Inside Nigeria’s Killing Fields By Reuben Abati

On Saturday, November 28, about 43 farmers who had gone to their farms during the current harvest season were attacked by Boko Haram terrorists.

They were tied up; their hands behind their backs, one after the other their throats were slit. The United Nations puts the number of casualties at 110, not 43. Amnesty International says over 10 women and others are missing. The people of Zabarmari were so outraged they refused to bury the dead. They asked that the Governor of Borno State, Professor Baba Gana Zulum, must show up to witness the tragedy that has befallen their community. Zabarmari, in Jere Local Government Area, is about 20 kilometres out of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. Two weeks earlier, terrorists had also attacked and killed members of the community. Maiduguri and the entire Lake Chad region have remained the hotbed of terrorism in Nigeria. In September, the state Governor’s convoy was attacked by insurgents during a visit to Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad. A death toll of 30 was reported. Several policemen and soldiers posted to that axis to help combat the menace of terrorism have also fallen victim, and died in the hands of terrorists. Many have had to lay down their arms and remove their uniforms. The security situation in the North Eastern part of Nigeria is proving intractable despite the Nigerian government’s repeated assurances that the Boko Haram has been technically defeated and degraded.   

The wanton killing in Zabarmari is a clear affirmation of the reality we live with: Nigeria has not defeated or degraded the terrorists, and if anything, the country’s security problem has worsened between 2015 and now. The lie has been further put to all claims of achievement of peace and stability through all kinds of military operations and initiatives – Operation Lafiya Dole, Operation Safe Corridor, the establishment of super camps, OperationYancin Tafki. Last week, Nigeria was named the third most terrorized country in the world in the Global Terrorism Index, after Afghanistan and Iraq. Governors of the North also cried out about the spate of insecurity in their region. They asked that the Attorney General of the Federation should grant their state Attorneys General the fiat to enable them prosecute terrorism-related cases at the state level. It was in the same week, that the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, speaking at a meeting of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) declared that the North is the most unsafe part of Nigeria, and the most difficult place to live in. Zabarmari is a tragic reminder of the truthfulness of this statement. The Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and the Coalition of Northern Elders for Peace and Development share the same view. 

Reuben Abati


It should therefore make sense that as youths protested in October against police brutality in Southern Nigeria under the banner of #EndSARS, the protest slogan in the Northern states was tagged #EndInsecurityNow. As has become traditional, the slaughter of 43 or more farmers in Zabarmari has been greeted with expression of outrage, anger and disappointment. President Muhammadu Buhari through one of his spokespersons, says it is “senseless and insane”. It is indeed barbaric and horrific. What manner of men would tie up their fellow human beings and slaughter them like rams? The cruelty is unspeakable. For every act of this nature that is reported, there are many other incidents that are never reported. The biggest cost of the insecurity in Nigeria is the devaluation of human lives. Look at how Nigerians often argue over the number of casualties. It is 43, no, 45, actually UN says 110, as if not every single life matters. 

On October 31, we all witnessed how the United States sent the elite SEAL Team Six special forces unit to rescue a Catholic priest and farmer, Philipe Walton (27), who had been kidnapped at the Niger-Nigeria border and kept in Northern Nigeria. It was a “precision” hostage rescue operation which was instructive for all it said about citizenship and state responsibility. The abductors didn’t know what hit them. Six of them were killed and the American was rescued. Over 40 Nigerians have been slaughtered and yet there has been no serious feeling of accountability and empathy on the part of government. Everyone was shocked yesterday when Garba Shehu, Presidential spokesperson reportedly told the BBC in an interview that the 43 farmers whose throats were slit didn’t have clearance from the military before going to the farm. So it is their fault that they got killed? Zabarmari is 20 km away from Maiduguri – should such an area so close to the state capital be an ungoverned space?  Garba Shehu has since back-tracked a little. He was only explaining “the military’s mode of operation”, he says. The survivors insist that they alerted the military! Does Garba Shehu now speak for the Nigerian military?

In some other countries, the authorities would have deployed an elite counter-force to track down the murderers. But here, it is convenient to give excuses. One excuse is that the terrorists are now attacking “soft targets” and that is because they have been weakened. Only the wicked will refer to the waste of 43 lives as a “soft target”! Another excuse is that terrorism does not have a specific end-date; after all in Afghanistan and elsewhere, terrorism remains a problem after so many years. But how about demonstrable capacity to “downgrade, degrade, and defeat?” Where is the value of all that attempt to engage and rehabilitate the insurgents? And of what use is the store of intelligence about the enemy that is available?  In another statement, the Federal Government says the military has been given “needed support to take all necessary steps to protect the country’s population and its territory”.  Really? Where is the evidence? In August, President Buhari gave the service chiefs marching orders to “rejig their strategy” and address the security problem in the country. He needs to summon them to another meeting.  

