The police on Tuesday admitted that last week’s deadly confrontation between a police anti-rustling team and armed bandits in Zamfara State left 16 officers killed and 20 missing, contradicting its earlier account of one personnel loss in the shootout.
But the late Tuesday statement said the 20 missing officers have been rescued, and operation to dislodge the bandits terrorising the North-western state has intensified.
The latest announcement contradicted a November 30 police statement that officers on anti-rustling patrol on November 29 killed 104 bandits following an ambush on their convoy in Birnin Mogaji, Zurmi Local Government Area, at about 4:00 p.m.
The statement said the police lost one personnel and recovered hundreds of cows and sheep and returned them to their owners.
But multiple top police insiders informed PREMIUM TIMES shortly after the police’s announcement that far more personnel were lost in the encounter, estimating them at dozens and expressing serious concerns about official suppression of critical details from the Nigerian public.
On November 2, police sources again told this newspaper that over 50 officers were killed in the attack, amidst raging concerns over evacuation of their remains.
PREMIUM TIMES’ reporting on the heavy losses elicited a mournful reaction from Atiku Abubakar, the presidential candidate of Peoples Democratic Party, Nigeria’s main opposition. Mr Abubakar said the losses were too many, and called for a seven-day national mourning for both the departed police officers and their military counterparts killed by Boko Haram on November 18.
After going days without speaking on the fate of the dozens of police officers as reported by PREMIUM TIMES, the police on Tuesday night finally succumbed to public pressure, including threats from family members who told PREMIUM TIMES they were not able to reach their loved ones deployed in Zamfara since the ambush.
“Sixteen police personnel were found dead after the rescue operations carried out by the police Joint Intervention Force,” the police said in a statement from Zamfara State Command. The operation also “resulted in the successful rescue of 20” police officers.
Inspector-General Ibrahim Idris had directed “befitting burials for the gallant officers and prompt processing and payments of the life assurance benefits and other entitlements to their families,” the statement added. “The supreme price they paid for the security and safety of the country will not be in vain.”
Habila Joshak, police head of operations, told PREMIUM TIMES Wednesday morning all officers who were drafted in the November 29 operation had been accounted for.
“We now have all our men, including the 17 that were killed and the 20 that went missing but now found and rescued,” Mr Joshak said by telephone.
Mr Joshak, a deputy inspector-general who was promptly deployed to take charge of police’s operations in Zamfara on November 29, said the police were reluctant to provide details of the multiple deaths days after PREMIUM TIMES reports because the leadership was working on establishing all critical aspects.
A police chief had told PREMIUM TIMES on Sunday that the Force Headquarters was scrambling to understand the full extent of the ambush. PREMIUM TIMES could not immediately corroborate Mr Joshak’s claim that no officers involved in the ambush are yet to be found.
Ramping up offensive
Zurmi Local Government Area, populated by farmers and herders, lies about 105 kilometres northwest of Gusau, the Zamfara State capital. Its communities, including Birnin Mogaji, have become a regular target of bandits looking to rob farmers and herders of their economic benefits.
Asides targeting herders for their livestock and farmers for their produce, the bandits have been blamed for a string of kidnap-for-ransom activities which are on the rise in the area.
It was in Zurmi LGA that twin sisters were abducted on their wedding day last month. The sisters were later set free after about N15 million was paid to their captives, in a high-profile case that beamed a social media spotlight on the bandits’ exploits in Zamfara.
Mr Habila, whom Mr Idris had asked to continue overseeing police anti-rustling offensive in Zamfara indefinitely, said officers have resumed offensive to drive out remaining bandits in the troubled state.
“We have resumed our operations now to rout out the bandits,” the police chief said. “We are moving from community to community asking residents to identify faces that know and the strangers amongst them would be isolated.”
“Our intelligence has revealed that the bandits are planted in communities, and we are more emboldened now” to contain their deadly rampage across the state.
Mr Joshak said he could not immediately provide the number of local government areas where police have anti-rustling presence, but said they were being pursued from anywhere their activities are reported because “the bandits cannot be stronger than the federal might”.
Mr Idris ordered a fresh deployment of 1,000 combat police officers to Zamfara on November 9, as the worsening threats of the bandits raised fears of a security collapse in the state.
Mr Joshak said more officers are being integrated in the operation to regain control of the state from bandits, which also involves the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Air Force.
As of August 2018, an estimated 3,000 people have been killed and thousands of homes destroyed in the attacks in recent years, according to the state government.
Thousands fleeing the crisis have been settling in neighbouring states, triggering humanitarian emergency. The Nigerian Air Force has carried out regular aerial bombardments of the bandits’ positions throughout 2018, a response that has helped impose normalcy in many troubled parts of the state.
The seeming helplessness of security agencies at containing the armed bandits prompted the state governor, Abdulaziz Yari, to publicly threaten resignation as the chief security officer of the state, largely because he has no control over security agencies.
Nigerian governors carry the appendage of a chief security officer, but the Constitution gives absolute control of security agencies, including the military and police, to the president, from whom all security chiefs take direct orders.
As part of efforts to curb security lapses in Zamfara State, the police urged residents to dial the following control room numbers to report potential cattle-rustlers and other suspected bandits: 08037025670, 08033210966, 08033312261, 08123829666, 09053872244, 07082351758 and 08091914752.