Staring at the cloudy sky above the slumbering Rimni hamlet in the Zurmi area of Zamfara State, Haruna Ibrahim sat on stone rubble. His eyes were tinged with blood, a result of battering and cries after he dared to look terrorists in the face in an encounter. When asked to describe his experience, he frowned his face and scanned around to be sure no one was eavesdropping. He then told the story.
One dry afternoon in November 2021, the 35-year-old wrapped N300,000 cash in a black polythene bag, sped up his motorcycle as he headed towards the coven of armed bandits. Arriving at Mashema, a deep forest housing the terrorists near the Niger Republic, he bowed his head, buried the money bag in his armpit and stomped into their enclave. Enveloped with fear, he delivered the cash to them — a second tranche payment of the protection levy imposed on his small community.
Since 2020, the community has paid millions to the bandits, locals said. “This year, they [the bandits] asked us to pay another N250,000 but they themselves knew we can’t afford it because we are a small, poor village,” Mr Ibrahim told PREMIUM TIMES. “So, they started attacking us. They threatened to kill us all if we failed to pay.”
In the rural areas of Zamfara, villagers, primarily farmers, have sealed accords with the terrorists. They can work on their farm fields and live in peace provided they pay sumptuous levies to fund terrorist activities of their oppressors. The punishment for failing to abide by the biddings of the bandits is a coordinated mass abduction or murder.
Locally known as bandits, the organised criminal gangs are terrorising Nigeria’s rural northwest and central states, brazenly maiming, killing, kidnapping and displacing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The terror groups are notorious for wielding high-calibre weapons, including AK-47s and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) — most times unchecked by the Nigerian police and armed forces.
Thousands of bandits in the regions ride on motorcycles – sometimes manning Hilux vehicles – to invade towns and villages in Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina, Niger, Kaduna and recently Kebbi states. In 2021 alone, the bandits killed more than 2, 600 civilians – an increase of over 250 per cent from 2020 – according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).
The Nigerian military has launched multiple operations against banditry and terrorism. Yet, the crisis keeps escalating with more worrying tales of mass murder, abduction and forced labour emanating from the north-west.
The attacks have continued despite the federal government’s repeated promises to end terrorism. But security experts believe the government needs more than military power to end banditry. Authorities need to look beyond the surface of the crisis, said Yusuf Anka, a journalist who has done extensive research on the conflict.
How are these armed groups funding their terrorism activities? Kidnapping for ransom is already a growing multi-billion naira criminal industry, raising funds and bargaining strategies for the armed bandits. But these criminal gangs have now taken root in rural communities, occupying ungoverned spaces to impose illegal taxes running into millions of naira on helpless citizens in the northwest.
PREMIUM TIMES was in rural communities in Zamfara — the epicentre of the crisis – and the neighbouring Sokoto State, to investigate the booming business of the terrorists.
The investigation, spanning eight weeks of on-the-ground reporting, and interviews with affected locals, district heads, negotiators and security experts, showed how citizens helplessly pay millions in cash to bandits in exchange for peace in communities with little to no government presence.
Citizens in ungoverned spaces are doomed to a catch-22 situation. They risk bloody reprisals from the armed group if they fail to bankroll them or if they report them to authorities. And when they pay forced levies to bandits or work for them, they could be easily accused of financing terrorism, an act punishable under Nigerian law.
“We’ve cried to authorities for help many times but they failed us,” said Mr Ibrahim — his claim mirroring the resentments of dozens of locals interviewed for this investigation. “We’ve no choice but to comply with the bandits’ rules.”
A community bankrupted, emptied by terrorists
Rimni, a hamlet Mr Ibrahim calls home, has become desolate after its residents were heavily taxed by armed bandits. Nearly every adult there owed money to someone in the neighbouring Dada community. The loans were used to pay up lofty “taxes” that terrorists imposed on them, the villagers said.
Most times, Rimni residents could not pay back their debts in cash; they gave crops and animals in return, according to locals in the two communities.
One local Rimni farmer, Abu Ameeda, said he sold his brown ram so he could pay N12,000, his share of the illegal tax imposed on the community last year. He recalled that each family head was asked to pay that amount to settle the invading bandits. The other time, he borrowed the money from his friend in Dada but had not paid it back before the bandits asked them for another levy.
