By Opeyemi Adewale

Abstract: Regional violence beleaguers Nigeria. Armed groups and terror organizations in the north of the country are the chief perpetrators. Locally, the armed groups are called ‘bandits’ while the terror organizations are Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), or any of their other amorphous splinter groups. 

These groups often force illegal taxes on agrarian communities to raise funds or they deploy road barricades as an operational tactic. From 2015 to 2018, Boko Haram made an estimated 5 –10 million USD from taxation, bank robberies, donations from other terrorist groups and kidnapping for ransom.

In the northwest, bandit warlords assemble hordes of brigands who impose illegal community taxes in ‘cash for peace’ extortion schemes. The imposition of these illegal taxes has affected the cost of agricultural produce creating a hazard to food security. 

This study will examine the political, economic and social implications of illegal roadblocks and taxation in northern regions of Nigeria. This includes an analysis of the role of illegal taxation as a revenue strategy for armed groups.


Nigeria grapples with the blatant reality of regional violence which largely afflicts its northern territories. At the heart of the turmoil are non-state armed groups of two distinct types. First are militia groups known locally as ‘bandits’ and second are terror organizations. The rural parts of the Nigerian north are mostly populated with herders and farmers; as a result agrarian livelihoods are the most affected by these myriad acts of violence. A majority of Nigerians, around 70 percent, depend on agriculture for subsistence; up to 90 percent  of rural households in the northeast rely on this sector for their sustenance.

Northern Nigeria encompasses three geopolitical zones with a total of 19 states. The zones and their corresponding states are shown in Figure 1.

"Bandits": Criminal Lords of the North West

Bandits are primarily in northwestern Nigeria and parts of the north central region. These groups lack a unified ideology and are not invested in forming an Islamic caliphate. They are often driven by financial gain and a desire for unlawful criminal control of various territories. The total number of bandits active in the northwest has been estimated at about 30,000 people, mostly men.

andits rely heavily on ambushes, roadblocks and invasions of villages thereby disrupting trade and movement. They exploit ethnic tensions and coerce communities for money. Unlike Boko Haram and ISWAP, they rarely target government infrastructure or engage in ideological attacks. Cattle rustling, kidnapping for ransom and extortion of communities through "cash-for-peace" deals, protection fees, illegal taxes and gruelling levies are their primary activities. 

The northwestern state of Zamfara has become an epicentre for banditry. Illegal taxes and protection levies are being extorted from numerous communities spanning all 14 Local Government Areas as shown in Table 1. These illegal activities have become so pervasive that they have spilled into adjacent states as shown in Figure 2. In neighbouring Kaduna, Sokoto and Niger states, bandits have set up illegal tolls and are demanding harvest taxes from villagers before they are allowed to reap produce from their farms.

Table 1: Local Government Areas in Zamfara State and illegal taxes
demanded by bandits

Boko Haram and ISWAP: The Scourge of the North East

In the northeast, the spectre of Boko Haram and splinter groups, like ISWAP and Ansaru, an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group which split from Boko Haram in 2012, continues to haunt the region. Driven by extremist ideologies, these groups have waged a brutal insurgency for over a decade, characterized by bombings, assassinations and mass abductions. Their control over swathes of territory has displaced millions, creating a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions. Boko Haram, ISWAP and Ansaru are designated as terrorist organizations by various countries and international entities, including Nigeria, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.

Both Boko Haram and ISWAP rely on guerrilla warfare, ambushing security forces, attacking villages and using suicide bombers. They exploit ungoverned spaces, operating primarily in Borno and neighbouring states in the northeast. 

Some funding clearly comes from criminal activity such as bank robberies. However, illegal taxation is one of the main sources of Boko Haram’s finance, apart from kidnapping for ransom, smuggling and external assistance from other terror groups. Multiple Nigerian press reports allege that some Nigerian state and local government officials paid Boko Haram ‘protection fees’ so that their districts were not attacked. At its peak from 2009 to 2011, this ‘protection fee’ would have totalled over 1.5 million US dollars per year. In a region near Lake Chad, ISWAP enforces herding taxes. They extract fees of about 8 US dollars for the grazing of a cow and 5 US dollars for smaller animals. In a drift into the northwest, Ansaru terrorists have established a shadow government in the Birnin Gwari area of Kaduna state. They levy taxes on residents and administer the eastern part of the local government area.

