At least 200 villagers killed by bandits in north-west Nigeria by Emmanuel Akinwotu

Members of Nigeria’s security forces in Zamfara last year.

Militants opened fire and burned homes in Zamfara state after military airstrikes on hideouts

At least 200 people are believed to have been killed in villages in the north-western Nigerian state of Zamfara, in some of the deadliest attacks by armed bandits at large in the region.

Gunmen, themselves fleeing from airstrikes by the Nigerian army, attacked villages for days, opening fire and burning homes between Tuesday and Thursday. Some residents who fled returned to the villages on Saturday after the military organised mass burials. The state government said 58 people had been killed during the attacks, yet distraught residents reported far higher death tolls.

Ummaru Makeri, who lost his wife and three children during the attack, said about 154 people had been buried, including several armed vigilantes, who engaged the gunmen. Residents said the total death toll was at least 200.

Balarabe Alhaji, a community leader in one of the affected villages, said: “We buried a total of 143 people killed by the bandits in the attacks.”

Babandi Hamidu, a resident of Kurfa Danya village, said the militants were shooting “anyone on sight”.

“More than 140 people were buried across the 10 villages and the search for more bodies is ongoing because many people are unaccounted for,” Hamidu said.

On Friday it was reported that more than 100 people had been killed by suspected “bandit” militants in Zamfara, the state most in the grip of a security crisis in north-west and central Nigeria. There have been relentless attacks and mass killings inflicted of villages and rural towns – amid a severe lack of rural security.

In the attacks in Zamfara – like many that occur across the region – gunmen on motorbikes arrived in large numbers in as many as nine communities between Tuesday and Thursday night, opening fire on residents and burning homes and harvested produce.

The military said it had conducted airstrikes in the early hours of Monday on targets in the Gusami forest and west Tsamre village in the east of Zamfara state, killing more than 100 militants, including two of their leaders.

Several bandit groups, each with hundreds of gunmen, have waged attacks from hideouts in forests that span central and north-west Nigeria and parts of Niger. The heavily armed groups – many made up of ethnic Fulanis – have carried out thousands of abductions, killings, thievery and sexual violence.

The groups emerged from a historical conflict that has worsened dramatically between largely Fulani pastoralists and farmers of varying ethnic groups over access to water and land, and the boundaries between private farmland and grazing areas.

In recent weeks, the Nigerian military have increased airstrikes on their forest hideouts in the east of Zamfara, according to Yusuf Anka, a security analyst based in the state. Yet airstrikes often spark fear in local communities wary of reprisal attacks, he said.

“History shows that the bandits will likely move against these [communities] after ops. That’s why people are losing hope because military operations actually lead to attacks. The military come in and leave within a few weeks and the people pay the price, so there needs to be proper protections, rather than simply coming, doing operations for some weeks, and then going,” Anka said.

The airstrikes are often too narrow to be effective, as bandits often flee attacks and move into other parts of the region.

“What the military needs to do is launch operations across the entirety of these forest areas so that bandits don’t simply move from one place to another,” Anka said.

The president, Muhammadu Buhari, said in a statement on Saturday the military had acquired more equipment to track down and eliminate criminal gangs who have been subjecting people to a reign of terror, including through the illegal imposition of taxes on communities under siege.

“The latest attacks on innocent people by the bandits is an act of desperation by mass murderers, now under relentless pressure from our military forces,” Buhari said, calling for communities to be patient.

On Wednesday, the Nigerian government officially labelled bandits as terrorists, to bring tougher sanctions against convicted gunmen, their informants and supporters.

Yet many in Zamfara and the wider region are in despair after years of continuous attacks by armed groups, exploiting a lack of rural security.

In addition to the despair at the killings, the destruction of property and displacement of more than 10,000 people, many of whom are reliant on their farmland to make ends meet will exacerbate poverty, Anka said.

“The only means of livelihood for people in this area is through farming. Now we are just coming out of the rainy season. Whatever they have cultivated has just burned to ashes.”

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