INVESTIGATIONS… ‘THEY WANT OUR LANDS’: Horror, brutal killings as grazing disputes overwhelm Benue
The people of Benue State seem to have had more than a fair share of tragedies emanating from attacks carried out by marauders suspected to be herdsmen. Hundreds have been killed, and whole communities sacked in attacks that smacks of a deliberate and planned motive to ensure that such areas are devoid of the humans who lay claim to the land.
Guma and Buruku local government areas, as well as Agatu communities have been the worst hit, and the results have been tales of helplessness, sorrow and perceived conspiracies, laced with accusations and denials amid bloodshed.
Tales Of Horror
After losing all he had worked for to what he called Fulani occupation, TY, a displaced farmer in his sixties now lives with other displaced persons inside a camp— built by Benue Non-Governmental Network with support from the UN— tucked somewhere in Daudu, Guma local government area of Benue State. “It was after the third attack on our community that we decided to run for our dear lives,” TY told Ripples Nigeria during a visit to the the camp.
“The first time they came, it was in the afternoon,” the farmer painfully recollected. “We just saw them, suddenly, from nowhere, and they started burning houses that were by the roadside.” TY explained that these attackers, heavily armed and dressed in army-camouflage, didn’t look like the Fulani herdsmen that they know and see around. “They came on motorbikes and looked like soldiers coming to wage war,” he explained. In the subsequent attacks, however, TY claimed that the attackers came with the consent of the herdsmen whose cattle were used as cover to infiltrate. “These other times, what we first saw were herdsmen grazing their cattle as they normally do, and suddenly, there would be a deliberate stampede and from behind them, these attackers would jump out and start shooting sporadically.”
The farmer, who now idly sits under the shade of a mango tree at the camp, said he had since lost the agility to farm, after his farmlands and properties were destroyed.
Displaced persons at the Daudu/Guma camp
Rebecca Uke, a farmer from Kaduoko in neighboring Nassarawa has survived series of attacks before she eventually ran to the camp in Guma. “They will attack, and we would run and then, return. They will attack again, we will run and return”, she recalls. Uke, however, hasn’t returned since her sister-in-law whom she goes to the farm with was shot dead. “She was on her way home from the farm, when the attackers, who took her to be a man because she was wearing trousers, shot her in the head,” Uke, with a teary voice, narrated the event that finally made her run for her life.
“Not many people who were on their way back from the farm survived the shootings that evening. And after killing those they could on the farm, they advanced to our homes and we all started running, trying to get the children to safety first.” When Uke and other villagers thought they had got a refuge somewhere within the village, the attackers came on them again. “While we were waiting, hoping that security operatives would move in and save us, we were shot at again.” Uke lamented the no-rescue response by the security operatives since these killers started attacking them. “This prompted some of our young men to form a vigilante to resist these attacks, but what they had couldn’t match the weaponry of these attackers who came attacking when no one would have expected.” One night, Uke’s neighbor had gone outside to urinate, and they would wake to see her lifeless body. “She was slaughtered like a goat,” Uke said. The vigilante was dislodged by the attackers, and many of these young men were brutally killed.
During the dry season, sometime in 2015, Boa and her family members were on their farmland, cultivating yams, when the attackers came. Just like Uke narrated, the attackers came, using cattle as cover and all they could first see were herdsmen grazing cattle towards their farm. “I was resting under the shade that was a few meters away when one of them jumped out from behind the cattle and started shooting at my family members who were working on the ridges,” Buo recollected. “My brother was shot on the leg, and again shot in the chest. Utonga, his wife who was breastfeeding their suckling, was shot in the back and the bullets penetrated through her stomach that it burst out with her intestines, splashing blood all over the baby’s body. My mother was shot in the head, and my in-law who came visiting and was with us in the farm was also slain with a gunshot in her chest.”
Boa, and two others, ran through the bushes until they got to the main road, and to a nearby town where they saw a group of policemen who would later go to the farm to recover the remains of her family members and the baby who had been soaked in the pool of blood.
Boa’s family members that were killed
“There is no hope of going back, because these attackers have already taken over our place,” cried Boa, who now lives in Guma camp, looking after her late brother’s baby.
