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SPECIAL REPORT… TELECOMS BLACKOUT: Nigeria’s latest tactic against banditry grounds businesses, forcing residents beyond borders

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The fight against notorious bandits raining terror and kidnapping students in Northwest Nigeria took a new dimension in September as the government explored shutting down telecommunications networks to enhance security operations. Alfred Olufemi reports on how this measure takes a heavy toll on the social and economic activities of millions of residents.

Gun-wielding bandits paid Zamfara state-owned College of Agriculture a dangerous visit on the night of August 16.

On that fateful evening, Yusuf Namadi, 35, was far away in Talata Mafara, a community located 90 kilometres away from Bakura, the location of the institution. Yet, the reports of the incident left the Chemistry tutor devastated.

Yusuf Namadi

Two people were reported killed and 19 persons, including 15 students and two of his colleagues, were held hostage for several days before their eventual release.

“It was really a sad one. And sudden too (sic),” Namadi said in a hush tone, struggling to complete the sentence.

Everyone was told to vacate the school after the night attack, he continued after a long pause.

But a few weeks after Namadi had been at home as a result of the closure of the school, the Nigerian government announced a decision that led to the shutdown of one of his lucrative businesses.

Our reporter met him outside his shop in Talata Mafara local government area of Zamfara State, where he sells building materials. Being a multi-business owner, alongside the teaching engagement, Namadi engages in bulk sales of recharge cards and operates a PoS outlet that promotes financial inclusion in the community of over 200,000 people.

Yusuf Namadi’s container under lock [Photo credit: Alfred Olufemi/Ripples Nigeria]

Inside Namadi’s shop dedicated to building materials merchandise [Photo credit: Alfred Olufemi/Ripples Nigeria]

But not anymore.

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) mandated all telecommunication operators in the country to stop extending services to Zamfara and its environs, effective Friday, September 3.

The move was to stop the bandits who were harnessing the availability of the networks to coordinate their attacks and aid military incursions of their hideouts.

However, the directive that was supposed to last for a fortnight was later extended indefinitely in Zamfara. Some state governments in other Northwest states such as Katsina, Sokoto and Kaduna where banditry is rife, also approached the federal government to shut down services in some local government areas as well.

While top security officials are convinced that the measure is yielding results, Namadi and several others whose survival and businesses depend on mobile telecommunications continue to suffer.

‘Millions in the dark’

Of the six Northwest states in the country, only Kano and Kebbi states were spared from the network restrictrictions as of the time this newspaper Nigeria visited the region. The other four; Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina and Kaduna had either experienced a partial or total shutdown in the past two months, Ripples Nigeria confirmed.

Of course, aside from the prevalence of bandits’ attacks in the Northwest states, the region had the highest number of mass school abductions in the past one year, accounting for five of nine cases recorded between December 2020 and July 2021.

Following the directive from the federal government, the network shutdown was first effected across the fourteen local government areas of Zamfara, denying the population of 9.2 million people mobile and Internet access.

One month later, the ban was lifted in Gusau local government but thirteen areas remain in the dark.

CHART: Map chart showing the states affected by the telecoms shutdown between September and October

Barely a week after the shutdown in Zamfara commenced, Katsina state followed suit by ordering operators to shut down services in 13 of its 24 local governments — Funtua, Bakori, Jibiya, Malulfashi, Faskari, Batsari and Danmusa, Sabuwa, Kankara, Dutsinma, Kurfi, Safana and Dandume.

In Sokoto state, fourteen areas; Gada, Goronyo, Gudu, Ilela, Isa, Kebbe, Sabon Birni, Shagari, Rabah, Tambuwal, Tangaza, Tureta, Wurno, and Dange Shuni were affected by the shutdown until the Governor intervened, begging the President to lift the ban in some areas.

Kaduna was the fourth Northwest state to adopt the measure. However, Governor Nasir El-Rufai refused to mention the affected local government areas.

But according to a survey conducted by SBMorgen, a Nigerian geopolitical intelligence platform, during the first two weeks of the telecommunications blackout in Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna states, 66 percent of the respondents had their businesses impacted greatly while 34 percent said the impact was little.

