By Omololu Ogunmade, Damilola Oyedele in Abuja, Gboyega Akinsanmi in Lagos, Wole Ayodele in Jalingo and George Okoh in Makurdi
Alarmed by the mounting death toll arising from the gruesome attacks allegedly perpetuated by armed herdsmen on communities in Benue and Taraba States, among other neighbouring states, Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka yesterday cried out that the herdsmen “have declared war against the nation”, citing their serial attacks on innocent citizens.
Soyinka, a renowned playwright and poet, also said the federal government was “culpable, definitely guilty of looking the other way while the herdsmen attacked communities without let or hindrance”, noting that the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari “must indeed be held complicit”.
He expressed disappointment in the manner the administration has treated the nefarious activities of the herdsmen across the country in a statement he issued yesterday, stressing that this present national outrage was “over impunity”.
In a four-page statement titled: “Impunity Rides Again”, Soyinka said the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) did not come anywhere close to the homicidal propensity and attempt at dominance before it was declared a terrorist organisation.
While acknowledging that some progress had been made by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh in the last two and a half years in improved farm produce, the Nobel laureate in outright terms rejected the minister’s explanation that the federal government had neglected livestock farmers over the years.
He said citing government neglect as the rationale would make the herdsmen attacks sound like the full story, but applauded the plan by Ogbeh’s ministry “to empower and organise herdsmen and cow farming”.
“I am in a position to know that much thought – and practical steps – have gone into long-term plans for bringing about the creation of ‘ranches’, ‘colonies’ – whatever the name – including the special cultivation of fodder for animal feed and so on and on.
“However, the present national outrage is over impunity. It rejects the right of any set of people, for whatever reason, to take arms against their fellow men and women, to acknowledge their exploits in boastful and justifying accents and, in effect, promise more of the same as long as their terms and demands are not met.
“In plain language, they have declared war against the nation, and their weapon is undiluted terror. Why have they been permitted to become a menace to the rest of us? That is the issue!” he charged.
Recalling that he called upon the federal government a week ago to stop passing the buck over the petrol shortages, Soyinka said he never intended that a reverse policy would lead to “exonerating – or appearing to exonerate – mass killers, rapists and economic saboteurs – saboteurs, since their conduct subverts the efforts of others to economically secure their own existence, drives other producers off their land in fear and terror”.
“This promises the same plague of starvation that afflicts zones of conflict all over this (African) continent where liberally sown landmines prevent farmers from venturing near their prime source, the farm, often their only source of livelihood, and has created a whole population of amputees.
“At least, those victims in Angola, Mozambique and other former war theatres, mostly lived to tell the tale. These herdsmen, arrogant and unconscionable, have adopted a scorched-earth policy, so that those other producers – the cassava, cocoa, sorghum, rice, etc, farmers are brutally expelled from farm and dwelling,” he said.
He also cited the hideous massacre perpetrated by the herdsmen early in 2016, saying this same “Murder Incorporated” depicted a numerical climax “to what had been a series across a number of Middle Belt and neighbouring states, with Benue taking the brunt of the butchery”.
He lamented that a peace meeting was called at the time, attended by the state government and security agencies of the nation, including the Inspector General of Police, but the herdsmen attended – according to reports – with AK47s and other weapons of mass intimidation visible under their garments.
He equally recalled that the federal government neither disarmed nor turned back the herdsmen that attended the peace meeting with arms and weapons.
“They freely admitted the killings but justified them by claims that they had lost their cattle to the host community. It is important to emphasize that none of their spokesmen referred to any government neglect, such as refusal to pay subsidy for their cows or failure to accord them the same facilities that had been extended to cassava or millet farmers.
“Such are the monstrous beginnings of the culture of impunity. We are reaping, yet again, the consequences of such tolerance of the intolerable.
“Yes, there indeed the government is culpable, definitely guilty of ‘looking the other way’. Indeed, it must be held complicit,” Soyinka maintained.
