Laleye Dipo, in Minna, writes on the recent ethnic and religious conflicts in Niger State as fratricidal violence gradually returns to the state

It is not for nothing that Niger State is nationally recognised as one of the most peaceful states in the country. The state is seen as a safe haven for indigenes and non-indigenes, while the business community has not found any reason why it should fear to invest in any part of the state.

Political and religious leadership in the state have also been very tolerant and accommodating of each other. Government on its part, too, has been proactive in ensuring it nips in the bud any crisis that might want to rear its ugly head. The ability of the last administration to quickly dislodge the Islamic sect, Daru Islam, from their enclave near Mokwa ensured that the state was not turned to the headquarters of the now dreaded Boko Haram Islamic group, which has made the north-eastern part of the country and, in particular, Borno State, its headquarters.

Past Incidents
It is not that the state has not had its share of religious crisis. The bombing of the Catholic church on Christmas eve at Madalla and another explosion at the Government Secondary School during a senatorial campaign rally also in Suleja, followed by another explosion at the Local Government Independent National Electoral Commission office by Boko Haram adherents are some of the violent incidents that sent several non-indigenes out of Suleja Local Government Area.

But the administration of former Governor Babangida Aliyu quickly put the necessary machinery in motion to contain these crisis and also funded the security agencies to ensure they performed their role as peace keepers and enforcers.
Suleja local government itself was placed under close security watch for almost a year before peace returned to the area. Non-indigenous people, most of them traders, who fled the town, have since returned and the area now bubbles as it used to be before those bloody occurrences.

Returning to Violence
However, recent happenings in Pandogari, Suleja, Lambata and Bosso towns, all in four out of the 25 local government areas in the state, are signals that the once peaceful state is gradually being turned to a theatre of religious and ethnic war, which for a state grappling for economic survival, may be counterproductive.

The incident in Pandogari saw the beheading of a non-indigene of the state, 24 year-old Methodus Emmanuel, and three others, for allegedly posting on the social media images that did not represent the great Prophet Mohammed in good light.

As if the beheading was not enough to satisfy the blood thirsty appetite of the Muslim youths who carried out the dastardly act, they also went after all non-indigenes in the area, destroying and looting their property. In the end, the non-indigenes had to flee the town. Some relocated with their kith and kin to nearby Kagara and Tegina towns while others left the state totally.

This was also after several churches had been destroyed, as if it was the leadership of the churches that directed the vexed image to be posted on the social media.

Though government has assured that those behind the ignoble act will be apprehended and brought to book, it is still expected that such action will be taken, especially after 42 youths were arrested, taken to court, and granted bail. Some of the affected non-indigenes have refused to return to Pandogari, leaving the economic life of the town in shambles.

CAN’s Allegation
The Christian Association of Nigeria reacted swiftly to the attack on its members and churches by the Muslim youths and the remarks by Governor Abubakar Sani Bello that the incident was not a religious conflict. CAN’s state chairman, Reverend Matthias Echioda, said the government statement was an indirect way of shielding the Muslim youths that perpetuated the act.

“I want to remind all that life is sacred and we must respect individuals and their religion. Those who took laws into their hands are now being shielded from facing the wrath of the law,” Echioda alleged.

Two months after the incident in Pandogari, the committee set up by the state government to investigate the matter and make recommendations to the administration has not completed its work, at least to the knowledge of the public.
“The proper procedures should be followed in settling crisis between Christians and Muslims and not the way it is being swept under the carpet by the government,” the CAN leader said.

Muslims Youth Go on Rampage in Madalla
Just a week ago, in another part of the state, Barkin-iku, near Madalla, in Suleja Local Government Area of the state, Muslim youths went haywire, destroying part of St. Philips Catholic Church and the church’s musical instruments after beating to pulp some security men on duty and women praying inside the church. The grouse of the Muslim youths, who also took over the streets, attacking innocent people, was that the church had the impetus to pray on a Friday, a day they claimed had been dedicated to Muslims to have their prayers.

The church leadership has been counting its human and material losses. Those injured during the attack by the Muslim youths have been admitted at a hospital they do not want to disclose.
However, the police who intervened to restore law and order claimed nobody was injured in the fracas.

The incident penultimate Friday, just like the one at Pandogari over two months ago, has affected the economic and social lives of the people, especially non-indigenes who are afraid to properly settle down after the disturbance because of fears that there could be a repeat of the incident.

Bloody Clash Between Farmers and Herdsmen
Not less than eight persons were killed within 48 hours, with several others injured, in clashes between Fulani herdsmen and their Gwari counterparts in Bosso and Paikoro local government areas of the state.

The incident in Paikoro Local Government Area was as a result of some Fulani youths who allowed their cattle to stray into the farms of the Gwari thereby destroying several hectares of cultivated farmland.

Some Gwari elders who arrested the Fulani youths sought compensation from the elderly Fulani men but negotiation reportedly broke down, leading to a free for all during which dangerous weapons were used by both sides. The incident degenerated to burning of thatched buildings, forcing the Fulani to vacate the community where they had lived for decades.

At the end of the day, three Fulanis, one of them an 84-year-old man, were killed while one Gwari man lost his life. The Mayetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, the umbrella body for the Fulani, said they were still searching for at least three people.
Twenty four hours after the incident, the Fulani, in an apparent reprisal, descended on Barakuta village, near Beji in the Bosso Local Government Area, with AK- 47 rifles, machetes, and cutlasses, killing three Gwaris, while one Fulani man lost his life. Eight vehicles, 17 motor cycles and several houses belonging to the Gwari were burnt.

Not less than 450 Gwaris have also been rendered homeless in the last incident.
The state government has opened an internally displaced persons’ camp at the premises of the Bosso Primary School, some 40 kilometres from the place where the disturbances occurred. Government and the Niger State Emergency Management Agency are trying to give succour to the IDPs, who are mostly women and children.

The economic and social lives of Beji town, known for its large market where different agricultural products, goats, sheep and cows are sold, has been truncated because the market has not opened for business since the crisss occurred. Natives and non-natives retire to the comfort of their homes as early as 5pm each daily.

The police and men of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps are also on the ground to provide security to the people both in the village and at the IDP camp. They are also combing the forests in search of those behind the attack on Barakuta village.

Taking it in Their Stride
Leaders of the communities mostly affected by these incidents are trying to move on from where they stopped.
Chairman of the Igbo Community in Pandogari, Chief Chukwumanyi Chuzzy, told THISDAY, “We have forgotten the incident of the past; we are moving on with life, life is like that.”

Chuzzy noted that most of them had stayed over 40 years in Pandogari. “We gave birth to our children here, they are schooling here, some of them married here, we are going nowhere.”
The Gwari in Paiko and Beji are, however, still sad as a result of the incident, which they said has forced them out of their farms. “We can no longer go to the farm for fear of being attacked by the Fulani,” one man said.

Chairman of the Gbegnu Boknu Yankwo, a Gwari cultural association, Mr. Danjuma Steven Paiko, has already directed his people to stop admitting Fulanis in their communities, especially those without cattle. Paiko described the incidents at Paiko and Bosso local government areas as “senseless and barbaric killings of innocent peoples.”

The governor also condemned the attack and vandalism at St. Philips Catholic Church by those he described as “a group of miscreants who paraded themselves as Muslim youths”. Bello warned that his administration will not tolerate anyone that wants to turn the state to “a theatre of religious war”.

There is a groundswell of opinion in the state that the security agencies and the government are handling the perpetrators of the recent killings with kid gloves, thereby encouraging a wave of religious and ethnic clashes.