…A journalist secretly visits gang leader in Katsina forest“ …Says his guest desperately wants ceasefire but set two conditions“ …‘I saw 14-yr-olds carrying AK-47s and under the influence of drug’“ …Explains why he didn’t involve govt, security agents By Bashir Bello, Katsina A journalist, Lawal Saidu, who claimed to have met armed bandits in their hideout in Dunbubun Muazu forest in Katsina after an invitation, tells his story:
Bandits on 133 highways
Can you tell us how your journey and meeting with bandits in their hideout went?
What actually happened is that vigilantes and farmers in Dunbun Muazu, Dankolo in Sabuwa and Dandume local government areas of Katsina State realized that the farming season is around the corner and that, if there is no peace between them and bandits operating in the area, they cannot cultivate their farmlands. So the communities initiated a meeting to enable them to have an understanding with the bandits in such a way that they are allowed to go to their farms while the bandits are allowed to move freely, especially to visit markets to transact their businesses.
So when they held that meeting, the communities felt the need to invite somebody in the media. And you know I am from Funtua and I am known locally there as a journalist. So they got in touch with me so that I can witness the event and report it to the outside world. The bandits sent one of their low ranking members to come and meet me. When he met me, he said I should speak with their leader, Idris Miyaya, on phone. I said, “no, I don’t want that idea because if I am speaking on the phone, I cannot ascertain the identity of the person I am speaking with”. I told the bandits’ leader “I will come and see you face-to-face”. The member who came to see me was shocked and said: “are you not afraid?” I said, “I am not afraid and since you gave me this trust, I will try to contribute my own quota to ensure that peace returns to those areas”. It was a Monday, so I promised to be there on Saturday. The following Friday, I left Katsina for Funtua where my family is based. I passed the night in Funtua. On Saturday, for strategic and security reasons, I refused to go there. When they called me, I said I was on my way from Katsina to Funtua but that I will arrive late. I also told them I will not be able to make it to their hideout that Saturday. And this was strategic because if there was an evil plan, I had dislodged it. So on Sunday, I left for Dandume, and from Dandume, I headed to the hideout around Machika, Maigora. There is one village that had been completely destroyed by the bandits in the area but we agreed to meet at a primary school. When I got to primary school, I didn’t see anyone. So I called their telephone number and they told me that for strategic and security reasons, they were not there but they could see me from afar. After about two to three minutes, they showed up on motorcycles, fully armed with AK-47s. When they came, I said, “why can’t we meet here?” They said I had to go with them to their hideout inside the bush. The bandits’ leader who I earlier spoke with on phone, Alhaji Idris Miyaya, gave me a ride on his bike into the forest. When we got into their hideout, we sat down and, before we started talking, I told them that “I am wearing two caps – a journalist and a volunteer adviser” to them. That “this bloodshed certainly will not last, and you are destroying your economy and relationship with your local communities. So you have to find a way of settling issues”. They told me categorically they were tired of their situation and needed peace. And that it was the reason they initiated peace with Dunbun Muazu, Dankolo and other communities around their hideout. So we continued discussing. “What happened and what do they want?” They said what they wanted was that they have two leaders, Alhaji Lawal Bardu and Alhaji Ibrahim Nakutama. And those two leaders were arrested by security agencies two years ago in Katsina while returning from Hajj. Along the line, they could not trace them. So they said these two leaders are very important to them because they have the influence to tell them to cease fire and they will stop. So they asked for the release of the two leaders. Secondly, they want vigilantes to stop attacking them whenever they come into town. Meanwhile, I was there when the Chairman of the vigilantes of Dandume also came to the hideout in relation to the peace initiative. So, both of us discussed with them. They were fully armed and you could not estimate their numbers but, from what I saw, they were over 1, 000. And almost all of them were carrying AK-47s. They were all youths. You will see a boy of 14 years carrying AK-47. Some of them were under the influence of the drug.
Where did the person they sent met you?
He came and met me in Katsina. And he wanted me to talk to their leader on the phone. But I decided to go to their camp.
So you met with leaders from both sides (bandits and embattles communities)? How many of them?
Yes, the leader of the bandits, the leader of the vigilantes and the leader of another group. Also read:Insecurity: Gbajabiamila visits Zamfara State Sunday, Katsina, Borno, Adamawa, Taraba, Benue to follow
Did they tell you exactly why they were doing this?
