In Nigeria’s northwest region, each emerging morning is met with echoes of tragedies.
Men and women and children clutch their radios in wooden decks at the threshold of their huts to hear the news of attacks and neighbours who died. Some days, smokes of burnt houses in far-flung villages will float into the clouds until droplets of the spring rain smother their charred ruins. When the deaths come in this country, which hasn’t known the pleasure of peace for decades, people typically try to absorb it as a routine of life.
If this story was told some months ago, only Boko Haram, a dreaded jihadist group, would come to mind. But a new group, whose brutality exceeds that of Boko Haram, is taking the country to a breaking point.
Pundits call them “motorcycle bandits.”
On 1 March, the group killed at least 50 people in Kerawa, Zareyawa and Minda, farming communities in Kaduna, Nigeria. Cattles were rustled, residents kidnapped and farms and homes burnt. On May 28, another attack by the bandits killed around 70 people in five villages close to the border with Niger in Sokoto. Weeks later, on 14 June, around 20 soldiers and 40 civilians were killed by the same group. In all, around 300 people have been killed in the space of three months, though the numbers are likely far higher.
So, who are Nigeria’s motorcycle bandits?
There is limited insight into the group. But most people regard them as aggrieved cattle herders whose minor clashes with farmers over space for land and water has now been hijacked by criminal gangs. They also rely on ransoms from kidnapped individuals to stay active and equipped.
Protests and anger continue to rise, complete with hashtags, campaigns and critical editorials against Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, who wants more time and calm. Thousands of youths took the protest to Buhari’s hometown recently. They want him to resign. Or at least pretend to be in control of the situation.
But two things complicate matters for the president and the government. One, inflated heroic acts of the past, now punctured by reality. Two, embellished promises during the polls, not matched with working evidence afterwards. In all fairness to millions of Nigeria’s who voted him in for a second term in 2019, Buhari’s histories and experiences, bloated or not, were fascinating.
During a brutal civil war of 1967-1970, Buhari was one of Nigeria’s finest soldiers. In 1983, he overthrew an elected government in a bloodless coup, before being deposed in 1985. His regime as a military dictator, which lasted 20 months, was highly regarded for enforcing discipline and etiquette in public places as well as fighting corrupt politicians. When, in 1983, the Chadian army, Nigeria’s neighbour in the northeast of the country, invaded and captured a few villages in the Lake Chad region, the army under Buhari’s command was crushed instantly.
“He is one of the greatest Nigerians that can look anybody in the face”, Musiliu Olaore, a retired army officer told Nigeria newspaper, Nation, about Buhari. “He is not corrupt. He does not drink, he does not smoke and he does not womanise.” As a result of the growing severity of the country’s security, corruption and economic problems, citizens inclined their hopes towards a man whose history had a tint of toughness.
Yet, integrity and reputation is only a small part of what earns people power in Nigeria. Buhari knows this. That’s why in 2015, fed up with failing for 16 years, he indulged in politics of patronage. He was brought to power by an alliance of many odd opposition parties, built on dirty compromises and reverse reward. Today, while he fulfils his dream as the figurehead on the iron throne, the choices that govern the country are rarely his as his wife said often.
How does this affect his performance in the matter of security and other state affairs? For starters, the toughness that was required to stamp out the incompetence fuelling the country’s crisis was lost. Security chiefs deserving of sacks and probes were rather promoted. Party allies were rewarded with appointments and those who led the country’s war on security, with several accused of stealing funds budgeted for purchasing weapons and paying frontline military officers, remain unscathed.
Today, Nigeria security forces, aside being outnumbered, ill-equipped and underfunded, are stretched on all fronts facing several internal crises in all the regions of the country. The bandits are kinsfolk of the president, from the Fulani tribe, which many believe has caused Buhari to treat them with the least brutality.
Worst of all, Buhari doesn’t have the backing of all parts of the country because he failed to unite long divided and bitter ethnic groups who feel marginalised for having few representatives in power. His great love for loyalty meant he mostly rewarded his kinsmen and the regions that voted for him heavily – further fostering this sense of isolation. In fact, most of the heads of security agencies in the country are from his region.
Against the backdrop of the crisis, the president faces huge pressure to redeem the pompous promises and reputation that brought him to power – or resign. He was seen as a tough, decisive, brave and uncompromising leader who would deal with the country’s biggest problem of insecurity. Instead, his time has seen the proliferation of crises.