By Emmanuel Onwubiko
The current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has a major security challenge which it has just said it is set to address with brutal frankness- the incessant violent attacks of farmers across the various States by suspected armed Fulani herdsmen.
For critics the initial ‘inability’ or seeming ‘unwillingness’ or ‘lack of political will’ by President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to confront the rising phenomenon of attacks and slaughter of thousands of villagers in many states cutting across the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria has led to a conspiracy theory that is too strong to overlook- that Mr. President is treating the Fulani attackers with kid gloves because he too is a Fulani by Ethnic origin.
Officials of Mr President strongly disputes these conspiracy theories saying the President Muhammadu Buhari is the President of all Nigerians.
But recently at an event at the National Defence College in Abuja President Muhammadu Buhari directly provided in person strong response and ordered military action against these armed Fulani herdsmen.
Supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari said Mr. President himself didn’t help matters because for the last one year that he came on board that these bloody attacks have become a recurring decimal he has maintained what looks like a conspiratorial and not stoic silence.
There are strong insinuations in many quarters that the armed Fulani attackers must be enjoying strong support and sponsorship from some top shots are indeed are the real owners of the cattle being reared by these Fulani pastoralists some of whom have constituted themselves into terror gangs embarking on sporadic but deadly attacks to various farming communities.
Most critics are curious that President Muhammadu Buhari didn’t deem the attacks a much more serious national security problem but he could direct the armed forces to set up troops to chase after cattle rustlers. The question of double standard is very strong.
Added to the fact that the suspected Fulani herdsmen attacking communities across board have become much more daring and several things have happened that have raised mind boggling questions of lack of commitment on the part of government to decisively go after these terrorists who altogether have massacred well over ten thousand innocent villagers in far distant places as far as Enugu State of South East of Nigeria.
As I write the injuries inflicted on the soul of Enugu by the recent violence unleashed by armed Fulani hasn’t abated just as a probe panel set up by the Enugu State administration to unravel the circumstances and individuals responsible for that dastardly criminal attack on Enugu State by armed Fulani herdsmen is going on after it was inaugurated by Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi.
But the clear mandate issued by President Muhammadu Buhari on the military to confront and stop the attacks of farmers by armed Fulani herdsmen may have laid all those suspicions and conspiracy theories to rest for a long time to come except otherwise proven.
By way of a reference we may recall that section 217 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution states clearly that: “there shall be an Armed Forces for the Federation which shall consist of an Army, a Navy, an Air Force and such other branches of the Armed forces of the federation as may be established by an act of the National Assembly “.
Sadly few hours back a frightening dimension to the entire scenarios was added when it emerged that there was a bloody clash between some villagers and operatives of the Nigeria Army sent on cordon and search operations in a Niger State community.
That Ill- fated military operation led to needless casualties on both sides and since then two versions of what happened are on the public domain.
The Army said the suspected gun runners opened fire on them but a Senator representing those people which falls under Niger East made up predominantly of Christians blamed soldiers for attacking the community only days after the villagers repelled a bloody attack by armed Fulani marauders.
The Nigerian Army officially confirmed the killing of 11 of its personnel, including a lieutenant while one officer is still missing after last Thursday’s bloody clash between the Kpaidna community in Bosso Local Council of Niger State and soldiers from 31 Field Artillery Brigade, Minna.
The army also confirmed the arrest of 50 others. But the senator representing Niger East senatorial zone, David Umoru, has strongly condemned the alleged invasion of the community, saying that the reason given by the army is unacceptable.
The General Officer Commanding One Mechanized Division of the Nigeria Army, Kaduna, Maj.-Gen. Adeniyi Oyebade who gave the figures in Minna yesterday while briefing reporters shortly after visiting the community where the clash took place, said seven armed bandits were also killed while about 50 others were arrested in connection with the killing of the soldiers.
He promised that those arrested would be released if found innocent after an interrogation.
The GOC insisted that their invasion of the community was based on intelligence reports that there were arms stockpiled by the community, adding that the army decided to embark on what he called “cordon and search operation” which resulted in the bloody clash.
The senator who was reacting to the invasion said that the reason given by the army for its action was wrong.
Umoru said: “The military has not given any cogent reasons for this crude invasion and brutalization of my people. I am of the belief that the claim that the villagers had piled up arms in their homes upon which the armed soldiers hinged a seal-off and search operation in the village, is not tenable and totally unacceptable in a democratic government.
“For the avoidance of doubt, I would like to inform the public that this community was only about a month ago attacked by alleged Fulani herders during which many innocent people were killed and over 500 others displaced.
“Many of the victims of the heinous attack are still living in refugee camps in Minna and the military authorities in Niger State, I believe, are aware of this.”
He disclosed that the trauma that the said herdsmen’s attack had inflicted on the community was still fresh, adding that the invasion by the soldiers was like adding “salt to injury.”
“I am reliably informed that this time around when the sleeping villagers were woken by the brutal force of the invasion in the thick of the night, the first thing that came to their mind was that it was another attack by the same Fulani herders on rampage of their community which resulted in general pandemonium and commotion.
“The armed troops drawn from the 31 Artillery Brigade in Minna and the Air force Base in Bosso, stormed the villages in a brutal commando-style at about 1:00 a.m., waking up the sleeping villagers, causing distress and inflicting pain on them.
“It is unfortunate that instead of the military to provide adequate protection to the helpless villagers, it has taken upon itself to inflict more pain on them in an unnecessary operation.”
Condemning the action of the army in totality, Umoru wondered why the operation, as the army would like the public to believe, which was aimed at securing public peace and enhancing security or searching for arms did not involve the police or Directorate of State Security (DSS).