Continuing, he asked: “This question is now current, and justified: just when is terror? I am not aware that IPOB came anywhere close to this homicidal propensity and will to dominance before it was declared a terrorist organisation. The international community rightly refused to go along with such an absurdity”
For the avoidance of doubt, Soyinka observed that the IPOB leadership is its own worst enemy.
“It repels public empathy; indeed, I suspect that it deliberately cultivates an obnoxious image, especially among its internet mouthers who make rational discourse impossible,” he said of the proscribed group.
However, the Nobel laureate said the conduct of that movement, even at its most extreme, “could by no means be reckoned as terrorism”.
“By contrast, how do we categorise Myetti? How do we assess a mental state that cannot distinguish between a stolen cow – which is always recoverable – and human life, which is not.
“Villages have been depopulated far wider than those outside their operational zones can conceive. They swoop on sleeping settlements, kill and strut. They glory in their seeming supremacy.
“Cocoa farmers do not kill when there is a cocoa blight. Rice farmers, cassava and tomato farmers do not burn.
“The herdsmen cynically dredge up decades-old affronts – they did at the 2016 Benue ‘peace meeting’ to justify the killings of innocents in the present – These crimes are treated like the norm.
“Once again, the nation is being massaged by specious rationalisations while the rampage intensifies and the spread spirals out of control.
“When we open the dailies tomorrow morning, there is certain to have been a new body count, to be followed by the arrogant justification of the Myetti Allah. The warnings pile up, the distress signals have turned into a prolonged howl of despair and rage.
“The answer is not to be found in pietistic appeals to victims to avoid ‘hate language’ and divisive attributions. The sustained, killing monologue of the herdsmen is what is at issue. It must be curbed, decisively and without further evasiveness,” he said.
Using the mismanagement of the Boko Haram menace under former President Goodluck Jonathan as a reminder, Soyinka stated that the former president only saw “ghosts” when Boko Haram was already excising swathes of territory from the nation space and abducting school pupils.
“The ghosts of Jonathan seem poised to haunt the tenure of Muhammadu Buhari,” he warned.
However, in reaction to the outrage expressed over the killings, presidential spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina, yesterday frowned at those accusing the president of condoning the massacres occasioned by farmers-herdsmen conflicts across the country.
Adesina, who is the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, in a video message he posted on his personal Facebook account, dismissed the insinuations that Buhari was condoning the killing because he is a Fulani man.
According to him, such killings by herdsmen predated the Buhari administration.
He said: “Something that is disturbing that I have heard about it is linking those developments to the fact that a Fulani man is president and so, he is brooking such kind of evil acts.
“I think that is very unkind. And I will try to back my position with statistics.
“In 2013, particularly, there were nine cases of herdsmen invading communities in Benue State alone and more than 190 people were killed.”
The presidential aide, according to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), also noted that in 2014, there were about 16 of such tragic developments, with more than 231 people killed.
He further explained that there was a change of government in May 2015, but between January and May 2015, there were six attacks which left about 335 people dead.
“Now, the question is, during that period, did we have a Fulani president? This is showing us that the issue of herdsmen attacking settlements, attacking farmers, attacking communities, is pure criminality and it is something that government must deal with.
“It is the duty of government to preserve the lives of the citizenry. It is the responsibility of government to maintain law and order and that this government is determined to do.
“Therefore, let nobody say that all this is happening because we have a Fulani president.
“We have had many Fulani presidents in the past and this issue of herders and local communities at loggerheads has predated this government,’’ he added.
Adesina appealed to all citizens to continue to support and co-operate with the Buhari administration as the government was poised to find lasting solutions to the conflicts.
According to him, the government is determined to get to the bottom of it and it will get done.
‘Crisis Receiving Attention’
Irrespective of the assurance provided by the president’s spokesman, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) yesterday kept mum on the devastating killings of innocent people in Benue, Taraba and neighbouring states.
Whereas the council was expected to deliberate extensively on the matter and brief journalists on its decision, there was no mention of it at yesterday’s briefing coordinated by the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed.
