Bandits have terrorised north-west Nigerians for about a decade, and attacks are rising. Rape and other sexual violence, abductions and killings are just some of the atrocities citizens face daily. Communities are fleeing to other states, with some crossing into neighbouring Niger as refugees. Violence has followed them, both in terms of attacks and recruitment into bandit groups.
To understand the nature and origin of banditry, the perpetrators involved and the impact on civilians, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research has focused on Niger’s Maradi Region and Nigeria’s north-west and north-central states of Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Kebbi and Niger.
Information gathered by the ISS shows that almost all the bandits are from three ethnic communities – Fulani, Hausa and Tuareg – found in the two countries. Victims, security officials, government officials, and community leaders confirmed to ISS that most were from the Fulani community in Nigeria.
The leadership and membership of bandit groups are dominated by Nigerians, including those who carry out attacks in Niger. Similarly, their hideouts are mainly in Nigeria, notably in forests in or connecting the affected states – Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Kebbi, Niger and Kaduna.
Conflict-related sexual violence, especially against women and girls, is rife – but often less reported than killings or abductions. The ISS has documented dozens of cases where abduction victims have been raped by bandits. This occurs either in the bandits’ enclaves or in the communities they attack.
Men explained how bandits forced them to hand over their wives, daughters and other female relatives. Refusal resulted in instant death, and the women were taken regardless. Women described how they and their daughters were subjected to daily rape, including gang rapes, in captivity or in their homes.
Conflict-related sexual violence is rife – but often less reported than killings or abductions
Food insecurity is another major fallout from the conflict, leaving tens of thousands of children acutely malnourished. In all three Nigerian states ISS has visited so far – Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina – people are denied access to their farmlands. During attacks, bandits take whatever food their victims have and steal their livestock. Severe hunger forces people to eat chaff, usually meant for animals.
Besides these horrors, communities face family separation, a lack of trust among themselves, and limited access to healthcare services and education. In Sokoto and Zamfara, suspicion and accusations between the dominant Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups are so serious that people from one group are killed if found in the other’s community or market. This is particularly true in Nigeria’s Sokoto and Zamfara states.
This fear and lack of trust between citizens has developed over the years due to the conflict. Given the targeted nature of some of the abductions, it’s possible that attackers work with informants familiar with the victims or communities.
One victim explained to ISS that he told his abductors he had no money, but after speaking with someone on the phone, they became angry and beat him unconscious. The person on the phone had said the victim was lying and had two cars. A woman described how bandits came into her bedroom, demanding ₦2 million (US$2 600) from her husband – the exact amount he received from his recent cattle sale. The bandits later killed him.
Niger and Nigeria have relied on military operations to tackle the violence. Niger, however, complements its military operations with peacebuilding efforts through the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace, which has offices in all insecure regions. The Maradi office focuses on young people, raising awareness about banditry and how to collaborate with security forces to improve civil-military relations.
By contrast, the Nigerian government’s response to banditry – beyond military operations – lacks coordination between the states and federal government. Even among governors of affected states, there is no common position on how to tackle the problem. Some refuse to negotiate with bandits; some are already in dialogue, while others appear indifferent.
Five months after coming into office, President Bola Tinubu’s government has yet to present a strategy for dealing with banditry. Perhaps this lack of leadership is responsible for the scattergun approach of state governors. Unless Tinubu demonstrates remarkable leadership, his government may go the same way as his predecessor, who struggled to deal with insecurity.
The president appears more focused on the economy, but without security, growth will stall. Solutions to banditry must go beyond addressing the easily referenced pastoralist-farmer problem. Current attacks by bandits in the north-west are not just about access to land but about organised crime and crime-terrorism links.
Moreover, any strategy Nigeria employs against banditry must include collaboration with Niger and beyond, given the cross-border nature of the problem. Niger is central to Nigeria’s security because it straddles seven Nigerian states, and arms trafficked into Nigeria from the Sahel largely pass through Niger.
However, Tinubu faces challenges working with Niger in light of the sanctions against that country since its July 2023 coup. The impact of the sanctions is already manifesting in the fight against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin. A lack of information sharing between Niger and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) has made coordination on the battlefield difficult. And the MNJTF needs alternative and longer routes to get supplies, as it can no longer pass through Niger.
Despite these tensions, decision makers from both countries, especially at the strategic and technical level, must keep lines of communication and coordination open to deal with the equally urgent problem of banditry in the Nigeria-Niger border region.
Written by Malik Samuel, Researcher and Hassane Koné, Senior Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.