Despite Nigerian Army’s statement that ‘Operation Cat Race’ had been extended by two months to further curb incessant killings in some northern states, communities have told PREMIUM TIMES that there are no troops on ground.
Civilian casualties have again spiked within the last two weeks, with reports indicating nearly 200 deaths across four states of Benue, Kogi, Kaduna and Taraba. Some residents said the attacks have been so frequent that it was difficult to readily tell of the positive impact of the troops deployed in their communities.
Coincidentally, the troops disappeared on March 31, the same day the exercise was initially billed to end, according to residents accounts in Benue, Taraba and Kogi States.
The states are amongst the six states that President Muhammadu Buhari identified for troops deployment in February, following unabated cases of deadly attacks linked to herdsmen, kidnapping and cattle rustling.
The Army initially said the exercise would last for six weeks from mid-February to the end of March. But on April 2, the Army said troops would remain in the communities for another eight weeks.
“The extension is based on the need to further consolidate on the gains achieved so far by the Army in aiding the nation’s civil authority to maintain peace and security and due to calls by well-meaning Nigerians,” Army spokesperson, Texas Chukwu, said in a statement.
But the soldiers have left the spots they were deployed in after six weeks, according to residents in Benue, where reports said about 40 people have been killed within the past one week with the police confirming recovery of 10 bodies.
“The soldiers have left,” said Terkura Suswam, founder of Ashi Polytechnic and a community leader in Anyiin, Logo Local Government Area. “I have been to their base in Chembe more than three times within the past one week but no single soul was there anymore.”
Mr Suswam, brother of former Governor Gabriel Suswam, said the perceived duplicity of the Nigerian security agencies had made it difficult for the locals to trust the government in the herdsmen crisis.
The withdrawal came a month after the police withdrew its special forces from communities in Logo and Guma, the two LGAs that suffered deadly attacks on January 1, which sparked nationwide uproar and demand for Mr Buhari to act.
Two more residents of Anyiin told PREMIUM TIMES in separate interviews that the soldiers had left.
Also, Enoch Nyikyaa, a chief in Logo LGA, told PREMIUM TIMES the soldiers had been withdrawn, saying he was surprised that the Nigerian Army could even deny its actions.
“Soldiers from the ‘Operation Ayem Akpatuma’ were here for about six weeks, but they have all left now,” Mr. Nyikyaa said. The chief said he took a tour of Ayilamo, another town in Logo LGA where a detachment was stationed for six weeks, but found no trace of the soldiers. It was here that a family of four was wiped out in an overnight attack on Wednesday, Mr Nyikyaa said.
The residents fear that their communities could be overrun in the coming days if no immediate security measures are put in place. This is also because the police had in February withdrawn special forces previously operating in the areas before soldiers were deployed.
Benue police commissioner, Fatai Owoseni, did not respond to PREMIUM TIMES’ requests for comments about whether the police would return the special forces to the troubled communities to protect civilian population.
The attacks in Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba have sent hundreds of thousands fleeing from their communities, with many putting up at dozens of camps for internally displaced persons scattered across the region.
Mr Suswam said the situation could get worse in the coming weeks when the raining season begins and the killers would take refuge in overgrown bushes and forests.
In Kogi, a local government chairman told PREMIUM TIMES the soldiers have stopped patrolling troubled communities, leaving them vulnerable to invasion.
“Yes, the soldiers have left now, it’s unfortunate,” said Ohiare Abdulraheem, administrator for Okehi Local Government Area. “They were based in my local government when the ‘Operation Cat Race’ was announced, but now they’re gone.”
Mr Abdulraheem said several communities are now left exposed, urging security agencies to consider the plight of the locals.
He also identified five communities where he believed those coming to kill people in his local government are hiding.
“Oboro, Omavi, Ohoupe, Oboroke and Eikaohizenyi towards Ajaokuta are the hideouts of the attackers,” Mr Abdulraheem said. “The security agencies should comb all these areas for residents to ensure a lasting peace for the residents.”
Residents in Donga LGA in Taraba also said soldiers are no longer patrolling their communities.
The Nigerian Army spokesperson, Mr Chukwu, would neither confirm nor deny the residents claim that the troops had been withdrawn when reached for comments Friday.
Olabisi Ayeni, a spokesperson for the Nigerian Army 707 Brigade in Makurdi, could not be reached for comments as his two telephone lines were switched off between Friday evening and 11:00 a.m. Saturday morning.
John Agim, a spokesperson for the Defence Headquarters, would only confirm that the exercise had been extended.
“The exercise was extended and that is all I could say for now,” Mr. Agim, a brigadier-general, said by telephone Friday night.
Taraba police commissioner, David Akinremi, told PREMIUM TIMES he expected the soldiers to still be in the state following announcement that the exercise had been extended.
“I understand the soldiers are still on going because the exercise was extended for two months,” Mr Akinremi said. “I haven’t received any reports to the contrary.”
Mr Akinremi said some residents might be raising alarm because the soldiers moved from their location to other areas.
“If they’re complaining, perhaps it was because the troops had moved to other locations where they’re more needed,” he said.
The police chief said his men would continue to do their utmost to protect communities whether soldiers are on ground ot not.
“There own is special operation, our own is continuous operation,” Mr Akinremi said. “Our men will always be around to carry out their statutory duties of protecting the people.”
He acknowledged killings are still ongoing in the state, but said the “isolated attacks” are being investigated and police are “making efforts to get to know those responsible.”
Emmanuel Bello, a spokesperson for Governor Darius Ishaku, said Taraba was under siege even when troops were initially deployed, much less their unverified extension of the exercise.
“We are worried that even with the announcement of the extension of the operation, the killing spree has continued unabated,” Mr Bello said in a message to PREMIUM TIMES Friday night. “So of what value are these exercises if lives are not safe?”
“Seven bodies have been recovered in Ananum in Donga LGA where the aggressor killed freely. In Takum, a family of five was gruesomely wiped out in the most violent and horrendous fashion,” he said.
Mr Bello said the military should be transparent on the actions its taking to end the killings in other to offset its trust deficit, saying Taraba State would cooperate fully with security agencies.
“The operation and any of its continuation would only make sense when lives are safe and people can return to their homes and farms. For now, our people are agitated and live in apprehension.
“They are targeted and killed with no arrests made. The military has a lot to do to restore faith in their activities. Images of dead bodies making social media rounds only enforce the fears that exercise is not achieving its aim.
“The Taraba State Government is willing and ready to cooperate with all the security agencies to safeguard lives. Our people are seriously hoping that professionalism would be upheld and that they can trust the military to keep them safe,” he said.