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‘Criminals have taken over our forests’

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[FILES] In Rivers State, criminality is high in rural areas due to thick forests, especially in Gokona, Etche, Emuoha, Ikwere, Khana, Tai and Ogugbolo Councils.

As many forests across the country remain under-utilised and under-secured, they have equally become safe haven of the sort to criminals, including bandits, kidnappers, robbers, cattle rustlers and ritualists.

In Rivers State, criminality is high in rural areas due to thick forests, especially in Gokona, Etche, Emuoha, Ikwere, Khana, Tai and Ogugbolo Councils, where criminals hide and kidnap victims.

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Sometimes, the forests are relatively unknown to security agents who have to depend on the locals to identify such criminals’ hideouts. Hunters, farmers and other locals help to monitor and report suspicious movements of criminals in the forests to community heads, who in turn pass such information to the Police for action.

Last year, the outgoing state Commissioner of Police, Joseph Mukan, in the company of the Command’s spokesman, Nnamdi Omoni, and other security operatives, with the assistance of local vigilante groups, raided a thick forest in Koro Community in Tai Council, where they arrested a notorious kidnapper and leader of the Icelander cult group, Honest Diigbara, popularly known as ‘Boboski,’ who later died in Police custody. Boboski was a kidnap gang leader, who was said to have terrorised Ogoni axis of the state for several years.

Mukan also confirmed that forests in Etche Forest’s harbour criminals, including kidnappers and cultists, vowing to fish out all the criminal elements in the area.

It was gathered that local vigilante groups are helping to monitor and checkmate criminal activities in some of the forests in Obio/Akpor, Ikwere, Emuoha, Rumuji and Khana Councils, among others.

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And as a result, there has been a reduction in crime, but the groups pleaded for government’s support and encouragement. It is, however, not clear if the state has laws regulating the use and application of forests.

Efforts to speak with the Commissioner for Agriculture, Dr. Fred Kpakol, was futile, as his phone lines were unreachable.

In Delta State, forests reserves are still being guarded by civil security personnel, according to the Commissioner for Environment, Chris Onogba, who added that it is the government to protect the forests against criminals.

“I would not deny the fact that people hide under herders to constitute a nuisance in society by taking advantage of our forests, but a number of forest guards have retired.

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“The question is, how long can the forest guards withstand the hoodlums who use sophisticated weapons to perpetrate crimes? 

“The state is facing a lot of constraints, as criminals who hide under the guise of nomads rape and kidnap people by using sophisticated weapons. Though we have 100 of forest guards manning the forest, how possible is it for the government to provide them with guns to resist these criminals?

“For now, we are thinking of getting more people to see what we can do to man our forests properly and also work in synergy with all the security agencies, as that is the only way we can guide the forests against the criminal uses.”

On whether the forest law is being adhered to, the commissioner said: “Of course, we do. Do not forget that our forest reserve is 40 per cent, but today, we have in Nigeria 30 per cent. That is to say that we have undergone serious deforestation over time and our thinking now is how to bring our forests back.

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“Do not forget that forest reserves were also meant to serve as a windbreaker and erosion control, but that has been eroded as a result of human activities.”

He, however, assured that the few remaining forest guards were still doing their best.

“You can see that the issue of forest guards goes beyond the guard because they are civil servants and I do not know if the Nigerian law makes provision for them to carry arms.

“In the beginning, forest guards are to prevent encroachment and stand against deforestation; they were not to fight criminals in the forest, but to stop indiscriminate felling of trees and ensure our forests are preserved.

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“At the moment, criminals have taken over the forests and the guard are not armed. There is, therefore, need to have a robust policy in Nigeria that allows the government to have profiles of all farmers, herders, etc in the forests.

“That simply means that when you come to a community, you have to register; we should get the security profile of everybody. If we do not do that, we should prepare to have more victims in the forest.

“So, we must have a way of profiling everyone to know who does one activity or the other in our forests and in our farmlands. The reason being that people using AK 47 and live ammunition against our forest should be handled by security agents.”

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In Imo State, most of the forests in Ngor Okpala Council, as well as Awara area in Ohaji/Egbema Council of have been taken over by kidnappers, who, on the abduction of victims, blindfold and keep them there for days.

According to the state Police Command spokesman, Orlando Ikeokwu, a Superintendent of Police (SP), operatives have from time to time raided the forests.

But it also seems difficult to curb the activities of these criminals in that area due to the large expanse of land and Police patrol is often difficult because of inadequate logistics.

Commissioner for Lands, Chief Enyinnaya Onuegbu, assured that the state government would continue to secure the state’s land according to the law, adding that government would take the ones unlawfully acquired by the individuals back.

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