Not All Bandits Are ‘Criminals’

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By Akpandem James

“Before the rise of ethnic nationalism all bandits were seen as criminals; but after the civil war, categorisation became a territorial affair. It now depends on where the bandits are reared and who is doing the labelling. One group’s bandit is another group’s freedom fighter. Banditry now has acquired formal justification; and bandits must be pacified instead of being crucified.”

Recently an aide of Governor Bello Muhammed Matawalle of Zamfara State, North West Nigeria, laboured to explain that if his principal ever made the statement that “not all bandits are criminals”, it must have been a slip of the tongue. He swore that the governor never intended to commit such a mundane faux pas. However, whether it was deliberate or a slip, the governor was not very far from the truth, as far as Nigeria is concerned. Here, where the bandits are bred determine whether they are criminals or not.

There are bandits everywhere in the country. And they all operate mindlessly. It has been so for a very long time. While some decided from the word go to be outright criminals, others graduated from some related self-serving enterprise. They carry lethal weapons and harass the rest of civil society. At times they also attack security forces, not necessarily to exact ransom but to acquire more weapons or fight a threat.

Before the rise of ethnic nationalism all bandits were seen as criminals; but after the civil war, categorisation became a territorial affair. It now depends on where the bandits are reared and who is doing the labelling. One group’s bandit is another group’s freedom fighter. Banditry now has acquired formal justification; and bandits must be pacified instead of being crucified.

Although bandits are everywhere, people choose to pick those to call criminals. The bandits in their backyards are freedom fighters and militants and should be assuaged because they are aggrieved; the ones elsewhere are criminals and should be hanged because they have no discernible cause for their act. They encourage their bandits and give them fanciful names to justify their actions; and demonise bandits elsewhere with derogatory prefixes. Some call for amnesty for their bandits but raise hell when others demand same for theirs. This development has given rise to a situation where anyone who feels anything grabs weapons and terrorise the society, because he feels so right.

Glamorising banditry has grave implications. The point must therefore be made clearly that as long as we continue to label outlaws with ethnic and regional tags instead of identifying them by their act, the longer the menace will remain with us. Bandits are bandits and must be seen as bandits no matter whose backyard they are raised; and for whatever reasons. Only the state has monopoly of appropriately wielding instruments of coercion; any other entity, no matter the persuasion, should be seen and regarded as insurgent; and must be viewed as such by the society and treated accordingly by the state if sanity must prevail in the polity.

Indulgence of certain unbecoming actions by the people and in some cases the government has rendered the country impotent. It has been turned into a lawless entity where criminal elements, vested interests and hate-preneurs claim rights as it suits them, citing certain justifications and freedoms. Laws and rules are flouted by vested interests and the peace of the larger society is routinely disturbed by those who feel their thoughts must be shared by everyone, even if without consultation or consent. Unfortunately their right to create untoward situations does not also include the right to take responsibility for the fallouts of their action.

We now live in a country where rogue organisations wake up and issue orders to the state and the people; where individuals and groups threaten to disrupt the peace of society if their demands are not met; and where vested interests hold government to ransom whenever they feel the urge to do so. Some persons see nothing wrong with such actions so long as they are in accord with their thinking and, or perceptions. They claim the right to say whatever pleases them against others, but raise hell when they are on the receiving end of similar vituperations.

The country has become a fiefdom where people flaunt an uncanny sense of entitlement but no sense of responsibility. And we think all will be well just because we assume it should be. No country grows with that kind of mindset. A country can only grow and improve realistically with relative peace when everyone takes responsibility for the protection and growth of his/her own small space. It will, when people take responsibility for their actions and stop thinking that others are always the problem and they are perpetually the victims.

When people condemn inappropriate actions no matter the origin, accept responsibility for their own actions and take genuine steps to seek proper solution, a bad situation can be remedied; but when they think they are the best thing to happen to the world and others are spoilers or fools, then everyone stands the risk of becoming a victim eventually.

The fact is, all have sinned, at one point or the other, and have come short of the glory they are trying to appropriate. Some even laid the foundation for some of the wobbling stakes, even though they might prefer to live in denial. History has been so twisted that unless one was a direct witness to a situation, knowing what to believe becomes difficult. History is now written to absolve self and paint others black; but the letters of history are clear and the signposts and the milestones are there for the clear-minded to see.

