Nigeria says armed gangs in north are working with militants

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Armed gangs attacking remote communities in Nigeria’s troubled northwest are now working with extremist rebels who have waged a decade-long insurgency in the country’s northeast, a top government official said Wednesday.

The gunmen and the Islamist rebels are in “an unholy handshake,” Nigeria’s Minister of Information Lai Mohammed told reporters, for the first time confirming a collaboration that security analysts have warned of.

The result of the alliance is the recent deadly train attack near Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, said the minister. Explosives were used to blow up the rail track in that attack in which eight passengers were killed and more than 100 were abducted and remain missing.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 206 million people, has been battling violence in its troubled north and an alliance between the two groups could worsen the crisis, analysts told The Associated Press.

The security crisis is dominated by two groups: bandits many of whom are formerly herdsmen now carrying arms and Islamic extremist rebels of the Boko Haram group and its breakaway faction the Islamic State in West Africa Province.

The partnership between the groups “might drive further attacks on innocent civilians and state infrastructure,” said Oluwole Ojewale of the Africa-focused Institute of Security Studies, as the extremists move their insurgency beyond the northeast where they had been largely restricted for many years.

With the military already fighting factions of the extremists, Nigeria’s security situation is already “dangerous enough,” said Confidence MacHarry with the Lagos-based SBM Intelligence security firm.

“Adding Boko Haram to the terror problem in the northwest would greatly stretch the security forces to more than its capacity,” said MacHarry.

Nigeria’s security crisis continued Wednesday with the abduction of four female students by an armed gang that attacked their school in northwest Zamfara state and the killing of 23 persons in northcentral Benue state, local authorities said.

“It is becoming increasingly glaring every day that my people are now an endangered species and so we can no longer wait for help from anywhere,” Benue governor Samuel Ortom said, repeating his appeal for residents to be allowed to bear arms to “defend themselves.”

The persistent violence, including the killing of more than 100 villagers in the northcentral Plateau state during the weekend, has raised further doubts about the Nigerian government’s ability to restore peace in volatile areas despite having declared the armed gangs as terrorist organizations.

The major problem, though, is “the political will and the will to act,” said security analyst MacHarry. “Boosting the capacity of security services to respond to security crisis is one thing, but actually responding to the crisis is another,” he said.

Responding to such criticisms, Nigeria’s Minister of Defence Bashir Magashi said the government is still in control.

“We are really on top of the situation,” Magashi said. “We are planning hard and we will get it out as soon as possible.”

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