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A history of banditry in Nigeria

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By Abraham Adekunle

Details of how bandits evolved in Nigeria since independence.

When Nigerians hear of banditry nowadays, their default thought is of masked men armed with AK47s raiding towns and leaving carnage in their wake. While this is true to an extent, there is much more to the evolution of banditry in the country. Since well before Nigeria began its Fourth Republic, the country has been overtaken by a progressive escalation of a massive intrusion of criminal violence into politics. This is what is known as banditry today.

According to Wikipedia, banditry is a type of organized crime committed by outlaws typically involving threats or use of violence. Additionally, the committer of these crimes – the bandits – extort, rob, and murder either as an individual or in groups. The group mode of this activity seems to have festered in Nigeria especially in the northern region of the country. But it should be noted that “bandits” is used to refer to a wide range of non-state actors such as terrorists, cultists, herdsmen, kidnappers, criminal gangs and militants.

Post-independence banditry traced to just after the civil war.

Stephen Ellis who wrote “This Present Darkness,” a chronicle of organized crime in Nigeria, claims that when government broke down in the defunct Western Region shortly after the end of the Nigerian Civil War, there was a blurred line between political violence, crime and organised insurgency. Sadly, the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon failed to manage demobilization after the war. So, the activities of bandits flourished and crimes increased.

In particular, armed robbery manifested early. The personification of this manifestation was Ishola Oyenusi, a high-school dropout who chose to be called “the Doctor” and terrorized Lagos at the end of the Civil War. The military government of the 1970s responded by introducing death by firing squad for convicted armed robbers. Femi Osofisan captures this in his “Once Upon Four Robbers,” which is set during that time in Nigeria and tells the story of four armed robbers who eventually faced the firing squad.

Anini and Shina Rambo in the 1980s and 1990s respectively.

The pace of public executions quickly escalated. By 1979, Nigeria had publicly executed over 500 armed robbers by firing squad. appeared that each succeeding decade saw an intensification of urban outlawry in different parts of southern Nigeria. In the 1980s, the poster-boy was Lawrence Anini, another school drop-out who concatenated indiscriminate violence with a touch of Robin-Hood in a peculiar form of advocacy for the downtrodden. His reign of terror in the then Bendel State and surrounding states was enabled by some senior police officers who helped to provide his gang with intelligence and destroyed evidence.

By the 1990s, it was Shina Rambo who terrorized parts of South West Nigeria with similar escapades. In South East Nigeria, there was the Otokoto case in Owerri, Imo State, in 1996 which revealed a channel of ritualized human sacrifices. By the 2000s, political violence and assassinations had become dominant forms of lawlessness. When online banking was introduced, armed robbers began “stealing” human beings in order to get their money, otherwise known as kidnapping. In parts of some regions in the country, politicians and these organized crime gangs wreak havoc leading government to break downs.

Successive governments benefited from these activities politically.

Finally, it is quite clear that successive regimes in Nigeria have found pockets of banditry useful in the enterprise of taking and keeping power. In 2008 when Asari Dokubo was asked how the armed youths in the Niger Delta who traded in violence acquired their weapons, he answered that the guns were bought with money disbursed by politicians. It is not surprising that many Nigerians believe that politicians are half-hearted in fighting it, especially with the fact that banditry paused during the 2023 elections and resumed with full force after.

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