Unfortunately, in Nigeria, hardly will individuals or groups take or accept responsibility for their inappropriate actions. They always look for a scapegoat to blame for not cleaning up the mess they deliberately created in their hysteric moments. And the gullible society blinded by sentiments, and which must have been complicit by either docility or hypocrisy, will rise and partake in the blame game without subjecting issues to strict interrogation.

Incidentally, those who either created or gave impetus to today’s monsters are the very ones now complaining the loudest. They created cult groups to massage their ego; created armed militias to further their political ambitions; created socio-cultural groups to push their sectional desires; encouraged religious bigotry to protect and advance their doctrines; created self-serving civil society groups to magnify crisis situations and reap from the fallouts; created cartels and mafia groups to protect vested interests; and supported mindless insurrections under the guise of fighting for rights and exercising rights to freedom of expression and dissent.

The evolution of some of these self-serving groups either formed the bedrock of today’s threatening security situation or currently sustaining it in different forms. In some cases, some of the groups that were created for mundane purposes have overwhelmed their creators and mentors; and have assumed a live of their own. They are now out of control and the larger society has become the worse for it.

Although very threatening at the moment, the creators and sustainers of the monster entities can still use their respective platforms to try and rein them in or engage them in vocations that will allow the society to have some peace. They can join hands in finding a more lasting solution to the hydra-headed security situation in the country. This is not to excuse government which has a primary responsibility to protect the life and property of every citizen, as well as others living and doing business within the country.

Government at all levels must show that it has the capacity to protect the country and its citizens, and also to deal decisively with those who prefer to put peace on tenterhooks. This is not the time to pander to all manner of civil rights hysteria, as this has become an excuse for persons with vested interests to take laws into their hands. Law abiding citizens cannot exercise their legitimate rights when the society is under siege by armed, impudent and, or violent non-state actors, irrespective of the reasons behind their action.

In some quarters, government has been seriously indicted for not acting in good time and decisively too when potentially disturbing developments pop up. It is part of the reason why some groups feel justified when they take what looks like precipitate or defensive actions. The body language of those in authority must not give justification to individuals and groups to resort to precipitate actions in a desperate bid to defend themselves and their communities. Some persons have taken advantage of the current situation to make very incendiary statements, while others seem to have become untouchables.

It is pertinent here to point out that inflammatory rhetoric has never reasonably solved problems; if anything they make an already challenging situation worse. In the past few months some state actors and otherwise knowledgeable persons in the society have, by their utterances, inflamed rather than reduce the tension already created by the tenuous situation. Some chose to close their eyes to associated international dimensions and prefer to play to the gallery in a bid to make selfish points. Nonetheless, government must not, by its actions or inactions, give justification for untoward reactions by those who might feel compelled to speak based on how they feel and or how they are affected.

Sentiment does a lot to massage the ego, but it does very little, if any, to solve problems. We might pour all the venom we want, it can only help to heat up the system than bring the desired succour. The grandstanding that has been on for some time now is more about ego than reason. It is all about the thinking that some people are right and others are wrong. It is to show that some sections of the country are victims and others are their nemesis. It is to push the point that they are better or have more rights than others. It has led to unmindful labelling and profiling of ethnicities.

Labelling of criminals with ethnic tags can only increase ethnic antagonism rather than address the challenge. Looking at issues with ethnic periscope from a self-justified perspective has been the preoccupation of Nigerians even before independence. It has been the bane of our progress since inception. Unfortunately extreme religiosity and do-or-die political partisanship have helped to sustain an already dysfunctional architecture.

It’s either we reinforce the building blocks of our national architecture with more concrete ingredients devoid of clannish sentiments or use the relevant constitutional machinery to pull it down and rebuild. Pretending that throwing missiles and wedging the stakes at the same time will keep the structure standing is living in a world of illusion. When the stakes collapse, the roof goes down also. And all the occupants, including the self-righteous antagonists under whatever guise, will be displaced and rendered homeless.

  • James, a communication consultant, lives in Abuja



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