Esther Mbaterem fled Dan-Anicha, a farming settlement in Gasso Local Government Area of Taraba State in 2001, when her husband and many of her neighbours were murdered during an ethnic war between her native Tiv and their Jukun neighbours. Although she continued to manage the farm her late husband left behind, she and her children relocated to Makurdi, the capital of Nigeria’s North-central state of Benue.
On July 1, 2014, the struggling widow received a phone call that altered the course of her life permanently. A worker on her farm whose father had just died called her to come to Dan-Anicha. As soon as she arrived the farming community, she called a friend to say she had come to pay the salary of staff who work her farm. That visit would turn bloody after persons suspected to be Fulani insurgents cut her with cutlasses and left her for dead.
While Ms. Mbaterem was lucky to escape alive, witnesses, community leaders and officials say hundreds of others have been massacred in seven local government areas of Taraba State where the ethnic crises have persisted. The death toll from the affected areas is said to be over 5,000. Similar attacks in neighbouring Nasarawa and Taraba have also led to hundreds of deaths.
As the battles of the farming fields rage, hundreds of communities lie in ruins. Thousands of buildings, including the signature Tiv round huts, popularly called “Ate”, are empty. Large acreage of cultivated farmlands lie untended in Bali, Donga, Gashaka, Gasso, Ibi, Takum and Wukari local government areas of Taraba State.
In Benue, communities and farms have been ravaged in Makurdi, Guma, Gwer West and Agatu local government areas while in Nasarawa, the attacks have destroyed entire communities in Doma and Keana council areas. Fleeing farmers say some of their villages and farmlands have been turned to camps by suspected Fulani militias in Nasarawa State.
Survivors narrate experience
According to Ms. Mbaterem, she planned to return to Makurdi immediately after paying her workers that same day. On her way out of the farm, she saw two police officers inside a white Toyota Hilux van speeding towards the village and two men following them on a motorbike.
“Barely ten minutes later,” she told PREMIUM TIMES from her home in Makurdi where she awaits financial assistance to treat her wounds, “I saw them coming back while I was trekking to the road to board a taxi to Makurdi. There was a dead body inside the police van and 10 Fulani men following the van on motorcycles.”
She flagged down the police van to find out what had happened but the vehicle would not stop. Then she continued her journey.
Suddenly, she said, the 10 men who were trailing the police vehicle on motorcycles made a u-turn and came towards her.
“My heart jumped as I saw them approaching. It was at that time one of them told me that just as they are carrying the corpse of their brother; my corpse will soon be carried in the same way.”
The 10 cutlass-wielding men surrounded the lone woman while she begged for her life. One of the assailants advised her to look at the sun for the last time just as another brought down his cutlass on her head.
“I raised my hand over my head and the cutlass cut off one of my fingers and I shouted, ‘Jesus Christ come and help me.’ They all laughed at me,” she said, her voice shaking and her face contorting with pain as if she was being attacked again.
Having been taught a few self defence tactics by one of her friends, she used the little she remembered of the lesson to fence off the cutlass from landing on her head.
“I used my left hand to block the cutlass from cutting my head and that is why I have over 30 cuts on my left hand. If you see the wounds on my hands, you will no longer eat beef,” she said with tear- drenched eyes.
As she endured the stabs from her attackers, Ms. Mbaterem did not lose her survival instincts. She heard the voices of her late husband’s relatives who were working in a nearby farm and shouted for help.
On hearing her voice, four farmers appeared with equally sharp cutlasses and gave chase to the 10 marauders. Ms. Mbaterem said the herdsmen killed seven persons including two of her tenants and a member of the community’s vigilante.
Another survivor, 70-year-old Torna Usue said suspected Fulani youth waylaid and attempted to behead him near his compound in Usue Village, Sabon Gida ward, Gasso Local Government Area.
Mr. Usue is the traditional ruler of his community and a member of the Sabon Gida District Traditional Rulers Council. The septuagenarian’s father, Usue, from whose name the village derived its identity, was said to be the first person to settle and cultivate the vast fields in the area.
