Governors opposing amnesty for bandits shouldn’t be taken seriously – Sheikh Gumi
Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, an influential Islamic cleric, recently ventured into forests in Zamfara State to hold a parley with the dreaded bandits who have for long created a climate of fear in the North. In this interview with OLADIMEJI RAMON, the Islamic scholar speaks about his call on the government to grant amnesty to the bandits and responds to those who oppose his amnesty proposition
From your recent meeting with bandits in Zamfara forests, what fresh insight did you gain into why banditry is rapidly festering in the North?
I think it depends on the number of bandits. It is high in the North because the region has a lot of unexplored forests. There is more land mass; there are more forests and more hiding places for bandits in the North. That could be the reason. Secondly, the land mass is difficult to police because it is a large area. They (bandits) can do their things and escape easily.
Many people have expressed surprise that you were able to locate the bandits, something security agencies have found difficult to achieve.
No, there is no need to be surprised. There have been contacts with them with security forces. In fact, so many treaties were done before; they know how to contact them. Only that over the years the bandits have lost confidence in the established systems; they lost confidence and they cut off. But now as clergy, we are trying to establish that contact and opening a window of negotiation. Otherwise, there have been negotiations with all the governors – all of them! Even the government knows. Even at one point when we were there, one of the bandits said, “But the Presidency has sent their own emissary to us.” So, there have been contacts only that the bandits have lost confidence and trust because they said that in the past, many peace treaties were held and after laying down their arms, they were arrested and killed sometimes.
What informed your decision to take it upon yourself to reach out to the bandits?
The situation is precarious and we cannot fold our arms and continue to watch as people are being kidnapped and killed. And this is also turning into an ethnic fight, which is more dangerous. It is turning into an ethnic clash and we just have to step in to stop the carnage.
From reports that we read, it seems that most of these attacks by bandits are unprovoked; they go to villages, they kill people en mass, they burn down houses…
No, no, no. You see, the herdsmen, when you kill one of them, they retaliate by attacking the whole village. They don’t even steal; they just attack the village and go. It is turning into an ethnic clash and it is very dangerous.
One would have thought you would be concerned about your safety when embarking on the trip into the forest to meet the bandits. Were you not afraid that you could be attacked?
Yes (I was) but I know our safety is not guaranteed, so it is better we venture so that we can pacify them and educate them, especially because religious instruction is very important and very powerful. When you understand that the sanctity of blood is a no-go area in religion, blood is sacred; no human blood should be spilled without due process. This is what they need to understand and to our surprise, they listened.
You said you were surprised that they listened. So, you didn’t have the foreknowledge that they would listen to you?
They instantly responded and had confidence in what we are doing.
But how do you respond to some northern governors who have described your efforts to broker peace between bandits and government as an exercise in futility? The governors said they would rather kill the bandits than negotiate with them.
But you know sometimes when politicians speak, you just take their word on the face value, you don’t take it seriously. You don’t take politicians too seriously because even America is negotiating everywhere. They negotiated with Saddam, they negotiated with bandits in Afghanistan; even Israel negotiates. So, negotiation is part and parcel of warfare. So, we should leave political statements out of the reality on the ground.
Do you see such comments by the governors as capable of worsening the banditry problem?
Such comments are only exposing the people who make them to dangers because many of these bandits became bandits because their children, their family members were killed as collateral damage. So, I think it is very important such politicians retract their statements for their own safety because these bandits are all over the place. They were profiled and many of the (military) bombardments have killed many innocent people, which is true. So, we have to be careful about what we say, really because Nigeria is very fragile.
You said a lot of the bandits are victims of attacks. Who was responsible for these attacks that they are retaliating?
Yes, they are victims. The military was responsible. And the bandits, it is just like the good, the bad and the ugly, all are there in the bush. These people were the first victims of cattle rustling, who lost all their cattle to rustlers because then, the rustlers were having the guns. Then when they lost their cattle, they joined (the rustlers) and they started to kidnap people. In fact, they are doing most of the kidnappings to acquire weapons. They are now trying to buy missiles, anti-aircraft missiles. This is already developing into a full-blown insurgency and we should stop that. And what we are afraid of is that if they become religiously radicalised, it will give rise to another dimension, and it will be very difficult to control. You see what Boko Haram has become.
But a lot of people have reservation about your call that the government should extend a hand of fellowship rather than unleash military might and wipe out the bandits. What makes you believe strongly that amnesty rather than military might is the best way to go?