But the Dada community people have their own cross to carry too: many can no longer lend money to their neighbours. Unlike Rimni, they pay in millions because they are a larger community. The people of the place told PREMIUM TIMES that they are overwhelmed paying the armed bandits but they are helpless.
Last year, around May, the bandits taxed them N3 million. When they failed to comply, the terrorists invaded their villages, looted their farm, rustled their cattle and kidnapped six residents, demanding six million as ransom. The village leaders agreed to pay three million to free the abductees after negotiating with the bandits. But what they saw at the bandits’ camp stunned them, witnesses said.
“When we got to their forest, we realised our persons had been killed,” said Kabiru Maraba, a school teacher and leader in the Dada community. “The bandits collected the three million and warned us to never default in payment of our taxes. They told us killing our persons was the punishment for our failure to cooperate with them. They also told us if we wanted peace we must do whatever they said.”
Around October last year, the gangs raided farmlands in Dada again, chasing away farmers with guns and clubs. They came to ask for more funds from the people; this time N1.5 million. The community people interviewed by PREMIUM TIMES said they had no choice but to quickly comply with their demand to avoid a repeat of the last incident.
“After we paid, we were given a week to harvest our farm products,” said Mr Maraba, shedding tears. Another witness to the raid, Haruna Rasheed, a local farmer, testified saying: “We gathered this money from one another. Some of us paid N500 and others like me gave up to N15000. That’s how we got the money.”
Between October 2021 and July 2022, the Dada community paid up to N17 million in taxes to the armed bandits, according to interviews with local heads in the community. “Whenever they raided a village, they would collect phones and use them to contact people from the village whose phones they didn’t collect,” a resident said. “That’s how they get in contact with us and give us instructions on how and when to pay our taxes.”
The neighbouring Rimni community is now bare of its people, including the district head, Magaji Haruna. The bandits have taken over farmlands along the road leading to Birani, Gurbi, Jaja and the whole Tungan Maizabo villages in the area. Residents said they paid millions before fleeing the area to avoid the extortionate armed gangs.
Many of the Rimni villagers are in Zurmi town doing all sorts of menial jobs for survival. Recently, the villagers said, a few of them who went back to farm were abducted and forced to work on the bandits’ “illegally acquired farmlands”.
One of them, Bashar Aminu, who managed to escape after returning to the hamlet for farming, narrated his experience.
“We were forced to work for them on the farm and we were not paid a dime,” he said. Mr Ibrahim corroborated his claim, saying: “You won’t even be given food or water. And if you don’t work well you’ll be tortured by their teenage bandits.”
Bloodshed in Kwadi community over failure to pay taxes to terrorists
When bandits first introduced the cash-for-peace policy in villages in Zurmi Local Government, the Kwadi community revolted and vowed not to pay a dime to the terrorists. Their decision to fight turned their community into a junkyard of human wreckage, PREMIUM TIMES investigation revealed.
One day in 2020, arm-wielding bandits invaded their villages unannounced. But the villagers were ready to fight; they loaded their dane guns and unleashed fire on the terrorists, killing a few of them. The bandits returned to their base angry, witnesses said. Although the militants killed nine persons among the villagers, the villagers were happy they fought back and thought freedom had come.
They were wrong.
A few days later, survivors said, the bandits returned with more sophisticated firearms to attack the community. It was raining heavily; so, the village fighters could not power their local guns to fight back this time. “We heard the sounds of motorcycles; so a boy peeped to see what was happening. On seeing him, they shot him and he fell off the fence. That’s when we knew it was them [the bandits],” said Usman Aliyu, one of the survivors of the attack.
Those with knives and machetes tried to fight but failed; others ran for their lives, witnesses said, recalling how the bandits looted their farm stores and rustled their cows. In a few hours, the bandits overpowered the community fighters, killing 26 more persons. The killers then asked the survivors to leave the village before their next arrival.
Since then, the Kwadi community has been deserted by its people; only wreckage is left in the place. The community and its farmlands now belong to the armed bandits, villagers said, noting that the landscape has also been turned into a hideout where kidnap victims are kept. Many of the survivors now live in Zurmi town while some relocated to Gusau, the Zamfara State capital.
