this. How did this escalate?


I think Dr. Rufai can give the ... I mean, it's very multi-dimensional. And he's the historian and has been looking at this for a long time. And you know, in our different reports, we've explained this, yes, there's issues of land use, there's [the] issue of ethnicity, all these different factors that go into it.

I think the one that I always stress, and these coming from my background, I worked in Washington, DC for several years, I'm still in contact with people there. Like, when people talk about farmer-herder conflict in Africa, and very often in DC, the first thing is that people have a very reductionist view of it.

That's in many ways, kind of, very apolitical in some ways. They think farmers and herders used to get along, and then climate change meant there were fewer and there's fewer land, fewer resources and so now they're fighting each other.

And climate change is definitely real, it's definitely a problem. It's absolutely aggravating the situation there. But I think that leaning too hard on the climate change angle, and you see sometimes governments doing this, not just Nigeria, but other governments: they'll say, ah, you know, the problem here is climate change - it's a way to escape responsibility, right? Because you throw up your hands and say, we didn't do this.


It's not my fault.


It's not my fault. I think that one of the central issues that is seen in every aspect of how this conflict escalated from people becoming angry, to the weapons flowing into the region, to people not trusting their neighbors, to not trusting the authorities… one of the central issues is corruption.

And this is an issue everywhere in Nigeria, right? It's not just in the northwest. But the specific ways it played out in the northwest, I think had a very pivotal role to play.

From people not feeling that they could trust the criminal justice system or the authorities to handle disputes or legal matters related to land use, farmer-herder issues. Herdsmen felt that they were really being extorted because they were seen as kind of an easy target by authorities… whether it's the police, village heads, judges in the courts, they were seen as people that can easily be extorted.

And then just everything from the fact that I mean, the IGP announced the other day that something like 85,000 AK 47s that belong to the police are unaccounted for.




Right. And you wonder how you go out and, you know, we both interview bandits, we've seen nine-year-olds with AK 47s? How is it that that happens? It's not all coming from the Nigerian military or police stockpiles. But you know, there are many reasons that there are so many weapons in West Africa today.

But corruption is a huge challenge, both in the inability to prevent weapons from flowing into and around the country. And also the fact that very often weapons that are intended for use by the Nigerian state find their way into the hands of criminals.

So I could go on and on that, but I think interviewing people in the Northwest, and you ask them how did this start? Very often they'll talk about corruption.

Dr. Rufai;

I think he has actually said it all. What is far more important is the issue of corruption, the issue of corruption he's talking about. But again, added to that is, the collapse in our family value system actually added to the crisis.

Situations where we have families that could not in any way take care of their children. Within the context of, in some cases, poverty, unemployment, underemployment, all play significant roles in the conflict. And also within the context of the traditional authorities again, it's become a very serious problem.

And the point he pointed out on the issue of corruption. Corruption within the traditional rulers contributed and contributed significantly to the escalation of the conflict. But there are a lot of issues lumped together, more especially this issue of injustice.

All people contacted and also interacted, interviewed on this issue of rural banditry are pointing to the issue of injustice. Injustice in all sense of the word. Injustice from the traditional authorities, injustice from the security agencies, injustice from virtually every angle of the society, and that plays a very important role, and it serves as a unifying factor that contributed to and that unite virtually most of the bandits together.

For instance, you see them also talking about the activities of the vigilante and the an sake. And when you look at the operations of the vigilante and the an sake, it's nothing other than the idea of extrajudicial killings. The level of extrajudicial killings actually taking place in the rural areas is unimaginable even before the issue of rural banditry becomes a problem.

And that is why the Fulani people feel they are not actually taken care of, they are absolutely rejected and detected by the Nigerian states and they feel they are on their own. And the best thing to do is to fight for their freedom. And that idea of freedom fighting, forming a union, or a gang for the Fulani liberation movement, for instance, was the bedrock of the banditry.

So there are a lot of issues put together. And more so, within the context of the Fulani, they feel the presidency, for instance, Mr. President is a Fulani and they feel if at all they need to be taken care of, there is no regime that's supposed to take good care of them other than this particular regime that the head is someone that is their own - one of them.

