Ending banditry in Nigeria’s Zamfara State without making mining a casualty

When the Nigerian government announced the suspension of mining activities in Zamfara, a northwestern Nigerian state following attacks by bandits which has led to loss of several lives, it was to ensure that security forces are able to reclaim every public space under the control of the bandits without civilian casualties. It was also to ensure that perpetrators of violence in the affected areas, as well as their collaborators are arrested and brought to book, even as all criminal camps and hideouts are destroyed. The Nigerian government had based its directive on an intelligence report that found a “strong and glaring nexus between the activities of armed bandits and illicit miners”. But violence in Zamfara, like several other parts of Nigeria, has not always been about mining.

From agricultural to natural resources, competition for often insufficient resources, has led to different forms of violence in several parts of Nigeria. Farmers have been attacked post-harvest and their produce carted away. In the same vein, herders have been attacked and their cattle rustled.  Both farmers and herders have also attacked each other over grazing rights as the area of land with vegetation continue to shrink due to drought and desertification. In a bid to support government efforts aimed at ending the violence, several communities result to the use of vigilantes, armed to be able to confront the attackers of their communities, but on several occasions, some of the vigilantes forget their primary mandate. According to a 2018 paper by Dr. Murtala Ahmed Rufa’i of the Department of History, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, the active involvement of the vigilante groups in the conflict helped quell it in some areas. However, in Zamfara, a northwestern state in Nigeria, “with the increase in the spate of the conflict in 2014, the vigilante group had divided opinions on how to approach the menace,” Dr. Rufa’i noted.

“Some were of the view that the bandits should be violently fought while others advocated for a peaceful approach. This led to the emergence of parallel vigilante groups in the state: the militant and non-militant wings. This division and violent approach to the bandits triggered the conflict to a certain proportion in 2015. As a result of this, whenever and wherever the bandits strike, their explanation is that they are on a ‘vengeance mission’ or ‘reprisal attack’ against the vigilante members that carried out extra-judicial killings on their fellow members.”

Fast-forward to 2019, violence in Zamfara has gone beyond cattle-rustling and there are reports suggesting that it is more about resource control. While the position of the Nigerian government shows reports pointing at resource control might be true, the pattern of attacks supports Dr. Rufa’i’s research. However, we have also seen criminal activities expand beyond initial ‘so-called’ causes into anything and everything that can bring in money, including kidnapping, which has also become a huge security concern in Nigeria.

That said, regardless of the cause of insecurity in Zamfara State, the most important thing is an end to the crisis; too many lives have been lost. But while this is very important, there is also a need to apply caution and not throw away the baby with the birth water.

The Nigerian government’s directive that mining activities in Zamfara and other affected states in the country be suspended with immediate effect could have been better communicated. Directing “all foreigners operating in the mining fields” to close and leave within 48 hours may also send the wrong signals to international investors in the Nigerian mining industry. These firms invest millions of dollars in security risk analysis and always update their staff about security risks and when it stops being safe to work in particular areas. Was the government directing them to leave because it is no longer safe to work at those mining fields? If this were so, it would have been better communicated directly to mining companies involved. We do not want investors in our mining industry worried about their investments. The Nigerian government’s ultimatum to foreign mining companies also raises the question of whether the government has seen the need to ascertain that the foreign miners are not funding conflicts in the state.

World over, there are proven correlations between illegal mining and conflicts. Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo have for years battle rebels who use revenue from minerals to purchase arms and fuel conflict. To flush out illegal miners who were indicted in the government’s intelligence report, it could have been more effective to reach out to registered miners through their various groups, leaving illegal miners exposed at the fields.

But having ensured the resurgence of the Nigerian mining sector through unprecedented policy moves, it is doubtful that the government would knowingly take actions that could raise fears about the sector and make investors wary pumping the much-needed funds into the Nigerian mining sector, which has the potential to be a major source of revenue, jobs and foreign exchange.