On 30th July, 2013, the parents of the ten Directorate of State Security (DSS) operatives killed two months earlier by the Ombatse cult in Nasarawa State staged a peaceful protest in Lafia where the then Vice President Namadi Sambo was due to commission some projects. The protesters were responding to the statement by the then DSS Director General, Mr. Ita Ekpenyong that the service had ‘forgiven’ the criminals who killed the DSS operatives while on a legitimate duty.
“Our children were sent on an operation to save other Nigerians, and they were not given any protection. We can’t see them alive; we can’t see their corpses. They only sent us the death certificates of our children”, said Dr. Nandul Durfa, 64, father to a late operative called Timman Durfa. Another protester, Nimsel Nanyal, 57, said it was unthinkable that security men were killed and the federal government could not give them justice. “In Britain, one soldier was killed on the street, not even in the line of duty like our children, and the British Prime Minister was everywhere making statements. He even attended the burial. Here, we were sent death certificates, and that is all,” Nanyal added.
It is now almost three years since that tragedy which claimed the lives of 55 police officers and 10 DSS operatives who were deployed to restore order in a community called Alakyo. The corpses of those 65 agents of state were never recovered and I will not be surprised if their families have also been abandoned. Yet the message conveyed by that so-called forgiveness famously proclaimed by Ekpenyong was that the Nigerian State could neither protect its own personnel who were on lawful duties nor seek justice for them after being killed in a most gruesome manner. But the larger implication of the way we managed that tragedy was that we were invariably telling the whole world that life makes no meaning in our country. That is the sort of disposition that emboldens criminals to believe they can take the lives of innocent citizens without consequences.
Incidentally, someone who spoke the minds of Nigerians at the time is a certain Muhammadu Buhari who is now the president. He said most memorably: “The SSS boss or whoever that said he has left everything to God has no right to do that. Nigerians can practice any religion they want or even if they don’t want, they can be atheist or anything they want to be, that is constitutional. But nobody should hurt a citizen of Nigeria and then get away with it, not to talk of slaughtering law enforcement agents and then somebody coming out from the system to say such a thing. It is either that person doesn’t know what he was talking about or he shouldn’t even be there. Those that killed the security men must be hunted and prosecuted no matter how long it will take because this is the bottom line about law and order, and security in the country. They can’t be forgiven, they can’t override the constitution, Nigerians are being hurt and killed in their duties and those that killed them must be brought before the law”, Buhari said.
That was candidate Buhari who was seeking to be our president. Now that he is on the saddle, we have not seen any such forthrightness in dealing with the sectarian violence that threatens to tear the country apart. Yet at this most challenging period, the president must stand up and be counted because, as I stated last week, there can be nothing more grievous than for someone or a group of people to believe they can take the lives of others without being held to account.
For those who may have forgotten, there were three elements involved in the 2013 Ombatse tragedy in Nasarawa State: Ethnicity, religion and politics, even though there was also a little dose of superstition. Unfortunately, the underlining issues in the current tragedies, whether in the South East or in the North Central, are not dissimilar. So, for us to resolve them and bring about lasting peace, we need our president to rise above himself. Unfortunately, he has thus far not shown that inclination–at least, that is what his body language suggests and with that, he has only provided ammunitions for politicians who feed on tragedies by capitalizing on our fault-lines.
To worsen matters, on the issue of herdsmen, President Buhari is already a suspect given the record of his intemperate session with the late Oyo State Governor Lam Adesina a few years ago. The situation is compounded by the recent “your-people-have-killed-my-people” statement by his kinsman-DG of the DSS, Mr. Lawal Musa Daura. But even when I believe Buhari’s silence on the recent tragedies has been unhelpful, I am also aware that most of the hysteria about herdsmen are political and may be no more than a campaign of calumny essentially targeted against the president, just because he is a Fulani man.
