Across the Nasarawa-Benue borderline, Agatu was still hundreds of miles away but passengers on the motorway were already getting an eyeful of savagery. In a village farm with fresh ridges heralding a new planting season, a young Fulani herder was perched on a cashew tree, his cattle trampling below him.
Armed with a machete, he was hacking away at the lush branches, felling them to the ground for the animals to feed. The farm owners stood outside their huts and like the passing motorists could only watch helplessly as the cash crop was stripped bare and their yam seedlings destroyed.
The routes to Makurdi and on to Otukpo and Apa were characterized by the same landscape and scenario. Along both sides of the road were hundreds of farmlands with ridges and all dotted with cashew trees, mangoes and oranges; and all tempting sights to nomadic herdsmen and their livestock.
Provocative as the first cross-border scene was, the young Fulani herder on the cashew tree was simply conducting his business in a peaceful manner, going by the benchmark of good relationship between farmers and armed herders in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria.
Weeks ago, the Agatu region of Benue State became a red spot on the world map when Fulani cattle rearers in combat gears, armed with the trademark AK-47 rifles, invaded several villages and farm settlements in broad daylight, gunning down children, women, men and the elderly alike. About 300 villagers were reportedly massacred in the first killing spree with heavy casualties recorded in communities like Aila, Okokolo, Akwu, Adagbo, Odugbehon and Odejo.
With soldiers from 82 Division Enugu stationed in Aila and Obagaji, the headquarters of Agatu Local Government Area, the alternative access road from Apa was a connection of snaky farm roads that crisscrossed several abandoned villages. PREMIUM TIMES travelled those routes on the back of a motorbike, transported by one of the brave young men who have now taken to sneaking into abandoned villages in search of unburnt food barns, especially bags of locally produced rice to salvage and take back to their displaced families in Apa and elsewhere.
From Aila to Obagaji, Akwu to Odejo, the invaders burned down houses, churches and police posts. Here and there corpses were seen lying in the most grotesque positions. The totally dried corpses in various stages of decomposition were pointers that the killings must have been done at different times. The gory sights equally suggested that the marauders kept coming back for returnees, undeterred by the presence of soldiers.
Adejo, the motorbike transporter who invariably doubled as a tour guide pointed out what used to be the family home of one Deborah Onuminya in Aila. The four-bedroom bungalow was badly burnt. So also was a kitchen and pen house behind it. A charred television antennae was still hanging on, a reminder of the status symbol of its owner in a farming community that grew yam, cassava, rice, beans, guinea corn, pepper and tomatoes. Skeletons of iron beds, a television set, a refrigerator, crates of soft drinks, burnt mattresses and beddings, children’s books and shoes and a toy tricycle could be found in various parts of the building. In one of the rooms, apparently used as a store, were bags of charred grains, baking pans and a bag of either burnt flour or garri.
Two days earlier, PREMIUM TIMES had met Deborah Onuminya at a displaced people’s camp in Otukpo. The 36-year-old mother of three had said she had no clue whether her husband was dead or alive. Mrs. Onuminya and her family had only four years ago relocated from the city to her home village, Aila. While her husband was already a successful farmer, the housewife was just getting established in catering business.
“I can farm but I decided to do something different like making buns, puff-puff and chin-chin. As a matter of fact, on that fateful day that Fulani attacked us, I had just returned from the city where I had gone to buy baking materials for my small business,” she had said.
Recounting the hour the attackers descended on her village, Mrs. Onuminya had told PREMIUM TIMES:
“The Fulanis came in about 1.00 p.m. I had just returned from the market and was sleeping on a mat under a tree outside my house when pandemonium broke out. Some youths were screaming and alerting everyone that armed Fulani men had invaded us. I grabbed my children and fled without a blouse on. People were running in different directions amidst sounds of gun fire. Some people did not know where their children were as they ran. Most of our men were in the farm that hour when the Fulani struck, so we had nobody to defend us as children, women and the elderly were shot dead or butchered with knives. Most of the people killed were the children and elderly who could not run fast enough, and others who ran back into the house to take cash or carry one belonging or the other.”
Between the kitchen and the pen house in Mrs Onuminya’s burnt home was the charred remains of a human body. The youthful escort on motorbike told PREMIUM TIMES he could not identify the victim just as he could not tell if it was the body of a man or a woman. If that was the body of Deborah’s missing husband, then he had probably ran home in a fatal attempt to rescue his family.
Another Aila housewife, Amina Peter, told PREMIUM TIMES how she lost three male family members to rampaging Fulani herdsmen about a month before the mass massacre that drove every survivor into exile. Mrs. Peter gave the names of her murdered family members as Choche Abu, Enechie Obochi and Godwin Gordugbor. According to her, the three men were loggers and were working inside the forest with a power saw when the noise of their engines apparently attracted some Fulani herdsmen. The three men were shot at close range, she said.
