The sight of dried blood on floors and walls, upturned plastic chairs and broken bottles will remain an ugly picture in the minds of the people of Kwatas district of Bokkos local government area in Plateau State. What could have been a relaxing evening for residents of Kwatas on January 26, turned tragic when gunmen said to be moving on motorcycles opened fire at a village square that comprised of viewing centres, bars and provision stores in the Bokkos community. The assailants had moved to Ruboi, a community less than two kilometres from Kwatas and unleashed a similar horror, leaving behind a trail of deaths, vandalised and looted shops, houses and places of worship which were also razed to the ground.
“It was a blood bath that took place at the village square,” said John Gushe who survived the attack. Narrating the incident, he said; “It occurred around 7pm while we were relaxing close to a bar. We suddenly heard gunshots from a distance and everyone panicked and began to run in all directions. At first, I was calm, but when the sound of gunshots persisted, I went on my belly and began to crawl.”
From his position, Gushe said it was easier to avoid the assailant’s bullets as he watched heavily armed men move to a shop where a woman sold soft drinks and provisions. “They forced open the shop, and after several bullets penetrations, killed the occupants and stole what they needed,” he told our correspondent on phone.
The 56-year-old was lucky to survive the attack, his 29-year-old son had equally survived but with a gunshot wound to the leg, however, his uncle and nephew were not as lucky, as the assailants’ bullets had claimed their lives. As at Thursday when a mass burial was held for 22 of the victims, most parts of Kwatas and its surrounding communities had been deserted and thousands of women and children now take refuge at Bokkos town and parts of Mangu and Barkin Ladi LGA. But for the likes of Gushe who have stayed back to keep watch of what remains of their shattered dreams, one or two armoured patrol carrier with a bold caption of ‘Operation Rainbow’ and a few security agents now keep watch in Kwatas.
Last week’s tragic incident undoubtedly became a major setback in the peace effort of Plateau’s Governor Simon Bako Lalong especially since the attack on Kwatas had snowballed into a crisis between local indigenes and their Fulani neighbours, spreading to nearby communities such as Dimis, Chenget, Machanby, Murish, Pando and Marish among others.
With the violence concentrating mainly around neighbouring communities that border Mangu and Bokkos local government areas, sources, however, link the attack on Kwatas with a similar attack that occurred three weeks ago in Kulben village of Kombun District in Mangu local government area. Twelve people had been killed in Kulben on January 9, 2020. Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that Kulben in Mangu and Kwatas in Bokkos are less than 10 kilometres apart. Saeedu Ibrahim, a resident of Mangu explained that the attack on Kulben was initially a cattle rustling attempt that went wrong. He said armed cattle thieves had rustled herds of cattle in a nearby village but were intercepted by a combined team of Fulani and local youths who chased them out. The rustlers were said to have attacked the people of Kulben in their escape attempt leading to the casualty.
Ibrahim further stated that; “seven suspects in connection to the attack on Kulben who were trying to escape through Kwatas had been arrested by a vigilante group in the area and one of them was shot and killed when he attempted to shoot the vigilante. The killing of the suspect may be connected to last Sunday’s attack on Kwatas.”
He added that a day after the attack on Kulben, some angry youths on a vengeance mission had attacked and killed a Fulani man named Alhaji Maikasuwa and five of his children and then dumped their remains in a well.
With the Nigerian Police and Operation Safe Haven yet to give its version of what led to the resurgence of killings, Ibrahim’s version continues to trend. But other sources told Daily Trust on Sunday that another theory emanating from the attacks was that suspected herdsmen had unleashed horror on Kwatas due to an altercation that ensued between some herders and youths in Bere village of Mangu LGA. The source explained that; “The youth of Bere had protested their stay when they noticed they were camping in the area which resulted in an altercation and their cattle were scattered all over the place.”
