Alhasan Abdullahi woke up in Isa, a town in the Isa Local Government Area of Sokoto, to welcome family members and friends who had come to congratulate him on his successful escape from a bandits’ den.
Not many had survived as he did, his visitors reminded him as they prayed and praised God in a rowdy congregational tone.
For five years, Sokoto State has been one of the five most terrorised states in the northwest region. Other states in this category are Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina and Kebbi, according to a report by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD).
Analysts also claimed the armed groups ravaging the villages are those escaping from stern military operations in neighbouring states. However, recent bandit operations suggest otherwise.
Before his abduction, Abdullahi, who lives in the city of Sokoto, had only read reports of bandits and kidnappings. He never thought that he would become a victim.
One of the stories he read was the October 2021 incident that plunged the entire state into sadness. Armed men riding on motorcycles had stormed a busy market in Goronyo, a town that is about 78 kilometres from Sokoto, shooting sporadically and burning cars and shops. After the attack, 43 lifeless bodies were dumped in the mortuary, while scores of severely injured people were transported to the hospital for medical attention.
Though attacks were rampant in its neighbourhood, Goronyo, the largest city in the Goronyo Local Government Area, used to be home to refugees who had at one time or the other escaped or survived bandit attacks. But the October attack changed the narrative, forcing the whole LGA to be at the mercy of bandits.
In other parts of the state, the bandits had explicitly carried out actions that clearly showed that, despite being a proscribed terrorist group, they are not on the run. Villages in Sabon Birni were considered the most hit in the state.
In November 2021, Turji, the most-feared terrorist leader in the region, disposed a government-appointed traditional ruler in Gangara village and appointed a new village head. He also reopened three mosques and markets the state government had earlier ordered to be closed.
The first order of the new terrorist village ruler appointed by Turji was for the villagers to contribute and pay the sum of N1.3 million to him. During the same period, a local news media reported that bandits ordered the payment of N300,000 as tax from each of about 85 villages. The villagers were given two options: they either gather the money or get slaughtered.
HIGHWAY, HIGH RISK
While villages under a bandit colony are open to survival options under a new regime, victims of road strikes suffer instant death or heartbreaking abductions.
In June 2021, the wife of an ECWA pastor was a victim of an abduction that involved over 50 passengers along Tureta-Lambar Bakura road in the state. Abubakar Umar, a motorist from Talata Marafa, who witnessed the incident from a far and hidden location, told newsmen that the operation lasted uninterruptedly for about 30 minutes and about three vehicles conveying passengers had been emptied by the time the operation ended.
A few days after the abduction, the armed men demanded a N30 million before the abductees could be freed. Five months after haggling over the price of freedom, the pastor’s wife was eventually freed after her family made a N2.5 million payment.
Six months after the incident, passengers inside a 42-seater bus travelling through the Garin Bawa area of Sabon Birnin were also ambushed by bandits. The bandits shot sporadically at the vehicle conveying the passengers, causing an explosion in the process. Road emergency officials said 23 people were killed in a roasted-barbeque manner, while six others sustained life-threatening fire burn injuries.
This tragic event pushed youths in northwestern states to the streets in protest. Civil society groups, who also reacted to the attack, demanded an end to the continuous attacks and loss of lives.
On March 31, Abdullahi was part of a ten-passenger bus traveling from Sokoto to Isa town in the Isa Local Government Area of Sokoto State. The driver of the vehicle had two options: pass the dangerous Marnona–Isa road, which is about 104 kilometres, or make a long trip of 172 kilometres through Goronyo and Sabon-Birni before curving to Isa, which was considered safe.
Still contemplating on which way to follow, the bus driver got an assurance from military men stationed at Marnona junction, and that made him arrive at a sudden conclusion.
“You can pass there, the road is safe now,” the soldiers said.
Unfortunately, this assurance almost cost the commuters their lives, when at about 45 kilometers to Isa, they were ambushed by a group of bandits.
“Out of the car! Face the ground!” The bandits commanded them.
“Shockingly, there were people going about their daily businesses beside the road where we were stopped,” Abdullahi said.
He was later told the area where they were attacked is a village called Qāidah, which already had a pact with bandits. Their agreement, he learned, was to allow the bandits carry on their activities while the village remained unattacked.
The passengers also noticed a car whose windows had been hit by bullets and the driver from behind.
“The driver had wanted to elude the kidnappers, but they didn’t mind killing him in the process. When they saw us, they left the injured driver to his fate and drove all attention to us,” Abdullahi said.
