July 28, 2021

How southern Nigeria is trying to regain control of its security

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Supporters of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) independence movement in the Osusu neighborhood of Aba, southern Nigeria, in May 2017.

This is a proposal that has continued to spark debate in Nigeria. On May 11, the governors of seventeen states in the south of the country adopted a resolution to prohibit transhumance and free grazing on their lands. A shock announcement aimed at curbing the violence between herders and farmers which has claimed thousands of lives in Nigeria in recent years.

Gathered in the city of Asaba, the capital of the delta state (south), the governors considered that “The incursions of armed herders, criminals and bandits” in the south of the country represented “Such a challenge for security, that citizens are unable to live their lives normally or to engage in agricultural activities, which threatens food security and security in general”.

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For centuries, semi-nomadic Fulani herders from the north have led their herds during the dry season in search of water and pasture. But climate change and increasingly prolonged droughts have pushed them in recent years to descend further south, to the agricultural heart of the country, and to stay there longer.

At the same time, for lack of modern agriculture, “The way to cultivate the land in Nigeria requires very large spaces, not very productive”, says analyst Ikemesit Effiong of Lagos-based security consulting firm SBM Intelligence. Breeders and farmers therefore find themselves in competition for access to land, in an already difficult economic context for the most populous country in Africa.

Community tensions exacerbated

For five years, these conflicts have taken a dramatic turn with outbreaks of violence killing more people in some years than Boko Haram. Thus, on Saturday May 22, Fulani herders were accused of having killed nine people in Tse-Ancha, in the state of Benue (center-east). The day before, the lifeless bodies of seven farmers who lived in a camp for displaced people in the region had been buried after another attack also attributed to shepherds.

On April 24, nineteen members of the same family of Fulani herders – including six children – were shot at point blank range in the state of Anambra (south-east). Their lifeless bodies were then severely mutilated, their cattle killed and their homes ransacked by assailants suspected by the Nigerian authorities of being members of the Biafran independence movement (Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, IPOB), active in the region.

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Rivalries between farmers and herders exacerbate community tensions. In February, a simple dispute between a Yoruba shoemaker – a majority community in the southwestern regions – and a Fulani handler led to the sacking of a market near the city of Ibadan and several days of clashes between members of the two ethnicities.

“Today, the discourse on security in the south revolves around ethnic lines”, confirms Idayat Hassan, who heads the Center for Democracy and Development, a think tank based in Abuja, the Nigerian federal capital. A rhetoric which is doubled by some of ” calls for self-determination, even secession ”.

Self-determination speech

In the state of Oyo (southwest), activist Sunday “Igboho” Adeyemo thus advocates the advent of a Yoruba nation. This agitator attacks the central power of Abuja – while President Muhammadu Buhari himself comes from a Fulani family in the north of the country – claiming that “The politicians sold the south to the Peuls », Which would henceforth be ” out of control “.

In the south-east of the country, criminal activities are also frequently attributed to pastoralists. The latter constitute a prime target for the Biafran separatist movement and its sulphurous leader, Nnamdi Kanu, who capitalizes on the dissatisfaction of the population in the face of insecurity, by denouncing a « invasion » from the north.

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This movement, which was originally intended to be peaceful, has been classified as “Terrorist organization” in 2017 by the Nigerian authorities, anxious to avoid any reminiscence of the bloody civil war of 1967-1970. After an arrest and exile, Nnamdi Kanu finally took a more radical posture, announcing in December 2020 the creation of an armed wing: the Southern Security Network (ESN). Its mission is to defend the Igbo population against Fulani herders.

In January, the Nigerian army intervened in the town of Orlu, located in Imo State (south-east) to try to crush this armed militia. Since then, not a day has gone by without a police station or a public building being ransacked and set on fire by “Thugs” suspected of being members of IPOB. These attacks have also claimed the lives of dozens of police officers, while their numbers are already well below UN recommendations in a country of more than 200 million inhabitants.

Faced with the rise of these discourses advocating self-determination, “The governors must fight for their political survival”, constate Idayat Hassan. “By proposing to ban transhumance and free grazing, they are also trying to respond to the concerns of their constituents”, she believes. The demands made by the governors do not stop there. At their Asaba meeting, they also called for a restructuring of state security agencies. for “Reflect true federalism”.

“The security architecture of Nigeria is far too centralized for such a large country ”, explains analyst Ikemesit Effiong. And “Even if the governors use a questionable argument” by particularly highlighting the conflict between herders and farmers, even as the number of kidnappings and armed attacks explodes in their regions, “What they are asking for is the right thing” according to the analyst. Hoping to shake things up in Abuja, governors are now calling for a national dialogue on these issues.