Bandit Attacks on the Road to Kaduna

Photos and text by Collin Mayfield. Opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect Atlas News. This reportage was made possible through the financial support of Qilo Tactical. If you support my work, please consider purchasing from Qilo. 

An army position along the Kaduna-Abuja highway.

“They are devils that don’t care about human life,” Abubakar told me in our muggy taxi riding on the highway north from Nigeria’s capital. “The bandits will kill anybody in the way of them stealing money.” 

Abubakar Adamu, a soldier in the Nigerian Army, rode with me north up the country’s A2 highway. The rural stretch of road is an enticing target for bandit attacks. Marauding gangs with belt-fed machine guns mounted onto motorcycles occasionally block traffic or launch attacks. Travelers’ valuables like jewelry and money are stolen while victims are kidnapped, sometimes even murdered. Shipping trucks are robbed at bandit roadblocks. The gangs kill anyone who resists.

Every half hour or so we passed some kind of army installation. The Nigerian government finally labeled the bandits as terrorists in 2022. The armed forces conduct patrols and bomb bandit hideouts, while the highway is now heavily militarized.

Sentry posts behind Hesco barriers, the sandbags of modern war, straddled both sides of the highway. Some positions were surrounded by additional earthen parapets. Armored vehicles and technicals, light trucks with rear-mounted guns, stalked the highway searching for bandits, for whom the highway remains an enticing target.

Kaduna Bound

I met Abubakar Adamu at the Abuja airport last March. I’ve known him for nearly two years on Instagram as Abbakar_Affan. My flight to Nigeria’s capital landed late, and my sim card didn’t work. I borrowed a stranger’s phone and called Abubakar, and he told me where to meet him. I stepped out of the terminal and met Abubakar waiting outside. 

Abubakar, a Lance Corporal in the Nigerian Army, is a decorated veteran of the Jihadist insurgency in Borno State. He’s seen extensive combat in the Lake Chad region against both Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). 

As part of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) Anti Boko Haram, Abubakar served with troops from Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin. He was part of operations that raided into the Sambisa forest to rescue the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, recapture territory held by terror groups, and destroy any remaining fundamentalist insurgents – be they Boko Haram or the Islamic State. 

Abubakar and I floated the idea of my reporting in Nigeria for a while, and because of funding from Qilo Tactical, it became feasible. So I wrote Abubakar last February and he graciously agreed to host me for part of my trip.

Abubakar Adamu in Jaji, Kaduna State

Nigeria is above all a multi-ethnic society. Hundreds of languages and ethnic groups span the country. Abuja, smaller and less cosmopolitan than other large cities like Lagos, was chosen as Nigeria’s capital for its central location. In the north, there are two main ethnic groups – Hausa and Fulani. Historically, Hausas tended to be farmers while Fulanis were herders. Both are predominantly Muslim and intermarriage has led to the colloquial term “Hausa-Fulani.” 

Tribe matters, though the distinctions are fading with time. Politics often unofficially fall within ethnic lines, as do careers. The largest ethnic group in the armed forces is the Hausa, although most ethnic groups are represented. Abubakar is a proud Hausa soldier.

After a day in Abuja, Abubakar and I headed north to Kaduna City, the capital of Kaduna State. We split a run-down taxi with two women in colorful abayas and hijab, heading up the interstate highway. We left in the morning; few traverse the road at night. A railway runs parallel as a safer alternative route, though the train has also been attacked by bandits.

The hot, unairconditioned drive took nearly four hours only to cover 93 miles. Choking traffic bottlenecked behind two National Drug Law Enforcement (NDLEA) checkpoints, one near Abuja and the other near Kaduna City. At the Kaduna checkpoint, an overzealous officer demanded to see the images on my memory card when he saw my camera in my lap, but I already swapped SD cards when approaching the checkpoint.

A “Welcome to Kaduna Town” sign on the highway behind an NDLEA checkpoint.

The ride was further slowed by minor car accidents or wandering livestock on the road. Fulani herders watched as their emaciated cattle or goats chewed at whatever scruff was available from the dusty earth by the highway, trying to lead their chattel away from backed-up traffic.

More common than livestock on the road was the military. The army build-up on the road mostly happened over the last two years after public outrage over the highway’s perilous conditions. In 2021 hundreds of protesters blocked traffic near an Abuja suburb to force the government to take action and improve security. Authorities prematurely claimed the highway was secure in April 2022, but at least 20 travelers were kidnapped at a bandit roadblock the next month.

 

 

Mad Max Nigeria

Banditry plagues northern Nigeria and the wider Sahel, although the term ‘bandit’ does not do the situation justice. “Bandit” evokes Old West images of single-action revolvers and thieves on horseback. Here in Nigeria, instead, it’s Mad Max: West Africa.