The intelligence platform, in its 17-page report, also stated that impact on the fundamental rights of residents in the affected states “cannot go unmentioned as well as the general public’s right to know what actions were being taken in the name of security.”

It noted that while government authorities had justified the shutdowns on the twin grounds that it was requested by the security agencies and done to enhance national security, it falls short of international practices.

“Under international law and international humanitarian law, military and quasi-military actions undertaken by nation-states should meet the tripartite principles of distinction (which demands that the civilian population and combatants should be clearly distinguished), necessity (that requires only a grave and imminent peril to a country’s essential interest would legally justify a breach of an international obligation) and proportionality (where measures carried out by a nation-state are required to be ‘proportional’ to the armed attack and necessary to respond to it.)”

Meanwhile, a Ripples Nigeria analysis of data from Nigeria Security Tracker (NST), a project of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), showed that an estimated 84 persons were lost to attacks in Zamfara between September 3 and October 28 — a period after the telecoms ban was implemented.

For instance on October 14, bandits killed twelve in Kaura-Namode and on October 28, they killed twenty security operatives in Shinkafi, both areas in Zamfara.

Nevertheless, the spokesperson of the Nigeria Airforce, Gabriel Gabkwet, said the Nigerian troops have recorded huge successes in the past few months.

The successes, Mr Gabkwet attributed to the overpowering of the bandits by the combined efforts of the men of the Nigerian military, comprising the Airforce, Army and other outfits.

“The only way is by working. So, basically it’s been very successful. A lot of fire power. Their hideouts are being penetrated,” the official stated.

Hundreds of thousands lost in two months

Namadi’s shop was not as busy as it would have been two months ago. He was moodily seated on a wooden bench with his back resting on the iron bars that demarcated the shop where he sells building materials from the container that served his now rested telecommunications and PoS businesses.

He could only console himself by spending more time at the shop after closing down the container.

“This container you are seeing, I’m the owner. I’m the overall supplier of recharge cards in this area but due to this shutdown, it is closed,” he retorted.

Namadi said the continued closure of his container has cost him an estimated 200,000 naira (487USD) in profit and the uncertainty of a sooner reversal of the government’s directive makes him sad.

“Even the other businesses, the shortage of network has affected it (sic). If you want to buy anything, you have to either travel to Gusau or Sokoto just make calls,” he said.

Before the network was restored in Gusau, Namadi would travel to parts of Sokoto with unrestricted network access, over 180 kilometers from Talata Mafara, to make phone calls. The restoration in nearby Gusau only helped reduce the journey to 87 kilometers.

Welcome to Talata Mafara [Photo credit: Alfred Olufemi/Ripples Nigeria

Apart from plying deadly routes where bandits operate and risking being kidnapped, Namadi’s profit has waned.

“The travels have reduced my profit”, he said, reminiscing days when only a phone call in the comfort of his stable was what he needed to make orders.

Now, it takes five days to make orders, the businessman stated.

But he claims that despite the increase in logistics costs he hasn’t increased the selling price of paints, tiles and other building materials displayed in the store.

Additional expenses equates price increase

Unlike Namadi, 40-year-old Mansur Maikanti said incurring an additional 50 percent expenses due to the network outage caused an increase in price of the commodities which is not pleasing to his customers.

The wholesale trader who sells rice, noodles, spaghetti and bottled drinks to retailers in Ilela, a border community in Sokoto, had just returned from a business trip when this reporter visited.

Although the network in Ilela was restored six days prior to this newspaper’s visit, Maikanti shared his horrendous experience when the ban was still active.

Mansur Kanti in his store situated in the heart of Ilela market [Photo credit: Alfred Olufemi/Ripples Nigeria]

Since the community shares boundary with Birni Konni, a town in Niger Republic, the father of twelve children said he journeyed there to make business calls.

“We had to start making a trip to Niger, buy their SIM Cards, recharge and go there whenever we want to make a call.”

