The arrest of members of the gangs, who had unleashed terror on hapless residents and travellers in these areas showed that most of the deadly attacks were carried out by erstwhile herders, many of whom, investigations also revealed, acquired arms and abandoned their pastoral trade for the more lucrative business of grabbing humans for ransom.
Arming for new role
Saturday Sun learnt that the suspects sold off their cattle and used the money to buy AK47 rifles and then formed themselves into kidnap rings. Their modus operandi, a police source in Abuja privy to their arrest said was to pick their victims from the major highways and move them into their hideouts deep in the thick forest.
Months ago, there was a clash between the herders and another tribe in Daura forest in Niger State. During the unrest, the herdsmen who were heavily armed destroyed the community. A joint task force deployed to quell the crisis was ambushed by the armed herders who succeeded in killing a mobile policeman and a National Security and Civil Defence Corps operative. They slaughtered them and made away with their rifle, which was among those recovered in the recent raid.
The operation has curbed the wave of attacks in these axis, especially Lokoja where the kidnap menace has reduced drastically due to regular patrols of the black spots by the special task force. “So many of them (suspects) are now in our custody while some have been charged to court,” a police source told Saturday Sun.
It was learnt that one of them, Ahmed had been arrested in the past and charged to court, but went back to crime when released on bail.
The suspect was re-arrested in Niger State with some of his gang members and found with one AK47, seven live ammunitions, one locally made pistol and two cartridges.
According to the police, Mujuma was picked up with seven other members of his gang, while Bello and Mamoni were arrested while trying to collect ransom from their latest victim. Bello was found with one AK49 rifle, and an AK47 rifle that belongs to the operative of the NSCDC. Also recovered from Bello and his gang were 50 cows and three AK47 rifles.
Yet another suspect, Musa an indigene of Niger State was tracked down and arrested after his gang’s latest raid in which their victim was killed.
Hideouts, a no-go area for security agents
Security agents said one of their major challenges was their inability to penetrate and comb the forest where these killer herdsmen had turned into their hideouts.
Among these are the Samnala forest in Kaduna, Daura forest in Niger and Toto or Falgore forest hedged between Jos and Bauchi, as well as Sambisa forest. Similar thick forests exist in Nasarawa and Kano, the sources said.
“It is too massive and occupied by mostly Fulani herdsmen. They know the terrain and thus, it will be suicidal, just walking into the forest to search for the hideouts. We are concentrating on preventing them from leaving the forest to come and pick innocent victims,” a top police officer told Saturday Sun, noting that the strategy seemed to have paid off. “We succeeded in Lokoja; we have driven most of them out of Kaduna. Now they are in Niger and with our success story, they will all be arrested. Kaduna is a no -go area for kidnappers at the moment. The IGP has deployed different task force including STS and Intelligence Response Team (IRT) to that zone,” the source added.
Inside their enclave
Ahmed and some of his gang members in exclusive chats with Saturday Sun, opened up on their journey into the world of crime and their escapades.
Looking calm, but defiant, the gang leader told Saturday Sun that he was not bothered by his arrest. “It is my destiny that is why I found myself in crime. My parents can be said to be very rich, because they have more than 100 cows and my wife and children lack nothing. I do not have access to physical cash, but I don’t lack anything. So it’s only Allah that can say why I am a kidnapper,” he said.
He disclosed that his gang initially operated on Kaduna -Abuja highway, but moved to and concentrated on Niger State, when other groups relocated to that zone to operate. Ahmed said: “We do not have informants; we just pray everyday for a successful raid and move out. We either throw sharp instruments on the road, so that the vehicles’ tyres would burst or use cars to block the highway. As soon as we picked our victim, we would take them deep into the forest and keep moving them till they pay the ransom.”
He said security operatives are finding it difficult to end kidnapping in that zone (Kaduna-Abuja), because the bush where they (kidnappers) normally camped was huge and full of heavily armed herdsmen. “The truth is that you will find it difficult to know who a kidnapper is amid those herdsmen. Everyone is armed with AK47 for security reasons. It is not about kidnapping, but protecting our cows from rustlers. That huge forest is not under the control of any security agency, we are not protected by anyone, so we formed our own security outfit. It is a case of the survival of the fittest, every son in the family is trained to handle AK47 and if there is an invasion we will protect our own. In that bush there are clashes among herdsmen and cattle rustlers that no one knows about and which people die.
