26 Jul 2023

Arms trafficking / Women increasingly turn to bandit-linked arms trafficking in Nigeria

Bandits are enlisting women for their criminal activities by copying a strategy perfected by Boko Haram in Nigeria’s north-east.

©Institute for Security Studies

Between December 2022 and February 2023, several female gunrunners were arrested by police in Nigeria’s Zamfara State for allegedly supplying arms and ammunition to bandits. This shows a trend of women’s increasing involvement in banditry-linked arms trafficking in Nigeria’s north-western states.

Banditry – a composite crime that includes armed robbery, kidnapping, murder, rape and the illegal possession of firearms – is currently Nigeria’s most pressing security challenge.

Several news reports on arms trafficking in north-west Nigeria between 2021 and 2023 involve women arms traffickers. In October 2021, a 30-year-old woman who specialised in supplying arms and ammunition to bandits in Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi, Kaduna, Katsina and Niger states was arrested with 991 rounds of live AK-47 ammunition. She was trafficking the ammunition from Dabagi Village in Sokoto State to a notorious bandit kingpin responsible for terrorising Zamfara and neighbouring states.

And in March 2022, Nigerian police arrested a 38-year-old female suspect over arms and ammunition smuggling from Plateau State to different bandit camps in Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara. Eight locally made AK-revolver guns, submachine guns and 400 rounds of live AK-47 ammunition were recovered from the suspect.    

There are around 30 000 bandits in north-west Nigeria, spread across scores of gangs

There are an estimated 30 000 bandits in north-west Nigeria, spread across scores of groups ranging in size from 10 to over 1 000 fighters. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) project, bandit attacks have been increasing for over a decade in north-west Nigeria, rising by 731% between 2018 and 2022 (from 124 to 1 031 incidents). There were approximately 13 485 banditry-related deaths between 2010 and May 2023. The data collected by ACLED relies on local groups and media reports; many incidents may go unrecorded.

Chart 1: Trends of violent attacks by bandits across Nigeria’s states (2010 – May 2023)

Chart 1: Trends of violent attacks by bandits across Nigeria’s states (2010 – May 2023)

Source: Authors’ compilation from ACLED
(click on the graph for the full size image)
States in Nigeria where criminal activities by bandits are taking place

States in Nigeria where criminal activities by bandits are taking place

Source: ISS
(click on the map for the full size image)

Criminal activities by bandits pervade Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Niger, Sokoto and Zamfara states in Nigeria’s north-west and are fast spreading to north-central states and regions in south-west Niger.

The north-west is highly susceptible to violent attacks by bandits due to a combination of factors. These include poorly managed resources, conflicts between pastoralists and farmers, illegal gold mining, declining rural livelihood support, poor management of Nigeria’s international borders, the inadequate presence of law enforcement and failure of security intelligence.

State officials acknowledge that the major enablers of banditry are border porosity and arms trafficking. Nigeria’s former information minister Lai Mohammed says 95% of weapons used for terrorism and kidnapping are trafficked through the country’s porous borders, emanating from Libya and other war-torn sub-Saharan African states. Bandits are stockpiling arms and, according to the Zamfara State government, one armoury alone was storing over 500 AK-47 rifles.

Umaima Abdurrahman, a gender activist in Kaduna State, believes the recent increase in women’s involvement in arms trafficking should be viewed in the context of north-western Nigeria’s general economic downturn, which disproportionately impacts women. She told ENACT that poverty was a major driver of women’s increased involvement in criminal activities such as drugs and arms trafficking.

Women’s poverty is also rooted in the low rates of girls enrolled in school in the region

The most recent Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) shows that 80% of people living in north-west Nigeria are poor (45 million of the 56.5 million living in the region). Although the MPI does not disaggregate by gender, a recent study reveals that women bear the brunt of poverty in Nigeria. Most women in the country’s rural north depend on subsistence farming for food and income, and comprise the bulk of the poor groups living in rural communities.

Credit constraints also limit the economic potential of women in the north-west – about 70% of women are likely to be excluded from access to financial services and, as a result, the formal economy.

Women’s poverty is also rooted in the low rates of girls enrolled in school in the region. Only 47% of girls receive primary education in the north-west. Women therefore have limited livelihood options, receive lower salaries (if at all) and are often trapped in intergenerational cycles of poverty. Abdurrahman says bandits take advantage of this poverty, enticing women into arms trafficking and rewarding them with money and other valuable materials.

Another driver of women’s involvement in arms trafficking is the principle of social integration, which guides relationships between communities and criminal groups in society. Larai Garba Talbu, a freelance journalist in Sokoto State, says banditry is a male-dominated criminal enterprise – the few women who are involved with bandits are mostly their friends, or associates with whom they might share ransom money.

Bandits co-opt women into their criminal activities by copying Boko Haram’s methods in the north-east. As security and law enforcement agents get to know smuggling methods, terrorists recruit women as arms couriers because they are less likely to raise suspicion. The women hide AK-47 rifles on their backs under their veils, or conceal improvised explosive devices on their backs as if they were babies.

Government must address the gendered disparity in education and the gendered impacts of poverty

The increasing involvement of women in armed groups’ activities presents a unique challenge that can only be unravelled through strategic intelligence gathering by security operatives. Because women are rarely perceived to be involved in organised crime, especially in the roles of organisers, leaders, traffickers or recruiters, they are more likely to fly under the radar of law enforcement. Organised criminals exploit this gap in policing intelligence and investigation.

In his 29 May inaugural address, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu said security would be his administration’s top priority. He promised to invest more in the nation’s security personnel by providing better training, equipment, pay and firepower. While these promises are commendable, the dynamics of insecurity are changing fast, and addressing the gendered dimensions of banditry calls for a holistic approach.

One crucial aspect would be to recruit, properly train and resource female security and law enforcement agents to aid intelligence gathering in local communities. These agents should search women at checkpoints and engage with women arrested for their involvement in organised crimes. Civil society should inform women in affected communities about the personal and more widespread harms of being involved with bandits and arms trafficking through the media and awareness raising campaigns.

Government must address the gendered disparity in education and the gendered impacts of poverty, both of which make women vulnerable to recruitment by north-west Nigeria’s armed groups.

Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa and Mahmud Malami Sadiq, Independent Researcher, Sokoto – Nigeria


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