Security in Nigeria: How to End Banditry and Kidnapping with Mercenaries

By Temilade Aderiye & Debo Onifade

Depending on the time, space, and circumstances, the concept of banditry has undergone various changes. In 19th century Europe and America, a bandit was viewed as a freedom fighter whose aim was to ensure the liberation of the oppressed from the upper class or the colonizers. In some pre-industrial societies, peasants see bandits as the poor people’s champions while the government viewed them as outlaws, bandits, or hoodlums.

However, in a typical traditional African setting, a bandit is a person who is specialized in armed robbery and other related crimes. Banditry manifests in Africa in the form of killing, maiming, and profligate destruction of lives and properties and this constitutes a palpable security challenge.

In Nigeria, the upsurge of armed banditry in 2014 with cattle rustling activities has worsened in recent times as bandits have begun maiming and killing their victims. This trend has spread from the northern parts to other formerly less-turbulent parts of the country.

Over the past years, Nigeria has been plagued by several incidences of banditry and social unrest among other issues. Although banditry is not something new to the country, the situation has worsened with even the supposedly untouchable people in the society being attacked by unruly elements daily. Some analysts have traced the origin of banditry in Nigeria to the outcome of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970.

In his book titled, “This Present Darkness” (2016), Stephen Ellis examines the history of organized crime in Nigeria. He traces post-independence banditry in Nigeria to shortly before the civil war. This was when the government broke down in some parts of the Western Region and the line between crime, political violence, and organized insurgency was blurred. At the war’s end, Gowon’s military regime had failed to effectively manage demobilization and when the demobilized combatants returned home from the war with nothing to do, they turned to outlawry.

According to the Punch newspaper (2018), urban banditry ensued in Southern Nigeria, which comprises 29% of Nigeria’s nearly 924,000 km² of landmass. It is not surprising that armed robbery manifested early in the more developed areas of the country. One of the early proponents of banditry in Nigeria was Ishola Oyenusi, a high-school dropout who gave himself the title “the Doctor.” At the end of the Civil War, it was reported that he terrorized Lagos. To curb banditry, the then military government introduced a compulsory sentence of “death by firing squad” for convicted armed robbers. As reported in the Punch newspaper (2018), on April 26, 1971, the first set of public executions took place in front of Bar Beach, Victoria Island, Lagos, and less than five months after, Ishola Oyenusi was executed at the same location on September 8, 1971.

However, urban banditry was not restricted to only the southern parts of Nigeria. A bank was robbed of £27,750 in Kano by three men in April 1970. Thus, the rate of public executions quickly intensified. By 1976, the firing squad had allegedly publicly executed more than four hundred armed robbers. Under the military regime of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, it was reported that there were over 338 such executions in 1984 alone. And between 1984 and 1996, allegedly over 1,200 of these executions had taken place. It was around this same period that drug trafficking emerged as a major component of banditry in Nigeria.

Each succeeding decade ushered in an escalation of urban banditry in different areas of southern Nigeria. The poster boy for banditry in the 1980s was Lawrence Anini, another school dropout who combined indiscriminate violence with a touch of modern-day Robin Hood to advocate for the less privileged. Following effective police work, two members of Anini’s gang were convicted in the mid-1980s, and in response, he turned his guns on the police in an intense frenzy of mass killings, during which ten police officers were reportedly murdered in Bendel State between August and October 1986. Two months later in December 1986, Lawrence Anini’s gang (of which one Superintendent Monday Osunbor was included) was arrested, and they were executed in March 1987.

Following Anini’s footsteps, Shina Rambo terrorized some parts of the South-West of Nigeria with similar activities in the 1990s. By the 2000s, assassinations, political violence, and commercial kidnapping would materialize as the dominant forms of banditry in Nigeria. In Abia State and parts of South-East Nigeria, there was an absence of law and order as security was seized by a vigilante horde, called Bakassi Boys.

The mismanagement of natural resources exploitation in the Northern and Southern parts of the country contributed to the transition from urban banditry to rural banditry. This was further aided by economic mismanagement. Southern Kaduna has always been rich in gemstones, such as sapphire, diamond, ruby, quartz, aquamarine, and tourmaline. However, this caused an influx of gemstone miners who invaded some communities in Jema’a in the 1980s.

These miners allegedly came in from as far as Senegal, Sudan, and Mali, in search of the shiny gemstones that were called “devil stones” by the locals. It was reported by Aniete Usen in the Newswatch Magazine (1986) that there were cases of elimination via kidnapping, the sudden disappearance of mine diggers and dealers, and a range of other blood-chilling occurrences with the diggers being armed with deadly weapons.

These weapons that were taken into Southern Kaduna prominently featured in the first crisis in Kafanchan in 1987. And in the last three decades, there has been a downward fall from mining to organized banditry in Zamfara and Birnin-Gwari. Armed banditry violence has also taken on a new dimension as the farmer/herder conflicts in the early 2000s have today metamorphosized into kidnapping for ransom, cattle rustling, killings, and sexual violence.

