The Defence Headquarters said on Wednesday that troops deployed in Benue, Taraba and other troubled states across central Nigeria have been withdrawn due to an acute shortage of financial and logistical resources.
President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the military to embark on ‘Exercise Ayem Akpatuma‘ in February, following a string of killings of villagers in states along the Benue River, as well as Kaduna and Niger states. It was billed as a measure to degrade the capacity of the attackers.
“It requires logistics for military to take part in an operation, which is different from their normal day-to-day,” Defence spokesperson John Agim said at a press briefing at the Defence Headquarters Wednesday morning. “It also costs money.”
Mr Agim, a brigadier-general, acknowledged that residents are distraught about the withdrawal, but warned that for troops to return to the troubled states, additional provisions must be made.
“If the military is deployed for an exercise, it’s not for eternity, it is for a particular period. When the period elapses, when there is need for an extension, then there is need for additional logistics for such exercise to continue,” Mr Agim added.
The admission shocked security analysts, who said they knew the Nigerian military had long faced financial constraints but did not expect that funding would not be made available for a crucial exercise that formed a major aspect of President Buhari’s response to the lingering carnage.
Failure to adequately fund the military in the ongoing killings “could strengthen the impression in communities across the middle-belt that the Nigerian government is, at best, disinterested in their plight,” said security analyst Chris Ngwodo.
“The allegation of complicity, no matter how fantastic it may sound, is the sentiment on ground over there now” and “this revelation” would only “worsen the trust deficit.”
Mr Agim’s comments contradict an April 8 claim by the Nigerian Army that no troops were removed from troubled states that soldiers were deployed to instill peace. Army spokesperson, Texas Chukwu, released the statement in an apparent attempt to counter to a PREMIUM TIMES story on April 7 that the Army had quietly removed soldiers to the apprehension of defenseless residents.
Mr Agim said the exercise was later extended in Taraba for another one month, but did not say why they left out Benue, where hundreds have been killed within the past one week, including over 41 in a single attack on April 11.
Another attack on a police team three nights ago left at least 10 officers dead and several still missing as at Thursday evening.
Mr Ngwodo said the military probably avoided owning up to its challenges because it “felt such would be embarrassing to the Buhari administration.”
‘Winning the battle for trust’
The admission could cut deeply into the perception of the military in the ongoing killings linked to herdsmen, especially in Benue and Taraba States where President Muhammadu Buhari and his security chiefs have faced trust issues over their handling of the crisis.
Last month, a former Nigerian chief of army staff pointedly accused the Nigerian military of culpability in the killings, saying security agencies are not sincere and charging residents to devise other means of defending themselves to guarantee their survival.
Before then, Governor Samuel Ortom accused the federal government of knowing the locations of the killers but reluctant to order an incursion into their hideouts. He also said Inspector-General of Police Ibrahim Idris was complicit in the killings.
The military strongly holds that the support of locals remained crucial to winning the battle against the rampaging killers, whose identities remained a mystery despite several claims of arrests by Nigerian security agencies.
Mr Buhari further complicated the murky identities of the killers when he suggested that they had come from Libya as part of the remnants of the mercenaries recruited by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
But the president strongly denied the allegations, itemising some of the efforts he’d made to curb the carnage and mitigate the impact on survivors.
Mr Agim lamented that due to the trust issues residents made life difficult for troops while in deployment, but want the military to remain behind nonetheless.
The “made life difficult for the military,” Mr. Agim said. “Yet they “want them to continue.”
“Everybody wanted the exercise to continue. But for reasons of logistics and other things. People were afraid that the exercise would end soon, but they were insisting that we should not go,” he emphasised.
Notwithstanding, Mr Agim said the exercise, which was initially slated for six weeks from February 15 through the end of March before being announced extended by two months, was a success one.
“The operation was largely successful as a total of 183 criminals were arrested in ‘Exercise Ayem Akpatuma’ in Benue and Taraba States for various offences,” Mr Agim said from a prepared speech. “In Benue State, 147 herdsmen, six cultists, five rustlers and six armed bandits were arrested while 15 were arrested in Taraba State.”
In Kaduna and Niger States which fall under the control of the Nigerian Army 1 Division, “13 bandits were arrested,” Mr Agim said, adding that they have all “been handed over to the police for further action.”
But despite the presence of troops, the killings went unabated, and hundreds of deaths linked to herdsmen violence were still recorded across the troubled states.
On April 2, the Army said it recognised that soldiers still had more to do to bring the situation under control and decided to extend the operation by two months.
Yet, villagers continued to raise alarm that troops had left since March 31, indicating that the exercise was not extended as announced by the Army spokesperson Texas Chukwu.
Between March 6 and 7, PREMIUM TIMES reached out Mr Chukwu, a brigadier-general, to clarify whether soldiers were pulled out as the villagers were reporting from Taraba, Benue and Kogi which were part of the states covered in the exercise. But he declined comments for the two days.
However, on April 8, a day after the story was published, Mr Chukwu released a statement denying that the withdrawals took place contrary to what was reported. PREMIUM TIMES again reached out to him for evidence that could clarify the presence of ‘Exercise Cat Race’ in the communities, but he declined.
PREMIUM TIMES relied on dozens of residents across Kogi, Benue and Taraba States, including two local government chairmen who confirmed that soldiers attached to the exercise had a base in their communities but could no longer be seen since March 31.
Mr Ngwodo said the military should be transparent with its activities, especially because citizens appreciate the challenges that the armed forces are grappling with.
“Nigerians know that the military is overstretched,” Mr Ngwodo said. “We know the military is playing combat and constabulary roles. but it could have been more transparent about its challenges.”
He said the manpower and resources available to military could not withstand the spate of violent attacks besetting the country.
“Within the past week, you have attacks across Nasarawa and Benue, then there was a communal clash in Cross River, all within an arc . And this is not talking about Zamfara where bandits have taken over and killing people.
“They simply do not have the manpower to keep up with the deployment across 32 states and run its operations simultaneously,” he said.
Mr Ngwodo recommended increased funding for the military without further delay, saying the Boko Haram war had also taken a toll on the country’s security establishment.
“You have troops who have been in deployment for three years, four years or even up to five years, that is unheard of in terms of standard operating procedure which required a maximum of one year,” he said. “There should be proper and immediate funding for the security agencies to combat these challenges.”
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