Nigeria’s government on Wednesday labeled heavily armed gangs blamed for mass kidnappings as terrorists in a bid to deter violence in the country’s northwest.
So-called criminal bandit gangs have long plagued Nigeria’s northwest and north-central states, raiding villages to loot and kidnap for ransom, but violence has become more widespread.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s government, battling jihadists in the northeast for more than a decade, had been under pressure to do more to halt attacks from the criminal gangs.
In the official gazette published on Wednesday, the federal government labeled activities of Yan Bindiga and Yan Ta’adda — references in the Hausa language to bandit gunmen — “as acts of terrorism and illegality.”
It referred to criminal gangs who carry out mass kidnappings of schoolchildren, abduction for ransom, cattle rustling and destruction of property, among other crimes.
The definition will mean tougher sanctions under Nigeria’s Terrorism Prevention Act for suspected bandit gunmen, their informants and supporters, such as those caught supplying them with fuel and food.
Nigerian daily newspapers often carry stories about bandit raids on villages and communities, where they steal cattle, kidnap families and terrorize residents.
Security forces have announced a crackdown, including air raids and a telecom shutdown in parts of the country’s northwest, as part of an attempt to flush criminal gangs from their forest hideouts.
On Tuesday, police announced they had rescued nearly 100 kidnap victims in two raids on bandit camps in northwestern Zamfara state.
Last year, bandit gangs made international headlines with a series of high-profile attacks on schools and colleges to kidnap scores of pupils for ransom. Some of those students are still being held.
Nigeria’s bandit violence has its roots in clashes between nomadic cattle herders and sedentary farmers over land and resources. But tit-for-tat attacks have over the years spiraled into broader conflict and criminality.