Benue massacre: Echoes of Zaki Biam




In 2001, the Nigerian Army almost wiped out the whole villages in Logo and Zaki Biam Local Government Areas of Benue state, in a reprisal over 19 soldiers that reportedly went missing. Since then, reports of reprisals and gunmen dressed in military uniforms have trailed virtually every attack, including recent killings by herders in the state, DANIEL AGBO reports.

About 3:30p.m, Private Soldier, Danlami Gambo, of the 707 Special Forces Brigade, which is stationed at Naka in Gwer West local government of Benue state, was said to have received a phone call at his duty post on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. However, the reception was poor, so he went out in search of better network and never returned.

At dusk, his colleagues sent a search party to look for Gambo in the woods. At 6:10p.m, the search party saw blood stains along a footpath, leading to a newly dug grave.

According to Assistant Director of Army Public Relations, Major Olabisi Ayeni, the troop dug out the grave and Gambo’s butchered body was found. Thereafter, Gambo’s corpse was deposited at the Nigerian Air Force morgue in Makurdi. Ayeni said preliminary investigation revealed that some locals killed the soldier, leading to some arrests.

However, the matter did not end with arrests. The Soldiers, subsequently mobilised and razed down Naka, killing indiscriminately as they did.

Pre-Naka attack

A week earlier, more than 45 people were killed in one fell swoop during attack on Jande Ikura, a border town between Benue and Taraba state, located in Ukum Local Government Area.

The attacks, locals had claimed, were carried out by men dressed in Army uniform who were said to be looking for their missing colleagues. An aide to Ukum local government chairman who pleaded anonymity said, ‘’we learnt that during the attack on Jande Ikura, three of the bodies recovered were that of persons believed to be soldiers.

“According to him, the same suspected gunmen, who were dressed in Army uniforms, had crossed over to other communities and killed people, in search of their missing colleagues.

“They entered in Akaanya, Tse Gbum, Kpete which is a riverine area and Ulam and killed the 45 persons there. Many people are still missing, ‘’ the source said.

Naka attack

Chairman of Gwer West Local Government Area, Mr Francis Ayagah, said that the soldiers had descended on Naka residents around 11am on April 19, and began burning houses indiscriminately.

According to Ayagah, a soldier was earlier killed by hoodlums and he immediately reached out to the Brigade Commander to avert trouble. The council chairman said that the Brigade Commander gave him ‘’a list of suspects and we apprhended five of them overnight. It was while we were trying to take them to the Brigade that soldiers stormed the town and started burning houses.”

After the attack, more than 300 houses, including food stuffs, were lost to the rampaging soldiers. In addition, several lives were lost and a 65-year-old sick man was burnt to death in one of the houses that were destroyed. Similarly, more than 10,000 people have been displaced, further worsening the existing humanitarian crisis in the area.

A retired Civil Servant, Mr Akile Gbande, who escaped the attack but lost his life savings to the inferno died two days later of apparent heart failure.
Recounting their experience to Blueprint Weekend, the deceased’s son, Terfa Gbande said: “After the attack, my father collapsed, we took him to the General Hospital in Naka but he could not survive, ‘’ He said that the deceased’s wife is also in a critical condition because of Gbande’s sudden death.

On his part, Mr Fanen Tso, a father of eight, who was lucky to be alive but his house and food stuff were burnt, is passing through hard times. He told our correspondent that, ‘’the attack was sudden, so I managed to escape with my family to a safe place to avoid being killed.”

Recurrence

Last December, soldiers allegedly swooped on some communities in Katsina Ala over the killing of an Army Colonel at Saitti Agirigi. Media reports had it that suspected gunmen allegedly killed the senior military officer, who was said to be in transit along Katsina Ala/ Takum Highway. The next day, some soldiers stormed Katsina Ala town in reprisal and burnt down some houses. In addition, the soldiers also blocked the highway, seeking for the officer’s killers.

However, the military denied complicity in the attack in a statement issued by Major Ayeni. According to the assistant Army spokesperson, those who carried out the arson only disguised as soldiers. The statement also said that the victim of the robbery incident was a discharged soldier who was traveling from Lagos to Katsina Ala.

