Bandits and the War of attrition: Matters arising


By Yochuku Ofoka Yobolisa, Editor-in-Chief

Political crimes in Nigeria since 1999 have interbred and multiplied with epidemic speed thus, engendering insurgencies in nearly all corners of the country. Government measures to combat the menace have also intensified and getting nowhere. This failure to stem the armed insurrection is not far removed from the fact that official priorities in the war with the criminal gangs are misplaced. We witnessed early in its nascent years, how the democracy rocked with ethnic violence, hate crimes, banditry, kidnapping and every indices of domestic terrorism; even syndicalism, where workers and interest groups attempted to disrupt government activities just to make a point. Democracy which promotes popular suffrage also allows and sometimes promotes dissenting voices and unwholesome actions as a result of the immeasurable freedoms which permit all and sundry citizens including bare-faced common thugs, petty and brilliant criminals, extra-regimental bands and self-styled revolutionists to have the freedom to act, to live and to speak without being subject to any official restrictions.

Analysts think this has opened some sort of window for opportunists and unscrupulous elements in the country and they are taking full advantage of the democratic provisions to communicate. For example, an Abuja social commentator, Okechukwu Nwobi said, “The free and equal right of all the citizens to participate in the running of the country has also elicited angry agitations from the people.”

The expert stated that even highly-placed individuals in the faith community, in commerce and industry, in the academia, and in politics would jettison their jobs and begin to preach a new system of morality among the hoods, adding that since Gumi’s assertion in the midst of the escalating spate of violent crimes and criminality the peace of the people has been threatened from the beginning of the present democracy. He queried the rightness or otherwise of the sheikh’s advocacy.

The question is how should agitations be handled by the government in a democratic arrangement?

In November 1999, agitations in the Niger-Delta region of the country for resource control and environmental issues tried to arouse public condemnation of the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Near the town of Odi in Bayelsa State, civilians armed themselves and waylaid some security officials, killing about a dozen policemen. Shortly after that, some army personnel were also ambushed in the area. The administration took drastic actions to quell the agitation. A replay of the Odi massacre was carried out in many small towns and villages around Zaki Ibiam, Benue State. Afterwards, the government continued to give chilling demonstrations of its constitutional right to maintain peace, thus bringing rebellions under effective control.

In the words of Nwobi, “That is not exactly how to handle public agitations in a democracy. But much as the citizens have the right to complain and redirect people in authority, who by virtue of popular mandates, have the right to steer the ship of state, they must do so with a great sense of decorum. And the government must proceed with the consent and general agreement of the people. This is where democracy is slightly different from a republic. Although almost the same in purpose and function, in a republic the sovereign has more latitude to deal with the troubling issue in the interest of the great overwhelming majority.”

All over the world, dissenters and ethnic violence grow in a laissez-faire government wherein people see the democratic principles enshrined in the constitutions as a means to give tribune and express an opinion in certain matters of state.  In doing so ordinary people go to the extreme of taking up arms and making use of instruments hitherto reserved for the military, forming themselves into terrorist groups just to challenge the authority of government. Experts have called this terrorist phenomenon, a war of attrition.

Speaking recently on a breakfast channel, Nwobi said, “There is a key element in the terrorist phenomena; the communicative function. The actions of terrorists and bandits have messages loaded in them, and these messages are meant to get the attention of the government. This is rather a war of attrition whereby criminal elements take up arms against the masses with a view to weakening the powers of the state.”

Paraphrasing the recent words of a sheikh, who tried to mitigate bandits’ outrage on the society to make it look less serious, an Islamic cleric, Ahmed Gumi said, “The bandits are doing what they are doing because they want to make a point.”

The end of the Obasanjo administration saw a new resurgence in agitations with the real theatres shifting to the far north. Religious tensions caused by intolerance grew and citizens mistrusted one another, and ethnic and religious violence and individuals with perceived grievances began to take up arms against the state ‘to make their points.’ The question is, much as these unscrupulous people in society think it is part of their democratic right ‘to make a point’ causing mayhem and utter destruction of lives and property in the process, why is the sovereign government proving unable to quell the lingering rebellions in the land using even ultra-democratic means to put them down?

In the past week since the abduction of the 317 schoolgirls from their public school in the small town of Jangebe, Zamfara State, experts think the inability or unwillingness of the government to stem the tide of banditry and armed insurrections has emboldened the criminals, and given the Gumis the audacity to mediate between the hoods and the administration, and to try to mitigate and lessen the severity of their inhuman actions.