Banditry's Devastating Cost: Analysing the Statistics

Violence and brigandage have cost Nigeria about $132.59 billion or eight per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in the past decade. Since 2011, an estimated 12,000 individuals have lost their lives, while hundreds of thousands more have been displaced across the northwestern states. 

Banditry has implications beyond violence; bandits pose a significant threat to food security. From August 2021 to July 2022, farmers across most northern states suffered from banditry's destructive impact. During this period, records indicate an alarming average of 122 farmers murdered monthly, with an average of 87 farmers abducted per month. Furthermore, in 2021, over 1,192 individuals in Kaduna state were victims of bandit violence, while 3,000 residents, students and travellers were kidnapped. The toll continued to mount in the first nine months of 2022, with fatalities surpassing 800 and more than 1,200 reported kidnappings. 

From 2011 to 2019, over 6.8 million USD was paid to bandits as ransom for 3,672 abducted people in Zamfara State. The escalating violence emphasizes the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address banditry's multifaceted impact on security, agriculture and the broader social fabric of Nigeria.

Illegal checkpoints and roadblocks 

Illegal checkpoints are strategic and tactical operational tools set up by bandits and terror groups to facilitate robberies, extortions, abductions and the targeted killings of civilians and state actors. They are often used to control movement allowing the perpetrators to carry out their nefarious activities.

Between January and October 2020, terror groups in northeastern Nigeria set up over 228 illegal checkpoints and 105 ambushes along key roads. In the first week of December 2020, 17 such checkpoints were documented in four local government areas within Borno State. In this period, an estimated nine individuals, including drivers and humanitarians, were abducted. Reportedly, about 90 percent of those kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2020 were taken from major roads. They mostly set up illegal checkpoints and disguised themselves in military uniforms before carrying out a kidnapping for ransom operation.

Illegal checkpoints have an effect on humanitarian efforts. The checkpoints are located at various points of the road and vehicles are stopped in search of NGO workers or security personnel. Vehicles are permitted to continue their journey after money has been forcefully extracted from the drivers. Occasionally, bandits on the run from Nigerian security forces set up illegal roadblocks. These are used to intercept vehicles and steal essential supplies.

Illegal roadblocks are also used punitively to bar access to farmlands or lay siege on communities especially when illicit harvest taxes and other levies are unpaid. In 2022, approximately 10 villages in rural Zamfara State paid a harvest tax equivalent to 8,500 US dollars. A bandit group had issued threats to block roads leading to farmlands and pillage the community if the tax was unpaid by a stipulated deadline.

Economic Implications of Illegal Taxation and Roadblocks 

Impoverishment of Farmers and Food Insecurity:

Farmers are the backbone of northern Nigeria's agricultural sector and they are exposed to the harshest consequences of illegal taxation. Illegal taxes inflate final prices making essential goods like fruits, vegetables and grains less accessible to consumers, particularly in vulnerable communities. Bandit violence across northwest Nigeria has left nearly three million people critically food insecure.

Investment Deterrence and Job Losses:

The uncertainty and insecurity created by illegal checkpoints deter potential investors from entering the region. This lack of investment hinders economic growth and prevents the creation of much-needed jobs. Existing businesses struggle to operate profitably, further exacerbating poverty.

Economic Disruption:

The economic consequences of illegal taxation and roadblocks create a vicious cycle. Reduced incomes due to lost crops and disrupted trade limit people's ability to afford basic necessities. This fuels desperation, potentially pushing more individuals towards joining the very groups imposing these burdens. While quantifying the exact economic losses is challenging, the human cost is undeniable. 

Social Implications of Illegal Taxation and Roadblocks

Fear and Insecurity:

Living under the constant threat of extortion breeds fear and anxiety. Communities become isolated, hesitant to travel or engage in trade for fear of violence. This restricts access to essential services like healthcare. Other unscrupulous people exploit this fear for criminal profit. For instance, in November 2022 the police in Zamfara State apprehended six suspects who placed levies some communities by pretending to be bandits.

Exploiting Vulnerabilities:

Armed groups often exploit existing social divisions and tensions, manipulating ethnic or religious differences to extract support. This fuels inter-communal conflict and erodes social cohesion, further fragmenting communities and hindering any sense of collective progress.

