The gruesome murder of an army officer and 11 soldiers by Bonta Tiv militia in Konshisha Local Government of Benue State penultimate week exposed the severity of the lingering communal crisis between Ukpute in Oju Local Government and the Bonta Tiv. Until recently state officials were unwilling to even admit that there was a problem.
According to reports, barely two days after the slain soldiers were laid to rest, Ukpute came under another attack by Bonta militia. That attack, it can be reasoned, was ostensibly to show off the automatic weapons they stole from the soldiers they had murdered or the weapons that were procured for them by their sponsors. Either way, it was proof that there is a looming danger and a warning signal to the authorities to sit up and go beyond lip service, if they are desirous of restoring enduring peace in the communities.
The Ukpute-Bonta face off started as a small communal conflict which ought to have been nipped in the bud, but the authorities failed to deal with it decisively. Now, the state government, obviously, has lost control, judging from what happened about a fortnight ago. And that is what sometimes happens when base and primordial sentiments take precedence over truth. The grave consequence is that the victims of the needless strife are not only the warring communities any more, but also the Nigerian Army which lost 12 of its personnel.
Information available about circumstances that led to the sad incident indicate that the soldiers didn’t fire any shot before they were attacked. Still, the Army exercised commendable restraint that helped minimise collateral damage in their search and rescue operation which turned up the burnt bodies of the soldiers and recovery of some of their weapons. As the search for the recovery of more weapons continues, we would enjoin the Army to maintain the same level of discipline even as tempers are still high, in order to eliminate unintended consequences against the peasant population of Bonta.
Having said this, this latest episode has brought to the fore the need to, at all times, treat bandits, whether in Zamfara, Katsina or Benue, like common criminals that they are. They don’t mean well for the country and her citizens. They are our common enemies. We strongly believe that the killing of the security personnel by the Bonta Tiv militia was an act of irresponsible aggression.
However, a major lesson that must be learnt from the Ukpute-Bonta crisis and all the dust it has raised so far is the need to dispassionately address communal disturbances at their gestation stage and not allow same to fester for too long. If that approach had been adopted by the Benue State Government, the current narrative would have been different as lives and property would have been saved.
Though reports suggest that the criminals are beginning to return the weapons they stole from the fallen soldiers, we wish to state that given the high-scale banditry in the Konshisha area (attested to by the troops themselves), the weapons in circulation and frequency of attacks on Ukpute and its environs, a thorough arms mop-up as well as tracking of the sponsors of these bandits must be immediately embarked upon by the security agencies.
Such an extended operation, in our view, is necessary for the peace and security of the ordinary citizens in the area. The temerity and effrontery displayed by the bandits indicate that they have very powerful backers who have been mobilizing resources for their attacks. The security agencies should go after them regardless of their societal standings. No criminal should be allowed to take refuge beneath the shield of human rights.
In the main time, we believe a lesson must have been learnt by the government of Benue State, and indeed, all parties to the Ukpute-Bonta dispute on the dangers of procrastination, indifference and prejudicial behaviour by those in government in the face of grave and recurring threats. If encroachment on land is at the centre of the lingering dispute, why has the state boundary commission failed to swing into action to resolve it by doing proper boundary revalidation?
In the light of this, we urge the Benue State Government to do the needful now by ensuring an unbiased and dispassionate demarcation of the area, using documents or survey maps from archives confirmed by GPS.
The State Government must go beyond boundary demarcation by bringing development to the beleaguered communities of Ukpute, Bonta and their environs as they are said to belong to the forgotten parts of the state.
Also, given the protracted and bloody nature of the Bonta-Ukpute conflict and recent threats from the militia, it is our candid opinion that the Nigerian Army, as a matter of urgency, should consider establishing a buffer military post between Ukpute and Bonta as a further security guarantee for the vulnerable and defenceless, while the Benue State government should immediately clear the Achohor-Oju road which has been blocked by the Bonta militia.