New Lords of Nigeria’s North West Bandits: Terrorists or Criminal Gangs?

Banditry primarily impacts rural communities—the very communities responsible for food security—and has disrupted socio-economic life in the North West.

Nigeria has a long history of violent conflicts dating back to the 1960s’ ethno-political conflicts in the Middle Belt. The return to democratic governance in 1999 saw a rise in violent non-state actors and their domination of national and sub-national security agendas. Today, these armed non-state actors include ethnic militants, gangs and cult groups, political thugs and other groups. In agitating against the established socio-political order, such groups take advantage of the relative freedom provided by democratic governance, particularly the repeal of restrictive military-era laws, such as the notorious Decree 2 of 1984, which allowed the government to detain citizens it considered a threat to national security and Decree 13 of 1984, which prohibited citizens from challenging the validity of any decree in the court of law. The emergence of Boko Haram in 2002 only relegated some of these groups to the fringes of national and regional security agenda.

Bandits are the newest addition to Nigeria’s growing list of violent non-state actors and have become a convenient trope for framing the ongoing devastation in Nigeria’s North West and Middle Belt regions. Largely unconnected to the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East, the origin of banditry in Nigeria can be traced to the farmer-herder conflict that accelerated around 2011. Since 2011, the farmer-herder conflict has metastasized to include cattle rustling, arms smuggling, protection rackets, kidnapping for ransom, gender-based violence, among others. In the North West alone, the activities of bandits directly affect roughly 21 million people living in Zamfara, Kaduna, Sokoto, Kebbi and Katsina.

The impacts of banditry on local populations have been devastating. According to a 2019 report by the Zamfara State government, between 2011 and 2019, bandits killed at least 6,319 people, kidnapped 3,672 people and burnt more than 500 villages in Zamfara State alone. The activities of bandits have also displaced more than 200,000 people while more than 35,000 Nigerians have been forced to emigrate to the Niger Republic due to the destruction of their communities by bandits. Bandits have reportedly killed more Nigerians than Boko Haram, robbers, kidnappers and cultists combined, and were reportedly responsible for 47.5 per cent of all violent deaths in 2019.

Due to the intensity of their attacks on communities and citizens, policymakers, security agencies, media agencies and citizens have called for these groups to be classified as terrorists rather than as bandits. To demonstrate the urgency of the security situation in the North West, media outlets often use the terms ‘bandits’ and ‘terrorists’ interchangeably to describe the criminal gangs, which have been accused by communities of being responsible for murders, ransom-driven kidnappings, sexual violence and other violent crimes.

But are bandits terrorists? Or, better asked, is banditry the latest form of terrorism? Do definitions matter? Are there legal, public policy, security and regional implications of any decision to tag all acts of violence, particularly in Nigeria’s northwest region, acts of terrorism? Whatever position one takes, the noticeable trend particularly among journalists and political office holders is the tendency to switch definitions based on casualty figures and intensity of attack. But this approach is problematic as it shifts the security and political focus of relevant stakeholders including policymakers from the issues and concepts that distinguish terrorism from banditry, to recognizing both as simply incidents of attack.


Several studies have explained that bandits are an assortment of criminal gangs involved in large-scale cattle rustling, sexual violence, kidnapping, armed robbery, pillage and attacks on gold miners and traders particularly in northwest Nigeria. Bandit groups are composed largely of Nigerians from the Fulani and Hausa ethnic groups, and this is because these criminal gangs are products of local conflicts between farmers and herders. In addition, the presence of non-Nigerians within bandit groups is attributable to the fact that the North West shares more than 900 kilometres of a poorly policed international boundary with Niger Republic.

Unlike militias, which are typically characterized by formalized structures and identities, bandits operate in independent clusters that are neither cohesive nor consist of formalized command structures. Little unites these gangs beyond opportunities for pillage, inter-group conflicts and turf wars. These criminal gangs operate in rural communities and have their bases deep in forests which provide great hideout opportunities.

The primary driver of these criminal gangs is profit and personal enrichment, and not the advancement of any political and/or ideological agenda. Banditry offers lucrative and alluring prospects in northwest Nigeria, a region blighted by poverty and lack of socio-economic opportunities. Also, funds gained from kidnapping for ransom drive the trade in small arms and light weapons and lubricates transnational crime in the wider Sahel region.

Communities of different faiths and ethnicities across the North West have been victims of attacks by these criminal gangs. Representatives of Fulani herder communities have claimed that hundreds of their members have been kidnapped by bandits and 30 per cent of cattle have been lost to attacks. Tens of rural farming communities have been ransacked by these gangs, with thousands of farmers killed.