And that becomes a problem. And you see some of them lamenting and lamenting bitterly about the level of neglect by the State - by both the federal government and also the state government. And when you look at it, [the] absence of state presence plays also a very important role in the rural areas.

Infrastructure-wise, for instance, the presence of security in the rural areas is virtually zero. I am talking about villages, I am talking about rural areas. You go to a village with 3000-4000 people, you cannot in any way see a single presence of the State, and that becomes a huge problem.

So there is this type of high level of disconnection between the rural world and the urban world. And now, it is the rural world fighting in the urban world. Because of what? Because the rural world was neglected, the rural world was not taken care of, the rural world was absolutely spared from [infrastructure-wise] what we see in the urban centers. And that also constitutes a major problem.

Talking about the issue of climate change, talking about the farmer-header issue, in my opinion, are just issues that are of secondary importance to this violent conflict. There has been farmer-herder conflict right from day one, right from the onset.

And not only that, traditionally, conflict resolution mechanisms or dispute resolution mechanisms, for instance, were actually at work, and also addressing the farmer-herder clashes. And then the question is, where are they? Taken away by so many things, taken away by the issue of injustice, by the issue of corruption, and lack of respect for traditional authorities.

And today, some of these traditional authorities, village heads, district heads, and to some extent, emirs, in Zamfara, in Sokoto, and in other places are under the control of these bandits. Simply because no state presence, no security presence, and the only thing they think they will do is to listen to the bandits.

Dance according to the tune of these bandits, and also subscribe to the view of the bandits. Not because they want to do so, but because they were neglected by the federal and the state authorities. And that constitutes a very big problem.

Unless we get some of these things right, unless we fix some of these issues, lacuna, and problems associated with the rural areas, I don't think peace will actually elude some of our urban centers and even at the national level.


It's so important for me to talk about this because in trying to analyze a lot of these issues, some things become a talking point. Right. And even though the government's censorious stance kicks in to quell some of these things, but they do happen. Whether it's on social media, or on internet radios, that's why I'm trying to tease out the issue of causality.

Because some people will tell you, without any iota of doubt, that there is a Fulanisation agenda going on and that is the underlying driver of this. Some will say there is a systematic massacre of Christians going on in that region, that has drawn the attention of the Trump administration on religious persecution and so many other issues. So it's very important for the purpose of the audience, and you know, Nigeria is a diverse multi-ethnic society, it's easy for certain talking points to get away and... I mean, it becomes something else.

So, now, I get you correctly. Even the issue of causality is not just one thing. But I'm saying it, maybe you guys are not, there's a huge level of state failure going on. Right. Now, my question then is, elections: politicians are campaigning again.

As a matter of fact, one thing I learned from this conversation is that nobody is even talking about the issue of restructuring or decentralization of power in the context of this conflict. Right? We are talking about VAT or how to administer Lagos or Port Harcourt or Kaduna. So nobody is even talking about how empowering local governance, local institutions can actually bring peace, you know.

But today, if you ask everybody, insecurity is the number one national issue. You know, all politicians are saying that if you elect me, I'm going to solve this... So then my question is, given the level of state failure that I am saying that I can tease out from this conversation, if you have to sketch some kind of starting point or an attempt at addressing the issue, where would you start from?

Dr. Rufai;

Excuse me, please, I think you've raised very critical issues that require [a] deeper and clearer explanation.


Please go on.

Dr. Rufai;

The first issue is the Fulanisation of maybe Nigeria or northern Nigeria, or whatever. I think if at all, there is an ethnic group that is understudied, and that is still less clear in terms of the nature, the operations, and the relationship, I think it's the Fulani.

There is a high level of internal division, internal rivalry, and internal conflict among the Fulani. They are not in any way a one united ethnic group as we see, in the case of the Hausa, in the case of the Nupe, and, to some extent, in the case of the Yoruba, and the case of the Igbo.

These are people that are so much attached to their traditional and local way of life. Even if you are born and brought up a Fulani, if you don't have respect and value for the Fulani culture, they don't consider you as part of them.