” (Because they are foreign calls) A phone discussion that could be done with N100 using the Nigerian network is not possible with the one in Niger Republic. We have to spend at least N500 for the same equivalent,” Maikanti explained in his shop where he stocked a few bags of imported rice for display.

Adding the telephone communication costs with other logistics, he spent a total of N400,000 (974 USD) to transport goods from Kano state which he would have done with 200,000 naira (487 USD) —50 percent lesser— before the outage.

“The coca cola company has stopped transporting its goods here due to insecurity. We have to go to Kano, buy them and transport them ourselves. These added expenses have led to the increase in the prices of the goods.”

Owing to the increase, a carton of noodles previously sold for 3,700 naira now sells for 3,950 naira, he informed the reporter.

Speaking on the worsening insecurity, Maikanti said his family of sixteen have been living in fear after the death of one of his neighbours several weeks before this reporter’s visit.

The deceased identified as Surajo Maifata worked with the Nigerian Customs until one night when some suspected bandits raided the neighbourhood.

Maifata, believed to be in his late 20s, left behind his wife and three children.

“He comes home at 12 – 1am. That day, he was in fact coming home early around 12:30am, unknown to him that some kidnappers had laid siege to a house in his neighbourhood.”

“When they saw him dressed in black, they thought he was a police officer, so they shot and killed him. That night they entered about five homes and kidnapped people but he was the only one killed,” said Maikanti as he recalled the horror of the night.

“We now keep vigil. We hardly sleep in our homes. Clerics have also been praying,” the helpless trader muttered.

Busy Talata Mafara General hospital’s entrance [Photo credit: Alfred Olufemi/Ripples Nigeria]

Nigeria in the day, Niger Republic at night

Seven years ago, Ogbuego Ifeoma moved from Anambra to Ilela alongside her husband, a businessman — a decision that she now regrets.

After a long day at the primary school where she teaches, she retires to her husband’s shop in the evening.

To her, living in Ilela has become a nightmare because of the prevailing security challenges.

“This was not how we met this place. We cannot sleep with our eyes closed,” the woman who’s in her late fifties lamented.

Popularly addressed as Aunty Ify by her kindred, Ifeoma found the shutdown calamitous, saying it impacted her husband’s business negatively and she was cut off from communicating with some of her children in Anambra until the network was recently restored.

While Ifeoma continues to endure living in the community, her kindred from the same home-state, Odidi Laura, found a safe haven to rest at night.

Laura, mother of five children, migrated to Birnin Konni in Niger Republic, leaving behind the bungalow she built with her husband in Ilela.

Odidi Laura could make a phone call after weeks of telecoms ban [Photo credit: Alfred Olufemi/Ripples Nigeria]

“It’s because of the insecurity that I migrated to the community. We built a house in Ilela but due to that problem we ran to Konni,” she narrated to our reporter in her shop where she sells stock fish, seasoning and other food recipes.

The family spends the day time in Nigeria and the night time in their rented apartment in Niger Republic. This has been their way of life for the past eight months, Laura told Ripples Nigeria.

That was their situation before the telecommunications shutdown was announced, but their continued stay in the foreign land has been draining the family financially.

According to her, she spends 68,000 naira (165.5USD) on rent monthly, excluding other costs.

“We pay 11,000 naira (26.8USD) per month for light and 4,000 naira (9.7USD) for water. It depends on how we use the water. We’ll have to convert our money from Nigeria Naira to CFA Franc.”

Read also: SPECIAL REPORT: Displaced residents of Zamfara battle hunger, as underfunding derails Nigeria’s nutrition goals

She also suffers the cost of the expensive calling rates using her Niger line, noting that a minute call on the sim card attracts as much as 500 naira.

Despite the huge costs of staying in Niger Republic, she said the family is not returning to the house in Ilela any time soon.

‘Life on the line’

Nura Umar, a dentist, stepped outside his office in Talata Mafara General Hospital, at 2:20 pm on that Wednesday. It was time to go home after hours of awaiting the delivery of the equipment needed for a minor surgical procedure.

Nura Umar says the network shutdown is delaying treatment [Photo credit: Alfred Olufemi/Ripples Nigeria]

The equipment had been ordered for earlier but the network outage won’t let them know where it had gotten to.

