Sadiya Hudu had just finished making awara, or soya bean cake, when she heard gunshots outside her home in Bebeni Dakamawa village, located in the state of Katsina in northwest Nigeria. An armed group of masked boys and men had descended upon her community to pillage. The raid was an escalation from earlier bandit attacks that have become ubiquitous in Africa’s most populous country, worsening a humanitarian crisis for civilians fleeing these attacks, among them Hudu, who recalled her ordeal to New Lines.
“I placed the smallest child on my back and the other ones ran along with me. That was how we found a hole and jumped into it. We used dried leaves to cover ourselves,” she said, sitting in an adobe shelter at the transit camp for displaced persons in Mabai, an agrarian community in the same state, located two hours by foot from her former home.
Hudu is among thousands who have fled bandit attacks and considers herself lucky to have found refuge in the relative safety of Mabai. But the humanitarian situation in this makeshift camp is deteriorating while aid remains absent, thanks to the government’s ban on local and international organizations.
People face hunger and dysentery, and they fear more attacks by bandits, who have turned the adjacent forest of Rugu — which covers 130 miles of ground from the Republic of Niger to Katsina and two other Nigerian states — into a hideout. Nigeria’s banditry crisis is also wreaking havoc on the country’s environment as the displaced eke out a meager income by chopping down the forest and selling the wood.
In August 2020, Nigeria’s government banned nongovernmental organizations from accessing the camps of internally displaced persons (IDPs), claiming that it was fully capable of looking after the displaced on its own.
By November, the government shut down seven IDP camps that had been hosting over 27,000 people, announcing it was safe for them to return to their villages and that, in the event of further attacks by bandits, these villagers should stand their ground and defend themselves.
Sani Danlami, the official responsible for the affairs of IDPs in Katsina, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Abdu Labaran, the spokesperson for the governor of Katsina, also did not answer requests for comment.
The governor’s security adviser, Ibrahim Katsina, admitted that security agencies in the state were overwhelmed. But the government stood by its decision to shut down the IDP camps and its call for people to return to their communities and defend themselves.
“Did the government ask them to leave their communities?” Katsina asked rhetorically. “How can you make a wrong decision and say it is the responsibility of the government to do [the right thing] for you? We want the communities to realize that the more you run away from these bandits, the more they pursue you,” he added.
In Mabai, some of the displaced women said that families who had taken the government’s advice and returned home were never heard from again. “They were killed,” one woman said, referring to a family that went back to the village of Bakkai, a two-hour walk from Mabai. She withheld her name for fear of reprisal.
Many blame the Nigerian government for the crisis, given its failure to protect remote parts of the country, where schoolchildren are especially at risk of being kidnapped for ransom.
In Katsina — President Muhammadu Buhari’s home state — armed bandits have kidnapped hundreds of schoolchildren for ransom. In December, 344 students at an all-boys secondary school in Kankara were abducted by Auwal Daudawa, a bandit leader with links to Boko Haram, the terrorist group behind the infamous abduction of 277 Chibok girls in 2014 (100 girls have been released so far). Days after the 344 boys were released, there was another failed attempt to abduct 80 students, mostly girls, in Dandume, a local county in Katsina.
Inadequate funding and corruption are among the factors to blame for the government’s failure. And although state governors are technically responsible for security in their respective jurisdictions, they have little control over security forces. According to Nigeria’s constitution, it is the central government that controls the overall security apparatus, including the police and military.
“On one hand, the local governments do not want to take responsibility for what is happening within their states,” said security analyst Confidence MacHarry, who works with the Lagos-based geopolitical research firm SBM Intelligence. “They feel that the Nigerian military should be enough, [but] the military is finding it hard to be everywhere at the same time. So it gives the criminals more leverage to take territories.”
The Nigerian military, estimated to have about 120,000 active personnel, is already spread thin. It has been engaged in crises in other parts of the country including a response to terrorism-related threats in the northeast; criminal threats and attacks from the Fulani herdsmen in the northern central and southwestern regions; an armed insurgency by the secessionist group Independent People of Biafra and its militant wing, the Eastern Security Network; and armed militant groups in the Niger Delta.
In August 2019, an amnesty deal granted to bandits by the seven governors in northwestern Nigeria resulted in the surrender of weapons and the release of some hostages in exchange for the release of several bandits from government custody. But the deal has had little impact on curtailing the kidnap-ransom cycle and since then, bandit attacks have increased in frequency and violence.
