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Zabarmari farmers: Caught between Boko Haram and the military


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THE presidency was making excuses for Nigeria’s embattled military service chiefs when the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, on Monday, December 1, said rice farmers killed by Boko Haram on Saturday, November 31, did not obtain military clearance to be on their farms at the time they were attacked.


The jury is still out over the actual number of victims in the Boko Haram attack but what is clear is that at least 43 farmers were tied, slaughtered and beheaded in the incident which took place at Zabarmari, a community in the Jele Local Government Area of Borno State. It was not surprising that the development would reignite calls on President Muhammadu Buhari to sack the service chiefs, whose poor handling of the country’s security has been a major concern for Nigerians who are mystified by the President’s determination to keep them in office.


While most Nigerians have learnt to live with the presidency’s mysterious, unconditional, for better-or-for-worse love for the service chiefs, Shehu’s comments, which appeared to blame the Zabarmari rice farmers for the plight that befell them, came as a rude shock.


The Buhari administration had for long insisted that Boko Haram has been ‘technically’ defeated but, while trying to absolve the military authorities of any blame over the massacre of the Zabarmari farmers, the presidential spokesman tried to explain to Nigerians that, due to Boko Haram’s activities, within some ‘spaces’ in parts of the country, law abiding citizens need to get clearance from the military in order to go about their normal activities.

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* ‘Zabarmari farmers died because they failed to get clearance from military before engaging in farming’


Going by Shehu’s comments, the Zabarmari farmers paid the ultimate price because they failed to get permission from the military before going into their farms.


In the interview with BBC, Shehu said, “People need to know what it is like in the Lake Chad Basin area. Much of those areas have been liberated from Boko Haram terrorists but there are a number of spaces that have not been cleared for the return of villagers who have been displaced. So, ideally, all of these places ought to pass the test of military clearances before farmers or settlers resume activities on those fields.” Dismissing concerns that his comments would suggest that he was actually blaming the farmers, the presidential spokesman insisted that “the truth has to be said”.


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He added, “Was there any clearance by the military which is in total control of those areas? Did anybody ask to resume activity? I have been told by the military leaders that they had not been so advised and certainly, therefore, it was a window that the terrorists exploited. The military is not present in every inch of space in that area. Even if the people are willing to go back, a lot of those areas have been mined and mine clearance needs to be carried out and those areas must be cast as being okay for human habitation or agricultural activity.”


Shehu took to Twitter to justify his controversial comments after Nigerians expressed outrage over the BBC interview.


In a tweet on his Twitter handle, the presidential aide observed, “Today, I found myself leading the trends in the social media for the wrong reasons. The State of Borno is essentially a military zone up till now that we are talking and much of what people do, much of where they go, are governed by the exigencies of security. Routinely, traders, administration officials and even UN agencies get the green light to go to many of the areas to avoid trouble.” Even though the farmers were not killed by landmines, Shehu noted that information from security agencies says that the Zabarmari marshlands are infested with landmines, and as a result, movement in and around the area was subject to military oversight.


He added, “No one is delighted with the massacre in Zabarmari and there is nothing anybody will gain by playing blame games. The question I tried to answer on BBC was: did the security sign off on the area as being free of mines and terrorists? The honest answer is no.”

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Whether or not Shehu set out to blame the farmers for getting killed, his argument, and by extension that of the presidency, is that the Zabarmari rice farmers would not have been killed if they had not gone to their farmlands, and as such, the massacre should not be blamed on the military authorities. In that sense, the presidency was countering the renewed calls for the removal of the service chiefs.


The ill-fated Zabarmari rice farmers were reprimanded for undermining the presidency’s determination to retain the service chiefs in office with their ill-advised farming activities.


* Boko Haram says farmers were killed as punishment for aiding military

But it appears that the farmers’ fate was sealed anyway, as they have been marked for ‘punishment’ by Boko Haram for assisting the military.


The Abubakar Shekau-led faction of Boko Haram, Jama’atu Ahlussunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad, had, in a video it released to claim responsibility for the massacre, said the attack was a punishment on the farmers for having the effrontery to arrest one of its members and handing him to the Nigerian military.


“You think you can nab our brother and hand him to soldiers and live in peace? You think Allah will forget what you have done to our brother?” a masked Boko Haram commander asked rhetorically in the video.


“The third message is on those who notoriously nab our brethren and hand them to the military or give them a clue on us. You should know that, unless you repent, what happened to your people is awaiting you,” the unidentified Boko Haram commander added, warning that a similar fate await farmers and others who assist the military by apprehending insurgents or giving the security agencies information about them.


* Military accuse locals of sabotage, lack of cooperation


But then, the military, which failed to protect the Zabarmari farmers even after they reportedly took sides with the army against Boko Haram, turned around to accuse the locals of ‘sabotage’ in the ongoing war with the insurgents.


Major General John Enenche, coordinator of defence media operations, while featuring on Sunrise Daily, a breakfast programme on Channels Television, on Monday, November 30, said some residents of Borno State sabotage the efforts of the military by providing information on its movement and activities to Boko Haram.


