On 28 March, bandits attacked a Kaduna-bound train in central Nigeria carrying 970 passengers. At least eight people were killed, and 168 were kidnapped and are still missing. This unprecedented act of violence, attributed to the failure of authorities to act on intelligence reports, has heightened concerns about a breakdown of security in the country.
Institute for Security Studies research has shown an increasing nexus between bandits and jihadist groups such as Boko Haram and Ansaru. These violent extremists are key players in the violent crimes and terror activities in north-west and north-central Nigeria.
The train was attacked at night, about 89 km from Abuja station. The assailants used explosives to blow up the rail track before firing at commuters. Within 24 hours, another assault was carried out on the same stretch of tracks using improvised explosive devices, forcing the train travelling from Kaduna to Abuja to stop.
The rail line between the cities was first hit in October 2021, when bandits destroyed a portion of the track with explosives. The recent attacks are much more serious and signal a new trend of targeting state infrastructure. The motive is apparently to cause mass casualties and terror along a major public transport corridor. No one has been arrested in connection with the crimes.
Banditry has existed for decades in Nigeria. It is described by state officials as a composite crime involving armed robbery, murder and kidnappings and has gained a foothold in the country’s north-western states. The government declared that bandits were terrorists in November 2021, making the activities of Yan Bindiga, Yan Ta’adda and other similar groups illegal.
The bandits use two approaches against citizens and public infrastructure. On the one hand, they attack villages and towns, raping women and girls. On the other hand, they operate a kidnapping economy, using the ransoms they receive to fund their operations.
Media reports on kidnapping by bandits seldom mention how much was paid for the release of victims. However a Lagos-based research consulting firm, SB Morgen Intelligence, estimates that between June 2011 and March 2020, Nigerians paid abductors around US$18.34 million in ransoms (N8.98 billion).
According to the report, about 60% of this was paid between January 2016 and March 2020, showing a spike in recent years. In 2021 the International Centre for Investigative Reporting found that at least N1 billion naira was allegedly paid by residents to bandits in north-west and north-central Nigeria.
The 28 March incidents are part of a new trend that has seen the bandits become bolder, with attacks on government infrastructure such as a military base and an airport in Kaduna State. Military bases are usually targeted for their ammunition. The airport strike was the first attempt at aviation terrorism in Nigeria.
Kaduna State has strategic and economic importance. It is Nigeria’s centre of military education and security planning, and the gateway to the north that houses critical infrastructure such as airports and railway stations.
The Abuja-Kaduna railway, inaugurated by President Muhammadu Buhari for commercial services in July 2016, is vital to Kaduna – a major industrial and administrative city in Nigeria’s north. The Abuja-Kaduna train generates at least N300 000 000 for the country every month and has improved the country’s investment potential. It promotes business, travel and cargo transport between the two major cities. Economic development along the railway line and in nearby cities has also been boosted.
The line promised relief to many commuters as a safer alternative to the Abuja-Kaduna highway, which has been a kidnapping hotspot for years. Last month’s attacks could reverse all these gains. They threaten the future of public transport in Nigeria, as well as local economies in Kaduna State and adjoining north-western states.
The Nigeria Railway Corporation may also see a drop in business turnover and increased operation costs. The recent attack has already crippled the commuter train service and threatens plans to resuscitate the Lagos-Kano, Port Harcourt-Maiduguri, and Zaria-Kaura Namoda rail networks.
The Inspector-General of Police, Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of Army Staff, visited the attack site. Soldiers and other security agencies have intensified their search-and-rescue operations to secure the unconditional release of the kidnapped victims. These actions have so far been unsuccessful.
Given the bandits’ changing modus operandi, multi-pronged solutions are needed. Existing security approaches must be reinvigorated, starting with the federal government prioritising targeted visible policing as part of a broader security strategy. This could be carried out by a multi-agency task force comprising the army, police, National Identity Management Commission and Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps.
Nigeria’s security forces are already overstretched, and securing extensive rail networks across vast geographic areas will be difficult. So sound intelligence-based deployments to strategic sites will be vital. Modern security hardware and surveillance technology such as drones and trackers are needed in trains for early detection and prevention.
Kaduna State is replete with critical security institutions, including elite military establishments, police colleges and the Nigerian Defense Industry. These institutions should be mobilised as part of the multi-agency response. At the very least, their location in Kaduna should make these attacks a federal government priority.
To solve rising banditry in the long term, the socio-economic problems that allow violent crime to fester must be tackled. Even if ramped-up security responses turn Nigeria into a police state, violent crime and terrorism will continue until poverty, social inequality and corruption are addressed.
Written by Oluwole Ojewale, ENACT, ISS Dakar; Adewumi Badiora, Head, Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Olabisi Onabanjo University, Nigeria; Freedom Onuoha, Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Nigeria