Do you think the military should go and attack IPOB or militants in the Niger Delta or give amnesty to them? Which one is better? IPOB is already a militia of sort, do you think the military should go and attack them or they should go into dialogue with them to drop their weapons? Which is better? It is for the herdsmen as it is for IPOB. So, negotiation is the best way out of this kind of problem. And since we have seen their willingness to drop their weapons, I don’t know why we should have to use force and kill innocent people.
But the dictionary definition of bandits is that they are armed criminals. People will argue that the Niger Delta militants were agitating for the betterment of their environment following degradation and abandonment by the government despite that the wealth of the nation comes from their land…
No, no, no, they are also bandits because they kidnapped and got ransoms. How many foreigners and expatriates have they kidnapped? They’ve been kidnapping too. And now IPOB has been attacking innocent and poor people. When you attack a hut made of trees and burn it – the Fulani live in huts without electricity – when you go and attack them, is it not terrorism too?
So, you think it is wrong to call these people bandits?
Yes, it is actually insurgency. And insurgency means they are not obeying the state laws and they are carrying weapons.
And you said they are reacting to the fact that they are victims of previous attacks on them?
Yes, these people were attacked because of the acts of a few criminals among them; and now they are profiled as criminals, whereas they are victims of the collateral damage of Air Force bombing, military incursion killing many innocent people. So, they took up arms to protect themselves. And when you hear them going into the town and carrying out massacres, it is because one of them was killed. So, actually, it is more than just banditry; it is an insurgency. And we don’t want it to be religiously radicalised; that is what we are afraid of.
We have heard of accusations and counter-accusations among politicians and northern governors that these bandits are being sponsored for political gains. What did you deduce from your meeting with the bandits?
Nobody is sponsoring these people. They are kidnapping their victims to get money to buy weapons and unfortunately because they don’t have any religious instruction, some of them are taking to drugs. It is a complex issue; it is too complex, you cannot fix it with one pin. It is a mosaic of different colours and shapes and we have to be very careful. Opening a channel of negotiation with them is the best approach.
But Governor Nasir El-Rafai has expressed doubt that your call for amnesty will not work on the grounds that these people are already used to collecting millions as ransom and it would be difficult for them to go back into cattle rearing where they cannot make that kind of money. How do you respond to that?
As I said, they are collecting ransoms to buy weapons. Look at the herdsmen in Oyo and southeastern states, they are not buying skyscrapers or riding Mercedes; they are still in the bush. They don’t want money. They want their cows, not money. They are doing that (kidnapping) to raise money just to buy weapons to repel helicopters and aeroplanes and to attack anybody that is going to attack them. You have to understand the psychology of these people. They are not like our governors that are stealing money. They don’t want money; for them, the cow is better than money.
The Chairman of Nigeria’s Governors Forum, Governor Kayode Fayemi, has expressed the fear that the banditry issue is spreading beyond the North and coming down South. Will you say that this fear is founded?
Yes, it is founded because these people (bandits) know how to organise themselves and protect themselves and they have started attacking villages all around. Once you touch one of them, the whole of them will come together to attack a village. They mobilise themselves through the bush. So, it is not good to attack them, honestly speaking. The Hausa are suffering and they have stopped attacking the Fulani herdsmen. So, we should not attack them; we should just pacify them and they are very shy people; if you meet them, they are very shy.
How do you react to the accusation by IPOB that you are promoting Fulani terrorism?
Just imagine if an Igbo man goes to IPOB and tells them to drop their weapons, do you consider that Igbo man an IPOB member? If you have a Yoruba man going to Oduduwa and telling them to drop their weapons, and stop killing people, is he a member of Amotekun or Oduduwa? No. I am telling the Fulani, drop that weapon, it will not help you. I am telling them that killing innocent people, kidnapping is not the right thing. So, can I be (considered) a member of this group?
You said the bandits have agreed to lay down their weapons and embrace pardon. What kind of structure do you think the government should put in place for this?
Amnesty, which means they should not be chased with the law; they should not be taken to court. They should be asked to drop their weapons and given protection from the law. That is what they need. If the government does that, you will see that many of them will drop their weapons and return to normal life.
How do you think people whose loved ones have been killed and means of livelihood destroyed will feel to see bandits who caused them misery pardoned and shielded from prosecution by the government?
They will feel bad; it is unfortunate. But because they feel bad, we should allow this to continue? Because some few people, thousands (of people) will feel bad, we should allow this to continue and engulf the whole nation? It is just unfortunate. And these people are victims too.
From your encounter, do these bandits have a leader that will lead them to such negotiation that you are proposing?
