Politicians’ thugs kill people, label killers herdsmen – Defence spokesman
The acting Director of Defence Information, Brig. Gen. John Agim, speaks on the allegation of military collusion with herdsmen in Taraba State and the killings in Zamfara, Kaduna and Benue, among other issues in this interview with OLALEYE ALUKO
The military has an ongoing operation, Whirl Stroke, which is supposed to tackle the violence in Taraba, Benue, Zamfara and Nasarawa states. What is the progress report of that operation?
The operation, which is still ongoing, is tackling the security challenges in those areas. At least for some time now, there has been a reduction in the security issues around that axis. Why the affected places are becoming calm is because of the operation in that area.
If you check, most of the security challenges and killings in those areas have reduced drastically. On a weekly basis and in fact on a daily basis, there are lots of strategies being put in place under this operation. The operation in these four states will not end until there is normalcy there.
The Taraba State Government has rejected the army panel report on the Lt. Gen. Theophilus Danjuma’s allegation of military collusion with herdsmen, claiming it is not representative. What is the military’s reaction?
The panel report interviewed everyone it was supposed to interview. But it was unable to get comments from Lt. Gen. TY Danjuma (retd.). But the panel report was not for the Taraba State Government to agree with or not. Let me assure you that the military is being careful not to bring out a report that will be misinterpreted as political.
For instance, why is the state government rejecting the report? An exercise is ongoing in your state and you said you don’t like the commander of the operation because he told you that he could not be partisan?
The problem which the state government ( not only in Taraba) have with the military is that when the military came in, they thought the soldiers were coming to enforce their laws. Is that the military’s responsibility? If the military goes in and says it wants to enforce the state’s anti-grazing laws, then it means the military is doing the work of the state government. The military is not supposed to enforce those laws. So we told them we are coming to make sure that there is security.
It was also discovered that there were a lot of people carrying arms, including the herdsmen. So we said nobody should carry arms; anybody who carries arms shall be arrested. But they (the state governments) don’t want their own people to surrender their arms.
During this period, we also discovered that some politicians were using their thugs against another community within the same state, and they made it looked as if herdsmen were attacking the people. Some of these people were arrested.
For instance, in a local government area, there are two communities fighting against each other and we arrested some people with arms. We did not want to blow it up because it will be misinterpreted.
Some of the suspects arrested and stopped from carrying out that vandalism told us that some politicians sent them against another community to carry out those attacks. So the state government said they did not agree with the army panel, but they have not given any cogent reasons.
The army panel also included indigenes of that (Taraba) state. The retired general who headed the committee and the members of the panel are from that state; they have something at stake.
The military has no reason to collude with herdsmen because a good number of the troops serving in that operation are from that region. People should not play politics with security issues because if we do, it will not do anybody any good.
So, one of the problems of the state government was that they did not want the commanding officer in their area because he said, “I am not here to do your bidding. You cannot use the army to achieve political ends.” That is why the state is angry with him.
So we have a battalion in that state and many of the troops are also from that region. If we allow the military to dance to political tunes, it will be disastrous, because the military is the institution that is still holding the unity of this country.
In the ongoing Operation Whirl Stroke, is there synergy and cooperation between the military and the Taraba State Government to end this crisis?
Yes, in the operation, we have not had any issue with any authorities. In Benue State, we are looking at how the Internally Displaced Persons can start returning to their homes and villages.
What is the role of the military in the prosecution of the 163 suspects arrested in Benue, Taraba and other states?
It should not be our problem to follow up on prosecution. The military arrested suspects and we don’t have to follow up but we have to hand them to the agency which will carry out the prosecution. I was in Benue State about two weeks to inaugurate Operation Whirl Stroke and I discovered that herdsmen and others were still being prosecuted in Benue State.
Nobody should imagine that the police and the Department of State Services, who are saddled with the task of prosecution, will not do their work. We should not imagine it.
In one of the significant clashes where you said 35 herdsmen were killed in Benue by troops, did the military examine the corpses? Were you able to determine their nationality and tribe, at least to find out if they were indeed foreigners or Nigerians?
What will be the gain of the military doing that? What do we gain from where they are from? We know that some of these people (killers) are not Nigerians. It is when we arrest them alive that we can ask them the identities of their sponsors and how they got here.
We know that some of the attackers in the North-East are also not Nigerians. That has already been established. Some of the attackers were brought in because they thought they could make money.