Yes, it is clear; two of their leaders were arrested.
I mean before their leaders were arrested.
If you observe it from afar, for long, the Fulani have suffered, especially in the hands of security agencies. Most of the Fulani were cheated. A Fulani man will have about 100 cattle; the moment they find out that he has these cows, some people will initiate a plot that will make him lose the cows. So, the Fulani were pushed to the wall. Also, their cattle routes were taken over by farmers, especially rice farmers. Over time, even those in government were allocating these plots as farmlands. So, anywhere they moved, they would say they have encroached into farmlands. Definitely, there was going to be a crisis. So this is actually what you could see from afar.
When you were going, did you inform security agencies?
No, I did not inform anyone for security reason. You know in Nigeria, you cannot trust anybody. There are situations where security agents will leak information. It is a known fact. If you are going on this kind of mission, you have to be very careful, because you can talk to someone and that person may leak the information and put your life in danger. So, it was kept highly confidential.
Did you know who they sent over to invite you?
No, I didn’t know him. I am not part of them but they knew that I am a journalist from that axis; that is why they sent him to me in Katsina. He also took a risk because he could have been arrested on the way. But because they are tired of this situation, they want peace; that is why they took the risk of sending their member to come and invite me.
Ever since you returned, any effort to…
The effort I made, I have written a story as a journalist to narrate what I saw.
What about the government? Have you reached out to them?
Government listens to the radio, if they have an interest in peace, they should have consulted me but I am very careful, and any move you make may be misinterpreted. That is why I kept to myself.
Are you still in touch with the bandits?
Obviously, I am in touch with them. They still call me. Even the day I left them, when I got to my house, they called to find out how my journey went? The day after, when I was leaving Funtua for Katsina, they called me. And I told them I had left and they still contact me because they are worried about these two leaders in government custody. But it is like my visit to the bandits’ hideout is paying off. Last Sunday, their women, I learnt, went to Dandume market unlike before. In the past, people will attack and kill some of them anytime they came. But they went there, sold their Fura da Nono and went back home safely. So that is an achievement. What is left is for the government to initiate a dialogue with them and their neighbouring communities.
You made us understand why some of the communities also contribute to why the bandits attack them?
Initially, some of these communities were releasing information to security agencies about how to attack them. Some of the communities will also attack them physically and they had this quarrel over farmlands. It’s something that built up over the years. So that is why they are attacking the communities and there is one community that had been destroyed when I visited their hideout. When I asked why the community was attacked, they said the people there were interfering with their activities.
My worry is that you will see a boy of 14 years carrying a gun under the influence of the drug. And what you should ask yourself is, where are they getting these guns? I even told their leader that “I hope when I am going you will give one AK47”. He laughed and said, “if I give you, security agents will hold you on the way”. He said that secondly, it is too expensive as they used to buy each of the guns for N750, 000 but he did not tell me from where they were buying the guns.
If the government makes peace with the bandits, the issue will be how to mop up these guns they are carrying.
The guns may move to another group. Another kind of threat may arise. So they told me that they were worried, that whenever they come to town, people attack them. Now, because of the agreement they reached with the communities, they no longer kidnap, commit armed robbery and rustle cattle. They are confined to one area. They no longer kidnap for ransom or do armed robbery or cattle rustling, so they have some kind of cash crunch now. And that is why the leader said that there is a limit to which they can control the youth under them because they as leaders know how to bypass and get cash. But these youths when they are pressed, they can go back to their old ways. And that is why the government has to come in quickly and use experts to address the situation.
If you say the government should come in, can you be specific?
Let the government quietly facilitate a peace agreement between them and the local communities. It is very important. And let the government have their confidence and let them give up the arms in their possession. Because their major fear is if they give up the arms, other groups and local communities may attack them. And that is why they are still holding on to the arms. Even someone among them said “these guns we are holding is a necessity, we don’t like it because a Fulani man is known with sticks. But if we don’t have these guns, rival groups and local communities may attack us”. So, the government can come in, get their confidence and assure their safety so that they can hand over the arms. Because negotiating peace without surrendering the guns does not make sense. That kind of peace will not last.
But do you see that working?
It will work. You will engage experts.
Let us look at the amnesty programme in place in Katsina.
