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Of ungoverned space, cattle rustling and national security

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The Sambisa Forest is one of the several forests that constitute the ungoverned space in Nigerian geography. Yet it remained a subject of no interest to both the leadership and the citizenry until the media beamed searchlight thereupon at the twilight of the Boko Haram insurgency in the country. The space so characterised in the Nigerian context is a preponderance of forest reserves that have remained quite inaccessible to the Nigerian security operatives whose reluctance to storm the space has been identified as a product of their inefficiency, sub-standard weaponry, and conspiracy. This state of the security mind lends credence to the growing perception that Nigeria’s security operatives have consented to the reservation of such forests as havens for criminals and impregnable fortresses for insurgents.

When in December, 2016 Nigeria’s President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Muhammadu Buhari, himself a retired General, ordered troops of Operation Lafiya Dole, who launched some offensive on Sambisa Forest “to maintain the tempo and crush the remnants of the insurgents”, security analysts wondered why a trained soldier had, before then, failed abysmally to order security attention to the vast swathes of forest reserves that are hide-outs for criminals across the country, from which the Federal Government is held hostage. Is Sambisa Forest a new creation in the geography of Nigeria? The Boko Haram group had waged a seven-year insurgency against the country and had even abducted about 270 girls from their school in Chibok, Borno State, with no satisfactory explanation from the Presidency. Does His Excellency not know that Sambisa Forest is just one of the hundreds of forests in the ungoverned space of Nigeria? Do we need a security strategist to offer us what that portends for national peace and security!

The linkage between the foregoing and insecurity through cattle rustling lies in the fact that a significant percentage of the cattle rusting operations are carried out in such ungoverned space. Instances of this include the rustling activities being recorded in such unguarded forests as the Fagore, Kamuku, and Kiyanbana in Northern Nigeria. The security implication of this has been underscored by Azeez and Aliyu who recently argued that “some of the sources of funding for terrorist groups in Northern Nigeria have been linked to cattle rustling, too”. This line of argument is supported by the claim by Governor Shetima of Borno State regarding the presence of a link between cattle rustling and Boko Haram insurgency.

The governor was quoted as saying that “Our security agencies have reasonably established that most of the cattle being traded at the markets (in Borno State) were the direct proceeds of cattle rustling perpetrated by insurgents (and) were sold at prohibitive costs to unsuspecting customers through some unscrupulous middlemen who use underhand ploys to deliberately disguise the transactions as legitimate. The money realised from such transactions would then be channelled to fund their deadly activities”.

With the above portrayal the security implication of cattle rustling by the Governor of Borno State, it becomes most disturbing that such practice is pervasive in no fewer than 10 states in Nigeria with pockets of its occasional occurrence in several other states across the country. For instance, such states as Taraba, Kaduna, Zamfara, Benue, Plateau, Niger, Nasarawa are among the states with high rates of cattle rustling as hundreds of herders are killed and scores of thousands of cattle were stolen every year. Although there is dearth of accurate quantitative data on cattle rustling in Nigeria, the figures provided from time to time by the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) confers the present revelation with appreciable degree of reliability.

Under the guise of preventing the menace of cattle rustling, there have been militancy and counter-militancy which have occasioned security threats to lives and property. For instance, as reported on December 26, 2016 in connection with armed banditry and cattle rustling in Zamfara State, there have been attacks on Fulani communities and settlements by those who carry out unlawful executions. “They go to such settlements under the pretext of hunting for rustlers. They arrest and summarily execute innocent herders. That’s how they worsen the situation. Relatives and friends of those unjustly killed are forced to take up arms for retaliation, and that does not augur well for anyone”. This was part of the revelations made at the Peace Dialogue initiated by the Governor of Zamfara State in December, 2016 where over 1000 armed bandits surrendered their weapons and renounced banditry and other crimes related to cattle rustling. What happened to other weapons that were not surrendered by the bandits should be of interest to all of us. Are they kept for other purposes or simply retained or reserved for another day! The practice of asking insurgents or bandits to come forward with theory weapons in exchange for money is fast getting lucrative in Nigeria where you deceitfully “surrender” whatever you like and smile to the bank after receiving your share.

In Katsina State, a similar initiative was promoted by Governor Aminu Bello Masari who on January 15, 2017 successfully wooed several hundreds of cattle rustlers to surrender their weapons which included a total of 361 weapons in which 47 guns were AK47, 267 were handmade guns and 57 were other brands of guns.

The relevance of the above scenario to the present discourse lies in the fact that all the nefarious activities of the cattle rustlers in question were perpetrated at Dajin Rugu, a forest stretching from Birnin-Gwari in Kaduna State through Katsina to Zamfara where the so-called bandits and rustlers hold farmers and Fulani herdsmen hostage by robbing them of their farm produce and cattle. The forest in question, according to the Daily Stream report, “used to be an abode for wildlife, but the activities of the bandits and incessant wood cutting scared the animals away.” It should be pointed out that it was in response to such an oppressive stance that the Fulani herdsmen resolved to arm themselves with some modern, sophisticated weapons.

The phenomenon of rural banditry is better understood through a close look at the impact of environmental/ecological changes and the declining capacity of the State to maintain security. One cannot address this question without paying some attention to the push and pull factors for trans-human migration across Nigeria which a 2015 report by the Centre for Democracy and Development described as a movement that has often been seen as a catalyst to conflicts and other forms of banditry which is closely connected with over 90 per cent of Nigeria’s livestock holding. The implication of the cattle factor in national security is now becoming obvious by now.
Rufai is Ag. Dean, Faculty of Education,Sokoto State University.


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