The Nigerian Air Force’s bombing of the country home of a notorious terrorist, Bello Turji, in Fakai, Zamfara State, may have opened a new chapter in the fight against terror and kidnapping in Nigeria’s Northwest region.
At least 12 people were killed in the attack, which was carried out by the air component of Operation Hadarin Daji, the Nigerian military’s operation against terrorists, who have been nicknamed bandits by the Nigerian media, in the area.
Military and local sources told PREMIUM TIMES that Mr Turji left Fakai minutes before the air strike. Interestingly, the attack came barely a month after the Zamfara State government claimed Mr Turji had turned a new leaf, accepted peace, and was helping it tackle other terror gangs operating in the state.
Local sources also confirmed that attacks in the areas where Mr Turji’s gang operates have reduced. Many residents of the area who spoke to this reporter said the reduction in attacks was because many communities in the general area of Shinkafi – Zurmi – Isa – Sabon Birni (Zamfara and Sokoto states) reached a truce with Mr Turji’s gang.
The terrorist, Bello Turji
The air strike of 17 September was not the first time Mr Turji would escape an airstrike aimed at killing him. In December 2021, his camp was attacked in an air raid, many of his fighters, including his uncle and other relatives, were killed but Mr Turji escaped unhurt.
Since the original air strike, Mr Turji, who gained notoriety across the North-west of the country for his cruelty, has become so influential that the government of the state, whose residents are at the mercy of Mr Turji’s gang, is now vouching for his repentance.
Named Muhammadu Bello at birth, he became known by the moniker, Turji, from childhood, says a social historian at the Usman Danfodio University Sokoto, Murtala Ahmed – Rufai.
Mr Ahmed-Rufai said Mr Turji reared livestock as a young boy. Though he attended primary school, he later dropped out. He said like many boys his age in the area, the young Turji, did not even complete Islamic education.
Mr Ahmed-Rufai, who wrote an academic paper titled: “I’m a Bandit”, which looked at the rise of terror gangs in the region, said Mr Turji was a late entrant into banditry.
In an interview with the Daily Trust newspapers, Mr Turji said he picked up arms to protect his native Fulanis from Hausas whom he accused of subjugating them.
His parents did not support his recourse to violence, Mr Ahmed -Rufai explained.
“His father has left Shinkafi and now resides in the Kura area of Kano State. His mother is strongly against what Turji stands for,” Mr Ahmed-Rufai said in an interview with BBC Hausa.
Mr Turji lives in his house in the Fakai community of Shinkafi but has other houses in hamlets, especially in Chida where a local source told PREMIUM TIMES, the terrorist keeps his herds of cattle.
Is he a repented terrorist?
After his swearing-in as governor in 2019, Bello Matawalle decided to reach out to several terror gangs, including Mr Turji operating in the state. Although he was not present at several of the meetings, it was believed that he accepted the peace accord. But the truce did not last long.
Mr Turji told the Daily Trust newspaper that the deal with the state government failed because of “human nature.”
“What happened to the peace pacts was that everyone knows how we are: we are human. We cannot guarantee to keep all the promises we made, but the leaders ought to be steadfast and pacify us. We were able to get some of our people to lay down their arms, and there was some level of peace but the government turned its back on us and broke its promises,” he said
The peace accord of 2020 collapsed and gang leaders like Alhaji Auta, Bello Turji and Ada Aleru returned to their old ways.
In December 2021, he wrote an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, the governor of Zamfara State and the Emir of Shinkafi, Muhammad Makwashe, pledging to embrace peace and to disarm and disband his fighters if the government meets fives conditions, which included an end to “the marginalisation of Fulanis” and the dissolution of pro-government vigilante groups in the region.
None of the addressees of the letter replied to him, at least none did publicly. Frustrated at the collapse of the first peace deal with the gangs, Mr Matawalle ruled out dialogue with them.
“My administration will no longer grant amnesty to bandits as they have failed to embrace the peace initiative earlier extended to them,’’ the governor said while addressing a congregation.
But locals said it appears Mr Turji was being sincere this time about his commitment to peace. They said attacks on communities in the area have reduced since January. They said villages that were hitherto deserted are now being populated by people.
“First, most of the villages around Fakai and Kware that were sacked were allowed to return. In fact, Fakai used to be empty but when you go there now, it’s full of people and Turji or his boys were not disturbing anyone,” a local politician, who sought anonymity for security reasons, told PREMIUM TIMES on the phone.
He said before the latest air raid, Mr Turji was primarily minding his livestock and farmlands.
