Major General Adeyemi Yekini is Commander, Operation Whirl Stroke (OPWS), covering Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba states. In this interview, he bared his mind on the activities of the military outfit including its achievements and challenges.
How has the operation been since you came to Benue State?
It has been quite tough and challenging. However, we thank God we have been restoring peace and stability not just in Benue but also in Taraba and Nasarawa states. Quite challenging but all the same, OPWS has made significant impact in its quest to restore peace and stability in the three states of coverage.
What are the challenges?
Initially when we came in, of course as a new force just coming in around May 2018, one of the first challenges we faced was the knowledge of the townships. We were all practically new to these parts of north central axis, Benue State in particular. Since our deployments to these three states, we were able to develop data about the towns that had helped us to locate and set up camps.
Eventually, all the identified armed militias camps have been destroyed by our forces. We also thank God we are on top of the security situation in the three states. Our mandate is essentially to put a stop to incessant killings by not just armed herdsmen alone but all sorts of armed bandits.
Talk about other criminal elements like Gana and cult groups. It has been tough but I can tell you with all sense of humility that our force has brought relative peace into these states. We have decimated all the armed herdsmen militia camps in Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa states. There is hardly a single armed Fulani herdsmen camp existing in the entire Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba states.
Before you came, we were told that over 180,000 persons were in IDP camps as a result of this crisis. How many people have been able to return to their ancestral homes due to your efforts?
In Benue alone, over 200,000 IDPs have returned home. Another 16,000 in Nasarawa state and about 10,000 in Taraba State. One hundred and eighty three thousand inGuma, 34,000 in Gwer West and 72,000 in Logo LGAs respectively. By my own estimate, only about 26,000 people are still in the camps in Benue and they are mainly at Daudu camp and a few in Anyiin.
How have you been able to bring military/civilian relationship to bearto achieve this?
We are here to protect the civilians and so basically we work with them. Aside our intelligence gatherings, we work with the locals who give us information about the whereabouts of these armed militia camps and some of these criminals.
In addition, we also partner with the local communities especially to make or repair roads and local bridges that would enable our forces to patrol down to the hinterland. We also have hotlines, which we gave to the press where they call us from time to time to get or give information and respond to them immediately.
What are you doing to ensure that the border areas are secured and to build the villagers’ courage to return home?
Basically our mode of operation is a bit different. We are special forces and our concept of operation is different from the conventional military forces that we are all familiar with. We don’t just go to places to hold grounds.
Our job is to establish key patrol bases in flash points and from these we are able to patrol in deep and deeper hinterland including all the boarder areas in Nasarawa, Taraba and Benue borders.
Of course, there would be fear among the civilians because of the experience they had in the past. We are assuring them that we are putting more efforts to ensure that those areas are safe for people to return to.
Again, because of this fear of possible attack, we have established a new deployment.
For instance, two to three weeks back, I deployed forces at Yogbo to cover Ukerter in Guma LGA of Benue State linking up Rukubi in Nasarawa State. I also have troops at Ondori just ahead of Rukubi, which also sprints to lower Benue. They also cover all these adjacent areas in Nasarawa State to ensure that there is peace.
All these we are doing to shield the people of the three states from attackers that may wish to cross from Nasarawa and Taraba into Benue State. That has been a key factor that has led to the current peace and stability that we are having in Benue State today.
Which of these three states would you say is more crisis prone?
The three states share similar characteristics, though there are few differences but it is still armed herdsmen terrorising the people.
Within Benue especially are armed herdsmen coming from Nasarawa State to attack some locations and occupy lower Benue region that is very fertile both for farming and grazing of cattle.
In Nasarawa State, it is also same Tiv farmers in Nasarawa having problem with regard to armed herdsmen in Nasarawa who are around Keana and of course, herdsmen crossing from Nasarawa to attack people in Benue.
In Taraba State, we also have similar problem in Lau, which has been a flash point of crisis for some years now. I have a strong force on ground now that we have stabilized the situation. We patrol not just in Lau but also down to Demssa, one of the LGAs in Adamawa State to ensure that Lau is safe.
Not just within Lau itself but there is a joint security committee across Adamawa and Taraba states that problem coming is immediately arrested. So in a way, the situation is similar but there are differences to all these things. And all the three states we have this challenge and that is why we try to attempt to resolve it.
Where would you say your forces fight most in these states?
We have suffered more casualties and in fact, had bigger operations in Benue State. But funny enough, the highest number of weapons recovered is from Nasarawa State. But we fought more battles in Benue than all the other two states. We recovered more weapons and made more arrests in Nasarawa State than Benue and even Taraba State. This is how difficult our operation is.
Which has been the fiercest battle?
There are many battles that we have fought and some of the battles were quite tough. The popular one and very first operation we did was on May 21, 2018, or thereabout that we attacked camps across the borders and we were able to destroy many camps. We have little causalities in Logo while we were fighting, trying to hit the camp but thank God, we were able to quench the situation.
We recorded another causality along lower Benue in the hands of armed herdsmen. Another tough battle was the one in Barkin Kota located between Guma in Benue State and Keana in Nasarawa State. We lost two soldiers there but thank God the area is completely free of any armed herdsmen now.
Of course, we also had another tough war with Gana militia group around Katsina-Ala axis around October and November 2018 where we raided their camps. One of our soldiers was missing in action in one of the offensives but we were able to kill up to 20 of Gana’s men in that attack.