This case of banditry in Nigeria is one that still exists today due to several reasons. One of these reasons is the sympathetic stance some men in the Nigerian armed forces reportedly have towards the bandits. There have always been rotten eggs among the armed forces who decide to side with these bandits for financial gain. There are also others who give the excuse of not being paid enough to take care of their needs and this causes them to sell out information to the bandits and ensure their swift release if arrested.

For example, Lawrence Anini’s reign of terror in the then Bendel State and the surrounding states was reportedly facilitated by the collusion of some high-ranking police personnel who provided the gang with intelligence and ensured that incriminating evidence against them disappeared without any trace. Another instance of security officials colluding with criminals is that of the former Commissioner of Police, Abba Kyari who is currently involved in a $1.1million fraud case with Abbas Ramon, an online fraudster popularly known as Hushpuppi.

Nepotism is one other reason for the continued existence of banditry in Nigeria. According to the Daily Post newspaper (2021), Chuks Ibegbu, a former National Publicity Secretary of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, accused President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government of “treating bandits with kid gloves.” He postulated that the government has been focusing more on the prosecution of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and other pro-Biafra organizations than dealing with the menace that banditry poses to the country. Whether this is true or not, people are legitimately concerned that nepotism has influenced the fight against banditry in Nigeria.

The lack of adequate fighting tools often caused by alleged corruption among the senior rank and file of the Nigerian military is perhaps the most unfortunate reason why banditry and kidnapping have continued to increase in Nigeria. Soldiers cannot be motivated to fight if they don’t have the right tools, financial compensation, and life insurance among others.  These reasons and more bring up the question of a better and more effective solution to the menace of armed banditry in Nigeria.

According to the Daily Post newspaper (2022), on the 8th of March 2022 in Sabaka, some armed bandits attacked and killed more than sixty-two members of Yan Sa Kai, a volunteer vigilante group in Kebbi. Around 4:30 pm on that same day, some bandits also entered a settlement by the riverside near Kanya in Wasagu/Danko. Leaving their motorcycles behind, the attackers entered Kanya, attacked the convoy of the deputy governor, and killed five police officers, thirteen soldiers, and a vigilante. In April 2022, a gang of bandits that are believed to be Fulani herders allegedly ambushed nine villages in Plateau State, killed over fifty people, and kidnapped over sixty others. They also looted and burned houses during their rampage.

As reported in the Vanguard newspaper (2022), on the 28th of March 2022, an Abuja-Kaduna train with over nine hundred passengers was attacked by bandits in Katari, Kaduna State. At least, eight people were killed and several of these passengers were abducted by the bandits. In response, the Kaduna state governor, Nasir el-Rufai said that the next step to take might be to import mercenaries who will combat the terrorists who are hiding in the forest areas and protect the citizens if the government persists in failing to completely stop the activities of these bandits. Although, members of the opposition party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), and other organizations were vehemently against this course of action, hiring mercenaries might be the only solution to the issue of banditry in Nigeria.

Mercenaries are private individuals, particularly soldiers, who partake in military conflict in a foreign conflict zone for personal gain. They are outsiders to the conflict and are not members of any official military outfit. They are sometimes referred to as hired guns, armed civilians, or soldiers of fortune. Mercenaries are often employed by governments and non-state characters in various war situations. They are not liable to official oversight, and this means that they are only answerable to their employers, not the state.

The use of mercenaries in hostile situations is an activity that is as old as war itself. The first recorded use of mercenaries in history is that of the mercenaries that worked for the army under the command of the King Shulgi of Ur (2094-2047 BC), the Sumerian king. In Persia, King Xerxes I is also said to have employed the services of Greek fighters in 484 B.C. From the Balearic Islands shepherds who fought for Carthage against Rome during the Punic Wars to the German auxiliary soldiers (also known as Hessians) who fought on the British side during the American Revolution, soldiers for hire (mercenaries) have populated many of the well-known wars in history. Mercenaries have also had deep roots in African warfare. The Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses II was reported to have utilized over 11,000 mercenaries during the 13th century B.C. These hired guns were the hallmarks of the colonial eras and the Cold War eras. (Africa Defense Forum, 2022)

Some of the more modern versions of the “soldiers of fortune” are referred to as Private Military Companies (PMCs). These businesses or outfits are usually established by veterans of national (or international) military organizations. They can provide anything from logistic services and training to deadly force on the battlefield. PMCs have had an already solid presence in Africa for over a generation, and they offer their services in high-profile conflict situations all over the African continent. PMCs are sometimes referred to as private military security companies. They are legal entities, unlike mercenaries of past times. Various countries have differing views on the morality and legality of the use of private military companies.

A PMC is a private business that typically has several characteristics. One of the characteristics of private military companies is that they offer their services to national or international governments, international groups, and other such clients. Their services include guarding buildings, convoys, or personnel, maintaining and deploying weapons, training, advising local security forces, supervising detainees, and so on. Often, these soldiers of fortune proffer direct and tactical military assistance including combat on the front lines of a conflict situation.

The services of these private military companies have been utilized in conflict situations all over the world including places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, the former Yugoslavia, and Syria. Recently, their activities have been active in Africa, especially in Libya, the Central African Republic, and Mozambique. Over the past 30 years, several PMCs have been involved in some high-profile African conflict situations.

