Forests of Violence: Ungoverned Spaces

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Nigeria is flushed with a large expanse of ungoverned forests that have become enclaves for criminal elements. For safer communities around these forests, collaborations with local hunters and the deployment of sophisticated security devices are required. 

Dr. Iro Aghedo.

In recent years, large swathes of Nigeria’s forests have been captured and converted into bases by insurgents and other criminal gangs. This development has led to the emergence of spaces across the country controlled by criminal elements.

Forests of Violence Brandspurng Ungoverned Spaces

These days, a week hardly passes without media reports of unfortunate women who were raped on their farms; or passengers kidnapped along forested highways. Some unlucky victims have been maimed, murdered, and farmers displaced, which has worsened food insecurity. This edition of Nextier SPD Policy Weekly examines the implications of forests of violence in Nigeria and highlights how to address the security threat.

Ungoverned Forest Spaces

Criminal elements have set up bases in strategic forests across the country from where they launch violent campaigns on defenceless persons. In the North-East, the Boko Haram terrorists use the Sambisa forest as their base to keep their abductees and weapons.

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In the North-West, the expansive Birnin Gwari forests have been the base for bandits who have been terrorising, rustling, and kidnapping around the Kaduna axis in the past couple of years (Egwu, 2016).

In a recent attack, bandits from the Birnin Gwari forests murdered 19 persons on February 6, 2021, in Kushemeri village, just a week after six farmers were killed in the area.

The phenomenon of forest violence is not exclusive to Northern Nigeria, where terrorism and banditry have escalated in the last decade. In the South-West, killer-herdsmen have invaded forests in the region, especially in Ondo, Oyo, and Ogun states.

The upsurge in criminal violence such as rape, armed robbery, and ransom kidnapping has been attributed to the violent Fulani herders. The inability of federal security forces to protect this region led to the establishment of the vigilante group Amotekun in 2020.

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The recent escalation of herders’ violence in the region has prompted unelected local leaders like Sunday Igboho to oppose herding activities in the region’s forests vehemently.

In light of these recent spikes of herder crises in the West, the Ondo State government ordered that cattle herders vacate the forests. This has led to the influx of pastoralists to neighbouring Edo State. As expected, the Edo State Governor launched an operation to comb the forests and flush out criminal herders.

Safeguarding the Forests

  1. Efforts to secure Nigeria’s vast forests have not yielded the desired results. In the past, Forest Guards were not only active in protecting resources in the forests such as timber, but they also provided the needed security for those who depended on the forests for livelihood. In 2019, the Enugu State government recruited 1,700 Forest Guards to tackle armed robbery and kidnapping. In addition to the growing agitations for community policing, several states have set up vigilante groups to mitigate communal violence without appreciable success. Thus, there is a need to develop more practical measures to address violence in the forests. First, there is a need for synergy between state security agencies and informal local security groups. There is hardly any village in Nigeria that does not have bands of hunters. These hunters usually know the forests that the police and other security operatives can leverage by collaborating. Such hunters can be registered with nearby police divisions to ensure that their activities are monitored. Also, some training and stipends can be provided to equip and incentivize them.
  2. Second, modern technology should be deployed in policing hotspots. Drones and other sophisticated technology should be used in forests notorious for violent crimes. These modern technological gadgets will enable law enforcement operatives to be proactive. Collaboration with mobile telephone operators can help the police trace areas in the forests where kidnappers operate from. This innovative policing measure has become a norm in ensuring public safety in Europe.
  3. Third, intelligence gathering should be prioritised. Many criminal activities are organised and planned by groups of people. Recent cases have shown that kidnapping often involves the participation of the victim’s associates. The supply chain for kidnappers and insurgents should be targeted as a way to trace these criminals. The Department of State Services, the police, and other security officials should be given adequate training to penetrate such criminal networks through intelligence.
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Most Nigerian forests have been forcefully occupied by violent criminals who use such hideouts as launching pads. The law enforcement agents are having unequipped and lowly staffed to deal with the enormous task of policing these vast forests.

There is a need for effective collaboration between state security operatives and local hunters, deployment of modern technology, and reliance on intelligence gathering to penetrate criminal networks and nip their violence in the bud to address rising forest violence.

Dr. Aghedo is an associate consultant at Nextier SPD and a senior lecturer at the University of Benn, Edo state. He is a widely read researcher with broad-based experience and knowledge on Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, oil resource conflict, and development issues.

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