War in Benue as anti grazing law fails to secure peace

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On November 1, 2017, the Anti Open Grazing of Benue state came into effect amidst controversy but Governor Samuel Ortom insisted that it is the only panacea for peace. However,62 days after it came to being, the state suffered the worst massacre in recent times as over 50 people were killed by unknown gunmen on New year day. IBRAHEEM MUSA and DANIEL AGBO recall the gory details and what led to it in this report.

At ease, composed and confident, Governor Samuel Ortom was relaxed at the Abuja Benue State House, located at Asokoro district, when he fielded questions from select journalists on December 11, 2017. Largely, the interview dwelt on the Anti Open Grazing Law, what led to its enactment and the furor it sparked off as well as how the state has been fairing under the law.

In summary, Ortom said there is no alternative to ranching as the law, according to him, has stopped the meaningless killings and destructions of lives and property in Benue state. In retrospect, Ortom celebrated too soon as three weeks later, the temporary peace was shattered by unknown gunmen on New Year in two local government areas.

Harvest of deaths
Significantly, the gunmen struck around 10 am, when the people of Logo local government were preparing to go to church, killing people indiscriminately at Ayilamo, Turan and Gambe-tiev villages. The gunmen, according to reports, killed, maimed and burnt houses without let till 3am on Tuesday.

Thereafter, they moved to Guma local government areas, Governor Ortom’s council of origin, and unleashed death on Tomatar, Ako and Umenger residents on Tuesday. The gunmen, within 24 hours, had left more than 50 people dead, several burnt houses and many injured victims in the two local governments. Narrating the incident, Mr Terver Verlumun who survived the attack at Ako, has described the gunmen as beasts.

According to him, ‘’they came and attacked our village, they would enter a particular compound, kick the door open, capture the people inside and slaughter them, they spared nobody, they kill even children and the elderly.’’ In addition, he told Blueprint Weekend that he escaped with his family ‘’because I was awake and when I started hearing screams, I quickly packed them on my motorcycle and took them to a safe place. ‘’ As at last Thursday, Ako has been deserted as the people have either been killed or they had fled to safety, Verlumun told our correspondent.

Similarly, a resident of Ayilamo, Tombo in Logo, who identified himself as Terkaa Amindi, said the gunmen killed two of his siblings, aged 19 and 15, when they went gone to deliver food stuff to their maternal uncle. According to him, ‘’my father was killed last year when the herdsmen invaded my community. I am left with my mother and four other siblings, but now two of them have been killed again.’’ Mr Amindi said that his mother and the two other children escaped the New year killings because she had gone to spend the Yuletide with her younger brother in Gboko. He recalled hiding in the bush and watching how the gunmen were slaughtering people like animals.

Mr. James Ignudu, an ICT expert, told newsmen in Makurdi how his uncle, Mr. Julius Ntwangwa, who had traveled home for New year, was also killed by the marauding gunmen. According to him, the killers were moving out of Benue State through the road connecting the state and Nasarawa state, when they decided to block the road. Ignudu said that they then attacked the people who came for the New year celebrations.

Afterwards, the gunmen left but on Tuesday morning, the villagers also heard screaming and deafening gunshots. Ignudu, his mother and two children fled to the bush, from where they burst out to the main road. According to him, ‘’ we managed to get transport and after dropping off my mother and children in Makurdi, the state capital, I returned to the community to render assistance but what I saw shocked me. There were corpses all over the place, my uncle was also killed and dumped at the back of the house.’’

The social activist and ICT guru sent a Save Our Soul message to the police but he later learnt that the DPO and some officers had gone to another village which had been attacked. Later, the police evacuated the corpses to Gbajimba General Hospital. “My uncle, Julius Ntwangwa, who had come to celebrate the New Year, was also among those killed,’’ he lamented.

Gov Ortom berates FG, security agents
After the killings had stopped, Governor Ortom had visited the Benue State University Teaching Hospital, where most of injured victims were receiving treatment. Similarly, he went to Tomatar to commiserate with the people and for an on-the-spot assessment. Thereafter, he described the killings is unfortunate, more so for citizens to kill their fellow countrymen.

