More than 100 people have been killed by suspected “bandit” militants in northern Nigeria, according to reports on Friday, as authorities continued to search for bodies and suspects after days of violence.
Gunmen on motorbikes arrived in large numbers in as many as nine communities between Tuesday and Thursday night, opening fire on residents and burning homes, according to survivors who fled.
Abubakar Ahmed, a resident of the Bukkuyum local government district, told the Associated Press that the gunmen “killed more than 100 people” in Bukkuyum and Anka.
Aliyu Anka, a resident of Anka Town – a community known for artisanal mining – also said more than 100 people were thought to have been killed. In one village, “they killed people from 20 years and above”, he said. “Some have been buried, some were burned, and we are still looking for bodies.”
The attacks have been blamed on bandit militant groups, which have exploited a severe lack of rural security to wage relentless attacks across north-west and central Nigeria, conducting mass killings, kidnappings and sexual violence. Attacks mounted from forest enclaves have spread across central and north-west Nigeria and into Niger Republic.
The heavily armed groups – many made up of ethnic Fulanis – have carried out thousands of abductions and killings in the north-west and central states of Africa’s most populous country. The groups emerged from a historic conflict that has worsened dramatically between largely Fulani pastoralists and farmers of varying ethnic groups over access to water and land, and the boundaries between private farmland and grazing areas.
Ibrahim Dosara, Zamfara’s commissioner for information, told AP they were awaiting more information about the incident, including the number of casualties. A military aircraft had been deployed along with security forces as a manhunt for the attackers continued, he said.
The attacks are among the deadliest in recent years, in a security crisis that has worsened as Nigeria’s military is stretched to cover numerous security challenges around the country, including a jihadist insurgency in the north-east and pro-Biafra militancy in the south-east.
In a rare television interview on Wednesday, President Muhammadu Buhari said that insecurity in the region was being dealt with, amid reports of intensifying air raids on bandit hideouts by the Nigerian air force.
On Wednesday Nigeria also officially designated bandits as terrorists in a move signalling more severe punishments for the groups, many of which made controversial amnesties and peace deals with local authorities that quickly unravelled.
As air raids in recent days have intensified, reports have spread of bandits fleeing Zamfara state to surrounding areas, underscoring the challenge facing the region, where militant groups move with relative ease across the north-west and the border with Niger Republic.
Fears have also grown over the last year that some of the bandits have forged alliances with jihadists, which are increasingly active in north-west and central Nigeria.
In Niger state, neighbouring the capital, Abuja, residents and local officials said that jihadists belonging to Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province had seized local communities and banned schools from opening.
Zamfara has been one of the states most severely affected by bandit attacks.
The problem remains that Nigerian security personnel are outnumbered and outgunned by the assailants, according to Oluwole Ojewale, of the Africa-focused Institute for Security Studies.
“We don’t have adequate security in Zamfara state, but [in] some areas, we don’t have security at all,” said Yusuf Ibrahim in Gusau, the state capital.