A Rural Crime Wave in Nigeria

How the farm banditry crisis is fueling vigilantes hellbent on reprisals against ethnic Fulanis

A Rural Crime Wave in Nigeria
In North Bank in Benue State, Nigeria, farmers prepare to transport produce to market. The farmers were forced to relocate after bandit attacks / Kola Sulaimon / AFP via Getty Images

Imam Salihu sat stiff-backed under a tree in a temporary camp for displaced persons in Anka, in Zamfara state in North West Nigeria, murmuring silent prayers as men in the camp organized a congregational meeting over the raging insecurity in the region. Salihu wiped his face with both hands, but behind the bloodshot eyes was a look of resignation and helpless rage.

Salihu was out with his cattle one Monday in May 2021 when vigilante militias whose members are ethnic Hausa razed his village, a Fulani settlement, to the ground. One of his sons, Sanni, was brutally killed in the attack, as were many others in the village.

“He was all well before I left home in the morning, but I came back to see his corpse and our homes burnt down, and … ” a visibly distraught Salihu recalled to New Lines during an in-person interview. He was unable to complete his sentence as he shivered involuntarily.

The harrowing event is one among rising communal tensions between ethnic Fulanis and Hausas, who for decades have endured a simmering herder-farmer conflict amid worsening climate change challenges and a lack of government oversight. Fulanis are nomadic herders, whereas Hausa are sedentary farmers. Many Fulanis have become embroiled in the country’s banditry crisis, which often results in blood and displacement. The lack of government action has pushed many ethnic Hausas to form vigilante militias like “Yansakai” and carry out extrajudicial killings that target their Fulani brethren. As the cycle of violence escalates, the attacks and counterattacks are fueling Nigeria’s decade-old banditry crisis, which has already killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands more since 2011.

The state has also been wavering on how to address the rise of vigilantism, at times outlawing the Yansakai while at others considering rolling the vigilante militia into security forces and mainstreaming them.

But none of this mattered on that Monday afternoon, when Sanni was on his way to the metropolis to withdraw money and news filtered that Yansakai were in his village. His father believes that Sanni would have thought little of the news. After all, the family was not involved in the banditry crisis that has gripped the country for years and Salihu is convinced that his son, who lived at home, was no bandit. Yet when the Yansakai arrived at the village hellbent on revenge, all it took was a nail-studded club to drain the life out of the 22-year-old.

The Yansakai vigilantes accused Sanni and his community — local Fulani herders — of harboring bandits, which Salihu vehemently denies. “I asked the district head if there is any evidence that my boy was caught doing any bad behavior or any person that can attest to my son’s evil act either by stealing even a single groundnut in and around the local government,” he said. This time he burst into hot tears, his voice punctuated by grief.

He now lives in sorrow, unsure whether surviving the attack was a good thing.

“We have been in Anka for a long period of time; we’ve never been caught doing any evil acts,” the septuagenarian said.

Banditry in North West Nigeria is rooted to an extent in farmer-herder crises that have increased significantly across sub-Saharan Africa due in part to climate change that has worsened the situation. But it is much more. In Nigeria, corruption among traditional rulers and politicians who arbitrarily acquired restricted grazing routes and reserves sparked the flame of the current crisis, which has now morphed into a quagmire threatening the region.

The wedge between the Fulani and Hausa communities started in earnest over a decade ago as a communal conflict but is now spiraling into a full-blown ethnic tension owing largely to the violence committed by the Yansakai militia against herders.

Toward the end of 2011, youths of Fulani background formed an armed squad — “Kungiyar Gayu” (group of youths) — to seek redress from the perceived deep-rooted injustice meted against their pastoral communities. They believed that they had been subjected to all forms of extortion, exploitation and deprivation from different agencies of the state. Added to these is lack of access to education, veterinary services and animal feed, as large-scale encroachment on shrinking grazing areas often leads to clashes between the Fulani herders, who are nomadic, and the Hausa farmers, who are sedentary.

Members of the Kungiyar Gayu formed a base in the forest and from there engaged in banditry in surrounding communities, rustling, robbing and committing other crimes, often justifying their violence as a reaction to the perceived inequities that their community has suffered. In one broadly known radio interview, a notorious bandit kingpin known as Shehu Rekep put it like this: “This country is blessed with oil and other natural resources, but that bounty doesn’t filter down. We have not been educated, we don’t have security, and the government is not doing anything for us. We are being killed, but we are always reported as the killers.”

As banditry continued to rise in the region, it triggered a campaign of ethnic profiling against Fulanis by the authorities as well as communal tensions with ethnic Hausas. Then the vigilantes came — militias like Yansakai — to take matters into their own hands and “protect” their communities. They set out to attack, maim and kill anyone they perceived as a bandit or bandit sympathizer — in other words, anyone who is ethnically Fulani.

A major point of escalation of this violence occurred a decade ago but remains fresh in communal memory. It came on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012, with the extrajudicial killing of Alhaji Ishe, the respected head of one of the oldest Fulani clans in Dansadau Emirate, on accusations that he was harboring bandits. The high-profile murder ignited a brutal campaign of reprisals and mass killings, says security analyst Muritala Rufai.

“The anti-Fulani sentiment is being driven majorly by the Yansakai. They are not just fighting banditry … [but] they don’t differentiate who is a bandit and who is not [from] among the Fulanis,” Rufai said. He cautioned that the authorities’ consideration of mainstreaming the vigilantes into state security forces “will simply keep the conflict alive.”

