Border communities in Nigeria continue to remain unsafe: Are border security forces to blame?

Imeko border town remains a significant border area in Nigeria, due to the sizeable economic activity that is carried out there, which contributes to the country’s revenue base. However, despite the economic benefit that the border area provides Nigerian states, it remains marginalised and in a state of heightened insecurity. This article argues that the large presence of various Nigerian security forces, has in no way, ameliorated the security situation in the border area. However, this anomaly can be addressed if proper monitoring of the border area is carried out by relevant authorities. 

Marginalisation of border communities in Nigeria: the case of Imeko

Globally, border communities have a long history of marginalisation. These are communities situated on the edge of formal states. Inhabitants of these communities continue to remain the victims of various forms of criminality that occur at the borders, mostly because of a lack of police presence or failure of the security personnel posted to such locations to perform their duties. In Nigeria, border communities have faced various forms of marginalisation, which results mainly from the lack of basic infrastructure like schools, hospitals, health care facilities, potable water and, importantly, protection. Border regions in Nigeria are notoriously dangerous due to cross-border criminalities ranging from smuggling and trafficking activities to the presence of terrorist organisation i.e. the Boko Haram mainly found in the North-Eastern region of the country.

A case in point is the border town of Imeko in Nigeria. Imeko is a traditionally recognisable Yoruba town densely populated  in southwest Nigeria, close to the country’s border with Benin. Most of its inhabitants are farmers, hunters, and traders who take part in predominantly informal cross-border trade (ICBT) activities, otherwise viewed by the government as smuggling, which hence serves as a justification for the deployment, by the government, of a Special Force, known as the Joint Border Patrol, at the border town to curtail such activities.

When I visited Imeko in April 2021 and interviewed inhabitants for my study on the perpetual marginalisation of Imeko border town, it became evident that this border area has been challenged in many ways, ranging from a lack of basic infrastructure to failure to protect the citizens of the border communities. Aside from the fact that they are neglected by the government, there are instances where projects are being approved in the community’s name at the national level, without the community leadership even being informed. As revealed by a local, who was also my guide, the majority of the few schools in the town were built by the community itself before the government took over their management. Yet, these schools are not in good shape, and are short-staffed. An example is the Nazareth High School, where the current Oba[1] of Imeko taught before he became a traditional ruler.

The double burden of marginalisation and violence in Imeko

However, what is perhaps most concerning is how insecure the border area is. Given that Imeko is foremost an agrarian community, the presence of nomadic or semi-nomadic Fulani[2] herdsmen, who roam the region with their cattle, has been a curse according to farmers I interviewed, who claimed that the cattle had destroyed their farmland. Complaints from the people to the security forces stationed in the community about this, and other issues, have fallen on deaf ears, even after the traditional ruler’s interventions. In fact, there have been accounts of complainants being arrested by police officers instead, on the grounds that they are not being accommodating of the Fulani herdsmen, and have also been made to pay for their release from police custody.

While the traditional ruler plays an important role in ensuring that the community mobilises its local resources and strategies to address issues facing the community, the constant state of insecurity puts a strain on the limited resources, given the failure of the police and other security forces, deployed in the border town,  to ensure the security of life and property, and  the prevention of various forms of cross-border criminalities. For example, Figure 1 and 2 below, show burnt vehicles and motorcycles, often used by the local guards when on a search mission for kidnapped persons in the forest.

Figure 1: Motorcycles burnt by their attackers

Source: My Guide, April 12, 2021(Imeko Town)

Figure 2: Cars burnt by their attackers

Source: My Guide, April 12, 2021 (Imeko Town)

Without sufficient protection from the police and other security forces in the area, these acts of violence are likely to continue. It is also worth noting that such violence continues even though this border area is heavily securitised by the government due to cross-border activities that are carried out along the borders such as importation, smuggling, and human trafficking. In fact, at the time of my visit, there were more than fifty checkpoints manned by heavily armed security officers along the stretch of road between Kara (an area known for cattle market in Abeokuta), some 90 kilometres away from Imeko border town. This further confirms the assertion by various researchers of the entrenchment of the border guards and security personnel in the potent mix of poverty and corruption that plagues the border areas.

