Zamfara: From puritan trove to bandits’ den

  • The infinite pains of Shari’a amputees Buba Jangebe, Lawali Isa
  • How cow thieves murdered the son of the first ‘reformed’ cow thief
  • There is only one solution to banditry – Ex-Hisbah boss

Twenty years after Zamfara adopted the Shari’a as state law and amputated the hands of its first convicts for theft, incumbent Gov. Matawalle is offering two cows for every AK-47 rifle surrendered by ‘repentant’ bandits. This has aroused mixed feelings among victims of banditry and the first convicts by the Islamic penal code, writes Olatunji Ololade, Associate Editor


Buba Bello aka Jangebe nurses bitter-sweet love for Zamfara. Something subtle yet feral, like clarity and haze of the same bond.

Some days, he stirs with gratitude in his heart. Most days he wakes resigned. These days, he mops about like a wolf caught in a trap.

Speaking with The Nation at his base in Jangebe, Zamfara State, he tiptoed across his past, through a jungle of memory and moods too harrowing to be recalled. From his son’s murder by bandits to his unpaid salaries, the 60-year-old vented in the tenor of a pawn caught in an intense chess game between life and Zamfara’s ruling class.

He said, “My son was killed by bandits. They entered my house at night and hacked him to death in the presence of his wife and two children. I was not there. I was at work when someone came to inform me.”

Immediately Bello heard the peace salutation from his guest, “Salaam alaykum warahmotullah wabarakatuhu,” his “heart skipped some beats” and he “knew instantly that there was serious trouble.”

The visitor tearfully informed Bello that his eldest son, Abubakar, had been killed by cow thieves.

“Allahu Akbar! (Allah is the Greatest), I cried to my Creator,” said Bello, humbled by the implied irony of his predicament.

Back when he was King of his jungle, Bello attained notoriety as an expert cow thief, a skill that earned him the moniker: Buba kare garke (Buba, the exhauster of the cattle herd).

Even though he was accused of no murder, Bello boasted about town that he could steal any cow, and that once a cow got into his compound, it would vanish for ever – and he’d never get caught.

However, he stole this particular cow, and it did not vanish; the owner came and identified his cow. Buba confessed, and the punishment announced was amputation, in fulfillment of then governor, Sani Yerima’s campaign promise to establish the Sharia law in Zamfara.

Attacked victims by Bandits
•Victims of bandit attacks
being prepared for burial
at Talata-Mafara

Thus in February 2000, Bello was pronounced guilty of stealing a cow and sentenced. On March 20, 2000, the government amputated his right hand according to provisions of the Islamic Shari’a.

Bello made history as the first person in Nigeria to endure such penalty. But he said he wasn’t upset about losing his hand because it led to the end of his 12-year career as a cow thief. His notoriety ended at his conviction for stealing a cow valued at N2,640.


From ill-fame to piety

Bello refused to appeal his verdict within the 30-day window furnished him having seen his relatives, who initially ostracised him for being a thief, re-integrate him into the family. At the pronouncement of his sentence, they forgave him, and Bello thanked God for the amputation. He saw it as his atonement, his passport from notoriety to piety.

Everyone thought the amputation had transformed him from a notorious thief into a devout Muslim, and he adamantly sought to fulfill the part. Thus he proceeded on a new path as a honest man.

To show that his redemption was in full bloom, the government of Governor Ahmed Sani Yerima employed Bello as a messenger at the Government Secondary School (GSS), Jangebe, his hometown.


Fate’s wicked humour

His life unfurled without much incident until the gruesome murder of his first son, Abubakar. Then, several months after receiving news of his son’s murder, the state government dealt him a deadly blow. “My salary was stopped,” he said, stressing that he was employed by Governor Yerima who paid him N18, 000 monthly until there was a change of government and Governor Mahmuda Shinkafi assumed office and increased his salary to N20, 000.

He said, “I was collecting N20, 000 monthly until my salary got stopped 12 months ago. Till date, I have not received any salary from the government. This is the 12th month that I have gone without salary now.”