The unique geography and topography of the North West has also played a critical role in providing a sanctuary and opportunities for exploitation by these criminal groups. Rural banditry is not unique to Nigeria and just like in rural Latin America and the Far East, banditry in Nigeria is exacerbated by the government’s failure to secure forest reserves that currently serve as havens for bandits, and its failure to protect vulnerable rural communities (in Zamfara State alone, for instance, bandits have destroyed more than 500 rural communities).


There are many differing views on what terrorism is; however, most experts agree that terrorism is violence that is motivated by a religious, ideological or political purpose. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Report on Terrorism suggested some criteria for classifying acts of violent terrorism: the nature and identity of the perpetrators of terrorism; the nature and identity of the victims of terrorism; the objectives of terrorism; and the means employed to perpetrate terror and violence.

At the risk of oversimplification, the objectives of terrorism can be aggregated into four categories—the first, as a tool to access or retain power. That is, terrorism can be used by the opposition to discredit or overthrow a regime or it can be used by those controlling institutions of power as a tool of political repression. The second is as a strategy in asymmetric warfare by insurgent groups or deployed in the services of a state to intimidate. The third is as a tool of coercive bargaining and blackmail and this is done often to soften the hard stance of political and ideological opponents.  The fourth is that terrorism can be strategically used to influence political or military action in a particular direction.

As disruptive as the impact of banditry has been on the North West, bandits remain largely a loose group of herder-allied criminal gangs that are neither driven by any ideological imperatives. They have neither shown any concerted attempt at influencing policy or governance beyond the profitability of their criminal enterprise. They have targeted all ethnicities, religions, communities, farmers and herders alike in similar proportion and cattle herders and farmers are the victims most affected by banditry.

However, banditry is quickly becoming a transnational organized crime with the continuous influx of non-Nigerians into their ranks and the internationalization of kidnapping for ransom across the Nigerian-Nigerien international border. Also, the security crisis created by bandits is providing the right cover for jihadist groups to proliferate in a region they had hitherto found challenging to operate within. The developing mutuality of interests between bandits and jihadists has a tendency to create a security nightmare in a region larger and more populous than the North West where the current focus of bandits is.


At the root of banditry is the continuous neglect of local communities by formal and informal institutions of governance. This neglect has created a vacuum in which bandits are able to flourish. Historically, local traditional institutions had systems and methods of addressing the local conflicts that birthed banditry. Unfortunately, the disruption created by local government administration, which reduced the influence of traditional power brokers in communities without an effective replacement has allowed conflicts to fester into full-blown crises. We have witnessed the steady abandonment of the semblance of governance in rural communities since 1999, which has created swaths of territories where criminal gangs and groups have replaced both formal and informal governance structures.

Considering the high levels of poverty in the North West, the high number of men and women currently engaged in banditry and its profitable nature, it will be extremely difficult to convince bandits to stop the raging violence without providing an economic alternative.  As such, there are no easy solutions for the current state of criminality in northwest Nigeria. That said, intervention looking at the following four critical areas might be the starting point for curbing banditry.

First, localizing policing. Banditry is first and foremost a local problem. And a starting point would be an extensive change of the current policing system to a localized and community-focused policing system that allows communities organizational, human resources and operational input into the policing outfit that secures their communities. Australia and the United States have similar federal political structures with Nigeria, but accommodate the right of every community to run its own police department. Nigeria can learn from this.

The North West needs considerable investment to improve socio-economic outcomes in the region. Some of these investments need to be channelled through appropriate models of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes that will focus on providing viable economic alternatives for bandits—like was done with the Niger Delta Amnesty programme.

There must be deliberate strategies to strengthen traditional governance systems and institutions in the region. For generations, informal systems of conflict resolution that have helped resolve conflicts between herders and farmers, without allowing such conflicts to fester into crisis, have either been politicized or deliberately undermined. Such systems will need to be identified, and in some cases resuscitated and strengthened. A start could be to strengthen the conflict resolution capacities of the various emirate councils in the region, which, according to the Emir of Dutse, has enabled Jigawa State to avoid ‘the problem of bandits’.

The continuous flow of arms into the region through Nigeria’s poorly managed international borders calls for a revamp of the current border management regime. The states in the region abut two countries and this fact cannot be discountenanced in addressing the triggers and amplifiers of banditry. Additionally, the states in the North West need to create joint enforcement agencies to police the various forest lands that straddle state boundaries in the region—such as the Kyanbana and Kamuku forests—and which serve as havens for bandits.

Banditry primarily impacts rural communities—the very communities responsible for food security—and has disrupted socio-economic life in the North West. Beyond these impacts, that bandits have been able to spread out to other regions and provide a cover for Islamist fundamentalist groups makes them a serious threat to Nigeria’s national security. Reversing banditry will, therefore, require the joint efforts of all stakeholders at both sub-national and national levels

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