Residents of communities displaced from their homes in the wake of the crisis between farmers and cattle herders in Agatu Local Government Area of Benue State are returning to settle down to normal life, as peace is said to be gradually prevailing. But a visit to the heartland of Agatu indicates that the peace song lacks the desired lyrics
Dateline: Okokolo, June 30, 2016. With her right foot on the pedal of her newly acquired sewing machine, Mary Ochekpe beamed with a smile in spite of the scorching afternoon sun that issued its rays on her sweat-soaked face. She excitedly sang a gospel rhyme in Idoma dialect with a musical voice that could make the canary bird green with envy. Apparently oblivious of this reporter, who alighted from a motorbike and headed towards her, the tailor continued to sing while casting attention on her work without raising her face until she was jolted by the flashlight from the camera. Behind Mary, Agatha, her cousin, who was plaiting her friend’s hair, jumped up in an apparent attempt to escape the lens of the camera. But it was too late.
Mary and Agatha are residents of Okokolo, one of the villages in Agatu Local Government Area, which was devastated by the recent crisis between farmers and cattle herders. Having lost their family, home and shop in the wake of the crisis, both have now found shelter in the large dogonyaro tree in front of the charred remains of their compound. The shade of the tree also serves as an alternative ‘shop’ for their trades.
Mary, a housewife with children, who said she and her cousin had just returned from the internally displaced persons’ camp in Apa, added that they were forced to convert the tree into a ‘workshop’ following the destruction of her tailoring shop by suspected herdsmen who attacked their village on February 8, 2016.
“Apart from my shop, we lost our house and farms in the attack; hence we ran to the Odugheho Internally Displaced Persons Camp at Apa where we remained until we returned home recently. But as you can see, our house is in ruins and our lives are shattered,” Mary said as she cleared perspiration and battled to keep a straight face.
A survey of Okokolo vicinity revealed a picture reminiscent of the Bosnian war wreckage. It is said to have been the worst hit by the Agatu crisis, having recorded four consecutive attacks, according to the locals. Houses, schools and other buildings that were allegedly destroyed during the attacks still stand in ruins.
Although more than half of the population of the community who had fled to the internally displaced persons’ camps at Ugbokpo, Apa and Otukpo in the wake of the attacks, are said to have returned home, they are faced with the problem of shelter and food. While a few privileged ones have managed to re-roof their houses, others still sleep in the open at the mercy of rodents and mosquitoes.
Entonu Peter, the chairman of Okokolo Elite Forum, said more than three-quarter of the displaced has yet to return home due to the absence of food and shelter.
“Our houses and farm produce were destroyed; hence the hardship we are now facing,” Peter said, adding: “We are now living at the mercy of God and the goodwill of neighbours.”
Even as they returned to their homes, the people of Okokolo community said they were living in fear and anxiety over the possibility of fresh attacks. Such fear, according to Peter, has led to the abandonment of farming activities. “More than 1,000 hectares of farmland have been abandoned at the Fadama rice farms due to the fear of fresh attacks,” he said.
Elsewhere at Aila community, Otinu Saliu, a 25-year-old woman, re-echoed the tales of anguish from the Agatu crisis. Otinu, who is married with six children, said that, in addition to 40 bags of rice that were stored in a barn at their home, her family also lost other valuables, a situation that forced them to relocate to the Ugbokpo Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Apa Local Government Area, where they survived by the goodwill of sympathisers for two months before returning home.
“We are back because there is no place like home, but here is no longer the same. I now go to buy guinea corn on credit, which I process into kunun-tsamiya (a local drink) to sell in order to feed my family,” she said.
Sabo Elawani, 40, a revenue officer in the Agatu Local Government Council, who also returned to Aila recently, said he had taken to farming to feed his two wives and 12 children. “Following the attack we ran to Otukpo where we stayed with my in-law and managed to survive,” he said.
Farming and commercial activities are said to have been adversely affected in all the communities. Hadizatu Inuwa Mohammed is a petty trader at the Aila market, which is now a mere shadow of its former self. She said her provision shop at the market was destroyed during the attack, prompting her to now display her wares on a wooden table in the open in order to survive.
Samuel B. Adeyi, a 35-year-old motorcycle mechanic, whose workshop was destroyed during the crisis, said he had to run with his family to Apa and live with a cousin who took care of them. Adeyi said: “I managed to rebuild my workshop where I am now managing to survive with my wife and four children, but it has not been easy.”
Another trader, Halidu Saleh, whose GSM shop in Aila was destroyed during the crisis, said he lost everything, including three generating sets.
