Bashi Atoo and members of his household woke up in August to heavy jackboot steps at their home in Tse-Poor, a rural community in Makurdi, the Benue State capital.
They immediately realised their home was under attack by men of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF).
Mr Atoo, 50, and his two teenage sons would later be taken to the base of the Tactical Air Command of the NAF in Makurdi.
“Men of the Nigerian Air Force stormed my house on August 25. I was in shorts and they ordered me and my two sons to put on our clothes. Thereafter, they cuffed and blindfolded us before whisking us away to their base in Makurdi. The next moment, we found ourselves in Abuja,” Mr Atoo said.
The NAF authorities accused Mr Atoo and his children of “breaching the NAF perimeter fence,” an allegation he denied.
He said they spent two weeks in NAF’s custody in Abuja without being charged with any offence at any court.
Mr Atoo’s experience is connected to an old dispute between the Nigerian Air Force and the Tse-Poor community in the Ugondo District of Makurdi, the capital of the largely agrarian Benue State in North-central Nigeria.
The air force had established a base in 1977 in Makurdi, taking about 4000 hectares of land. But the community people, who are mostly farmers, resisted the take over of their land without compensation and continued to farm on portions of the land. The Tse-Poor community say that about 187 hectares of the acquired land belong to them.
The latent crisis flared when the air force decided to fence the land, saying encroachment by farmers was disrupting its operations.
After Mr Atoo’s experience in August, the Nigeria Air Force returned to the community in September to supervise a mass demolition that rendered over 100 residents homeless. Many of them lost not just homes, but also farmlands and everything their survival depended on.
Peace talks broke down – Benue govt
In a telephone interview with this reporter, the State Commissioner for Lands, Survey and Solid Minerals, Bernard Udende, said the Governor Samuel Ortom administration had set up a committee to demarcate the disputed land and work out compensation to residents of Tse-Poor and other host communities of the NAF.
However, Mr Udende said the host communities, particularly Tse-Poor, rejected the agreements that were reached after the committee completed its work and was about to submit it to Mr Ortom for implementation.
“In 2019, on the day the committee was to present the document of agreement to Governor Ortom at the Government House in Makurdi, the Ugondo District people comprising Tse-Poor community, pulled out of the agreement that was reached,” the commissioner said.
He said the aggrieved communities later filed legal action against the Air Force and the state government.
The community head, Philip Poor, and three other indigenes filed the suit against the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), joining Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Tactical Air Command (TAC), NAF Makurdi, and the Benue State government over the alleged forcible takeover of their ancestral land.
In an interlocutory injunction in March this year, the state High Court in Makurdi restrained the NAF from erecting a perimeter fence on the disputed land and destroying property and economic trees at Tse-Poor, pending the determination of the substantive suit.
“The court is of the opinion that in view of the above facts, the status quo be maintained pending the determination of the substantive action,” the judge, Sampson Itodo, held in the interlocutory order issued on March 5.
But, in disobedience to the ruling, the Nigerian Air Force stormed Tse-Poor to pull down dozens of houses and fence off residents from their farms. Armed personnel returned to the area on September 22 to destroy more farms on the disputed land.
The spokesperson of NAF, Edward Gabkwet, said the demolition exercise was in response to the encroachment of NAF’s land by residents of Tse-Poor.
‘Over 400 million worth of property destroyed’
A document prepared by the Tse-Poor community listed 125 residents who lost houses and farms to the demolition exercise carried out by NAF and put the total loss at N423 million.
One of the victims, Ubur Austin, put the cost of his demolished three-bedroom bungalow at N21 million.
Another resident, Joseph Bashi, whose cassava, yam and maize farms were fenced off, is demanding N260,000 as compensation.
‘NAF agreed to return 350 hectares but reneged’
According to Mr Poor, the community leader, NAF had initially agreed to concede 350 hectares to the host communities, including the 187 hectares taken from Tse-Poor.
“In a bid to settle the dispute amicably, the Nigerian Air Force agreed to concede 350 hectares of land out of the 4,000 hectares it is currently occupying to the host communities of which 187.802 hectares belongs to Tse-Poor community,” he said.
However, Mr Poor said, the military later changed its mind.
Shock, mayhem, pains, as air force men return
The NAF demolition team came to Tse-Poor for a two-day exercise on September 22. This reporter was on hand on the second day and saw how residents watched helplessly as their properties were reduced to rubble.
Under the scorching sun, a regular feature in Makurdi, women and children scrambled for mattresses, cooking utensils and whatever they could rescue before the bulldozer reached their homes.
Forty-two-year-old Austin Ubur was not at home at the time of the exercise.
“I received a phone call from my wife that the Air Force people were demolishing our house,” Mr Ubur said. “When I got home, I found everything in rubble, including my cassava and bambara nut farm.”
“I fainted when my neighbours phoned me that my house had been pulled down by NAF officers,” Innocent Apir, a farmer, said.
Demenege Kwaghbee, whose two-bedroom apartment was destroyed on the second day of the demolition exercise, said he was only able to retrieve some roofing sheets from the site to construct a shack where he now lays his head.
Gabriel Aondona, another victim, said: “I pleaded with the NAF men to allow us to remove our belongings, but they refused. We were rearing chicken and goats. My parents and younger siblings depend on me for their livelihood. Now, we are homeless.”
