ENUGU, Nigeria – In August last year, when Nwanedi Njoku arrived at her farmland located in the outskirts of Owerri, the capital city of Imo state, she found her crops destroyed by cattle herders.
It was a normal scene for farmers in the region but Njoku had thought that a meeting with the herders and community leaders the previous month had pacified them from destroying farmlands and crops owned by local farmers in the community. But nothing changed.
In the wake of the reported attacks on farming communities in the region, the Indigenous People of Biafra [IPOB], a separatist group, launched the Eastern Security Network [ESN].
Launched in December 2020, the ESN is a security outfit with the duty to confront the frequent attacks by cattle herders on farming communities and protect people of the region from “invaders.”
Violence between herders and farmers has killed more than 1,300 people since January 2018, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. The group adds that the rising conflict is already six times deadlier than Boko Haram’s insurgency.
Faced with desertification, drought and desert encroachment, cattle herders regularly migrate with their cattle from the northern part of the country down to the south which has arable land to graze livestock. This migration has caused friction between herders and the farmers who accuse them of invading and destroying their farmlands.
These conflicts over land and water which was once largely restricted to the north central region, is spreading down to the southeast and frequently takes ethnic and religious dimensions.
The Igbo-dominated Southeast region say the Muslim herders are on a “Jihad” to seize their lands and convert their people to Islam.
Since the Biafra war ended more than 50 years ago, the Igbos in the Southeast feel alienated from the federal government and say the growing agitation is as a result of perceived marginalisation.
Fear, excitement and concerns heralded the launch of the ESN and since its formation, the frequent clashes between local farmers and herders in the region have reduced significantly except for a few reported cases.
“Fulani herdsmen for many years have committed lots of atrocities, including kidnapping and rape,” said Elochukwu Ohagi, an activist from the region. “They have killed lots of people in their farm lands in the East and these killings have been going on without any confrontation from the Nigeria Army or police. It then became necessary for a security group to be formed since governors of the region have refused to rise to the challenge of protecting their own people.”
In April, governors of the region launched Ebube-Agu, a pro-government security outfit designed to tackle rising insecurity. But this outfit has been largely unpopular among the people and has received little support.
Clashes with security forces
The region has witnessed a spike in security tension in recent months. Violent clashes have escalated between federal forces and the ESN since it was formed.
In January 2021, security forces stormed the camps of the ESN in Orlu to dismantle their formations. Serious fighting broke out which caused residents to flee their homes as helicopters hovered around them and military trucks drove past their communities.
Experts say the formation of a non-state sanctioned paramilitary organization like the ESN would be non-acceptable to any government.
“Non-state security actors are sometimes not the best idea mostly because it may eventually become difficult to control them,” said Teniola Tayo, an analyst who has followed the issue in the region closely. “You give someone a weapon and some power and you never know what they may do with it in the future. We’ve seen this with some community vigilantes that went rogue in the northern parts of Nigeria.”
The President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration has deployed every resource at its disposal to quell separatist agitations and separatist-sentiments propagated by IPOB under Nnamdi Kanu who has led the group since 2012. Military operations have been previously launched in response to growing agitation by the group in the Southeast region.
But there is growing acceptance for the ESN in the region. This acceptance stems from the existence of other paramilitary groups in different regions of the country including the Amotekun which was formed to tackle farmer-herder conflicts in the Southwest region.
Tayo told YNaija that the rise in paramilitary security outfits across the country is a reflection of the dissatisfaction with the efforts at curbing insecurity from the centre and it is a worrying trend.
“I think there is a general reality that many states feel a bit helpless in the face of the security challenges facing their communities,” she said. “However, it’s not clear that they have truly exhausted all of the options available to them to find solutions to the issues.”
In addition, a new wave of violent attacks on security agents and formations in the region has intensified since January 2021. Dozens of police officers and soldiers have been killed. The ESN has been accused as the face behind the attacks but IPOB has, however, denied any involvement and says the outfit is a mere vigilante group protecting the Igbos against Fulani attacks.
The federal government has, in response, announced that it is deploying troops to the Southeast to counter “bandits” and “criminals.” The police recently launched an operation codenamed “Operation Restore Peace” to combat insecurity in the area.
Tayo said that the attacks by anti-state elements pose overwhelming security challenges faced by an overstretched security force.
“I don’t know who is behind these attacks but I believe they have to be stopped,” she said. “Attacks on police stations also mean that arms are being acquired, thus strengthening these actors.”
She added that if IPOB is not behind the attacks, then they can express a “willingness to cooperate with the security forces to root out the attackers. They will be the most knowledgeable about the terrain and this will be the most convincing way to show that they do not endorse the attacks.”
Despite the rejection of ESN by the central government and reported clashes with security forces, support for the group is building and residents of the region told YNaija they feel safer now going to the farm than before because the invasion on farming communities by herders has largely reduced.
“I go to the farm now without being scared that I may be killed or that my crops would be destroyed,” said Njoku, who narrowly escaped last year when the herders attacked. “It is sad that people run away from their home land because of foreigners [herders] who don’t value human lives or our efforts to cultivate what we eat.”
Patrick Egwu is a reporter with YNaija. He covers conflict, technology, health, education and other development issues in Nigeria. A 2nd place winner of the Haller Prize for Development Journalism in Kenya in 2016 and 3rd place winner of the Ameenah Gurib-Fakim Science and Technology prize in the 2017 Zimeo Excellence in Media Awards in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Patrick is passionate about giving voice to voiceless, marginalized and disadvantaged communities through his stories.