As a traditional ruler, Mr. Usue had settled many minor disputes between his subjects and cattle breeders. PREMIUM TIMES could not find any recorded case of hostility between the Fulani and the Tiv in Usue until May 26.
On that day, the monarch was walking home after visiting his relations in another part of the community. As he made his way towards his compound, he met some men, whom he said were herdsmen. Knowing him to be the leader of the community, the men greeted Mr. Usue with politeness.
According to the monarch, as he turned to continue his journey, the men pulled out cutlasses and started to attack him. He begged his assailants to no avail. Like Ms. Mbaterem, he used his hands to shield his neck and head from the sharp edges of the cutlasses.
Unable to bear the cuts any longer, the old man fell to the ground and passed out. His assailants thought he was dead and fled the location. When he woke up several hours later, he heard the voices of his relations who had launched a search for him. With the little energy left in him, he shouted out and the search party located and took him to the Federal Medical Centre, Jalingo where he was treated for multiple cuts.
“Some Fulanis arrived in our village over 20 years ago and had been living peacefully with us. But the boys who stabbed me are cattle rearers who came to our village last year,” he said.
Another survivor, Ayue Mnyim, also narrowly escaped death on March 15. Mr. Mnyim, the deputy headmaster of Government Primary School, Igwuratu, in Bali Local Government Area, was taking a stroll after school when a group of cutlass-wielding youth accosted him.
At a refugee camp in the headquarters of Bali Local Government Area, Mr. Mnyim narrated his experience.
“I was coming out of my house when I saw a group of Fulani men approaching me with a cutlass,” he said.
He added that he tried to run away but his attackers caught up with him and started stabbing him on the head with cutlasses.
“What saved me was a bystander who shouted that I am not a Tiv but a Mumuyi man. The man who saved my life was a Hausa man whom I have known for a long time. It was when they heard that, they left me bleeding and walked away,” he said.
Unlike the survivors, thousands of others died in similar circumstances.
Casualty on both sides
While the media and the entire world is focusing on atrocities committed by the extremist Boko Haram sect in parts of North-East Nigeria, insurgents have been killing and maiming hundreds in Bali, Donga, Gashaka, Gasso, Ibi, Takum and Wukari local government areas of Taraba State as well as in the neighboring state of Nasarawa and Benue.
With the lingering crisis, the rising and falling lush green hills; and the expansive arable lands of Southern Taraba, have been tainted with the blood of the innocent.
As the mercenaries invade community after community, killing people, burning houses and looting properties, the media have paid very little attention to the crimes.
Though people of Tiv stock appear to be mostly affected, witnesses, officials and the police have confirmed that several Fulanis have also been killed as well.
According to the Secretary of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, Haruna Garus, over 1,200 Fulani men, women and children have been killed in Benue.
Mr. Garus told PREMIUM TIMES in Makurdi that the killings took place in Buruku, Gboko, Katsina Ala, Kwande, Agatu and Apa local government areas. He said apart from human lives lost to the crisis, over 860 cows have been killed in addition to thousands rustled by unidentified youth.
“Most of those who owned cows in Benue cannot boost of a single cattle today. But the total number of people killed during the crisis is 1,200 including women and children.”
He said the corpses of some Fulanis whose heads were cut off during attacks in the bushes were brought to the police headquarters in Makurdi.
“No arrests have been made,” he complained. “The only place you can still find Fulani people is in Ohimini while some crossed into Kogi State. But some Tiv youth still crossed into Bagana to attack our people.”
In Taraba, the Secretary of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, Shahabi Tukur, said 177 Fulanis have been killed since the beginning of hostilities in the southern part of the state.
“Our people were killed and their cattle stolen in Takum, Ibi, Wukari, Gasso, Bali and other areas in Southern Taraba,” he told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview in Jalingo. “I have the record of the names and the dates of the killings.”
The Chairman of the association, Mafindi Umar, also said Tiv fighters hide in the bushes and attack Fulanis and their cattle in many parts of Southern Taraba.
Mr. Umar recounted how cattle rustlers invaded Mai Gura village in June and stole several cows after killing 10 herdsmen. He maintained that Fulanis are peace-loving people but take exception to deliberate provocation.
While narrating the Tiv casualty, the Chairman, Tiv Cultural Association, Taraba State, James Nungwa, said over 5,000 Tivs have been killed since the hostilities began in the state.
Also, the Resident Pastor, Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria, CRCN, Wukari, Agabison Williams, said he is shocked at the killings of thousands of Tivs from the attacks. He said over 500,000 Tivs have also been displaced.
“If you had been around at the peak of the crisis and see the rate at which the Tiv people were running away, you would definitely pity them,” the cleric told PREMIUM TIMES. “They were running in the day and in the night. Some on bicycles, some on motorcycles and others on trailers and it was happening on a daily basis.”
A failed government
The killings in Taraba, Benue, and Nasarawa are symptomatic of the current insecurity across several parts of Nigeria. Many have blamed the federal government for failing to secure the lives and property of citizens.
Already, some Tiv indigenes have threatened to drag the Federal Government to the International Criminal Court over its complacency in the killings.
The Ter Nagi II and Chairman, Tyoshin Traditional Council, Gwer West Local Government Area of Benue State, Daniel Abomtse, said after series of petitions to President Goodluck Jonathan, Senate President David Mark, Minister of Defence, Aliyu Gusau, and the Inspector General of Police, the government had taken no action to halt the killings.
In his reaction to the killings, the Taraba State Acting Governor, Garba Umar, said the government was doing all in its power to stop the hostilities.
Mr. Umar, who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES through his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Aaron Artimas, said “the fight in Taraba State was not started by Tivs nor the Jukuns.”
“It was an incursion of Fulani herdsmen that has extended the boundary of insurgency campaigns from Plateau to Nasarawa and through Benue to Taraba. The position of the government is that this crisis was started by Fulani insurgents as was pointed out in all the agreements with Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association.”
The Chief Press Secretary to Mr. Umar, Kefas Sule, also explained that the government was doing all it could to resolve the crisis.
In Makurdi, the Benue Police spokesperson, Daniel Ezeani, said the various attacks were being investigated.
He said although the violence has ended, the police would bring all perpetrators to book.
“We are investigating the matter but you cannot expect me to give you details of what we are doing next week. You should give me at least one month to go through the files. You know the crisis happened long ago and peace has since returned to every part of the state,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
In Nasarawa State, the police spokesperson, Numan Umar, said peace has returned to the troubled areas of the state. He commended the former Inspector General of Police, IGP, Mohammed Abubakar, for setting up the committee that brokered peace in the crisis-prone areas of the state.
“Peace has returned to the state after the former IG sent former DIG, Mike Zuokumor to meet with the leaders of both Tiv and Fulani communities in the state,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Asked whether those who were arrested for being involved in the killings have been prosecuted, Mr. Umar said the police was still investigating the matter.
Like the other two police spokespersons, Joseph Kwaji, the Taraba State police spokesperson, said both Tivs and Fulanis recorded casualties in the attacks.
Mr. Kwaji said police investigations showed that those causing the mayhem were not from Taraba State.
“We strongly believed that those causing the problem are not from Taraba State. We have found that some Fulanis from Benue and Plateau states crossed into Taraba and strike and went back,” he said.
Narrating a recent incident, he said, “A few days ago, there was an attack in which many people were killed and houses burnt in a village called Mala in Ibi Local Government Area. The officer in charge of the area told me that the insurgents came in from Tarok in Plateau State.”
Asked what the security agencies are doing to contend the killings, Mr. Kwaji said security operatives have been deployed to most of the flashpoints in the seven council areas affected by the conflict.
“In most of the places were round huts are burnt, you will see police and military checkpoints close by,” he said. “We have been able to check the crisis except in the interior where the herdsmen are engaged in guerrilla fight and where the roads are not motorable.”