What’s in a name? Quite a lot when the issue is what to call armed outlaws in Nigeria. Over the past two months a controversy has developed over the government’s desire to relabel these groups, commonly known as “gunmen”, “kidnappers”, “warlords” and “criminal elements”, as “bandit terrorists”.
The government’s position has gained traction because of some evidence of linkages between violent crime and Boko Haram. But critics say that the rebranding is designed to deflect blame — and international support — by rebranding what is essentially a domestic criminal problem as an international terrorist issue.
The name change now seems likely to stick, at least at the governmental level, after a federal high court in Abuja prescribed it and the government confirmed this by gazetting the ruling. Those affected by the violence hope it signals renewed urgency and resources in the state’s fight against rising insecurity. Attacks on civilians, including cattle rustling, child abductions, theft, sexual violence and kidnapping for ransom, have affected hundreds of thousands of people across the north-west states of Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina, Kaduna and beyond.
But human rights defenders worry that calling these “bandits terrorists” will legitimise the use of unsuitable military strategies, while leading to the profiling of the Fulani, from which many armed bandits hail. This could further exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions at a time when the country is gearing up for what are likely to be fiercely contested polls in February next year.
They also point out that the violence has deep roots — including in the country’s worsening farmer-herder conflicts — which are more related to government failings than to radical Islamic narratives or terror movements.
Resolving the crisis means dealing with the underlying triggers of the crisis, which include socioeconomic grievances, poverty, inequality, poor governance and climate change.
Until this is done, re-framing “armed bandits” as “bandit terrorists” will be more of a distraction than a cure.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.