We all know how the amnesty was done and Governor Masari recently said most of the leaders that were part of the program were killed. If leaders were killed and amnesty died, certainly you should know that there is something wrong with the agreement. You know these leaders; they may use that amnesty to exploit the youths. And you know the youths, the moment they know, they would say “so you people are benefiting and we are not part of it”. They would go after them and that is why they killed most of them.
So, if there is amnesty, it has to be holistic. Because they said they want an agreement whereby the government will go into it with the fear of God because they would also go into it with the fear of God in order to have permanent peace.
But don’t you think if there is an agreement with this set of bandits, another set of bandits would wake up someday and say they want…?
They have a link, use the link. Because I was made to understand they have at least four camps in that southern area of the state (Faskari, Dandume, Kankara and Sabuwa all through to part of Birnin Gwari in Kaduna). During the meeting, I was made to understand that three camps ganged up and killed the leadership of the fourth camp and absorbed members of the group. So, since they have a link, if I am part of the government, what I will ask this group is to bring the other side so that we engage them. There is no harm in stretching the agreement. In that area, there are farmlands where people harvest 10, 000 to 100, 000 bags of maize. So, if there is no farming there, it will create a food security problem. So, no amount of time and resources is too much to restore peace in the area. And even if you go into agreement with these people, in the past, we were looking at them as spirits but now we know who they are, we know their leadership and how they operate, and that is useful to the government. Because if I as an individual could go there and ask questions and they responded, I believe they would open up to the government. Because before I left the camp, I advised them that whenever they were going into discussion with the government, they shouldn’t hesitate to table all their grievances so that the government can look at them. And that is the only way because you don’t use security agencies; if you say you will leave it like this and use naked power to coerce them, definitely, you are endangering the lives of the rural communities and their economic base. Because about 99 to 100% of people living in that area depend largely on farming, and if they cannot go to the farm for fear of bandits, what do you expect during harvest season? Certainly, another security threat will crop up. So, this is the situation. The government can engage experts (in banditry and community relations, negotiations, disarmament) and let them give advice.
Look at what they did in Dunbun Muazu. Formerly you could not see a vehicle travelling from Dandume to Birnin Gwari because bandits will attack and kill them but when I visited the hideout, I saw a lot of vehicles carrying firewood in the bush. Another thing is to ask the imams to make an announcement after prayers that nobody should attack these Fulani people. The government should build on that because there are mischief-makers. It’s not all bandits that have an interest in peace and even among the vigilantes. The vigilante leader, Alhaji Lawal Tsoho, told me that even among his people, there are those who are not happy with peace agreement because some are benefiting from the situation.
So what should be done in that regard?
What should be done is to get the leaders talking. If somebody is protesting against something that will benefit the society, maybe he doesn’t understand the context. Such people should be allowed to express themselves.
Lastly, what is the distance between the camp of the bandits and the town?
It is a deep forest. It will take you like an hour because it is rough terrain, narrow path. There were farmlands. But between the farmlands, you see a narrow path. And even if you have a motorcycle, they will not allow you to ride into their camp. That is why when I was leaving where they picked me, I had to drop my ID card inside the car so that I will not give them any room for suspicion. Because while there, anything could have happened. So you don’t give room for suspicion.
It is a large expanse of the forest with thatched houses. That’s how they live with their cows. Also read:NAF Alpha jet neutralises 20 bandits near Munhaye, Zamfara
What about the food?
They have people who supply food to them because they hardly come to town.
Was there a telephone network in the forest?
Yes, I was there when somebody called me. There was a network. No service failure.
How do they get their bullets?
I understand they buy each bullet for N1, 000. And most of them were carrying about 200 each in their bags.
Did they tell you how they get it?
Our borders are porous. This is a forest from which you can reach as far as Central Africa, East Africa, Libya, North Africa and Mali without coming to the main road.
And you said they are normal humans?
They are normal human beings because we joked, played and laughed together. In fact, when you are in their midst, you will feel comfortable and safe. They talk to you, no harsh words. Because when the leader took me, I couldn’t look at his face but when we were about to start talking, he told me he knew me in Katsina. I was shocked when he told me he knew me as a journalist in Katsina at a time he and some of his colleagues were arrested, paraded and freed.
When I was going, I didn’t tell anybody; not even my wife. It was when I came back that I told her.
Did you see victims in their camp?
No, no. I didn’t see any victim. Maybe they hid them.