Niger State Governor Abubakar Sani Bello spoke with reporters in Abuja, shortly after briefing President Muhammadu Buhari on the security situation in his state. Correspondent BOLAJI OGUNDELE was there.
WHAT is your assessment of the security situation in Niger State?
The situation is very bad. Niger is 73,000 square kilometers. It’s the size of the entire Southsouth or Southeast. So, first of all, we have limited number of security personnel and I think we have to start thinking of increasing the numbers so that we are able to cover most of the local government within the state.
Some of our local governments are up to 6,000 to 7,000 square kilometers one local government. For example, the Bobi Grazing Reserve, which is a programme between involving the state government, CBN and the Federal Government, where we encourage herders to move their cattle so as to stop the movement of cattle from one area to the other so as to avoid herders, farmers conflict, has become a target.
That is the only location where you can find in one constituency 5,000 to 6,000 herds of cows. So, most of the bandits have started focusing their attention on the Bobi Grazing Reserve, which I have also discussed with Mr. President. Because we have investors that have started investing in terms of money, equipment, processing facilities. We do not want to discourage them. So, we applied most of our resources and efforts towards protecting the grazing reserve.
Where are the bandits coming from?
We are having influx of bandits from neigbouring states, especially Zamfara and Kaduna states. It is difficult to patrol those areas because vehicles do not go there and it is a forest. Which means we will need the federal might, especially the Air Force. By the way, the Air Force has been doing a extremely well in recent times to support our ground operations.
In one particular case and I always tell our security agents when they make an arrest to study the minds of the bandits and to ask why. But, one particular day, we arrested bandits that are foreigners as far as Sundan and Mali and they came on motor cycles. They are being recruited through social media, through Facebook in some cases and because they confessed to this.
Could you shed light on the activities of the bandits?
In my own opinion, the activities of bandits differ from place to place. Some are cattle rustlers. Some believe they are fighting some kind of jihadist activity. Some believe they are fighting corruption. They see any uniform person, any political office holders as corrupt.
So, when you ask them, you get different responses or different answers. Anyway, we have a problem for whatever the reason is. It’s a major problem and it must stop.
Does it not mean then, that the bandits want to destroy agriculture?
The dynamics of the criminal activities have changed. They started with armed robbery. Then, they moved to cattle rustling and then, to kidnapping as a means of getting money.
But recently, the trend has changed. They started burning farms and animals. So, this has given me some concerns and at the same time, it has kept me thinking. What is the motive?
I can understand if you kidnap, you are looking for money. But, when you burn farms, then, there is something else happening. Or when you kill animals, they go to villages and kill animals. They don’t steal.
So, if you stop people from going to farms, it means you are trying to deprive that nation of food security. Why will someone want to deprive people of food security? Niger State has the capacity of feeding the entire country. We have the water bodies for dry season farming, we produce a lot of rice, maize.
But, I am worried because this year most of the farmers did not have the opportunity to go to their farms to harvest even when they planted. So, the bandits torch the farms, they just burn everything.
Can’t government negotiate eith these bandits?
To be honest, even when the process of negotiation was being advised, I recommended or agree to it. I have attended one meeting where the bandits were there and I cannot imagine myself as a state governor and chief security officer of a state, sitting down and negotiating with bandits.
They have never been honest in their talks. Even when they were given the opportunity they failed to keep the agreement. And whenever they will surrender their arms and they don’t ask anything in return, then, you can tell it is not an honest negotiation.
Someone that is used to carrying arms to go and rob is now telling you he will drop his arms without asking for anything in return. I don’t think there is any sincerity in that.
So, I have never subscribed to that negotiation. In any case, the bandits are mostly Fulanis that have no one to control them. Even their parents cannot control them. We call them bandits, but these are common criminald. They are armed robbers.
I don’t see how someone who is used to robbing at gone point or killing, will say let’s go to negotiating table, I will drop my arms, I will just move on with my life without asking for some kind of support as an alternative to their activities. I tried it once reluctantly it ever worked, so I don’t think…unless I see some evidence of sincerity but I am really not in such negotiations, he said.
Let me tell you what has worked so far and we have made a lot of progress. Like I’ve said, what I have done is that I moved the responsibility of security to the committee level. And at the committee level, they know themselves.
Vigilantes are controlled by the local government and sometimes the ministry has been doing very well. And for so many reasons, they are defending their farmlands. They are defending their families.
It is different when you send someone from somewhere. The enthusiasm to really fight and motivate people to protect their environment is usually better when you deal with locals. Yes, I found the locals security at the lowest level very helpful. But again, one major challenge that we found out is that in some cases, the locals have adopted to a kind of business and that is even more difficult.
The bandits are being invited by some locals. In fact, we have arrested some village heads. Now, if a whole village head invites bandits or habours bandits, then, where are we headed to? The village head is supposed to secure the village.
So, we are going to be ruthless with any village head found wanting in this regard, because there is no way we can make progress if the traditional institution at the lowest level becomes part of it and im in discussions with the emirs.
First class emirs to dethrone or stripe any village head of his appointment once being caught. So, going forward with the efforts of the Nigerian police, with the community policing, with the local vigilantes if you have them across the entire state, even though they are not properly armed.
But, we’ve lost quite a few vigilantes. You cannot compare somebody with dane gun and somebody carrying AK47 and AK49. But, they are determined to protect their families and their farmlands.
So, we’ve seen some results, some success when it comes to local vigilantes and I think we should give them some more support so that they will do more because the traditional, military and police are limited in numbers.
They cannot cover the entire state. So, they need the support of the vigilantes to augment their efforts. And in some cases, the vigilantes and the hunters act as guide to our forces because they understand the forests. In Niger , or example, we have a lot of caves, we have a lot of mountains.
Bringing someone from somewhere may not understand the dynamics of the terrain. So, most of these bandits usually get higher ground so they are able to see anyone coming towards them. But usually, the local people will be able to finds ways around it. So, I believe we can have a very robust, strong partnership between the locals and the military, he stated.
Bello urged the Federal Government to construct federal roads in Niger State. He said traffic is always high on the Minna/North/South road, making the road to wear and tear.
We also discussed the issue of infrastructure in Niger State. At the moment, 80 percent of not more of traffic from the South passes through Niger State especially through Minna, the state capital.” Over time we have witnessed some of our culverts, bridges and roads have been seriously destroyed because of the weight of trucks.