By Usman Yusuf
I have been on record writing and speaking up about the deteriorating insecurity particularly banditry in the nation. It is well known that Zamfara State has been the epicenter of banditry in Nigeria with its people bearing the full brunt of the atrocities of these criminals.
The state is near and dear to my heart because Gusau, its capital city, is where I spent my formative secondary school years, it is also the ancestral home of Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Abubakar Gumi. It was therefore without any hesitation that I accepted his invitation to accompany him to the state on his nationwide advocacy tour against banditry. I am glad I did because it was an education one can never get in any classroom or from the comfort of the cities.
I have known Sheikh Dr. Gumi since our medical school days at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria forty five years ago; I also know firsthand, how deeply he cares about this country and how pained he is about the state of insecurity in the nation.
He served in the Nigerian Army after medical school rising to the rank of Captain before pivoting to what he has always said was his true calling; to become an Islamic scholar like his father and grandfather before him. He studied at the famous Al-Azhar University in Cairo before moving to Saudi Arabia where he obtained a PhD. in the science of Islamic Jurisprudence from the University of Mecca.
As a medical doctor, a retired military officer and a cleric, he comes into this struggle for peace with a clear-eyed perspective and a very strong conviction that it is the duty of every Nigerian to do whatever is in his power to bring peace to this country we call home. It is pertinent to state here that Sheikh Gumi’s peace initiative is not at the behest of or sponsored by any government or group.
Curbing insecurity is the responsibility of all Nigerians and not the exclusive preserve of the government or the security agencies. The American civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King once said “Violence is the language of the unheard”. This is one of the reasons why the Sheikh left his comfort zone to venture into Fulani settlements in the forests bearing nothing but a message of peace and willingness to listen. He started by visiting four such settlements located in areas plagued by persistent banditry in Kaduna state.
Fulanis are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Sahel and West Africa, they are widely dispersed across the region, inhabiting twenty three (42.5%) of the fifty four countries in Africa. They were originally a pastoral people, and their lives and organization were dominated by the needs of their herds. Urban Fulanis are mostly practicing Muslims while pastoral Fulanis are frequently lax and sometimes even non practicing.
They wander in nomadic groups, making temporary camps of portable huts. Some of their dairy products are exchanged at local markets for cereal foods. Many sedentary Fulani, who frequently have become sedentary as a result of the depletion of their herds, also own cattle, but they rely principally on cultivation.
Nobody can make any excuses for the crimes of arson, rapes, kidnappings, killings and terror inflicted on innocent Nigerians by criminal elements within the Fulani communities. What we cannot and will not deny is that these criminals we call bandits are mostly Nigerian Fulanis who are our flesh and blood.
While we are not proud of them or the pains and sufferings their criminal activities across the country have caused our people, we cannot, should not and will not disown them. We must instead do all we can to reach out to them in the hope that we touch their hearts to change their ways and give peace a chance.
Getting permission and access to meet with these different groups of bandits took weeks of tireless negotiations by Fulani leaders locally in Zamfara and across the country. We visited five major LGAs in the state; Gusau, Maradun, Shinkafi, Anka and Gummi meeting political, traditional, religious, community, fulani leaders and town folks.
In Maradun, we visited a model Ruga the government is building with a size of 2,218 hectares of land, projected to accommodate 240 fulani families with room for 15 to 20,000 heads of cattle. Amenities to be provided include housing, bore holes, solar power, human and veterinary clinics, schools, mosques, security outposts, watering holes for animals, grazing areas, and places for growing hay. At the end of our visit, we paid a courtesy visit to the Emir of Maradun before heading back to Gusau for the night.
We started the next day by paying a courtesy visit to the Emir of Shinkafi before proceeding to meet the first set of bandits at a place they chose which was unknown to us. We took a detour off the main road and drove deep inland on a bush path to an open field where their leaders were waiting for us under a tree. Several groups of heavily armed bandits in Military uniforms with about ten to twenty in each group with their faces covered with turbans were strategically stationed all around the field. One had this eerie feeling of being in a hostile territory surrounded by unseen gunmen.
Their leader is a notorious bandit called Halilu that is said to have a very wide reach in Zamfara and beyond. We spent about two hours in this camp with the Sheikh allowing their designated spokesperson all the time he needed to talk. At first the leader said no audio or video recordings but as time went on, he allowed himself to be recorded speaking sitting next to the Sheikh.
He spoke at length on their grievances with the state government, local vigilantes and security agencies.