In addition, the governor hinted that security agents had prior knowledge of the attack. According to him, ‘’this is unfortunate, we are living in a country we call our own and this is happening. It is not that these warnings were not given out , the security agencies in this country are aware of what you are seeing today, and this is just a tip of the iceberg.’’

Ortom further said that the casualties are higher than what is evident because ‘’so many houses(have been) burnt, so many people killed and some they are still looking for and some of the places cannot he accessed. ‘’ The governor also called on the federal government rise up to the challenge to protect the people of Benue state. According to him, the killing ‘’ is not fair, this is not right and we cannot accept it.’’

Police arrest suspects
In a press statement, Benue State Police Command said it had arrested eight Fulani herdsmen in connection with the attack on the five communities. According to the command ’s Public Relations Officer , Mr Moses Yamu, six of them were arrested in Guma while two were apprehended in the Logo local government areas.

However, they neither paraded the suspects nor mentioned their names but gave the official number of casualties as 17, including seven members of Benue State Livestock Guards. In addition, the police said that an uncertain number of people were injured in the attacks. Significantly, the statement quoted the police commissioner, Alhaji Bashir Makama as appealing for calm from all and sundry. However, instead of heeding to that appeal, youths had mobilized and staged blocked major roads in Markurdi, the state capitallas Wednesday.

Protesters shut down Makurdi, stone Ortom
As early as 7am, hundreds of youths massed around the popular Food Basket Roundabout in Wurukum, chanting war songs and raining invectives on the federal government. In addition, they called on President Muhammadu Buhari to end the killings or resign his position.

Significantly, the protest led to a heavy gridlock at the roundabout which serves as a link between the north and southern parts of the country. Alex,one of the protesters, accused the federal government of ‘’not doing anything to address the intermittent killings in Benue state. ‘’ He called for the international community, Civil Society Organisations, and well meaning individuals to come to the aid of the state, especially to alleviate hardship of the people.

Initially, the protest was peaceful but the crowd went wild and they started harassing motorists and passers-by and throwing stones at security men. In addition, they made bonfires and blocked major roads in the capital. In fact, it became more violent when Governor Ortom visited the scene to calm the youth. At that point, they started pelting him and members of his convoy with stone. In fact, soldiers and police fired gun shots in the air before the governor was whisked away into a waiting vehicle. The military , police and Nigerian Security Civil Defence Corps as well as vigilantes were drafted to beef up security when the protest went violent.

Significantly, the protest which paralyzed commercial activities, resulted to the death of three youths who were allegedly shot by soldiers at the University of Agriculture junction. However, the Assistant Director of Information of Nigerian Army, 707 Special Force, Major Olabisi Ayeni denied the report. Similarly, Police spokesman Yamu said that ‘the command is not in receipt of any such report.’’

Ortom demands investigation
However, Governor Ortom condemned the murder of protesters and in a press statement, Chief Press Secretary Terver Akase reported him as calling for investigation into the killing. According to him, ‘’the attack on the young protesters as insensitive to the current mood of the people who are in grief over the killing of many innocent persons by armed herdsmen in Guma and Logo local government areas of the state.’’ He commiserated with the victims’ families and promised that those responsible for their deaths will be brought to justice. In addition, Ortom appealed for calm and advised the people to ‘’ resist the temptation to take the law into their hands as the state government is exploring every lawful means to restore peace in the communities affected by renewed herdsmen attacks.’’

…Blames Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore
Before the New year attack, Governor Ortom said that his government had reported Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, a Fulani pressure group, asking security agencies to arrest them but nothing was done. According to him, ‘’these people threatened to resist the Anti-open grazing law and they have made through their threats.

Leadership of this group are in Abuja with the federal government, why cant the federal government stop them. The right thing to do is for the federal government to rise up to their responsibility and arrest leadership of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore.’’ The governor further said that if federal government doesn’t arrest the group, then it is indirectly telling the people of Benue state that there are not part of this country. Ortom argued that it is the responsibility of the centre to protect the people as ‘’the security apparatus of this country belongs to the federal government and they have the capacity.’’

