Residents of Uwheru were enjoying the dry season evening breeze when this reporter arrived the community sometime in March. Mostly farmers and fishermen, they had just returned from their daily hustle and were irked by the sight of the stranger.
Their irritation is understandable. Only a few weeks earlier, at least 10 of their kinsmen had been gruesomely murdered by suspected herdsmen.
The residents said the community had been experiencing similar attacks for over two decades, but that of February was the deadliest. The elders responded by banning the consumption of beef to underscore their aversion for cattle whose grazing had brought the assailants to their community.
A resident, Kenneth, is a survivor of many attacks by herdsmen, one of which claimed the life of his sister in 2018.
He said the herdsmen had captured his family and told him to surrender either his sister or mother for gang-rape.
“My sister said they should come for her, instead. Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five of them,” he said. “See my throat and my head. They tied me down and I could do nothing. They wanted to remove my head,” the middle-aged man said showing scars on his neck.
His 21-year-old sister died as a result of the gang-rape. The horror of the gruesome murder still haunts Kenneth.
Julius Osieta also lost his elder brother to the rampaging herdsmen in February 2018 and now takes care of the widow and their seven children.
“The widow is still crying. We have been trying to calm her down but all to no avail,” he said. The seven children have stopped going to school because the family cannot afford the cost.
Philip Emesharuke, described as a successful fisherman and farmer, lost his life. He was shot dead allegedly by herders who had grazed their cows on his farm.
Mr Osieta and many other victims are bitter that the police had failed to bring the murderers to justice.
Similar stories abound across the 21 communities that make up Uwheru, an Urhobo kingdom in Ughelli North Local Government Area of Delta State. The communities include Orhoro, Erovie, Agadama, Urede, Egbo, Owarovwo, Ogode, Oreba, Avwon, Iwhouvbe, Iwhodja, Ode, Oguname, Owarie, Iwhegbo and Iwherhe.
Several accounts traced the beginning of the clashes to 2004. They recalled incipient disagreements between farmers and herders escalating into a conflict during which the herders allegedly burnt down Ohoror, one of the communities. In retaliation, locals went after herders whose cattle they said were eating their crops.
During the retaliatory attack, the locals slaughtered some cows. The herders retreated, but soon returned with a reinforcement and allegedly burnt the village to the ground. It took the deployment of soldiers by the government to halt the carnage.
Since the incident of 2004, the conflict became annual. The most affected communities are Ohoror, Agadama, Anwur and Orheba. The pattern since then has been of confrontation and retaliation featuring arson, rape, maiming, torture and killing of cattle.
Several residents who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES alleged that the herders usually trigger the confrontation by grazing cattle on farms. When confronted, the herders would reply with violence, the locals said, and then retaliation would follow from the locals.
Benjamin Ohworeko is the secretary of the traditional council and spokesperson of the Odion of Uwheru Kingdom. He said the communities had made many calls for government intervention but none had stopped the cycle of mayhem. He accused the military of complicity in many of the attacks, alleging the involvement of soldiers from the nearby Bomadi Barracks on the side of the herdsmen.
“If it were to be the herders alone, they don’t have the capacity to chase us from our homelands. We have what it takes to secure our farmlands and our people if not because of the superior firepower of the Nigerian military.
“They are always there to aid the herders. We were made to understand that the top military officers are the owners of those cows,” he said.
When contacted, the National Secretary of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), Othman Ngelzarma, disowned the herdsmen. He called the aggressors criminals.
“We are peace-loving people. Criminals are in every part of Nigeria because crime knows no tribe. Let the security operatives finish their investigations before saying our members are the ones terrorising the community,” he told PREMIUM TIMES in a telephone interview.
What happened in February
On February 13, armed persons stormed Avwon, one of the villages in Uwheru, while the people were at a town hall meeting. The attack by suspected herdsmen resulted in the killing of two locals whose remains the assailants allegedly burnt and buried in a shallow grave. Many others were also injured that day.
Two days later, some men were attacked while working on their farms in Agadama, a neighbouring village to Avwon. A witness who escaped that attack said that seven people died instantly while six others were injured and taken to Ughelli Central Hospital, Ughelli.
Those reportedly killed in the two attacks were named as Samson Oghenemine, Philip Emesharuke, Turhoghene Andrew, Ejuvweyere Obaro, Ogheneruse Ochuko, Oghenerumugba Emmanuel, Afoke Freedom, Oghenekparobo, and two others.
Sunday Iniovogoma, the chairman of Agadama community, said the aggrieved community protested the killings by blocking a road linking the community to the Ughelli/Asaba road.
Mr Iniovogoma alleged that soldiers from Bomadi Barracks stormed the community and dispersed the protesters, during which process he said one person was shot dead.
In total, he said 10 people died from the attacks. Two in Avwon, seven in Agadama and one person during the protest. Unlike in previous attacks, recovering the bodies of victims became a problem, Mr Iniovogoma told this reporter.
“We could not go there (the hideouts of the herders in the bush) on our own for fear of further attacks because we don’t have weapons. We then called the army and the police to help us recover the bodies; it took them three days to recover the bodies.”
The bodies were buried in Uwheru on March 19, he said.
The community leaders prevented our reporter from speaking with some female survivors of the attack, saying it would flashback the sad memories of the attacks.
Efforts to get the spokesperson of the Nigerian Army, Sagir Musa, to comment on the allegations against the soldiers in Bomadi were not successful. He requested that a text message be sent, which this reporter did. But he did not respond weeks after acknowledging receipt of the text.
