When dozens of gunmen raided Abubakar Aliyu’s village in central Nigeria two weeks ago, they stormed in on motorbikes, each carrying one or two attackers who opened fire and chased down residents.
By the time security forces arrived, more than 100 villagers were dead and scores of homes destroyed after gunmen targeted four villages simultaneously, residents and local officials said.
Aliyu escaped the Sunday morning attack with workers on his construction site, but not before he and others were shot and one colleague killed.
“I tried to run away when I felt the bullet hit my eye,” Aliyu told AFP in a Jos city hospital where he was recovering with a bandage over his face.
“Three of us are alive, only one died among us, then they killed others in the town.”
The April 10 attack on Kanam district in Plateau state was the deadliest of raids this year blamed on heavily armed criminal gangs known locally as bandits who have long terrorised parts of Nigeria.
But the raid also illustrates the complexity Nigeria faces to stop growing banditry that is devastating communities across northwest and north central states.
With roots in clashes between Fulani herders and Hausa farmers over land and resources, violence in the northwest has spiralled into much wider conflict.
Daily headlines spotlight killings, mass abductions and raids by bandits, but some data shows fatalities rival Nigeria’s long jihadist insurgency in the northeast.
Just in March and April, gangs bombed and attacked a train travelling from the capital Abuja, kidnapping dozens, attacked a security patrol killing 19, slaughtered dozens of local vigilantes, and stormed a set of villages killing another three dozen.
Nigeria’s military has announced offensives, including air strikes against bandit hideouts in vast forests across the northwest, but the criminal gangs are proving an elusive enemy.
Plateau state, sitting between Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, struggled with intercommunal clashes in the past. But attacks by bandit gangs were rare.
“Those responsible, from the information and intelligence we’ve gathered so far, are criminals,” Major Gen. Ibrahim Ali, the army’s 3rd Division commander in Plateau said of the attacks, blaming gangs shifting from other states.
“They are looking for safe haven, where they can take shelter and run away from our onslaught in the northwest.”
– Northwest conflict? –
After 12 years of fighting, Nigeria’s jihadist conflict centred in northeast Borno state has killed more than 40,000 and displaced 2.2 million more.
But recent statistics show violence in northwest and central states appears more deadly than the insurgency involving Boko Haram and an Islamic State affiliate ISWAP.
According to the research group Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, bandit militias killed more than 2,600 civilians in 2021, an increase of over 250 percent from 2020.
It said the figure far exceeds civilian fatalities resulting from the Boko Haram and ISWAP insurgencies.
A Nigerian risk analysis group SBM Intelligence said a tally of media reported deaths shows 782 people killed in the northwest region compared with 441 in the northeast over the first three months of this year.
But the impact goes far beyond death tolls.
Last year, bandit gangs targeted schools for mass abductions and ransom. More than 1,400 students were abducted, though most were later released. UNICEF estimates one million young Nigerians were likely out of school this year.
The UN’s migration agency IOM figures show northwest and central Nigeria had 728,000 displaced people in 2020. That number rose to 980,000 last year.
Nearly 4,000 people were displaced by the attacks in Kanam district, mostly women and children, with many fleeing to the urban centre of Dengi and nearby camps.
“The attack was never expected,” local government chairman Dayabu Ibrahim Garga told AFP. “To come to our door-step, to experience this is really traumatising.”
– Jihadist cooperation –
Murtala Ahmad Rufai, a historian at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, who has researched banditry, said most of the land rights and justice grievances at the root of the violence were no longer at play.
“The conflict has taken a different dimension,” he said.
Several northwestern states have negotiated amnesty deals with bandit leaders, but most quickly fell apart.
The federal government recently characterised bandit gangs as terrorists to allow the military more flexibility. But the challenge is huge, especially in vast rural areas with little state presence.
Zamfara state government estimates around 30,000 bandits operate across the northwest, posing a massive task for already stretched security forces.
Last year, several northwestern states shut down telecoms in a bid to curtail intelligence gathering and movement by bandit gangs.
But three security sources said military operations were often “piecemeal” and failed to target gangs across the region, allowing bandits to escape.
“When they are attacked in one place, they move to another,” one source said. “They change locations depending on threats from security personnel.”
More complex for some analysts are indications jihadists may be increasing cooperation with bandits, such as in the attack on the Abuja to Kaduna train, where explosives were used on the track.
Government officials in Nigeria have blamed elements of Boko Haram who shifted from the northeast to join gangs.
“Wherever there is such an increase in numbers… the level of atrocities and level of crime, of attacks will dramatically increase,” Rufai said.