•Repentant bandits in Zamfara

Bello, like the proverbial tortoise, wishes to fight with his wrists, but he has no fingers. He would love to get paid his due. He would also love to apprehend the bandits who killed his son. Fresh in grief, he informed his hamlet head, who called the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) on phone but the latter refused to send a team in pursuit of the culprits claiming the incident happened in a remote community and if the police went there, they could be attacked.

Bello felt disillusioned and angry but he kept his cool. He said, “Quietly, I travelled back home to bury my son. His wife and his siblings’ wives were seriously disturbed by the incident, and they decided that they could not live there anymore.”

His second son left Jangebe shortly afterwards. Bello pleaded with him to stay but he refused, claiming that he could no longer bear to live in Zamfara.

“He was afraid that what was done to his brother could befall him. I gave him the go ahead to travel out to see where he could live his life peacefully. To support him, I gave him my cows. This is the fourth year that I’ve not seen my cows, he is roaming around Lagos axis,” said Bello.

Bello grudgingly accepts his second son’s refusal to return home to Jangebe stressing that, “The issue of banditry has persisted. It is escalating. People are still being kidnapped in Zamfara. The bandits don’t differentiate between the rich and poor. They’ll take you to the bush and beat the hell out of you, every night, while demanding a ransom that you don’t have.

“To get it, you must sell whatever you have in the bush, and what you have in the town, and give it to them. Your relatives will also bear the brunt. We have no peace here. You may come back from the south today only to be kidnapped by bandits same day. If you live here and you own cows, they’ll pay you a visit at night. They will cover your head with black blanket and take you to the bush. This is our biggest problem,” said Bello.

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The grim picture

The 60-year-old paints a clear portrait of the insecurity plaguing Zamfara and neighbouring northwestern states, Katsina and Sokoto.

Over the last decade, more than 8,000 people have been killed – mainly in Zamfara state – with over 200,000 internally displaced and about 60,000 fleeing into Niger Republic. Livestock and crops have been decimated, further depressing human livelihood indices that were already the country’s lowest. The violence is aggravating other security challenges: it has forced more herders southward into the country’s Middle Belt, thus increasing herder-farmer tension in that region and beyond.


‘They came on motorcycles to kill us’

Victims of banditry report extreme violence unleashed against civilians, murders, kidnappings for ransom, pillaging and looting of villages. In a recent attack, 21 people were killed in in Tungar Kwana village in Talata-Mafara town by armed bandits. The invaders stormed the community on motorbikes after blocking the community’s entry and exit points before unleashing terror on the defenceless residents.

They made away with several livestock in the attack which was in retaliation for the ongoing military onslaught against them in their forest enclave.

Victims of armed banditry
•Victims of armed banditry/kidnap
being fed after their rescue from captivity

The Emir of Talata-Mafara, Bello Muhammed, led the funeral prayer for the victims the following day.

In a separate incident, Asmau Usman, 28, recounted how heavily armed gunmen swooped on her hamlet in Kawaye, and killed her husband and two sons right after they raped her. “They shot my husband in the head because he cursed them for raping me in front of him and our children. Then they killed my two sons claiming that they were young serpents who would grow up to cause them trouble some day,” said Usman.

Mohammed Aliyu, a grocer, relocated to Gusau after his two wives and three daughters were raped and eldest son hacked to death by armed bandits in his presence.

He said, “They came on motorcycles to attack us. They invaded my home, raped my wives and daughters before me and they killed my only son because they didn’t find enough money on me.”

According to the police spokesperson for Zamfara State, Mohammed Shehu, “The gunmen see the villagers as a soft target to avenge the ongoing offensive against them. The area is calm as more security personnel are deployed, and the criminals would be arrested to face the weight of the law.”

The attacks are, however, not limited to Zamfara State. The UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency reported few months ago, that 47 people were killed in one of the deadliest attacks by gunmen in Kankara town (Katsina state) and the nearby villages of Danmusa and Dusi-ma. In addition 22 villagers were killed on April 1 in Gangara, Sokoto State, according to the local police.

A humanitarian time-bomb

About 23,000 people have fled the upsurge in violence, stated the United Nations High Conmmissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) thus increasing to 60,000 the number who have fled in the last year ongoing attacks by armed groups in the Sokoto, Katsina and Zamfara States.