And that is why 90%, let me not exaggerate - 60 or 70%, of the victims of rural violence, rural insecurity, rural banditry are Fulani. And 90% of the victims are not just Fulani, are also Muslims. You get the point. And you interact with some of these bandits, you talk about, okay, this person you killed, this person you rustled [their] cattle, this person you intimidate, this village you actually raided, for instance, it is a Fulani dominated village, they will tell you that that particular person, that particular village, that particular community you're talking about, we don't consider them as members of the Fulani. They are not in any way respected within the Fulani circle.

They have their own code of conduct that serves as their guiding principles, that serve as their Constitution. Whoever strays away from that code of conduct, for instance, they have no value, no respect for him.

And there is also a striking difference between an urban and the rural Fulani. For instance, the town Fulani is different from the village Fulani, the village Fulani is different from the nomadic Fulani, the nomadic Fulani is different from the stationed Fulani.

All these nuances are not really clear. Now, if you decide to create a whole northern Nigeria to be under the control of the Fulani, I am sure there will be a lot of crisis and a lot of conflict, internal dynamics and internal differences will not even allow that to happen.

Now, in spite of all this, if you have the knowledge and understanding of this, you go by the code of conduct, if you also don't speak the Fulfulde language, they have no respect and no value for you. These are things that people don't understand.

Talking about now, a Fulani agenda, trying to create... No. And when it comes to the issue of suppression, exploitation, high level of injustice, I think the level of injustice committed against the Fulani in Nigeria could not be compared with injustice committed against any other ethnic group in Nigeria.

These are people that I don't want to use the word docile, but are people that don't voice out. They are people that actually have this idea of not forgiving, and also not forgetting. You commit a crime, you cheat a Fulani man, for instance, today, if he sees you after 10-20 years, he will remember. And he will also wait for a chance and a better opportunity to retaliate.

So now, we are simply paying the price of social injustice, exploitation, extortion that we've committed against these people over time, and it has manifested. And that is why when they decided to form up a union in 2011, you find a large number of Fulani people with long historical and deep-rooted grievances populating the gang. Virtually the first generation of the bandits, for instance, have that feeling.

And you see if I am given the opportunity today….



Dr. Rufai;

To address the problem of rural banditry as the president of this country... I think the easiest way to address the issue is local government autonomy, no more, no less. If you give local government autonomy today, you have no problem with the rural areas.

Rural communities will actually hold their local government Chairmen accountable, their are counselors accountable. And when there was local government autonomy in the past, for instance, we've seen the level of infrastructural development taking place in the rural areas.

Because every area, every ward, every community has a representative in the local governance. And for instance, you cannot be relating with the local authorities, with the local government chairman without complaining and we've seen the level of projects executed by these local government chairmen in the rural areas. And some of these projects we're talking about are still there in the rural areas.

But the major bottleneck is governance will certainly not allow that to happen unless and until they are overpowered, or else they will not allow local government autonomy. They will not because they are the ones controlling the resources.

All local government resources go to the state governments. And when you go to the local government areas to the rural areas, you find virtually nothing. So now, if you have this idea of local governance, they are given their autonomy, they get their subvention directly from [the] Federal [Governement], monthly, for instance, you don't even need to hold these local government Chairmen accountable over what is happening in rural areas, the local communities will be the one putting pressure on them to work.

And you set in also the idea of high level of competition among the local government chairmen, everyone will be competing. And whenever and wherever there is a rural or a local violence, rural conflict coming up, you hold the local government chairman accountable. So I think, in my opinion, the answer to some of these problems revolves around local government.


I think, and I would agree with everything you said there, and I think, unfortunately, not to be too pessimistic but that's one reason I don't see this situation dramatically improving anytime soon. Because all of these issues, you know, I'm not an expert in Nigerian governance, but looking at like the security sector, for example, which is a scenario maybe I'm a bit more familiar with.

We got a question when we gave our presentation at the University of Lagos yesterday, and one of the questions I got was about state police, people are always fighting about state police. And as I was talking to the person who asked the question after the presentation; I was like, Look, I don't have a strong opinion one way or the other about state police versus Federal Police. All I can say is that there's not going to be some law that just creates state police tomorrow, like, that's not going to happen.

Because it all ties into larger questions of the federal structure. You can't just have, you know, a reform of the police into the state police level in a vacuum. Everything is about this larger question of the structure of the federal government, which also gets into this question of oil rents, and you know, how the government funds itself.