The Sheikh preached against all the crimes they are committing, distributed Islamic books, promised to continue the engagement and convey their grievances to relevant authorities. We then set out to meet the second set of bandits passing through villages and farmlands. At the bank of a wide dried out river, the convoy stopped while contact was made with the bandits. They gave clear instructions that no security agents would be welcome and that their boys would catch up and lead us to the meeting point.
Since only Hilux-type vehicles could navigate the terrain, all other vehicles and our security were left in the village on the bank of the river. I sat in our vehicle sandwiched between the Sheikh and the Chief Imam of Sultan Bello Mosque Kaduna. As we drove, bandits kept popping up from nowhere on motorcycles with AK47 slung across their shoulders to lead the convoy at high speed.
The road was treacherous, crossing gullies, ditches, dried up rivers and cliffs. There were farmers tending to their farms, headers taking care of their cattle and village folks going about their business. The trip ended in a clearing in an abandoned village primary school where the villagers were going about their business.
We arrived at around 5pm and were informed that the bandits had been waiting for us for more than two hours. They must have chosen the venue to display a show of force. It was a sight to behold; they formed a semicircle with battalion size (1000 combatants) heavily armed bandits in Military uniforms.
This “battalion” we later learnt is called “Yan Shabakwai” (Seventeen-year olds) because the average age of combatants is seventeen. But there were children as young as 13, 14 and 15 carrying big guns that they could hardly lift. The assortment of weapons displayed included general purpose machine guns (GPMG), rocket propelled grenades (RPG), AK47 and many others that I could not identify.
The atmosphere was tense and the air was thick with the smell of marijuana which a lot of them were smoking. We performed our afternoon prayers (Zuhr and Asr) surrounded by these armed bandits after which the Sheikh and two other clerics took their seat next to the leader of the bandits Kachalla Turji who covered his face with a blue turban. His commanders stood behind him while the rest of the “troops” completed the semicircle. We were told there were a lot more heavily armed bandits surrounding the location beyond our sites.
I deliberately declined to sit on the “high table” because I wanted to mingle and engage with the bandits, especially the very young ones. At first they were tense, unwelcoming, not responsive and dropped their gaze when I kept staring at them. As the time wore on, they became more relaxed and engaging. As the meeting started with the usual recitation of verses from the Holy Qur’an, I noticed they were dropping and stepping on the marijuana joints they were smoking.
I eavesdropped on the conversation one of the three women we went with was having with one of the 13 year old bandits. When she asked him about his mother, I noticed him drop his head and tell her that he picked up arms after his parents were killed in a bomb raid on their settlement. Some said they didn’t know where their parents were or they hadn’t seen them in years.
We left the meeting point around 9pm for Gusau with their Commander assuring us of safe passage by providing 30 motorcycles with two armed riders on each to escort us to safety. One of our vehicles got stuck in the sand and they all helped to get it out.
Three days after our visit, word reached us that their commander Kachalla Turji had outlawed the sale and use of drugs in his domain. He led a raid on a group of drug dealers that defied his orders resulting in some fatalities. His reason was that one of the things the Sheikh preached against was the use of illicit drugs
We went to Sokoto to meet with the Governor and paid a courtesy visit to His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto. We had now been on the road for seven days but the Sheikh was not done yet. He visited Wurno and Sabon Birni, two towns in the state plagued by persistent attacks by bandits. He met community leaders before meeting with the leaders of the bandits.
Reports reached the Sheikh while in Sokoto that in the town of Zuru in Kebbi state, vigilantes were profiling and killing Fulanis extrajudicially. He immediately called HRH the Emir of Zuru who was his Commanding Officer when he was in the Army at the Nigerian Army School of Infantry (NASI) Jaji. The Emir gave him an appointment to come to Zuru which he did.
The Emir received him and his delegation very well. He assembled all his district heads, Fulani leaders, Community leaders and heads of all security agencies to give him a brief on the situation. The Sheikh left Zuru satisfied that the Emir and all stakeholders have now resolved the problem and are working hard to continue fostering peaceful coexistence among the people.
In all his engagements with these bandits, the Sheikh would preach against the crimes they are committing, telling them we are ashamed of them and that they should give peace a chance. Even though they are not practicing Muslims, they have tremendous respect for Islamic Clerics. I see a ray of hope that with continuing engagement of religious, traditional and well-meaning community leaders, peaceful resolution of this conflict is achievable because there is no military solution to ending banditry in Nigeria.
May God Almighty bring peace to our land, Amin!
– Yusuf is a Professor of Haematology-Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation