Benue bloodbath:Unanswered questions and what the indigenes think

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From BD Sunday

(By Ignatius Chukwu who covered Makurdi for 22 years)

The ordinary Benue man (or woman) thinks the world is coming to an end. Yes, they witnessed (or heard) of the Biafra or the Nigerian Civil War that raged between 1967 and 1970; yes, they have witnessed several inter-communal clashes that took lives; and yes, they have had skirmishes with Fulani herdsmen that even led to bloodshed, but never in their existence have they faced such massive invasion and such level of fighting on their soil.

Benue State is predominantly Tiv who are found in two senatorial zones of the state; and in Nassarawa and in Taraba states. Gov Samuel Ortom, in fact all governors, come from there. The late Aper Aku, first civilian governor of the state, came from there; the late Rev Father Moses Orshio Adasu, the only catholic reverend father to contest election and govern a state anywhere in the world, hailed from there. Wantaregh Paul Unongo is from there, Engr Barns Gemade is from there. Second on population and influence is Idoma. David Mark is Idoma. Many ministers are from there. Audu Ogbe is from there. Next is Igede sub-ethnic group, though, when it is okay, they are Idoma; when it is not, they are not. Their claim of not being Idoma is punctuated by their producing an Och’Idoma, the monarch of the Idoma ethnic nationality. So, how can a non-Idoma be king of Idoma, many argue. Their case is as strong as the Ikwerre of Rivers State not being Igbo but they currently occupy the slot of secretary general of Ohaneze Ndi Igbo. The next is Jukun who live within the Tiv but mostly in Taraba. There is Etulo, whose location is neither here nor there, but mostly along the river banks. There could be more. A twist now is that the Fulani, through the Miyetti Allah, say they are the real Benue, the real owners of the Benue Valley of ancient Kwarafa. This may be explained later, or may neber ve explained. These groups lived peacefully over the centuries except occasional outbursts with the Tiv. Now, there is full blown fighting.

The killing or fighting has raged so steadily that what most Benue people know at the moment is about running from village to village, yet, the bloodshed trails them. Every Tiv man believes that herdsmen are after him, he believes the Fulani are after him, that the Army is after him, and that the FG is after him; too bad.

Look, the Benue man is pro-centre, and pro-North, and pro-Army. They have demonstrated this severally over the years. They have always demonstrated this in politics and even if they found themselves in the opposition, they would ‘correct’ that in the subsequent election. So, they had no reason to fear the North, to fear the centre, or to fear the Army. They pride themselves as people of the Army, a people with military heritage. They say, each time they found themselves against the Army, that people should ask questions. The Tiv people will never forget the likes of Joe Akaghan and Victor Malu (all chiefs of staff) of blessed memory, Mark Inienger, John Atom Kpera, Joseph Akaageger, Gideon Orkar, and many more. They have a proud military heritage. Their Idoma brothers also want to outshine them with Army Generals such as Geofrey Ejiga, Lawrence Onoja, and David Mark.

Ordinarily, the Tiv man would side with the Nigerian Army. What went wrong? Why is the Tiv man now scared of men in uniform? Three reasons seem to account for this. The Gideon Orkar coup! The Tiv felt targeted after that episode and felt purged out of the Army thereafter. They also felt they deserved some grace and not that size of reprisals. Next was the October 2001 military invasion of Zaki-Biam in Tongov area, the hometown of a serving Army General, the former Chief of Army Staff, Victor Malu, allegedly killing 100 persons. This was in retaliation for the killing of about 19 ‘soldiers’ during inter-communal clashes. This was due to prolonged fighting between the Tiv people of Benue State and the Jukuns of Taraba. The Tiv people felt that the Army was partial. They claimed that the fighters they killed were enemies that turned out to be soldiers. They felt that those fighting the Tiv were no longer civilian enemies but soldiers. The straw that may have broken the camel’s back seems to be the present fighting between the Tiv and Fulani or herdsmen. The Benue people say soldiers were also fighting or killing the Tiv. The Nigerian Army has denied this, saying they only went in to make arrests or quell fighting. This piece is about the thinking of the ordinary Benue people. Right now, what they think is that soldiers are killing them. So, that long tradition of love and trust between the Tiv and the Nigerian Army has been stained. The Tiv man now flees the moment he sees soldiers. Not just that, the Tiv man runs away when he sees those he used to run to; Army, North, FG. What is not clear is where they now run to.