“When the patient arrived (the hospital), we waited for one of our colleagues who we thought would have the equipment for the treatment of the patient. We waited but he didn’t show up. Then, we went to look for him at his home (because there was no way we could reach him on the phone). When we got to his home, we realized he also did not have the equipment in his possession,” Umar narrated in Hausa.

He said some students had been sent to get the equipment in Sokoto but they couldn’t be reached as of that Wednesday afternoon.

“If there was a network, we would’ve made a phone call to the seller, sent him the money and he will waybill it to us immediately. And delaying this treatment could worsen the situation of the patient,” said the dentist.

On the implication of the delay, Umar stated that the part of the tooth would continue to swell, causing great discomfort to the patient.

“In fact, as it is, we don’t know the exact time that the goods will reach us,” he said as he headed towards the hospital gate.

This has been the situation at the hospital since the network was shut down, Umar explained, citing cases where procedures like blood transfusion were delayed.

“There are times when people come for minor treatment and the doctors will want to admit them. Most of the time they come alone or with just one person. It was difficult to inform the family that their family member have been admitted at the hospital”

“Also, there are times when a patient urgently needs blood transfusion. Usually, the patient’s family calls their family members to rush to the hospital, get their bloods tested if they are fit to donate. But with the lack of communication, it takes a longer process, and many people here cannot afford to buy from the blood bank”.

Students not left out

Abubakar Ibrahim, a year 3 student at the Zamfara state College of Education in Maru, is displeased that, for the second time in a week, he would travel to get the same assignment done.

Abubakar Ibrahim displaying the assignment he has to redo [Photo credit: Alfred Olufemi/Ripples Nigeria]

They were asked to explain the relationship between community development and non-formal education but what Ibrahim submitted to the lecturer was not satisfactory enough, hence the need to travel to Gusau, about 58 kilometres away from his school, to redo it.

“Normally, we would research and do our assignments here on campus, but with the shutdown, we have to travel down to Gusau to get them done”

“WIthin the school it’s usually between 70-80naira for a page, but it cost N100-120 in Gusau. This is excluding the N600-700 we spend on transport to Gusau,” he lamented.

Also, 19-year-old Yohanna Murna, another student of the school, narrated the rigours she went through when she ran out of foodstuffs and provisions in September.

“I wanted some money to buy food stuff and ingredients, but it was difficult to get to my parents. Even when I reached them and they sent the money. I didn’t know until I called them again then they had sent it,” she said in Hausa language.

Transportation to Gusau alone has taken a large chunk of the money, Murna, who is studying English, decried.

Transportation to Gusau alone has taken a large chunk of the money, says Yohanna Murna [Photo credit: Alfred Olufemi/Ripples Nigeria]

Murna could have made use of the PoS points in Maru or the Automated Teller Machine (ATMs) in neighbouring Talata Mafara then but the banks were also battling with the outage until they found a way around it recently.

For three weeks, banks in Talata Mafara were under lock until early October when I.T professionals found out they could rely on nearby masts for network.

“We are now tapping network from the masts around,” said Kingsley, a security officer at the Access Bank branch in the community.

Kingsley said for three weeks, no bank in Zamfara state offered services as they were all battling with the network outage.

Ripples Nigeria learnt that despite the hack that many banks keyed into, the First Bank branch in Talata Mafara is yet to reopen or offer ATM services.

They are working on it, an officer at the security post assured when our reporter visited.

Mubarak Ishaka, also studying in Maru, said the shutdown started like a joke but he has adapted to the routine.

“When coming to Maru (from Gusau), I brought enough cash to last me till the end of the semester because I know there’s no way I can easily reach out to my parents if I get to Maru,” he told Ripples Nigeria.

Counter-productive?

When Sokoto Governor, Aminu Tambuwal, wrote to President Muhammadu Buhari to lift the ban in some parts of the state, he cited complaints from security outfits in the state, who claimed the outage was negatively affecting their operations.

