Too early. My headlight picked only a few jogging shadowy men and women on the highway. I left Lagos after 4am. Appointment was 11 in Ekiti. Daily, one reads stories of kidnap. My heart skipped as I raced down the poorly lit streets. I encountered self-made check points manned by armed neighbours. For most travellers from Lagos, fear and anxiety grip as soon as you are in Ibadan driving through the desolate and bumpy highways into the countryside. You hardly can drive 100km per hour for five kilometers nonstop without a bad portion, sometimes a gully.

Before leaving Lagos, I took all the new security prescriptions: drove mostly in the middle of the road when time permits to be able to swerve if need be; wore sports shoe in case I needed to run; casual dress to lower any assumption of high status; deleted all bank transactions on my phone; set the radio in ‘scan’ to pick local stations for any security information. I knew it was not safe to travel early in the morning, but I calculated that in the first cock crow, I would still be in safer climes. I picked a companion, Femi Agbana, alias Jenku. He had a walk style that fits into his nickname, given to him by villagers: Jenku. I knew it was most dangerous to travel in the hinterland in the evening or pre-dawn, being the peak hours of kidnapping linked to terrorists.

We had a smooth sail to Ado-Ekiti, avoiding the areas already designated as axis of evil, where kidnappers strike almost every week. In the evening of the exact day I passed through, no fewer than six people were kidnapped in the same impish triangle.

My own personal research indicated that kidnapping is more prevalent in the hours before 7am or after 3pm in the evenings. I guess the kidnappers did their strategic homework. Before 7am, security is usually relaxed, being the time police on patrol change guards; in the evenings, from 3pm, the operatives are held captive by fatigue, the police having being on duty since morning.

The time is strategic for kidnappers; they can easily bundle their victims into the bush before nightfall. First, in the night, it would be difficult to locate them as they embark on the journey of death into the recesses of the forests. Secondly, they normally put off the victim’s telephone in the evening, leaving relatives of their victims in a pool of all-night psychological wreck, of anguish and sleeplessness, so that by the time they call at day break, there would be distressed excitement; at least they could listen to the voice of their loved ones.

That morning on my way back to Lagos, I sped like light through the green snaky alleys, made even more beautiful by mountain-top smoke of dew, having left Ado by 6am, hoping it was safer. As I meandered through the green hills and porch valleys of Ekiti, reaching Osun minutes after 7am, my eyes were eagles. Highway hawkers trickled into their makeshift stalls.

Suddenly, at the Osun second intersection, I sighted an auspicious signal. I noticed a distant car was trying to manoeuvre. That shot up my instinct. In a reflex action, I turned the car almost 180 degree. The distant car was now on “double pointer”. In seconds, three other cars razed towards our direction with the speed of a cheetah. This was before the Esa Oke junction.

“The armed herdsmen have taken the highway. They are stopping vehicles and marching everyone into the bush,” an old man with a ghostly voice told us as he sped on his motorcycle. Hurriedly, we drove into a safe distant, where we perched near the police post.  We were warned that returning to our point of takeoff was dangerous. The armed groups usually have a back-up for reinforcement, so, it was better to park, leave the car and wait to run to any safer direction. Among those who escaped the ambush was a middle-aged woman with a barely one year old baby strapped on her back. The woman was crying: ‘How would I have explained to the mother of the child. I’m not his mother. I’m just a caregiver.”

From distance, we saw a motley crowd, which we suspected were being marched into the bush. After reporting the incident, the response of the police was unimaginable. They hopped into their van and sped off- not using siren, indicating they were not ready to scare the armed men, but to confront them. The police van was marked MPF 12032. They had no helmet, no bullet proof vests, yet, they stormed through the highway to confront death. I could not believe this spirit of patriotism in a country where only pinhead of individuals is ready to make sacrifices. From a distant of 400 meters, we faintly watched the shootout. I listened to the sound of the armed herdsmen, the echo was undoubtedly AK47. Many travellers soon joined us. A retinue of farmers joined the crowd, as we stood, awed by the fierce encounter. It was this gathering of native farmers that opened up fresh vistas to me. We listened to the chilling stories of abductions of farmers and their wives, daughters, many raped and killed. One farmer said the armed groups also operate in the night, sometimes capturing long distance travellers. He said many captives were in the bush.