Bandit gangs ride motorcycles and four-wheelers to launch surprise attacks on isolated villages or vulnerable communities on the outskirts of towns. Valuables and hostages are stolen, and townsfolk who resist are most often shot dead. Ambushes like these often leave a trail of death, rape, and torched crops and homes. Shipping trucks are robbed while livestock is stolen. Cattle rustling is a common fact of life. 

Hundreds of gangs crisscross through Nigeria’s north and other Sahelian countries, minding no state or national border. Estimates place 10,000 bandits in Kaduna State, and 30,000 in neighboring Zamfara State, though there are likely more. Most bandits are Nigerian, but some allegedly cross the border from Niger or Mali. Survivors of attacks sometimes claim to hear bandits speak French-tinged Hausa or Arabic – Mali and Niger being former French possessions.

Bandit hideouts are deep in forests. They traverse the bush on isolated cattle trails, and their nimble motorcycles are more mobile than government forces in clunky armored vehicles. Loot is either sold on the black market or traded directly for weapons. Some bandit groups are thought to operate illegal gold mines, probably with forced or coerced labor. But the bulk of bandit income comes from kidnapping.

Nigerians often pay ransoms as high as 18 million Naira, or $40,000 USD, to free friends and relatives. High-profile victims and foreigners fetch much higher ransoms. In 2020, inspired by terror groups like Boko Haram, bandits started targeting schools. In 2021, one gang kidnapped 39 college students from their campus in Kaduna City. Dozens of grade schools have been attacked across Kaduna State, and 13 Kaduna schools were recently shut down to avoid a potential onslaught.

At their refuges, bandits stockpile arms like fully automatic rifles, belt-fed machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and more. Sometimes .50 caliber machine guns or small mortar pieces are mounted onto four-wheelers or motorcycles. 

Sahelian banditry skyrocketed after Gaddafi’s death in 2011. The Libyan regime’s guns were trafficked across Africa. Motley bandit crews became well-armed for the first time. Occasionally, bandits capture and ransack police stations for arms and ammunition. 

Some bandit gangs even possess anti-aircraft guns. In 2021, a gang shot down an Air Force jet near the border of Kaduna and Zamfara States. After strafing a bandit hideout, Flight Lieutenant Abayomi Dairo was shot down by the pissed survivors. Dairo parachuted when his jet started crashing. He evaded being captured by the bandits he’d just bombed and reconnected with the military.

Insecurity and Desertification

As of 2020, over 247,000 civilians are displaced by food insecurity, climate, and the bandit conflict in the northern states. Hundreds of villages have been destroyed in raids.

The current bandit crisis stems from the decades-long violence between Fulani herders and mostly Hausa farmers. Under British colonialism herders, farmers, and governing authorities maintained a mutual agreement called burti. The herders had designated livestock trails respected by farmers. The British left Nigeria in 1960. Over the next decade, many farmers encroached on cattle paths. Disputes over where grazing land ended and farmland began caused sporadic, isolated conflict. 

Clashes over land and water often turn deadly, and with each Hausa or Fulani death comes retaliatory attacks. Reprisals by one group are again met with payback by the other. Tit-for-tat murder and arson happen across Nigeria’s north and middle belt.

Desertification and soil degradation have worsened tensions. Hausa and Fulani both claim water rights for their livestock or crops. The savannah is shrinking so herders have moved flocks into longtime farmland. Conversely, Nigeria’s growing population has farmers plowing pastures previously reserved for grazing. 

Since 1999, some 20,000 people have been killed in the ethnic violence of herder-farmer clashes. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The federal government is developing cattle ranches to mitigate herder-farmer violence. But many Fulani don’t want to leave their traditional grazing lands; some view resettlement as capitulating to the Hausa majority.

Increasing poverty and unemployment have compound problems. Fulani were once able to trade milk for cereal grains, but the modern availability of packaged drinks put their milk in lower demand. Several out-of-work, disenfranchised Fulani turned to crime. Bandits come from all ethnic groups, including the north’s majority Hausa, but most bandits are ethnic Fulanis. Subsequently, Fulani victims of banditry are disregarded; Fulani are often stereotyped as all being bandits so Fulani victims are often ignored.

Cattle graze beside the Abuja-Kaduna Highway.

Brazen Attacks

In March 2022, a gang of about 200 bandits attacked the Kaduna International Airport. Army personnel stationed at the airport repelled the attackers, though airlines temporarily canceled flights. Two flights narrowly escaped while one security guard was killed. A Lagos-bound flight was unable to take off because of gunfire. Army personnel stationed at the airport repelled the attackers, though airlines temporarily canceled flights. Two days later, another bandit gang launched an even deadlier attack on the train line running alongside the Abuja-Kaduna Highway. 

The railroad along the A2 highway opened in 2016 to much fanfare. It’s more expensive than going by car, but the presence of armed security guards with AK-47s makes the train a preferred option. Nevertheless, in March 2022, bandits mined the track with improvised explosives and derailed a train carrying 970 passengers. The train was bombed twice before being attacked near Katari town by motorbiked assailants. Armed security held off bandits attempting to enter the coaches. 

