President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday condemned the deaths caused by “clashes” between farmers and pastoralists, saying his administration would deal with the culprits.
“The unfortunate” incidences of “herdsmen and farmers clashes in several communities which have led to high number of fatalities and loss of properties across the country” are “being addressed,” Mr Buhari said in his Democracy Day address to the nation Tuesday morning.
The president said security agencies would hunt down the “culprits and their sponsors” and they “shall be made to face the full wrath of the law.”
“All the three tiers of government are presently engaged with communities and religious organisations to restore peaceful co-existence among Nigerians,” he added.
The president also condemned the rising cases of kidnapping across the country and similarly promised to ensure that the maximum weight of the law is applied against suspects.
Mr Buhari used the speech, which will be the last in his first term, to emphasise his administration’s three-pronged focus of security, anti-corruption and economy.
While the president has received media attention for his anti-corruption efforts, the recent upsurge in killings linked to herdsmen has cast his administration’s security credentials in questionable light.
Over 1,400 villagers have been killed this year alone in attacks security agencies repeatedly blamed on deadly herdsmen.
Scores of communities in Benue Taraba, Nasarawa and Kogi have been deserted as a result of frequent invasions by the killers.
Benue authorities estimate that 400,000 residents have been displaced, with at least half of those currently putting up at internally displaced persons’ camps run by the state government.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo visited some of those camps during a tour of some of the affected states last week.
Security agents are not spared in the killings. The Nigerian Army, State Security Service, Civil Defence, police and local vigilante groups have all suffered casualties involving over 50 personnel this year alone.
The president had described the attacks as being carried out by remnants of a militia armed by late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gadaffi. He added that the attackers were moving their weapons through the Sahel into Nigeria.
Earlier in January, Inspector-General Ibrahim Idris walked back his claim that the attacks were ‘communal clashes’ between farmers and herdsmen.
A few weeks later, he told a Senate committee that the killings were being carried out by herdsmen, but blamed Benue State’s anti-open grazing law.
The police chief said the attacks may not ease until the law is suspended, warning other states across the country against enacting similar statutes.
The Nigerian Army and Civil Defence have also stopped describing the killings as emanating from clashes between herdsmen and farmers.
Mr Buhari’s determination to keep seeing the carnage as a clash between farmers and herdsmen could further contradict accounts of security agencies and alienate victims, said security analyst, Gbenga Williams.
“The president seems to disagree with the age-old parlance that a problem identified is already half solved,” Mr Williams told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Tuesday morning. “Unless the president knows something that even the security agencies do not know.”
Mr Williams said the attacks used to have elements of clashes between farmers and herdsmen in the past, but the latest string is unmistakable.
Even in Kaduna and Zamfara States where bandits appeared to have overrun several communities and killed hundreds, the killings cannot be described as a clash, the analyst said.
“What we have witnessed with the latest killings is that audacious killers are on the loose and the security agencies, although ill-equipped, are doing their best to contain them,” Mr Williams said.
“The least the president could do is to avoid being seen as downplaying or muddling the realities of the victims,” he added. “Otherwise, he risks fueling not just the suspicion of the affected states but the dangerous allegations of federal collusion by persons like Theophilus Danjuma.”
Mr Danjuma, a former army chief, earlier in the year accused the army of complicity in the killings in the North-central particularly in his native Taraba State.
The army later absolved itself of any complicity after investigating Mr Danjuma’s claims.