BY ISABEST OMOREGBEJI
Benue State is gradually becoming synonymous with massacre. ISABEST OMOREGBEJI mirrors the worries of survivors of the latest orgy of blood-letting in Jato Aka and Kwande local government areas of the state.
In March 2017, Buruku and Ukum local government areas of Benue State were attacked by well-armed and coordinated gunmen, who stormed the areas in vehicles and motorcycles. Each attack took the people of the area and security agents totally unaware and scores, mostly women and children, needlessly lost their lives.
The markets were burnt, foodstuff destroyed, many injured and scores of helpless aged, women and children left dead.
In spite of the rain of horror, a few were lucky to be alive to tell their stories and recount one of the most horrifying days of their lives.
Thanks to a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Lawyers Alert, LEADERSHIP Weekend got to hear the stories of relatives and victims of the attacks in Jato Aka/Zaki Biam axis in Kwande.
A witness to the mayhem and former special adviser on media to the former chairman of Association of Local Government of Nigeria (ALGON), Ephraim Apiah, said: “Throughout these latest attacks, the government wasn’t briefed. It was like an organised conspiracy between the security agencies and our very own people.
“What shocked us the more was that, shortly after having a security council meeting with the governor and the traditional council of Kwande and other stakeholders, the governor addressed the press and, in the press conference which was aired live on Channels Television, he was saying that nothing happened in that area (Kwande).
“Something happened. After the governor said that, we held a community meeting of concerned locals and decided to run to this NGO for help.”
Apiah went on to talk about the genesis of the blood-shed.
“Let me give a brief on the renewed attacks by the Fulanis on Turan Jato Aka. Jato Aka is the headquarters of Turan, which has five wards. One council ward known as ‘Moon’ was sacked three years ago, with the Fulanis actively controlling parts of Ywaav Ward, Mbadura and Mpaikyor, all in the rocky areas. Of the five, the only safe ward in Turan was Kumakwagh.”
While the state government has blamed the killings on some blood-thirsty individuals, Apiah disclosed that security agents would not absolve themselves of complicity in the killings.
“I suspect security agents as co-conspirators in these coordinated attacks and, while the governor keeps insisting that nothing happened in those places, I can tell you that in Moon, nine persons were killed. In Ywaav, 10 persons were killed and we know the names of nine of them. Only one is unidentified.
“In Badura, bordering Yoryor in Katsina Ala local government, nine persons were killed and, as I talk to you, no house is standing. The place is completely leveled and 10 of the pages of the booklet I have here bears the names of the villages, lives and houses destroyed.”
Why is Apiah’s conviction so strong that the security agents could be guilty of collusion?
“All the time the army was stationed in Jato Aka, they never arrested any individual in relation to the incessant Fulani attacks on our people. The security people sit idly in their hotel rooms and, when the Fulanis come to report to them that a car or something is missing, they come out terrorising the natives. They do this in active connivance with the people in the 93rd Battalion.”
According to Apiah, on a day when the young people in the area impounded a car, they were just acting on a tip-off that a red Golf 3, is laden with weapons from Gboko to Kashinbila.
“The occupants of the vehicles were all Fulanis, so they made a call to the soldiers back at Kashimbila, who, thereafter, called those in Jato Aka to go to their rescue. Within the next two minutes or so, they came to the rescue of the Fulanis and took them away, in spite of the insistence of the young people to search the car for weapons.
“The soldiers begun to shoot into the air, in a desperate attempt to scare the young people away, but, sadly, a stray bullet killed the son of Daniel Akuaya (he indicates the man sitting next to him), Paul Ipaven, seated next to me here.
The withdrawn Daniel Akuaya, lost in thought, told LEADERSHIP Weekend that his son, a 17-year-old JSS 3 student of the Holy Family Catholic School JatoAka, had just returned from school and sat down to have his meal of garri and groundnut, when he was hit by the bullet.
“The sole administrator and the DPO came there and even took the corps to the mortuary themselves. Yet, the youths were unrelenting. This group now invited those of the 93rd Battalion, who came and shot seven more youths, who are now in various hospitals with gunshot wounds. They managed in dispersing the youths, then left with the vehicle suspected to be carrying weapons to an unknown destination and not to the police station at Adikpo.
“After they left, we met with the governor and complained to him about the happenings in the area. The chief corroborated our story and, in the end, the governor ordered the commanding officer to redeploy soldiers to crisis-ridden areas in Jato Aka Town.
“To my greatest dismay, I received a call that these same soldiers were stationed miles away from Jato Aka and not in the areas they were ordered to be. They were not in Jato Aka, they never arrested a single Fulani; instead, they were doing business in human corpses,” he said.
What did he mean by ‘trading corpses’?
“Well,” he continued, “If the Fulanis kill your relative in the bush, you have to come bargain with the soldiers for N20,000 and fuel, before they can carry the corps to the mortuary. That is the business. This is what they do.