“Troops on Joint Task Force Operations Zyenda immediately moved to the scene of the incident. Unfortunately, the assailants absconded before the troops’ arrival,’’ Major Ayeni added. However, the military received an intelligence report, the day after the retired Colonel was killed, ‘’ that some people dressed in military uniforms were burning houses in the general area of the incident.” According to Ayeni, soldiers rushed to the scene but the assailants had fled when they arrived.

Same sad story

In March 2017, Zaki Biam came under siege as gunmen in military uniforms attacked and killed indiscriminately. Zaki Biam, a commercial town in Ukum Local Government Area, was held hostage by the killers for over three hours.

Specifically, survivors said that the gunmen who were dressed in military camouflage, stormed the town at about 3pm on motorbikes and cars, shooting on sight. While the invasion lasted, there was pandemonium in the town as traders ran for their lives.

According to reports, over 40 people were killed in cold blood, while many sustained varying degrees of injuries. In addition, the attackers also razed down over 150 houses, shops and thousands of yam tubers at the renowned Zaki Biam International Yam Market.
Also, cars, trucks and motorbikes were were destroyed in the attack.

An eyewitness recalled that the ‘’military men’’ came in from Shetile Area of Katsina/Ala Local Government, drove straight to the market area and started shooting sporadically. Thereafter, they went from street to street as they shot at their victims, the eye witness narrated.

He said one of the victims, a two and half year boy, who was identified as Chichi, had bullet wounds but lost his pregnant mother in the attack. He was rescued by a trader who rushed him to Light of Grace Hospital.

“In the midst of the confusion, the armed men set several houses ablaze. There was wailing and crying everywhere as there was blood flowing from all corners of the town. Nobody knew the reason or motive for the attack and the masterminds were also not known. We have not seen anything like this in Zaki Biam after the military invasion of 2001,’’ he further said.

The 2001 massacre

In 2001, Tiv militia had reportedly abducted and murdered 19 soldiers, whose mutilated bodies were found in the village of Zaki-Biam on October 12.

Official statements have it that the soldiers had been deployed to the area to restore law and order, following clashes between Tiv and Jukun ethnic groups. However, the reprisal began on Monday, October 22, when soldiers from the 23rd Armoured Brigade of the 3rd Armoured Division of the Nigerian Army rounded up residents in Gbeji village for a “meeting’’.

According to reports, they were made to sit on the ground and the military separated the men from the others. Afterwards, the soldiers opened fire on the men indiscriminately. Witnesses reported that some of the victims’ bodies were then set ablaze.

Furthermore, the soldiers invaded the villages of Vasae, Anyiin Iorja, Ugba, Sankera and Zaki-Biam, all located in the two local government areas of Logo and Zaki-Biam.

In the following two days, there was widespread destruction of property and buildings in these villages, after terrified residents had abandoned their homes.

At that time, Human Rights Watch had condemned the massacre of more than 100 civilians by soldiers in several villages in Benue state. In particular, the global rights violation watchdog had asked President Olusegun Obasanjo to set up an independent investigation into the massacre.

According to the Executive Director of African Division of Human Rights Watch, Peter Takirambudde, ‘’the murder of the 19 soldiers should certainly be condemned, but their deaths do not justify the slaughter of civilians by the Nigerian Army.”

The killings continue

The killing spree by unknown gunmen has continued in Benue state in the last 19 years. On Tuesday, two priests and 17 other worshippers were killed at a Catholic Church in Ayar-Mbalom Village of Gwer East Local Government.

The gunmen, according to reports, had attacked the worshippers while they were observing the morning mass. In addition, the attackers also burnt down many houses in an operation that lasted one hour.

A relative to one of the victims, who simply identified himself as Samuel, said that the attackers had laid siege on the affected area on Monday evening. He said that they attacked Ayar Mbalom, a nearby community first but they were repelled by locals. ‘’They made effort all through the night on some villages within the surroundings and met with stiff resistance,” he further said.