It was not until State House correspondents started to ask questions on why the federal government had found it difficult to deploy troops to quell the raging crisis in Benue as it did during the threats posed by IPOB in the South-east in September, that Mohammed attempted to address the issue.
He said the crisis in the Middle Belt of the country was receiving the highest attention in the government.
According to him, deployment of troops would be predicated on the aftermath of the current examination being conducted on the matter.
“What I can assure you is that the government is very, very concerned about the herdsmen and farmers’ clashes and it is receiving attention at the highest level and as to if troops will be sent, it will be a decision after thorough deliberation on the matter,” he said.
Also asked to explain the difference between the cattle colonies being proposed by the federal government in pursuit of the solution to the farmers-herdsmen clashes in Benue State, Mohammed said he was not an expert on agriculture but believed that colonies are bigger than ranches.
“I’m not an agricultural expert. I know that a colony is much bigger in nature than the ranch,” he said.
But throwing more light on the proposal, the Minister of State for Aviation, Mr. Hadi Sirika, explained that cattle colonies were more or less the creation of the cattle routes which he said were first created in the country during the colonial era in 1914.
However, he said the establishment of cattle colonies would not commence without consulting farmers and will be done in accordance with the relevant laws of the land.
According to him, cattle routes as they existed then had to do with the routes the cattle passed through, where they grazed, where they were fed and where they drank water.
“I think perhaps, not speaking as an agriculture expert, but in the hinterland, where I grew up, there used to be cattle routes. They called them colonies in the local language.
“They were established from 1914 as cattle routes, where they grazed, where they followed, where they fed and where they drank water.
“When that was available, there was no farmers-herdsmen clash, because the routes were specifically identified and marked and then paid for overtime.
“But I think due to urbanisation, due to the increase in population, the lands were either taken over or used for farms. But the question as to the difference between colonies and cattle ranches, it is about the same thing. I don’t think government will do anything without recourse to farmland owners and the laws of the land,” he explained.
Senate to Expedite Action
Irrespective of the seeming reluctance by the federal government to treat the murderous attacks perpetuated by the herdsmen as acts of terrorism, the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, in response to the recent killings in Benue and Rivers States, directed members of the Senate Ad-hoc Committee on Security to immediately resume sitting and work through the weekend to ensure that it has an interim report ready for the consideration of members by next week.
In statement issued yesterday by his spokesman, Mr. Yusuph Olaniyonu, Saraki, in reaction to the situation in Benue, especially reinforced his belief that the killings were clear indications that the security architecture in the country has inherent faults and needs to be refurbished.
“I believe the sad situation in Benue State shows some fundamental faults in our security system. There is a clear failure of intelligence gathering, analysis and response time.
“Our security agencies must be totally overhauled in terms of equipment, specialisation, funding, training and staffing.
“This is the reason why in November, the Senate set up a special committee led by Senate Majority Leader, Ahmed Lawan, to work with the security agencies and review the entire system with a view to identifying what is required in terms of laws, processes, procedures, funding and other necessities for us to have a solid security system which can be pro-active in identifying potential threats, responding to them on time and preventing any breach.
“We are quite aware of the fact that security is the first and prime responsibility of any government. That is why since early last week, I have directed the Lawan committee to take into consideration the sad developments in Benue and Rivers in their deliberations.
“Now, we cannot wait for the time they planned to conclude their recommendations. They must fast track their schedule.
“They must sit through the weekend and get an interim report ready for the Senate when we resume plenary on Tuesday. We must immediately support the executive in solving this problem.
“We cannot afford the spilling of blood and we are already moving into the election year with the potential for the aggravation or escalation of these problems.
“We must decisively resolve the problem of needless blood letting,” Saraki stated.
56 Victims Buried in Taraba
Even as Saraki ordered the Senate committee to expedite action on its report, 56 persons killed in fresh attacks on five communities in Lau Local Government Area of Taraba State by Fulani militia were yesterday given a mass burial by the communities.