Another source said he noticed the presence of the armed groups for the first time in 2007. He said he was on his farm one midnight when a dozen men, all speaking alien language, huge bags on their shoulders, came into the forest. He said at dawn, they requested for a small piece of land and established a small farm in weeks.  He said they were friendly, claimed to be herdsmen and lived on the farm for five weeks before relocating. He said during the period, he was not in any way suspicious even though they organised bush exercises every morning and evening. “I never saw them again but another set came two years later”, the farmer said in his thick Ijesa accent.

Ebun Awoyemi, a former state official in Ekiti State narrated to our reporter how in the same area, he saw some travellers being led into the forests one evening as he sped through the highway, meaning the country may not know the actual number of kidnapped people, especially the silent victims.

One must understand the peculiarity of Osun, Ekiti and Ondo. Many farmers traditionally sleep on their farms and return to town on weekends. The armed men have put a stop to that. One farmer said the armed men who came to his farm were about 30. “They detained us on the farm. They had a big map of South West. They forced us to cook for them. They ate. They would go for operations and come back daily for a whole week for food” he said.

He gave accounts of how they keep women as booties, rape and humiliate them. He said they had communication gadgets different from the common telephone networking and that in the nights, they appeared to receive ‘big packages from strangers.’

One woman said her sister was kidnapped on her farm and kept for weeks. Her ransom was the free sex she gave, indicating that many cases of trauma go unreported.

We waited for about one hour before the brave policemen dispersed the armed terrorists who disappeared into the thick forest. Something strange however happened. As we waited for the green light, two men came in a suspicious car, tricking us that the road was clear to go. But a woman cautioned us: “Look at their faces; they are not part of us. Don’t be deceived.”

‘Herdsmen’ tag as a cover

It may appear a wrong prefix to call the armed men ‘herdsmen,’ for those reported here had no cattle. It does not appear to me that the South West states appreciate how huge the problem is. It seems clearly the problem at hand is terrorism being planned on a larger scale. The governments must understand the dialectics of the current challenge. There is a narrative of herders-farmers conflict, but it seems this underrates the real issue. ‘Herdsmen’ seem like a cover for a more malicious intent, meaning that the problem will not go even with the creation of ranching.

Sheik Abubakar Gumi described them as “insurgents.” What makes the Southwest governors think the armed strangers in their forests are also not insurgents, which means armed groups seeking to topple the political authorities and replace with their own brand? The current mayhem has many dimensions. The Nigerian government is not pro-active. During my visit to Libya in 2011, I saw the impact the then simmering problems would have on Nigeria. For instance, at the high level meetings, I noticed many Nigerians were in the Libyan Army. One, a Yoruba, was actually one of Maommer Gadhafi’s private guards. When the regime collapsed, they found their way back home, possibly with their arms. Yet, the crisis in the Maghreb region was destined to spill over to Nigeria, creating a sort of boom in arms trade. This is compounded by a racket political system designed to destroy public trust in the capacity of authorities to meet public needs like the essentials of life, one of which is personal security and food, making individuals to resort to personal tactics of survival often at variance with the laws of the land.

The response of President Mohammadu Buhari’s regime is weak, parochial and less influenced by utilitarian goal. Last week, Sheik Ahmad Gumi said the terrorists were fighting “ethnic war.” That could be linked to the 1804 Jihad. It should not be forgotten that in pre-colonial history, the three most powerful empires were the Yoruba (Oyo), Uthman Dan Fodio and El Kanemi. Are the armed Fulani men pursuing Fodio’s ideal and Boko Haram representing the relics of the Kanemi renaissance?

For one thing, the payment of huge funds to secure the release of kidnap victims has fuelled more arms, since the funds are being used to compete in the arms race by people now moving Southward. Though with a good intention of releasing kidnapped people without casualties, but the government can be accused of funding terrorists through those funds. Definitely, resolving the current crisis cannot be without the decentralisation of power and politics, one demand Abuja detests. However, neither will half measured policies help. Federal police in communities is not the same as Community Police.

I believe the growing insurgency in the Southwest cannot be fought without regional cooperation by contiguous states which the FG subverts in a dubious response. While Sokoto and Bornu states have signed security pacts with Niger and Chad, the Nigerian authority does not wish to see Southwest regional cooperation in Amotekun. While insurgents go about with sophisticated weapons, Civilian JTF in the North carry weapons, Amotekun is expected to carry sticks. The country is on a tight rope. I do not see how we can survive the turmoil unless radical and decisive steps are taken by the Southwest governments, at least, to prevent the region from becoming another Northeast.