By Owei Lakemfa
Four female students of the Zamfara State College of Arts and Science, abducted by bandits six months ago, may know their fate this week. Their abductors have given the parents of the young ladies, one week within which to pay N12 million ransom or the victims will be married off. This may be an euphemism for selling the young women into sexual slavery.
What to do about these soulless bandits who maim, rape, murder, loot and visit arson on many states, especially Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina and Niger, is no straight forward matter.
There are vested interests. For instance, with the new service chiefs vowing to destroy these bandits who in the last eight years have murdered about 65, 000 Nigerians, there are urgent petitions and campaigns that the might of the military should not be used against them.
One of such petitioners who scampered to the Aso Rock Presidential Palace to meet President Bola Tinubu, is Senator Sani Ahmed Rufai Yerima of Zamfara State. He went to plead that even after over a decade of bandits rampaging through the country, the military should not be used against them. Rather, he pleaded that the bandits be granted amnesty.
After taking his bandit campaigns to President Tinubu, Yerima whose trajectory shows he cannot be linked to any principle, said: “The best way to go about handling the issue of bandits is to introduce dialogue first. But as I said, if that fails, then the government will go all out to eliminate them. He urged the President to grant amnesty to the bandits like he claimed the late President Umaru Yar’Adua did to the Niger Delta militants.
It is difficult to place Yerima within any principled position. He came to national attention at 39 in 1999 when he was elected Zamfara State governor. While some of his then fellow governors like Bola Tinubu were focused on educating their people, building infrastructure and increasing revenue, Yerima was busy promoting religion and trying to turn Zamfara State into a theocracy. After having acquired state power, he decided to add religious power by introducing Sharia Law on January 27, 2000 and making Zamfara a Sharia State, the first in the country.
He was not without enthusiastic supporters who rather than demand tangible dividends of democracy, were contented with a Yerima who was employing religion to the extent of threatening the very existence of the country unless he was allowed to have his way. He vowed that not a single thief will be allowed to operate in the state. So when a lowly man, Bello Buba Jangebe, was convicted for stealing a cow, his sentence was amputation. Yerima spurned pleadings that Jangebe be merely imprisoned as he would need both hands to make a living. He got Jangebe’s hand amputated in 2000.
The following year, Mr Lawal Isa, a father of four who said he could not watch his wife and children starve, was caught stealing a bicycle. Again, Yerima rejected all entreaties and got the convict’s right wrist amputated. It took Isa three months before his arm healed and he could try to put it to some use. The amputation went with stigma. Isa said: “As soon as people see you with an amputated wrist, they know who you are.” For him, the easiest way he could make a living was to become a politician and align with Yerima’s All Nigeria Peoples Party, ANPP, which has now metamorphosed into the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC.
Yerima never stopped using religion to his advantage. When as a serving Senator in 2010 he spent $120,000 marrying a 14-year-old Egyptian girl, there was an uproar because having a child-bride, violates the legal status of children and the Child Rights Act, 2003. However, Yerima argued that his religion permits him to marry a child and that Zamfara State had not domesticated the national law.
So, what transformation has come over Senator Yerima who from being an advocate of amputating petty thieves is now advocating forgiveness for bandits who have killed thousands of people, laid waste villages and towns? Simple: Yerima has no scruples.
But beyond matters of principles, morality and conscience, one would expect a Distinguished Senator of the Federal to subject what he advocates, to common sense. Does he need to continue advocating the same principle on banditry which he knows has always failed?
Some governors in the region had applied the same formula he is now selling, and seen its futility.
When in 2015, he became Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai decided the best option was to dialogue with bandits and herdsmen as he thought they could have been wronged. He paid some off as compensation and even sent emissaries as far as Niger Republic and Cameroon to meet them for dialogue and compensation. However, within one year, he realized it was a futility. Rufai swung from being an advocate of dialogue to demanding that bandits be annihilated, including by carpet bombing, “while soldiers on the ground kill all those that escape the bomb”.
Governor Bello Masari of Katsina State apart from dialoguing with the bandits, also offered monetary payments to buy peace. He ran a two-year amnesty programme for the bandits from 2016. The following year, he began full negotiations and unwisely paid the bandits off, including purchasing their arms. He also disbanded the vigilante and volunteer groups that were giving the bandits a fight. Then he discovered he had been scammed and outwitted as the bandits became more powerful and operated with little or no challenge. Governor Masari took to the media to plead for forgiveness from the citizenry and lamented: “In the forest, a lion or tiger kills only when it is hungry and it doesn’t kill all animals; it only kills the one it can eat at a time…How can a human being (bandit) behave the way an animal cannot behave?”
On Yerima’s demand for amnesty like the Niger Delta militants, the South-South leader, Edwin Clark, responded that Yerima and his crowd “mistake amnesty for a blanket idea, to be politicized or invoked to reward mass murderers”, adding: ”It is not. Amnesty worked in the Niger Delta primarily because its militants anchored their fight on the sound economic and federalist principle of resource control. With their people alienated from the oil wealth extracted from their land, and the environmental despoliation in the region, the agitators had legitimate demands. But the blood-thirsty bandits ravaging the North have no legitimate, political, or economic claim that Nigeria is obliged to countenance.”
Senator Yerima advocates amnesty for the bandits because like politicians, they are powerful. The logic is that a thief is not a thief if he is powerful enough to hold society hostage.