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OYO, Nigeria – In 2020, Atilola, a thirty-eight-year-old farmer, heard fellow farmers complaining about cattle herders’ invading their farms. Then, his own farm was later invaded by a horde of cattle which ate and crushed his crops worth thousands of naira. When he caught the herder whose cattle destroyed his crops, he reported him to Amotekun, a security outfit, and they asked him how much he wanted as compensation.

“Those herdsmen are stubborn! I keep using [leopards] whenever my farm is invaded, and we will bargain the amount. I will collect for my ruined crops, they will never pass through my farm again,” he told me in an interview.

“One hectare of cassava farm that belongs to my brother and I was mercilessly destroyed by cattle herders,” Oyenikun, a young farmer and schoolteacher, told me. “Though we haven’t caught any cattle herders, our neighbor whose rice farm was destroyed by a horde of cattle, got over $2,405 from the herders as compensation, with the aid of [leopards].”

In 2020, the Western Nigeria Security Network, codenamed Operation Amotekun, was established. Amotekun, loosely translated as a leopard in Yoruba, was established by six state governors in the southwest of the country comprising Lagos State, Oyo State, Ogun State, Ondo State, Osun State, and Ekiti State.

Nigeria is blessed with over 174 million acres of arable land, with 70% of its population engaged in agriculture on a subsistence level. Agriculture contributes roughly 24% to the country’s economy.

The worsening security situation in the country has put farmers in jeopardy, as a result of attacks by herders. According to the International Crisis Group, more than 1,300 people have been killed since January 2018.

The Fulani people have borne the brunt of these attacks simply because Muslim Fulani make up about 90% of Nigeria’s pastoralists. However, Salihu, a middle-aged Fulani man who raises cows in Oyo State, credits the attacks to the Bororo, a subgroup of the Fulani people from neighbouring countries. “My great grandfather was born in Yorubaland. We have been hearing of a tribe called the Bororo for a very long time, although, if they speak, we could understand their accents there is a difference between our accents and theirs.”

When asked who exactly was behind the destruction of people’s farms, Salihu referenced how communities regardless of tribe used to get along. “Before the Bororo arrived, Fulani herders and Yoruba farmers were on friendly terms. Even when a certain farmer roasts yams or mazes for eating they would sit with him and eat together while watching the cattle grazing,” he said.

Enter the leopards

When violence from invading herders reached its peak, the six state governors of the most affected states gathered to find a lasting solution to the deteriorating security situation. Operation Amotekun was their solution.

Seyi Makinde, the governor of Oyo State, commented that the purpose of the security force is to bring security nearer to the people. Olayinka Olayanju, the head of Operation Amotekun in Oyo State, while speaking on the efforts of the force during the first year, said they have recorded several successes owing to the relentless effort of various members of Amotekun.

However, in early 2020, Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, through his Attorney-General, described Operation Amotekun as illegal claiming that it did not have a legal right to operate. But on January 23, 2020, Yemi Osinbajo, the vice-president, met with the governors and agreed that the federal government would work with the affected governors on how to improve Operation Amotekun.

“Regional police are more than welcome. In fact, there should be a level of policing to keep law and order, rangers to watch over nature preserves, [leopards] to curb serious crime, and gangs. That kind of manpower should be from the federal government, if we need to take a loan let’s do it. Security is serious business,” Alex Okwonko, a Lagos-based security expert told me in an interview.

Will the leopards last?

In 2020, there was a general outcry calling for disbanding the Special Anti-Robbery Squad over human rights violations and police brutality. Surprisingly, Operation Amotekun seems headed towards a similar end for offenses ranging from theft, extortion, extrajudicial killings, insubordination, and other illegal activities. It has been noted that many members lack a culture of discipline and professionalism that will help the security forces really make a difference and protect locals from herders and others. “Many of those people have been pushed out due to offences,” Olayinka Olayanju said during the first anniversary of the group.

Jimoh Abdullahi is a freelance journalist based in Oyo State, Nigeria. His works have appeared in different media outlets.