“It was when everybody became armed and ready for any attack that the bad ones among us decided to come out of the bush and start kidnapping. They succeeded and pride themselves about their success. They were spending money recklessly and bought cows to expand their flock.
“In the forest, you are respected by the number of cows you own. As expected the youth got attracted to that lifestyle and gradually joined them. Every family has weapons to protect themselves, so where to get AK47 is not an issue.
“Since the bush is filled with armed men, security agencies are afraid to venture into the bush. Any security agent who dares to come into the forest will try to take your guns from you and leave you unprotected. This is why our elders who, though are not in support of what the younger ones are doing, prefer to remain silent and resist any attempt to invade the forest.”
Ahmed said that the forest had become too hot (due to increase in criminal activities) and elders were warning the youths to stop kidnapping. “The elders are not happy that government had noticed what was going on. They are afraid that government will throw bomb in that area if those involved in kidnapping do not stop. They have formed vigilance groups among us to checkmate the activities of kidnappers. This is why some of us relocated back to Niger State.”
The kidnap kingpin said his parents encouraged him to leave the forest in Kaduna and join his brothers to guard the family’s cattle in Niger, but regretted: “Unfortunately, it appears that my destiny is to become a criminal, that’s why I met bad people again. It was during one of the kidnap incidents that we collected N5million that police traced and arrested me.”
Ahmed said that he invested proceeds from the crime in buying more cows and improving the lifestyle of his family. “We are not encouraged to have bank accounts because it is seen as a waste of money. It is better to invest in cows which will be sold and in the process double your money. I bought some cows, improved the living condition of my wife and children. I can’t extend it to my parents, because my father is an honest farmer and does not encourage evil. If I give him money, he will know the source. I was preparing to marry another wife after this failed operation,” he disclosed.
When he was arrested by the police and charged to court earlier in Kaduna, Ahmed had managed to escape from the law, as some of his gang members, who were already free helped to hire a lawyer who arranged bail for him, which he jumped and later ran to Niger State to continue his nefarious activities.
Fated to be kidnappers
That taking to crime was a decree of fate for them is a refrain that ran through the tales of the suspects. Mohammed Mojuma, an illiterate from Sabon Daji in Niger State said that like every child in his clan, he was expected to be a herdsman, but inevitably found himself in the circle of criminals. His words: “My parents are successful cattle rearers and I was made to join them as it’s the only trade in our tribe. I was determined to graduate and own my own cows. But, I mistakenly found myself amid criminals. I was among those contacted to work as vigilantes to reduce kidnapping. Unfortunately, the leader of our group encouraged me to participate once in a while. It was while we were trying to pick the ransom that police arrested us. It is the wish of Allah that I will end up this way and I do not question it,” Mojuma said.
He said he took part in the operation to raise money to celebrate the last Ramadan festival, adding that: “Secondly, the vigilante work was not paying much. What they normally do is that if there is crisis, they will give us N1,000 each to risk our lives. I was only comfortable with it because they gave me access to guns which I sometimes use for kidnapping.”
Another suspect, Mohammed, caught with two AK47 rifles charged at Saturday Sun reporter: “Madam, stop asking me where I got the AK47, it is sold in the market. What my brothers told you is the truth, everyone has a gun and it’s strictly for protection. It is important to buy a gun first before buying cows. If you choose to use it for another purpose, that is your own business. We are afraid of a lot of things. Among us (herdsmen) there are criminals who want to snatch your cow or steal from you. We don’t have police in the forest; if you like call them, no one will come to your rescue.
“As for kidnapping, I was broke and decided to join them. Unfortunately, I did not consult the Islamic cleric for prayers. If I did, he would have warned me to stay away. There are so many of us who are into it and police has never arrested them. I am so unlucky, as for the gun, no one should accuse me because it is necessary for security reason.”
The challenge to security agents now appears to be how to locate and curb the access of these violent and criminally minded herders to the arms market, as well as mop up the ones already with those freely compounding the security problem in various parts of the country.
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