Consequently, he relocated to Otukpo with his two wives and three children, where they lived as internally displaced persons. “When I returned recently I went into my little savings to restart my business in order to survive with my family,” he said.
Also, a barber at Aila said his salon was attacked during the crisis. John Bulus said he relocated to Ugboko where he lived until a month ago when he returned to start life in Aila all over. “As you can see, I managed to revive my barbing salon, but the patronage is very low. The customer I am barbing now is the first and might be the only one to patronise me today,” he said.
The community leader of Aila, Shehu Daudu, said although many people who ran away during the crisis had returned home, a lot more were yet to do so due to the fear of the unknown. “Some refused to return because they have nowhere to stay, while those who returned are living and surviving by the grace of God,” Daudu said.
He said that following the withdrawal of soldiers in the area, they resorted to the use of vigilante and the youth to keep watch over the community. “The extent of damage in this community with a population of about 25, 000 people, is beyond imagination. About 335 houses were destroyed. The only buildings left are the ones that do not burn,” he said.
He, however, commended the Benue State government, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the United Nations (UN) and pubic-spirited individuals for coming to their aid.
“The UN came with cooking pots, mattresses, toiletries and rechargeable lanterns, while the Benue State government brought 300 bundles of zinc. David Mark’s wife also came with clothes and food items,” he said.
At the Roman Catholic Mission (RCM) Primary School, located in the heart of Aila, a group of pupils in blue and white uniforms were sighted clearing overgrown grasses within the compound. Although it was also said to have come under attack during the crisis, it is said to be the only institution that was not razed down.
Yakubu Damian Dennis, the headmaster, said the school was initially used as a military camp before the soldiers were withdrawn. “Our school was attacked during the crisis but not set ablaze. However, the attackers broke the school doors, vandalised furniture and carted some books,” he said.
Dennis added that the school lost 10 weeks and that the population of pupils had reduced as some parents relocated their wards to other schools in safer places for fear of the unknown.
On the way to the neighbouring village of Adagbo, some farmers, among them women and children, were seen working on their farms. Salamatu Ocho-Ehi, who was weeding her farm where she grows pepper, said her farm was adversely affected.
“I abandoned the farm and ran for safety with my husband and children during the attacks. Now that we are back, I have to replant some pepper, which I hope to harvest and sell in order to survive with my family,” Salamatu, who had a baby strapped to her back, said.
Adagbo, a sleepy community adjoining Aila, also came under attack by suspected herdsmen, and the residents, who had fled for safety, are returning to their homes.
Atayi Mary, a farmer, said she lost 400 tubers of yam, 50 bags of rice and 10 bags of guinea corn, among other farm produce.
Consequently, she relocated to Ugbokpo, where she stayed for two months surviving on relief materials provided by government agencies to the internally displaced persons’ camps. “I also lost my child during my stay at the camp,” Mary further narrated amidst tears.
Like several others, Mary is back to Adagbo, but not as a farmer anymore. She now sells provisions on a table under a large mango tree that also serves as her home.
“I lost all my farm produce to the crisis. When I returned, I started this petty trading to survive with my husband and remaining three children,” she said, her face bearing the sinews of anguish.
Ogboche James, the chief of Adagbo community, said the mood in his domain was that of grief and uncertainty as the scars of the crisis are still visible. According to James, 10 members of his community who had fled in the wake of the crisis came back and died of hypertension.
James, who now lives at his in-law’s house with his family, having lost his own home, said: “There is lack of shelter, and we survive from the little produce from our farms. We spend sleepless nights due to the fear of the unknown.”
His wife, who was peeling cassava tubers freshly harvested from the farm, added: “The cost of living has gone sky-high, making survival difficult for returning families.”
Chief James is, however, thankful for what he termed “the little assistance we get from government.” He called on the relevant authorities to “guarantee our safety so we can all return to our homes.”
At Ukwu community, a 25-year-old applicant, Danjuma D. Danjuma, who was chatting with his friends under a mango tree, recalled the events of February 2, this year when his village was first attacked. “We were saying our prayers in the morning when we heard gunshots; people started running helter-skelter. At first, the youth repelled them and they fled to the mountains, only to return the following day with heavier bombardment,” he recounted.
The attack forced Danjuma and several others to relocate to the internally displaced persons’ camp in Apa, where he said they stayed for two and a half months before returning to their village.
“We are now living from hand to mouth, even as there is palpable fear due to threats of fresh attacks. Our schools no longer function, and we have reduced the scale of farming because we are afraid they will still come after us,” he said.