“I make bold to ask: Why was the police not aware and or involved in it? I am informed that members of the community had sent a distress call to the police indicating that they were being attacked by ‘Fulani herders’ and the police responded to the call and rushed to the scene only to discover it was a military operation that was ongoing.”
He alleged that the military had indiscriminately arrested over 60 people from the villages who are being kept in detention in the military barracks in Minna and therefore called on the Chief of Army Staff, the Brigade Commander and the authorities concerned to immediately release them.
“The fundamental rights of these Nigerians as guaranteed by the Constitution must be respected and protected. It is the responsibility of the police, and not the army, to detain civilian suspects,” he said.
What can be logically glued from the accounts rendered by both sides is the disconnect between the military and the community.
The breakdown of communication may have led to the deadly encounter which unfortunately has cost us the lives of Nigerians from both the Army and this Niger State community.
I’m hopeful that Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai under his command will not repeat the callous error committed by the then General Victor Malu who ordered the razing down of Odi town in Bayelsa State consequent upon the gruesome killings by some armed militia of some soldiers. So far since he became Army Chief no such callous attack of any community has happened under his watch as a result any such attacks targeting soldiers.
I’m confident that the Army high command will do the needful to follow due process in arriving at a law based resolution of this sad incident.
Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai has to a large extent demonstrated that under President Muhammadu Buhari everything that needed to be done to ensure strict compliance to Rules of engagement and best global practices in internal security operations are complied with.
Mr. President’s leadership needs the support of all and sundry to make Nigeria safe. The Army certainly needs our support.
But by way of proffering concrete solution to the widening specters of violence of blood cuddling dimension on different farming communities by armed Fulani herdsmen the Nigerian government should in partnership with the state governments set up community- based civilian joint task forces to be ready to confront the marauders before the arrival of soldiers since soldiers can’t possibly be deployed in all States of the Federation and if as the current study has shown that soldiers are now deployed in 30 States of the country, it is still impossible for soldiers to cover every nooks and crannies of Nigeria.
Interestingly, Nigeria benefited from a similar experiment in the Boko Haram terrorists’ afflicted North East of Nigeria whereby civilian Joint task force (Civilian-JTF) successfully fought and still fights the terrorists alongside the Nigerian military.
Recently some of these Civilian-JTF members were recruited into the Nigerian Army amidst criticism from many quarters.
Should it be taken that the said Niger State community took the bull by the horn and procured arms to defend their community since the police couldn’t stop an earlier deadly invasion by armed Fulani herdsmen of their community, then It may be misconstrued that there is a deliberate attempt to expose these persons in the affected community to become easy preys for the rampaging Fulani herdsmen. Assuming without conceding that that is the case it is still unlawful to procure unregistered weapons even when the motives are for the protection of the community from armed hoodlums.
This is strictly within the realm of conjectures because as I said earlier the man heading the Nigerian Army has clearly told Nigerians that he has the mandate of his commander-in-Chief President Muhammadu Buhari to consolidate on what is on ground to make the Nigerian Army a very professional institution.
We will await comprehensive probe by both the Niger State government and the Army on that sad Niger State violent confrontation.
Then again there is no justification for any of such confrontation that has now resulted in deaths of both soldiers and civilians.
The current high command of the Nigerian Army has put in place a strong institutional framework for constructive interfaces between soldiers and civilians headed by a General by rank.
What I humbly suggest is that this strategic office should also be part of such military operations in such a way that say few minutes before the actual arrival of the military operatives or even whilst the operations are in place the community leaders are briefed by the officials from the department of civil/military relations on the necessity of providing moral support for a successful operation which by and large are done to protect the interest and safety of the public.
The Nigeria Army is the Nigerian people’s Army composed of Nigerians who have civilian mothers and siblings.
Any destructive mutual suspicions between civilians and the military must be exterminated so we build a robust regime of conversations between the two segments of the Nigerian society.
The communication gaps should be bridged.
The Nigerian Constitution created the military institutions for the overall protection of the public so there is no need for any sort of mutual suspicions that could result to fatalities.
The Military are doing their duties in a bid to curb insecurity in the country which explains why the high command of the military has deployed troops to 30 states of the federation, a development that has however, led to needless apprehension in some communities. These apprehensions should be nipped in the bud.
It was recently mentioned in the mainstream media that for instance, not less than 1,000 men of the Nigerian Army and the Police, allegedly invaded Gbishe, a renowned farming settlement, in Katsina-Ala Local Government Area of Benue State, in the early hours of last Saturday , reducing over 1,000 homes to rubbles.
On reading this report I didn’t want to believe that the military trained and equipped as a professional national defense institution could become this unruly and indiscipline as to destroy a civilian community in search of a fugitive from the law.
We can also recall that a report circulated by a strategic Intelligence analysis firm, SBM Intelligence, said 30 out of the 36 States of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory were flooded with troops deployed to strategic locations to confront the rising phenomenon of armed hoodlums causing havoc.
The catch 50-50 scenario is that in a whole lot of communities the typical Nigeria Police Force has failed to curb these brazen criminal acts of violence thereby necessitating the deployment of soldiers.
But on a longer run whilst we suggest the setting up of Civilian-JTF all over Nigeria backed up by state legislations to work in close partnership with such constituted military institutions that the constitution recognizes, there must be a deliberate effort by Mr President and the National Assembly to comprehensively reform the failed Nigeria Police Force by setting up state police so the presence of the Nigeria Army is reduced to the barest minimum so they can face squarely the basic duty of safeguarding the territorial integrity of Nigeria especially from external invaders and internal insurrections. But as I said this is not the time for blame sharing but a time for introspection on how to make Nigeria safe for all persons that are law abiding.
- Emmanuel Onwubiko is Head of Human rights Writers association of Nigeria and blogs @ www.emmanuelonwubiko.com