Like Zamfara, like Kebbi
The massacre of over 35 villagers and the eventual subjugation of the Kwadi community is similar to how the terror gangs murdered 65 local fighters in the Danko Wasagu area of Kebbi State — about 340 kilometres away — for fighting against the N25 million levy imposed on them last year. Armed gangs enforcing payment of illegal taxes in ungoverned spaces often get away with massacring residents of Zamfara, Kebbi, Sokoto and Katsina states.
Now, some of the bandits walk freely on the streets of Zurmi’s towns and villages. During our stay in Zurmi, a PREMIUM TIMES reporter — disguised as a resident of the communities — watched armed boys pulling up on motorcycles in broad daylight. “Do not run when you see them,” one resident warned us. “Once they see you running, they believe you’re not familiar with their activities; they will just open fire.”
In communities where peace deals are sealed between villagers and bandits, locals are “compelled to tip off criminal gangs about the activities and movements of armed forces. “If they fail to inform them ahead of security attacks, the bandits fall back on the locals after such raids,” villagers said. The story was the same as we crisscrossed towns and villages in Zamfara and Sokoto.
Inside bandits’ multi-million illegal taxes
Life used to be good for local farmers in Zamfara. You could make millions planting and harvesting rice, guinea corn, maize, beans and tomatoes and rearing dozens of cattle, villagers said. But things have changed for the worse since bandits perpetrated attacks on the state’s agrarian communities. They make life miserable for the citizens, turning many of them into peasant farmers.
Crisscrossing 13 of the 14 local governments in the state, the PREMIUM TIMES investigative team saw traces of ruins left in the farming communities by armed bandits — Maradun in the south, Zurmi in the north, as well as Shinkafi and Kaura, the economic and social areas of the state. By many accounts, bandits impoverish farming communities — and enrich themselves — imposing taxes on locals and ruining their economies.
Last October, during farming season, the criminal gangs unleashed mayhem in communities of the Bungudu Local Government Area in the state, killing scores, burning farm fields into ashes and rustling their cows. They warned villagers to stop farming activities till further notice.
The marauders taxed communities in the area to pay millions of naira before they could access their farms. The villagers said they complied. When it was time to harvest this year, another hefty tax was imposed on nine communities in the axis. In less than a year, a bandit gang, led by Sheu Bagewaye, extorted about N20 million from the aforementioned communities, according to interviews with locals and district heads.
Over a hundred kilometres away, in the Maradun area, bandits raked N64 million from six farming communities — between November 2021 and August this year — locals said. The story is similar in Kaura where three communities paid N5 million to the armed groups in the past six months.
Also, villagers from Birnin Magaji, a local government 60 kilometres from Kaura, said they paid N5 million to the terrorists earlier this year. And in Zurmi, a landscape neighbouring Kaura, N46 million was paid to the marauders, including the N17 million extorted from the Dada community.
In Gummi, the home town of Abubakar Gumi, a Nigerian Islamic cleric known for calling for negotiations with bandits, a total of N20 million was paid to sign a peace accord with the terrorists in 2021.
About 73 miles away in Bakura, the invading bandits collected N32.7 million as taxes in five communities, villagers who paid in batches told PREMIUM TIMES. And in Maru local government, data collected from locals revealed that 20 farming communities paid N39.6 million to bandits to allow farming in the past year.
In September this year, 14 communities in the Anka Local Government Area concluded the payment of N19.4 million and donated a local canoe on the order of the armed bandits, locals who participated in the deal said. Meanwhile, miles away in the Bukkuyom local government, 24 communities had N146.8 million — the largest amount paid to terrorists in the past year — in exchange for peace. Also, 26 communities in the Mafara local government paid N122.5 million protection levy to the criminal gang terrorising them.
In the Shinkafi local government, communities negotiated with Bello Turji, the notorious bandits’ kingpin commandeering the area. Locals contacted in the axis said reeling out data on the amount paid to the Turji-led criminal gang as taxes would amount to breaking the agreement reached with him.
In Tsafe, the recent crowning of Ado Aliero, another bandits kingpin, as a local chief in the axis, has stopped local leaders from talking to journalists about the imposition of taxes in the area. The title given to the bandit was part of their peace deal in the area, PREMIUM TIMES gathered.