‘They looted, burnt our houses’
“The NAF men looted the sharp sand chippings belonging to the NKST Church at Tse-Poor,” Mr Poor, the community head, told this reporter.
He said the church had heaped the chippings for the building of its permanent worship centre.
Robert Gbande, whose wife and children now squat in Ikpayongo, about 30 kilometres from Makurdi, said his house was burnt down.
“Because of the marshy area of my house, the airmen could not demolish it but they burnt it down,” Mr Gbande said.
The carcass of his burnt building stands in a marshy area of Tse-Poor.
The NAF perimeter fence in the location had collapsed but residents said this was due to the marshy terrain, contrary to the claim by NAF that they destroyed it.
Hosts to displaced persons: Tse-Poor’s twist of fate
Unlike the meaning of the English word, ‘poor,’ which implies lack, the name ‘Poor’ is associated with fortune among the Tiv people occupying the community. ‘Poor,’ in Tiv mythology refers to the god of fortune, which their forebears worshipped, according to the community head, Mr Atoo.
“‘Poor’ was a deity that our ancestors worshipped, because it was capable of bringing fortunes in terms of high farm yields and general good luck,” Mr Poor, the head of the Tse-Poor community, explained.
However, the community’s fortunes have changed in the aftermath of the arrival of NAF over four decades ago.
“In 1977, the Nigerian Air Force came to Makurdi and was given a portion of its current base. But they are now using guns to chase us out of the land where our forefathers lived centuries ago,” he said.
“The NAF has encroached into our land; fencing off 187 hectares of our ancestral land without compensation,” Mr Poor said.
Speaking with this reporter, the 72-year-old Mr Poor lamented the twist of fate.
“The community’s fortunes have been forcibly taken away by the power of the guns being wielded by the Nigerian Air Force.”
“Apart from my home that was demolished, my cassava farm, which is due for harvest, has been fenced off,” Mr Poor told this reporter.
Coping with demolition
A 73-year-old grandmother, Susana Ayuwa, who was living with her daughter and five grand-children before the September demolition in Tse-Poor, now lives in a one-room thatched house in the community.
“I am squatting with one of my childhood friends in a small room. Life is difficult,” Mrs Ayuwa said as she sobbed.
The incident has also disrupted the education of others like 25-year-old Benjamin Beer.
“The NAF men were all armed and surrounded the community, while their bulldozers demolished houses and everything in sight,” Mr Beer narrated.
“After the demolition of our home, we sought shelter at the R.C.M Primary School. So, I went into commercial motorcycle riding to provide food for my parents and siblings,” he said.
Families torn apart, worsening IDPs’ conditions
Valentine Kaanen and Iorhon Guma said the action of the military has caused a social dislocation of many residents in Ugondo District of Makurdi.
“The emotional trauma of separation from our families is unbearable,” Mr Kaanen said.
“If nothing is done by the government to resettle us, we will be left with no other option than to seek refuge in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps,” Mr Guma said.
The Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) in a document made available to this reporter, said the state, particularly “urban centres, are running over with IDPs,” who were forced out of their rural communities by the intractable herdsmen attacks.
Emmanuel Shior, the head of the agency, told PREMIUM TIMES in September that the state government was “overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the human sufferings” triggered by the crisis.
“The inability of displaced families to access their farms for food due to the fear of being hunted down by the Air Force, is a major problem,” Terka Yongo, a displaced farmer, told our correspondent.
Edward Adzondu, whose farm is on the disputed land, said he breached the NAF perimeter fence to harvest his crops for food.
Pointing to a water channel that Tse-Poor residents used to crawl through to access their farms but which has now been blocked, Mr Adzondu said the quest to reclaim their ancestral land from the military is “unrelenting.”
“Where will our children call home if we yield our ancestral home to the Air Force?” he asked rhetorically.
“All we want is the return of our ancestral home,” Mr Poor, the community leader, said.
Mr Poor, who said he lost farms, economic trees and sharp sand valued at about N2 million, also said compensations must be paid to residents who lost property during the demolition.
“The power of the gun can’t be stronger than the will of my people,” Mr Poor said of the community’s resolve to get justice.
Tse-Poor community fault Benue govt’s position
Although the commissioner, Mr Udende, backed the Tse-Poor community’s demand for compensation for the destruction of their farmlands and homes, he decried “encroaching on (the site of) military hardware comprising explosives” by the community.
“Now, the danger in this dispute is that on the part of the Ugondo District where the NAF perimeter fence has been erected, is the area warehousing all the military’s explosives (bunkers).
“The NAF has repeatedly warned the Tse-Poor community that building houses close to the bunkers is dangerous, but the residents are adamant.
“The bunkers necessitated the ongoing fencing by the NAF,” the commissioner explained.
But Mr Poor faulted the state government’s position.
“The Amour Dump is over 150 kilometres away from the NAF perimeter fence. So, how can they be talking about the encroachment of a piece of land that does not belong to the Air Force?” Mr Poor queried.
The spokesperson of the air force, Mr Gabkwet, refused to comment on specific issues raised by displaced inhabitants of the community but said NAF was leaving the matter to be resolved by the Benue State government.
Mr Gabkwet, an air commodore, however, urged the locals to stop encroaching on NAF’s property and “to stop building structures across our fences?”
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