And so you're not going to be able to pick at these little issues so much and say, Okay, we'll do a bit, we'll restructure the police to the state police, we'll give local government autonomy because all of it ties into this bigger question about the structure of the Nigerian state. And I don't have like a vision for, oh, here's how you should reconstruct Nigeria to improve all these issues.

But it's simply an observation that many of these reforms or these kinds of challenges that people have identified that I think are already very much in the public consciousness about, you know, people are demanding local government autonomy, state police, all that stuff...there's a reason that hasn't happened yet.

And it's because there are significant structural political impediments to that happening. And so I think that if you know, if the problem really is that, okay, it's the structure of the federal police force, that that's one of the major challenges, then that's not something that's going to be solved overnight.


One thing that came to my mind now is the issue of power generation. National Assembly just passed a law that would actually require the ratification of two-thirds of the states... good luck with that happening...that then allows state governments to generate their own power. So we've all been locked into this dysfunctional structure.

So like you, James, I'm not super optimistic. But one thing I want to push you guys on... your work is gaining a lot of exposure and I'm sure a lot more international exposure is still ahead. Hopefully, there'll be a book.

So, now, one thing that regularly comes up is....there was a time the President even wrote an op-ed, on the Financial Times asking for international aid, and security, securing weapons, lifting some of the restrictions, and all that. My point is, how should the international community engage on this banditry issue?

Because we just talked about how the security forces sometimes are not the appropriate force level contact for some of these problems. There have been issues of extrajudicial killings even by the security forces, there's the huge issue of excessive force, even in bombings, air raids, you know, collateral damage, and all that.

And the same government that controls the security forces then goes to the international community, whether it's the EU, or China, or the United States for aid and assistance in tackling insecurity. But, given the complexity of this issue, how should the international community engage on this [issue]?


It's really tough. The international community, I think, when we say that what you really mean is like Western governments...




China, depending on what the context is...


Yeah. There's a Western alliance.


Yeah, exactly. The Western alliance. I think these conflicts are so complex, deep-rooted in these kinds of systemic issues in Nigeria. And frankly, we just don't have a great track record, you know, speaking as an Oyinbo man, we don't have a great track record of intervening in complex conflict situations like this.

I think that one thing that I was very wary of... this is something that we kind of touched on a bit at the end of our study on jihadisation is that, you know, for now, the bandits have a much more parochial local agenda than the jihadists.

Dr. Rufai;



This Ansaru, one of the things that was really interesting interviewing with people who had heard Ansaru preach in their villages, in these villages Birnin Gwari, they would say: yeah, Ansaru, they're always complaining about America. They're always saying: your fight is not with Nigeria, your fight is not with this, your fight is with America. They're the great Satan, they're hurting us. And these people they think, 'huh?' you know, that doesn't really resonate with them.

They think 'no, no, my complaint is with the local governments and you know, the fact that I don't have roads and school and stuff,' they're not thinking in terms of this big ideological struggle. And I think it's the same for the bandits, you know.

I was able to interview several bandits who... they see me, a foreigner, a Christian man, they're just oh, they're very interested. They want to learn, oh, what's the, you know... they're even asking what's Bature land, like, you know, are there different tribes of Bature? Very curious, they did not have these strong preconceived notions about the West and whether or not it's a friend or an enemy. It was very remote to them, you know.

And so I think that if you had the kind of Western powers coming in and taking a more visible role in, for example, security assistance or something, then in some ways you'd be giving propaganda to the jihadist right, you know.

And I'm not saying anyone's suggesting this now. But since your question was okay, the Nigerian military is not handling the situation sufficiently, what can the international community do? I do not think that the answer is to kind of take on a more forceful role, right? If you had these, like Reaper drones flying over northwestern Nigeria, these bandits, you know, their fight is a local fight. But all of a sudden, they're getting pursued by US military hardware, they go what's happening? And then that's the moment that Ansaru can say, ah, we told you, you see? Your real enemy is America.

Dr. Rufai;



You weren't bothering anyone but these Americans, they're ideologically hell-bent on killing Muslims. And so that's why you have to join us. So I think this is a very long way... I'm not giving you a satisfactory answer, I'm just saying what I think we shouldn't do.