Enenche noted that information available to the military concerning the attack showed that some of the insurgents were cohabiting with the villagers before the attack.


Noting that the military had no prior intelligence on the attack because the locals were not cooperating by providing information, Enenche said, “That has been our worry. It’s a concern to us. You need a guide, you need information. Will they (locals) tell us? That’s a question that we have to ask. Yes, sometimes. And most times, no. And that was one of the issues we have been ensuring to overcome, with civil-military cooperation activities, reaching out to them, even sending people by proxy to talk to them.”


The military spokesman added, “Those are the things that have been one of the banes of the final success in the whole of this operation. Our patrols will pass through a route, in a village. By the time you are going, some people are looking at you. When you are coming back, the next thing is that you meet an IED planted on the road. And people saw them, they won’t tell you and it is not possible to force information out of people. It’s not possible, just like they say you force a horse to the river, but not to drink water.” Enenche explained that the military was trying to build the locals’ confidence in the system by making them to understand that helping Boko Haram was not good for them.


  • Report says Boko Haram moved into spaces vacated by military in the implementation of army’s ‘super camps’ strategy
    However, while the military bemoan alleged sabotage and lack of cooperation from locals such as the farmers of Zabarmari, a recent report published by the Institute for Security Studies has blamed the escalation of terror attacks in the North East in recent times on Boko Haram moving in to control spaces vacated by the military in the region.


The report titled ‘Nigeria’s super camps leave civilians exposed to terrorists’, was published on issafrica.org on November 30 – two days after the Zabarmari massacre. It was authored by Malik Samuel, Researcher, Lake Chad Basin programme, ISS, Dakar.


According to the report, in 2019, the Nigerian military started pulling soldiers out of villages, small unit formations and bases into bigger, stronger and better equipped camps. The ‘super camp’ strategy sought to bolster the military’s combat posture and enhance its resistance to Boko Haram attacks on its bases.


However, the report noted that while the approach had indeed improved the ability of the Nigerian military to counter Boko Haram, it has also eroded the protection of civilians and their access to livelihoods.


“The two Boko Haram factions – Jama’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad (JAS) and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – are taking advantage of the space created by this new military strategy. They are moving around more freely, deepening their roots in communities and strengthening their supply chains. The violent extremists have increased their power over areas from which troops have withdrawn. In addition to its control of dozens of Lake Chad island villages, Boko Haram has erected arbitrary checkpoints and habitually attacked villagers and travellers to run both territory and livelihood processes,” the report said, noting that the development has worsened forced displacements and deprived locals of their livelihoods.


The report said travellers who spoke to the Institute for Security Studies said Boko Haram had erected permanent checkpoints on several roads in Borno State, such as Maiduguri-Monguno, Monguno-Gajiram, Maiduguri-Damboa, Magumeri-Gubio, Chabbal-Magumeri, Gubio-Kareto, Kareto-Damasak and Damboa-Biu.


“Interviewees reported looting and extortion – food items, money, mobile phones and even clothes on people’s backs – and abduction for ransom. The terrorists seem to spare their victims’ lives and as a result, people continue using the roads. In this way, the group’s supply chain is maintained, especially since most roads lead to markets,” the report added.


The location of super camps away from civilian settlements hamper the capacity of the military to react quickly to attacks on civilians, the report further observed. It also pointed out that the terrorists have also adapted to the super camp approach by now using precision attacks and ambushes on military patrols and escorts since it is more difficult to successfully attack or overrun large camps. But the report also noted that the super camp approach had not stopped Boko Haram from targeting the military strongholds, as seen with the successful attacks on super camps at Gajiram and Bitta in October and November, respectively.


The report noted that the super camps approach has led to concerns that the military might have tactically traded-off the safety of the civilian local population in its quest to protect itself.

“While maintaining the impenetrability of its super camps, the military must do more to protect civilians and avoid the perception that a tactital trade-off has been made between their own safety and that of communities,” the report said.


* Farmers, in SOS to FG, warn of food crisis


Meanwhile, farmers in the North East, in a Save Our Soul message to the Federal Government, warned that if no urgent action was taken to arrest the situation, the current state of insecurity in the region could lead to serious food shortage as farms would be deserted.


The farmers, in a statement signed by the Managing Director, Wal-Wanne Group, Dr Abiso Kabir, said, “We are tired of the situation. Just when we thought we have gotten our farmlands back to support agricultural development and fight hunger in the country, we keep waking to sad events. We can’t continue to go out to our farmlands and risk being killed by the insurgents. We may be facing a severe food security crisis due to the destructive activities of the bandits who are not only destroying farms but also killing farmers.”


* Nigeria third most terrorised country in the World


The 2020 Global Terrorism Index had reported that Nigeria is still the third most impacted country in the world when it comes to terrorist attacks. According to the 2020 Global Terrorism Index, the renewed activities of Boko Haram remain a substantial threat to Nigeria and other countries in the Lake Chad basin.

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