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In late July 2022, Nigeria’s Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, called a press conference where he accused the British Broadcasting Corporation and Trust TV of nothing less than high crimes.
What exact crime did the broadcasters commit? Well, they collaborated on a documentary titled “The Bandit Warlords of Zamfara”. It is an eye-opening and devastating portrait of the recurring decimal of violence in one of Nigeria’s northwestern states. It pinpoints some of the factors at play, and unmasks the forces that have rendered life nasty, brutish and short.
I was not in the least surprised that the Nigerian government despised the documentary. Lai Mohammed went apoplectic, alleging that the media “is the oxygen that terrorists and bandits use to breathe.” He wondered why the BBC would “give their platform to terrorists showing their faces as if they are Nollywood stars. It is unfortunate.” Then he threatened to make the broadcasters pay. “Let me assure you that they will not get away with the naked glorification of terrorism and banditry in Nigeria,” said Mohammed. “Appropriate sanctions will be meted [out] to both the BBC and the Trust TV.’’
A month and a half after issuing that threat, the Nigerian government has done zilch. That, too, is no surprise. In fact, the failure to punish the broadcasters is a rare tip by the Muhammadu Buhari administration in the direction of wisdom. The government doesn’t stand a chance of winning the battle, much less a war, against the broadcasters. To begin with, the documentarians have the facts and the truth on their side. By contrast, the government has two things: propaganda and self-deception. Mohammed, like the government he lies for, is a genius in the art of burying his head in the sand and declaring everything honky-dory.
But truth is a stubborn thing. It shatters illusions and delusions. It drills through and exposes the falsity of any propagandist scheme. Buhari et al must have figured out, I suspect, that any sanction against the BBC and its partner would have served as fertilizer. It would have served to popularize the documentary. Dreading the unintended prospect of drawing more eyes to the documentary, the government must have opted for barking but not biting.
There’s a good reason the Nigerian government doesn’t want Nigerians (as well as observers of Nigerian politics anywhere) to watch the documentary. The documentary holds up a mirror to the face of this administration, and the image is an ugly, sick, sickening one.
Lai Mohammed engaged in projection when he alleged that the media furnish terrorists and bandits with bandits. He knows, as does anybody with rudimentary knowledge of violence in Nigeria, that the country’s politicians are the most productive, enterprising financiers of violence. It is not simply that they’re by far the largest recruiters and employers of armed thugs. Of even graver consequence, I suggest, is the collateral impact of their policies and brand of politics. I’d put most Nigerian politicians in the category of depraved kleptocrats. One reason Nigeria is in awful shape is the curse of leaders who live for their guts and their guts alone. Folks who are obsessed with primitive accumulation, with grabbing any cash that’s within sight, make for disastrous leaders. Crushing poverty and its concomitant, grim desperation, are part of the horrific aftermath of pedestrian leaders.
“The Bandit Warlords of Zamfara” powerfully depicts this morbid symptom of mediocre, if not entirely bankrupt, leadership. It’s an object lesson on the grave fate that’s bound to befall a society – any society – that saddles itself with manifestly incompetent leaders.
The documentary enlightens on several levels. In Nigeria’s political rhetoric, the Hausa and Fulani are often bracketed, frequently assumed to be culturally and politically inseparable. The country’s political pundits often employ the term “Hausa-Fulani” as a coherent conflation, a useful category of geopolitical analysis. The BBC document explodes that supposition. It demonstrates that the Hausa and Fulani occupy opposite sides in the uncontrolled, festering violence in Zamfara. They are sworn enemies, bloodthirsty antagonists in a conflict that is at once senseless and inevitable.
Conventional wisdom in Nigeria is that the Fulani enjoy a monopoly of the goodies – few as they are – that the Nigerian state dispenses. Yet, in the BBC documentary, several Fulani, bandits or victims of banditry, bemoan their marginalization in Nigeria. They accuse their Hausa neighbors of barring the passage of their cattle. They see themselves, in fact, as victims of economic sabotage.
The documentary reinforces a point that I often make: that Nigeria does not work for the populace of Nigerians. It’s a mistake to look at a handful of privileged Hausa or Fulani politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats and extrapolate that the entire population of their ethnic groups are thriving.
For me, the documentary’s ultimate indictment is of holders of public office at the local, state and – especially – federal levels. Yes, it features bandits and vigilante members who speak with terrifying composure about killing, kidnapping or sacking their fellows. But it’s always clear that these acts of criminality are enabled by various governments’ abdication of their basic duties. People maim and kill innocents because they’re condemned to live in dire conditions without the barest mediation of civil order.
A bandit spelt it all out. “They say when there’s insecurity, the government gets money… We also get money. Though, for our money, blood is spilt.” He’s a leader of an armed gang that stormed a girls’ boarding school in Jangebe and abducted 280 schoolgirls. He revealed that the government paid N60 million to secure the girls’ release. And Guess what? His group promptly used the cash to buy more arms!
Predictably, the government lied that no ransom was paid. The day of the girls’ release, tone-deaf politicians decided to take turns on the microphone, basking in self-congratulation. It suddenly dawned on them that dusk was fast approaching, and that bandits often laid siege on the roads that led back to their sheltered, opulent lives. As they rushed into their vehicles to beat a hasty retreat, their military escorts began to shoot erratically. One of the bullets hit and killed a five-year old boy. His parents had brought him to welcome his sister, one of the abducted schoolgirls. In a tragic instant, a family’s joy at their daughter’s freedom was abbreviated by shattering grief over their son’s corpse!
It’s the sort of story that Lai Mohammed would rather Nigerians did not see. That’s why he scolded the BBC for showing terrorists’ faces. That’s why he charged the broadcasters with turning bandits into Nollywood stars. But Nigeria’s deadliest terrorists are its ostensible leaders. To the extent that they presume to be leaders at all, they come across as the most absurd Nollywood characters. In its sometimes oblique way, the documentary underscores that point. That’s why Mohammed wants it kept a secret. And why I urge every Nigerian to go to youtube and watch it.
Okechukwu Ndibe, better known as Okey Ndibe, (born 1960) an acclaimed Nigerian novelist, political columnist and essayist was born in Yola, Nigeria. He is the author of Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods, Inc.
Ndibe has worked as a professor at several colleges, including Connecticut College, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and Brown University.
We are honored that he brings his sharp intellectual depth and years of political activism to write for Life and Times.