Rufai is referring to the state’s ongoing plan to integrate members of the militia group into a joint task force to complement the country’s overstretched military, a program seen as problematic by many observers given the militias’ notoriety. “As long as [the Yansakai] are given the power by the state to own locally made guns and keep killing innocent citizens, this conflict will continue to take its toll on us,” said Rufai.

But Sani Muhammad, a commander of the vigilante militia, is unruffled despite the gross human rights abuse leveled against men within the rank-and-file of the group. He said the militia was formed to fill a security gap left empty by the government. “Security agencies are not doing [their job] in Zamfara, and we could not watch while bandits kill us every day, take our properties worth millions of naira and kidnap our relatives. We can no longer wait for soldiers sent from Maiduguri to defend us.”

He justified the killings even if they appear as vigilante reprisals for the attacks carried out by bandits in the region. Most of the bandits are Fulani herdsmen, he insisted. “The [Fulanis] are doing things together with the [bandits]. Every Fulani man, especially those in the forest in Zamfara, including Kebbi, Katsina, should be asked two questions: What business is he still doing in the forest? And also if he is rearing animals, why have the animals not been rustled by the bandits?” he asked, rhetorically. “If he is not a bandit, his cattle should have been carried away, and if all these did not happen to him, it is unconnected with his [Fulani] relationship with them. Most of the Fulani people living in zamfara, 90% of them are bandits,” he said.

Sani took a bite of the kola in his left hand and continued: “What is happening is that you will find out that bandits will get drunk and enter the city, shooting sporadically without considering anything. They may kill more than 30 people at a go, and this is what make us go after Fulanis, both the innocent and the bandits among them,” he said.

A human rights lawyer, Festus Ogun, told New Lines that the activities of the militia group constitute a violation of the rights to human dignity as contained in the country’s constitution. “Being a Fulani is not a crime. The mere fact that some Fulanis engage in criminal activities doesn’t necessarily mean that all Fulanis must pay for the sins of some set of Fulanis,” he said, adding that the main blame for the crisis falls on the government and its lack of action. “When people begin to take laws into their own hands without consequences, it shows that there is no government in the real sense of it,” Ogun said.

Ethnic Fulanis are also targeted by bandits and coerced into offering protection money.

Umar Abdullahi (a pseudonym) is still visibly traumatized as he lightly twirls his white-striped beard before unfurling his frustration. It was market day, Aug. 15 last year, when Abdullahi was arrested by state security operatives on allegations that he was a bandit. He had been transporting his cattle to the Jangebe market to raise money for the bandits who had held him for months.

Abdullah left Kurya in Zamfara frustrated one sweltering weekend for Daki Takwas to seek refuge together with his family, as bandits demanded a protection levy from villagers. But in his newfound home, he said they were still not totally off the hook. “Nowhere is safe for us. If we were not abducted by bandits, we’ll be killed or arrested by either the Yansakai or soldiers for sharing the same blood [Fulani] with the bandits.”

In one such occasion, he and his daughter were abducted by bandits during a raid on Daki Takwas. His family could not raise the money demanded to secure a release. One month passed and then two. Abdullah and his daughter were starting to lose count of the days spent in captivity. Their family managed to collect enough money to pay ransom, but the bandits said it was not enough and refused to release Abdullah and his daughter. Eventually, the bandits released him on the condition that he would raise more money to pay them additional ransom while they kept his daughter captive.

He planned to sell his cattle and secure the release of his daughter and flee his troubled region.

That was when he got arrested, just a few yards from his home at the Jengebe market, on accusations of banditry and stealing cattle. “How would I steal what is mine?” he said.

He was later released, thanks in part to some friends, local men who belong to the Hausa community and who were also able to “grease the palms” of the arresting officer.

Abdullah said he was not able to sell the cattle because it was already late. He went home disappointed. A few days later, his son, Muhammad, who had delivered the ransom money to the bandits, was also arrested.

“It is too much for us,” said Muhammad, 27. “We are like fish. Soldiers accused us of being bandits. Police arrest us. Vigilantes kill us. They said I was a big thief for taking money to secure my father. Everyone was afraid to go there with the money, and I could not look on while my father suffered at the hand of the bandits,” he said.

When contacted for comment, the Zamfara state police commissioner, Ayuba Elkana, instructed New Lines to reach out to the command’s spokesperson. Multiple calls and texts sent to the spokesperson have so far gone unanswered.

Muhammad Magaji, Sokoto state chairman of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, a group that represents the interests of the Fulanis, pointed out that not all bandits are Fulani and, obviously, that not all Fulanis are bandits.

“So, why are they targeting only Fulanis? Innocent lives are being lost. Nowhere is safe anymore, not even our homes, on the street and in markets,” he said.

But the communal tensions have reached a boiling point, with little sympathy for innocent victims.

In the aftermath of one vigilante attack on homes in a village in Illela, Sokoto, in North West Nigeria in September, a local man lauded the raid.

“Everybody knows that Fulani have connections with the current issues of insecurity bedeviling the country,” said Abubakar Abdullahi. “Those in the house were informants for bandits, as we believe they come to the house whenever they finish their operations.”

He said the locals had to demolish the house where one victim, Jimma, who later met with New Lines, was six months pregnant.

“We don’t know the reason behind the attack,” Jimma recalled with a sense of bitterness. “It happened in the dead of the night. We didn’t know our offence or why we were attacked. We only wake up to scamper for our lives.”

She and her newborn daughter now reside in a temporary camp for displaced people located in Birnin Konni, in the neighboring Republic of Niger.

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