Criminal Cartels on the Loose

By Olusegun Adeniyi

Following a tip-off in July 2016, the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) arrested an obscure fruit seller under a bridge in Zaria, Kaduna State. Investigations revealed the man to be a high-ranking Boko Haram operative who coordinated the finance cell of the group with others in Dubai,

United Arab Emirates (UAE) to disburse funds to various terror camps in North East Nigeria as well as Diffa, Nigér Republic. From what I gather, the Zaria arrest proved to be a major breakthrough that eventually revealed a pattern of financial flows and transactions not only to Boko Haram field operatives but to other criminal cartels, particularly those engaged in kidnappings for ransom.

The ONSA investigations further revealed that between 2015 and 2016, the sum of $782,000 was transferred from Dubai to Nigeria through Bureau De Change (BDC) operators to aid Boko Haram. As reported in the media, this was what led to the conviction in April 2019 of six Nigerians, including a man identified as a government official. Later that same year (December 2019), an Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of the lower court and upheld the imprisonment sentence imposed on the six Nigerian citizens. Aside laundering money for the terror group, these men were also found guilty of running a Boko Haram cell in the UAE to raise funds and material assistance for the insurgents in Nigeria. Although the convicts claim innocence, follow-up investigations have helped the security agencies to better understand the movement of money by criminal cartels in Nigeria. The investigations also led to the arrest of accomplices in Kaduna, Kano and Zamfara States.

Meanwhile, the Dubai security breakthrough helped to expose how some of the criminal networks operating in Nigeria had perfected a seamless method of laundering money through BDC operators. Once the money has been given to a BDC operator in Dubai, he contacts an associate in Nigeria who gives the same amount in cash to the coordinator. On the instruction of the Boko Haram leadership, the coordinator goes ahead to distribute the funds to members who incidentally have no direct contact with one another, in an elaborate scheme to cover their tracks. The same pattern was discovered for disbursement of ransom monies from kidnappings, especially those traced to illegal mining in Zamfara State.

What the foregoing suggests quite clearly is that we are dealing with a serious national security threat that is not only well organized but well-funded. For instance, the thriving Nigerian gold market in the UAE has been traced to activities of illegal miners in Zamfara with Aminu Kano International Airport as a gateway. “It is the most notorious airport in the country”, a security source told me last week. But the real challenge is in Zamfara where the proliferation of arms and hundreds of muscle men working as miners, (licensed as well as illegal) engage in kidnappings. A combination of porous borders, weak signal and technical intelligence, lack of proper data of licensed miners and the influx of illicit drugs such as Tramadol have combined to make banditry the most lucrative enterprise in the state.

According to security sources, there is a nexus between kidnappings for ransom and terrorism as well as between gold prospecting in Zamfara State and the general wave of criminality by herdsmen that has spread to the southern part of the country with dire implications for national peace and security. For instance, a clear pattern has emerged between ISWAP and kidnappings with many of the herders implicated as foot soldiers. “Most of the herdsmen you see all over the place, whether in the north or south, kidnapping, raping and maiming people are employees of a larger terror network. They kidnap but the ransom does not go to them”, a senior security officer told me.

Most of the people identified with illegal mining in Zamfara State are herders who realize that more money can be made from kidnappings. They are not only ‘diversifying’ their business, many of them are also moving southward. “A lot of these Fulani marauders are from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso” said a security source. Sadly, rather than tackle the problem, the presidency indulges in making excuses that lead to accusations of complicity and most often in a manner that threatens the unity of the country as an inclusive polity founded on diversity. And with that, kidnappings for ransom has become the most lucrative enterprise in the country.

In October 2019, a former Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Abubakar disclosed that over N3 billion was collected by bandits as ransom from relatives of victims in Zamfara alone within a period of eight years. Abubakar who chaired a committee set up by the current governor, Bello Matawalle to find solutions to banditry in the state, said the report covered the period from June 2011 to May, 2019. The money, according to Abubakar, was collected from 3,672 victims whose relatives paid to secure their freedom. Abubakar said that a total of 4,983 women were widowed, 25,050 children orphaned and 190,340 persons displaced by banditry over the period in the state.

While that level of threat should worry the authorities, there is also an international dimension to the criminality that is just as intriguing to security agencies. I understand that there are more than a thousand Chinese and Indians in the mining business in Zamfara State. “Yet, not a single one of their nationals has been kidnapped.” Meanwhile, some of the people who serve as security personnel to these miners have been discovered to be engaged in kidnappings for ransom, raising questions about who they work for.