It is just like an ocean, you have the big fishes and the small fishes. The big fish swallows the small fish. They don’t have a unified leadership. They are in groups and that is what makes it difficult to deal with them. But if there is a general amnesty, I am very sure all of them will just drop their weapons.
But do you think such amnesty will be sustainable because it may just encourage other people to take up arms against the state with the thinking that they will eventually be pardoned for whatever atrocities they commit?
The government should come out of its slumber and take over the control of the… Anyway, I don’t want to say it now.
But some people have also said that some of these bandits are not Nigerians. Will it be right for the government to grant amnesty to foreigners who came into the country to take up arms against the state?
There could be non-Nigerian elements among them because they don’t recognise boundaries; they are inter-related. There may be some foreign elements but mostly, they are Nigerians.
Will it then be just for the government to offer amnesty to foreigners perpetrating crimes on Nigerian soil?
Yes, offer them amnesty. When you offer them amnesty, they drop their weapons. Then you go in, build schools for them, build hospitals for them, get them censored; get them registered; then you can control (them).
You can’t have access to them through the gun. Honestly, they know the terrain in the bush more than our military. So, it is better to negotiate with them.
But some people think that these bandits are another shade of Boko Haram. Do you think there is an element of Boko Haram in banditry?
No, no, no. They are different. If they are Boko Haram, I could not go and meet them like that. Ha, no! Boko Haram, no. It is not religious fanaticism; these are just people whose lifestyle was changed by criminality and now they are taking weapons to protect themselves against others.
Afenifere and some other southern groups have also criticised your call on the government to use funds budgeted for the fight against insurgency to meet the demands of the bandits. Do you regret making that call and do you withdraw it?
No, I don’t. The call is to build schools, hospitals and give them accessible roads, among others. In fact, it is their right to have those things. They are Nigerians too and they contribute to the GDP of Nigeria. Now, because they are fighting the people, farming has reduced by more than 95 per cent and meat is also becoming more expensive because cattle were rustled. So, they contribute to the GDP of Nigeria and it is not something we should joke with economically.
Do you sincerely rule out sponsorship of the bandits by politicians?
No, no, no. Nobody is sponsoring them. They are only protecting their existence and survival.
But how do they get the sophisticated weapons they use; do you think they have international collaborators?
There are arms dealers everywhere; there are drug dealers. In Edo State recently, see the amount of drugs they (intercepted). There are people all over selling arms, selling drugs just to make money and they don’t care what the arms are used for. So, I rule out sponsorship (by politicians) hundred per cent. Nobody is sponsoring them and that is why they are kidnapping to maintain weapons and ammunition. And they have no money; all the money they are collecting, we don’t see any sign of money there at all.
Do we blame the porous borders for how the bandits are able to get access to sophisticated weapons?
Yes, the porous borders can be a contributing factor. If you have tight borders with strong, robust policies, even the nomadic migration can be curtailed.
Do you have an insight into how the bandits get supplies in the forest since you said they are not being sponsored?
We have seen them, they are Nigerians; they are struggling and one of them even said, “None of us has even N500.”
But where do the millions collected as ransoms go?
Most of the millions go to those collaborators in town; they just give them (the bandits) some chicken feed money. They have collaborators everywhere – in the armed forces, everywhere. One of them said, “Even this cattle rustling, we don’t have trailers to transport cattle to where they are slaughtered. We don’t have an abattoir.” So, there are people who are (collaborating with them). Even the kidnapping of the people, they said, “We don’t know these people; it is the people in town that will tell us a certain person has money.”
What is the most valuable information that you gathered from your interaction with the bandits?
The most valuable information is that they have a listening ear and they are ready to drop their weapons with conditions. And these conditions, I am very happy, have no ideological undertone. So, I am happy, they are just material (conditions). Just satisfy them; then the case is finished; we go to another chapter.
What are these conditions?
Allow us; don’t kill us when we come to town. Your security (personnel) are extorting money from us; they just carry a herdsman to police or military detention and he has to sell his cow to get money to bail himself out – extortion. So, this is what they are complaining about – Let’s be free.
Are you planning to meet with the government to place their demands on the table and serve as an intermediary?
Oh yes, I have no problem with the bandits. The bandits are ready; it is the government that needs to listen to them. We are happy that the Zamfara State Government and the Sokoto State Government understand now and we have relative peace. Life is coming back to normal in Zamfara because of the treaty with the bandits. So, we want that example to extend to Kaduna and Niger.
But we have new service chiefs and they have pledged to root out banditry and other forms of criminality. Don’t you think a full military attack on the bandits is better than negotiation?
No, no, no. Negotiation is better.
