Senior Nigerian lawyers on Wednesday cautioned against the ongoing appeasement of bandits, terrorising several states, particularly in the North-west, through dialogue between them and some governors as well as non-state actors.
They described the dialogue with the bandits, who have kidnapped and killed hundreds of people in Katsina, Niger, Kaduna, Benue, Plateau, Zamfara and Sokoto States, among others, as illegal as there is no legal framework to support it.
The lawyers, including former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Prof. Epiphany Azinge (SAN); former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Prof. Chidi Odinkalu; Mr. Dayo Akinlaja (SAN) and Prof. Yemi Akinseye-George (SAN), spoke on Thursday in separate interviews with THISDAY against the backdrop of negotiations with the bandits in order for them to end attacks on various communities in the affected states.
A Kaduna-based Islamic cleric, Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, has been visiting the bandits’ enclave and has called for amnesty for the criminals, whom he said were carrying out reprisals for the injustices done to them by agents of the state.
Gumi, addressing journalists recently in Minna, Niger State capital, after visiting the camps of the bandits terrorising the state had called on the federal government to grant those willing to make peace ‘blanket amnesty’ if the current security situation must be tackled.
“The federal government should give them blanket amnesty, then if somebody continues, then we will deal with them,” he had said while giving updates on the demands of the bandits.
Gumi explained that some of the complaints of the bandits were that they were being killed and maimed unjustly.
“The outcome (of his visit) is very positive. We have many factions and each faction is saying ‘I have complaints and grievances – we are persecuted, we are arrested, we are lynched,” the cleric said, quoting the bandits.
The Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) has also reportedly expressed its readiness to enter into dialogue with the bandits to resolve the current security challenges.
The Chairman of the NGF and Governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, reportedly said on Tuesday when he led some members of the forum on a solidarity visit to the Niger State Governor, Mr. Sani Bello, in Minna, the state capital, that it was imperative to consider dialogue in order to protect lives and property.
“We also need to explore other avenues side by side with whatever the security institutions are doing if that means engaging in dialogue. We may not have a choice. We may have to do that, anything to help us to deal with this immediate crisis and then to begin to address it on a much longer time basis, the root causes of this social dislocation responsible for what we are witnessing, all around us,” Fayemi said.
However, the lawyers condemned any form of dialogue with the bandits, saying that negotiating with them amounts to an admission that government and the people are helpless in tackling the current security crisis.
They warned that dialogue should not be encouraged and called for the arrest of those dealing with bandits so as not to create the impression that government is an accomplice.
Azinge said it is unacceptable to engage criminals.
“In all criminal jurisprudence, you will always see that the issue of conspiracy to commit a crime or the issue of aiding and abetting the crime has always been criminalised,” he stated.
He added that anyone who negotiates with suspected criminals, whether authorised or not, is aiding and abetting crime.
“This is not something that should be encouraged in any form. It is another way of saying that government is boldly and clearly saying that it has lost grip and is no longer in control,” he stated.
According to him, those negotiating with the bandits are now trading in criminality because it raises the question as to how they knew the bandits and determine the right people to meet.
He said the negotiators must have foreknowledge of what was to come for them to know where to go to and the person to meet.
“It is a collective insult on our sensibilities for people to say that they have gone to negotiate with bandits. We condemn banditry in its entire ramification. We condemn all forms of criminality, but we should be very careful when the impression been given directly or indirectly, with or without the connivance of government at any level is that we have suddenly found ourselves in a situation that we are now trading with bandits and indirectly encouraging criminality one way or the other,” he said.
He said negotiators believed that they were doing Nigerians a favour.
“That is why they can come out boldly but it is important for us to make it known to them and to make it known to anybody who cares to listen that anyone who is seen to be negotiating whether on behalf of the government or on behalf of any group of people and in the process trying to trade with bandits in any form of negotiations are conspiratorial – they are aiding and abetting and to that extent are responsible and liable for all that is going on,” Azinge said.
Similarly, Odinkalu condemned negotiation with bandits, saying they have committed offences against the laws of the land and must be punished, accordingly.
He said: “This is not necessarily a matter on which the constitution provides specific instructions. You have to read the tea leaves and other things. It is rather simple to do so.
“Look, the constitution guarantees a right to life for every Nigerian and makes it a crime to kill another without lawful justification.”
He added that reprisal, such as Gumi was speaking about, is not the lawful justification for killing.
“So, that is a crime. Government has a duty to ensure accountability for such crime, not to negotiate it away,” he said.
Akinlaja said there was no legal basis for negotiating with bandits or any criminals.
“Assuming without conceding that there is a legal rule that allows for negotiation with criminals, the very heinous, traumatic and pervasive nature of the banditry that has seemingly held our nation by the jugular would even make it an exception to that rule,” he stated.
Akinlaja said the newly-emerged scenario whereby “ordinary civilian” would easily know the location of bandits and effortlessly engage them in negotiations while the security agents would appear unable to locate the same bandits was not only disturbing but fuelled the conspiracy theory gaining traction.
He described the development as bothersome, saying that there is no section of the constitution or any known law that sanctions what is going on at the moment.
According to him, what is envisaged by the law and the constitution is that whoever commits a crime would be apprehended and dealt with in accordance with the laws and procedures.
“The tragedy of the present situation is that it sends a signal to all and sundry that all is not well with our security architecture as a nation,” he said.
While he did not describe those negotiating with the bandits as accomplices, he said the ease with which they locate and meet with the bandits in their “fortress/forest hideouts” called for serious concern.
Akinseye-George described negotiating with bandits as an admission of state failure.
“Those who negotiate with bandits may indirectly be encouraging banditry,” he said.
Akinseye-George distinguished between what is currently going on and amnesty, stating that amnesty involves a change of heart on the part of the wrongdoers and surrender of arms in exchange for amnesty.
“But where government and others pay ransoms to bandits without proper arrangement to recover their arms, the bandits are empowered and provided more resources to attack the state. That fosters more banditry because others are encouraged to go into it,” he said.
According to him, unless the bandits surrender their arms and show remorse for their heinous deeds, negotiating with them is a waste of time and a way of looting the treasury.
“Where for instance, bandits are paid to release their victims, how is the payment to be accounted for? Who got what, when and how much? The government must not always be on the defensive when it comes to providing security,” he said.
According to him, the government should not be reacting after the bandits have struck and perpetrated dastardly acts.
He urged the government to recruit and train Special Forces (SFs) to go on the offensive.
He also recommended that the SFs should be specially equipped and well-resourced to recover as many illegal arms as possible.
“They should go into the nooks and crannies; into the dark spots, the forests, and other hideouts. They should be equipped with special communication gadgets like the commandos,” he said.
He said many Nigerians might be willing to pay a special security levy to improve the security situation in the country so that people could go about their legitimate businesses without fears.
He said no price is too much to pay for security, adding that the fund should be managed by the private sector and well accounted for.
He, however, urged the government to label the herdsmen, rustlers, militants and other violent extremists as terrorists, adding that state governors who use security votes to buy private jets, property and organize parties should be made to account for the fund.
Akinseye-George also called for an overhaul of the nation’s security architecture.
“We also need to minimise the use of cash in the country. This is easy if the government is serious. Young people will be engaged to provide financial services, including making payments in rural areas. It should be possible to trace any major transactions. All unregistered telephone lines without NIN should be suspended until regularised. So, it’s not about negotiating with bandits. It is about overhauling the entire security system of the country,” he added.
Emma Okonji in Lagos and Alex Enumah in Abuja