Are border security forces to blame?

Thus, this also raises the question about the role of the security forces towards addressing the issue of kidnappings of innocent civilians in the border area. Can their presence make a difference? Or are they complicit in the kidnappings? On various occasions, community members, traders, and skilled workers have been kidnapped. While some were released after paying huge sums as ransom, others were found dead.

Based on the interviews I conducted, I concluded that despite the presence of security forces, they are not likely to make a difference, as they are only focused on cross-border activities, while completely neglecting the problems that face communities in the border region. One would assume that the presence of the police and other security forces on the long stretch of road, and in the border town, should have brought some level of safety to the people, however, the opposite has been the case, as the border communities see the deployment of the security forces as part of the problem. Instead of protecting them, the security forces are perceived as aiding and engaging in smuggling activities themselves. According to some locals, while the locals who go to buy items such as rice, cereals, and vegetable oil for personal consumption across the border are stopped by security operatives and their items are confiscated, smugglers are known to offer and pay bribe to the same security forces, sometimes right in the presence of the locals, and are then allowed to drive off with impunity.

Moreover, most robbery and kidnappings happen on the road which is manned by heavily armed security operatives. According to one kidnapping victim, who had been kidnapped in 2019, he was not only dispossessed of huge sum of money which he went to withdraw in Abeokuta, but he was also a witness to women being sexually assaulted, by those he identified as Fulani herdsmen. Therefore, the people in the border communities feel that if this has been happening over the years, and it has not been addressed, then the presence of the security forces manning various check points on the road is futile.  During my time in Imeko, I also observed that as you move into the border town, immigration officers who check foreigners, mostly Fulani, were willing to take bribes from those who did not have any official identification. Even at the checkpoints for items such as rice, cereals, and vegetable oils, officers demanded bribes from the drivers and traders, and if they were unable to pay the bribe, their items were confiscated.

The way forward: what can be done?

The role of security agencies in border communities, therefore, cannot be overstated. As it stands, the communities have lost hope in the ability of the police and security forces deployed in their communities to secure life and property as they are perceived to only come in and engage in activities for personal gains. It is important to note here that this feeling is in no way different from what has also been documented in Nigeria cities. The people do not feel safe as police officers continue to extort money from them. This shows that there is a fundamental structural problem vis-à-vis the salaries/ wages of security personnel, which if paid on time and are a liveable wage, might also motivate them to do their job diligently and objectively. Security experts and concerned citizens have in the past, and continue to this day ,raise and stress this issue for the government to investigate and address.

It is in this light that I would equally add to their voices to say that it is imperative for the federal government to address this concern, as it is the common populace, and often those most vulnerable, who are bearing the brunt. The government, through coordination and leadership of various security organisations, must strictly monitor the activities of officers posted in the border area. In the case where special forces are deployed specifically for curtailing smuggling activities, they must be utilised and enforced to maintain and ensure security and order in the community, rather than waiting for special intervention from the state whenever there is a case of violence and kidnapping. Only when such measures are implemented with urgency, will the border communities, such as Imeko, be safe, and their confidence restored in the ability of the government to protect them.


[1] An Oba is a traditionnal ruler who rules over a Yoruba town or city in southwest Nigeria.

[2] A nomadic tribe found in Northern Nigeria.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Samuel Okunade is a borderlands scholar who researches on borders and migration most especially as it concerns human trafficking and migrant smuggling in Africa. He is also interested in thinking through ways in which social and ethnic cleavages in border communities could be used for economic integration and social cohesion in Africa. He equally advances the course of border communities that have an age long history of marginalisation and neglect by the government.

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1 Comment
  • Azubike Onuora-Oguno
    March 23, 2022

    Interesting read. The case of Imeko reflects largely the fate of all border towns in Nigeria. Saki in Oyo and the Bakassi areas in the South West. However, violence in Nigeria is at an alarming rate even in the hinterlands. In the South East region for instance, the presence of security forces is no more as they are now targets by the now popular UNKNOWN GUN MEN. This leads me to suggest that the collapse of the security architecture calls to question what authorities can simply do in this case.