One of the first and perhaps most well-known instances is the Executive Outcomes (EO) which was founded by Eeben Barlow, a former officer of the South African Defence Force in 1989. As a former lieutenant colonel, Barlow had the experience and connections that allowed him access to personnel that had a wide range of tactical and military experience. Aside from these, Executive Outcomes was able to operate in two conflicts effectively and efficiently in Africa due to the availability of surveillance equipment, cargo and troop carriers, and light aircraft. The two African conflicts are the civil wars that occurred in Sierra Leone and Angola.

The activities of EO helped to turn the tide in favor of government forces during the conflict in Angola. Also, during the conflict between the government and the Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone, EO was employed to assist government forces in the mid-1990s. The rebels were eventually defeated, the government was able to secure a peace treaty and elections took place. The use of mercenaries in these conflict situations brought a swift end to the bloody civil wars by dealing a total defeat to the rebel forces.

One other private military company that is active on the African continent is Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a South Africa-based company that was established by a former colonel in the Zimbabwean military, Lionel Dyck. This group provides a range of services, including explosive hazard management, counter-poaching, and canine services. DAG’s recent and high-profile activity in Africa was its involvement in the growing and violent insurgency that was happening in Cabo Delgado province which is in northern Mozambique. The group was called in to assist the Mozambican authorities put a stop to the Islamic State-backed insurgency in the year 2020. DAG was able to achieve some success while in Mozambique.

The most active private military company that is currently operating in Africa is Russia’s Wagner Group. It has been active in Libya, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan. Wagner Group is a good example of a private company that is being used as a national surrogate to secure influence in a foreign nation without necessarily having to undergo the scrutiny that is usually brought on when more official, military channels are used.

Nigeria is also one of the African countries that have employed the services of private military companies. In late 2014, the then administration enlisted the services of a South African private military company through the Office of National Security Adviser to train a unit of the Nigerian army to conduct a search and rescue for the abducted Chibok schoolgirls. According to ICIR – International Center for Investigative Reporting (2015), in 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration reportedly hired a South African private mercenary company (that was established in 2006) called Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment, and Protection, (STTEP) to combat the BokoHaram terrorists operating in the northeastern parts of Nigeria. The services of mercenaries have been employed in various countries including Columbia, Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Latin America, South Africa, and so on with a high level of success rate.

According to the HumAngle media platform (2022), between the years 2017 and 2018, Four-Troop which is a company that was established by veterans of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Special Forces units, was allegedly employed to train the Special Forces personnel of the Nigerian Air Force in asymmetric warfare, counterterrorism, and airport security. Four-Troop reportedly operates in South America, Africa, and Asia. In 2020, the Nigerian Army School of Infantry joined forces with a company called Starter Point Integrated Services (SPIS) Ltd to train more than one thousand troops in Camp Seleya which is in the Jaji military cantonment.

Considering the effectiveness of private military companies in other parts of the world, the Nigerian government should look into enlisting their services in putting a stop to the incessant case of banditry in the country. Aside from the swift response to threats, another reason PMCs would be a better solution to banditry is their neutrality. Oftentimes, PMCs are foreign personnel that have no stake in whatever conflict their services are required to resolve. Unlike the inability of Nigerian men to combat the activities of their tribesmen, private military companies can objectively tackle the situation. Thus, they are not constricted by tribal ties, and this allows them the freedom to adequately carry out their activities.

Another benefit of hiring PMCs is flexibility. There is an absence of the bureaucratic and political time interval that is often required in the decision-making processes to mobilize police or military forces. Private military companies are ready to move their forces within short notice to carry out their tasks. Deployment and recall can be done once the task is completed without any hassle whatsoever. One other benefit is the ability of private military companies to provide specialized forces. These companies often comprise (mostly retired) trained and highly experienced police and military personnel. This makes it easier for PMCs to hire people with the required experience. And this is done without the bureaucratic time required to mobilize military forces thereby ensuring that they swiftly and efficiently accomplish their tasks.

According to the Africa Defense Forum magazine (2022), in February 2019, during a debate in the United Nations Security Council regarding the matter of “Mercenary activities as a source of insecurity and destabilization in Africa”, the use of private military companies was discussed. While a group headed by Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was against the use of mercenaries in conflict resolution, the other group was in support of their use. This group insisted that the difference between destructive mercenary groups and the more legitimate and professional private military companies should be taken into consideration.

The Nigerian government should consider employing legitimate private military companies to combat the ongoing banditry problem in the country. One reason this should be considered is the state of the Nigerian military. There are always military operations in the country that certainly require their attention. They cannot be everywhere at once; thus, they are stretched thin and unable to properly perform their duties. However, if mercenaries are employed, they will be able to focus on eradicating banditry in Nigeria.

The solution to the issue of armed banditry in Nigeria is to employ the services of private military companies. This is not to imply that the Nigerian military organizations are not doing their job. However, this more effective approach is necessary to drastically reduce banditry in Nigeria.

September 9, 2022

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