The threat coming from this criminal enterprise is now political given what the senate yesterday described as “issuance and counter issuance of eviction notice by some ethnic entrepreneurs and groups posing as ethnic nationalists and champions”, while kidnappers continue to operate mostly on the roads, outskirts of towns and farms where they ambush innocent rural people. That these kidnappers kill, maim and rape is bad enough. That they are identified as belonging to a certain ethnic colouration is the problem. They particularly enjoy brutalizing their victims which perhaps explains why in most instances, they force their captives to walk long distances on thorns and sharp stones in the bush.

Quoting the global risk consultancy, ‘Control Risks’, the Financial Times of London, recently reported that Nigeria has the highest rate of kidnaps for ransom of both locals and foreigners in all of Africa. “For most businesses, the greatest risk to their employees is while they are travelling,” Tom Griffin, senior partner for Africa and the Middle East at Control Risks was quoted to have said. “Almost half of all kidnaps in Nigeria recorded by Control Risks occur during road travel, with kidnappers often selecting targets based on perceived wealth during roadside ambushes, roadblocks or attacks in traffic congestion.”

We must admit that we have a crisis on our hands that is not restricted to any section of the country. It is national. In the clip of the interview he granted a television station that has gone viral, Alhaji Bashir Kurfi, National Chairman, Network for Justice narrated an incident that happened in Kurfi, Katsina State where he hails from. “One lady came to share her story. She went to see her daughter who gave birth and then the bandits came—they asked her to hold the baby and they raped the daughter. And then after, they asked the daughter to hold the baby and they raped the mother. This is what is going on everyday…it is the reality on the ground and it is a shame on us.”

It should worry President Muhammadu Buhari that whether on land or in water, the Nigeria territorial space is now one of the least safe spaces in the world. The latest report by the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reveals that over 95 per cent of the 135 shipping crew members kidnapped last year were recorded in the Gulf of Guinea and mostly on Nigerian waters. “Incidents in the Gulf of Guinea are particularly dangerous, as over 80 per cent of attackers were armed with guns,” according to the IMB.

That there is no coherent strategy to deal with the challenge can be glimpsed from the interview granted the BBC Hausa Service by the Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir elRufai. While he advocates that you do not appease criminals, his Zamfara State counterpart believes in offering ‘amnesty’ and money to bandits and kidnappers to make them change their ways. El-Rufai has therefore cited lack of unity and cooperation among the governors of the North West as one of the reasons the security challenges persist. The governors, according to El-Rufai, have different approaches to ending banditry and kidnapping.

This is where the moral authority of the president can help. He should be able to impress upon the governor of Zamfara State that you do not make deals with criminals. Bandits and kidnappers being offered government largesse will never keep to deals as we see with the experience of Katsina State. And while there is a place for the personal efforts such as the one being undertaken by Sheikh Gumi, the state must muster the capacity to restore law and order without bowing to criminals.

At a time we are facing apprehension over impending national crisis, it is the responsibility of leadership to identify solutions to difficult problems, ensure stability of the polity, and guide the society to prosperity. The fear of a national crisis, this time, is fueled by criminal activities traced to herdsmen who now roam the country with impunity. The rising profile and complexities of conflict disorders in the country therefore requires a hands-on approach from the president. Sadly, that is precisely where the problem lies.
That sundry criminal cartels have overpowered the capacity of the state to restore law and order is no longer in doubt. But more worrisome is the fact that our national security challenge is being framed around identity politics which can only exacerbate the situation. The tone of debate yesterday in the Senate reflected this unfortunate national divide. According to a senator from Adamawa State, Binos Yaroe, whenever kidnappers are arrested anywhere within the country, the majority of them always turn out to be Fulani. That is the kind of rhetoric you also get from the street. “Right now, we are an endangered species. People are going into homes to abduct, to rape, herdsmen are everywhere. We have spoken several times and nothing has been done. Posterity beckons”, said Senator Biodun Olujimi from Ekiti State in a note of resignation.

The connecting thread for the variants of violence that we witness across the country today, as I have argued several times on this page, is that the Nigerian state has lost what Max Weber described as the monopoly of “the legitimate use of physical force” to criminal cartels. Until we muster the capacity to effectively confront them, we will continue to be at their mercy. But whichever way one looks at the current challenge of insecurity across Nigeria, it all leads to the doorstep of President Buhari. It is therefore my hope that he will address that challenge most decisively. Before the amber light turns red!

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on

We use cookies to improve our website. By continuing to use this website, you are giving consent to cookies being used. More details…