Falling back on their playbook, terrorists killed 134 people in Benue State in a five-day massacre that preceded Easter. Among the victims were children and women, some of whom were expectant mothers. The attackers are suspected to be killer-herdsmen. How these serial killings took place without the police and other security agencies having a whiff of intelligence that would have helped to nip them in the bud, or reduce the carnage, raises eyebrows.
The Umuogidi community in Otukpo and other villages in Apa and Guma Local Government Areas of the state, where this sadism occurred, are in grief. Some of the over 40 persons injured are receiving treatment at the Benue University Teaching Hospital. The state governor, Samuel Ortom, has described the act as heinous and cowardly.
More disturbing was the invasion of an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in a school at LGEA Mgban, where the gunmen shot 24 people dead in a classroom. The corpses of 10 others, who managed to escape from the scene, were picked up along the road. This was on Easter Friday. Two days earlier, on Wednesday, 52 people were killed in the same Umuogidi village. In Apa Local Government Area, 47 persons were mauled to death on 3 April.
The Myetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN) in the state has condemned the massacre. Its secretary, Ibrahim Galma, said his association has been working with All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN) to ensure that peace and harmony prevailed in Benue, “but the bad elements are still causing problem in the state.” The International Crisis Group (ICG), in a 2017 report, situated the challenge in desertification in the far north, loss of grazing land to increasing settlements and southward migration of herders to tend to their herds. The group then advocated a hands-on approach in dealing with the matter. Specifically, “the government should strengthen security for herders and farmers, implement conflict resolution mechanism and establish grazing reserves.”
As usual, President Muhammadu Buhari has sued for peace and directed the police, operatives of the State Security Service (SSS), and military commanders to enhance surveillance on all fronts. This sounds like a broken record given the vacuity of his previous directives. It ought to have worried him that a five-day massacre that claimed 134 lives caught all the security agencies flat-footed. Unimpressed by the president’s stance, Governor Ortom asked him to march his words with action. It is this gulf between directives and remedial actions that brought the governor on collision course with the Buhari administration, which climaxed in his defection to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), on the eve of 2019 general elections, from the All Progressives Congress (APC).
The dead will be buried soon and then the bereaved families would be asked to move on: case closed. This has been the pattern, whether in Benue, Zamfara, Plateau, Taraba, Niger, Kaduna, Katsina or Sokoto states, because the Nigerian state has become inured to macabre incidents. Life is apparently worthless to our authorities. Yet, human life is sacred, as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution, as amended. Section 33 (1) of the documents states, “Every person has a right to life and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life…”
Leaders committed to this categorical imperative do not only echo it; they act it. A former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, for instance, demonstrated it in 2013 by cutting short his official trip to Paris, France, when two Islamic extremists attacked a military barrack in Woolwich, South-east London, and killed a soldier. At a press conference, he told the British people, “We will never give in to terror or terrorism in any of its forms.”
But in the case of the latest massacre in Benue, President Buhari travelled out of the country a few days after, without any of the masterminds of the horrendous act being arrested. His action is a stark blunder in statecraft, which he often makes. It unnerves that nobody takes responsibility for mess like this – neither the president, nor the ministers of Defence, Interior or the Inspector-General of Police. This is strange in 21st century governance. Clearly, these unprotected Benue villages reinforce the agitation for a multi-layered policing system in the country for effective security protection.
To rein in this sort of tidal wave of bloodbath, the Benue State government enacted the Anti-Open Grazing Law in 2017, in which “Movement of livestock on foot within the state is hereby prohibited.” And, “any person who contravenes this shall be sentenced to one-year imprisonment or pay a fine of N500,000.” More so, “any livestock owner or manager who carries firearms shall be treated under the penal code. All ranchers shall engage the services of security agencies.” In addition, “any person who rustles cattle shall be sentenced to 5 years imprisonment or pay a fine of N100, 000 per cow. Any livestock wandering shall be impounded by the department of livestock.”
Mr Ortom, in August 2022, gleefully said his administration had secured the conviction of over 400 herders and the seizure of 25,000 cows in compliance with the law. According to him, some of the cows were auctioned, as the owners could not pay stipulated fines.
Apparently, the governor’s actions riled the herders and seemingly worsened the herders-farmers crisis in the state. The National President of Miyetti Allah, Kautal Hore, once threatened to report Mr Ortom to the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICCJ) over the cows seized and the violation of herders’ rights. He maintained that the governor’s impassioned statements on the crisis, instead of dousing tension, fuels it.
In response to the governor, Saleh Alhassan, the national secretary of the Fulani socio-cultural group, pointed out how the state would “go to the Benue and Taraba states border communities and seize cows, making our members to suffer. We don’t have herders in Benue. So, the livestock that he seized shows that he is part of the problem.”
The State Security Council meeting that reviewed the Easter tragedy, chaired by Mr Ortom, was right when it “frowned at the rustling of cattle by indigenes and urged security agencies to apprehend any culprit.” The thievery is provocative and precipitates the bloody reprisals that the governor often laments. Therefore, apprehending the culprits will restore order. Even more rewarding will be their prosecution and conviction to serve as deterrent to other potential outlaws. This will be the true test of sincerity of purpose and leadership of the governor.
However, these avoidable killings brutally draw public attention to the Buhari government’s policy failure in its National Livestock Transformation Plan. Governors, especially those from the North, who see the NLTP as a veritable antidote to frequent herders-farmers clashes over grazing routes, are now weary in nudging the Federal Government into action. The scheme provides for grazing reserves. We believe that policies that negate lawlessness and help in nation-building should be considered as governance priorities.
President Buhari has just a few days left in office and Bola Tinubu who would succeed him on 29 May should come up with immediate solutions to the conundrum. As the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Matthew Kukah, stated in his Easter homily, “the most urgent task facing our nation is not infrastructure… but first keep us alive because only the living can enjoy infrastructure.” Where the herders procure the AK-47 rifles with which they brazenly brandish, attack communities, kill people, while burning their houses with impunity, are concerns that will continue to trouble Buhari even in his retirement.
READ ALSO: Gov Ortom replies Presidency, says Buhari endorses Benue killings
No one is safe from the menace. Nigeria is nowhere near the world leading livestock producers like Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, the US, Canada, and others where no blood is shed over the grazing of cattle, as ranching is well entrenched for quality production. Nigerian leaders should stop making governance and doing what is right look like rocket science.
PREMIUM TIMES calls on the incoming administration to avail itself of well-prepared plans for concerted action to stop the killings and create a framework that will lead to peace and mutual co-existence of all Nigerians. Without peace, the government would not be able to start confronting the daunting economic challenges the nation is facing.
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