He said, however, the attackers lurked in a forest close to Mbalom Village, from where they monitored the community. According to him, the gunmen descended on the funeral that was taking place early in the morning and attacked the mourners.

“Some of the attackers used machete on their victims while the others shot sporadically, killing the priests and many other people. A lot of people were injured and death toll might likely rise as some of the injured are in bad shape,” Samuel said.

Reps slam service chiefs

Less than 24 hours after two Catholic priests and 17 worshippers were killed, the marauders launched fresh coordinated attacks on three communities in Guma Local Government, killing no fewer than 39 persons. In addition, several persons also sustained injuries, with over 160 houses, huts and farmlands in the communities razed down. According to reports, the gunmen were dressed in army fatigues.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives resolved to suspend plenary for three consecutive legislative days in protest against the cold-blood killing of Nigerians by gunmen.

Also, the House resolved to invite President Muhammadu Buhari to explain why the wave of insecurity in the country has persisted, despite huge funds being expended on security. The law makers equally passed a vote of no confidence in all the service chiefs and security advisers to the President.

Similarly, they asked the President Muhammadu Buhari to declare all killer herdsmen in the country terrorists.
Specifically, the House also resolved that in light of Section 14, subsection 2 (a) and (b) of the 1999 constitution, which places the security and lives of the people as priorities of government, the President has failed the nation.

Moving the motion, titled “Attack by alleged army personnel on innocent residents of Naka in Gwer-West LGA of Benue State and the inability of the army and other security agencies to quell the incessant murder of indigenes of Benue State by armed herdsmen”, Hon Mark Gbillah (APC, Benue State), recalled the gory incident in Naka, Gwer-west Local Government, which claimed several lives, following the invasion of soldiers in a reprisal.

He recalled that the House was “alarmed at numerous eye-witness accounts that rampaging Nigerian Army personnel on Thursday, April 19, 2018, attacked Naka, in several Hilux trucks with Nigerian Army colours and number plates, wearing military fatigues, with name tags and carrying weapons with ‘Nigerian Army’ inscribed on them.’’ According to the law maker, the soldiers intentionally torched hundreds of houses in Naka, resulting to loss lives, while hundreds of victims who survived the attacks lost all their life investments and documents.

Gbillah also stated that the attacks assumed a disturbing dimension when two Reverend fathers of the Catholic Mission, Fr. Joseph Gor and Fr. Felix Tyolaha, were murdered in cold blood on Tuesday.

In his contribution, Hon Dickson Takhir (Benue) alleged that the killers connived with security agencies to perpetrate the acts. He said that, “Benue is under siege and if we don’t take the necessary actions, it will amount to abdicating the responsibility of government to protect lives and property of its citizens. It appears there is no moral will to tackle the matter because continuous complaints about the killings seem to fall on deaf ears.”

On his part, Edward Pwajok (Plateau-APC), stated the need to invite the security chiefs to brief the House on their efforts to stop the killings. In his own contribution, Hon Mohammed Nur Sheriff (Borno) urged the House to stage a protest in solidarity with the people. He said that “we need to protest as members of the House of Representatives to tell Mr. President that enough is enough.”

In the same vein, Hon Magaji Aliyu (Jigawa) wants service chiefs to be sacked.

Senate calls for state of emergency

On Thursday, the Senate called on the federal government to declare a state of emergency in Benue state and other states facing deadly violence. The call followed a deliberation of a motion on “Continued Killings in Benue state” sponsored by George Akume (Benue North West).

Specifically, the senators condemned the inefficiency of security chiefs and agencies and that declaring state of emergency is the best way to drive out perpetrators.

Significantly, the National Assembly should also probe the alleged complicity of the military in the Benue attacks, or how unknown gunmen disguise in soldiers’ uniforms to kill defenceless civilians.

Whether the military and other security agencies can stem the spate of killing in Benue and other states is left to be seen, however, the fact remains that the country may be facing its worst crisis yet if steps are not taken quickly to arrest the situation.




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