Akume wants state of emergency
Senator George Akume, representing Benue Northwest, and his counterpart who represents Benue North east, Senator Barnabas Gemade, have called on the federal government to declare emergency on the activities of the Fulani herdsmen in the state. Senator Akume who spoke on behalf of National Assembly members in the state, expressed confidence in President Buhari to handle the situation. He urged him not to allow herdsmen to dent his hard earned image. The former governor called for the arrest of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore leaders.

Dambazzau warns against politicizing the crisis
However, Minister of Interior Lt. General Abdulrahman Dambazzau (rtd) who was in Makurdi on Thursday, had described New year attackers as ‘criminals’ . The Minister who came to assess damage, said that the president was personally pained by the heinous incident. In particular, he commiserated with the people and vowed that ‘’government will not sit down and watch people to be killed and their property destroyed. Anyone found wanting deserves maximum punishment”.

In addition, Dambazau warned Nigerians against politicizing the incident, noting that many people were using the opportunity of the crisis for their selfish political interests.

The minister urged people to continue exercising restraint as federal government collaborating with the state government to find a lasting solution to the crisis. The minister however said he has not been briefed about Ortom’s letter to the Inspector General of Police, asking for Miyeti Allah Kautal Hore’s leaders arrest. According to him, over 5,000 Agro Rangers are been trained by the Federal government to handle incessant herders, farmers clashes across the country.

Remote cause of the crisis
On November 1, 2017, the Anti Open Grazing Law took effect in Benue state and from that time, the edict has been controversial. Specifically, the law had pitched the Fulani and the state government.

In particular, leader of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria(MACABAN) in Benue state, Alhaji Garus Golo said that the law is confusing. ‘’For instance, they have said they are not chasing out the Fulanis from the state but they have made no provision for our cattle, the cattle markets and even other cattle. They have told us to buy land for ranches, but the question is from who; you know that the process of getting land from the government is tedious, yet they are insisting that we must buy land for ranches, ‘’ he argued.

According to Golo, ‘’ although the government had repeatedly explained that the law was not against the Fulani herdsmen, the requirements of the law were stringent and could not be met by the herdsmen within the time frame set by the government.

Reacting to Golo’s claims, Benue Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Mr Lawrence Onoja Jr., said enough time was given for land acquisition and the building of ranches. He said the recent decision of the government to unbundle the procedure for land acquisition and reduce the cost of Certificate of Occupancy was to facilitate the process of land acquisition. Onoja explained that the law was not against any particular people but was aimed at livestock protection, stating that it also applies to indigenes of the state who have cattle and other livestock.

Also, the herdsmen had said that the law breached their fundamental human right of freedom of movement..

Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore go to court
Before the law became operational, the leadership of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore that had dragged Benue state to court over the Anti- grazing law and not his association. The suit no FHC/ABJ/CS/527/2017, was instituted by Trustees of Miyeittii Allah Kautal Hore socio cultural association, Alhaji Abdullahi Bello Bodojo and Engineer Salleh Alhassan through their counsel, Aliyu Ahmed and associates. Joined in the suits are, the National Assembly, Attorney General of Federation (AGF), Inspector General of Police (IGP), Benue State house of Assembly, Benue State Government and Benue Commissioner of Police. However, regardless of the suit and the opposition of Fulanis within and outside Benue state, Governor Ortorm had signed the Anti Grazing Bill into law.

Barely 24 hours after Benue State government declared war on open grazing, Fulani herdsmen started leaving the state in droves. According to The zonal leader of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore in charge of North central states, Alhaji Gidado Idris Bebeji, the new law had caused an unprecedented exodus of people, some of whose fathers were born in the state. He expressed worries that their human rights to free movement was being violated as a result of the restriction placed on their animals by the law.

Last December, Governor Ortom told the group of journalists mentioned earlier, that ranching is the panacea for peace in Benue state. However, 61 days after the Anti Open Grazing Law law came into effect, the state suffered one of the worst massacres within 24 hours. Whether the killings were done to resist the law or they were carried out because the anti grazing law has failed, will be a never-ending debate.

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