The crisis of armed banditry and other violations in the North West of Nigeria should be addressed with traditional justice mechanisms within the framework of transitional justice, writes Idris Mohammed.

The North West region of Nigeria has faced serious internal security challenges, ranging from cattle rustling and farmer–herder clashes to kidnapping and armed banditry, which have been exacerbated by illegal mining. A region that was largely peaceful until now faces complete insurrection. Drawing on past experiences of resolving conflict, traditional justice mechanisms within a transitional justice framework can provide holistic justice for victims while addressing community divisions.

Zamfara state, with its motto “Farming is Our Pride,”used to be one of the most peaceful states in Nigeria. The introduction of sharia law in 1999 did not undermine its stability. Even the post-election violence of 2007 and 2011 that rocked almost the entire northern region did not affect the state. Yet, in recent years, armed banditry and other violations have impacted on a significant proportion of the population in Zamfara, as well as in neighbouring Katsina and Sokoto states.

The violence began in 2014 because of cattle rustling activity, and worsened in early 2016 when bandits started killing local miners in communities in Zamfara and expatriates working with them. In 2020, the crisis forced over 80,000 Nigerians to cross the border into Niger to seek refuge.

Prior to the crisis, the two major groups Hausa and Fulani lived peacefully with all sorts of people, not only Nigerians but also Nigeriens in the border areas. Fulani herders regularly passed through local farmland, while farmers who are predominantly Hausa-speakers related jovially and sometimes cracked jokes with them. The groups engaged in trade by barter where Fulani provided fresh milk, rams and other livestock to farmers while Hausas provided food for their animals.

The bandit attacks have changed everything. They have spread like wildfire, affecting the entire region, especially communities near the border with Niger. Thousands are killed. Women are raped. Many are widowed, while children become orphans. Villages are sacked and destroyed, while cattle are rustled, farm produce destroyed, property stolen and people kidnapped for ransom.

When the bandit groups began sacking the North West, the region’s state governors approached some of the armed leaders for negotiations, offering amnesty. They later realised that the amnesty process produced few meaningful results, instead creating mistrust between the authorities and the bandit groups when agreements were not fully implemented. The security crisis persisted despite attempts to address it through military campaigns and dialogue.

In 2014 the state governor of Zamfara encouraged the formation of a Civilian Joint Task Force popularly known as Yan Sakai to confront the armed bandits. The group was able to push the bandits away from villages to the remote and ungoverned spaces along the border with Katsina, Kebbi and Sokoto states. Yan Sakai, however, was ultimately scrapped because of their human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, as well as their role in escalating the conflict in many of the affected communities.

The federal government intervened in 2019 by banning illegal mining sites entirely in the country and deploying more security forces to protect locals. The government also pushed for more data capture through the National Identification Number in an attempt to curb the use of mobile communications to facilitate kidnapping for ransom. Furthermore, in 2021 it declared a no-fly zone in Zamfara because of a report of an unauthorised aircraft aiding bandits in the area. In Katsina and Zamfara, the governors signed an order to close all roads to motorists and ban the sale of fuel in jerricans and interstate transport of cattle. While arrests have been made, the justice system has moved slowly to address the crisis and trials have been unsatisfactory.

Transitional justice, as explored in Nigeria’s North East region, offers a way to address the pastoral conflict in the context of banditry, as well asthe gap created by the justice system in the North West. Legal experts and peacebuilding practitioners argue that transitional justice, when implemented properly, speeds institutional inclusion, repairs social relations, facilitates durable solutions to displacement and addresses the root causes of conflict.

Since 2018, organisations like the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) have advocated for transitional justice, particularly traditional justice mechanisms, in the North East region to address violations committed by Boko Haram and their socioeconomic consequences. CDD shows the value of using local approaches, such as the Kabara traditional justice mechanism in Adamawa state. I personally witnessed how community leaders successfully addressed grievances between victims and perpetrators of the Boko Haram insurgency and reintegrated ex-combatants into their communities.

Instead, all the measures employed by the authorities in the North West region have been top-down approaches. They have not mitigated the threat armed banditry poses to peace and security, as there is little consideration for the communities who are victims of the attacks as part of the solution.

Traditional and communally grown approaches such as mediation, adjudication, reconciliation, arbitration and negotiation can complement other measures and become an integral part of the peacebuilding and conflict transformation efforts in the region. They can help staunch the spread of violence and achieve durable peace within communities and among individuals.

The current situation in the region has created deep hatred and distrust among perpetrators and victims, particularly the repentant members of bandit groups and those who were forced to join the groups. This also applies to the banned Yan Sakai, many of whose members are finding it difficult to reintegrate with their families and communities because of the violations committed by the group.

Local means of resolving conflict, like Kabara and Sulhu, are long-standing and popular ways of bringing perpetrators and victims together for accountability and truth seeking. There are many more traditional justice mechanisms in the region which, if brought together into transitional justice practice, can drastically reduce the chance of conflict reoccurring.

Organisations and other stakeholders can take bold steps by exploring positive narratives to promote acceptance of transitional justice in affected communities. This can be achieved through proper explanations of what transitional justice is and how it fits with pre-colonial and current justice practices in Nigeria. 

Idris Mohammed
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Idris Mohammed is a journalist, researcher and transitional justice practitioner based in Nigeria. He is a member of the United States Institute of Peace Network of Nigerian Facilitators. He was previously a program officer with the Centre for Democracy and Development, where he facilitated sessions on transitional justice institutionalisation in North East Nigeria.

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