The Force Headquarters has declined to provide details of the killing of many Nigerian police officers in Zamfara State on November 29.
No fewer than 50 officers who were part of a police anti-rustling team deployed in the troubled state were killed in an ambush by armed bandits, multiple police sources told PREMIUM TIMES.
Three days after the incident and despite indications that families of police officers who were in the ambushed team have inundated the police with enquiries on the fate of their loved ones, the Force Headquarters repeatedly declines to provide information.
Immediate concerns amongst the family members and police officers who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES were about the evacuation of the bodies of their loved ones and colleagues — and the rescue of wounded officers who might still be alive in the overgrown shrubs and forests.
“The bodies are already decomposing because we have no capacity to enter the bush to recover them,” a police officer who pleaded absolute anonymity told PREMIUM TIMES from Zamfara Sunday afternoon. “We know they are over 50 who were killed, but those finding it difficult to move because they were seriously wounded could be still rescued.”
The officer said the bandits have taken positions around the communities, and police intelligence suggested there may be another ambush if they attempted to recover the bodies.
Habila Joshak, the police’s head of operations who was dispatched to oversee police security arrangement following the ambush on Thursday, had reportedly made attempts to land in the communities with a helicopter, but reportedly went back to Gusau, the state capital, after the bandits opened live rounds.
“Even Nigerian soldiers are not able to enter the hideouts of the bandits now. We heard they want to contact the Nigerian Air Force to see whether they could carry out airstrikes to neutralise the bandits and clear paths for evacuation team,” the officer said under anonymity because he could be sanctioned for providing unauthorised information to the media.
A spokesperson for the Nigerian Army did not return PREMIUM TIMES’ requests seeking comments on the level of support they are providing to the police in the aftermath of the deadly ambush.
Police spokesperson Jimoh Moshood only said in a statement Friday afternoon that officers repelled the ambush, killing 104 bandits in the process. He also said 50 hideouts used by the bandits were razed by officers, and stolen cattle and sheep were recovered.
Mr Moshood said the team only lost one officer in the pre-dusk attack in Birnin Mogaji, Zurmi Local Government Area, and peace had since returned to the communities following the massive losses inflicted on the armed cattle-rustling syndicate.
But shortly after Mr Moshood’s statement, senior police officers who learnt of the incident told PREMIUM TIMES the police leadership was suppressing personnel casualties.
The police chiefs estimated dozens of police officers were killed by the bandits, an account that was also corroborated by some civilian sources near the communities.
“The DIG Operations was hurriedly sent to supervise security over there; they would not do that if it was only a police officer that was killed,” one senior police officer said of the official casualty claim by the police.
As of Sunday afternoon, relatives of police officers who suspected their loved ones were amongst those killed were still reaching out to PREMIUM TIMES to express their anguish.
“We have been holding meeting since we saw a report on PREMIUM TIMES on Saturday morning that many police officers were killed and we could not reach our own brother who told us he was sent to Zamfara some weeks ago,” a relative said.
The relative said the family had resolved to keep their complaints away from the media for now but might be forced to openly demand the whereabouts of their loved ones from the police if the situation does not change in the coming days.
“We have reached out to them already to tell us what happened to our brother,” the relative said. “If we receive no serious reply by next week, we would be forced to release a public statement.”
The deadly ambush on the police team came about two weeks after a Nigerian Army base was overrun by Boko Haram insurgents in Borno State. Top military sources said at least 118 soldiers were feared killed in the attack, which sparked nationwide outrage.
For several days after PREMIUM TIMES broke the story, neither the Nigerian Army nor the Buhari administration commented on the massive losses. When the Army ultimately spoke on casualty figures, Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai claimed 23 soldiers were killed.
PREMIUM TIMES reached out to the police at the Force Headquarters in Abuja and the Zone 10 Command Headquarters in Sokoto, as well as the State Command Headquarters in Gusau, but all declined comments on the officers’ deaths.
Mr Joshak also did not return multiple requests for comments.
A senior police chief at the Force Headquarters said efforts are underway to get an appropriate understanding of the incident, as well as the support of the Nigerian Air Force in evacuating the bodies.
“We are all mourning here, but it is difficult to speak on this matter until we have a clear understanding of how our men could be killed like this, especially the weapons that the bandits used,” the officer said under anonymity to avoid being reprimanded by the Inspector-General Ibrahim Idris.
“We are still assessing the situation, and we have made requests to the Nigerian Air Force on how to evacuate the bodies,” the officer said. “We have to be careful on what we say openly to avoid demoralising the officers who are still in that state engaging in regular shootouts with the bandits.”
A spokesperson for the Nigerian Air Force could not be reached for comments Sunday afternoon.
A senior police officer who had previously hinted PREMIUM TIMES of the police casualties on Friday said on Sunday that Mr Idris should have authorised full disclosure of how the attack happened and the efforts being made to evacuate victims.
“Most of them are very low in ranks, but they are human beings,” the police officer said. “Whether you confirm or you do not confirm it, it would still be out eventually that they were killed.”
“The lives of police officers are more important than the bandits, yet the IG allowed the killing of 104 bandits to be announced but failed to tell the nation that dozens of police officers have been killed while on duty to protect the civilian population in Zamfara State,” he added.
“This is dangerous for our country. Not just because some of these bandits are not even Nigerians, but because we at the top command of the police are sending the wrong signal that the lives of junior personnel are not important,” he added. “Army chiefs can afford to get away with lying about the number of soldiers killed by Boko Haram, but we should not allow such thing to take hold in the police.”
Hundreds of civilians have been killed by bandits in Zamfara in 2018. The repeated attacks on communities in the state forced the state governor, Abdulaziz Yari, to publicly state that he was resigning as the chief security officer of the state; especially as he has no control over security agencies.