“It happened to me when I paid them to go carry my slain uncle,” he said.
When asked whether he spotted the special forces of the Nigerian Police newly deployed there, Akuaya, a primary school teacher, said he only saw a baton of them once, Katsina Ala.
As for the death of his son, he said: “Just as much as it is important for government to ensure this bad incidence never repeats itself, it is also important for government to compensate me for the loss to assist me cater for the younger ones of the deceased. The government should address problems like this in a way that parties will fill justice is being served and, again, ensure that this does not reoccur again.”
Another survivor and an undergraduate of Library Information in the Benue State University, Tule Godwin, said: “Government shouldn’t only send security agents but, also, monitor how this job is done, because there is a lot of suspicion that the people sent to the place to keep the peace have a stake in the crises.
The ones supposed to protect lives are, instead, taking it.
“Our local women and children are now afraid of returning home since the incidence. So, this has cost us a lot of damage. We need serious rehabilitation and compensation for the attacks, because the first duty of government is to protect lives and properties,” he said.
According to Lawyers Alert, the situation had become a cause for alarm.
The body’s national president, Rommy Mom, Esq., emphasised same through a press conference recently.
“It’s a cause for concern, as the situation like that of Borno is gradually being replicated by these spates of attacks on states in Nigeria’s North Central, including Nasarawa, Plateau and Benue.
“Lawyers Alert makes bold to sound a note of alarm to the Federal Government that the shooting of defenseless people in markets, is a Boko Haram modus and, certainly, Nigeria does not need nor can we handle a second version of this horror or nightmare in our country.
“We call on the Buhari administration to act fast to stem this tide in its infancy. Borno must never be replicated anywhere in Nigeria. Enough is enough. The time to act is now,” he said.
Speaking further, Mom reiterated that it is not too far for us to say that Boko Haram was gradually being replicated in the North Central.
“If you go to Borno or Adamawa, you’ll understand the enormity of what we’re talking about, the hundreds of IDPs, the destruction of lives, the maiming and all of that, the country is still battling to survive what happened in Borno and the N500bn that has gone in amounts to nothing, international donors are still going there, yet, it is not enough; people are still suffering emotional grief and harm.
“Our country has suffered so much, owing to what has happened in the North-east. The question is, do we want another North-east in the North Central? The Federal Government must approach this issue with the same intensity with which it treated the issues in the North East. If not, with time, it will get bad. If we keep treating issues like this with levity, we’ll soon be looking at [a replication of] the North East in no distant time,” he stated.
Mom cited examples of other killings that had gone unaddressed.
“A young prisoner at the Jato Aka Prison Farm, Agidi Tersoo Tor, 25, with just a few months left on his sentence, had gone to the stream to fetch water, escorted by prison wardens when he was also felled by a bullet. The Nigerian Prison/Federal government reacted by moving all prisoners out of Jato Aka Prison Farm to Gboko Prison.
“We at Lawyers Alert posit that the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Prison service be held accountable for the deaths of master Ipaven Paul Ayem and Agidi Tersoo Tor, respectively, as we approach the courts in determination the culpability of the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Prisons Service in this regard. This is the least we can do for the deceased,” Mom said via a statement.
Building on what was submitted, VATIM a humanitarian NGO also backed the calls by Lawyers Alert stating that they are aware of the Federal Government’s Presidential Committee on the North East Initiative (PCNI), but insisted that: “Our opinion is that the Federal Government is being insincere about curtailing what is happening in Benue. So many reasons abound for taking this position. The PCNI that only exists in the North East and not in the North Central is one of those reasons.
“Recently, in the National Assembly, there was a debate about getting the likes of Kano and Plateau to join the PCNI, while everyone overlooked happenings in the North Central.
“Also, we are aware that the army set up a regiment to check cattle-rustling. The president commissioned the regiment early last year, but the issue we have in Benue goes back to 2010, 2011. My own village in Guma local government was completely burnt down in 2012 and it may interest you to know that, for, at least, three years, the period from February to April always records a reoccurrence of these attacks. So, there is a pattern we need to look at,” said the VATIM, through a statement.
The recommendations for Benue State, according to Lawyers Alert, would be to, first and foremost, form a synergy between security agencies in the state. Secondly, the state government would have to intensify and strengthen peace-building committees across troubled spots, in order to include herdsmen, farmers and other critical stakeholders. Lastly, the State House of Assembly was recommended to carefully go through the Grazing Bill currently before it, which the state government has requested be sped up. Lawyers Alert considers all extra-judicial killings a gross violation of fundamental human rights. “All lives are sacrosanct and where any life is taken for any reason beyond judicial sphere, the responsibility lies on government at all levels to remedy the situation and bring to justice the perpetrators of such acts,” the group said.