However, the corpses of no fewer than 35 people who were believed to have been killed during the attacks were yet to be recovered for burial.
Donadda, Lavoro, Katibu, Didango and Maku communities were attacked on Monday through Tuesday by the Fulani militia who set the entire communities ablaze after killing anyone in sight.
There was an outpouring of grief as relatives of the victims and others who witnessed the burial wept uncontrollably and rained curses on the federal government for failing to secure the lives of the citizenry across the country.
They debunked insinuations that the attacks were a fall out of the crisis between Bachama farmers and the militia, insisting that they were attacked without provocation.
Narrating her ordeal, a mother of four who lost her husband to the attack, Mrs. Paulina Habila, said that her husband was slaughtered like a goat.
“My husband was slaughtered like a goat in my presence by the Fulani people. They razed our community and in my village alone 35 persons were killed. Are the Fulani herdsmen fighting a war with Christian communities in Taraba State? Why are they killing us for no reason?” she asked.
Another victim who spoke to newsmen, Pastor Titus Makovini, said the attackers entered the community church and slaughtered some worshipers, as well as some of those who ran into the church for refuge while others fled into the bush.
He revealed that for the two days that the attack lasted, there was no security reinforcement in the various communities which are presently deserted as most people have moved into the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Jalingo, the state capital.
At the IDP camp, the displaced persons took turns to narrate their ordeals, and all of them were unanimous that they had been rendered homeless and could not go back to their homes for fear of further attacks.
“We have lost our ancestral homes as the entire communities have been razed. Our communities have become unsafe for habitation since Fulani herdsmen still lurk around and they might attack us again.
“Go to our villages now. All what we have laboured for has gone. We don’t know where to start and we keep wondering if the federal government is allowing the herdsmen to kill us unchallenged,” they said.
But even as they lamented their fate, the Taraba State Police Command appealed to the residents of the affected communities to return to their homes, assuring them of adequate security.
The Police Public Relations Officer, David Misal who gave the assurance on behalf of the Police Commissioner, Mr. Dave Akinremi, said additional security had already been redeployed in the troubled communities to safeguard them from further attacks, but he refrained from giving the number of casualties from the attacks.
He, however, appealed to the public to furnish the command with useful information that would assist it and lead to the arrest of the perpetrators of the attacks in the state.
Benue to Bury Its Dead Today
Just as the Taraba people buried their dead yesterday, the Benue State Government said yesterday that it would bury 73 victims of the new year day attacks by suspected herdsmen today.
The victims were killed by the herdsmen who invaded five villages in Guma and Logo Local Government Areas on new year day. Many others were injured while over 50,000 people were displaced.
The Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom, announced government’s decision to hold a mass burial for the deceased at a stakeholders’ meeting in Makurdi, the state capital.
The meeting focused on insecurity in the state and the way forward.
Ortom, who called for prayers, said that the deceased would be remembered for sacrificing their lives to protect Benue farmlands.
He appealed for calm during the burial and cautioned Benue residents against reprisals, reported NAN.
Ortom vowed to ensure that the attackers are apprehended and promised government’s support to the security agencies to actualise the arrests.
However, during the stakeholders’ meeting, the Inspector General of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris, came under a barrage of criticism as he resumed duty in Makurdi yesterday, following directive by the president on Monday ordering him to relocate to the state to stop the killings.
Idris stated that his presence in the state was to restore peace in the areas affected by the crisis and assured his audience that the “hoodlums and miscreants” responsible for the killings will be arrested and prosecuted.
He said the police would carry out detailed investigations into the cause of the attacks, adding that another stakeholders’ meeting will be conveyed involving Benue and Nasarawa State, which was accused of harbouring the herdsmen.
Idris also apologised to the people of Benue for referring to the recent herdsmen attacks on the state as communal clashes.
“There was a misrepresentation I made at a press conference in Abuja. But all I was trying to do was to convey a message that all Nigerians should be able to live together in peace.
“I apologise for the misconception in the statement that I made at a press conference in Abuja. I was only trying to convey a message that Nigerians should live together in peace. As policemen, we try to avoid divisive statements,” he said.