“We are not trying to vouch for him (Mr Turji), but for the first time since this started, we saw his sincerity. He stopped attacking people and because of his presence, our communities were not being attacked by other bandits,” he added.
But Mr Turji was still a violent man. In June Mr Turji’s gang killed two terror kingpins, Dullu Maniya and Dan Maigari, operating in the area. Fifteen of their fighters were also killed.
The state government, who vowed not to negotiate with bandits in the area, saw his action as an honest commitment to peace, the Daily Trust reported that Mr Turji merely eliminated his rivals. The newspaper said he attacked the other gangs because they killed one of his most loyal fighters, Na-Sanda.
“Daily Trust gathered that Turji mobilised fighters loyal to him who launched an unexpected attack at the Maniya hideouts of the rival gang where they killed some of the gang’s members including Dullu himself and Dan Maigari, who is a younger brother of Bashari Maniya – a noted bandit turned intermediary” the newspaper reported.
Though the state government is yet to publicly announce a change of position on not negotiating with bandits, it appears it has already resumed talk with some gangs.
In August, the Deputy Governor, Hassan Nasiha, said Mr Turji has repented. He added that as a result of Mr Turji’s repentance, Birnin Magaji, Shinkafi and Zurmi Local Governments of the state have become peaceful.
He also said other gangs have accepted the peace accord after meeting with the committee set up by Mr Matawalle, the governor.
Mr Nasiha’s media aide, Babangida Zurmi, didn’t respond to calls and SMS on the stand of his principal on Mr Turji’s repentance and the attack.
The state’s Security Affairs Commissioner, Mamman Tsafe, also didn’t respond to calls and SMS sent to him by PREMIUM TIMES for comments.
In July, perhaps the cruellest terrorist in the region, Ada Aleru, was given the traditional title of Sarkin Fulani Yandoton and the coronation was attended by Mr Tsafe (security commissioner), the sole administrator of the area, special advisers to the governor, traditional title holders and other government officials.
PREMIUM TIMES gathered from several palace sources that the state government approved the coronation though the Emir was later suspended following widespread public outcry.
A ploy to protect his wealth
A security official in Zamfara State, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the press, said Mr Turji and the state government did not agree to any peace deal.
“What we know is that the deputy governor was just trying to calm the people of the state by saying that Turji and other bandits had repented. Turji didn’t submit any weapons to the state government, he used force to kill rival bandits and lastly, he took away all cattle and other properties of the bandits he killed, so where exactly is the peace accord?”
When asked why Mr Turji reached out to the state government and the Shinkafi emirate for peace, the official said it could be a move to protect his wealth.
“We’ve seen the case of Ado Aleru in Tsafe axis. When these terrorists gather a lot of wealth, they want to fool the government by saying they want to sit and discuss. Turji is just trying to fool people and the government the way Ado Aleru did so that he could be left in peace to spend his wealth,” he said.
He added that intelligence reports at their disposal indicated that Mr Turji has built an “empire” of cattle, “and he has hundreds of cattle given to some of his boys to look after. He has motorcycles and vehicles. And he has money. He thinks by reaching out to the government, he would be allowed to keep his wealth while temporarily ceasing hostilities towards innocent residents.”
Already, residents of communities in Shinkafi, Zurmi, Kaura Namoda and Brinin Magaji areas of Zamfara State are in panic following the air raid on Mr Turji’s house.
A local politician, who sought anonymity, said immediately after the attack, a team of elders was raised to go and sympathise with Mr Turji.
“I’m telling you this we were just trying to avoid the backlash of the air force attack. My uncle was among those who went to see him. We’re not backing them but we have no option because the backlash will be on us,” he said.
He said four people were killed on Tuesday in Ajiyawa community and several cattle rustled.
“For a long time we have not witnessed something like this. So even if Turji will not attack us, he would definitely stop protecting us from other bandits. That’s our headache.”
In an interview with BBC Hausa monitored by PREMIUM TIMES, a traditional title holder, the Danmadamin Shinkafi, Aliyu Moyi, said the air force attack on Mr Turji has thrown the whole axis into a panic.
He said while the military carried out its responsibilities, there is palpable fear in the area that Turji may take out his anger on innocent residents of the area or other gangs may size his vulnerability to attack residents.
“The attack was uncalled for. We’re in panic mode because of what happened. I’m not sure if Shinkafi market will be patronized this week. Farmers are also in this panic mode. We’re not sure if they (farmers) would be able to work on their farms,” he said.