A spate of kidnappings for ransom in the Birnin Gwari district of northern Nigeria’s Kaduna state has left residents afraid to even leave their homes.
“When a person travels, his family, friends and neighbours gather to pray for his safety because of the kidnappers,” said local resident Kabiru Mohammed.
“It’s celebrations once he returns because kidnapping on the highway has become the norm. It’s a nightmare that should only exist in fairytales,” he told AFP by telephone.
Mohammed and his neighbours have good reason to be anxious.
Kidnappings have reached unprecedented levels in the last two months. In early May, about 100 people were abducted in just two days on a road near the border with Zamfara state.
Haruna Musa, who also lives in Birnin Gwari, said the situation has forced people in at least six villages in the area to abandon their homes.
Last week, an armed gang raided the village of Maganda and kidnapped three wives of a businessman. Many locals now don’t sleep at night. Instead, they patrol their communities.
“I also join in the night patrols to encourage others,” said Mustapha Idris, the chief imam of Maganda.
But the creation of civilian militia has itself had deadly consequences. On May 6, at least 71 people were killed in Gwaska village during clashes with armed bandits.
Birnin Gwari is not alone in being affected. In Zamfara, there have been similar problems from kidnapping and cattle rustling gangs.
“The mere sound of a motorcycle engine outside your house at night robs you of sleep because it could be a sign that the dreaded bandits have come,” said Nuhu Dansadau.
Dansadau said his village, also called Dansadau, and others nearby have been repeatedly raided.
Aliyu Kawaye, who lives in the town of Anka, said the abductors seize cash and force families to sell their farm produce to raise the ransom payment.
According to the state government, more than 10,000 cattle have been stolen in the last seven years.
“What is more worrisome is the deliberate attack on farmers who dare to go to their farms,” said Dansadau.
“The bandits amputate their hands from the wrists, put the severed palms in the farmers’ pockets and send them back to the village as a warning to others.”
The kidnapping gangs and cattle thieves, who roam on motorcycles on the hunt for victims, are known to operate in northern Kaduna and Zamfara.
Both regions have been largely spared by the Boko Haram insurgency, another of Nigeria’s pressing security problems along with a land conflict between nomads and farmers.
The kidnappers’ heavily guarded camps dot the Rugu forest, which straddles Kaduna, Zamfara and the northern states of Kano, Sokoto, Kebbi and Niger.
Abductees whose families don’t pay ransoms are killed and their bodies dumped, according to security sources.
Kidnapping for ransom used to be a phenomenon isolated to oil-rich southern Nigeria. But it has spread further north and become lucrative because of economic hardship.
It has also attracted young ethnic Fulani herders who have lost their herds in unrest with farmers over grazing and watering rights.
Young Fulani herders now make up most of the marauding gangs in northern Nigeria and other West African countries, said Saleh Bayeri, of the Gan Allah Fulani Development Association.
The Kaduna state government formed a joint military and police taskforce to combat kidnapping and cattle rustling in Birnin Gwari but has had little success.
In March, bandits likely armed with illegal weapons smuggled in from Mali and Libya, killed 11 troops at a camp in the area, prompting the military to withdraw.
In April, the Nigerian Air Force deployed special forces to Zamfara to fight the gangs but locals said more was needed.
“The bandits by far outnumber the troops and are better armed,” said Kawaye.
Zamfara governor Abdulaziz Yari has said he does not have adequate resources to police a state which at 40,000 square kilometres (15,400 square miles) is about the same size as Switzerland.
There are only 2,000 regular police officers, 400 riot police, 315 soldiers and fewer than 100 air force personnel for a population of more than four million, he said in February.
In response to the killings, he has ordered troops to shoot on sight anyone seen with a gun in affected areas. But that and a number of amnesty offers have had little effect.
“The best way to end this menace is for the government to send in more troops and weapons to fight these criminals as well as intensify security along our borders,” said Dansadau.