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Why Violence Persists in Benue

It was May 2, 2018. As she sang what sounded like a rendition, her little daughter of about two years old standing in front of…

It was May 2, 2018. As she sang what sounded like a rendition, her little daughter of about two years old standing in front of her responded with amazing dancing frenzy. In a manner reminiscent of the traditional ‘swange’ dance style of the Tiv people, little Erdoo displayed some dancing steps in such a way that could make a professional choreographer green with envy.  Apparently oblivious of this approaching reporter, a mother and her child went on singing and dancing until they were jolted by the flash from my camera as I pressed the shutter to take a snapshot. 

A few meters away, a crouching young woman called Mbawuese  defied the surging smoke from the fireplace in front of her as she scraped the black back of a tiny tuber of yam she had roasted; which upon inquiry,  she said was to serve as her morning meal.

But Erdoo’s entertainment, as well as Mbawuese’s roasted yam, only provided them with a momentary relief at the Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) Camp located at the LGEA Primary School, Agam, near Makurdi. Elsewhere within the sprawling camp, the faces of the internally displaced persons, among them women and children, including the elderly, bore the signature of hunger, anguish and sorrow. 

There are about 585 victims of the Benue crisis at this particular camp. Out of this number, 186 are women, 174 men while the remaining 225 are children.

All is not well at the Agam camp, according to its patron, Thomas Azo, who complained of neglect by the government and relevant agencies. Though among the eight registered internally displaced persons camps across the state, Azo said there was no security presence there, a situation that makes them prone to attacks and does not allow them sleep with both eyes closed.  

“We ran away from our various communities due to insecurity occasioned by herdsmen attacks. But in this camp we are taking refuge in the open without security personnel to guard us. We just sleep in the classrooms and depend on God’s protection,” Azo said.

Corroborating Azo’s position, the secretary of the camp, Joseph Apeh, said apart from lack of food, other facilities were also lacking. It was gathered that in the absence of a clinic at the camp, several female displaced persons delivered their babies in the classrooms without antenatal attention. Among them is a lady called Lucy, who is currently nursing a set of twins she delivered at the camp about three weeks earlier.

“There is no clinic here. We depend on a nearby one where individual victims who can afford it bear the cost of medical services rendered,” Apeh said, stressing that water was also lacking at the camp, a situation that had forced them to depend on nearby streams for water.

“Even when our wives go to the nearby streams to fetch water, they are chased away by residents of the neighboring communities, who also depend on the streams as their only sources of water,” Apeh said, adding that the only available borehole at the camp that was provided by a philanthropic organisation called Arm of Hope Foundation was dysfunctional. 

“After collecting over N400, 000, the contractor that handled the borehole did a shoddy job, and as you can see, it is not supplying any water,” he added.

Daily Trust on Sunday also gathered that lack of toilet facilities at the Agam camp has forced the victims to resort to open defecation around the vicinity, a situation that has not only rendered the place unhygienic but also makes it prone to infections such as cholera.  

“The three pit toilets that were built have all been filled and are no longer useful; hence we are forced to defecate in the nearby bushes,” Apeh said.

In another IDP camp located along Gbajimba road, near Daudu in Guma Local Government Area, a group of displaced persons formed a circle under a large tree trunk where they were whiling away time,  playing a local chess game on the sand. As they chorused in excitement at the pleasure of their game they hardly noticed the arrival of our reporter until the flash from my camera jolted them into rising on their feet with curiosity.

It was in the early hours of the day and elsewhere within the camp, women and children busied themselves with different chores and activities. While some gathered around bowls of food prepared with corn or millet flour eating their morning meal, many others busied themselves fetching water or hewing firewood from the neighborhood. 

Among the over 3,000 internally displaced persons at the IDP-1 Camp at Daudu, located in Guma Local Government Area, was a cripple called Vincent Kaashima, who hails from Mbaduwen community. As he sat on his wheelchair, Kaashima narrated how his ordeal started on January 3, 2018 and how he got to the camp.

