For the hard pressed people of Zamfara State, great relief came their way mid last week when President Muhammadu Buhari officially launched Operation Harbin Kunama in Dansadau Forest of Maru local government area. The launch of this operation coincided with the staging of this year’s Army Day in the state capital, Gusau. In the days leading up to the launch, dozens of military convoys were seen heading for Zamfara State, conveying armoured cars, tanks, other equipment and ammunition.
In his brief address while launching the operation, Buhari said three important things are relevant for the country’s growth and prosperity, namely security, economy and fighting corruption. He said, “The country has to be secured to be efficiently managed. If there is no security, no matter the available resources, human and material, we are not going to benefit from them.” This highly welcome operation is expected to bring to an end a developing economic and humanitarian catastrophe that has been unfolding in Zamfara as well as the neighbouring states of Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi and Niger for several years.
Dansadau Forest in Zamfara’s southern parts extends well into the neighbouring states and for years, armed bandits turned it into a base for nefarious activities ranging from cattle rustling to raiding markets, besieging whole villages, waylaying highway travellers to kidnapping people for ransom.
When the affected communities set up vigilante groups to protect themselves, the bandits carried out reprisal attacks whenever they suffered casualties. The worst such incident was in April 2014 when bandits killed more than 100 persons at Yargaladima, a village located 20 kilometres north of Dansadau town. In May this year too, more than 3,000 residents were displaced from three villages in Dansadau district following deadly raids on their communities by the armed bandits.
The phenomenon began some years ago in the forested Birnin Gwari area of Kaduna State, where deeply entrenched bandits made life miserable for travellers and residents alike. The bandits also made it impossible for farmers to till their land. They also kidnap women and turn them to sex slaves and in other instances rape women in front of their families. Such is their brazenness that they often attacked towns and even razed police stations, eliciting loud outcries from the Emir of Birnin Gwari, Alhaji Zubairu Jibril Mai Gwari. The bandits then spread to parts of Katsina State where on one occasion dozens of people were killed just before former President Goodluck Jonathan visited the state.
In the forested areas of Zamfara State, the bandits became lords freely roaming the countryside often on motor cycles displaying their weapons. In the past year, they chased hunters out of forests, drove fishermen away from rivers and lakes, chased artisanal miners away from quarries and also warned farmers to stay away from their farms. In many communities, no one dared venture more than a few hundred metres out of the village because the bandits were encamped all over the countryside. Before this operation, it looked as if there will no farming at all this rainy season in a state whose motto is “Farming is our pride.”
The way the small criminal gangs appear to operate at will in one area has encouraged a proliferation of such groups even as the police and other law enforcement agents appear overwhelmed. The period up to the 2015 election seem to be the highest point of the activities of the outlaws that were mainly into rustling and kidnapping at will.
Realizing the common danger faced by their citizens, the governors of Niger, Kebbi, Zamfara, Kaduna and Katsina states have since last year constituted themselves into a committee to tackle the peril facing their peoples. They succeeded in getting President Buhari to order the Army’s One Division in Kaduna to carry out operations in the North West states in order to rout the bandits. This has been done with varying degrees of success in Kano, Kaduna and Katsina states but in Zamfara State, the situation worsened despite the military action. Hence, President Buhari approved Operation Harbin Kunama [which means sting of a scorpion in Hausa].
Chief of Army Staff Lt General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, whose dynamic and innovative leadership of the army since last year has virtually routed Boko Haram, assured the Emir of Gusau last week that banditry in Zamfara State will be gone within a matter of days. We believe him because the North West bandits have nothing of the weaponry, pseudo-religious conviction, centralised co-ordination or international reach of Boko Haram. In fact, within a day of Operation Harbin Kunama, Zamfara State residents reported seeing the bandits fleeing on foot, on motorbikes and on horseback.
We therefore urge the President and the army to prepare for the long haul because, once they are chased out of Zamfara State, these bandits are likely to set up shop in any neighbouring state. They must be chased out of the entire region until their nefarious activities are brought to an end once and for all. In fact, we expect this to be the opening act of a long drawn operation to deal with the criminal elements that have made animal husbandry a taboo for many law abiding Nigerians. It is no secret that owing to the activities of this group of outlaws, many aspiring ranches have come to grief with their animals rustled. Many herders have lost their entire flock with devastating consequences for family and community relations.
We salute the gallantry and professional commitment of the Nigeria Army, which is stretched to breaking point with simultaneous internal security operations in the North East, Niger Delta region, Benue State and now in the North West. No sacrifice on their part is too much to bring peace and tranquillity to the Fatherland. We also praise President Buhari who, despite problems on the economic and other fronts, never lost sight of the fact that security is citizens’ Number One demand from government. Without it, no progress is possible on the economic or other fronts. We wish both President and Army Godspeed with Operation Harbin Kunama.
Our source is convinced that it will be meaningless to complete Operation Harbin Kunama without addressing the shortcoming of the police and other law enforcement agencies as well as the traditional rulers and the judicial system at the lowest levels that combined to allow the outlaws to flourish. The authorities ought to interrogate and punish instances where these different layers of authority failed in their duty thereby making it easier for the bandits to temporarily triumph.