Herdsmen: Nigerians or foreigners, are security agencies doing enough?
A recent video obtained and posted by a Nigerian socio-political consulting firm SBM Intelligence showed well-armed men crossing the River Benue en-route to carry out the Agatu herdsmen attack back in February. The video was retrieved from the phone of one of the deceased attackers. SBM analysts deduced that some of the languages spoken in the video were said to be indigenous to Niger Republic. The Nigerian Senate last week debated whether or not the attackers were Nigerians or foreigners.
This revelation certainly gives credence to the Senate debate. It does not, however, give clarity to the question of how a large group of heavily armed men, could travel such long distances over land and water to carry out attacks in a village, killing over 200 people and still not have been identified and or intercepted by the Nigerian security agencies. The distance between the river crossing point and the nearest border crossing point in Katsina State is said to be about 802km.
Are security agencies doing enough?
A nation that is serious about protecting its borders and its citizens should have strategies in place that can help predict and prevent recurrent threats such as herdsmen attacks. Security agencies should be carrying out constant surveillance of border crossings. More so if advance warning had been reported by villagers to security agencies about an imminent attack.
Before the first Agatu attack in February 2016, locals had raised the alarm that herdsmen were mobilizing weapons and men at Loco border community in Nasarawa State, but nothing was done to prevent this attack. In the case of the recent herdsmen attack in Enugu last month, members of the surrounding communities had received information that a large number of herdsmen were mobilising to attack them. The villagers reported to the Enugu State government and the states’ police command that an attack was imminent. But despite their efforts, well-armed herdsmen still struck the Enugu villages, killing over 20 people.
Why are security Agencies unable to tackle this?
The ability of herdsmen to successfully carry out attacks across the country are a result of a combination of issues that the Nigerian government has been unable to tackle over the years including: the inability to secure its porous borders, the failure to mitigate the proliferation of illegal weapons across the country, and the lack of adequate resources for security personnel deployed to remote village outposts.
But poor communication with the current administration has led to wild perceptions among affected people across the various states in the country, and this could end up exacerbating the situation. Victims believe that the security agencies are nonchalant about dealing decisively with these rampaging herdsmen because the security operatives are believed to be supporting the herdsmen.
Actions of security agencies, fueling negative perceptions
Locals in the ravaged Benue communities for instance, stated that the herdsmen are usually wearing combat jackets and armed with sophisticated guns. They believe that the nomadic herdsmen are not the owners of the cattle, but that they work for wealthy employers who support their destructive activities, and have backers among the security operatives.
During the Agatu attacks, a significant number of survivors insist that there was a helicopter that was hovering over the area while they were under attack. Some residents even going as far as claiming the helicopter was dropping arms and food to the invaders.
After the Enugu attacks, the Inspector General of Police was said to have ordered the arrest and detention of a corporal from the police division in the area, following claims by members of the community that he led the members of the gang that attacked them.
Then there is the bizarre case of the whereabouts of a large group of herdsmen arrested in Abuja. On April 18, there were reports that the Army intercepted a group of herdsmen who were attempting to invade FCT Abuja with arms and ammunition.
The group of 56 herdsmen claimed to be on their way to Nasarawa State, but they were arrested at a checkpoint on Airport Road, Abuja, with guns, cutlasses and knives, charms and hard drugs. During interrogation by the military personnel, the herdsmen admitted that they were on the lookout for those who stole their cows.
The military spokesperson said the suspects would be handed over to the Kuje, Abuja Divisional Police command, for further investigation. Days after the incident, the FCT Abuja Police command said that no herdsmen were handed over to them. In essence, the whereabouts of armed herdsmen captured by the Army are unknown.
These various incidents fuel the perception among victim states that the Nigerian government and its security agencies not only lack a concrete strategy to tackle the herdsmen menace, but that if they do have the strategy and resources to prevent these attacks, they are simply unwilling to do so.
The silence is deafening
Managing these poor perceptions through effective communication strategy will be key in maintaining the peace in these tense times. When it comes to the Buhari Administration, there is need for swift and decisive communication.
When the Agatu herdsmen attack which led to the death of over 200 people occurred on February 2016, the President did not offer an official statement until almost a week later on 28 February. When the Enugu herdsmen attack which resulted in the death of over 20 people occurred on 25 April 2016, the President issued an official statement condemning the attacks only three days later, on 27 April. To be fair, under the previous Presidential administration, there was barely any response given after herdsmen attacks occurred in the same area last year. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement.
Managing the situation
The herdsmen attacks are considered ethno-religious clashes, in which slight provocations can lead to dangerous and violent uprisings that will threaten the stability of the country.
Prolonged silence by the country’s leader after these attacks, is being interpreted by victim communities that citizens are “on their own” and must, therefore, take up arms and protect themselves.
This distorted narrative will lead to even more illegal weapons flowing rampantly across the country, further increasing the risk of deadly clashes and fatal crimes. It does not take a fortune teller to predict how ugly this situation can become if this herdsmen situation is not immediately managed.
We are living in times where there is wide socio-economic hardship among a large section of the population along with secessionist sentiments and general frustration among the populace. Swift communication and strong condemnation after such attacks send a powerful signal to the Nigerian people that the government truly intends to protect its citizens from all harm, foreign and domestic. The government must however, back its communication up with kinetic action.