The Tiv may now be running to Aondo. Aondo is God and they love God deeply. They do not have ‘Young Alhajis’ but they have pastors young or old; they have bishops and reverend fathers. Tuesday last week, two of those reverend fathers were attacked and killed right in the church, in fact, at the alter, along with morning mass goers. This means, ardent catholics were massacred. The Tiv repulsed at this, saying Fulani herdsmen have done the worst. Now, silence greets the latest development, which about the accusation against a Tiv man who goes by Hausa name. The Army is resolving that, but do the Tiv trust the Army anymore?

This singular massacre, the killing of revered and reverend fathers with their loyal parishioners, has caused cold, and when the Tiv are cold, the nation catches fever. The danger is that their cold causes anger and their anger wears ‘anger’ cloth and this scenario once caused ‘Aten Tio’ or operation kill the enemy which snowballed into Nigeria’s bloody civil war. (Aten Tio is like Wetie of the Western Region. The two violent rebellions in 1965 forced the Army to strike in 1966 and the matter degenerated into a civil war). Now, we have got to the point of Operation Akpetuma or Cat Race launched by the Army, and anger is subduing ‘anger’. (Many Nigerians immediately point out a Tiv person through dominant black & white hand woven cloth. That cloth is called ‘anger’)

The Tiv have dropped the ‘anger’ and put on anger. Now, Makurdi, the state capital, is at the verge of war. Every other night, families will run away from home, and later return. Tiv habours anger, Hausa habours fear, and Fulani has disappeared in the state. Those that reside in the heart of the state capital such as High Level or Barracks Road still sleep with both eyes closed but those in North Bank area keep vigil while those at Ankpa Quarters, Wadatta, Apir, etc, are in perpetual fear. Shops are more closed than open, businesses are in peril, while the 1966 feeling is back.

The latest but most gruesome killing is the massacre of Morning Mass goers at Saint Ignatius parish in Ayar, near Ikpayongo area, in Gwer West LGA, not far from the Seminary School at Apir, on the road to Aliade, where you get another famous missionary school, the Saint Michael’s. Look, there is this linear catholic high education axis: There is the reigning Mount Saint Gabriel’s Makurdi, Saint James Seminary Apir, and Michael’s Aliade. These great institutions of secondary learning have over the years helped to put Benue State far ahead of all other northern states academically, such that Benue is the first northern state to get a state university. It now boasts of the foremost University of Agriculture, to add to a private university in Mkar and a strong polytechnic in Ugbokolo that may become Apa University. This is why Benue is no longer an academically disadvantaged state though it is in the north. Its admission cut off point into federal unity schools is 111 for both boys and girls, as high as any in the south. Bauchi is 35. It was in this catholic parish soon after the Seminary school that killers went early in the morning to kill almost 20 ardent worshippers; being that Morning Mass goers are often the most ardent catholics.

While the masses were wailing and hurting, a Tiv man, Teshaku Aliyu, was arrested by the Nigerian Army, accused of being the mastermind of that slaughter. Could the Tiv have turned on the Tiv? This has opened inquiry into the personality and character of Teshaku. The state governor washed his hands off this man. The Army knew him as Aminu Yaminu. He was once arrested and accused of being a Boko Haram commander. He came out to become an aide to a governor. He headed the Cattle Guards for Benue State. The Fulani union, Miyetti Allah, hates him much, and always accused him of being a Tiv militant leader killing the Fulani and being a supplier of arms to their killers. Now, it gets scary! Could Teshaku Aliyu Aminu Yaminu be Tiv, Hausa, Boko Haram, Tiv Militant, or Herdsman, all at the same time? Investigations will answer these questions, if he lived to the end.

Word of mouth that goes with war points at him as one of the three topmost mystical fighters in the state who led fighters to the bushes ostensibly to wage war against herdsmen. Now, they claim that Teshaku turns his guns to wherever he liked when in the bush. The tale goes wild about a popular fighter who narrowly escaped death but lost all his fighters soon after answering a call by Teshaku. He was said to have lost his magic bag and sent word to Teshaku to return his bag or face war. Soon, Teshaku was captured by the Army. Is this a fight-back or law of karma?

The governor said last week that only three local council areas of the state were so far unaffected by attacks or invasion. Gboko may be one of them. Gboko is the traditional capital of Tiv ethnic nationality. The Tiv control two senatorial zones. It is also the seat of the Tor Tiv. What puzzles the Tiv nation is that Fulani ravaging is most in the MINDA or Makurdi zone of Tiv land including Makurdi, Guma, Gwer and Gwer West. Some sources say many saboteurs have compromised in this zone. Tales abound about persons believed to have betrayed the cause or collected money to reveal things against the state. For instance, it is believed that it is money that makes some persons to reveal the antidote of the fighting charms possessed by some Tiv fighters. It is believed that it is money that makes some persons to hide arms and assets for the herdsmen but when the invaders arrive, they allegedly wipe out their collaborators first and then move into operation kill all. This is the greater danger with such wars; the rumours that kill more than guns.

Tales also abound of how the killers move from community to community and wipe out anything in sight. Refugees say these invaders turn the yam barns to cows to feed and feast on; they slaughter stray goats and fowls to make a feast. Almost everybody in Tiv land is now a refugee; and those not on the run are habouring relations fleeing from the rural areas. Makurdi and Gboko are brimming with people.

Gboko, the Tiv stronghold, seems impregnable to attackers. They are said to be fiercely angry, looking for any provocation to go to war. It was in Gboko that a car load of travelers was wiped out. This led to the arrest of the DPO there. It was gathered that the driver conveying the travelers squealed on his passengers and next, they met death.

What is reigning on social and traditional media is attack by herdsmen. It is not true that the Benue people or the Tiv are innocent. It could not be that herdsmen are killing the Tiv and herdsmen are not being killed. Between the Fulani and the Tiv, there is no innocent tribe in this matter at the moment. Its just that the herdsmen do not do social media. They do not post their losses. The killing is two-sided, the outcry seems to be one-sided.

What is not clear to the ordinary Benue man is the role of the Army. T Y Danjuma seemed to have provided a working theory, but there is more to this. When the Army invaded Tondov (Victor Malu’s) area in 2001, the Army said the Tiv fighters killed 19 soldiers sent to stop the fighting. The Tiv made an important explanation; that the Tiv ex-soldiers fighting to defend Tiv land believed they killed Jukun opponents. They said they met these opponents right in the thick of fighting in the jungle. They were surprised to hear they were soldiers. They wondered if the ‘soldiers’ were fighting for the Jukun in military uniforms. That time, the Tiv openly accused the Army of helping Danjuma’s Jukuns to fight the Tiv. Now, it is Danjuma accusing the Army of helping the Fulani to kill Jukuns. Now also, the Tiv are accusing the Army of helping the Fulani to kill everyone else. There must therefore be something strange about the role of the Army in these inter-ethnic fightings or about the way the Army engages in intervention such that the losers usually see the hand of the Army in the killings.

Many bizarre but unverified accounts abound in Benue of how ‘soldiers’ were caught posing as herdsmen or how herdsmen posed as soldiers. What is verifiable is that a soldier was killed in Naka and this led to storming of the area by soldiers, leaving a trail of death and blood. The agony was going on when the massacre in Ayer (priests) took place. Sense of siege took over.

Dispute or violence between the Tiv and the Fulani did not start today; what has changed is its frequency, consistency and intensity. In 1983, the then National Party of Nigeria (NPN) launched its national election campaigns in Gboko, Benue State, called ‘Gboko ‘83’. JS Tarka, the longest and strongest political leader of the Tiv, did something that says a lot. He presented a cow to Shehu Shagari (then president). He said by that, the Tiv had repaid the debt of a cow their tribe owed the Fulani, a debt that was believed to be cause of endless skirmishes between the two ethnic groups to that time (or to this time). The story was that in the beginning, a Fulani herdsman was grazing across Tiv land and at a point gave a cow to his Tiv friend to rear for some years. On his return journey, the Fulani man had asked for an account, hoping that it had multiplied to a herd. The Tiv man was said to have replied ‘Munchi’, meaning that he had eaten it. This created perpetual enmity, and Tarka wanted it to come to an end. Shagari played a quick one. He said if such a matter existed, it was between the two monarchs, meaning Tor Tiv and Sultan of Sokoto, not by two political leaders. So, the cow has not been repaid to this day.

This story sounds funny but it has deeper meanings. The cow-refund and the rejection that followed it gave a seal of authenticity to what was merely a fable. Two, it means a debt still remains. Three, it means that the bitterness between the two tribes did not start today and has not ended. It also shows that it cannot be solved by political people who only see exploitation in the whole episode. It shows that, as Shagari advised, the traditional leaders of both the Tiv and Fulani know the key to any meaningful resolution. Dialogue is important; politics is an anathema in this matter.

