“The northwest’s problem is not ungoverned spaces as wonks like to say, but spaces governed by criminal sovereigns.”-James Barnett
Bandits, Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād (JAS), or simply referred to as Boko Haram, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), Jama’atu Ansarul Muslima fi Biladis Sudan (Ansaru). They constitute an alphabet soup of terror groups in the business of stone-hearted killings and wanton destruction of properties across the length and breadth of northern Nigeria. So why should anyone waste precious time trying to make what may seem like an academic distinction between them? Well, except that if you treat simple headache with cancer pills, the headache will not go away while the therapy may end up destroying what is left of the body cells, irredeemably. Therein lies the reason why accurate diagnosis is crucial if the plan is to offer an effective prescription against these cancers.
What if I tell you that Boko Haram and its splinter factions including ISWAP is no more Nigeria’s biggest terror group? Whereas the U.S. Department of Defense estimated in 2020 that JAS and ISWAP together fielded at most 7,000 fighters, based primarily in the broader Lake Chad basin area, the bandits of northwestern Nigeria are estimated to number as high as 30,000 or more. But first off, follow me on a journey down this labyrinth.
In May 2021, evidence emerged that Boko Haram’s blood-thirsty and erratic leader, Abubakar Shekau had killed himself instantly by detonating an explosive while surrounded by fighters from a rival terror group. The evidence seems to have come via an audio message, apparently recorded by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who also led the breakaway rival group called the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a group that had since pledged allegiance to ISIS.
At first it appeared that the terror groups were simply bedeviled by competing human interest but ISWAP splintered from Boko Haram mostly because of differences in ideology. To them, Mr. Shekau’s violence against Muslim civilians was not just unacceptable but works against what they stand for. What we have today are amorphous groups of terror franchises dotting the entire landscape, pushing different ideologies and going after different targets.
JAS is a salafi preaching movement started by Mohammed Yusuf and later turned into a violent jihadi organization starting in 2009. This is the faction led by the late Abubakar Shekau till his death and now replaced by one Bakura. Shekau’s takfiri creed which stated that except for those living in Boko Haram territories, everyone else is considered an infidel and so should be penciled down for destruction, explains his bombing campaigns that targeted both Muslim and non-Muslim populations, all across the northern states.
Most of senior Boko Haram fighters and commanders pledged allegiance to ISWAP’s al-Barnawi in the wake of Shekau’s death. JAS like bandits, relied heavily on raiding and looting conquered territories for survival and informed the reason for the massive surrender to government forces witnessed after the killing of Shekau in May 2021. ISWAP, the dominant group prohibited such raid on Muslim civilians and the JAS insurgents ran out of food.
ISWAP, led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi (born Habib Yusuf), the son of the deceased Boko Haram founder until his death in late 2021, is regarded as the West African branch of the Islamic State group. Al-Barnawi was once a JAS spokesperson but opposed Shekau’s indiscriminate violence and was responsible for the split with Shekau in 2019. In the northern states of Borno and Yobe where it controls, the group is adding a political approach to insurgency in order to control “hearts and minds”. ISWAP also does not consider as part of their mandate, the kidnap of school children as was the case with the Chibok girls in 2014. They would rather protect than attack fellow Muslims and prefer to go after hard targets like military installations. ISWAP today is seen as the strongest jihadist group in Nigeria.
Ansaru was part of Boko Haram but that relationship ended in 2012. The group positions as “The Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa” and has vowed to restore the “dignity of Muslims in black Africa” by reviving the Sokoto Caliphate. Ansaru is critical of Boko Haram’s indiscriminate killing of civilians, claiming that his followers would not kill innocent non-Muslims or security officials in self-defense. At its peak, the group has between 2-3,000 fighters but since 2015 has been dormant for the most part, though on 2 January 2022, it was reported by FDD’s Long War Journal that Ansaru had reaffirmed its allegiance to al-Qaeda. Unlike Boko Haram, which is largely based in northeastern state of Borno, Ansaru operated in the north-central state of Kano and the environs, considered the heartland of the Hausa-Fulanis.
The three main jihadi groups mentioned above that operate in Nigeria today—JAS, ISWAP, and Ansaru were part of the original JAS, popularly known as Boko Haram. Though there are some differences in ideology between the groups, majority are all of the belief that northern Nigeria has come under the control of a group of corrupt people who are not true Muslims and wants to dethrone the Federal Republic of Nigeria in order to create what they call a pure Islamic state ruled by sharia laws. The bandit on the other hand could care less about religion to the extent that it does not bother on economics. Whereas bandits fight among each other mostly over pecuniary interests, jihadis split over ideologies.
From available information, as many as 30,000 bandits spread over 100 gangs operate in Nigeria’s northwest region. Banditry initially started over fight for water resources and grazing rights between sedentary Hausa farmers and Fulani pastoralist but soon, the later morphed into a huge and lucrative criminal enterprise.
In many areas within Nigeria’s northwest, the bandits operate like a government bound by an extractive relationship with the local population where they are situated. You pay “taxes” to them in exchange for protection, in addition to assuming other state powers. Quoting one group that extensive studied this menace; “One bandit leader, Dogo Gide, regulates farming through neo-feudal sharecropping arrangements. Another, Turji, builds mosques in local villages while dispensing harsh justice against petty criminals. In another part of Zamfara, the bandit Dankarami holds court with local politicians, hearing their petitions like a Saxon king.”
Even though jihadism and banditry may seem to overlap in some cases as jihadism offers bandits the chance to justify their criminal activities, the later has no interest in pushing religion ideologies. What obtains according to one writer is a case of co-existence, cooperation or convergence.
Coexistence is a situation where the two occupy one geographic space at same time. Cooperation is when criminals and terrorists develop a symbiotic relationship to pursue shared interests while Convergence happens when one group engages in behavior that is more commonly associated with the other.
In the past some jihadis have converted to bandits but hardly the other way round. Part of the reason is that the bandits have grown so powerful that they are not in need of cooperation from another criminal element. They are also loosely organized, making it difficult to come under a central leadership. Above all, bandits have no coherent political agenda except to grow rich and powerful through criminal behavior.
In all these, Nigeria appears to be helpless and ill-prepared to take on terrorists who are getting increasingly emboldened both in frequency and scale of attacks by the day. Niger state which is the country’s largest state in terms of landmass is said to have only 4,000 police officers, most of which are concentrated in the state capital. Military forces are also limited forces and so you have a situation where some communities are hours away from the nearest police or military outpost. The same could be said of the other states in the north with massive land areas.
Many months after Abubakar Malami’s Ministry of Justice informed Nigerians of being in possession of a list of sponsors of terrorism, nothing else has been said or done about it. The outlook is not good and Nigerians should all brace up for the long and bumpy ride ahead.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com