Notorious bandit leader, Bello Turji, has extended olive branch to the political and traditional authorities in his state of Zamfara, pledging to lay down his arms on condition of cessation of hostilities on all sides.
The federal government last month promised to ‘ruthlessly’ deal with bandits after a Federal High Court in Abuja consented to the government’s application to designate the gunmen as terrorists.
A letter conveying this intention addressed to President Muhammadu Buhari, Governor Bello Matawalle, and the Emir of Shinkafi, dated December 14, 2021, was dispatched to Shinkafi by Turji’s emissary.
A resident of Shinkafi, who is part of the town’s security committee confirmed the authenticity of the 3-page letter according to a report by Daily Trust
This is not the first time he would communicate to the communities through a letter. In September he wrote a joint letter with another kingpin, Halilu Sububu, warning residents of imminent attacks.
The timing raise concerns among observers who fear that the move may just be a gimmick in the light of previous peace pacts with bandits by both the Katsina and Zamfara state governments which collapsed.
In the past week there have been at least five attacks on bandits’ location around Turji’s areas of operations.
On Thursday, an air strike on bandits loyal to Turji’s ally, Halilu, claimed “many lives and injured many others,” according to a source briefed about the attack.
Around the same time, there were other air and ground operations around Isa and Sabon Birni local governments of Sokoto State, and Shinkafi in Zamfara State, where several bandits were reportedly killed, while many of them fled the offensive.
It was also gathered that another air interdiction conducted on Saturday around Gebe, in Bafarawa District in Sokoto State claimed the lives of nine women, six children and one gunman.
In the wake of the confusion created by the military operation, hostages are said to be fleeing from the bandits’ camp to reunite with their families.
“Today, some 10 persons from Shinkafi had gotten back. I heard some others had come in this evening as well, but I have not confirmed that. The bandits had abandoned their cattle and the hostages, only that we don’t know if they were fleeing or going to face the troops,” said Alhaji Ali Labbo, a Shinkafi resident.
In an audio clip obtained by our reporter an unnamed resident of the area was also heard talking about the success of the military operation in the area, as he reported that bandits were seeing abandoning their guns and running.
Turji’s olive branch
In the letter, written in Hausa, Turji re-echoed bandits’ familiar justifications of their campaign of violence, which he said, was due to long-term injustice and killing of their own people.
He lamented ongoing killings by the bandits’ gangs, the yan sa-kai and security forces, as he appealed for bring the conflict to an end through disbanding yan sakai (volunteer guards) groups. He promised to turn in his own arms if that is done.
Prior to dispatching the letter, however, our correspondent had exclusively learnt about Turji’s overtures, including his intention to speak out and propose a peace deal following pressures from some of his key associates who feared that his hard-line posture was exposing all of them to danger.
This newspaper had on December 8 exclusively reported how bandits were making peace with communities over fear that the clearing up of the forested areas they occupy at the end of the rainy season would open up their camps for easy counter offensives.
In the same story, we also reported how an emissary was sent to Turji he had turned back a similar delegation in November who had reportedly went to appeal to him to embrace peace.
The gunmen had been particularly ravenous since the start of the rainy season some six months ago, launching ceaseless attacks on farming communities in parts of Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina, Kaduna and Niger states.
The attacks made a lot of farmers to abandon their farmlands, even as the gang leaders imposed levies in form of labour and cash on those allowed to access their farms.
Turji’s loyalists had for many days at the beginning of December launched incessant attacks on the Shinkafi – Sabon Birni Road following the airstrike which killed parents and other family members of Turji’s associate, Dan Bokkolo, last month.
The bandits’ olive branch
Beginning in November, some of the bandits in Zamfara began to down their arms as they make peace with communities and order the chased away farmers back to their fields.
Daily Trust had, last month, reported how a dreaded terrorist, Ali Kachalla, made peace with the Dansadau Emirate in Zamfara State, promising to end hostilities around the area after a long siege.
The Wazirin Dansadau, Alhaji Mustapha Umar, who confirmed the peace pact with Kachalla said the notorious bandit had agreed to cease hostilities in the communities and that had eventually paved the way for farmers to harvest their farm produce and for travellers to ply the dreaded Gusau-Magami-Dansadau Road.
“This is a clear departure from what was obtainable in the past,” the traditional leader told our reporter.
“We have also warned our people to shun anything capable of derailing the peace process. We have suffered enough as a people. We are calling all the youth to give peace a chance so that the process will be sustained for the benefit of all,” he said.
Not long after the meeting in Dansadau, another bandits’ kingpin operating around Dangulbi, Kachalla Ali, has also convened a meeting recently where he directed villagers to harvest their drying farm produce and entertain no more fear.
In both cases, like in other similar talks ongoing, the olive branch was extended by the bandits, Daily Trust gathered.
Why they are making overtures
While no reason was given for the armistice in Dansadau at the time, it generated curiosity as to what could make the ferocious gunmen to silence their guns even when there was no gunmen amnesty anymore.
It was learnt that with the passing of the shrubby rainy season, the bandits begin to reconsider their stance as the setting in dry season render them and their animals vulnerable to hunger and possibilities of attacks.
“They get relaxed and are more comfortable during the rains because the trees and other shrubs give them comfortable cover from the surveillance of security agents. The green pasture also means that their cattle will be in no need of food,” said a security source in Gusau, the Zamfara State capital.
“Also because there are many seasonal streams in these areas, the criminals get fortified by them as their hideouts become harder to reach, while their livestock also need not to suffer in getting water. So it serves them very well,” he said.
However, according to him, with the change in weather, the bandits are now out in the open and fear a fresh onslaught against them by security forces and the volunteer force, yan sa-kai.
They also fear, he said, that with green pasture drying off in the forests, they would have to bring their herds around farmlands to graze on stalks left behind by farmers.
“If they did not initiate this process they know they cannot have peace themselves in a very short time,” the source further disclosed.
FG dangling stick and carrot
A senior security official told Daily Trust on Sunday that the government was continuing the military offensive in spite of the bandits’ overtures, saying they would have to be shown “that the government is not weak”.
He said though there is no ruling out of talking to the bandits it would have to be at the pleasure of the government and on its own terms.
But our correspondent separately gathered that some intermediaries have met senior government officials in Abuja on how to take the peace proposal by Turji and his associates further.
No ceasefire o. No engagement with them at all. The military should continue to pound them until they’re thoroughly rooted out.