But I think that it's important to stress that level of caution that whatever approach, the ''international community'' takes, I think it needs to be very careful, very clear to let Nigerians lead on this, to not be taking a too visible role in some ways, especially on the security front.

And I think that's a challenge, right? Because as you know, it's a dilemma in some ways, because the Nigerian security forces have not shown the capacity to handle this. But I think that very often, you know, the medicine can be worse than the disease. And so I think that that's kind of my word of caution. But I'll let Dr. Rufai...


I get you and I'll get to Dr. [Rufai] in a minute, so my question is actually a lot more subtle than that. Of course, everything you say is true. If you have drones flying over the Northwest, this will certainly make it worse but what I'm asking is [that] there is some engagement going on, either it is funding or it is selling military hardware to the Nigerian government, that probably makes this worse? Maybe not directly, from the Western alliance…

But, what I'm saying is, how should the engagement change if it's going to, to be a bit more progressive? Even if it is to fund more local researchers to better understand the problem? Right? I mean, to say the obvious, at least for me, in this particular case, it took an Oyinbo man, like you said, to be aware of his work.


Yeah, it's true. It's one of the challenges.


Which is not supposed to be so. Right? So I'll go back to that point, how exactly should engagement be, even at [the] diplomatic level? Not just force? How do we better make the incentive and issues clear? Dr, you can weigh in?

Dr. Rufai;

You see, in my own opinion, rather than going too much international, looking at the Western world... I think, to address this issue properly and adequately, the Nigerien government [Niger Republic] has a better, clearer, and deeper understanding of Northwest's problem, unfortunately, than even the Nigerian state.

Because when these conflicts actually started, it was more or less a cross-border issue between Nigeria and Niger. And what the Nigerien Government fantastically did during that period, is to profile all the bandits along the border. Both on the Nigerian side, and also on the Nigerian side.

Not just an ordinary profiling, but rather to have the names, the locations, and also the family background of each and every potential bandit. And of course, they succeeded in drawing a map of their locations, and also their relationships.

And when that was also going on, for instance, every local head... I mean, either the village head, or a district head, or an emir in Niger, for instance, in that particular part of the world, they have the names of these people. And these people or these bandits, for instance, were declared wanted. And we've seen, of course, going by my interviews, and also fieldwork in some part of Niger, where whenever a bandit comes in, they alert the authorities. And that was how they succeeded in picking [a] larger number of them that are in Niger.

On the Nigerian side, when the Northwestern governors, for instance, feel there is need for collaboration with their counterparts in Niger. Of course, they had series of meetings with the governors of Northwest - Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, Zamfara, and the rest.

But their unfortunate conclusion is that we are not serious people, these governors are not in any way committed to ending banditry anytime soon. Because there were, of course, some series of joint operations, but at the end of the day, the Nigerien side that were committed, and also ready to end the problem, were rather given out to the bandits.

To the extent that they lost some of their officers and men in the course of fighting banditry. And they felt that is basically coming from the neglect of the Nigerian or the Northwestern authorities. And on that basis, they cease to assist, they cease to discuss issues related to insecurity in the Northwest of Nigeria.

And not only that, if today, the Nigerien government decides to strengthen its border security, the movement of small arms and light weapons into the northwest, into Nigeria, will certainly reduce and reduce drastically. But since they feel we are not serious people, we are not committed to end[ing] the problem, or the security challenges, for instance, they let it go and they loosely operate along the border.

And we've seen cases and instances where people were saying that, okay, there are cases of people moving into the country with arms and ammunition across the border, but Nigerien border officials, for instance, will decide to even close their eyes and feel nothing is happening.

And some of these arms and ammunition as long as they aren't going to be used in Niger, they let it move into the northern part [of Nigeria]. So instead of looking for assistance, financial, funding, selling [buying] of military hardware from the Western world, the problem still remains local.

I said it's local because you cannot differentiate [between] the people who live in Daura, the President's hometown for instance, and the people who live in Kwangalam, which is in Niger Republic. It is a stone's throw. They are the same father... people from the same father and the same mother, they are people of the same family.

And now, there could be other forms of engagement at the local level without necessarily engaging or even involving the state government, not to talk about the federal government. So if you strengthen this old relationship between these border communities, it is enough, for instance, for you to address the issue.