Piecing together the bloody history of Agatu’s relationship with herdsmen, 41-year old former police officer, Shaibu Ahmadu, told PREMIUM TIMES in the Otukpo IDP camp that the latest mass killing was the climax of an expansionist agenda that began years ago in Nassarawa State by the Fulanis. Earlier, communities like Tom-Anyiin, Tom-Ataan, Mbaya and Tombu in Buruku Local Government Area of the state have fallen to the Fulanis.
“I never knew a day like this will come when Aila my village will be burnt to the ground. Until now, we were shielded because of our location by other villages like Adana, Abugbe, Ocholonya, Ogboju and Odogheho; those were neighbouring communities that had in the past come under Fulani attacks.”
“This time the invaders came by boat from Nasarawa State. They crossed the River Benue by boat to our place. Before it was the river that was protecting us but not anymore as the Fulanis invaded in their hundreds by boats,” Mr. Ahmadu lamented.
The former police officer added that Aila had always been coveted by the Fulanis.because of its extremely fertile farmlands. To get to this prized target, the herders chose first to target and conquer Okokolo community.
Explaining the strategy, Mr. Ahmadu said:
“Okokolo was a kind of fortress populated by a brave and headstrong clan; that was where the Fulanis had met the fiercest resistance to their incursion. So they must have told themselves that if they can attack and run over Okokolo, everyone else will get the message. To achieve this, they attacked Okokolo not once, not twice but three times. They came today, tomorrow and the next.”
“It was a war. And once they burnt down Okokolo, they marched on Akwu, Adagbo and finally Aila. It was impossible to repel them; we were just ordinary farmers with hoes and cutlasses while the Fulanis were armed with AK-47,” the ex-cop explained, with eyes misty.
A history of bloodbath
Agatu is not the first homeland in Benue State to receive what is now referred to as baptism of fire from herdsmen. Between 2011 and 2014, suspected herdsmen attacked dozens of communities in the four local government areas of Guma, Gwer-East, Buruku and Gwer-West, some more than once.
The hometown of the late Tor Tiv IV, Alfred Akawe Torkula, in Guma was razed. Similarly, houses, food barns and farmlands were burnt and scores killed in communities like Tse-Aderogo, Tse-Akenyi, Umenger, Angyom, Aondona, Anyiase, Adaka, Gbajimba, Tyoughtee, Gbaange, Chembe, Abeda, Mbachoon, Tongov and Mbapuu.
Barely five days to the end of Governor Gabriel Suswan administration in May 2015, over 100 farmers and family members were massacred in villages and refugees camps located at Ukura, Per, Gafa and Tse-Gusa in Logo Local Government Area of the state.
The unlucky communities were only playing hosts to refugees from previous attacks by the suspected herdsmen.
In July 2015, suspected herdsmen attacked Adeke, a community on the outskirt of the state capital, Makurdi. Last December, six persons were killed at Idele village in Oju local government area. A reprisal attack by youths in the community saw three Fulani herdsmen killed and beheaded. The Oju killings were followed by an attack this January at Ucha Nyiev village, near the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi.
Residents of the beleaguered State were yet to get over the aftershock of Ucha Nyiev when the suspected herders struck again, this time in Ega Adapati, an island in Agatu local government. It was gathered that before this last attack on the wider Agatu, local intelligence units had raised the alarm that the herdsmen were mobilizing weapons and men at Loco, a border community in Nasarawa State.
A disturbing pattern may have appeared with the large-scale invasion of Agatu. Whilst in the past the herdsmen would attack, kill and disappear, this time with Agatu they appeared to have come with an occupation agenda.
Adejo, the motorbike transporter who also interacts with a new anti-Fulani local militia called the Agatu Warriors, told PREMIUM TIMES that most of the sacked villages had been taken over by the Fulanis who he said were pouring in from Nasarawa with their cattle. The development, he said, was responsible for the inability of the fleeing natives to return to give mass burial to corpses littering the villages and farmlands.
“They are coming in large numbers with their cows. The military is not stopping them. If we can go beyond here (Aila) to Abugbe, Ocholonya or Adana, you will see Fulani in combat jackets with sophisticated guns grazing their cows,” Adejo said.
When asked if he knew who was arming the herdsmen and supplying them combat gears, Adejo said he had no idea. He however added that most of the nomadic herdsmen were not owners of the cattle they lead.
“They are not the owners; most of them are merely working for some rich men who own the cattle. It is a billion naira business, yet these big men have refused to build ranches and use irrigation to grow grasses to feed their livestock; instead they have unleashed millions of their cows and herdsmen on the farmlands of poor and defenseless people of Benue,” Adejo argued.
At the refugee camps in Otukpo, Ojantele, Ataganyi and Ugbokpo, virtually all the survivors of the Agatu massacre have continued to repeat one story: the use of a helicopter in the coordinated attack. Though that claim has roundly been dismissed in official quarters as a figment of the imagination, the survivors both young and old and from different villages have continued to hold on to their story, insisting a helicopter supported the Fulani attack, dropping off arms and food to the invaders.
