Unless urgent steps are taken to halt the continuous killings, displacements and plundering of Benue communities by suspected Fulani herdsmen, a bloody tribal conflict might soon erupt in the North-central state.
Already, a group known as Movement Against Fulani Occupation (MAFO), has been formed by a clergyman, Dave Ogbole, to campaign against the atrocious crimes perpetrated by herdsmen in the state.
In a media interview, Mr. Ogbole gave a chilling account of how herdsmen had been killing and displacing Benue people since 1990.
“We are here today representing our ancestors, who are too dead to speak,” Mr. Ogbole said. “We came representing our fathers who are too weak in the IDP camps to come,” the clergyman said.
“We also represent our mothers who are grieving the loss of our loved ones torn from our arms from cruel mercenaries in the coloring of Fulani herdsmen.
“We came to condemn the mindless, barbaric and deliberate killing of Benue indigenes under the watch of a democratic regime that swore on oath to protect lives and properties of Nigerians.”
He said the relationship between Fulani herdsmen and Benue people started deteriorating in 1990 and between 2013 and now, over 1, 000 persons had been killed and still counting.
While MOFA has been engaging in peaceful protests to call attention to the crisis, the state Governor, Samuel Ortom, has warned that the peaceful disposition of the people might soon give way to anger and resistance.
A governor’s worse nightmare
Apparently aware of the growing move towards confrontation with the herdsmen, Mr. Ortom, made a passionate appeal to the federal government to take urgent action to stop the killings.
The governor, who spoke exclusively to PREMIUM TIMES, narrated how the rampaging herdsmen invaded his community, Gbajimba in Guma Local Government Area, killing, maiming and destroying properties.
Since March 23, 2014, when several Guma communities were besieged and taken over, including his expansive farm, Mr. Ortom lamented that the herdsmen were still occupying his birthplace.
“Today, several parts of the state are no longer inhabited by our people. The herdsmen have taken over many communities in the state. They have taken over our homes, foodstuff and our lands,” the governor said.
“I have said that Benue State is under siege. We are completely under siege by Fulani herdsmen.”
He debunked the allegation that herdsmen attack Benue towns and communities because the people kill their (herdsmen) cattle.
“We’ve heard the herdsmen accusing our people of killing their cattle which is not true. But even if it were true, does that give them the right to go about killing innocent people?
“I cannot understand how we could live in a country and people come in to invade others. They go about it freely and there is no sanction against them. The level of impunity exhibited by the herdsmen is very worrisome.”
Time and time again, Mr. Ortom said he and other leaders of the state had begged the people not to fight back.
“Our people have heeded my appeal but there is a level they won’t accept this kind of destruction that has been going unabated in the state. If the situation is allowed to get to that level, I may not be able to have control over the people.”
A resident of Tarka, John Teremun, lambasted the military and the police for not doing enough to stop Fulani herdsmen from invading towns and communities in the state.
According to him, the attack on parts of Makurdi, the state capital, was a direct indictment on the Nigerian military and the Police.
“They offer far too many excuses for their inability to prevent the herdsmen from launching attacks on our people and communities. That is why we are saying that the government is not doing enough to help us,” he said.
“Can you imagine that herdsmen invaded many areas in Makurdi where we have an Air Force Base, the 72 Elite Battalion and the Nigerian School of Military Engineering, the Benue State Police Command and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps and not even one of the attackers was arrested?
“Several people were killed, houses were burnt down and farmlands destroyed in repeated attacks and the invaders were allowed to come in and leave without a fight. Instead of arresting the herdsmen, security agents posted to our communities turn around and extort money from our people.”
“We are ready to die defending our land since the government cannot protect us but they should not try to come in when we start fighting to reclaim our farms and villages.”
How farmlands became killing fields
Aptly known as the “Food Basket of the Nation,” Benue State has the capacity to produce major food crops including yams, rice, sesame, soya bean, sorghum, maize, guinea corn, beans, cassava, groundnuts and bambara nuts.
With vast fertile land, the state also produces tree crops like oil palm, mango, orange, cashew and kola nuts.
But between 2010 and now, the level of food and cash crops production has significantly reduced due to persistent invasion and displacement of farmers across the state.
During the past six years, PREMIUM TIMES investigation revealed that suspected herdsmen invaded 14 of the 23 local government areas of the state, killing over a thousand persons and plundering towns, communities and farmlands.
The findings are further confirmed by residents, security officials and the state governor.
In the North-east Senatorial District, the herdsmen have invaded Katsina-Ala, Kwande, Logo, Ukum; leaving out Vandeikya, Konshisha and Ushongo.
Except Gboko in Benue North-east Senatorial District, the killer herdsmen have attacked all the other local government councils in the area.
These include Guma, Gwer-West, Gwer-East, Buruku, Tarka and Makurdi local government councils.
The invasion of Ogbadibo, Agatu and Apa local government areas in Benue South Senatorial District are however believed to be the most brutal.
In February for instance, the herdsmen invaded several Agatu villages and farm settlements in broad daylight, gunning down children, women, men and the elderly.
At the time the gunshots subsided, over 300 villagers were reportedly massacred in 10 villages including Aila, Okokolo, Akwu, Adagbo, Odugbehon and Odejo.
