International Opinion

Restoring security in the Northwest

Barr. Bulama Bukarti

My column last week on north-western Nigeria’s horrifying descent into anarchy left unanswered questions – which many of you then asked – of how to curb the spiralling violence and the humanitarian disaster fast unfolding in the area. After all, proposing solutions after diagnosing a problem should be the natural course of worthwhile conversations.

The Qur’an teaches us that any tête-à-tête that doesn’t enjoin charity, that which is right or conciliation between people isn’t time well spent (Q4:114). Thus, talks, workshops, conferences and, in the COVID-19 era, webinars, teams or zoom meetings that merely rant about the problem without proffering workable solutions are useless. The same principle applies to newspaper articles, radio shows and TV programmes. I do not want this column to fit that description.

The horrific security situation of the Northwest didn’t spring out of the blue: it is a product of decades of disregard, disorder and dithering. By the same token, while short-term measures to contain the violence are necessary, true resolution requires medium- and long-term measures to address the underlying causes of the crisis. Governments consistently paid lip service to addressing both the violence and its root causes. The programmes that have been instituted are disjointed and lack any foundation in sound project development and implementation models. But, as I have only 1,000 words to play with, I will focus only on some of the major changes required in the security arena.

It goes without saying that the most pivotal and urgent priority for governments should be curbing the violence in order to prevent further loss of lives and more destruction.  Immediate steps must be taken to secure the villages and highways that are currently ruled by criminals. This requires improved manpower and resource investment into the several military operations underway in the affected areas.

I have heard repeatedly from residents of Zamfara and Katsina how even the larger towns are protected by only a score of soldiers, while villages are left to go it alone. On the other hand, bandits move on motorcycles in convoys frequently as large as 300 – 500. Is anyone surprised that soldiers outnumbered at least 10 to one are defeated or defied? There is an urgent need for heavy military reinforcement in the Northwest.

Even without their manpower restrictions, the military operations are marred with basic logistical challenges. Almost five years after the first military operation in the Northwest was launched by President Buhari, residents still do not have an emergency number by which to report suspicious activity for an early intervention. This is only the most visible sign of a failure to use technology for intelligence-gathering. This, in a country with widespread mobile connection, is, to say the least, unwise. Our security agencies should work with the Ministry of Communications and mobile service providers to provide functional toll-free lines and deploy technology in the fight against these criminal gangs.

In cases where reports have been successfully made, the response is often woeful. Intervention may be impossible because there is no fuel for the vehicles, or because the local commander can’t be found, or because they can’t get air support.  Villagers have told me harrowing stories of how criminals operated for hours unchallenged after they were first reported. We must understand that we are in war and do away with the bottlenecks created by sclerotic bureaucracy (or worse) preventing swift and effective response.

Even worse than our military is its twin brother: our police. Where the military clears an area, they need the police to take over. At present, the Nigeria police are incapable of carrying out this fundamental aspect of their role. In August this year, Governor Aminu Bello Masari of Katsina State made a statement that gives a sense of the acute shortage of manpower in the police. He said there are on average 30 police officers for every 100 villages in his state. That is to say, one policeman oversees at least three villages. Even the most highly technologically resourced police force in the world could not work with such manpower shortages.

In their usual style, the police disputed Masari’s claim, but ended up giving figures that made the situation look even worse. They said there are 38 police divisions across the 34 local government areas of Katsina State and that none of the divisions has fewer than 50 policemen while some have more than 100 personnel. Even if we, for the sake of analysis, take the police’s word for it and generously assume that there are 100 policemen in each unit, that will be a total 3,800 policemen for the 5.8 million people in Katsina State. That means one police officer for over 1,500 people, over 200 per cent below the United Nations minimum threshold of one police officer for every 450 citizens. And these figures don’t even factor in those police officers permanently attached to politicians, civil servants and government buildings for protection duties. To achieve the minimum citizen-police ratio, Katsina would need a 250 per cent surge in police personnel. Katsina is unlikely to be alone among the states in this situation. And such an increase will still be useless if they aren’t provided with adequate weapons and equipment, and properly trained to work with communities.   

It bears repeating, in conclusion, that the violence in the Northwest and other parts of Nigeria is a symptom rather than problem. To establish a united, peaceful and prosperous Nigeria, we’ve got to invest in our people by adequately resourcing education and implementing the laws mandating every parent to send their children to school, revive traditional mediation and peacebuilding mechanisms that have served us for centuries and improve agriculture, mining and infrastructure to build a strong economy and create jobs.  But none of these can work until the violence is curbed. If the Buhari administration cannot protect the lives and property of Nigerians, it can as well forget its other policies, projects and programmes for nothing works in a conflict-ridden, crime-infested environment.

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