Adejo said: “Even if I forget other things that happened as I was running, I can never forget the sight and sound of a helicopter. A helicopter is something you can see wherever you are. At first when I saw it, I thought it was the military coming to repel the Fulanis. What I cannot say is whether the helicopter was dropping arms or not.”
The inability of the Nigerian soldiers deployed in Agatu to arrest even one attacker has again fueled suspicions of complicity by security agents.
Ex-cop, Shaibu Ahmadu, recalled that in March 2014 when the then Benue governor, Gabriel Suswan, was on an assessment tour of Guma following yet another Fulani hostility, he came under gunfire as he approached Tse-Akenyi. Minutes before the governor was attacked, a detachment of military personnel in his convoy suddenly turned back and abandoned him in the middle of the road. That claim could not be independently verified by PREMIUM TIMES.
Similarly, following the current Agatu killings, the council chairman, Godwin Iorsue, had decided to go on an assessment tour of the area when he was ambushed and attacked by elements occupying the territory. Mr. Iorsue, who was accompanied by the Divisional Police Officer of Buruku, said the armed herdsmen numbered about 30 while he had only four policemen in his team.
The former policeman, Mr. Ahmadu, said he had no explanation for the seeming lack of determination by the military to tame rampaging herdsmen.
“The Niger Delta militants did not kill their fellow Nigerians before the Federal government declared war on them; the Biafra agitators were not even shooting catapult at anyone when government went after them. So why is it difficult for the same Federal Government to declare war on Fulani herdsmen who for years now have been on rampage, from one community to other and from one state to another,” Mr. Ahmadu asked.
Mrs. Onuminya said the uncertainty about her husband was killing her. She recalled with regret that when the Fulani first began to come to her village to graze, she would sometimes give them food and water. She too could not understand that the invaders were bringing in their cattle in trailers and soldiers were not stopping them.
“The government is saying it is wrong of me to say my home is my home; government is saying it is wrong of me to say my farmland is my farmland; they are saying we should not have economic rights and that for us to be counted as good citizens, we should allow the Fulanis to graze their cattle anywhere they like, destroying our crops, our harvest and entire economic investments.”
“But we have been doing that for years, allowing the destruction without complain; but even that is no longer enough. Now they want all of us dead and government is looking,” the housewife said.
The Fulani populations across Nigeria believe the Agatus were the aggressors and are only shedding crocodile tears.
Saleh Bayeri, the interim national secretary of Gan Allah Fulani association, an umbrella body of Fulani associations in Nigeria, told PREMIUM TIMES the Agatu people started the crisis in 2013 when they killed a prominent Fulani leader in the area.
He said about 20 Agatu and Tiv militia on April 20, 2013 invaded the compound of one Sehu Abdullahi where they killed him and carted away over 200 cows.
Mr. Bayeri said the Police in the area “arrested four of the attackers carrying some of the meat on their motorcycle and they were taken to Naka police station.”
He also said 16 of the attackers abandoned their motorcycles and ran away and the police took the motorcycles to the station.
According to him, the police confirmed to the Fulani leaders that they knew the where 150 of the cows were taken to.
“And the divisional police officer promised to recover and return the cows, but up till today, nothing has happened,” Mr. Bayeri said.
The Fulani leader however, added that the major reason the crisis between the Agatu people and Fulani escalated arose three days after the murder of Mr. Abdullahi and stealing of his cows.
“A prominent Fulani leader, Ardo Madaki, was invited to the palace of the district head of the area on the grounds that a solution is being sought to the problem,” he said.
“However, the Agatu militia beheaded the Ardo right in front of the district head. This action reverberated across all Fulani people in the whole of West Africa and the clamour for revenge began to grow strong. He (Mr. Madaki) came from a very well respected clan and the Agatu sent the Fulani a chilling message with his murder,” he said.
“Till date, no action was taken, even by the village police station on this murder,” he said.
He also said the Fulani has records of how the Agatu killed over 300 of their people, adding, “but because we don’t have people in government or the media, no one said anything when genocide was being carried out against our people.”
He called on government to set up an independent judicial commission of inquiry to investigate the killings.
“We have a full inventory of all the Fulani people killed by Agatu and we will produce the evidence as long as the inquiry commission is not under the National Assembly.
“We have no confidence on the National Assembly because of the overriding influence of the former Senate President, David Mark, who knew how the Fulani were being massacred and did nothing but use his influence to cover it up.
“The Sultan of Sokoto was in Benue state three times trying to find a solution to the problem, but David Mark never came once or even send a representative.
“Is it now that he knows the meaning of genocide? Where was he when over 300 Fulani were killed in his area?” he asked.
A week ago, gunmen said to be Fulani herdsmen attacked Mr. Mark. The gunmen had shot at his convoy on Friday during a visit to assess the amount of damage on the Agatu following the crisis.
Mr. Mark, who was accompanied by ex-minister of Interior, Abba Moro; a lawmaker representing the Ohimini/Otukpo constituency, Ezekiel Adaji; security aides, journalists and supporters, was shot at by attackers, believed to be herdsmen.
According to reports, Mark restrained his security detail from firing back to avert a bloody exchange.