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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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Environmental destruction and resistance: a closer look at the violent reoccupation of the DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park

The decision of the indigenous Batwa to reoccupy parts of eastern DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park by force shocked many outside observers. They were further shocked when the Batwa started to ally with rebel groups, traders, and illegal timber cutters in order to exploit part of the ancestral forest they had been forced to leave decades prior. In a recently-published article in the Journal of Peasant Studies, Fergus Simpson and Sara Geenen show why the Batwa’s decision to return to the park should in fact come as anything but a surprise.

Picture taken by the first author

During the 1970s, the Congolese government forcibly displaced the Batwa people, a hunter-gatherer minority group, from eastern DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park[1] (Barume 2000). In the decades following their displacement, the Batwa would secretly re-enter the park to collect firewood and food and to practice customary rituals. But after a 2018 attempt to buy them land outside the park failed, several hundred Batwa violently reoccupied parts of the park’s highland sector. Park authorities were quickly overwhelmed; a series of clashes has since claimed the lives of at least eleven Batwa, two eco-guards, and a government soldier.

Once back in the land of their ancestors, the Batwa formed alliances with armed groups, traders, and Bantu peasants to exploit the park’s natural resources both for personal consumption and for commercial purposes. Interviews conducted with local conservation NGOs has shown that this has led to the loss of hundreds of hectares of forest. In addition, through the abovementioned alliances certain Batwa chiefs have been able to assert strong territorial control over parts of the park and have become wealthy as a result.

The Batwa’s decision to forcibly reoccupy the park should not come as a surprise. Rather, it can be explained by three factors: 1) the failure to secure compensation and access rights to their ancestral lands through formal and legal channels, 2) an increase in threats to the Batwa’s dignity, identity, and livelihoods over recent years, and 3) the emergence of opportunities to forge alliances with more powerful actors in a way that consolidated the group’s power and allowed it to exploit natural resources contained within the forest for commercial purposes.

Slow violence and everyday resistance

The Batwa had been the custodians of Kahuzi-Biega’s forests from time immemorial. Yet in 1970, the Congolese government introduced a decree which would invalidate the Batwa’s customary land rights, transforming their ancestral forests into a place of strict preservation, scientific research, and tourism. During the 1970s, the Congolese conservation agency (at that time the Institut Zaïrois pour la Conservation de la Nature) worked alongside the national army to evacuate people from the area without prior warning; they would simply show up and say ‘this is no longer your home’.

The Batwa fled to live in squatter camps among other communities at the park boundaries and were forced to eke out a meagre existence by stealing from their non-Batwa neighbours. Although there were occasional opportunities to do piecemeal labour on the farms of wealthy landowners, discrimination based on ethnicity hindered the Batwa’s ability to find work. Their living conditions were poor, with substandard medical care, education and inadequate housing, as well as nutritional deficiencies, poor hygiene and a high mortality rate resulting from the lack of a proper diet and the absence of water and sanitation facilities.

The Batwa were not just deprived of their means of subsistence; they were also cut off from their identity as forest dwellers and their spirituality that is linked to nature. When they were separated from the forest, they became separated from themselves. This erosion of their identity and means of livelihood through dispossession can be seen as a process of ‘slow’ violence, which Robert Nixon (2011:2) describes as ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is not viewed as violence at all’.

Unsurprisingly, the act of dispossession and subsequent slow violence did not go uncontested. Due to the presence of armed eco-guards and severe punishments for breaking park regulations, the Batwa mostly opted against risky forms of overt resistance in the decades spent outside the forest. Instead, they engaged in what James Scott (1989) calls covert ‘everyday’ resistance. Often under the cover of nightfall, they would illegally enter the park to collect food and firewood and to practice customary rituals that not only helped them survive, but also to make continued claims of their ancestral rights to the park.

All that changed in October 2018 when the Batwa decided to return to the park en masse, unleashing violent clashes and a wave of environmental destruction in the process. Based on six months of ethnographic fieldwork from August 2019 to February 2020, we tried to understand what led the Batwa to reoccupy their ancestral land.

Peaceful strategies had failed to deliver change

In the decade before the Batwa returned, Minority Rights Group worked with the local NGO Environnement Ressources Naturelles et Développement to create a lawsuit against the Congolese government. A case was brought to Bukavu’s Tribunal de Grande Instance in 2008, after which it was transferred to the Court of Appeal in 2013. It proposed that the Batwa had been expelled from the park illegally and should receive land, financial compensation, and continued access rights to the forest. The case was dismissed on the grounds that it concerned a problem of constitutionality and should therefore be resolved at the national level.

