‘If you run, you will die’: fear stalks Nigerian state as jihadists gain foothold

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“They ordered everyone to come around, saying if you run, if you cry, you will die,” said Bala Pada, recalling the moment in April when jihadists rounded up people at a market in his home town of Kaure to witness the execution of two alleged vigilantes.

Hundreds of jihadists have settled over the past year in Kaure and other remote communities in Niger state in Nigeria, according to displaced residents and local government officials. They began to arrive in November 2020, hoisting flags and declaring the communities under their control.

“They said this is what will happen to anyone that tries to stop them,” Pada said from a classroom in the Central primary school in Gwada, where he, his family and about 400 others displaced by violence now live. “Everyone was made to watch it but no one was allowed to react at all or they would face the same fate as the vigilantes,” the 45-year-old said. “Then they sprayed them with bullets.”

Fighters from competing Islamist terror groups linked to Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province have gained a foothold across Niger state by easily displacing an often feeble government or security presence. The development has caused increasing concern in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, just over three hours by road from towns and villages where jihadist flags fly and other armed groups have settled.

Residents and local officials have for years and with growing desperation raised the alarm about the domination of armed groups – called bandits – in much of Niger state. The arrival of jihadists in this often ungoverned space has made the situation more complicated, and even more dangerous.

Many of the jihadists arrived from Nigeria’s north-east, where they were engaged in fighting with the Nigerian army. They have found a haven in and around the same mineral-rich forests of the north-west that provided a fertile breeding ground for bandit gangs.

The militants in Niger state have terrorised communities by carrying out public executions, abducting young girls to be “wives”, forcibly recruiting young boys to be child soldiers, and decreeing that state schools close.

Alarmed officials in the state have pleaded for military reinforcements. They say their warnings are being acknowledged at the federal level but go largely unheeded.

“The problem is that insecurity is everywhere in the country,” said Suleiman Chukuba, the chairman of the Shiroro local government area. From his office in the state capital, Minna, he explained how Shiroro, one of the worst-affected areas in Niger state, had been left without adequate help. “We really need more manpower in the army, and better weapons,” Chukuba said, echoing sentiments expressed across the country that areas suffering violence have been abandoned by the central government.

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Swathes of Niger state were already being subjected to what was in effect an insurgency waged by heavily armed bandit gangs before the jihadists turned up. The bandit gangs are made up of various ethnic groups, but dominated by mostly young ethnic Fulanis. Many of the Fulani armed groups have emerged from historic and complex conflicts over land between largely Fulani herders and farmers from other ethnic groups. In recent years these conflicts have worsened dramatically, killing thousands and becoming the most pronounced of the many security threats facing Nigeria.

The bandit groups have overpowered local police and army units, killing civilians and prolifically carrying out kidnaps for ransom – especially targeting school students – from the dense forests that span north-west Nigeria and stretch into the Sahel.

The ransom money has bolstered the bandits’ capabilities, said Chukuba. “They have general purpose machine guns, they have AK47s, they have ammunition,” he said. “They are at times better armed than the army.”

The bandit crisis created a vacuum of governance and security into which the jihadists have stepped. Twelve of Shiroro’s 15 wards have been overrun by armed groups, and jihadists are thought to be at large in at least five. Other local government areas in Niger state such as Rafi have been similarly affected.

“Two weeks ago they [jihadists] went to Korebe,” Chukuba said of a ward in Shiroro. “They saw a girl less than 14 and they kidnapped her and took her to their camp in the forest. Then they came back to the parents, to the father, with their arms, and they said, ‘we want to marry her and we’re here to pay the dowry.’”

In another incident, a seven-year-old boy was taken. “Again they went back to the parents and said, ‘don’t worry the boy is with us. We’re going to teach him the Islamic way of living’,” Chukuba said. “It’s a very desperate situation. They ‘[the jihadists] come to you and tell you ‘we have your child and they’re carrying weapons’. People are living in a state of fear.”

Chukuba said 70% of Shiroro’s school are no longer operational either because of kidnappings by bandit groups or decrees from jihadists forbidding education.

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In some areas the jihadists are positioning themselves to locals as being able to offer a more reliable protection from banditry than the government. “What we’re seeing is them coming in and preaching to people that they are on their side,” Chukuba said.

But in others, the jihadist and bandit causes have aligned. Gambo Isiaku, the headteacher of the Central primary school in Gwada, said school kidnappings were increasingly an area where alliances were being formed. “The bandits get what they want which is ransom money and so they kidnap the children, while Boko Haram get what they want which is an end to western education.”

As the insecurity worsens, accounts of acts of terror have multiplied.

According to Isiaku, people across Shiroro have reported armed groups and jihadists committing mass rapes of women and girls in front of their families. “It’s so bad, it’s hard to even imagine,” he said.

In a briefing to journalists last week, a secretary to the Niger state governor said jihadists were setting up a caliphate in the state, and lamented that there were just 8,000 police officers trying to protect the state’s population of roughly 4 million people.

In recent days the army has told people in several communities in Shiroro and other areas in Niger state to leave their homes before a possible impending military offensive. Yet in a largely impoverished state, where many people rely on their farmland for food and income, leaving means abandoning livelihoods.

Pada now does odd manual labour jobs in the area close to the school to make ends meet. He was born and grew up in Kaure, but cannot return, he said. “We want to go back home but we don’t have a choice.”

Chukuba described Shiroro as a peaceful place before the violence that has reshaped it.

A day after explaining what had befallen residents in his jurisdiction, he learned his brother and other members of his family has been abducted by a bandit group. “They recently told all those living in the town to leave, but he was staying there because he didn’t want to abandon our farm,” he said over the telephone. “Inshallah [God willing], we will be able to rescue them.”