And the unfortunate scenario, the unfortunate happening and now is that you see two-three kilometres... for instance, if you take Illela, you can trek from Illela which is in Nigeria in Sokoto State to Kwani, which is just three-four kilometres to Kwani. And you see absolute peace, absolute security, absolute harmony in Kwani, and a high level of insecurity in Illela.

And what the larger number of the people in Illela do now is when it is 6 'o' clock, they trek down to the other side of the border...

To sleep!

To some extent not even sleep in houses, in villages... they sleep in an open space along the border. Wake up in the following morning and move to Nigeria for their daily business and economic activities. So one begins to wonder what is actually happening?

Not only in Illela, you go to Kwangalam, you find the same thing. You go to the Medujia, you find the same thing. You go to Jibia, you find the same thing. You ask the question, what is actually happening? And today, some of these border communities have more confidence, trust, pride in the Nigerien security than the Nigerian security.

And in an event of [an] attack, they'd rather call the Zandarma, for instance, in Niger to call other security operatives along the border in Niger than to call Nigerian security operatives. So the trust, confidence, is not there at all.

So if now we can strengthen international relations within these border areas, look at issues around ECOWAS protocol, for instance, free movement and all that, strengthen that aspect. I think it is something that will go a long way in addressing some of these challenges.

Rather than seeking for funds, military hardware, support, from the international communities. And no right-thinking nation in the Western world will engage itself or involve itself in the mess that is happening in Nigeria because it is a local problem.

It is a local problem. You get the point. And probably the only thing I think they will do in cases like that is to provide, probably, the necessary advice, the necessary military training, and all that. If not, nobody will just come directly and get themselves into that.

And not only that, the major people, people having a very serious threat on this are basically the Chinese. As we speak, there are a large number of Chinese nationalities that were abducted by these bandits. Though some people say bandit and I argue, I said, no, not bandit, rather, Boko Haram, Ansaru, and the rest of them.

Because they are people that relate directly with the rural communities. And because of that relationship, they are vulnerable to abduction. And unfortunately, if you interact with some of these Chinese nationalities, the information and the news you will get from them is frightening.

It's frightening because we've seen instances and situations where the security guards that are supposed to provide security to these people were the same people collaborating, serving as informants, serving as spy agents to some of these bandits, and also to some of these Boko Haram members.

Meaning they facilitate the abduction of these nationalities. And at the end of the day, they will get their own share of the loots. So, there are lots of ugly stories taking place in the country, at times is even better you don't know than you know because you know you won't even say. Because the situation is completely hopeless.


I think that last point... the penultimate point about strengthening cooperation with Nigeria and Niger. I think that's a great comment, in part because, also, it's not something that the international community, you know, the Western powers needs to do. The mechanisms for that exist, right?




You have ECOWAS, you already have all these bilateral forums and stuff between them. So it's just there needs to be the political will on both sides to actually work together on this. This isn't something that you need to turn to Washington or Brussels or London for. These mechanisms for Regional Cooperation already exist, it's just a question of whether there's the political will to use them to actually channel effort towards addressing these issues.


So I mean, your jobs might be hard, because sometimes the numbers that you deal with, and analyse, are actual human lives. And I know we've been analytical and impersonal so far. These are serious issues with real lives at stake.

People are dying, 1000s, every month now, in Nigeria. So on that sombre note, I think we can close the podcast with this last lighthearted question. What's the one idea - it's a bit of a tradition on the show.... what's the one idea that inspires you, that you would like to see spread? That you'd like to see people everywhere believe, adopt, or just be fascinated by? And it could be anything. So what keeps you guys going...what keeps you guys slogging through this?


Caffeine keeps me going. [laughs]

It can be hard to be optimistic sometimes. But I think seeing... I don't know, maybe it's a bit banal, but seeing the energy that many of my Nigerian colleagues have for actually trying to address this issue, I think that helps me avoid fatalism, maybe.

I think even Dr. Rufai, you know, we're sharing accommodation here in Unilag, he was up several hours later than I was last night and he was up before me. And so I think sometimes if I get fatalistic or tired, I remember that there are a lot of good people (not just Dr. Rufai that, you know, I got the benefit of working with a number of colleagues in Abuja, Kaduna, people up in Gusau) who genuinely believe that there are solutions to this that they need to be pushing for.