“The situation in the region is a cause for concern, particularly in view of the rise of criminal groups operating in Nigeria. This is the whole point of UNHCR’s presence in the region,” said Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR Representative in Niger.

The crisis has also triggered a humanitarian challenge. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. In September 2019, a joint assessment mission by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons, citing local government authorities’ estimates, reported 210,354 persons displaced from 171 towns and villages in the northwest. Of these, 144,996 were in Zamfara state, 35,941 in Sokoto and 29,417 in Katsina.

The violence has also exacted a severe toll on families and children. In Zamfara, the government reports that about 44, 000 children have been orphaned as a result of violence in the last decade.

Amina Ilyasu, a gender empowerment counsellor and social psychologist, argued that the government must extend sustainable socio-economic palliatives and mental support for victims of armed banditry.

“There are many displaced people within and outside refugee settlements in the state and many of them are dealing with severe losses. They need mental health evaluation and intervention. There are several orphans, widows and the elderly struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many of them were victims of rape, severe battery and sexual assault. They need mental health support alongside security and socio-economic palliatives,” she said.


Roots of the crisis

The attacks are rooted in decades-long competition over resources between herders and farming communities. While most residents of Zamfara State are involved in agriculture – the state motto is “farming is our pride” – cows are valued by the herder community who have been accused of being behind a wave of attacks.

However, herders have repeatedly rejected the allegations saying that they too are victims. Isa Husseini, 41, argued that he was forced to flee his abode in Anka after bandits stole 12 of his cows and robbed him of all his savings.

Over 13,000 hectares of farmland have been either destroyed or rendered inaccessible in Zamfara since the crisis began. Huge numbers of livestock have similarly been lost: from 2011 to 2019, about 141,360 cattle and 215,241 sheep were rustled in the state, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).


Initial government responses

Former Governor Yari reported that from 2015 to 2019, the government spent N35 billion (about $95.8 million) on logistics support to federal security agencies, special allowances for security personnel deployed to the state and relief for victims of attacks.

As violence continued to escalate, the state government recruited about 10, 000 vigilantes to fight banditry. The poorly armed men were often no match for the bandits and they suffered heavy casualties in the course of the many confrontations in Zamfara and Katsina.

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From 2016 to 2018, the Zamfara and Katsina state governments started negotiating peace agreements with herder-allied armed groups and criminal gangs. The states offered amnesty, arms-for-cash programs and promises of spending for local communities, in return for disarmament.

In Zamfara state, a government-initiated peace dialogue with armed groups led to an arms-for-development agreement in October 2016, and in April 2017, police reported about 1,000 herder-allied armed fighters and criminals had renounced banditry and surrendered arms in exchange for promises of cash.

After one year, the programme collapsed, and the mostly herder-allied armed groups stepped up attacks. Some government officials argued that Tsoho Buhari, then the pre-eminent herder-allied armed group leader, popularly known as Buharin Daji, along with some of his lieutenants, had breached the deal conditions and unilaterally returned to violence.

Competition among armed groups worsened over time, stoking yet more violence. On March 7, 2018, Buharin Daji was killed, along with seven of his lieutenants, allegedly by his second-in-command, Dogo Gide.

According to some local sources, Buharin Daji’s murder followed a dispute linked to a clash over rustled cattle; others say it was linked to his refusal to lay down arms, a policy by then opposed by Gide.

Thereafter, the many armed groups loyal to Buharin Daji and some others resumed violent activities at full throttle in Zamfara, and also extended these to Katsina and Sokoto states.

‘Two cows for your gun’

In the wake of sustained attacks by the bandits, Governor Matawalle has devised a scheme to manage the crisis: by offering repentant bandits in Zamfara two cows for every AK-47 rifle they surrender to his government.

An average cow in northern Nigeria costs about N100,000 ($260; £200) while an AK-47 on the black market could cost as much as N500,000 ($1,200; £950).

“These bandits who choose to repent initially sold their cows to buy guns and now that they want a life free of criminality, we are asking them to bring us an AK-47 and get two cows in return, this will empower and encourage them,” argued Matawalle in a statement.


Shari’a in Zamfara from 2000 to 2020

Zamfara’s first amputee under the Shari’a law, Bello, never imagined that he would live to see the day when the state government would negotiate with armed bandits and cow thieves. Back in his time, the state would simply cut off culprits’ right hand.

