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Inside Benue’s unending militia war

Bloodbath at Gbagir The burst of sounds like those of submachine guns spitting pellets of death rattled the neighbourhood of Gbagir community in Ukum Local…

Bloodbath at Gbagir

The burst of sounds like those of submachine guns spitting pellets of death rattled the neighbourhood of Gbagir community in Ukum Local Government Area of Benue State with a deafening intensity.

It was the latest in the growing supremacy battle between “Full Fire” and “Chain” as well as other militia gangs on the border between Zaki Biam (Benue) and Wukari (Taraba) states that broke out on March 5.

Terrified by the gunshots, which brought back awful memories of the late Terwase Akwaza (Gana) era, scores of innocent residents, mostly vulnerable women, children and the elderly, ran for their dear lives, many of them getting severely injured in the process.

By the last count, over 40 lives, including those of a family of seven, were lost in the bloodbath, which also saw several houses torched.

Although most of the victims were members of the rival militia groups, 12 innocent farmers within the community were gunned down in the crossfire, while 30 other villagers were reportedly injured. 

Findings revealed that the deadly clash at Gbagir was a reprisal triggered after a militia leader in Ukum Local Government of Benue State allegedly kidnapped his counterpart from Chinkai community in Wukari Local Government of Taraba State.

The victim, called Alhaji Ghana, who was abducted with his family members, was said to be known for banditry and kidnapping.

A N100 million ransom demand was made, but it was gathered that N5 million was later paid to secure his freedom.

However, after collecting the money, the militia kingpin from Ukum was said to have killed the hostages, a development that sparked outrage among the deceased’s gang members, who quickly mobilised for a reprisal. 

The power tussle

Curiously, Daily Trust Saturday gathered that following the killing of the hostages from Taraba, a ‘power hungry’ militia gang leader in Ukum Local Government of Benue State conspired and joined forces with the enemies on a reprisal mission to eliminate the rival gang in his community.

The essence, according to findings, was to enable him become the head of the militia in Ukum.

 Earlier in January this year, no fewer than 9 people were killed during a rival local militia attack at some villages in Mbatyula and Mbayongo council wards in Katsina-Ala Local Government Area of Benue State.

During the three days of bloody mayhem, which was also linked to a power tussle, several houses were reportedly burned down by the factional militia groups.

A resident of Katsina-Ala who recalled the incident said, “It was a coordinated series of attacks that were carried out in some parts of Mbatyula council ward by armed men suspected to be rival militia groups from Mbayongo ward.

“On the fateful day, the armed men stormed Atumbe, a settlement in Mbatyula ward, setting houses ablaze and carting away some properties. They later moved to Kur Hile, another settlement in Mbatyula, where some houses were also burnt.

The same thing happened at Anyom community in Mbatyula ward on Wednesday, January 17, 2024, where seven people were killed and several houses burned to ashes.

Zamzam Francis, the caretaker chairman of Katsina-Ala Local Government, had reportedly confirmed the incident and was quoted as saying that it was between the rival militia gangs.

Elsewhere in March this year, another incident occurred along the Wukari-Takum road in Taraba State, where some armed militia from the Ukum axis of Benue State allegedly attacked some locals who were travelling for an annual Christian crusade in Takum.

“They ambushed our people on the way from Wukari for the crusade. In the process, they killed three victims and snatched their car while four others were wounded and hospitalised at the Wukari General Hospital,” said a youth leader in Wukari.

The source, who did not want his identity revealed for security reasons said: “The perpetrators were bandits from the Sankera axis of Benue State who take pleasure in kidnapping to raise funds and satisfy their bloodthirsty appetite. They have been doing this to us during this kind of festival period every year. We have been patient and told our boys not to retaliate. But if they continue, we will be forced to fight back.”

How Benue’s militia started, festered

Findings by Daily Trust Saturday revealed that the enduring bloodbath by armed gangs on the border between Benue and Taraba states preceded the 2001 alleged abduction and killing of 19 soldiers by Tiv militia youths. This followed a series of attacks and counterattacks by Tiv and Jukun groups within Taraba, as well as the areas around the border between the two states.

The soldiers, according to government authorities, were on a mission to restore peace in the area affected by the longstanding conflict between the warring groups when they were abducted by some armed group in Vaase, Benue State on October 10. The discovery of their mutilated bodies two days later, on October 12, in the premises of a primary school in the town of Zaki-Biam, led to a deadly reprisal by the military in Zaki-Biam and other locations.

