When the higher ups discuss insecurity in the country they typically speak of the Northeast as if it were the only battlefield. Consider extra-judicial killings by security agents, ritual murders, kidnap murders, armed robberies that carry out ISIS-style attacks in broad daylight and yes, BH begins to look rather contained from the point of view of the safety of most Nigerian citizens. But it’s interesting to note that, for the past 3 years or so, herdsmen killings have surpassed that of Boko Haram (BH), yet the response by government has not reflected that reality in any way.
“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”
– Winston Churchill
At the height of BH activity the government began working with the Civilian Joint Task Force, whom they trained and possibly armed, as well as local hunters armed with Dane guns/hunting rifles including the celebrated Aisha. There was, at one point shortly before President Buhari took office, even talk of arming and paying Fulani herdsmen as well as local hunters to help fight the insurgents including by members of his Transition Committee. It would be interesting to know if the federal government followed through with that recommendation.
Anyway, for some reason, the case of herdsmen attacks is considered to be different, despite the fact that the numbers indicate it to be quite similar to BH attacks. Hundreds are killed in the space of a few hours, entire communities razed to the ground, thousands of people displaced, and communities taken over. The only things missing are YouTube videos taunting protesters and a determined response by the federal government. The implication, therefore is sure, defend yourselves against BH but, when the next greatest threat to Nigeria presents itself, allow yourselves to be mercilessly killed until we, the government, become so embarrassed by a particularly heinous event which elicits worldwide shock and horror that we are forced to actually address the matter, albeit reluctantly and with kid gloves. I cannot speculate as to why, but there appears to be a reluctance on the government to really address the issue of herdsmen militia attacks.
There are announcements of Special Forces being deployed, new divisions formed, but those are all reactionary, knee-jerks in the general direction of the symptoms. There are simply not enough Special Forces to patrol the Middle Belt and guard her citizens. And when the Vice President comes to a state, acknowledges that territory has been taken over by a faceless group, promises to return the land to the people but, months later, still nothing is done, you can begin to appreciate the scope of the problem. The best response I’ve heard is the Northern state of Zamfara “recruiting” 8500 CJTF members, presumably with the blessing and oversight of the federal authorities, who are in control of the entire security apparatus of the country.
Which brings us nicely to another point.
When a former minister of defence, retired general Theophilus Danjuma, told a throng of graduating students that the military have been colluding with killer herdsmen and everyone must stand ready to defend their lands or die, he wasn’t in fact talking about creating a new phenomenon; he was simply encouraging communities all over the nation to do what communities in some states have been doing for a long while now. Part of the reason Plateau state saw so much “peace” until recently was because many of our villagers had armed themselves, and the herdsmen militia knew it. The stories I’m told imply that even when there were attacks (as there still were on occasion, just unreported), they were usually carried out when the youth were away, on the farm or elsewhere, essentially waiting for the target village to become “soft.” Eventually there was a disarmament campaign and many people surrendered their weapons in the belief that peace had been secured and the threats were over. Unfortunately that turned out to not be the case.
Indeed, I would have expected the government to kind of agree with Mr. Danjuma, their main caveat being that the community defense program be coordinated by government agents because, the truth is, it is happening already and will continue to happen for as long as people have no other alternatives. Getting directly involved will help the government to maintain some level of control and presence, essential for allowing people keep faith in it, as well as keeping tabs so that when true peace returns (God willing), disarmament and demobilization can be done intelligently and with reliable data. And the government already has people, especially in the military and probably the DSS, who have experience in this, people who have worked with civilians to establish community defense and even identify and pursue Boko Haram terrorists.
There is even more precedent for community defense too, on the international scene. Apart from the CJTF, we can also look at the South Vietnam Popular Force (RF/PF), who were instituted during the Vietnam war to defend their villages and communities from the Vietcong. Another example, perhaps even more pertinent, would be America’s Minute Men, who eventually supported the revolutionary forces during the revolutionary war in that country. However, they were initially constituted to protect settlers from the threat posed by Native Americans, who were then referred to as American Indians. Called Minute Men because they were designed to be ready at a minute’s notice, their task was to prepare defenses, aid communities, obtain intelligence and fight off invaders and raiding parties. Minutemen were typically the first to arrive at or await a battle as they were highly mobile and decentralized such that a local commander could order his men into a defensive position without waiting for orders from elsewhere. They were trained, but also were regular citizens who had regular work and were only called upon in times of need, a situation uncannily similar to what we are currently facing. It is understandable that some might pause at the thought of using strategies developed in the 17th century to tackle a 2018 problem but when each year, thousands of people are killed and dozens of communities razed to the ground and the government appears impotent and remote, we must conclude that we are in similar circumstances as they were back then, just with faster transport and more devastating weaponry.
Stuck in the Middle
The fear that such an approach could spark a mini civil war is a valid one, but countered by the fact that we already have that situation on our hands. The government’s ineptitude has helped create a situation where there is palpable distrust of anyone that is different. Regular readers will recall that, without a government that is able and willing to impartially arbitrate between citizens, we the people will remain in a state of war with each other. And this is the true result of government inaction; our loss of faith in them forces us to face the problem with our limited information and meager resources, causing a situation where rumor is king and hatred breeds like rabbits. Hence the need, as recommended above, for government to play an active role in helping communities to defend themselves; because they’ll do it anyway, with or without you.
The recent reports that fake news have lead to several deaths in Nigeria also highlights further this ungoverned space because, as long as there are no structures in place then there can hardly be any reliability of information. Thus, when a video originally shot years prior in a foreign land is re-posted with the claims of it being local, the people have no reliable way of confirming whether or not any of it is true. Now, I am definitely in agreement that users of social media platforms should be very careful what they post, and I think educating people on how to be skeptical is a big part of that. But for that to be effective, there need to be structures in place that make it as easy as possible for people to check the facts of what they are about to share. I think that if developers could spend even less than half the energy they currently spend keeping us addicted on giving us the ability to determine truth, we’d be much better off. If it’s too difficult for the average social media user to quickly check the facts then you have inadvertently denied them the ability to check said facts. And in cases like we have in Nigeria where the person holding the smartphone could feel that sharing as widely as possible might save innocent lives, then that person is facing quite the conundrum; do you share and risk it being untrue, or do you keep it to yourself and risk the lives of innocents? As you can see, without the ability to easily check the facts, the decision to share or not can resemble a lose-lose situation. But I digress.
Anyway I dwell on the herdsmen issue because, in my view, we have seen little to suggest that the president and indeed the government is taking the matter quite as seriously as they ought. The president’s admission that he was unaware of the fact that his top policeman disobeyed a direct order by declining to remain in the state where his attention was most needed is, in a fashion, an admission that he (the president) did not have his mind on the problem in any significant way. Because, if he did, he would be demanding at least daily updates from his top policeman. This further compounds the problem by appearing to confirm to those affected that they are on their own, hence the need to be prepared to do it for themselves. Indeed since Nigerians rely on the government for virtually nothing in their daily lives, why should they expect the same government to provide security?
I would also like to restate that defending our communities does not necessarily mean handing out firearms, with all the potential anarchy that that can bring. Defense also includes community watch, early warning systems, planting of cacti and hedgerows, and such. Simply having a practiced drill whereby everyone knows where to go and what to do in case of an emergency or an attack is part of community defence and could save many lives.
In conclusion, the argument for community and self defense is not only valid, but one which appears almost inevitable. Whether or not it will lead to anarchy depends on the federal government; will they participate, prove themselves impartial and therefore retain control or will they sit by playing the fiddle and watch the country go stupendously sideways? Your guess is as good as mine.