Gunmen have killed at least 30 people in northwest Nigeria after surrounding a busy market and opening fire, marking the latest brutal development in a security crisis currently plaguing the country.
Nigeria is suffering its worst instability in decades, facing threats not only from jihadists and separatists, but also from a wave of banditry in the northwest, which has seen scores of people killed and hundreds of schoolchildren kidnapped, forcing thousands to flee the area.
With president Muhammadu Buhari struggling on an election promise in 2015 to protect the population from terror and crime, the government has intensified military operations and ordered a wave of telephone and internet blackouts in the northwestern states of Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto and Kaduna.
Locals reported seeing up to 200 gunmen ride motorbikes into the town of Goronyo, in Sokoto, head straight to a weekly market and start opening fire upon traders and shoppers, according to Nigeria’s Premium Times newspaper.
The assault began on Sunday and continued into Monday morning, Sokoto’s governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal said.
At least 30 people were killed, the governor’s office said. But Iliyasu Abba, a local resident and trader, told Reuters that there were 60 bodies at Goronyo General Hospital mortuary, and others are said to have sustained injuries while escaping.
The gunmen had at least initially overpowered police who tried to intervene, and shot sporadically into the crowds “after they surrounded the market firing at every direction killing people”, Mr Abba said.
It comes less than a fortnight after more than 30 people were reportedly killed in two market attacks in the same state, in Gwadabawa and Sabon Birni, believed to have been carried out by opposing groups. Days earlier, it was reported that 17 people had been abducted from their homes in Sabon Birni.
In a bid to quell the attacks, the local government had previously placed a ban on rural markets in parts of Sokoto state, whose major city straddles an ancient caravan route to the Sahara and acts as a major trading hub for millions.
But violence has intensified in Sokoto in recent weeks since the military launched an operation to flush attackers from their forest hideouts in Zamfara, according to the Premium Times, which reported that three notorious “banditry kingpins” are believed to have moved from Zamfara to new bases in Sokoto in recent months.
At least 60 per cent of about 500,000 residents are thought to have fled from the violence in the Sabon Birni area alone, local politician Amina Al-Mustapha told the Associated Press last month, with some taking refuge across the border in Niger.
Following Sunday’s attack, the state governor requested more security forces in the state and the deployment of more resources, he said in a statement.
But according to Mr Al-Mustapha, military bases have been abandoned as a result of the attacks. While Sabon Birni was home to five military bases last year, “now, we have only one in the entire with security operatives present”, he said.
The term “banditry” tends to be used locally to refer to young men of the Fulani ethnic group, nomadic herders embroiled in a decades-long dispute with Hausa farmers over access to land and water. But there are reported to be several groups contributing to the violence, including reactionary vigilantes and financially-motivated opportunists.
Arguing that “the violence is assuming an insurgent nature” and referencing anecdotal reports suggesting a growing link to the Islamist group Boko Haram, a security analyst at the University of Jos argued on Monday that Nigeria’s government should label the so-called “bandit” groups a terrorist threat.
While the identity of these groups responsible for the violence was largely unclear in recent years, “the elevation of attacks and the atrocities they commit has created a pattern,” Dr Sallek Yaks Musa told The Conversation, adding: “The motive appears to be to displace people and occupy their arable lands.”