The Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, has withdrawn the police Special Forces from Benue communities, barely five weeks after he deployed them to keep order and security in the wake of a string of deadly attacks linked to suspected herdsmen.
Several security sources in Benue told PREMIUM TIMES on Saturday that Mr. Idris quietly took the decision last week, even as villagers continued to report sporadic attacks on their communities.
The officers were removed on February 14 from Logo and Guma Local Government Areas, where scores, including security agents, have been killed in suspected herdsmen attacks since January 1. They were taken to police rank and file mess in Makurdi, the state capital, PREMIUM TIMES understands.
Their withdrawal came two days after three security agents, comprising a policeman and two Civil Defence officers, were confirmed killed and two others declared missing in suspected herdsmen attacks across the two local government areas.
The state police commissioner, Fatai Owoseni, told PREMIUM TIMES the withdrawal was strategic and warned against reporting police operation at a time of crisis.
“It’s an operational matter that should be left to the police,” Mr. Owoseni told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Saturday. “Just leave that to us whether we removed Special Forces” or not.
Mr. Owoseni said the police still have a presence in the communities and the security of lives and property would not be jeopardised.
The special forces are amongst about 96 regular officers sent to Belarus in 2014 to receive training as snipers, rocket-propelled grenade experts, rangers, bomb disposal technicians, amongst others.
Upon their return to the country in December 2014, they were briefly deployed in Maiduguri to support their counterparts in the Army, Navy and Air Force in the war against Boko Haram.
In February 2017, Mr. Idris ordered the deployment of 71 of them in Southern Kaduna to help quell the incessant clashes between herdsmen and residents there.
In July 2017, when abduction cases along the Abuja-Kaduna Highway became frequent and the police leadership came under pressure to take action, Mr. Idris deployed the elite police unit in Kateri, a town in Kaduna State along the highway.
The officers remained along that axis curbing the activities of kidnap-for-ransom syndicates until January 11 when they were moved to Benue following attacks on villages that left more than 70 dead within two days.
The special forces were primarily stationed in Anyiin, a major town in Logo LGA where thousands of displaced villagers are still putting up in two separate camps for the internally-displaced persons.
During their deployment, the officers patrolled villages across Logo and Guma LGAs and regularly exchanged gunfire with suspected herdsmen.
The special forces were expected to be joined by soldiers in the military intervention exercise named ‘Ayem Akpatuma’ or ‘Cat Race’ when translated from Tiv, a major tribe in the north-central.
“We’re shocked to realise that they moved us out a day before the soldiers even arrived,” a special forces personnel told PREMIUM TIMES Saturday. “But we’re not sure if the soldiers know the terrain very well enough to secure all the places.”
The troop, whose size has not been disclosed by the military, is scheduled to be in Benue and five other states for only six weeks.
Perhaps because it has not had immediate impact, the withdrawal of the special forces from the communities was not immediately detected by state government and activists in the state.
Paul Hembah, the security adviser to Governor Samuel Ortom, told PREMIUM TIMES he resumed work only last week after his predecessor was removed due to ill health and was not aware of the development.
Similarly, David Ogbole, a pentecostal preacher and leader of the Coalition against Fulani Occupation, said he would need time to confirm the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal.
PREMIUM TIMES interviewed four special forces personnel who said the police IG gave no compelling reason for withdrawing them from the battlefront. They also accuse the police of withholding their allowances.
“Even when we were still stationed in Anyiin and carrying out patrols every day and sometimes facing armed bandits in the villages, the police did not pay our allowances,” one officer said. “Now they just abandoned us in Makurdi where we’re doing nothing and have no food or proper sanitation.”
Another officer said the state government paid them N8, 000 per week for the first three weeks of their stay in Benue before the payment suddenly ceased.
“We were hoping that if the state would continue with the stipend which we used to support our normal salary of just N45, 000,” the officer said. “But the governor suddenly stopped this.”
Mr. Hembah told PREMIUM TIMES he could not comment on the matter because he did not have enough knowledge about the state’s arrangement with the officers to give an accurate account of why their payments stopped.
The officer further stated that the police owed them several months of backlogs in allowances dating back to their days in Kaduna.
Mr. Owoseni did not confirm or deny the officers’ statement about their allowances, only insisting that their salaries are being paid.
“They’re paid their salaries,” Mr. Owoseni said.
When pressed to respond specifically about the status of the officers’ allowances, the commissioner said the matter was strictly a police affair.
“They’re paid salaries, they’re working for salaries,” Mr. Owoseni said. “This is not for media reporting, it’s an operational issue.”
The officers said they were entitled to N15, 000 as their allowances per month, but PREMIUM TIMES could not independently verify this. Several police sources told PREMIUM TIMES it was difficult to confirm what the Special Forces are entitled to during deployment in special missions because there’s no instrument that enumerates their activities.