A visit to the RCM Primary School located in the area revealed a signpost almost buried in green grass, which has also overtaken the deserted school compound.
Tongues wag over alleged diversion of relief materials
The TY Danjuma Foundation is one of the organisations said to have assisted the communities of Agatu with relief materials. The foundation was said to have provided 300 bundles of aluminum zinc. And Okokolo community benefited from the humanitarian gesture. But the sharing formula is said to have left tongues wagging as the immediate past chairman of Agatu Caretaker Committee, Joseph Mgbede, is accused of cornering 100 bundles to himself. Mgbede denied the allegation.
An embittered Entonu Peter, chairman of the Okokolo Elites Forum, could not fathom why the immediate past chairman, whose caretaker committee was recently dissolved along with others in the state, could hold onto 100 bundles of the relief materials when none of his houses was affected.
“The dissolved caretaker chairman had no house that was affected by the crisis, yet he took 100 bundles of zinc for himself. The boy who shared the items is his loyalist from his village. This is not good for the anti-corruption stance of the current government,” Peter said.
But in a swift reaction, the ex-caretaker chairman denied the allegation. Confirming that the TY Danjuma Foundation had donated 300 bundles of zinc to the community, he said they were fairly distributed among the three zones that make up Agatu Local Government Area.
“It is not true that I corned 100 bundles of zinc. I did not handle the materials. The items were distributed by the desk officer. But I am not surprised because no matter what you do, people must oppose you,” he said.
On the current security situation in the area, Ngbede said calm was gradually returning but people were struggling with the problem of shelter. “Most returning persons lack food and have nowhere to lay their heads. Some even sleep on the bare floor in huts constructed on their farms,” he said.
On what the caretaker committee under his chairmanship had done to alleviate the suffering of the people, Ngbede said: “We didn’t have much to offer due to the state of the economy, but we tried our best with the little we could offer. So many non-governmental organisations also came to our assistance. And the state government played its role. NEMA helped when the displaced persons were at Apa.”
He called on government to provide a permanent military barracks at the riverine areas as a way of providing a permanent security solution to the recurring crises.
The coordinator of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, Garus Gololo, however, allayed fears of further attacks by his members, not only in Agatu but other areas in Benue State.
Gololo said the peace currently prevailing in Benue State was facilitated by committee set up by the state government before the return of the displaced persons.
“Although some time ago we received a report that Agatu youths had crossed over to Loko in Nasarawa State and killed some cattle, I quickly visited the Ardo of Loko and pleaded with him to discourage any reprisal. We later went to the Government House in Makurdi, where we resolved that there would be no fresh attacks, not only in Agatu but also in places like Logo, Buruku and Tarka,” Gololo said.
At the time of the attacks, Agatu was said to have been flooded with more than three million cattle; many of which the herders reportedly accused Agatu youths of killing. There is a story told in Agatu of a herdsman who was asked how he felt whenever they razed down a building during attacks on communities, and his response was: “I feel normal.” But when asked a similar question on when a cow is killed, he said: “The cow is a no-go area.”
With such stories, it appears that the relative peace returning to Agatu is merely that of the graveyard.
Governor Ortom: We’re willing to resettle displaced persons, but…
Governor Samuel Ortom said the Benue State government was willing to rehabilitate the displaced persons, not only those returning to Agatu but those in other places like Makurdi, Guma, Buruku, Kwande, Logo and Tarka local government areas.
Ortom, who spoke with our reporter in Makurdi, however, said the economic downturn being experienced in the state was affecting government’s desire to assist the returnees to resettle in their various communities. He called on the Federal Government and other spirited individuals and non-governmental organisations to intervene in the rehabilitation of the displaced persons.
“I think we need the intervention of the Federal Government in rehabilitating these people because this is actually beyond the state. I have mentioned more than nine local government areas that are affected by this destruction. Our children are no longer going to school while health facilities have been destroyed. So we are calling on the Federal Government and other good spirited individuals and non-governmental organisations to come in and support the state. We are really down. The state government does not have the resources to fund the rehabilitation of these people. If help does not come from the Federal Government and other good spirited individuals and groups, it is going to be very difficult for our people to settle down,” Ortom said.
Describing the scale of destruction as a very big challenge, Ortom said the only way to bring permanent solution to the recurring crises is the creation of ranches. This, according to him, is because “there is no way farming and grazing can go together, especially for a food basket state like Benue, where more than 90 per cent of the people depend on farming and the civil service.”