Two more cases were brought to DRC’s Supreme Court in Kinshasa in 2013 and to the African Union in 2015; both remain pending. From 2014, Forest Peoples Programme also facilitated a dialogue process between the Batwa and park authorities to agree upon appropriate compensation and identify sites inside the park for the Batwa to continue cultural and subsistence activities. But negotiations broke down after ICCN repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises.

As a result of these failures, the Batwa came to distrust the NGOs that support them, pushing them a step closer toward violent reoccupation. The level of scepticism is exemplified in the statement of one Batwa chief:

An NGO invited me in several different meetings, but this NGO lies that they are going to plead for our rights and bring projects. They swallow the money and then claim in their reports that they are pleading on behalf of the Batwa!

An increased threat

In August 2017, in a prelude to the mass reoccupation, a Batwa man and his son went into the park to collect medicinal herbs and were shot by park guards on patrol, leaving the father wounded and his son dead. This provocation led to almost instantaneous uprising. The Batwa took the boy’s body to park headquarters in protest. As the hours passed, tensions increased. Some Batwa even started waving sticks and machetes, threatening to reoccupy the park.

In the months after the killing, a representative of the Batwa in Bukavu told me how an international donor attempted to buy land for the Batwa to settle on outside the park. But the director of a local NGO who received the money on behalf of the Batwa then proceeded to buy a house and a car with the cash. It was at this point that the Batwa decided to violently retake the land of their ancestors by force, feeling that they could trust no-one and had to rely on themselves to take back what they saw was rightfully theirs.

Alliances with more powerful actors

Both before and after the national election in December 2018, the Batwa took advantage of opportunities to form strategic alliances with more powerful actors to consolidate their control over parts of the park and extract its resources. First, they allied with non-state armed groups operating in the park’s highland sector. This provided them with access to weapons and soldiers to assert control over their reoccupied territory. The Mai-Mai Cisayura is reported to have helped a group of Batwa attack a patrol post in Lemera, killing one guard in the process. On the side of these armed groups, they claimed to be ‘helping the Batwa claim their rights’ as a way to legitimate their presence in the park and extract minerals.

Second, the Batwa collaborated with businessmen and politicians from the provincial capital Bukavu who typically control the region’s trade networks. Over several months, trucks filled with bags of charcoal and planks of wood could be seen leaving the villages on the edge of the park for urban centres in Bukavu and Kavumu. These alliances enabled the Batwa to sell the resources that they were extracting from the park and led to significant deforestation, which continues up to this day.

Third, the Batwa deepened their commercial relationships with Bantu peasants to access expertise, financial capital, and technology to exploit resources. One group of Batwa even started working with Bantus who own a chainsaw to cut wood inside the park. This ensured that they had enough power to maintain the occupation and that they could more effectively exploit and sell natural resources extracted from within the park.

Fighting against slow violence

The above observations all reveal that the reoccupation of the park by the Batwa followed decades of slow violence, manifest in the gradual erosion of their group identity and sense of dignity. It also reveals that the event should not be considered surprising, as numerous related events led up to it. The sudden transition of the forest from a protected to an exploited zone raises further questions about whether the exclusion of indigenous groups from protected areas can have the perverse effect of severing their relationship with the land they once conserved, which in the case of Kahuzi-Biega National Park led to both large-scale deforestation and violent clashes.

Based on our research, we argue that a better understanding of the factors which push communities from covert resistance toward overtly violent forms of contestation against conservation could help prevent the social unrest and environmental destruction we have seen in Kahuzi-Biega over recent years from being repeated elsewhere. Such knowledge could also be used to inform a contemporary conservation movement that is more environmentally sustainable and socially just for future generations of indigenous people.


[1] The park, which extends over 600,000 hectares, is home to the endangered eastern lowland gorilla and 13 other species of primate. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site mainly because of the diverse mammal and bird species it houses.

References

Barume, Albert Kwokwo. 2000. Heading Towards Extinction?: Indigenous Rights in Africa : The Case of the Twa of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. IWGIA.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jbsgw.

Scott, James C. 1989. ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 4 (1): 33. https://doi.org/10.22439/cjas.v4i1.1765.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Fergus Simpson is a Joint-PhD student at the University of Antwerp’s Institute of Development Policy (IOB) and the ISS funded by FWO.  He is also a member of the Centre d’Expertise en Gestion Minière (CEGEMI) at the Université Catholique de Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  His research focuses on the intricacies between environmental conservation, armed mobilisation and conflicts surrounding natural resources in eastern DRC’s South Kivu Province.

Sara Geenen is assistant professor in International Development, Globalization and Poverty at the Institute of Development Policy (IOB), University of Antwerp, Belgium. She is co-director of the Centre d’Expertise en Gestion Minière (CEGEMI) at the Université Catholique de Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Her current research interests lie in the global and local development dimensions of extractivist projects, addressing questions about more socially responsible and inclusive forms of globalization.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.