We followed up the operation after about three days to mop up the area. We recovered so many weapons from that area. I think since then, Gana has been substantially caged. Most of them that survived the assault withdrew from that general area including Gana himself. We are on the trail of them and we are hoping that very soon we will be able to apprehend them. For now, the area is clear of armed militias.
In the June operation, some of them were killed and some were captured and handed over to the police. So, we have been able to cripple Gana around that area. We did up to eight different operations against Gana around Katsina-Ala and particularly at Gbishe where he (Gana) hails from we did up to four different operations against him.
We destroyed his camp at Ayakan, Udawa, Gbishe. In one of those operations, we were so close to him that our troops killed his wife, Queen. It was not really our intention to kill his wife, we were after Gana himself but the woman came in the line of fire and she was killed. Since then, all his operations have been crippled and the Katsina-Ala/Ukum axis has been quiet but we are still monitoring the situation.
But those who are in camps are still afraid to return home for fear that the armed herdsmen may return to attack them.
I am assuring the people that Benue is cleared of armed herdsmen. It is possible there could be few unarmed herdsmen still straying from Nasarawa into Benue. There is really no demarcation between Benue and Nasarawa states along the Guma axis. We went to Barkin Kota, we went to Keana and Giza and so on. These are the areas people continue to complain that herdsmen are coming from.
The other area is Tunga. I was in Tunga a few days ago and the whole place is calm. I am taking journalists to Tunga very soon so that they too can help us to educate the people that these areas are calm now and cleared of armed herdsmen. I think that will go a long way in addressing the issue.
On our own part, we will continue to build patrols and interact with the people and give them the assurance that we may not be able to deploy in every part of Benue but we will make sure that we patrol every nook and cranny of the hinterlands to ensure that these areas are free of armed herdsmen and that the people can go back home.
Keeping people in IDP camps is big business and also owing to the fact that some of the cardinal donors and other stakeholders who have interest in IDP camps, perhaps are also a bit reluctant to allow the idols to go home. I am not here to fight anybody. They are doing their job and I am doing mine. But at least, if we all work together so that these IDPs can go back, I think that will be nice.
You said you fought more battle in Benue but made more arrests and recovered more weapons in Nasarawa, can you expatiate on this?
We have recovered over 3000 ammunition and over 90 assorted weapons.
We have arrested over 100 suspects with 78 killed in encounters between us and the armed militia groups across the three states.
What assurance are you giving the Sankera axis in regards to the activities of Gana?
We are trailing Gana and the rest of his men who are still hiding. We are assuring the people that we will not rest until we apprehend them.
But for now, I can assure the people of the area that we have crippled Gana and his armed militia group.
They should not be afraid because the group is virtually ineffective as far as I am concerned. But we will continue to trail them until we apprehend him and the rest of his men who survived the series of operations we carried out in that area.
The Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore has accused the Benue State Government of using the OPWS to hound its people into prison. What is your reaction?
I don’t always like to respond to allegations from these tribal organizations. But for other Nigerians who may want our response, let me emphasize that we are after only armed elements be they armed herdsmen, armed militia group, armed bandits, armed criminals, armed cultists, all armed elements regardless of their tribe, education, location and religion.
We are tribal blind, we don’t have any religious bias, we are out to put a stop to the killings in north central Nigeria especially, Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba and to apprehend those of them posing security threat to the people.
We are not after innocent normal herdsmen or innocent members of the public. Our own is that anybody who is carrying weapons is an enemy of the state.
I have a clear mandate and that does not include tribal sentiments.
All we are after are armed elements. We do not have anything to do with innocent members of the public who may wish to go about their normal businesses. We are only after criminal elements that are armed.
If herdsmen are not armed, I do not have any problem with them.
What is Operation 777 all about?
Operation 777 was launched by the Defense Headquarters on October 10, 2018. It involves all seven Defense Headquarters operations across the country. Operation Whirl Stroke is just one of them. We have Operation Delta Safe in Niger Delta; Operation Safe Haven in Jos; Operation Whirl Punch in One Division with the area of responsibility in North West Nigeria.
We have Operation Tarangaji covering Zamfara and some other states in the North West too; Operation Awase, a naval operation along the banks of Lagos and part of Ogun State. We have another operation in Lokoja, Kogi State. These are the seven Defense Headquarters operations that are involved in Operation 777.
The idea is for us to nip our operations and simultaneously attack and clear the enemy at the same time that the enemy will not have any respite. The idea is that if you do these operations simultaneously, these people will not have the liberty of running from one part of the country to take refuge in another part because the operation will be going on at the same time. That is what Operation 777 is all about. It is not too different from what OPWS has been doing in this Joint Operation Area (JOA) before now. However, we are more focused, determined and more resolute to carry out our mandate in the course of Operation 777.
What has been the achievement of the Operation 777
It has been a tremendous success in our JOA. For instance, within the period of its operation still ongoing, Operation 777 recovered up to 20 weapons and arrested over 100 people. We also crippled Gana and his armed militia group to the point of killing over 20 of them. We also recovered arms and ammunition. Within the same period, about 111,854 IDPs returned to their ancestral homes.
What has been your major challenge?
In particular, the major challenge is just like every other force, you can hardly get enough manpower. In this case, we are talking of special force a rather very rare commodity. How I wish I had more troops, more vehicles.
I can tell you with every iota of confidence and authority that we have the right size of manpower and the right equipment to do the job but like Oliver Twist, we will always request for more. Otherwise, I think we are well equipped for the task.