The IG was however unsettled when speaker after speaker accused him of complicity in the crisis.
Some of the speakers including Chief Edward Ujege, representing the three socio-cultural groups in the state, Mr. Terrence Kwaghnongu, representing the youths, and Mrs. Rebecca Apedzan, representing women, insisted that only the military and not the police can curtail the herdsmen attacks in Benue.
Also, in their remarks, Prof. Daniel Saror, Justice Utsaha and Chief John Anteyin, representing the three senatorial zones of the state, all rejected the federal government’s proposed cattle colonies, insisting that ranching remained the only solution to the herdsmen-farmers’ clashes in line with global best practices.
Anteyin, while speaking, reminded the IG: “When you were a Commissioner of Police in Nasarawa State, there were a lot of violent attacks on Agatu by Fulani herdsmen who camped in Loko Local Government of Area of the state.
“The state assembly member representing Agatu constituency, Hon. Audu Sule, who is here with us today, was sent to you for help and you said there was a limit to how much you can intervene, except when you receive orders from the headquarters, but now that you are in charge of the headquarters yourself, what have you done?”
Kwaghnongu also described Idris’ presence in Benue as an insult to the sensibilities of people in the state.
“Your DIG Operations told us on television that the terrain is complex, so are you now coming to clear the terrain?
“We have this crisis because you refused to adhere to the global terrorism index, which rates these herdsmen as the fourth deadliest terror group in the world.
“We need the military presence here in Benue State because what is happening is tantamount to genocide.
“The president was in Zamfara State when the herdsmen attacked the state, he constituted a military taskforce to protect the North-west.
“He said the herdsmen must be declared terrorists and the leadership of Miyetti Allah must be arrested,” Kwaghnongu reminded the IG.
Also speaking, Josephine Habba, who represented the civil society groups in the state, Rev. Fr. Solomon Mfa, representing the clergy, and Chief Benson Ogairo, a security expert, while alleging that a lot of killings of Tiv people was going on unreported in Nasarawa State, they maintained that if the president was not prepared to personally come and commiserate with the people of Benue at this critical time, he should not bother to come for their votes in 2019.
On their part, the paramount ruler of the Tiv nation, Tor Tiv James Ayatse and the speaker of the Benue Assembly, Hon. Terkimbi Ikyange, noted that what was going on in the state was not about the Anti-open Grazing Act enacted in the state, but an ethnic cleansing agenda.
The Tor Tiv, who said that the heartless destruction of lives and property in the state must stop, further appealed to the IG to ensure that any attempt to wipe out the Benue people is immediately aborted.
Death Toll Rises to 80
Meanwhile, at least 80 person may have been killed in Benue State since the new year day attacks that forced tens of thousands from their homes, an official of the Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) has said.
The violence between herders and farmers intensified over the New Year, fuelled by the new law banning the nomadic cattle rustlers from moving through the state.
“Eighty is the number we can say for now, the attacks have not stopped,” the SEMA executive secretary Emmanuel Shior told AFP by telephone.
Shior said the killings had displaced thousands of people in the local councils of Guma and Logo who are now seeking shelter in four camps.
“The number (of internally displaced people) is 80,000 now because the killings have continued, some of the people in other states are running to Benue,” Shior said in Makurdi.
“We suspect these people are reacting against the open grazing prohibition put in place by the governor of Benue State.”
The prohibition was meant to encourage the herdsmen, who belong to the Fulani ethnic group, to shift from nomadic grazing to ranching cattle, which would theoretically prevent bloody disputes over land with farmers.
But when the new law was introduced last year, it was instantly condemned by the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), the umbrella body of Fulani herders in Nigeria, which said it threatened their way of life.
“It is very wrong for a governor to ban Fulani from feeding their cows. These cows are their livelihoods,” said Haruna Usman, the Kaduna State chairman of MACBAN.
“That is where the government made a big mistake,” Usman said, calling for negotiations.