“We were deeply asleep at night when we were woken by the alarm raised by children that herders had come. As a cripple I couldn’t run. It was with the help of my children that I was wheeled through the bush paths until we eventually got to a main road where a passing vehicle conveyed us to this camp,’’ he narrated.

Jacob Iorsheregh (37) said he ran to the IDP camp following the New Year eve’s attack. He said that on the fateful day, suspected herders attacked a nearby village and killed many people.

Many other displaced persons in this particular camp narrated harrowing accounts of how they escaped attacks. But the situation they found at the camp did not provide the desired relief, according to the chairman of the IDP Camp-1 Daudu, Vincent China. 

“Displaced persons from other places such as Nasarawa State are also camped here, so the available facilities are overstretched and food does not go round. So many go hungry for days,” China said.

He said there was lack of water and drugs at the camp, a situation that forces many to seek medical attention elsewhere in the town. “Whenever we go to fetch firewood in the neighbouring community, the people seize them from us. 

The situation is similar at the LGEA Primary School camp, Ugba, as well as the one in Anyiin, all in Logo Local Government Area, which were established in January this year. On arrival in the camp at Ugba, which has an estimated population of over 10,000 displaced persons, a humanitarian worker was seen rushing a baby out of the clinic. It was gathered that having run out of drugs, the child could not be treated of malaria there, so they had to rush him to another facility in the town. 

Ande Mnguhenen, a community health worker attached to the clinic, said their greatest challenge was lack of drugs to administer on ailing victims. She particularly complained that there were no anti-malarial drugs; hence they had many cases of malaria outbreak at the camp, which were referred elsewhere.

The 18 camps spread across Benue State have a population of over 180,000 people. The crisis took a worrisome dimension recently following the attack on a church in Mbalom community in Gwer-East Local Government area, during which two priests were killed. While the pains inflicted by that attack was still being felt by members of the community, the people of neighbouring Naka town, headquarters of Gwer-West Local Government Area, also woke up one sad day to an attack by military personnel over the killing of a soldier. 

Governor Samuel Ortom, who was on a vacation visit to China while the attacks occurred, cut short his trip and returned to Benue. 

“The situation was getting worse and I needed to come back and join forces with the deputy governor and other stakeholders to ensure that we minimise the rate of attacks that were going on. I met a very devastating situation, but thank God it is under control and the response from the Federal Government is also encouraging,” said Ortom in an interview with Daily Trust in Makurdi. 

Describing both attacks as unfortunate, Ortom, however, said he appreciated the efforts that had been stepped up by the Federal Government in addressing the situation. 

“There is already a combined team of security forces in the state. A team from the defence headquarters has been here for over one week. The Chief of Army Staff himself is here and was out there in the field. He has given specific directives to the security agencies to make sure they got rid of these mercenaries. 

“You are aware that Mr. President said it was not just herdsmen; it’s about mercenaries trained by the late Gaddafi. I believe they will be able to completely eliminate this challenge so that people can go back to their homes. We have a law in place and it is not meant to send herdsmen away from our land. It is just meant to regulate them so that farmers and herders can live together. I believe that this operation the Nigerian security forces are putting together will definitely provide succour to our people.

“I am still very worried with the situation as it is because having over 180,000 displaced persons in eight camps that are not even standard ones is not acceptable. These primary schools are hosting these people because there are no alternatives. 

“This thing started during the dry season, but now that the rainy season is here, it is a source of worry for those children, old men and women. Apart from the ones in the camps, we have over 500,000 displaced persons who are staying with relatives.  

It remains a big problem that is beyond us. We have spoken to the Federal Government and they have done an assessment, with a promise to reach out to us. We are still waiting.

“Spirited individuals have also supported with relief items. The state government has been taking care of the management of the camps and all that. We have been encouraging people to find relatives and stay with, pending when their places are secured for them to go back. That is why I commend Mr President for responding to us by sending the combined team of security agencies to restore normalcy so that these people can go back home. There is no place like home. I visited them and they were all yearning to go home. And I want to support them to do so,” Governor Ortom said.

