TARKAA DAVID writes that though some rural communities in Zamfara State remain reportedly deserted, reports show that security in the last few days, in the once most peaceful state in the country, has recorded noticeable improvement.

The battle for the control of resources in Zamfara recently took a different dimension when killing of innocent citizens and kidnapping for ransom reigned in the state. Zamfara was once the most peaceful state in the country but had become a killing field for bandits and other criminals struggling to control the natural resources. The military, in line with its constitutional mandate to protect the territorial integrity of the nation, rose to the occasion by flagging off a series of operations in the area with the sole aim of maintaining peace.

Following intelligence reports, the federal government placed a total ban on mining activities in the state and its environs. Announcing the ban, the acting inspector general of the police, Mohammed Adamu, said the government took the decision because it found out there was a relationship between the bandits and illegal miners. He explained that all the sites would be taken over by a special task force comprising of relevant security agencies.

Subsequently, the minister of Defence, Mohammad Mansur Dan-Ali, blamed traditional leaders for aiding bandits to perpetrate violence in Zamfara State by compromising military operations.

In a statement by the public relations officer to the minister, Col Tukur Gusau, he said the Armed Forces and other security agencies would explore every available means to deal with those sympathetic to the bandits.

“In line with this, the Nigerian Army established 8 Division with headquarters in Sokoto to cover Kebbi, Sokoto, Katsina and Zamfara States while the Headquarters of 1 Brigade was relocated from Sokoto to Gusau.

‘’Presently, the tactical headquarters of 8 Division has since relocated to Gusau. Similarly, the Nigerian Air Force also established Quick Response Force in Gusau and landing areas in Gusau and Birnin Magaji respectively,” he said.

In a twist of events, the chairman, Zamfara State Council of Chiefs, Alhaji Attahiru Ahmad, apologised to the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) over its recent allegations that innocent citizens were killed in the state during air strikes by personnel of the Air Force.

He was apparently reacting to a statement after an emergency meeting of the council of chiefs, in which the spokesperson of the chiefs and Emir of Anka, Attahiru Ahmad, said the council challengeg the minister of Defence, Mr Ali, to name any traditional ruler involved in aiding the bandits.

The chairman, Council of Chiefs, who is also the Emir of Anka, made the apology when a seven-man high-powered investigation team, led by AVM Idi Lubo, visited him at his palace in Anka, recently.

It would be recalled that the traditional rulers had alleged that air strikes on suspected bandits’ camps hit and killed innocent citizens in some parts of the state.

This followed an emergency meeting they held in reaction to an earlier accusation by the Minister of Defence, Alhaji Mansur Dan Ali, that some high-ranking traditional rulers were conniving with the bandits.

The Emir of Bungudu also followed up the claim with the release of names of some persons who were killed in the air strikes.

However, the Emir of Anka said, “the council regrets the embarrassment caused by the press briefing because it was not targeted at the Air Force or the army but at our own son, the Minister of Defence, who wrongly accused us of complicity in the activities of the bandits in the state.

“l apologise over whatever embarrassment the statement may have caused and from now, we have drawn a line, there won’t be anything like that again, and I want to appeal that care should be applied while tracking the bandits and when they run from your fire power into the community, the land army should take over so as to avoid killing the innocent.

“Out of the 17 emirate councils that we have in the state, mistakes occurred in only four and the submissions we made were gathered in the last two years. l also want to state that nothing happened on innocent citizens in the last six months in the state,” he said.

While speaking on the list of killed persons that was later released by the Emir of Bungudu, the chairman of the Council of Chiefs said: “The Emir of Bungudu is not the spokesman of the council even though he read our press briefing that day.

“The list of victims that he released to the press on a later day did not emanate from me nor was I aware of it as the chairman, l will only take responsibility because l am the chairman”.

He then assured that the traditional council would continue to support security agencies in the fight against armed banditry in the state and urged the army to go and occupy deserted villages where some of the bandits were hiding.

As a professional institution, the NAF had constituted a panel led by an AVM to investigate the veracity of the allegations.

Reaffirming the stance of the Council of Chiefs, the governor of Zamfara State, Abdulaziz Yari, said the government would not apologise over the alleged killing of villagers in the state during the bombardment of suspected bandits’ camps in Dumburum village in Zurmi local government area of the state.

According to him, “As far as I am concerned and as the head of government in the state, I have not seen anything wrong in what the  Air Force is doing. I have not received any brief on such matter.

“Dumburum has been a criminal hideout for over three years and the Emir of Zurmi had once asked me to go and wipe out the area, saying all those residing there were bandits.

“So, I am surprised that the emir will be part of those saying innocent people were killed in an encounter in the area.”

The governor, who said some powers were working against the state, maintained that “some people will stay in Abuja and fabricate things against the operations in Zamfara in order to distract the operation,” warning, “this we must not allow.”

“Please, all security agencies, especially the Air Force, should continue with your usual constitutional duties and the state government will give you all the support to facilitate your concentration in trying to bring back peace, which has eluded the state since 2007.

“You should continue with ‘fire power’ to show the criminals that there is a government in place and we won’t negotiate with them again because when we did that in the past, the leaders pretended as if all was well while they allowed their boys to continue to lay siege to the communities,” the governor added.

Handing over a letter of condolence to the governor from the chief of air staff, Air Marshall Sadique Abubakar, the team leader, AVM Idi Lubo, said it was part of Abubakar’s concern in case the allegations were true.

He said, “the chief of air staff has directed us to properly investigate the matter in order to unravel the truth.

“We have visited other stakeholders and discovered that there was misinformation, which we have now resolved and wish to assure the people of the state that we shall continue to discharge our assigned responsibilities in protecting the innocent with professionalism.”

Explaining NAF operations, the director of Public Relations and Information, Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, said the NAF target selection process for air operations is particularly rigorous and methodical in order to ensure proper target identification and thereby prevent strikes on wrong locations

He explained that the locations attacked from 8 to 11 April 8th-11th, 2019 were selected based on human intelligence (HUMINT) reports obtained from security agencies and other government sources, traditional and community leaders as well as reliable, vetted informants.

These, he said, were further confirmed by days of detailed day and night Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions to ensure proper targeting for the avoidance of collateral damage.

He added that as standard practice, NAF attack aircraft on air interdiction missions are accompanied by ISR platforms that guide them to designated targets.

“Furthermore, NAF pilots, by training and in line with extant Rules of Engagements (RoEs) for the operation, do not attack any location if it is observed that non-combatants, especially women and children, are present,”

“Accordingly, we shall continue to work assiduously, in synergy with sister services and other security agencies, to rid the Northwest of all criminal elements.”

He, therefore, assured the general public that the NAF would not be deterred but wouldsustain its air operations to facilitate a return to normalcy that would enable Nigerians in the area to pursue their legitimate aspirations.

Though the Nigerian Air Force has constituted a high powered delegation to investigate the veracity of the issues raised regarding its operations in the Northwest to end banditry, the government has to navigate beyond words to prosecute all those aiding the atrocities being meted on Nigerians no matter how highly placed.