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Nigeria: Southwest Governors hired a local militia to fight bandits. Has it worked?

By Nwokoye Mpi
Posted on Thursday, 4 February 2021 14:19

Ondo State Amoketun forces bear their fangs (all rights reserved).

The #EndSARS protests shone a light on Nigeria's dysfunctional and brutal police. But other security solutions are being attempted on a regional level. As killer herdsmen continue to run amok in Nigeria's southwest, the governors in the region are looking to a newly-recruited local police force for solutions. 'Operation Amotekun' is not without its critics, with freelance security operatives accused of extra-judicial killings.

In recent weeks the criminal activities of herdsmen in south-west Nigeria has risen once again to alarming levels.

One example, widely-shared on social networks shows the ordeal of woman attacked by eight Fulani herders, who removed a finger and  then shot her in the jaw.

Back to old conflicts

The fighting rekindles a long-smouldering conflict between communities. Cattle herders, mostly from the Fulani tribe in the country’s northern region, have been accused of masterminding the kidnappings and rape in the south-west, dominated by the Yoruba.

In the past few days, a self-titled Yoruba warrior, Sunday Adeyemo (popularly known as Sunday Igboho), has championed a cause to exile the herdsmen out of the region in a popular but widely-criticised move.

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“You cannot see a Yoruba man going about killing people in Kano. In the North, they can behead a Yoruba man for slapping a Hausa/Fulani not to talk of destroying their farmlands,” Adeyemo told a recent interviewer.

Operation Amotekun

Keen to avoid the security situation from spinning out of control in a vigilante-style retribution, the governors of the six south-west states turned to a more legally-accepted option: a regional security network codenamed ‘Operation Amotekun.’

In Oyo State, Governor Seyi Makinde deployed 200 Amotekun officers to criminal hotspots. In neighbouring Osun, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu approved a massive recruitment into the outfit. Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti allocated N1.4bn ($3.5m) to Amotekun in the state’s 2021 budget.

Established in January 2020 after heightened insecurity in the region, Operation Amotekun (a Yoruba word for Leopard) was aimed at complementing the efforts of the police and civil defence units.

“Amotekun is a compliment that will give our people confidence that they are being looked after by those they elected into office,” Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State said at the time. “So, we do not want this to create fear in the mind of anybody as we are not creating a regional police force and are fully aware of the steps we must take to have state police.”

Nevertheless, the federal government saw it as exactly that: an attempt to create a state police. Attorney-general Abubakar Malami deemed it illegal, pointing to abuse of other state-run operations like the states’ independent electoral commissions. It required the intervention of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo before it could finally kick off.

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The administration’s reluctance to deal with insecurity has left them open to criticism. The Buhari-led government has been accused of favouring herders – rhetoric that has been occasionally amplified by campaign groups to hysterical levels.

“Of course it also has political undertones. However, to be more effective than what it is now, [Amotekun] need more intelligence-based policing training. This will include more local human and criminal intelligence gathering and analysis. They also need training on effective weapon handling, human rights, conflict resolution and management”, says Timothy Avele, a security expert with Elint Armourcop Humint Intelligence, who believes that despite the teething troubles, Amotekun helped security in south-west.

Avele thinks as they improve in areas like crisis management, using negotiation to defuse situations rather than weapons, “people will have more trust in them than the police and of course the police will naturally feel threatened.”

Local reception

Regional security initiatives are not new. Since the advent of the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria’s north-east in 2009, insecurity has gradually crept across most of the other five regions. Herdsmen and bandits continue to wreak havoc in the north-west and north-central, while kidnap-for-ransom and armed robbery remain frequent incidents in the south-east and south-south.

The north-east had responded with the widely-accepted Civilian Joint Task Force, a group of mostly local hunters and vigilantes working with the Nigerian military to push back Boko Haram.

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In the south-east, however, attempts by the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to create a regional security outfit in the region, the Eastern Security Network, met a brick wall.

But barely one year after Amotekun’s creation, residents in the south-west have begun to raise eyebrows over the level of professionalism of the regional outfit. Between December 2020 and January 2021, at least 11 civilians have been killed by Amotekun officers, according to a tally by local newspapers.

Three youths were killed at a carnival in Oyo over new year, when Amotekun forces opened fire after an argument over closing down the party span out of control.

Prominant southwest author Wole Soyinka told reporters that the force needed ethics training, “so that Amotekun does not become another SARS”.

Adegoke Adekola, a resident in Oyo State, south-west Nigeria, attributed the killings to A lack of training of the regional security officers.

“For me, I don’t think the Amotekun guys are doing enough and this cannot be disconnected from the failure of the authorities to adequately train them,” says Adekola. “They need to be equipped and they need to be properly trained on how to handle firearms.”

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Another resident in Oyo State, Nurudeen Phobia, says the Amotekun officers “are doing well” and just need more time.

“What if people attacked them with ammunition, you expect them to fold their arms? The only challenge I see with the operatives is [a] lack of adequate equipment. If well equipped, they will perform beyond expectations because we see them combing the bushes time to time.”

Bridge between people and police

Amotekun is aware of the public criticism, says Amitolu Shittu, the field commander of Amotekun in Osun. Amotekun officers are only meant to arrest criminals and hand them over to the police, and not to take the law into their hands, he says.

“We must do everything humanly possible to build [a] good legacy. The legacy will help to build the Amotekun of the people that will be devoid of corruption, nepotism and social vices. If it continues to be funded, Amotekun will help get rid of crime in south-west sooner than later.”

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After the brutal #EndSARS campaign of 2020, Nigerians no longer have confidence in the ability of the police to combat crime, a reason perhaps why Operation Amotekun is well received even beyond the south-west. In establishing the outfit, the south-west governors insist the idea is to complement, and not replace, the police.

The police, however, have carefully refrained from making public comments on the issue. All the police spokespersons in the six south-west states declined to comment for this story. One of them, Tee-Lee Ikoro, the spokesperson in Ondo State, simply said: “There is synergy between us. That’s all I can say.”