Bandits surrounded rail cars from both sides and opened fire at passengers through the glass windows. People crouching on the floor were protected by the train’s bulletproof walls. Many passengers prayed prostrate on the floor under the hail of bullets. The bandits specifically targeted cars one and two – the first-class passengers.

Security shot back sparingly to conserve their limited ammunition. The onslaught lasted about an hour before the army arrived and repelled the attackers. At least five security guards and two train employees were killed. At least eight people were killed in total, and 62 passengers were kidnapped before the army arrived. 

Survivors walked with the army 28 miles to the Abuja-Kaduna highway, where they rode buses to a nearby military hospital and were treated for gunshot wounds and other injuries.

Four days after the train attack, the Nigerian Air Force conducted strikes on bush hideouts between Niger and Kaduna states after a local tip about “70 terrorists on 40 motorcycles” near Mangoro Village. 34 suspected bandits were killed in the bombing. 

No specific group ever claimed responsibility for the train attack, but federal and state authorities believe the attacking bandits were assisted by terror groups. Kaduna governor Nasir Ahmed El-Rufai accused Boko Haram of “collaborating with bandits” for the train attack.

Jihadist Allies

Many bandits are linked to terror groups. These alliances are more often pragmatic than ideological. Some bandit groups, however, have justified their banditry through Islamic fundamentalism. To some, banditry is Jihad. Some bandits shout “Allahu akbar” during attacks according to some survivors.

In a video released after the Abuja-Kaduna train attack, masked gunmen announced they would release an ailing hostage as a “Ramadan gesture.” The framing of the gunmen around the victims and recitation of  Islamic prayers are similar to videos published by Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansaru. 

Ansaru, shorthand for ‘the Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa’ or ‘al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel,’ is active in Kaduna state. It is believed to maintain a pragmatic relationship with various bandit groups, likely helping to organize kidnappings.

Ansaru went dormant in 2013 but returned in 2020 with an ambush on an army convoy on the A2 highway north of Kaduna City. The convoy was escorting the Emir of Potiskum – one of Nigeria’s many traditional monarchs. At least six soldiers and four of the Emir’s aides were killed, although the death toll may be up to 30. Ansuru claimed to have killed 22 soldiers and destroyed several vehicles. 

The government has long fought insurgents in the country’s northeast – particularly in Borno State. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau declared allegiance to ISIS in 2015 and started styling his fighters and territory as part of the wider Islamic State. Infighting led to schism, and now Boko Haram competes with the younger, yet more powerful ISWAP. In mid-2021 Shekau was killed in a battle with ISWAP. He self-detonated rather than submit.

Nigerian intelligence believes that some Boko Haram militants abandoned their historic territory Borno State after Shekau’s death and ISWAP’s dominance to join bandits further west. Many of Kaduna’s bandits have claimed alliances with Jihadist groups. Bandit commander Dogo Gide, whose grasp extends through Kaduna, Niger, and Zamfara states, even sent envoys to both Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa attempting to build a pact.

Most likely, Boko Haram helps bandits arrange kidnappings. In 2021, US intelligence claimed Boko Haram and multiple bandit groups were cooperating to ransom victims to the Nigerian federal government. 

Bandit groups in Kaduna State have likely received material and intelligence from Boko Haram. Military strategists, bomb makers and armored vehicles are in Kaduna State – gifted or purchased from insurgents in Borno. Nigeria’s military claims Boko Haram sent two commanders and 250 fighters into Kaduna State’s Rijana Forest. Among the insurgents were instructors. Besides bomb-making, Boko Haram’s bandit allies learned different weapon systems – including anti-aircraft guns to defend their hideouts from fighter jets.

A Nigerian Correctional Service ‘WANTED’ poster in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Several Boko Haram fighters are believed to have traveled west to other states and joined bandit gangs.

The police and military, under operations Puff Adder and Thunder Strike, are trying to eradicate bandit attacks on the Abuja-Kaduna highway. Isolated hideouts are difficult for government troops to find and access, but the Air Force regularly strikes hideouts. 

In 2020, the military started Operation Accord. The anti-bandit coalition consisted of vigilante groups, the Civilian Joint Task Force militia, and the army. In one air-and-ground attack, the military reportedly killed upwards of 70 bandits in Kaduna State’s Kashia Forest.

In May 2022 Kaduna State governor El-Rufai suggested collective punishment. El-Rufai suspected villagers along the Abuja-Kaduna highway of helping to organize attacks and kidnappings. So, he wanted those villages destroyed and inhabitants relocated far from the A2. Residents protested and the idea of forced relocation was abandoned.

Collin Mayfield
Collin Mayfieldhttp://linktr.ee/collinmayfield
I am a photojournalist and writer based in Alabama. I focus on conflict, militancy and social movements. I've been on the ground for Black Lives Matter, the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, Puerto Rico's Electricity Crisis and much more.

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