Following the Zaki-Biam massacre, remnants of the Tiv militia youths were said to have gone wild, even as they became vulnerable tools in the hands of politicians, particularly from the Sankera geopolitical axis comprising Katsina-Ala, Ukum and Logo local government areas.

“Militia activities in Benue’s Sankera assumed a new dimension when politicians began to leverage on remnants of the Tiv militia youths in the aftermath of the Zaki-Biam incident in 2001 to form their political gangs,” said a prominent politician from Katsina-Ala.

The source, who did not want to be identified for security reasons said: “All the major political stalwarts from that area began to create and arm their militia youths, who were used during the 2019 and successive elections.”

The emergence of ‘Gana Boys’

Towards the first tenure of former Governor Gabriel Suswam, a group of youths was unveiled at an event in Katsina-Ala. The group, which was primarily like a local vigilante charged with the mandate of protecting the Sankera geo-political axis against external aggression, was headed by the late Benue militia kingpin, Terwase Akwaza, popularly known as Gana.

Although they were said to have started operating in line with their original mandate, Gana and his boys soon began to veer off into alleged criminal activities, such as armed robbery, banditry and cattle rustling.

Several attempts by the state government to stop the group became very difficult because, as a source puts it: “The boys had found a lucrative business.”

Gana was largely believed to be at the centre of the crisis between Benue and Taraba border communities, leading to the killing of scores of victims and destruction of property worth billions of naira on both sides. He was also believed to be the brain behind most kidnappings in Taraba and Benue states, including his Tiv kinsmen who suffered untold consequences of his actions.

“The involvement of Operation Zenda and other security outfits to contain Gana and his boys yielded little or no results as they shifted base into the hinterland, from where they planned and executed periodic attacks and abductions,” a security source told Daily Trust Saturday.  

Ortom’s ‘carrot’ amnesty

When former Governor Samuel Ortom came in as Suswam’s successor, he introduced the amnesty programme to end the Gana phenomenon.

In 2015, the amnesty was first introduced, with Gana as the greatest beneficiary. On the last day of the programme, he reportedly turned in no fewer than 84 assorted firearms and thousands of ammunition and was not only granted pardon, the state government equally made him a revenue consultant as part of his rehabilitation.

But not soon after the programme, an incident occurred that cast a major setback on the whole process. Sources said he reneged after it was alleged that he sponsored the assassination of the then senior special assistant to the governor on security, Mr Denen Igbana.

“Back in the trenches, Gana placed special levies on farmers, traders and prominent people in his domain, and failure to pay meant death. He fought supremacy gang wars with his former allies, who visited carnages on several communities in Katsina-Ala and Ukum local government areas.

“This state of affairs prompted prominent indigenes of the geopolitical axis, including political, religious and traditional leaders to request for another amnesty programme, especially since the military had failed to nab him,” a community leader who sought identity protection said.

On Friday, September 4, 2020, Ortom, while on a tour of the Sankera axis, accepted the request of the leaders. He gave an ultimatum to those who wanted to embrace the second amnesty to surrender their weapons by September 8.

Before the visit, major stakeholders from the Sankera area had persuaded those with illegal weapons in their custody to surrender them.

That was how Gana found himself in the second amnesty programme.

Security sources said that in the company of religious leaders, he left his hideout and presented himself at the Emmanuel Akume Atongo Stadium in Katsina-Ala in full public glare to embrace the programme. The State Security Council was holding a meeting at the new Banquet Hall of the Government House, Makurdi, where the programme was to be formalised.

Selected traditional rulers, prominent indigenes and security personnel took off with Gana and other political chieftains from the stadium to go and present them to the Council in Makurdi.

Before he left his domain, Gana was said to have beckoned on leaders of his foot soldiers and told them that he suspected foul play and that if he eventually failed to return, they should continue from where he stopped. On their way to Makurdi, the military intercepted the convoy at Masaje, close to Yandev in Gboko Local Government Area and he was killed.

Gana’s vacuum and succession battle

Findings revealed that things began to fall apart within the hierarchy of Gana’s terrorist empire following his death. Ghana was believed to have maintained a stable network of foot soldiers from Benue and Taraba states due to his firm leadership control. Apart from armed robbery, kidnapping and other criminal exploits, he was also said to have leveraged on his political benefactors to maintain and sustain his gang financially.