However, it was very reassuring last night that President Buhari would condemn “the attack on Ukpabi Nimbo community in Enugu State and other such acts of extreme violence against communities in other states of the federation”, as stated by his spokesman, Garba Shehu. The president has also directed the Inspector General of Police, the General Officer Commanding the 82nd Division of the Nigeria Army and the Enugu State Director of DSS “to personally oversee investigations into the attack on the community and ongoing efforts to apprehend the culprits.”
Indeed, it is the political slant to a crisis that has been with us for many decades that is actually now causing the problem even when most people are aware the real issues are environmental, economic and criminal. But I believe, from my own experience, that we can deal with some of these issues if our politicians and other critical stakeholders, including those of us in the media, decide to be open-minded. I highlighted some of the points two years ago in Kaduna at an “International Conference on Security and Development Challenges in West and Central Africa” where I delivered a paper. Put together by the then National Security Adviser, Col Sambo Dasuki, I had opportunity to interact with the real herdsmen—the big men who own the cows as I told the story of my village in Kwara State that has a Fulani settlement called ‘Gaa Okanla’.
I grew up to meet the settlement and virtually everybody in our village now say the settlement had been there before they were born. It was founded by a nomadic Fulani man called Anfani who reportedly mixed freely with our people. His first son was named Okanla and I grew up to know him as Baba Okanla with some of his children, especially Baba and Musa as my contemporaries and friends even till today. So in my village, we have had five generations of Fulani men who have lived in harmony with our people and I am aware there are many communities like that in Kwara State.
Notwithstanding, I am also aware that several other issues have come in such that the real lasting solution is to discourage the nomadic culture in our country. Even before it became a national security challenge, it was no longer ideal to have able-bodied young men and women roam about the country with cows. It is both primitive and a gross abuse of the young men and women who ordinarily should be in school. Besides, there are health hazards to these cows that are being paraded through the forest and may have attracted all manner of diseases. But the main worry for now is the human tragedy.
That we have a serious problem on our hands is not in doubt though it is comforting that the federal government is very much aware of the challenge and now looking for workable solutions. Two weeks ago, Interior Minister, Lt General Abdulrahman Dambazau (rtd) convened an inter-ministerial meeting in a bid to finding a lasting solution to what, according to him, “threatens the very fabric of our country’s unity and progress”.
Dambazau, from what he said at the forum, appreciates the fact that the entire herdsmen menace has graduated from isolated instances into a discernible and even predictable pattern of criminal behavior with grave and urgent national security implications. What Dambazau and his team, working in collaboration with other stakeholders, must now do is to isolate all the issues as they seek enduring solutions which will not happen until we deal with the challenge of law and order in our country. Even though the menace of the herdsmen is much more complex than many people imagine, those with criminal tendencies in our midst must know that the State will punish, rather than forgive, them for heinous crimes.
“While the ongoing conflict is centred on Nigeria’s internal security, I believe it might be necessary to also consider the larger West and Central Africa region in arriving at an understanding of the Niger-Benue basin as an arena of conflict because of its rich pasture and water resources where pastoralist converge seasonally to graze their cattle,” said Dambazau who added: “It is duly recognized that the conflict spawns beyond the immediate Niger-Benue river trough to even south-eastern and western Nigeria, where similar conflicts even with violent tendencies are being recorded regularly. Indications are also that there are opportunistic criminal angles to this conflict, in the nature of cattle-rustling, armed robbery and kidnapping. There are also recent reports that the Boko Haram terrorists are taking advantage of the situation to further their dastardly agenda.”
Against the background that the history of group confrontations in Nigeria can be traced to the simplistic North-South, Christian-Moslem pattern, the authorities should be worried about such dangerous dimensions to what is already a serious problem. Unfortunately, we are in a precarious moment when dire economic conditions are pushing neighbours, families and groups to a brittle point. That then explains why acts of violence that are staged in places where they can be given “they versus us” interpretations will hurt our national security very badly if not properly handled.
President Buhari therefore needs to move swiftly on this matter before he has on his hands a dangerous internal conflagration to add to Boko Haram, a simmering trouble in the Niger Delta and an economic downturn that has already put many Nigerians on edge.
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