In a statement signed by his Special Adviser Media and Publicity Muhammad Bello, Tambuwal said he had “formally written” to Buhari to lift the blockade in 14 local government areas of the state.

According to the statement, the decision resulted from an enlarged security council meeting after bandits attacked Goronyo Market in Goronyo Local Government Area of the state and killed scores.

Also, a Senator representing Sokoto East Senatorial District, Ibrahim Gobir, raised an alarm that bandits dislodged from Zamfara State by the Nigerian military forces have relocated to his constituency in recent times.

The lawmaker stated that the criminals now communicate freely with their informants, using the telecommunications network of Niger Republic.

When contacted for a response, Benjamin Sawyerr, the spokesperson of the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) coordinating the operation in the Northwest, said he was on leave and as such could not make comments.

Uncertainty

While residents and business owners in Ilela local government area of Sokoto heaved a sigh of relief after the restoration of the network to the area, the opposite was the case of their counterparts in Maru and Talata Mafara local government areas of Zamfara who are uncertain of when the network ban will be lifted.

Speaking to BBC Hausa radio in September, Zamfara Governor, Bello Matawalle had said the blockade would continue indefinitely.

Namadi, however, begs that the government should reconsider restoring the network to serve the people of Talata Mafara because the nearest location with a network is 87 kilometres away.

If not, he is on the next bus to Gusau. Just to make a phone call.

Loopholes, way forward

Security and Information Technology experts who spoke with Ripples Nigeria spoke on the impact of the shutdown and proffered solutions.

A retired Brigadier General and former Army spokesperson, Sani Usman, said although shutting down the network had proved to be effective, it was not without loopholes.

“There is no doubt that it plays a very significant role in assisting the government and the security forces in the fight against these criminal elements because many of their leaders and members were killed and their camps destroyed. They had no idea of the ongoing operations, unlike in the past when their informants will alert them. One of the bandits’ kingpin openly complained of such measures.”

He however added that such measures need to be complemented with other measures such as sustained and comprehensive bombardment.

The former military publicist said the government should have considered some social security measures for the people whose lives and source of livelihood was negatively affected.

“The shutdown ought to be comprehensive and not leave any loopholes,” he reiterated.

Confidence McHarry, a security analyst with SBM Intelligence, says the bandits have devised other means of communicating by exploring the network in neighbouring countries like Niger Republic.

McHarry stated that the lack of independent verification makes the acclaimed successes of the Nigerian troops incredible. “No one can verify or corroborate all of their success stories,” he opined.

Another security expert and retired military officer, Roy Okhidievbie, criticised the approach, describing it as lame decision.

He noted that apart from exploring the network options in Niger Republic the bandits now possess satellite phones like Thuraya whose network provides reliable and uninterrupted communications.

Okhidievbie explained that the Nigerian military could have harnessed the telecommunications network instead of the blockade.

“So there are different means by which humans, Africans can communicate so locking down communication lines was a very lame attempt because on another hand if we look at technological advancements, I will even advise that you leave the lines open because there are technologies that can read SMS, breach calls and listen in, eavesdrop.”

“Why can’t we listen? We will even hear names of people that are moles to them because the moles will call, send messages…Technology has really advanced that you don’t need to shut down,” said the former military officer.

He also implored the Nigerian government to partner international organisations to help deepen its technological approach to combating insecurity.

“We have this international relations department to do that. We have private security organizations that have partners in Israel, France, Russia, America, Canada that have these devices.”

Likewise, Daniel Samuel, a Chief Technological Officer at Xigma, a centre for advanced research on artificial intelligence and nanotechnology in Edo state, suggested that the country should invest in remote surveillance systems.

“This country is just focusing on superficial things to keep themselves busy. If the security was strong enough there wouldn’t be banditry in the first place. The country should improve the capacity of her security forces because they also need telecommunications.”

“In terms of technology, we should install remote surveillance systems and get biometric database of everybody. That way we can keep tab on everyone, have a means to filter and monitor calls from suspicious numbers or if at all everyone,” he proffered.

 

Editor’s note: Exchange rate was N410.5 per dollar as of the time of filing this report

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