According to statistics gathered by the Civic Media Lab, a nonprofit organization in Lagos, at least 953 people were killed by bandits from January to June this year, and over a thousand more have been kidnapped. Aminu Bello Masari, the governor of Katsina state who had spearheaded the amnesty deal with bandits, has since come up with a new plan: He is now advising citizens to buy weapons in order to defend themselves.
This proposition has not sat well with ordinary villagers, who are well aware they can never match the firepower and violence of the bandits who descend upon them to pillage. MacHarry agrees that such a proposal will create only more problems for civilians and the government alike.
“It [is] suicidal to ask people to arm themselves, especially when you know that their opponents are better armed. And then there is the long-term impact of what those arms will be if people turn against the state,” said MacHarry.
Nigeria is home to two-thirds of the 500 million illegal arms estimated to be in circulation in West Africa, according to the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa.
Meanwhile, the security situation leaves villagers increasingly vulnerable and interferes with children’s access to school, which has been the case for Hudu’s children.
Hudu’s eldest son Zaharadeen, 17, had grown tired of the disruptions to his schooling due to ongoing bandit raids on his hometown before he and his family fled to Mabai. Now he is concerned with helping to support his parents and siblings.
“We are poor, and I have many younger ones to look after,” he said.
He recalled having to flee the bandits repeatedly, for months at a time. “They turned our village into their camp and chased us out deep into the forest. Sometimes we passed the night there, and sometimes it rained,” Zaharadeen said.
According to the education authority, Katsina has nearly 900,000 children who are out of school, making it the second worst in the country in terms of enrollment. Indeed, the nine lowest-ranking states for enrollment are all located in Nigeria’s northern region.
At night in Mabai, while women and children of different families share rooms, men can be seen sleeping outside. Some families find shelter in partially built structures. The hospital is dilapidated and in disrepair; its staff left for lack of drugs, equipment and guarantees of safety against bandits while cases of dysentery and measles in the camp continued to rise. Food donated by politicians who live far away in the state’s capital is never enough. The children in Mabai look malnourished, and their parents can find little more than leaves when they forage.
“We cook the leaves with salt and eat it,” said Hudu.
For teenage girls whose education has been disrupted by the security situation, marriage is becoming the practical, next best thing to do.
In the village of Bakkai, 15-year-old Marwiyyah Ibrahim has aspirations of becoming a nurse. But her schooling ended in April after bandits attacked her community. She recalled the terrible ordeal that disrupted her schooling when the bandits attacked.
“They have killed many students. One of the girls who was killed was my friend; we were in the same class and shared the same seat,” she said. “The next option for me is to get married, because I cannot continue to stay without schooling and at the same time stay single.”
It doesn’t help that Katsina has lost over 10 hectares (25 acres) of tree cover in the past two decades because of overexploitation of the land. Wood used for fuel and building are major causes of deforestation in many parts of Nigeria. As banditry in the northwest region has intensified in the past couple of years, the country’s environment has come under additional strain by displaced villagers who turn to chopping wood to make ends meet.
Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an environment protection think tank, warns that tree cutting causes soil erosion and increases the risk of flooding, which is especially problematic because of growing desertification, a problem that already affects northern Nigeria.
“It is difficult to tell hungry people not to find means of survival,” said HOMEF spokesperson Kome Odhomor. “The problem of the displaced persons should be addressed by the government, by giving them direct financial and social support to cover their needs in this time of emergency, before [the displaced people] can be persuaded to protect the environment,” she added.
Nonetheless, the damage to the environment is not lost on locals who can see that the resources they have long relied on are now diminishing. One such villager lamented the hunger that befell his family after the bandits came.
“I did not have anything to feed my family after they came to my garden and destroyed it. Economic misery and suffering are the only things I was left with,” Hudu Mai Lambu, who was displaced from Bebeni Damakawa, said.
One way of turning wood into income is to convert it into charcoal, which generates, on average, a mere 1,000 Naira ($2.43) per tree, depending on its size.
“Gawai [charcoal making] is not a business, but I have no choice,” said Mai Lambu, who abandoned his farm after bandits attacked and killed one of his sons, an adult who had his own family. He can only wish for his old life back, he added.
“Farming is more peaceful and profitable; you can produce what to eat for the next three years, feed relatives, get married, and sell produce at the market and invest in other businesses like cattle rearing,” he said.
However, as long as choice of livelihoods remains in short supply for the people of Katsina, fulfilling such hopes will prove elusive.
As for Hudu, she is focused on feeding her family and keeping them in good spirits. “We are hopeful God will bring help to us,” she said.