Why the crisis has continued 

Many factors have been attributed to the continued crisis between herders and farmers in Benue State. Some people believe the tension rose to a hurricane proportion following the mass burial organised by the state government as a result of the 73 people killed on the New Year eve at Logo. 

“Since that mass burial, tension had risen as people were angry and looked for opportunities to avenge. People no longer felt secured, and jobless young men cashed in on the slightest opportunity to unleash mayhem,” said Abubakar Tsav, a former commissioner of police, who also attributed the unending violence in Benue State to the proliferation of arms.

The crisis, according to Tsav, is also festering because those involved are playing to the gallery and refusing to speak the truth. “Let us speak the truth and avoid sentiments. If it is Tiv or Fulani that are at fault, let us admit so,” Tsav said.

While recommending a judicial commission of inquiry to look at the crisis, Tsav said, “The commission would find out who are fuelling the crisis.”

Tsav also said the manner in which the anti-grazing law was enacted by the Ortom-led government was also fuelling the crisis. “We expected the government to tell the Fulani where they reserved for their ranches, but this was not done. It was an omission. So the Fulani thought it was an indirect way of sending them away from Benue. 

But Governor Ortom said the anti-open grazing law was not meant to send herdsmen away from Benue; rather, it was just meant to regulate them so that farmers and herders can live together. 

Speaking in the same vein, the Sarkin Hausawa in Makurdi, Alhaji Rayyanu Sangami, blamed the festering of the crisis on the inability of elders to speak the truth. “If they speak the truth without showing sentiments and ethnic divisions, this crisis will be over. If you are involved in the crisis, even if you are at fault, it is better to own up and tell the truth. Tribal sentiments should be kept aside,” Sangami said.

While condemning the attack on the Catholic Church at Mbalom, in which two Reverend Fathers were killed, the Sarkin Hausawa, who disclosed that he was born and bred in Benue and had been living there since 1961 said, “We were pained when the two priests were killed, and we sympathised with them. But to our surprise, some miscreants started blocking the roads and killing our members along Gboko, Naka and Oturkpo. On April 24, 2018, some of our boys who were okada riders, shoemakers, tailors and foodstuff sellers, as well as scavengers, were attacked and killed,” Sangami alleged. 

Although the state police command had denied knowledge of the killings, Samgami, who displayed photographs of those he said were the victims, he said: “As at now I can confirm to you that nine of our people were killed while 13 others were badly injured.” He said one corpse was still at the Benue State University Teaching Hospital while that of another victim was yet to be recovered.

While alleging that some of their members were still missing, Sangami gave the names of five of the deceased victims as Sanusi Ibrahim, Ibrahim Dan Sarkin Bali, Mubarak Aliyu, Shehu Abubakar and Yahaya Shoe Shiner. He said the identities of the remaining victims were yet to be ascertained. According to him, one mosque was also burnt at the Makurdi Modern Market.

Sangami, however, said his prompt intervention prevented a planned reprisal attack by those he referred to as criminal elements among his community. “In every situation, there are criminals. I got information that criminal elements among our community wanted to attack and I quickly informed the commissioner of police in the state, who cooperated and prevented the reprisals,” he said.

Danladi Ciroma, the North Central zonal chairman of the Miyyetti Allah Cattle Breaders Association of Nigeria, said while the anti-grazing law had worsened the situation, there were criminal elements among the Tiv that were rustling Fulani cows. He also attributed the festering crisis to lack of good leadership and patience between the two parties.  “Politicians are fuelling this crisis. The worst part is the anti-grazing law, which has compounded the situation,” Ciroma said.

He also accused the military personnel that were involved in the exercise Ayem Akpatema of fuelling the crisis. “When they came they were indiscriminately arresting our boys, many of whom were detained in Makurdi and Gboko prisons. At the Magistrate Court in Makurdi they are being fined between the sum of N500, 000 to N700, 000. We place the blame on the exercise Ayem Akpatema personnel who were indiscriminately arresting our boys,” Ciroma said.

While denying the involvement of Fulani herders in the killing of the priests at Gwer Local Government Area, Ciroma, who alleged that over 1,000 cows belonging to Fulani men were rustled in Benue State said: “For over five years, herders were not going to Gwer East or Gwer West, so how can they say they were responsible for the killing of the priests?’’ 