Disruption of Education:

The fear of kidnappings and violence often forces schools to close or operate erratically. This disrupts children's education, jeopardizing their future opportunities and perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage. The loss of trust in institutions deepens as families struggle to secure a basic education for their children. Children miss out on education due to the invasion of bandit groups.

Gendered Dimension:

The multifaceted social impact of bandit groups also manifests itself in a gendered dimension. This is depicted by the intricate layers of their involvement in arms trafficking. As their criminal activities proliferate, the role of women in such activities has increased. Female participation in arms trafficking represents a significant shift in traditional gender dynamics within these armed groups. The burgeoning involvement of women underscores the evolving nature of criminal operations, deepening the complexities of societal responses.

Political Implications of Illegal Taxation and Roadblocks 

A Challenge to Governance:

These illegal checkpoints represent a direct challenge to the state's authority. When armed groups effectively control movement and extort resources, they create a parallel power structure, highlighting the government's inability to ensure basic security and the rule of law. 

Legitimacy in Question:

The inability to protect its citizens and ensure safe passage raises critical questions about the state's legitimacy. Communities living under the constant threat of bandits may perceive the government as ineffective or unwilling to address their security concerns. This perception can fuel support for alternative power structures, including the groups imposing the taxes.

Strained Security Forces:

Addressing these illegal activities often requires deploying security forces, placing further strain on already stretched resources. The effectiveness of these operations is often debatable, leading to frustration within the security apparatus and potentially fuelling resentment towards certain communities perceived as sympathetic to the armed groups. 

International Implications:

Banditry facilitates transnational crime. Funds generated from the illicit activities of bandits contribute to the regional trade in small arms and light weapons in the Sahel region. Banditry-caused instability often spills over into neighbouring countries, creating regional security concerns, hindering broader development efforts and negatively impacting Nigeria's international image. It also creates a humanitarian burden on nations that abut Nigeria. In the past decade, approximately 60,000 people fleeing violence in Zamfara state have sought refuge in the Niger Republic.

Policy Implications and Recommendations

Policy recommendations to address the pervasive violence and criminality in Nigeria's northern regions include:

1. Strengthening Security: Enhance intelligence-gathering capabilities, deploy well-trained forces to vulnerable areas and improve coordination among security agencies to combat terrorism and banditry effectively.

2. Governance and Accountability: Root out corruption and collusion with armed groups within government ranks, hold officials accountable for negligence and promote transparency in resource allocation and security spending.

3. Socioeconomic Development: Implement targeted development programs to address poverty, unemployment and socioeconomic disparities, particularly in rural areas affected by violence. Invest in education, vocational training and job creation initiatives to provide viable alternatives to joining armed groups.

4. Community Engagement: Foster trust between communities and security forces through community policing initiatives. Empower local leaders and civil society organizations to play a proactive role in promoting peace and countering extremist narratives.

5. International Cooperation: Collaborate with regional and international partners to share intelligence, disrupt terrorist financing networks and address cross-border threats effectively.


The pervasive violence and criminality in Nigeria's northern regions, epitomized by groups like Boko Haram, ISWAP and bandits, underscore the urgent need for comprehensive action. Addressing illegal roadblocks and illegal taxation, alongside tackling the root causes driving recruitment and funding, demands a multifaceted approach. This must encompass robust security measures, governance reforms to eliminate corruption and collusion, socio-economic development initiatives, community engagement and international cooperation. By dismantling criminal networks, disrupting funding sources and fostering inclusive development, Nigeria can mitigate the profound impact of violence. Such efforts are essential for restoring stability and forging a path towards prosperity and enduring peace for all Nigerians.

Opeyemi Adewale holds a Master's degree in architecture and has achieved significant recognition for his work. He was a two-time semi-finalist and finalist in the University of Berkeley Prize for Architectural Design Excellence, showcasing his socially impactful design. His writings have earned him awards, including the Udo Schüklenk Bioethics Competition prize and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Special Prize. His research papers have been presented at conferences organized by prestigious institutions worldwide such as the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, the Liu Institute Network at the University of British Columbia and the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar. His essays cover a wide range of subjects, from architecture and banking to climate change, engineering and politics. His paper, "Our Interconnected Oneness," was published in an anthology with a foreword by Pope Francis. He is a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Article or Event Link
Mar 16, 2024
Public Policy


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