However, this was no longer the case after his death as financial difficulty and a fierce battle over succession ensued among his foot soldiers and the new commanders.

“There was no more effective central control as all the units from the Sankera axis and beyond began to break away and fight for autonomy. Unlike Gana, who used to get funding from politicians, the new commanders were no longer getting financial support.

“Some of them resorted to going to Fulani herders in places like Kwande and Guma to collect money, with promises of allowing them freely graze on lands within their communities. The herders are claiming that the lands were sold to them, leading to the escalation of herders’ attacks,” a source from Kwande told Daily Trust Saturday.

Used, dumped by politicians

Daily Trust Saturday gathered that a major factor in the escalation of militia activities in the Sankera geopolitical axis of Benue State is the feeling of being used and dumped by politicians from the area.

Towards the end of Ortom’s tenure, politicians seeking elective positions from the area were said to have worked with the militia groups with promises for them, including amnesty.

Apart from providing physical protection for the politicians during electioneering campaigns, some of the militia groups were said to have even contributed financially towards the election of the politicians from the area.

During his electioneering campaign, the current Benue State governor, The Reverend Fr. Hycinth Alia, was also said to have promised to introduce a comprehensive amnesty programme for repentant bandits.

While unveiling his manifesto, christened, ‘Strategic Development Plan for a Greater Benue,’ he reportedly promised that upon winning election, he would, among others, “establish Permanent Integrated Forward Operation Bases for security men at all the flashpoints where there have been cases of armed attacks and displacement of people.

A don at the Political Science Department of the Benue State University attributed the escalation of militia activities in the state to failed promises by politicians, whom he said used and dumped the armed militia at will.

“After elections, the politicians who used these bad boys reneged on their promises, especially on amnesty. You don’t expect people armed with weapons to sit down and watch these politicians in their comfort zones while they wallow in penury,” said the don, who did not want his name in print.

Governor Alia still open to amnesty –Media aide

Responding to a question on the promise made during his electioneering campaign to grant amnesty to repentant militants, Governor Alia’s media aide told Daily Trust Saturday that the promised olive branch is still available to anyone willing to abandon criminality, rehabilitate their lives for the growth and development of their families, communities and Benue State in general.

The governor’s Technical Advisor on Media, Publicity and Strategic Communication, Solomon Iorpev, said his principal’s doors were open to everyone seeking productive and progressive change to step forward and join him to build a stronger and better Benue. 

“There are great and legitimate opportunities made available by the state in the programmes being implemented by the governor, and we are hopeful they would take advantage of them for their own good and the betterment of the state.

“Do not forget that his natural calling is priesthood, which entails rehabilitating people and prompting them to live good and meaningful lives, live peacefully with one another and be their brothers’ keepers.

“So rehabilitating Benue citizens who consciously or unconsciously have fallen into criminality is not farfetched for him,” Iorpev said.

On measures taken so far in tackling security challenges in the state, especially militia attacks and herders-farmers crises, he said the governor was passionate about the welfare of his people and working round the clock to provide security for them.

“He has engaged in comprehensive stakeholders dialogue to curb the insecurity situation in the state, the reason I believe we have some relative peace today.

“Security agents are being deployed constantly to unstable areas to stop escalation in crisis-prone areas, and in most cases, nip them in the bud.

“He has also inaugurated security outfits across the state to respond to crisis situations where they may arise. We have mining marshals, agro rangers etc.

“Though most of the insecurity situations pre-date this administration, that has not deterred him from handling it head-on as security agents are working round the clock to secure lives and property in the state,” the governor’s aide said.

allegedly attacked some locals who were travelling for an annual Christian crusade in Takum.

“They ambushed our people on the way from Wukari for the crusade. In the process, they killed three victims and snatched their car while four others were wounded and hospitalised at the Wukari General Hospital,” said a youth leader in Wukari.

The source, who did not want his identity revealed for security reasons said: “The perpetrators were bandits from the Sankera axis of Benue State who take pleasure in kidnapping to raise funds and satisfy their bloodthirsty appetite. They have been doing this to us during this kind of festival period every year. We have been patient and told our boys not to retaliate. But if they continue, we will be forced to fight back.”

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