To buttress this point, a highly respected federal minister once hinted while in Port Harcourt in 2016 in a private chat that the problem in the Benue matter was that the Fulani had already shared kola nut. This was later understood to mean that when the Fulani pastoralists meet serious harm in any place. They would report at home. If considered unpardonable, the elders would share kola nut in baskets to their various hamlets across West Africa. This would trigger a mobilization process and eventual war. It is usually bloody. So, it is like the shared kola nut is speaking. The only way to stop it could be a traditional approach of finding out how to ‘unshare’ the kola. It could mean secret negotiations and payment of compensation to all losers in both ethnicities. The other option is for the FG to fight it out.

The power to fight by the FG can only be backed by higher fire-power such as procurement of air fighters of the latest grade equipped to see at night and take out sneaking elements. The belief of the ordinary Benue man is that the president is their enemy and would not fight the Fulani. This is where the FG has a big propaganda battle because their opponents seem miles ahead. Here too, the political class will never be united in fighting problem in Benue because Buhari’s opponents need the crisis a lot for 2019.

By focusing on the political side, the real enemy is free to hide. By 2014, a journalist in Makurdi, Hope Abah, did extensive investigations for Daily Trust and interviewed many IDPs from Tse-Ucenda, a Tiv settlement in Guma Local Government Area of Benue State, who said they had been on the run for six months and that the attacks began two years earlier. They, as at 2014, wondered why the herdsmen attacks were too much and consistent. They said they had lived with the Fulani for ages and did not understand this new surge. It was not Buhari or Fulani that was president then. It is left for the presidency to figure out why this time around, it is vociferously sated that because a Fulani man is president, herdsmen attacks have come. It is thus made out to appear that immediately a non-Fulani or non-Buhari becomes president, the herdsmen worry would disappear in Nigeria or in Benue.

Again, the group called Miyetti Allah seems to be enigmatic. They speak as if they were doing the presidency a favour but their utterances and activities cause more harm to the presidency than to anyone else. They openly laid claim to ownership of the Benue Valley, saying they were the original settlers and that Tiv people should go to Congo. This automatically casts all Fulani especially Buhari in deadly light. They also persistently shriek about the grazing law in Benue as their sole grievance but the killings in Kogi that did not enact grazing law and even openly accepted Cattle Colony betrays that fact. It is clear that the grazing law is not the real reason. So, what has Miyetti Allah done to show that they could create peace where their people were allowed to graze?

For the Benue people and other political activists who insist that there is a specific agenda to destroy Benue and install a Fulani reign, how can they explain the killings in other northern states? Is Benue still an isolated case? Does this not give hint that there is something bigger looming behind all this? For now, the political gimmick seems to be working. None of my contacts across Benue State wants to hear about the governor or the president. There is total anger in the land. Some blame the governor for introducing the anti-grazing law which has brought this trouble but say he has not fought hard enough to implement it. Some think the MINDA zone has not been strong enough to protect the Tiv ethnic nationalities and thus may end the zoning formula. This may mean that those eyeing the governorship seat from the other Tiv zones may use this as excuse, just as they found the right excuse to deny the Idoma (zone C) of the seat. Samuel Ortom is the first real Makurdi (MINDA) man to sit there. George Akume is from Zone B but is not from the first son of Tiv. The Tiv have a complicated zoning formula, not for this piece.

The governor however seems more preoccupied with how to save his people from this menace than how to return, because there may be no throne to return to, if this threat is not stopped, now. Can anybody even conduct elections in all the wards in the state as it is today?

Is it not time to consider the theory that the international Islamic terrorists have entered Nigeria and are using different strategies in different regions? They used

‘no to education’ in the North East; they are using herdsmen to enter the Middle Belt. Who knows what they will use to enter the East or the West. The study of this group globally is that they plan for many years before they strike in phases. They merge into the environment of the region they want to take over. In the absence of caves and crevices and boulders (as in Afghanistan and Pakistan) they have found herdsmen as moving targets and have merged into them. Libya has endless land areas or desert; this was put to use by the terrorists who now rule the area abducting Nigerians traveling to Libya. The East and West have forest canopies; let the people there take note. There is an obvious route from Benue to Kogi, to Edo, to Delta. From there, East and South-South are easy. Another route is Kaduna, Kwara, to Oyo, Osun, Lagos. When will we think beyond politics? There is something called ISWA (Isis West Africa). This project is hugely funded globally in a bigger project called the ‘Rise of the Caliphate’. This project was predicted many years ago by US experts, the same time they predicted the ‘Rise of the Dragon’ to signify the likely overthrow of the US economy by China. Are these not happening now?