Those who escaped the massacre narrated how the invaders killed their relatives, burned down houses, churches and police posts.
A former journalist and lecturer at the Benue State University, Daniel Ior, confirmed the findings made by this newspaper.
“I can tell you that 14 out of the 23 local government areas in the state are under attack and occupation by Fulani herdsmen. Even the home of the state governor is under occupation and no one knows when the aggressor will vacate or be forced by the federal government to leave our towns,” Mr. Ior said.
“After killing and maiming our people, the herdsmen and their militia have taken over several towns and communities. They decide who comes in or goes out and the security agencies haven’t done anything to stop them.”
PREMIUM TIMES found that the herdsmen are ravaging communities and farm settlements in Kwande, Ukum, Guma and Logo local government areas of the state.
In recent weeks, over 85 persons, including women and children have been murdered in Logo Local Government Area, said the traditional ruler of the area, Jimmy Memme.
Known as Ter Logo, Mr. Meme told this newspaper that six of the 10 wards in the local government area have been under sustained attacks since the beginning of July.
The affected communities include Nengev, Turan, Ukemberagya/Tswarev, Mbagber, Yonov and Tombo wards.
Before 2011, the monarch said attacks were few and irregular as the herdsmen, according to him, came like thieves and killed one or two people before fleeing the area.
In the last seven years, however, he said the attackers have been excessively bold and consistent in their bloody campaign, which has claimed over 400 lives, excluding those killed in recent weeks.
“They are very systematic in their planning and make sure they destroy all our stock of food and farmlands. After invading our communities and killing our people, they go around burning down homes,” the monarch said.
“There are no more houses in our villages now. I wish you could have enough security to visit those areas so that you could show the world what Fulani people are doing to us. Before the recent attacks, they had killed over 400 of our people.”
Despite the heavy presence of security operatives in the troubled areas, the monarch said, “they do not rise quickly to act when incidents are reported.”
“When we give them report that the herdsmen are approaching or attacking in a particular location, they don’t deploy immediately. It would take them hours to get to the place.
“By the time they get there, the herdsmen had finished killing and destroying properties.”
For instance, he said Chembe, Ayuoja and Jota villages, located along Wukari Road, have been totally destroyed even when there are soldiers stationed in the area.
Hundreds of victims, who fled the theatres of carnage in the area now take refuge at the NKST Science Primary School Anyiim, home of the former governor of the state, Gabriel Suswam.
The only facilities available at the makeshift camp are the empty classrooms that serve as living areas and a few toilets that are almost caving in due to excessive pressure.
Ailing men and women and malnourished children were seen at the makeshift camp.
The camp manager, John Umenge, said the militia consistently attacked farming communities in the area.
“These people are here because of the attacks by Fulani herdsmen. They killed five people from Tombo area today,” Mr. Umenge said.
He lamented the neglect of the victims by the federal government, saying weeks after the National Emergency Management Agency, visited the camp and promised assistance, nothing has happened.
“We appeal to the state and federal governments to come to our aid because these people have nothing,” the camp manager said.
“When they fled their villages, the herdsmen seized their foodstuff. Many of the people can’t afford a single meal for themselves and their children in a day.”
According to him, the mini-camp has been supported by the NKST Church for over six months with more people arriving from nearby communities daily.
PREMIUM TIMES met a gunshot victim, Terso Ioruyue, at the local clinic where he was receiving treatment.
He said the herdsmen ambushed him and five of his relations while returning from the farm and opened fire killing all the others.
“We ran in different directions just as they opened fire on us,” he said. “I was shot in the buttocks and I fell down and pretended dead. I was the only one who survived the attack and I can’t even explain how I made it to safety.”
The Matron, Kpadoo Asema, said Mr. Ioruyue was shot on the buttocks while trying to escape but the bullet busted from his upper tight.
According to the health officer, Mr. Ioruyue survived because the bullet did not tear the sensitive part of his buttocks besides the fact that he was rescued and brought to the facility within an hour of the attack.
All over the state, victims of the attack, including the state governor, are questioning the inability of security operatives to arrest a single killer herdsman or stop them from intensifying the reign of terror in the area.
Most of those who spoke to this newspaper said they had lost confidence in the army and the police for not been able to stop the marauding herdsmen from killing and plundering their communities.
“It is regrettable that with all the support we have given to the military, the police and the civil defence, we have not heard of any arrest from any of the security services,” Mr. Ortom told PREMIUM TIMES.
“The militia used by the herdsmen are well-trained and they are really sophisticated. They are conversant with modern technology of destruction. This is the more reason I have said that the federal government should take a decisive action against these herdsmen and their militia that are terrorizing and killing our people.”
But the Nigeria Police Force Public Relations Officer, Don Awunah, told our correspondent in a telephone interview that the police were doing their best.
“It is not only the police that are checking the issue of herdsmen attacks,” Mr. Awunah said. “All the security agencies are involved. But we are conducting robust patrols in the affected areas.”
PREMIUM TIMES sought the Nigerian Military’s reaction to allegations of extortion and poor response to distress calls.
The Army spokesperson, Sani Usman, said he could not speak on the matter but referred this newspaper to the Defence Headquarters.
However, attempts to speak with the Director of Defence Information, Rabe Usman, were unsuccessful as he did not answer calls or respond to text messages sent to his mobile telephone.