For them, the stakes are much higher than they are for me, I have to be honest about that, you know. And so I think that seeing the enthusiasm, the energy, that people bring to this…it acts as a check on my kind of instinct towards pessimism and fatalism.

Yeah, I think that's important.

Dr. Rufai;

I think for me, all I want to see is peace. Harmony. Inter-community relations and inter-community collaboration that actually used to happen in the past. Where we have a free rural world. People operate freely, relate freely, and that love for one another is there.

But the unfortunate story is that today, no trust, no freedom, in fact, nothing works actually in the rural areas. And you interact with the rural communities (more), especially in Zamfara, where I know and where I conducted a larger part of my research. Some of these people will tell you [that] they don't need anything from the state government. All they want at the moment is nothing other than peace.

A peace that will actually give them an opportunity to continue with their social, economic, and political way of life. They have their own definition of comfort. If it actually rains, cat and dog every year, they consider themselves as the most prosperous people.

Because it is from that rain, the grains they produce, [the] different types of crops they harvest, for instance, that they run their daily and yearly life. An ordinary farmer in Zamfara, in Katsina, in some parts of Sokoto is not in any way poor (going by our own definition of poverty, poverty line, and also someone to be poor). Why, because they have their own way, local and the rural way of life... they harvest, they rear their animals, and you see them every year, paying money, millions to go on pilgrimage, Hajj, without intervention from the state, without a penny from anybody.

And of course, from the foodstuff, they sustain their life. And they will tell you, if at all there is anything they need from the state, it is the infrastructure and facilities, particularly the roads. Access roads, where they will access the markets, no more, no less.

They don't need electricity, for instance, they will tell you that 'take away your education,' they don't bother about that as long as they have operational Islamiyya schools, for instance. They will tell you that 'take away even your justice system,' as long as their traditional village heads are strong, alive, and active to [sic] their responsibilities. They believe in them, and they are capable of providing them with absolute justice.

So all this beauty in the rural areas are [sic], today, no more. And what do we see in the rural areas today? A high level, an increasing number of internally displaced persons. People that were millionaires, I mean, millionaires in the actual sense of the war, before banditry, today, are beggars.

Today, lives from hand to mouth. They have become so much degraded, wallowing in absolute and abject poverty as a result of these rural conflicts. And what do we see in the rural areas today, we see a large army of internally displaced persons, as I said, child prostitution, and we've seen marriage and the respected women that lost their beloved ones, their husbands, their relatives, their breadwinners, turning into prostitutes, just for them to survive.

And the unfortunate story is that nobody cares, nobody reports and nobody tends to know that some of these things are happening. You will understand this better if you go to some of these rural areas.

They are poor, not because they are naturally been poor, but because they were denied access to their farmlands by the bandits. And their own definition of life is land. Life begins and ends with land. If they have access to land, I mean farmland, for instance, they have access to a decent living and also to a life that could be compared with any other life in the urban centers.

They don't need your water supply. They don't need your electricity. They don't need anything that one could think of within the context of a comfortable life in the urban center. Their rural setting, they are comfortable with it, because you'll see some of them spending five, six years without coming to the state capital.

You ask them 'you've never been to Gusau,' for instance, which is your State Capital, he will tell you 'what will I do in Gusau? If at all, you see me in Gusau or any of the urban centers, probably I'm going to the airport, flying out to Mecca.'

And look at it, these people will also tell you that the best people you can easily manage, govern and administer with ease are Nigerians and also the rural dwellers. You live a comfortable life, you steal their money, you engage yourself in corruption; they never bother. All they want is peace.

If you give them peace, continue with your life. Because their belief is that in the Hereafter you will account for your deed. And that is where the problem lies. So in my opinion, I want to see life going back to normal, the way it used to be in the past - a prosperous and happy, rural areas.

Thank you very much.


Thank you very much, Dr. RUfai. Thank you, James. It's really fantastic talking to both of you. And hopefully, when next we speak about this, things would have improved, hopefully. Thank you both so much.

Ideas Untrapped
Ideas Untrapped
a podcast about ideas on growth, progress, and prosperity