Rural communities in Benue State are no doubt on the brink of extinction except for any urgent solution to nib the trend of killings.
The agrarian state has continued to suffer massive attacks by armed invaders in at least the past 10 years such that many of its population are reportedly living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps or elsewhere far away from their ancestral homes.
More so, against the background of recent attacks in rural communities of Guma, Otukpo and Apa local government areas where the armed men killed more than 134 people within five days, more villagers have deserted their homes and farms to swell the camps as well as their relatives’ homes in cities nearest to them.
The state governor, Samuel Ortom, said the 134 people were killed in the latest attacks which happened between April 3 and April 7 in the three local government areas of the state, adding that some persons are still missing in the affected communities while those injured are receiving treatment at different hospitals in the state.
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A breakdown of the death toll indicated that 52 people were killed in Umogidi village of Entekpa-Adoka district in Otukpo LGA after the death toll rose from the initial 46 recorded on the spot. That figure was beside the three people earlier killed in the same village a day before the massacre.
Also, the death toll from Ngban IDP camp in Guma on the night of April 7 rose from 36 to 38 while in Apa LGA, a total of 47 people were reportedly killed on April 3 in different villages including Ikobi community where a traditional ruler was killed along with some of his subjects.
The killings, which appeared to have defied measures put in place in the past and present by successive governments at both the federal and state, had caused even politicians in the state to trade tackles.
For instance, recently, the state chairman of APC, Comrade Austin Agada, in company with the senator-elect of Benue North West senatorial district, Chief Titus Zam, faulted the Ortom’s administration for the escalation of attacks in parts of the state.
They had, at a news conference in Makurdi alongside 23 other members of APC, appealed to both Governor Ortom and herders’ militia to tread the path of peace and refrain from all activities that have led to the escalation of security breaches in some LGAs.
Ortom had, however, in a response through his media adviser, Terver Akase, said, “By their outing, the APC in Benue State has left no one in doubt that they are working closely with those who invade communities of the state and attack innocent people.”
Our correspondent reports that overtime, the federal government had evolved several security strategies to ensure peaceful coexistence between farmers and pastoralists in the state.
First, it was believed that the lingering crisis between farmers and nomadic herders started the killings. The farmers and herders are said to often get confrontational in the process of settling their differences when the farmers’ crops are trampled on by animals belonging to herders, a development which degenerated to deadly attacks and reprisals.
As time went by, the attacks on rural villages became fiercer and beyond communal and state leadership resolve.
To this end, the ex-President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration often sent high-powered police delegations to mediate between herders and farmers in the state.
During the period, several peace meetings were also brokered between pastoralists and farmers involving Benue and Nasarawa states.
But the peaceful resolutions were always short-lived, necessitating other rounds of town halls which were held monthly either in Benue’s Makurdi or Nasarawa’s Lafia with the governors of the states taking the lead.
The then governor of Benue, Gabriel Suswam, and his Nasarawa counterpart, Governor Tanko Almakura, continued on that path without finding an end to the crisis before the coming of the government of President Muhammadu Buhari and Ortom as Benue governor in 2015.
Soon after the present administration mounted the saddle of leadership, the challenge of taming insecurity took a more frightening dimension which, of course, led the Buhari’s government to inaugurate ‘Exercise Ayem Akpatuma’ – a special military squad whose first phase lasted for a few months.
Despite the successes recorded by the various security apparatuses, the challenge didn’t go away.
The unending killings, therefore, in the submission of Governor Ortom, further led to his accentuation of the Benue State Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment law on May 27, 2017 after it was passed by the state house of assembly.
Consequent upon the development, the federal government had at different times stepped up varied security operations to stem the tide—Operation Ayem Akpetuma (lasted awhile), Operation Whirl Stroke, Operation Zenda—amid the workings of the regular military and other security agencies in the state.
Also, the state government, at the wake of signing up the law to prohibit open grazing of animals in 2017, established the Livestock Guards whose main duty was to enforce the law and most recently, the Benue State Community Volunteer Guards to complement the traditional security.
Ortom thinks that the new security outfit should be allowed by the federal government to legally bear sophisticated weapons for effective confrontation with the invaders.
However, with some levels of successes recorded by the various security outfits, the killings were not completely stopped, a situation which had left residents of the state living with anxiety and unsure as to whether there would ever be any solution to end their nightmare.
A security expert, CP Iorbee Ihagh (rtd), who is a former Controller General of Prisons, said only the federal government could solve the crisis facing the state.
Ihagh told our correspondent that the buck lies with the president because he commands the military and all other security apparatuses that are equipped with weapons and human resources to bring a lasting solution to the situation in Benue and other states facing a similar challenge
For Chief Joseph Anawah, a community leader from Logo, one of the affected areas in the state, the only way out is to get herders settled in one place to avoid clashes with farmers.
“There is also a communal crisis in the state over land. This too breaches the peace of the affected areas. Here the traditional institutions should be empowered and charged with the responsibility to nib the lingering crisis in the bud.
Other pockets of insecurity in the state such as kidnapping, banditry and the like are perpetrated by criminal elements and can be adequately tackled by security agencies in synergy with the communities,” he said.
Anawah added that, “Benue as an agrarian state is dominated by farmers who dwell on agriculture. On the other hand, the pastoralists who are nomadic encroach on the farms thereby causing destruction to the yields. This has been the cause of conflict between the farmers and herders over decades. That is how we got where we are today.
“The herders/farmers’ clashes were settled by themselves through dialogue and negotiation.
Owners of animals that destroy or encroach on farm lands were made to pay compensation. Crises were avoided by amicable settlements.”
He charged the incoming government of Reverend Father Hyacinth Alia to find a way of getting the pastoralists settled in one place as is obtainable in developed communities across the globe when he takes over power.
“The new government should check the indiscriminate bearing of firearms, especially among herders and the youths. Increase security surveillance especially at the border communities and also gainfully engage Benue youths as doing so will make them shy away from criminalities,” Anawah said.
The national chairman of Apa Development Association, Barrister Eche Akpoko, said a combined action by the community and military would bring peace to Benue.
“It happened in Agatu in the past and a combined effort of community members and the military brought the situation under control. Although there have been renewed attacks in some flash points such as Ogbaulu, Aila and Atakpa in Agatu LGA recently,” he said.
He advised the new government to demonstrate the political will to tackle insecurity without bias.
“We got to this point as a result of bad governance.
“Over time, Nigeria has produced leaders who are selfish, clannish and sacrifice merits for mediocrity, hence the collapse of nationalism in Nigeria. Due to lack of nationalism, no citizen, including our leaders, has loyalty to the nation; rather their loyalties lie with their communities where their safety may be guaranteed.
“For instance, I know no organisation that accommodates the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and other ethnic groups in Nigeria to promote the concept of nationhood in Nigeria; rather, we have Ndigbo promoting the Igbo nation, the Afenifere championing the Yoruba nation and the Arewa Consultative Forum championing the northern cause.
“The way out of the insecurity is for the government to demonstrate capacity to combat crimes through credible intelligence gathering, arresting and punishing perpetrators in accordance with the laws of the land,” he said.
Meanwhile, the police said it was doing its best and would continue to ensure the restoration of peace in the state.
Spokesperson of the Benue State Police Command, SP Catherine Anene, said the situation would have been worse but for the police, military operations and other security apparatuses deployed to flash areas.