Forced labour, in Northern Nigeria, can be traced to the colonial era in the country.
Men, and sometimes women, were compelled to farm and cultivate cash crops in
order to construct roads, offices, hospitals and mine materials for the British
colonial officers. Between 1900 and 1960, colonizers and mining companies, such
as Jantar Company and the Gold and Base Metals Mining Company (G.M.M.M)
forced communities to work in northern mining regions. These areas are in Rugu,
in present-day Katsina State, as well as Anka and Maru Local Governments in
present-day Zamfara State. The labourers worked under the supervision of the
native police and Dogarai (palace guards). Those who deserted or tried to escape
received punishments – 20 to 30 cane strokes and a small monetary fine – and, in
some cases, faced a brief period of confinement.
During the British colonial period in Nigeria, labourers were conscripted from the
local districts that shared borders with the mine area or agricultural production
site to ensure affordable and required manpower. Colonisers passed these
practices and a culture of forced labour, on to the native authorities, who then
claimed it was customary to enlist people to fight in battles, fix roads, construct
and dig town walls, dig trenches, and work on the rulers’ agricultural estates.
Subsequently, in the 1940s, emirs typically sent requests to each district during
the rainy season, asking them to send people – as many as 60 – to help them
cultivate cotton, groundnuts, maize, and other crops on their farms. They
typically worked for 4 to 6 hours before being dismissed without pay. Among the
consequences for not finishing the task in the allotted time were cane strokes or
being assigned additional heaps to cultivate/harvest.
But over time, this practice has evolved into a cerebral one, in which only dignitaries and important members of society benefit from mass labour (Aikin Gayya). It became a way of showing respect or returning a favour to significant individuals like emirs, other traditional leaders, Sarkin Noma, and, increasingly, politicians. When an important person owns a farm, communities organise men and children to work on it on the weekends. Most of the time, a town crier is in charge of making the announcement, or people hear about it at mosques or weekly markets. It is seen by most communities as an effort to show respect for the individual’s service and to reward their stature. The majority of this work is done during the clearing and harvesting periods, which are the hardest and most important parts of the farming season.
But with bandits now in control of vast swathes of rural North-West Nigeria, dynamics are evolving to provide them with the benefits of forced, and often unpaid, labour. The bandit groups initially forced residents to pay levies to access farms, plant, and harvest them. For instance, in February 2022, N40.7 million was paid to a bandit leader, Lawali Damina, in Maru LGA, Zamfara, as a protection levy. But because of the instability’s effects on the economy, it is getting harder and harder for communities to get enough money to pay levies. This reality, and the growing desire of the bandits to own their own farms, has led to a change in tactics. In exchange for security, since June 2022, communities are increasingly compelled to work on bandit-controlled farms. This new form of forced labour is notably prevalent in the Anka, Maru, Bukkuyum, and Tsafe LGAs of Zamfara and Zuru, Wasagu LGAs of Kebbi. For example, Shadari, a bandit leader who operates from the old mining town of Sunke in Zamfara’s Anka LGA, mobilised 12 communities to work on his farmland in June 2022. Many other bandit groups have relocated here during the rainy season because of the fertile farmlands in that part of the state. In some cases, people stay weeks in bandit camps before returning, but for those who live in close proximity to these bandit-run communities, residents come and go on a daily basis. There, they clear the farmlands, till the soil, plant, and are expected to harvest for the groups when the time comes in October and November. Increasingly, communities now offer this labour before the bandits even compel them to.