Lawali “Inchi Tara” Isa, who got sentenced in December 2000 for stealing three bicycles shares mortification with Bello. The 61-year-old native of Gummi, whose hand was amputated on May 3, 2001, is unhappy about the current state of Shari’a implementation in Zamfara State.

He said, “To be honest, the Shari’a legal system and its implementation in Zamfara has now being bastardised. It is distorted compared to how it was before. Immoral activities have resumed. Music is entertained, and other anti Islamic activities are back in the state.” said Isa, stressing that Shari’a currently exists in Zamfara in theory, and not in practice.

On another note, Sanusi Muhammad Usman Kwatarkwash, the former Executive Chairman of the Zamfara State Hisbah Commission, and former Chairman of the State Public Complaint Commission, argued that the problem is hardly with Shari’a as a law but with the implementers of the law.

He said, “Some are so strong enough to implement it while some people are weak to implement it, so if they are weak, the fault is on them…During my time as the state Hisbah chairman, a commercial motorcycle cannot carry a woman, but you can see a commercial motorcycle carrying women now. The Shari’a is still there and it does not permit a woman to ride on a motorcycle but the implementers are relaxed. Whosoever disobeys Allah or do the wrong thing, there are stipulated laws that he should be punished.”


Was justice served in Bello and Isa’s cases?

Although Bello and Isa accepted their sentences with equanimity, and as their pathways to redemption, human rights lawyers argued that the duo were not aware of their right to appeal against the judgements.

Kwatarkwash, however, believes that justice was served. He said, “People always focus attention on Jangebe because his hand was amputated but it is the rule of Allah that the hand of anyone one who steals should be amputated if it is certain that that he or she has committed the offence culminating to a certain amount of money in cash or in property, therefore, when the Shari’a was being applied to Jangebe, it was just, and justice was served.”

To resolve Zamfara’s banditry problems, Kwatarkwash suggested a recourse to Shari’a, arguing that, “If there is Shari’a in place, we will certainly not experience all these criminality. And let’s check, are we really practicing Shari’a the way we are supposed to practice it?

“Our leaders have very important roles to play. Allah will certainly question you as a leader on what you have done to alleviate the sufferings of the people. Why should we be in poverty? What have you done to alleviate the poverty? The leaders should look critically at the problems of their citizens. They should solve them and we’ll be at peace. If not, problems must continue to exist,” he said.


Cutting past governors to size…

Recently, the state government invalidated the pension law for former governors and other ex-public officers in Zamfara State, which provided for the upkeep of ex-governors to the tune of N700 million annually. The state has produced three former governors since 1999.

The drama unfurled in the wake of former Governor of Zamfara State, Abdul’aziz Yari’s written request for the payment of his “monthly upkeep allowance of N10 million only…and a pension equivalent to the salary he was receiving while in office.”

The repealed pension law in Zamfara State allowed former governors to receive pension for life; two personal staff; two vehicles replaceable every four years; two drivers, free medical for the former governors and deputies and their immediate families in Nigeria or abroad; a four-bedroom house in Zamfara and an office; free telephone and a 30-day paid vacation outside Nigeria.

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In response, the Zamfara State House of Assembly revoked the law on which authority Yari made his demand. By invalidating the law, the state will save up to N700 million each year, and a substantial percentage of the state’s 2020 budget of N135.32 billion.

But while Governor Matawalle and the state legislature may have earned public respect for righting what has been described as one of the most outrageous wrongs in the history of Nigerian politics, the jury is still out concerning his “two cows for a gun” deal with “repentant” bandits.


FG’s brutal-ferocious vs Matawalle’s carrots

Recently, the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, vowed at a security meeting with northwest governors in Katsina, that all the total, brutal and ferocious might of the Federal Government will be brought down on bandits soon.

He said, “The Nigerian security machine will be unleashed in its fury, the way we have never seen before. The sickening criminal acts of these evil people will be brought to an end and all citizens will have assurance of peace and safety once again.”

But how quick and effective these measures would be at ending banditry and restoring peace to the people of Zamfara and other states of the northwest region remains to be seen.