Are you suggesting amnesty because you feel the Nigerian military lacks the capacity to wipe out the bandits?
It is difficult to wipe a civilian population out like that since you are not going to do carpet bombing. It is difficult because this is a civilian population. So, I think this way of negotiating is just the optimum way to go about this issue, honestly speaking. Anybody who thinks that people can be massacred like that by the army should have a rethink.
But would Nigeria not become a laughing stock in the eye of the world for pardoning bandits who have killed and destroyed many rather than unleash state might against them?
No, the same thing happens all over the world. All over the world, people are pardoned and when you have only a few options, you have to resort to that. We have been spending too much unnecessary money on the so-called defence which we are not getting.
Already people accused the Federal Government of nepotism and favouring the Fulani. Don’t you think that granting amnesty to bandits will worsen things for government and expose the government to greater backlash?
The Federal Government.
What has the Federal Government done for the Fulani? Not even one block of school has this government built for Fulani.
So, you are saying the Federal Government has not favoured the Fulani at all?
Not at all. The government has not favoured them; they have done nothing for them. They (Fulani) are neglected and marginalised; they have nothing. Go to the forests and see. If you have WhatsApp, I can send you a clip I took just three days ago, they are drinking from the stream with their animals.
So, you think those who accuse the Federal Government of favouring the Fulani are not correct?
They are the armchair critics; they don’t know anything. I just went to Zuru for the same matter and I saw the road in Zuru. I have never seen a worse road in Nigeria than the road from Zamfara to Zuru. Our roads are dilapidated, our hospitals are non-existent. What is there in the North? Just because he (President) appointed some few northerners in position and you say (he has favoured the North/Fulani). You need to come out from that cocoon and travel and see. When you come you will see that there is nothing in the bush, no amenities.
As far as you can see, from the body language of the government, do you think they will embrace your proposition for amnesty?
Yes, because we have touched them religiously, showing them the tenets of the religion. So, they are accepting the tenets and they are ready to embrace peace.
I am even talking about the Federal Government now. From their body language, do you think they will consider your advice to grant amnesty to the bandits rather than unleash military might?
Honestly, I don’t know but I think that most likely, they will listen because it is working. We have seen it; it is working in Zamfara, now it is working in Sokoto. I think the Federal Government, from their pronouncements, especially the Minister of Information, have a soft spot for accepting this advice and I think it is good.
From the pronouncement of the Minister of Information, it would appear that the Federal Government had foreknowledge of your meeting with the bandits.
No. But wherever we go, we go with the police. First, we write to the police that we want escort and the police have been helping a lot; we thank them. The Inspector-General of Police is doing his job well; he is giving us protection.
Are we seeing you making another trip soon to the forest to meet with the bandits again?
Oh yes, we cannot relent because there is still crisis; we have to go all over again and convince them to put down their weapons, embrace peace and then educate themselves.
So, you don’t think Nigeria needs foreign assistance to wipe out the bandits rather than pamper them?
Not at all. If at all we need foreign assistance, we need reading materials, books, and schools, among others. These are the kind of foreign supports that we need. You find out that they (the bandits) are so poor. These are what we need; we don’t need weapons.
What do you think about the call on the Federal Government to place a ban on open grazing?
These are technical issues but for now, it is not feasible. The most feasible thing now, because they are so widespread across the nation, is to try to convince them to drop their weapons, then negotiations will come later; whether we are going to settle them in colonies, whatever we are going to do, we cannot implement it now. The best thing now is for these people to put down their weapons, to stop kidnapping people and stop stealing. That’s all. When we finish that, then we look at what is possible to settle them. And you see, when you start building schools, they will settle because if you ask them, they will say they don’t want their children to experience what they are experiencing now. So, once you start building schools, they will start settling down. And this is what we have started in Kaduna. We have started building schools. So, let us come out and build schools for them; build hospitals for them and that will just take care of the issue.
How urgent do you think your call on the government to grant amnesty is?
It is very critical and urgent.
Do you see the festering banditry as a threat to 2023 general elections, especially in the North?
No, I don’t think it will be a threat to the elections. This is my view, because if they are registered, they will vote.
In recent times, the country has been really polarised along ethnic lines and it seems things are not really getting better. Do you see Nigeria being one together for long as a country?
In fact, for Nigeria, there is no other option, I am telling you. We cannot divide on the basis of religious or ethnic differences. The North has more than 150 tribes. So, we cannot divide the North on the basis of tribe; and we cannot divide it on the basis of religion. Even Moslems, how many sects do we have? So, any Nigerian dreaming that Nigeria will break should just please wake up; he is sleeping.