Other nations took note and prepared discreetly. Did Nigeria heed it, did we do anything? Up till now, are we not still ignoring this big threat to see nothing in it but politics and 2019? ISWA is a project and that project is beyond Benue State and beyond 2019. What the brains behind it do is to sell short term visions that are swallowed by the gullible masses to hide their long term plan of taking over. By the time we are through with politics and 2019, the real picture would emerge and it would be too late and they would not need to hide their agenda, just as Boko Haram no longer needs to hide any agenda.

Fighting the Islamic Terrorists takes money and sophisticated weaponry, and none is easily available in Nigerians. We are quarreling over $1Bn; we may beg to spend $10Bn. The FG in the past was not allowed to purchase weapons and armoured helicopters (under Jonathan). The present FG has had to first break that unseen ceiling to start getting fighting choppers. Special training is just coming on stream because the terrorists are very tactical. Everybody or every political party has erred in the past. Everybody and every political party has to help this time around; else, everybody and every political party would sink. Its about collective survival. When the Muslims hailed as Christians perished in Borno years ago, they never knew the original plan had them and their mosques in mind. Today, it is obvious. When the APP/ANPP/APC laughed in Maiduguri years ago, they never knew that both PDP and APP would fall to Boko Haram.

Division is the first weakness of the opponents and victims of the Islamic terrorists. Understanding them early and taking positions is usually the best defence. In Nigeria, this is hardly the case.

Back to Benue, my Benue! The war at hand is heavy. This one is bigger. When the killers enter Makurdi, they cause segregation; Fulani, Hausa on one side; Tiv and all others on the other side. The ordinary Benue man thinks the killers are not afraid. It is believed that they take off from Nasarrawa and enter Agatu route and to Kyena and Torkura communities in the Benue side. They overrun Lokobi and Guma, up to the fringes of Makurdi the state capital. In many instances, they move in over 250 motor bikes and carry up to four persons each with ak-47s.

The day they were encountered, the security agencies seized over 200 motor bikes. The ordinary man thinks there were no arrests but bikes, wondering what happened to the owners of the bikes. The killers were said to be celebrating their successes when the security agencies arrived. This fuels a conspiracy theory in the minds of the ordinary Benue people. In fact, they mention genocide. Makurdi shut down last week Friday and the following Monday. That is the new Makurdi, the capital in panic; the city where run breaks out any time; mothers go looking for their kids at school.

The attack in Okpokwu and death of between 26 and 40 persons, an Idoma enclave, is still a surprise to many. Many wonder if the Fulani now want to take on their former traditional ally. The elders said in a press conference they did not believe the FG had plans to protect them. This may show that the ISWA is the one at work, not just Fulani. Besides, we would need 198 million people to protect a populace of 198 million.

Way Forward? The ordinary Benue person sees no way forward, but only a way backward. They look forward to when herdsmen carried only sticks and sometimes knives. They say so because, they would tell you that the government was helpless. They even hope for change of government, just as they hoped in 2015. Only few persons point to the fact that the herdsmen menace defies such hopes and goes beyond regime change because it is older than the regime and deeper than those we think are the issue.

A section from the intellectual side fears that the Dino Melaye syndrome was possible in Benue State. Thus, they fear that any important Benue man that takes up the matter could be framed up and broken up, just like Melaye. That, too, seems to be a dangerous logic, born out by political thinking only.

The greater tragedy facing the nation is the collapse of the agro-economy of the Middle Belt and the Tiv. These people are predominantly farmers. Those of them who are workers and who do not till the soil still do more farming by sponsoring the biggest farms. The farms especially yams, cassava, maize, groundnut, millet, soya bean, etc, are mostly in lonely and faraway locations. The farmers harvest in truckloads every year. Now, these lonely bushes are now no-go areas. The nearby villages have fallen. This period is surplus season. Soon, scarcity season would start and hunger would take over. The villagers used to bring food stuff to their kinsmen in the cities. Not anymore!. Citrus comes from the Benue valley too. The collapse of this economic belt called the Food Basket of Nigeria should not be celebrated. Yam seems available after April because the Tiv people did not plant. What we see in markets across Nigeria are yams that ought to be planted. They are now available for consumption. The nation is eating its seed. Soon, we understand. Already, villagers are going about begging in Makurdi because they ran away with nothing.

On the other hand, if herdsmen now carry guns, could they be reacting to something we do not know; threat, attacks on them and their docile flock?

This article is on the mindset of the ordinary people in the state, not a news report of incidents that would require official reactions and clarifications. This commentary is expected to educate the officialdom on the real thinking of the ordinary people so the government could address their fears. Ignoring these fears (not facts) would be to the peril of this country because history shows what happened once when this region’s mass violence was ignored or mismanaged.