Ubbi Haruna, the Benue State branch chairman of Miyyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association also denied the involvement of Fulani herders in the killing of the Catholic priests. Attributing the killings to politics, he said: “Some people went to kill the two pastors and they said it was Fulani, but this is not true. Everything is being attributed to herdsmen.” He also blamed the festering of the crisis to the anti-grazing law in the state.

To The Reverend Akpen Leva, the chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Benue State chapter, the issue of herdsmen in Benue is not a new thing. “I want to tell you that we in Benue know that there are Fulani herdsmen – not suspected herdsmen as coined by the media. They had told us that they were coming to attack, so when we are speaking we refer to Fulani herdsmen. They come, attack and kill our people, and this has been on in the state for quite a long time,” Leva said.

He said it was as a result of the constant attacks that the people of Benue endorsed the anti-open grazing law. “Immediately it was done, Miyyetti Allah came out boldly and said they would resist the law. They also claimed that they were here in the Benue Valley before and would ensure they come back. But these are complete lies because by the time Usman Dan Fodio came in 1804 with his jihad, our people were already here on the Benue Valley and they resisted him,” he maintained.

Leva said that as far as CAN was concerned, the new dimension to the crisis leading to the killing of the two priests during church service amounted to the declaration of war on the church, not only in Benue, but the country as a whole. “What has priests got to do with grazing?” he queried.

He, however, called on Christians in Benue to remain steadfast in their prayers, saying: “God planted us here, not human beings. No one can uproot us. God says we will remain in the Benue Valley. We resisted the jihad in 1804 and we will continue to resist it.”

Chief Edward Ujege, the president-general of Mdzough U Tiv, a Tiv socio-cultural group, said that if left unchecked, the crisis would have adverse economic effects, not only on Benue State but Nigeria as a whole. “There are thousands of internally displaced persons, as a result of which no farming activities are going on. Famine is imminent, even as the schools no longer function,” Ujege said.

On how to find a permanent solution to the crisis, he said the Federal Government should buy into the anti-open grazing law enacted by the Benue State government by seeing to its implementation. Security agencies, he said, must also work with the people.

The president of Idoma National Forum, Amali Adoya Amali, described the lingering crisis as unfortunate, saying the recent killing of priests in Benue points to a new agenda. “Apart from the recurring killings, we believe the recent killings in church cannot be attributed to herders/farmers crisis, and government must act promptly before it degenerates,” Amali said, stressing that the way out of the crisis is to uphold and implement the anti-open grazing law.

A new twist was added to the Benue crisis when an aide to Governor Ortom was arrested and hauled into military detention over alleged links with Boko Haram and Benue killings. Aliyu Tashaku, who heads the Livestock Guards, was initially in charge of the Civilian Joint Task Force saddled with the responsibility of checking herdsmen attacks in Benue and Nasarawa states.

Reacting to the arrest, Ortom said: “Let the security men do the needed investigation. If he is found culpable he will answer to it, but let justice be done. Let it not just be blackmail or intimidation, or a way of trying to implicate him. If he is found culpable, the evidence will be there. The allegations against him are very grievous and I am waiting for the outcome. Here is a man I inherited, and from history, I was told that he was brought here by the security agencies to help man security support between Benue and Nasarawa states. But when I came I set up the Livestock Guards and we decided that he should head it because he is familiar with Fulani men. So I have nothing to hide and I can never shield anyone with criminal intent. Let justice be done.”

Although they differed in their opinions over the real motives behind the farmers/herders crisis, as well as reasons why the crisis has continued, all the stakeholders who spoke with Daily Trust on Sunday agreed on the need to end the violence and allow peace to reign in the Benue Valley. 

The Deputy Chief Imam of Makurdi, Abubakar Abdullahi, who is also the imam of Wadata, a predominantly Hausa settlement in the state capital said, “We were living peacefully, and there were peaceful ways of resolving disputes. Let us embrace each other and go back to living in peace the way we used to.”

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