In our series of letters from African journalists, Mannir Dan Ali, former editor-in-chief of Nigeria’s Daily Trust newspaper, considers the impact of the latest tactic to tackle Nigeria’s ruthless kidnapping gangs – cutting off access to mobile phones and the internet.
Life in rural areas of northwestern Zamfara state has been agonisingly brutish in recent years.
Gun-toting motorcycle gangs have turned the state of approximately 15,352 square miles (39,761 square kilometres) – an area larger than Burundi, Lesotho, and Rwanda – into a haven for wanton killing, rape, and kidnapping for ransom.
The gang members are cunning and well-organized, often dressing in military fatigues to confuse villagers as they are attacked.
This issue, which has been brewing for years, has now spread to at least five neighbouring countries.
Various initiatives have been tried in Zamfara to end their reign of terror, including:
- An amnesty for repentant gang members
- A no-fly zone – imposed amid allegations that helicopters were delivering arms to the bandits
- And a ban on mining after it was suspected gold was being used to fund the kidnappers.
However, these measures have had little effect, so the Zamfara authorities have now banned the movement and sale of animals, as well as the weekly markets where farmers and business people trade. One of the gangs’ main sources of income is animal thievery.
The more drastic measure has been to turn off all 240 mobile phone towers in Zamfara.
The goal is to deny the criminals access to their informants and the ability to negotiate ransoms with the families of those kidnapped.
A long-term air and ground operation has also begun.
The phone blackout, which also affects communities on Zamfara’s borders with other states, has a significant financial impact on families and businesses.
Simple tasks that could once be completed with a phone call now necessitate a full day’s travel.
Some are resorting to letter writing. In the absence of a functioning postal system, these are delivered via commercial buses that continue to travel between towns in the state and to other parts of the country.
A Zamfara-born resident of the capital, Abuja, told me that not knowing whether his family was safe had been unbearable.
It wasn’t until a relative arrived in Abuja a few days ago that he got an update on their whereabouts.
Another told me that he is so concerned that he will be returning to Zamfara soon to check on his family.
Gangs ‘driven elsewhere’
Despite the difficulties caused by the phone shutdown, discussions on Abuja radio talk shows are in favour of the measure.
One Zamfara native living in the capital said it was far better to endure a short period of pain than the daily mayhem that has turned Zamfara into one big jungle ruled by armed men.
For the time being, there is a virtual information blackout from Zamfara on how operations against criminals are progressing.
Even journalists are unable to determine the true state of affairs.
According to one reporter, she has been attempting to persuade authorities to allow her to embed with troops.
More on Nigeria’s kidnap crisis:
- WATCH: Kidnappers demand millions for a child’s life
- ANALYSIS: Outrage at Nigeria’s brazen bandit attacks
- EXPLAINER: The motorcycle bandits terrorising Nigeria
Anecdotal evidence suggests some success in evicting the gangs from their forested hideouts.
Worryingly, it has been claimed that this has driven them to neighbouring areas such as Katsina, where I was born.
There has been an increase in abductions there in the last week, including those of a local notable’s children and a retired federal civil servant and his 15-year-old daughter.
I recently chose to relocate my mother away from her home, and just a few days ago, three university students were kidnapped less than a kilometre away.
Many security analysts argue that the current push, despite its difficulties, should have been a simultaneous operation in all six states affected, leaving no room for criminals to flee.
Most people agree that only a coordinated effort will put an end to the nightmare.