Those who are recruited sometimes do it for money. You must have seen the video where hoodlums in Niger and Chad were begging to be recruited into the Boko Haram group and to come to Nigeria. So the issue is that some people, who are looking for something to do, are willing instruments in the hands of whoever wants to recruit them.
Sadly enough, our borders are porous and we have a large space where people can come in, where they can easily be recruited into criminalities.
How is the military tackling the disturbing cases of killings in Zamfara?
What happened is that at the time we took over at the four states, there was a need to conduct a proper reconnaissance in those troubled areas. The next thing was that we wanted to strategise how to deploy the Special Forces operational in Taraba, Benue and Nasarawa to Zamfara also.
By the end of this (last) week, we will move the Special Forces to Zamfara. In an operation, you don’t just deploy troops and dump them in a place. You need to embark on reconnaissance, check what is on the ground and what equipment needed to be deployed. If not, the operation cannot be effective.
For instance, in Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa states, it was discovered that using only vehicles for patrol is not effective. So we had to deploy motorcycles also to access areas that are not motorable. And if the troops go to these places and the hoodlums enter the bushes, there is no way you can arrest them except you pursue them on motorcycles.
How many soldiers have you lost or that are injured in Operation Whirl Stroke?
I don’t have the number yet. But about three weeks ago when the troops encountered herdsmen in a Benue State, we killed about 35 herdsmen and we lost one soldier. Two soldiers were missing in action on that day but they have now been found alive.
Don’t you think there is also a need to focus on the Birnin-Gwari area of Kaduna State as there are reported kidnappings and killings in that area too?
The operation, which will take off in Zamfara State will monitor the situation in Birnin-Gwari. If you look at it, the bandits come into Birnin-Gwari from Zamfara.
The military have been so critical of the Amnesty International’s report of soldiers committing rape and sexual violations in Internally Displaced Persons camps in Borno State. Shouldn’t the military investigate its personnel instead of condemning the AI’s report?
We have investigated those claims. Last week, I was in Maiduguri, Borno State, where I asked journalist to enter the IDP camps with me to verify these allegations. To start with, the Nigerian Army is not just critical about the AI’s report; when you do something improper, and you repeat it over and over again, one begins to wonder what your intention is.
As a result of AI and other national and international human rights organisations’ reports, we don’t deploy soldiers in conflict areas without them undergoing training in human rights and laws in armed conflicts at Jaji, Kaduna State, where we have a peacekeeping centre handling those areas. We tell the troops that if you violate human rights, you will be punished. In Maiduguri, there is a court martial waiting for any soldier who commits any human rights abuses.
We also have the human rights desk in the Defence Headquarters, army headquarters and in the operational fields to ensure that all our activities conform to the international standard on human rights.
In the AI report under contention, did the organisation report anything that is new? No. it was the events of 2015 and 2016 brought forward and they packaged it as if these things just happened.
After we left Maiduguri, there is a group of IDP women under one movement who alleged again that we put words into their mouths to deny that they were raped. But I never did that.
I have challenged the journalists they should not wait for the military to take them to the IDPs camps. I have asked them to go there and carry out discreet investigations. We also went to the United Nations Children’s Fund; we went around the medical centres and hospitals around the IDP camps to confirm if there was any incident of rape involving soldiers. We didn’t find any.
In the IDPs camp we went, there are 35,199 people and from five local government areas. In the second camp we went, there were two LGAs, and 7,850 people and they all said nothing such as rape by soldiers.
But the female IDPs also alleged that some of their husbands were unjustly arrested and detained as Boko Haram suspects. Is this true?
The female group, under a movement, said they want about 1,000 suspected Boko Haram members, who are still undergoing screening and investigations, to be released. Do you know what that means?
If the women are asking for the release of suspected Boko Haram members who have not been properly screened, then that is a problem. It means they have sympathy for the insurgents. We have suspected terrorists who have been released after adequate screening and they are undergoing screening through Operation Safe Corridor in Gombe State.
We have other suspects who could not be released and had to be taken to Niger State for trial.
In Maiduguri, all hotels have been booked by many national and international organisations. You cannot get to Maiduguri and think you can easily check into any hotel. If you go to these places, you see payments made for up to a year in advance.
If they are getting international funds and they report that the Boko Haram war has ended, where will they get further funding?
The military is working towards ensuring that the war in the North-East ends. There are organisations that wish that the violence should continue so that they can sustain their economic interests.
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