In troubled northwest Nigeria, phone blocks hurt residents

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) – Cell phones have been a lifeline for residents of northwest Nigeria who have relied on warning calls to escape escalating bandit attacks.

But authorities’ recent blockades of mobile telecommunications have left many rural people isolated and more vulnerable, residents say.

Bandits – armed groups that loot and kidnap villages, rape and kill often – are stepping up their attacks in the northwestern and central states of Nigeria. At least 2,500 people have been killed in the first half of 2021 in the northwest and central regions, according to the US Council on Foreign Relations, which collects media reports of such attacks daily.

Widespread banditry in the northwest adds to the 10-year Islamic extremist insurgency that has lasted in northeast Nigeria.

In response to the outbreak of violence, the governors of five northwestern and central states blocked mobile networks to prevent outlaws from communicating with their collaborators.

While the communication breakdown has had positive effects, it is also hampering local communities, according to multiple interviews with residents, officials and security experts.

The telecommunications blockade was first imposed last month in Zamfara state for an initial period of two weeks. Mobile phone service has been restored in the state capital of Zamfara, but its rural areas remain cut off. Katsina, Sokoto, Niger and Kaduna states have also banned mobile networks in recent weeks in areas where killings and kidnappings continue.

Authorities blame the power outages for helping them corner bandits and free hostages, including more than 180 captives released in Zamfara earlier this month.

However, killings of civilians have “worsened” in some areas since the phone cuts began, local officials told The Associated Press. More than 100 people have been killed in northwest and central Nigeria in the past two weeks, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Many more deaths have gone unreported, some officials say.

“We are trapped,” Amina Al-Mustapha, a lawmaker from Sabon Birni state, Sokoto state, told AP.

“Every day they attack our people and we have no way to talk to our people,” Al-Mustapha said. “No village was attacked … We are suffering now.”

At least 32 people were killed in the Munya region of Niger state earlier this month, when a gang of armed men stormed villages and ransacked them for hours without being seen. no help is coming.

Villagers in the Munya region were unable to send alerts about the attacks due to the telecommunications blockade, said Garba Mohammed, the region’s president. Police and other security agencies did not learn of the attacks until hours after the killings, he said.

Previously, communities received phone warnings and people could “run for their lives,” he said.

In addition to blocking access to telecommunications, northern states have also closed markets, imposed nighttime curfews, restricted vehicle traffic, closed major roads, and banned motorcycles as they fight to reestablish land. ‘order.

Nnamdi Obasi, Senior International Crisis Group Advisor for Nigeria, told AP that as the security situation in the northwest is “deteriorating dangerously” and “choking” local economic activity, the government and the Nigerian military are in a hurry to “do something different.” “

“It was clear that if the tide was not reversed, then we could go from what we call banditry to a full-scale insurgency,” he said. He added that the phone blackout and other security measures are “a double-edged sword” that restricts outlaws but also cripples the economy and increases the vulnerability of civilians.

With the closure of major markets, farmers are unable to sell their produce. Cell phone banking has also been halted and ATMs are no longer functioning, according to interviews with residents of the affected areas.

However, some believe that blocking access to telecommunications is a good strategy. Bashir Shehu, a trader from Zamfara, said that although his activity declined as a result of the action, peace has returned to many areas and he can travel more safely.

Unfortunately, some gunmen have already found a way to escape the blockade using telecommunications networks in the neighboring country of Niger, according to local authorities.

It is not known when life will return to normal in the northwestern and central states of Nigeria, according to government officials who told AP they did not know when phone outages and other security measures would take. end.

Lasting peace will be difficult to achieve as the Nigerian security forces often outnumber the bandits, as Katsina Governor Aminu Masari recently admitted. They also have more sophisticated weapons purchased with ransom money, freed hostages told AP.

The phone cuts should be “ended as quickly as possible,” Crisis Group Obasi said, as part of the government’s efforts to “improve the security presence and resources in the region … and deal with the humanitarian crisis “.

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