Since gunshots began, my friend’s elderly mother slept in the bushes, only returning to her home each morning. While many managed to take cover, some of the more vulnerable were killed in their sleep. My close cousin and her four young children are among those victims.
Unfortunately, this is a very familiar cycle.
Pastoralists come and kill at random in our communities, state troops arrive many hours later, impose an informal curfew until the violence calms and then nothing follows until another outbreak of killings in another village.
Quite often, arrests are made but it seems no meaningful actions are taken by state agencies. Many concerned citizens have accused the government of complicity, claiming that the military is deliberately not deploying its full capacity to tackle this violence. The history of conflict between pastoralists and agrarian communities is complex and fraught. It has been heightened in the last few years by the use of heavy and modern weapons and religious differences.
Complete failure and helplessness of state security agencies?
These serial attacks have been happening for two years in dozens of rural communities across most of North Central Nigeria – Plateau, Benue, Nasarawa, Kaduna, Niger and Taraba states, and even further North in Katsina and Zamfara states. Yet, without any new plans to address this constant and persistent threat, the Government of Nigeria and ruling party politicians would prefer to place blame on the communities and absolve the Federal government of any responsibility. The Government call for citizens to be more vigilant against threats of violence, and support armed forces, yet when we call for help it can take up to 24 hours for support to show up.
The inability of the state security agencies (military, police, secret police etc) to confront this violence is attributed to a diversity of reasons ranging from corruption to incapacity.
Even in the midst of the internal corruption and incapacity many citizens believe there is complicity by the highest levels of the Nigerian state and ruling elite to allow these killings for a variety of political interests, particularly in relation to the upcoming election next year. The recent effective deployment of thousands of troops and equipment, including a number of hovering helicopters, to protect ballot boxes during the Ekiti State gubernatorial elections does support the idea of state complicity. Forces blocked opposition party members from campaigning before the election, yet did not apply similar support elsewhere within more fragile parts of the country.
Politicians subtly play up oversimplified divisions in Nigeria
The complex dynamic of religion, locality and hierarchy in Nigeria tends to blur the issues and reduces everything to a competition between Christianity and Islam, or north vs. south. The governments at the federal, state and local spheres subtly play up these sentiments and exploit them for popular support from a divided citizenry. In addition, the majority of local elite also ‘tap-in’ to this rhetoric to maintain their turf and position in the political and economic war-field.
The incidence of pastoralist-local community conflicts is not new in Nigeria, but it does not gain the same coverage as other issues such as Boko Haram killings, and city bombings. It has been neglected by nonchalant governments for far too long. Scholars like Jibrin Ibrahim have recently sought to bring these issues to the discussion. We are now, more than ever, calling for the Nigerian Government at all levels to take the lead in mobilising stakeholders to take action and save rural communities from this trauma.
Philip Ikita, a Rotary Peace Scholar in University of Bradford, is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies.