Hundreds of survivors of the Agatu killings in Benue State who were taking refuge outside the Oturkpo palace of the paramount ruler of Idomaland, the Och’ Idoma, have been chased away in what is double jeopardy for a lot of them.
The refugees said they were chased on the orders of His Royal Majesty, Elias Ekoyi Obekpa.
The palace of the monarch wouldn’t comment on the allegation, with an official saying only a certain refugee committee can do so. The committee could not be reached for days.
Women, children and the elderly are among the over 400 survivors from Aila community who fled the massacre by Fulani herdsmen, walked for days in groups, before getting mass transportation assistance to Oturkpo where they took shelter in a pavilion outside the royal palace.
Weeks ago Aila, Adagbo, Akwu, Odejo, Ugbui and Okokolo communities in Agatu local government area of Benue State came under armed attack as invading Fulani herdsmen killed helpless children, women and men alike.
Over 200 lives were lost in the first killing spree just as hundreds of houses, yam barns and other farm produce were burnt.
While some of the fleeing villagers sought refuge in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps in Ojantele, Ataganyi and Ugbokpo, all in Apa Local Government Area of the state, the about 400 refugees from Aila journeyed further to Oturkpo where they have more ethnic affinity.
But after days in the palace shelter, the refugees awoke one morning to a rude shock. In what would become a second displacement, palace authorities ordered them to vacate the shelter immediately. They were pushed out of the pavilion into the street and left there to their own devices by guards who reportedly wielded horse whips.
A bewildered Deborah Onuminya, a mother of four, who still did not know whether her husband was dead or alive told PREMIUM TIMES that the only reason given by the palace authorities before they were ejected was that the refugees were making noise and disturbing the peace of the royal father.
She said they were marched out of the shelter without alternative arrangements for the displaced people.
“We had nowhere to go. We were left to wander in the streets. My nightmare suddenly began all over again,” Deborah, said fighting back tears.
News of the eviction of the Agatu refugees from the Och’ Idoma’s pavilion spread like wildfire across Oturkpo with motorbike taxi operators bearing the sad tale from one part of the town to another.
According to a 41-year old refugee, Shaibu Ahmadu, who said he was a former police officer, the ordeals of the refugees lasted for hours until a local politician, Obande Obeya, came and moved them to one of his compounds.
It was in Obeya’s compound that PREMIUM TIMES met some of the displaced people.
Bus drivers, food sellers, shop owners and just about everyone else in Oturkpo expressed condemnation at the action of the royal father.
But in a clarification of the circumstances leading to the eviction, Andrew Obeya, leader of the Idoma Progressive Movement (IPM), told PREMIUM TIMES the refugees were never chased away by the Och’ Idoma.
“The news spread across town and when I heard it, I took it upon myself to investigate,” Mr. Obeya said. “What I found out was that the Och’ Idoma was not even in town the day it happened. Because the pavillon at the palace does not have the facility to provide adequate care and sanitation for the displaced persons, they were advised to go to Apa Local Government where the state government is adequately running three IDP camps.”
Deborah Onuminya and all the women around her refused to accept Mr. Obeya’s explanation. They said if the royal father had wanted them to be moved to a better facility far away, he would have provided transportation, not chase them out to the street where their human dignity was further reduced.
PREMIUM TIMES met two organizations at the compound of the Obeyas, (the Idoma Progressive Movement and the Dream Again NGO led by Bashiru Adamu), serving food and distributing clothing materials to the Agatu Displaced Persons.
At the Och’ Idoma palace, this reporter was told that he arrived too late in the day for an appointment with the traditional ruler.
The palace secretary said the Och’ Idoma had constituted a refugee committee headed by a traditional chief in Apa and that all enquiries about the refugees should be directed to that committee.
PREMIUM TIMES found that the refugee committee comprised, local chiefs some of whom have fled their homes. No member of the committee could be reached for days.