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5 hours in dreaded heartland of Agatu: A reporter’s diary

A four-hour motorbike ride Makurdi led to the dreaded heartland of Agatu, where farmers/herders clashed in February, leaving behind a lifeless land. Today, the story…

A four-hour motorbike ride Makurdi led to the dreaded heartland of Agatu, where farmers/herders clashed in February, leaving behind a lifeless land. Today, the story is no different.

Before embarking on a trip to Agatu in Benue State, I had the difficult task of trying to convince nearly everyone around me who argued on the desirability or otherwise of my venture.  It was particularly hard to convince my immediate family and close friends who thought I was embarking on a suicide mission. I had a similar experience with them when I was earlier assigned to visit the area for a special report, but due to the intensity of the crisis at the time I could not reach the heartland. I only visited the internally displaced persons who had fled to camps located in neighbouring local government areas where they narrated their shockingtales. Now that normalcy is said to be returning to Agatu, I had to return to meet with the returning IDPs for a follow-up.
Reminding my people of similar risky, albeit successful adventures which conflict reporting had prompted me to embark upon elsewhere in the past, I took solace in my faith in God for my personal security. I was, however, not oblivious of the fact that although peace may have been gradually returning to Agatu it was, nonetheless, a risky place to venture into.
My consolation was, however, tampered by a story I had read that as at the time of the attacks in February, Agatu was said to have been flooded with more than 3 million cows; many of which the herders allegedly accused Agatu youths of killing. I also heard the story told in Agatu of a herdsman who was asked how he feels whenever they raze down a building during attacks on communities. His response was: “I feel normal” but when asked a similar question when a cow is killed he said: “The cow is a no-go area.” With stories like these, I needed no-one to convince me that the relative peace returning to Agatu is that of the graveyard.
I initially planned to make the trip to Agatu through the normal Otukpo/Apa route that leads to the headquarters of the local government. But on reaching Makurdi I met a young man from Agatu named Emanche (not real name) who advised differently. An indigene of Agatu who turned out to be my guide, he advised that I made the trip on motorbike through the Makurdi, Naka, Agagbe road that leads directly to villages that were affected by the farmer-herder crises. I took his advice, and it paid off.
Although the trip from Makurdi, which lasted two hours plus another two for the return journey was rough, it turned out to be the best option in the circumstance. I got two motorcycle operators from Makurdi who agreed to convey me and my guide for a fee. With Emanche I was able to circumvent geographical and language encumbrances on the way and during my five-hour stay in Agatu.
I commenced the ride on motorbike at sunrise. The only portion of the road that is motorable is the about 30-kilometer stretch from Makurdi to Naka, the headquarters of Gwer-West Local Government Area which shares boundary with Agatu LGA. But the road is riddled with potholes, giving our ‘convoy’ of two motorbikes a tough time. 
From Naka, the headquarters of Gwer-West local government area, the road leading to the heartland of Agatu through the border villages of Agagbe and Nagi is a lonely narrow path covered with red earth.  Both sides of the road are covered with thick bushes and impenetrable forests. Vehicles do not ply the road so it is only chirping of birds and growling noise of our two motorcycles that is heard in the wilderness. Apart from locals trekking on the road on their way both to and from their farms or heading towards neighbouring villages, we occasionally encountered other motorbikes coming from the opposite direction.
As we rode along, I was awestruck by the possibility of an ambush either by Agatu youths or herders. This fear was reinforced by stories I had heard. After about an hour, we came across a bridge with machete and gun-wielding youths, all manners of charms tied on their bodies. On sighting them, chanting what sounded like war songs, I was afraid. Sensing my fear, Enenche my guide rose to the occasion. He spoke in local dialect with the youths, eventually assuring me that there was no cause for alarm. He informed me that the youths were vigilantes who had formed part of community security arrangement to secure the villages at the border area against attacks. The youth, Tiv and Idoma, keep vigil day and night at the Agagbe Bridge which is at the boundary between Gwer-West and Agatu local government areas.
Having introduced and told them my mission to the area, the youth finally gave us a ‘right of passage’ across the fragile wooden bridge. It was at this point that I heaved a sigh and brought out my camera to take some photographs. 
My first port of call was the village called Aila which is located on the fringes of the Fadama area. The area is surrounded with green lush vegetation, but lying in the middle of this village with its environmental harmony are ruins created by destruction that was the farmer/herder crises. The grim faces of women, children, youths and adults affected by the crises bore the signs of anguish.
As I moved from village to village, meeting with the locals, it was easy to realize that this greenland that was Agatu had almost gone to seed. Some of them who had just returned to their homes after taking refuge elsewhere are left without food and shelter.
If I were a staff of the international human rights organization – Amnesty International – I probably would have had a different story to tell. The outpouring of invective and acid anger by a soldier I encountered at Okololo, one of the villages that came under attack by suspected herdsmen in February this year was unimaginable. I had gone to the RCM Primary School Okokolo to assess the level of damage and take photographs.
After passing through the main entrance my guide pointed at the block of classrooms that was razed down and said I could take photographs if I wished. Just as I was about to get my camera ready I sighted some soldiers at the extreme end of the building. I decided to go over to them to introduce myself and seek permission before taking photographs. As I approached, a tall, fierce-looking soldier ordered me to halt while I was a few meters away. I obeyed.
“Who are you?” he inquired. After introducing myself and mission, he asked one of his colleagues to scrutinize my ID card to ascertain its genuineness. He seized my ID card and examined it thoroughly and confirmed to the officer that it was genuine and that I was indeed a journalist.
“Were you from Amnesty International, you would have had it rough with me,” he said. Pointing at the bushy surroundings, he roared: “Just take a good look at where we are; we have all left our families far away to this isolated place in the service of our fatherland. But whenever Amnesty International comes out with a report, they would condemn without saying anything good. Is that fair?” At that point, I responded by saying it was really unfair.
The angry soldier eventually calmed down and asked his colleague to hand me back by ID card, saying: “Go ahead and do your work, take the photographs you want to take,” but added a caveat: “Provided we don’t appear in any.” I was moved to pity after listening to him. I thanked him and after taking my photographs I clutched my notebook and left.
During my five-hour stay in Agatu, it occurred to me that when Jim Reeves, the country music singer, sang “Across the bridge there is no more sorrow…” he probably did not have the people of this area in mind. Across the Agagbe Bridge, and indeed, other bridges that connect to the heartland of Agatu through Odejo to the riverine communities, there is so much sorrow. From Aila to Adagbo, Aku Okokolo, Gboju and Odugbe-Ho, there was much to see and tell.
(Read the full report in tomorrow’s Daily Trust)
 

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