At least 140 people have been killed in several attacks this week in Zamfara State in northwestern Nigeria, a rural region where armed criminal groups are terrorizing populations.
North-west and central Nigeria have for several years been the scene of the activities of “bandits”, who attack, loot and kidnap residents, stealing their livestock and burning their homes.
“We buried a total of 143 people killed by the bandits in these attacks,” Balarabe Alhaji, head of one of the villages attacked, told AFP.
This assessment, which has not yet been confirmed by the authorities, has been corroborated by other local sources.
Hundreds of gunmen raided ten villages in Anka and Bukkuyum districts on motorcycles between Wednesday and Thursday, shooting at residents, looting and burning buildings, the sources said.
A resident of Kurfa Danya village, Babandi Hamidu, said the gunmen, known locally as “bandits”, shot on “sight” at anyone they passed in their path.
“More than 140 people were buried in the ten villages and we are looking for other bodies as many people are missing,” Hamidu said.
Idi Musa, a resident of another village, said that “the death toll is enormous”, citing the figure of around “150 people killed by the bandits”. According to him, the criminals also stole “2,000 head of cattle”.
Another resident, who only declined his first name, Babangida, spoke of the same record.
Both the chief and the three residents said they attended the funerals of the victims in their respective villages.
– “Reprisals” –
On Wednesday, the government officially branded the “bandits” operating in Nigeria as “terrorists” in order to toughen sanctions against perpetrators, their informants and their supporters.
In the official gazette, the activities of “Yan Bindiga” and “Yan Ta’adda” – terms meaning bandits in the local Hausa language – were classified as “acts of terrorism”.
“We have called them terrorists (…) we are going to treat them as such,” President Muhammadu Buhari said on Nigerian television this week.
The 79-year-old former army general is struggling to curb widespread insecurity in the country. In addition to the fight against banditry, the Nigerian army is deployed on multiple fronts, particularly in the northeast, which has been the victim of a jihadist insurgency for more than ten years, and in the southeast, agitated by separatist movements.
Since the end of 2020, criminal gangs have also started targeting schools, kidnapping more than 1,400 students and sparking international outrage. Most have since been released, but hundreds remain in the hands of their captors.
The Nigerian armed forces said this week that they have killed 537 “armed bandits and other criminal elements” and arrested 374 others in the northwest since May 2020, while 452 “abducted civilians have been rescued”.
Kabir Adamu, of Abuja-based security analyst Beacon Consulting Nigeria, said this week’s attacks could be a response to recent military operations to dislodge them from their strongholds in Zamfara state.
“Most of them (the bandits), in revenge, and perhaps because they risked certain death, have decided to move to other areas and it is in this context that they seem carry out these attacks, “Adamu told AFP.
According to some residents, the raids could also be in retaliation for an attack by local self-defense militias of a convoy of bandits trying to flee the Nigerian army.