For the people of Gatawa, a small town in Sokoto State neighbouring Niger Republic, the heinous activities of terrorists —locally known as bandits— operating in Northwest Nigeria, has brought them a challenging nightmare.
Residents sleep with unease as terrorists storm different villages and towns, savagely chasing and abducting people, rustling cattle, and destroying lives and properties.
Gatawa is one of the towns in Sabon Birni Local Government Area facing incessant attacks. According to a resident, there is hardly a night without a horrific story of attacks in one location or the other, with victims being butchered or abducted.
Cattle rustling and terrorism have become a major source of concern for the villagers of Sabon Birni and other communities neighbouring Niger Republic. Lawan Kakale, a resident, told HumAngle that none of the villages was spared from attacks and destruction.
The motorcycle-riding terrorists have ransacked Gatawa town thrice, opening fire on arrival. They abducted many residents, raped women and destroyed lives and properties.
On March 6, the terrorists stormed the town and killed three people. However, the residents pushed back with full force, repelled the attack, captured one of the terrorists and handed him over to the military.
Mallam Hussaini Gatawa, one of the residents, told HumAngle that Gatawa and neighbouring villages have decided to engage with the bandits as a form of self-defence since security forces hardly come at distress time.
He said that during the counter-terrorist operation, they received support from neighbouring towns who quickly came to their aid and helped in chasing the terrorists away, capturing one of them in the process.
“Gatawa and other villages have opted for self-defence. We decided that no terrorists would invade us and go unchallenged,” said Mallam Gatawa.
The rise and hazard of self-defence
The Minister of Defence, Maj-Gen. Bashir Magashi (rtd) recently called on communities suffering from different terrorist attacks in Northwestern Nigeria, to defend themselves and to stop running away like cowards.
Magashi told reporters in Abuja that the bandits were having a field day because they knew if they attacked communities, the people would not fight back.
“I don’t know why people are running away from minor, minor, minor things like that. They should stand. Let these people know that even the villagers have the competence and capability to defend themselves,” he stressed.
Gatawa is not the only town where residents responded to the call and repelled attacks. Numerous villages in Northern Nigeria have recorded similar action, although it came with some consequences.
Push backs often witness reprisal attacks as the terrorists go back to the villages and towns, for revenge.
The terrorists, according to inhabitants, say they would balance killing one of them by killing at least 10 locals in another attack.
Mallam Gatawa said they were aware of the possibility of reprisal attacks and they planned for it. He told HumAngle that repelling one attack was just a starting point as more intense fights may follow.
“We are collaborating with security officers to ensure proper protection and safety of our people,” he said in a phone interview.
Experts have raised alarm on the danger of self-defence with weapons —mostly machete and sticks— that cannot match the sophisticated arms of the terrorists.
“These weapons are no match for the superior power of the attackers, who obviously are not hindered by laws and licences when illicitly acquiring weapons like AK-47s and pump-action shotguns,” Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani wrote.
According to Nwaubani, it is nearly impossible to legally purchase a firearm in Nigeria. No matter how determined an individual might be, they cannot defend themselves with just bare hands and bravery.
Arming and disbanding local vigilante groups
On March 10, Sokoto State Government said it banned the activities of local vigilante otherwise known as “Yan Sakai” to forestall attracting reprisals from the terrorists and the need to impress it on people not to take the laws into their hands.
The state’s governor, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, said the state government will instead establish a vigilante group that will provide information to security agents and allow them to carry out their exercise.
This was coming a few hours after the Niger State Government promised to arm local vigilante groups that could help them in confronting the terrorists.
“We are not going to disband the vigilante as a result of threat from the bandits,” said Niger State Governor, Abubakar Sani Bello.
He added that “even when banditry activities in the state are stopped, the vigilante will still be there to provide security in the local government areas.”
Governor Bello said his government will arm the vigilante group in the state with pump-action guns to enable them confront terrorists and address other security threats.
However, Nnamdi Obasi, International Crisis Group’s senior adviser on Nigeria, told BBC’s Newsday programme that Bello’s hope to overcome the bandits with pump-action guns is nearly impossible.
“The rival bandits are using AK-47, machine guns and more recently Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and then we are sending people with double-barred guns and pump-action guns to go face them,” Obasi said.
“It is a very unequal match and it’s going to lead to a more complicated situation than we have at the moment,” he added.
There are also worries about the dangers of making firearms available to the local vigilantes that may ease the access to weapons by non-state actors and will then amplify insecurity sooner or later.
Locations suffering from terrorist attacks and lost confidence in the government are at the centre of their own security and that of their communities through vigilante officers.
However, these local vigilante groups have been accused of extrajudicial killings, extortion, persecution of suspected terrorists and perceived informers, without sound proof.
The insecurity created by the rural terrorism opened an opportunity for the vigilante to either witch-hunt their old foes or amass illegal wealth.
Pastoralists often complain of constant harassment, intimidation and confiscation of their properties unlawfully by the vigilantes.
These were part of the issues raised by a security expert, Yusuf Anka, in a telephone interview with HumAngle. Anka said that while the governor might mean well, his decision may not be in the state’s best interest.
Anka told HumAngle that the decision of the governor to arm local vigilante groups might backfire, as the group is not well trained. The lack of training on the part of the vigilantes will lead to the targeting of specific ethnic groups, he warned.