Yet critics argue that Governor Matawalle may have adopted a weak and disadvantageous measure in addressing Zamfara’s banditry malaise. Hussein Masari, a teacher and social health worker in Anka LGA, argued that the measure hasn’t worked.

Gov. Matawalle inspects
arms surrendered by
repentant bandits at the
Government House in Gusau

Zamfara certainly has an interesting history concerning its institution of the Shari’a Penal Code and its implementation. For instance, in February 2000, Dantanim Tsafe pleaded guilty in a Shari’a court, of knocking out his wife’s teeth. The court in Zamfara State ordered Tsafe to pay N157,933.70 (about $1,500 at the period) for knocking out his wife’s front teeth in a quarrel.

Tsafe’s wife pleaded for the “fine” to be set aside, as her husband was unable to pay. Subsequently, the judge reduced the “fine” to N50,000 (about $470), adding that, if he failed to pay, Tsafe would have to “submit his teeth for forceful removal.”

Few months later, Buba Bello Jangebe and Lawali “Inchi Tara” Isa’s hands were amputated after being found guilty of theft.

Going by the kernel of the Shari’a law, it flouts common sense and the spirit of equity that Governor Matawalle would cuddle certified armed bandits in a state that demands clinical justice and recompense as guaranteed by Islamic penal tradition, argued Idris Suleiman, a lawyer and Arabic teacher.

However, neither Bello nor Isa considered it poetic irony that in 2016, eight years after he left office as Governor of Zamfara State to become a Senator, Sani Yerima, on whose watch their amputation was carried out, was arraigned in a Zamfara High Court by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) on allegation of mismanaging the N1 billion loan meant for the repair of Gusau dam in 2006. That was about 16 years after he supervised the amputation of their hands for theft.

At their encounter with The Nation, the duo betrayed no grouse with their former governor and Zamfara’s justice system; they seemed to have made peace with fate.

Even so, Isa’s wife, 25-year-old Zainab pleaded for government’s support for her husband. Things are very bad at home. It’s increasingly difficult for him to fend for her and their six children (three of hers, three of her senior wife).

“We lived better some years back. During the reign of the former governors, when he was receiving salaries,” she said.

Likewise, Bello’s 61-year-old wife, also called Zainab, urged government to intervene urgently in her husband’s plight. “We are in serious problems. We have no money and nothing to eat,” she said.

The histories and fates of both families are undoubtedly connected to the heart and underbelly of Zamfara’s leadership conundrum and social, human crisis. On paper, the state is rich in terms of cash crops and exploitable minerals like cotton, gold and coal. But Zamfara is extremely poor; cuddling a rather small annual budget for a population of 3.6 million people spread over 14 local government areas, its internally generated revenue (IGR) for the first half of 2019 was a meagre N21.7 billion according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics.

These gruesome realities are discernible in the lives of Isa, Bello and their families.

This minute, Bello starves because the state government stopped his salary 12 months ago. But he goes to work everyday hoping for that one call or bank alert, from his employer, that would change his situation – this is his dream in the short-run.

In the long-run, Bello dreams of better compensation; as government woos and compensates bandits, he hopes similar gesture would be extended to families left bereaved by banditry. But there is hardly consensus on what form such gesture could take.

How do you compensate the bereaved families of Kawaye, who watched armed bandits hack their loved ones to death? How do you assuage and monetise the grief of a husband and father like Aliyu, who watched helplessly as bandits killed his son after ravaging his wives and defiling his underage daughters?

How do you compensate Bello aka Jangebe, for the loss of his son, Abubakar? How do you assuage his hurt and dissent over the radical turn of affairs in Zamfara?

“If wishes can be fulfilled, we want to be looked upon with pity and be assisted with something tangible by which we can feed our families and engage in business. I would love to buy and sell cows for a living. That is my field of specialisation,” said Bello.

These are the humble wishes of a reformed cow thief, a bereaved father and impoverished civil servant. Notwithstanding his sad fate, Bello draws solace from the Hausa proverb: Da abinda mu tu m k an samu , d a abinda k an samu nai, tun ran ta halita shi k e: What a man gets and what happens to him is written from the day of his birth.


Additional report by Sani Mohammed


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