Worsening farmers/herders conflict in Nigeria
According to the 2019 Global Terrorism Index (GTI), attacks from herders killed more Nigerians in 2018 than by Boko Haram, the insurgency group operating in Northern Nigeria.
The GTI report released in November 2019 ranked Nigeria as the third country with the worst impact of terrorism, globally – after Afghanistan and Iraq.
The report said terror-related incidents in Nigeria increased by 37 per cent, from 411 in 2017 to 562 in 2018. Also, deaths from terrorism in the country rose to 2,040 in 2018, a 33 per cent increase.
“The increase was due to a substantial escalation of violence by ‘Fulani’ extremists, whilst Boko Haram recorded a decline in deaths from terrorism,” the report said.
Also, Amnesty International, a global rights movement, stated that at least 96 people were killed in violent clashes between members of farmers’ and herders’ communities in 2019
This was contained in its review of violation of human rights in Sub-Saharan Africa that was released recently.
Dispute over ownership and usage of land has remained the major cause of the violent conflict between herdsmen and farmers in Nigeria.
Life after the February attack has not been easy for the people of Uhweru.
PREMIUM TIMES observed that many no longer go to their farms for fear of being attacked. Some residents have relocated from the area.
Edward Iyamu, 62, said he had planned to plant maize and cassava this year until the February attack scuppered the plan.
“You know we are farmers, when we plant something like cassava, potato, they enter the farm and destroy everything. They kill anyhow. We have left our farm for them.”
The chairman of Odja community, Goodluck Ose, speaking with this reporter, lamented that residents are not allowed to farm again.
“Many a time, when they destroy your farm and you ask why they are doing this, the next thing you hear is a gunshot. They (the herdsmen) are still there in the bush.”
Many markets in the communities, some of which this reporter visited, have been deserted.
Education not left out
When this reporter arrived at Ohoror Secondary School, the only secondary school serving the ravaged communities, the students were few.
Awin Ubaro, an administrative officer who spoke on behalf of the head teacher, explained that the school has been the epicentre of the unfortunate incidents.
“From time to time, we do run here because of their attacks. We run. We are close to the bush so we are close to the gunshots. As a result, some parents took their children away from here.”
Also, as a result of the recurring attacks, the school lacks teachers for some important subjects and corps members posted by NYSC usually redeploy to safer communities in the local government area.
“Corps member redeploy. They don’t want to come here. We don’t have a Physics teacher. We don’t have a Biology teacher. Nobody wants to come,” Mr Ubaro said.
The only corps member in the school, who identified herself only as Julie, said she would leave if the crisis resurfaces.
“I have heard a lot about the herders and I am scared. If any attack is launched, that means I will redeploy as well,” she told PREMIUM TIMES.
Ban on Beef
In its bid to stop the influx of herdsmen to the community, the kingdom has banned the sale and consumption of beef in the community.
The ban was agreed at a meeting on February 23 attended by prominent people in the Kingdom, including Patrick Muoboghare, a professor who is Delta State Commissioner for Higher Education.
This community leaders hope the ban would nudge the herders to work for peace or leave the community.
“Why we banned the cow meat in our area is that we don’t want to patronise them any longer. I believe by now, all of them are starving at the moment,” Mr Ose said.
The kingdom’s spokesperson, Mr Ohworeko, said that the decision was the people’s way of protesting recurrent rape and gruesome murder in their community.
When asked if the suspected Fulani herders are connected to Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, a group promoting the welfare of Fulani pastoralists in Nigeria, Mr Ohworeko said the group had disclaimed the herders on several occasions.
“They have told us that they are not part of them. They said these Fulani herders are nomads from Chad and Niger Republic.”
He called on the government to provide security for the people and requested that the anti-open grazing law be enacted in the state.
“We’ll be grateful if the anti-grazing law as proposed by the Delta State House of Assembly is put in place,” Mr Ohworeko said.
Police yet to nab perpetrators
A month after the February attack, the police were yet to arraign suspects. Although some residents of the community, who were suspected accomplices, were arrested, the security operatives are yet to conclude their investigation.
The spokesperson of the police in the state, Onome Omukuro, said no herder had been arrested.
On measures in place to prevent future occurrence, the police spokesperson said: “We have a patrol unit that patrols the vicinity at intervals. We have also given out a (phone) line to be dialed when suspecting any attack.”
The Chief Press Secretary to Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, Norbert Chiazor, refused to comment on the efforts of the state governor to end the attacks.
After two weeks of attempts to reach him, he said the state was reluctant to comment on any security issue due to alleged misinterpretation of the government’s previous comments by some media houses.
When quizzed on why the anti-grazing bill, a law aimed at stopping indiscriminate grazing by herders, is yet to be passed in the state, he simply said that it is a national issue and declined further comments.
“I would not want to talk about that. You know it is a national issue,” he said.
Group demands accountability
The country director of Amnesty International in Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, urged government to take responsibility for the recurring conflicts in the community.
Ms Ojigho, in a telephone interview, said it is unfortunate that the perpetrators of the attacks were yet to be brought to book.
“If you reflect on the experiences of the people in the community, what they will tell you is that they want peace to reign, they want to go back to their normal life-whether it is farming or fishing – without fear of being attacked.
“Our call is that the government should take accountability and justice issues seriously and ensure that the law enforcement agencies are equipped. Until that is done, we’ll continue to witness these conflicts,” she said.
Support for this report was provided by Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism with funding support from Free Press Unlimited.