However, as the capital of Zamfara, only communities in Gusau are relatively free from paying illegal taxes to armed bandits, meaning that many communities in 13 of the 14 local government areas in the state are largely ruled by armed bandits.
N70 million paid to Turji’s terrorist gang in Sabon Birnin
In October 2021, armed men, led by kingpin Turji, emerged from the forest on motorbikes in Sabon Birnin, Sokoto State. This time, their mission was to dispatch letters to village heads of communities, giving them deadlines to pay N70 million protection levy.
Turji had fled Zamfara after the Nigerian military launched attacks on him and his gang. He left Shinkafi, his stronghold, to build a new empire in the Sokoto forest and procure more ammunition, according to those familiar with his inner working system.
Upon his arrival in Sabon Birnin, his gang unleashed terror on the communities, killing not less than 40 at a weekly market. He then took over several villages and hamlets.Following the order, residents of 42 affected communities in Sabon Birnin paid N70 million to Turji’s criminal gang, locals who gathered and delivered the money in cash told PREMIUM TIMES, asking not to be named.
By imposing these illegal taxes on communities, Turji and other bandits in Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina and Kebbi states are raising millions to build an arsenal of heavy weaponry to unleash mayhem.
By many accounts, the criminal gangs have generated over N597 million from the illegal imposition of taxes on Zamfara communities in the past year. This stream of income is now one of the main revenue sources bandits use to finance their recruitments, training and purchases, according to confidential interviews with locals, negotiators and others familiar with the operations of the armed group.
But Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s information minister, said armed gangs collecting taxes from civilians across the northern parts of Nigeria are not different from street thugs extorting cash from citizens in the southern parts of the country.
“Do you know how many places in this country where area boys collect taxes?” Mr Mohammed asked. “And there is no terrorism or banditry there. In many of our cities, they carve out their own territory. So, it is no indication that the bandits have taken over.”
State taxes going into pockets of terrorists
Zamfara remains one of Nigeria’s poorest states. In press releases, the state’s finance ministry cited the lack of commitments to pay taxes by citizens as one of the reasons for the state’s low revenue profile.
In 2020, for instance, the state’s commissioner of finance, Rabiu Garba, described compliance with tax payment in Zamfata as “discouraging”.
“The problem we are facing in this state is that our people don’t pay tax; therefore we have to tell ourselves the truth,” Mr Garba said while defending the state’s 2020 budget. “What we are generating as a monthly IGR if we remove what we receive from workers as Pay As You Earn (PAYE) [a form of taxes deducted directly from wages and salaries of employees operating in the formal sector] is not more than N150 million, which is very discouraging.”
As officials lament poor revenue from tax collection, bandits fill their own pockets with blood-stained levies they force civilians to pay them, backstabbing the government and ruining the state’s economy.
Economic and security experts believe that the lack of government presence in rural communities of Zamfara State explain why bandits fill their pockets with taxes that should ordinarily be collected by the state government.
An economist and lecturer in Sokoto, Miftau Olarinde, said the government’s inability to collect taxes would hamper economic and infrastructural growth in the state. “People pay compulsory levies as compensation for them to protect their lives,” Mr Olarinde said. “Automatically the level of tax payment compliance with the government authorities will reduce people now paying many levies to armed bandits by force.”
Terrorism survives on finance mainly from illicit sources such as the imposition of illegal taxes by armed groups on civilians, security experts said. Ordinary citizens then inadvertently become underwriters of the bloodshed by armed bandits. But Nigerian law is clear about terrorism financing. Section 1 (1) of the Terrorism Prevention Act 2011 stipulates that “all acts of terrorism and financing of terrorism are hereby prohibited”.
“Terrorist organisations also require money to run their camp, feed their members and carry out attacks on their targets,” said Christiana Atah, a Nigerian security analyst and academic. “Although it may be conceded that cutting off the source of terror financing may not completely eradicate terrorism, it may affect the frequency and magnitude of attacks undertaken by terrorist groups.”
However, the Zamfara government failed to respond to PREMIUM TIMES inquiries on how the state intends to cut off terrorism financing. The state’s Commissioner for Security and Home Affairs, Adam Mamman-Tsafe, did not respond to messages and calls made to his known telephone hiline.