Terrorists, bandits, kidnappers, drug addicts and all kinds of violent characters including criminally-minded herders have constituted themselves into overlords across Nigeria. It is not only the North that is unsafe; the entire country has become a killing field.  This is not new. President Buhari did not create terrorism and banditry, but the insecurity problem has worsened under his watch, and that is ironic considering the fact that he was the “expected messiah” who most Nigerians believed would put an end to insecurity in the country. Northern Nigerians voted massively for President Buhari in 2015 and 2019. If they also ever thought that having a Northerner in power would translate into special advantages for the ordinary Northerner, that has not happened. Not even in Katsina, the President’s home state is life safe.  Nigeria’s insecurity crisis explodes the myth of the politics of proximity, the thinking that having “one of our own” in charge automatically confers advantages on the group or community. Northern Nigerian remains strictly divided along ethnic and religious lines; essentially, the significant war in Nigeria is between the rich and the poor. The latter are united by “their thingification,” that is the manner in which they are treated as worthless by a self-seeking aristocracy of power, and their own counter-response of anger and protest. 

There are killings in every part of the North: Zamfara, Kebbi, Sokoto, Southern Kaduna, Adamawa, and in the Middle Belt/North Central Nigeria: Benue, Plateau, Niger, Nasarawa, Kogi. Life has become so short in many places, even luxury bus owners from the East announced that they may suspend trips to certain parts of the country. The Abuja-Kaduna highway has become a risky route either by road where bandits lie in wait, or by rail – a scary route where the Chinese trains Nigeria procured, often break down in the middle of nowhere. Many of the Governors and “big men of the North” have since relocated to Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory. They visit their states of origin, under the protection of heavily armed escorts. Even incumbent Governors are on exile in Abuja. One Governor was accused of abandoning his state for the Federal Capital Territory. His response was that he visits home four times a month, and why should anyone complain about that? It would be interesting to study this phenomenon of distance-governance and its value.  

In the South, kidnapping is on the rise. Bandits have also taken over the roads. A day before the Zabarmari killings, bandits, identified as kidnappers, attacked and killed a traditional ruler, Oba Adegoke Israel Adeusi, the Olufon of Ifon, as he returned from a meeting in Akure, Ondo State. On Monday, November 23, during the debate of the #EndSARS October protests in Nigeria and the aftermath by the Petitions Committee of the UK House of Commons, there were references to killings by state authorities in Obigbo, Rivers state, the persecution of Nigerian Christians in the Middle Belt, and the abuse of human rights by state actors in Nigeria. In the Niger Delta, a coalition of nine militant groups has now served notice of a new round of attacks on oil and gas installations. They identify themselves as Reformed Niger Delta Avengers (RNDA). The reign of insecurity places Nigeria in great difficulty. The country suffers a revenue problem, given the volatility of oil prices, occasioned by COVID-19, the disruption in demand and supply chains and declining national productivity. The country is in recession, the second time in five years. Poverty is galloping, seated as it is astride a sturdy horse. Many are jobless. This has deepened the insecurity challenge in the country. The population of angry and hungry men and women has increased, creating a complex situation in which social, economic and political problems hold a rendezvous of violence. 

But one unmistakable aspect of this dilemma is how insecurity up-ends everything else, particularly agricultural productivity, and job creation. Food security is one of the major cardinal targets of the Buhari administration. When the Federal Government decided to close down Nigeria’s borders with its neighbours in August 2019, the plan was to encourage food production within Nigeria, check food importation and encourage in particular rice production, in which Nigeria is said to enjoy a comparative advantage. At the time, the Minister of Agriculture, Muhammmad Sambo-Nanono even boasted that there is no hunger in Nigeria. Agricultural productivity also formed the kernel of the administration’s plan to diversify the Nigerian economy. But national insecurity is an antithesis to food security. What is curious is that bandits and terrorists seem to target agricultural production deliberately as a way of inflicting pain. In 2018, about 73 farmers were killed in two local governments in Benue state in what was described as a farmers-herders clash. The same 2018, a farm in Ondo State, belonging to Chief Olu Falae, former Secretary to the Government of the Federation and a Yoruba leader was attacked by bandits. Three years earlier, Chief Falae was also kidnapped on his farm. A week ago, the bandits returned to Chief Falae’s farm again. They set it ablaze. In the evening, they launched an attack on the workers as they slept. Chief Falae is calling on the “Amotekun” to help save his farm and workers! 

Incessant attacks on communities and farmlands in Southern Kaduna have reduced food production in that part of the country. Fishing and farming around the Lake Chad Basin have been halted due to insecurity. In both the North East and the North West, farming communities have been displaced. The most affected states in fact represent the food basket of the nation. Zabarmari where 43 -110 farmers were killed on Black Saturday, is well known for the good yield of its rice fields. Now that terrorists have taken over those fields, surviving farmers would be afraid to go to farm. They may be peasant, subsistence farmers but they contribute to the country’s food output, and the agriculture value chain. Food transportation has also been affected. Even where farmers are still able to produce, they have to contend with the insecurity on Nigeria’s highways and the high cost of transportation. Why are farmers being targeted in the North and the South? The All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN) has warned of an imminent food crisis. The crisis is already here. Food inflation in Nigeria is over 17% according to the National Bureau of Statistics. COVID-19, and the flood that disrupted food production in the Niger River basin may have been part of the problem, but insurgency and banditry pose the biggest threats to agricultural production in Nigeria. Food insecurity can in turn worsen the country’s public health crisis. The growing combination of poverty, hunger and insecurity in the land is a national emergency. 

Security was projected as one of President Buhari’s legacy issues. Incidentally, that – combined with people’s welfare – is the original purpose of government. Rediscovering that purpose while eschewing the temptation to offer excuses, is the way forward. 

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Reuben Abati

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