He said though no life was lost in the altercation; there were fears that the herders who were angered by the scattering of their cattle had launched a reprisal attack on Kwatas. However, the Auditor of Gan Allah Fulani Association, Abubakar Yusuf who resides in Marish said he cannot clearly say what led to the attack on Kwatas but explained that; “on Sunday midnight, a local vigilante called to tell us that the Mosque in Marish was under attack and because the Mosque is far away from our residential houses, we all went to put off the fire but while at the Mosque, youths started attacking and burning our houses.”
Yusuf said two people were killed in the attack and dozens of houses set ablaze adding that his family and other residents of Marish were now taking refuge in Mangu LGA.
Bokkos becoming a violent hot spot
The Police had initially confirmed the killing of 13 people with five injured in last Sunday’s attack. However, with tensions high, the incident had activated attacks and counter attacks by angry youths who engaged perceived ‘enemies’ and razed dozens of houses and places of worships in neighbouring communities. The incident which led to the killing of four people in Sabon Bariki, a village less than a 10-minute drive from Kwatas and two people in Marish had further escalated tensions in Mangu and Barkin Ladi LGA’s which sandwich Bokkos.
While this is not the first incident in Bokkos local government area, sources claim criminality in Bokkos has been on the rise since 2016 after the killing of Saf Ron Kwatas, Ali Magaji and Saf Ron Mangunu, Adah David who were murdered in suspicious circumstances. Their killing had shortly been followed by the ambush of the late paramount ruler of Bokkos, Saf Ron Kulere, Lazarus Agai who was killed together with his son, daughter-in-law and a police officer while returning from his farm in neighbouring Sha village.
The killing of the 76-year-old late first-class monarch had sparked a riot in Bokkos that negated the LG’s peaceful scorecard. John Gushe, a resident of Kwatsa said though the people of Bokkos remain peaceful, the killing of its paramount ruler and Chairman, Bokkos Traditional Council of Chiefs, in 2016 had set a new tone of random killings and attacks in the locality.
Bokkos, which is Plateau’s potatoes hub, had before 2016 successfully blocked the spillage of violence from its neighbouring Barkin Ladi LGA. However, in the last few years, criminality had built-up in Bokkos with various reports of kidnappings and attacks even on students of Plateau State University, Bokkos. The latest attack on students of the university had taken place in December when gunmen invaded a play rehearsal by some 200L and 400L Theatre Arts Department at the Open Air Theatre. The gunmen had confiscated phones and money and raped a student. Another attack in June last year had sparked a protest when a 200L student was killed by gunmen who stormed the institution at night.
Lalong talks tough, orders arrest of community leaders.
In what appeared to be a bold step, Plateau State Governor, Simon Bako Lalong ordered the arrest of community leaders and Fulani leaders in the affected communities for their failure to produce those responsible for the attacks. Lalong who was irked by their seeming lack of knowledge of the attackers said; “How can they say that people are killed and there is no arrest. Are those killing others spirits? I don’t think you can kill 15 human beings and claim you are a spirit and there is no arrest. Commissioner of Police, you should take the community leaders and Ardos with you so that they can tell you those behind these killings. By the time you go to cell, you will bring out those people that are doing it. If you want to give evidence, give it to the commissioner of police. We are not afraid of criminals.”
Sources at the security meeting told our correspondent that the governor had been upset with the new resurgence of killings in the state and had accused the leaders of complacency stressing that the criminals were residing within their domain. By Thursday, suspects including, local community and Fulani leaders had been moved to the Criminal Investigations Department at the Force Headquarters, Abuja for questioning.
Coming on the heels of the state’s return of about 3,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from two camps in Barkin Ladi to their ancestral homes, the latest incident in Bokkos is already proving another humanitarian crisis with over 3,000 IDPs taking refuge in Bokkos town and parts of Mangu LGA. “Our fear now is that there are no sufficient security personnel in the affected areas, we want the government to provide more security to ensure those of us around are protected,” said John Gushe.