“With several rounds of slaps and kicks, the bandits pillaged our belongings before marching us into the bush. This marked the beginning of our new ordeal.”
ONE DAY WITH BANDITS
On their way, a scuffle ensued between the bandits and the driver.
“They were asking our driver for something and he refused to give them. After a few minutes of back and forth over their demand, they hit the driver in the head with the butt of a gun and blood began to gush out. When he could no longer walk, they released him and even gave him N10,000 from the N40,000 they had collected from me,” Abdullahi explained.
By this time, four out of the nine abductees had managed to escape. This development frustrated the armed men who, as a result, issued a stern warning that anybody caught misbehaving would be shot instantly.
“Soon, three armed men appeared on three different motorbikes and we were asked to mount the bikes. They actually made more than two passengers mount the bikes. All through this period, nobody spoke about where we were being taken to,” he said.
The passengers were taken to an unknown location, Abdullahi recalled.
“However, from the location, we could see roofs of buildings and hear the sounds of passing large vehicles,” he further said.
“At this place, we saw an army of bandits. There were many of them and most of them were young. They had a warehouse where they kept their weapons and it was strictly guarded.”
The abductees were taken to a location not far from the warehouse and watched by four bandits assigned to them.
“In the night, they gave us shabbily-cooked rice without stew, and that was the only type of food we were given every time we were served,” said Abdullahi.
However, during their time in captivity, the abductees learned a couple of things about the identity of the bandits. Though they were convinced their abductors were Fulani by tribe, they also heard them saying they were from Niger Republic. The bandits told them they were taking revenge because of the level of marginalisation their tribe had suffered in the area.
“They said our people (Hausa) are killing their people (Fulani) and that was why they were taking revenge,” Abdullahi told FIJ.
This was however not a new development. Dated back to the 2000s, feuds between the Fulanis, who are commonly cattle herders, and the Hausa farmers were always as a result of disputes over grazing land for cattle. But in recent times, the clash has been aggravated by reprisal attacks from local vigilantes who take out Fulani settlements suspected of harbouring bandits. Thus, and gradually, the war shifted from targeting attackers to ethnic profiling.
According to a report by the CDD, “the actions of the Yan Sakai (local vigilantes) have been central to the growth of conflicts in the northwest by fuelling tit-for-tat violence”.
The report also noted that “as of October 2021, over 12,000 people had been killed, one million displaced, and approximately another million children are out of school because of the criminal violence known colloquially as banditry”.
A day after Abdullahi’s abduction, the kidnappers had reached out to his family and demanded a N15 million ransom. Negotiations were still ongoing when Abdullahi saw a chance to escape.
“I woke up in the middle of the night and realised that another two out of the remaining five of us kept at the place had escaped,” he explained.
He also noticed that the men assigned to keep watch on them had slept too. He tried calling them but got no response. This was when he became convinced it was time to flee.
“I woke up the two other abductees and one of them agreed to follow while the other refused. We understood because the bandits had warned that if we cooperated with them, we would one day be released. However, any attempt to run would make us lose our lives,” he said.
“If we want to go, the right time was now,” the other abductee, who was ready to take the risk with him, said.
Looking straight into the dark bush, Abdullahi started to run. At first, he could feel his quick and violent thud on the land, then, moments later, he could not. They ran towards the place where they believed the sound of passing large trucks were coming from.
After hours of running barefoot, they stepped onto a tarred road in front of Qaidah, the village they were kidnapped from. There, they met an abductee who escaped earlier being cared for by the villagers. They asked them to wait until the villagers looked after their bloody feet, but Abdullahi refused.
“I declined the offer because at that point, I could no longer trust anybody,” he told FIJ.
So, yet again, the two escapees took to their heels. The road they trod lead to ‘nowhere’. Although they were on a tarred road, their surrounding was all dark. Suddenly, they heard a sound of an approaching motorbike behind them, and immediately ran into the bush.
“Then the voice came: It’s me, it’s me, don’t run. We then looked carefully and saw that it was the injured fellow abductee who was receiving treatment at Qaidah on the bike. We joined him and we headed to Isa,” said Abdullahi.
“In the town, everybody we talked to said the road had been abandoned, and that we shouldn’t have passed through it.”
Three days later, Abdullahi headed back to Sokoto via Marnona–Goronyo–Isa road. Apart from the leg injuries he sustained during the abduction, the harrowing experience gave him sleepless nights for days.
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