The police in Benue are holding back on their offensive against suspected killer herdsmen on rampage across the North-Central state, saying they would prioritise an immediate succour and enduring tranquillity for the affected communities instead.
The Benue police commissioner, Bashir Makama, informed PREMIUM TIMES on Wednesday night that the police are concentrating their energy and resources towards a safe return of recently displaced residents to their communities.
“Let there be peace. Let there be calm. Then, the suspects can be followed and arrested,” Mr. Makama said by telephone amidst demands for government clampdown on the culprits which followed widespread outrage about the killings.
But anti-open grazing campaigners faulted the police tactics, warning that the comments could fuel speculation that the federal government was colluding with the herdsmen.
“You beat the iron while it’s still hot, that’s the blacksmith principle,” said David Ogbole, a Pentecostal preacher in Makurdi who leads a civic coalition against herdsmen activities in Benue State. “The blacksmith knows that if you beat the iron after it gets cold, it won’t bend.”
An estimated 69 people have been killed in suspected herdsmen attacks on villages in the agrarian Benue State between December 31 and January 8, according to Benue State Government officials.
Fifty-nine of the deceased are slated for a mass burial in a village near the Air Force Base in Makurdi, the state capital, on Thursday morning.
The figures include the three officers killed following an ambush on a police patrol team on Monday in Logo Local Government Area, about 200 kilometres east of Makurdi.
The local government was amongst the two local government areas razed down by suspected herdsmen between the New Year eve and New Year day.
An exasperated Governor Samuel Ortom blamed the attacks on herdsmen of Fulani extraction. He said federal authorities knew their identities and location but were dithering on bringing them to book.
Mr. Ortom said the leaders of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, an association of cattle breeders, had earlier threatened to attack residents in Benue State, He described them as a “threat to our collective interest” and said “they must be dealt with.” The governor also said the state had forewarned the police of the plan to attack the state by the herdsmen.
President Muhammadu Buhari expressed strong sympathies for the people of the state and charged security agencies to go after the suspects with assurances that such attacks are forestalled in future.
As part of the Buhari administration’s response, the Inspector-General of Police Ibrahim Idris was asked on Monday to relocate to the troubled Benue State effective immediately.
Mr. Idris arrived Makurdi on Wednesday, reiterating that over 660 officers had been deployed to 10 different units across the state for protection. After a meeting with the governor and other stakeholders on Wednesday, Mr. Idris said he did not receive the early warning notifications by the governor but promised to investigate it.
The police chief is also expected to keep an eye on Adamawa and Taraba States, where there have also been violence between Fulani communities and those of other ethnic groups.
Asked by PREMIUM TIMES if the police had made new arrest since the January 2 arrest of eight suspects, Mr. Makama said efforts had since shifted to helping those sacked from their villages return.
“Let there be peace to create confidence for people to return to their home rather than emphasise on effecting the arrest of people who have done what they have done and fled,” Mr. Makama said.
No fewer than 50,000 people were reportedly displaced by a string of attacks on the villages which are occupied mostly by farmers.
An anti-open grazing law came into effect in the state last November, but reports of herdsmen sightings are still rife.
The law was the state’s response to repeated attacks against residents, including the February 2016 massacre of over 500 villagers in Agatu.
A PREMIUM TIMES investigation showed how an estimated 1,269 were killed in attacks linked to herdsmen between 2013 and 2016, but hardly had anyone been punished for the killings.
The governor said the attacks were being launched by herdsmen from the neighbouring state of Nasarawa, seeing it as an expansionist aggression against the people of his state.
Herdsmen have accused the villagers of rustling their livestock, with Fulani leaders telling PREMIUM TIMES in a 2016 interview that the massacre in Agatu was a reprisal attack for the alleged theft and the 2013 killing of one of their leaders.
The annual cost of the conflict between pastoralists and villagers across the country was placed at about $14 billion by the UK-funded global humanitarian agency, Mercy Corps.
The commissioner said he had been to the local government where the killer herdsmen are allegedly using as hideouts but found no immediate leads.
“I have been to that village myself,” Mr. Makama said. There are so many people there.
“You cannot just be carrying everybody. It’s not a random arrest; it’s specific arrest,” he added.
But Mr. Ogbole, the leader of the Movement Against Fulani Occupation, criticised the commissioner’s statement as misplaced and provocative.
“All this is nothing but diversionary tactics to allow these herdsmen to decimate Benue communities and leave through the Taraba border to Cameroon back to their hideout.
“What is stopping them from going after these men now? When there was killing in Omoku in Rivers State on New Year’s Day, how many days did it take to fish out the suspect and kill him?”
Mr. Ogbole likened the situation in Benue to the recent development in Rivers State in which the police killed a prime suspect in an attack on churchgoers January 1.
“Why should Benue people wait until the thing calms down? Why should they go back to the precarious situation when there’s no guarantee that the people will be safe if they go back to their villages?
“All this could fuel suspicion that there’s a collision between the federal government and the militia.
“We already have information that the police are slow to go after the herdsmen, which is why men of the Civil Defence Corps were no longer working with the police,” Mr. Ogbole said.
The commissioner said the Inspector-General’s team would likely include men who are capable of following vigorous leads that would help in nabbing the killers.
“Now that the investigation team has come, they would be going after the culprits,” he said.