Hell in a cell: rural northern Nigeria at mercy of insecurity


By Umar Yandaki

The problem of insecurity in northern Nigeria is as confusing as it is alarming. Spare the government’s somewhat indifference on the menaces’ early warning signals and our collective failure to face them with all senses of seriousness: these are strangely our norms.

The major channels within which insecurity manifest in this clime – kidnapping, abduction, banditry, communities’ raiding and annihilation – seems not to be taking their tolls on us the usual way: rather than targeting the rich and sophisticated city-dwellers as the case was before and elsewhere, the ‘poor’ and more often, ‘villagers’ or rural dwellers constitutes the major targets of kidnappers, bandits and raiders within this geographical space. But what was the situation like? Let’s take a look at the ‘cell’.


Owing to the varied socio-economic and political hardships bedeviling them, many enlightened Nigerians living in this country, especially of the middle and lower classes feel as though they are incidental inmates entrapped in a jail or prison, which they would happily leave at any slightest opportunity. Below this category of Nigerians are the more impoverished ‘citizens’ living in the slums we call villages.

This category of Nigerians, especially in the northern part of the country, constitutes a sizeable part of our population and is unfortunately, the most distanced from the State and its apparatuses. Most villagers don’t work for the government. Many villages also lack good education facilities, good access roads, clean drinking water, basic state authorized security, etc. They miserably live in dilapidated environments and for most of them, (especially women) in abject poverty. These forms the major push factors behind the gradual but massive rural-urban drift since independence.

These people were only left with their traditions and Islam, both of which admonished them to be patient (a bar ma Allah); and also gives them reasons to be happy, heterogeneous and ultimately keeps them moving. Most of them accept their hardships and misfortunes as Qadr (destiny), and only report their ordeals to traditional rulers, Mallams/boka and ultimately, Allah. Their differences are largely marked by sectarian affiliations: especially from the 1980s, one may hardly find a village, at least in North West Nigeria without separate Izalah and Darikah mosques. And generally, security was ensured through collective community surveillance.

This somewhat Islamic-cum-traditional oriented psychology keeps many rural dwellers indifferent in the face of the state’s informal normalizing of destitution and underdevelopment among them. In spite of their difficulties, therefore, the villagers remained at peace and contented with their traditional means of income, which informs the operation of their local economies: rural areas remained the sources of locally produced grains, vegetables and animals – in short, the sources of life in Northern Nigeria. And their regional markets, such as ‘Kasuwar Mafara’, ‘Kasuwar Jibia’, ‘Kasuwar Dankama’, ‘Kasuwar Yankara’ etc, remained theaters of socio-economic interactions and cultural exchanges.

As for the forests surrounding our rural areas, they supported rural life. Medicinal herbs, bush meats, firewood, etc were all sourced from the forests. There was no question of crime or its fear. Sharing the story of his childhood in Yandaki town of Kaita District, Katsina State in the 1960s and 1970s, my father told me that they had an epithet for the forest: ‘dawa uban maraya’, literally meaning ‘forest, parent to the orphan’. It was a cultural imprimatur; another way of saying, ‘an orphan only needs to go to the forest to get his hunger satisfied from the bounties of bush meats and wild fruits’.

My father furthered that as children, their parents wouldn’t stop them from going to the forest because it was generally believed that their safety was assured. Of course, malicious people there were; but they were very few, and lately, to borrow the words of Ariel and Will Durant, they felt ‘constrained by the surveillance of the village’ and so they moved out to ‘hide their sins in the protective anonymity of the city crowd’. But as the villages were in this state of affairs, what went wrong?


The unfortunate situation of the rural areas in northern Nigeria itself offers a gesture of acceptance for many atrocities. ‘Insecurity’ (of whatever sort), wrote Ariel and Will Durant, ‘is the mother of greed’. In this ‘cell’ where many people are insecure in terms of food, comfort, life, etc, it is only natural for the constant victims of the State in this increasingly growing capitalist, elitist and self-centered society to be allured by criminal urges, including stealing, plunder and excessive materialism. And the increasing proliferation of Small and Light Weapons in the country (thanks to, among others, our porous borders), only triggered the already tensed situation into that of armed violence.

Already, most rural areas in Northern Nigeria from Bama to Zabarmari, Batsari to Safana, Shinkafi to Anka, as well as the forests surrounding them constitute relatively ungoverned spaces within the country. And naturally, crime thrives in places where there’s little deterrence. Supporting factors surrounding the rise of insecurity in North-West Nigeria abound, these briefly constitutes the major ones. And intelligibly, if one clearly understands the nature and inner dynamics of Nigerian history, he’d not be shocked about our present situation. It is merely a sum of our historical trajectory. Let’s take a look at the realities shrouding the present insecurity situation.


At least in Borno, Yobe, Kaduna, Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi States, the worst hit of insecurity has been on rural areas, which altogether houses the greater percentage of the populations within those States. Also, the perpetrators’ hideouts are largely forests on which, in many cases, the rural areas earn their living.

One may argue that the middle-class/city-dwelling Nigerians, especially the travelers among them are incessantly kidnapped, say on the Katsina-Sokoto, via Jibia, Zurmi, Kaura-Namoda highway or Abuja-Kaduna express way. But their pain and fear is only for the time being and comparatively insignificant. The perpetual pain and intense fear suffered by the villagers who live along such highways and in other places are better imagined than experienced.

Between January and August 2020 alone, about 1,100 people have been reportedly killed in northern Nigerian rural areas. In Zamfara alone, the State government reported that about 8,000 women were widowed as at April 2019. This was comparative low with the figure reported elsewhere numbering to 22,000. Just few hours ago, about 110 farmers harvesting crops in rural Borno, including Zabarmari were ‘killed in ‘gruesome’ Nigeria massacre’.

Already at the lowest rung in a ‘cell’, the villagers living in rural northern Nigeria amidst intense pain and the fear of being kidnapped, abducted, killed or raped, are in my opinion metaphorically ‘killed’ and dumped in a ‘hell’. As they are vulnerable to death at home, in their markets or at farm, they are denied the very purpose of their existence. But worse, they are also perpetually troubled by the fear that their communities could at anytime be ransacked by criminals who have made the nearby forests their den and sometimes even live in the villages and exert direct influence and authority over the rural people. Anyway, some villagers are forced to move out as refugees, stepping into an unknown future in the IDP camps or elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we are reliving some of the most horrible episodes of our history, and unjustifiably so. In history classes, we were taught about the expansionist tendencies of the ancient Hausa City-States and Borno: how villages were sacked and settlements cruelly subdued. That was during the Middle Ages and those were independent territories enmeshed in a game of power politics. Sadly, the perpetrators of insecurity in this clime are yet to rise above that medieval trait. And in terms of leadership, we even retrogressed: while the medieval rulers engaged in expansionist military campaigns after ensuring internal security, the Nigerian government is yet to assure us of our safety. Nobody is safe.

But truth be told, we all know our plight and problems. The indifference and bureaucratic formalities with which insecurity is being superficially faced would only end up consuming us. Therefore, the Nigerian government must be warned that tackling this problem must be ignited from the top and ‘aggressively’ pursued with all sense of commitment.

And after this, we must engage ourselves and strategically negotiate the thriving celebration of difference, multiplicity of viewpoints and the absence of a unified central consciousness, and ultimately CHANGE THE COURSE AND DIRECTION OF OUR HISTORY AS A NATION. We are actually going the wrong way!


Umar Yandaki writes from Sokoto, and can be reached via: umarndk@gmail.com

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