Moses Lan, a farmer and NCE (National Certificate of Education) holder, was farming and teaching in the peaceful atmosphere of Umegi, his village, until last December when they were attacked. “These herdsmen came initially to attempt a bargain with us,” Lan explained. “But, we couldn’t allow them graze cattle over our farmlands because, just like they value their cows, we value our crops, too.” The farmers didn’t agree with these herdsmen, and a few days later, they were attacked.
“They started burning houses from Tokura to Tokasi and to Umegi,” Lan said. “They attacked in the day time, and we heard them saying the land belongs to them, that they’ve bought it.” Lan and his family narrowly escaped and ran to Daudu. “I have an aged father who is terribly sick now, because he has not recovered from the shock,” Lan said with a faint voice. His livelihood has been destroyed and he is unable to buy drugs for his dying father. The little food items being distributed in the camp do not always go round, and Lan bitterly complained of his inability to properly feed his family. “What was destroyed on my farms in Umegi can feed my family and ten other families for years,” Lan’s eyes almost let out the tears. “If you go to Umegi now, what are left there are destroyed farmlands and wreckages of burnt houses. Even if we are to return, I don’t have money to restart farming and build another house.”
Displaced persons at Daudu camp speak with Ripples Nigeria
Andrew Aye, another farmer from Bangwuen, became a displaced person, years ago when his village was attacked. “It started in 2010,” Aye claimed. “These herdsmen have been coming but we didn’t allow them graze on our farmlands and we told them to go back,” he continued. In July of that year, one of Aye’s brothers was returning from Makurdi, the state capital when he was attacked and killed. “He was returning in the evening, and those herdsmen pursued him and killed him and ran away,” Aye said. The following year, the herdsmen came back, and again the villagers did not allow them graze on their farmlands. “They will come with their cows and destroy our farmlands, and so we had to tell them to leave,” Aye explained. “They refused and instead, they started shooting and everybody was running up and down. Nobody could stay on his farm.” It was during a second attack, that one of the villagers was killed. “The man was on his farmland when these attackers came, and when he tried to resist them, he was shot.” Angry Aye and others, armed with sticks, went after these attackers who had already fled.
April 24, 2011: The entire village was sleeping when, again, these attackers came. “We didn’t know they had already entered our village in the midnight,” Aye said. “They came out in the morning and started shooting, and we began to run.” That day, eleven people were killed, and houses and properties burnt to ashes. “Tianda, Tiogusa, Akeja, Tiokure, Tiagana, and Ankia were neighboring villages that were razed to the ground.”
Aye misses his village, but he is scared to return. “These people have already occupied the village, and I don’t want to go back there”, he lamented with a misty gaze.
“My brother was killed” – Andrew Ayeh
The story is almost the same with Hannah-Yomotave, a farmer from Tokura. Although, they have been hearing of attacks on other villages, Tokura had remained peaceful. “Being the village of a former Tor Tiv, we never thought these attackers could come,” Hannah said. “We woke one morning, and they came attacking us with weapons.” Hannah had gone to the farm with her son when she began to hear the gunshots. With her son, she, immediately, left the farm and ran back home. Her brother and her mother who were waiting for her so they could flee together had been slaughtered. “I couldn’t even take a change of cloth before my son and I ran for our lives,” she said. Sadly, the son got tired, fell sick, and eventually died.
Displaced children at the Daudu/Guma camp
Even at the camp, the herdsmen graze on farmlands
At the Guma camp, displaced persons— who are yet to recover from the trauma of varying incidents of killings— still live in fear of the unknown. Until the recent intervention of the Benue Non-Governmental Network, hundreds of herdsmen had camped themselves beside these displaced persons. “The herdsmen here haven’t attacked us but, your mind can’t be at rest seeing people who are a part of those who killed your family members still coming around you,” one of the displaced persons said. “Yes, they are grazing, but they’ve not harmed us,” he continued. He, however, noted that the only stream serving them at the camp has been polluted by dung from these cows. “You know when the cows finish eating, the herdsmen take them to the stream so they can have water to drink. And this is the same water we rely on, because the borehole that the state government promised us has remained under construction.”
Nicholas, one of the displaced farmers who is trying to resume farming somewhere around the camp is not happy. “The destruction that these herdsmen have caused is too much,” Nicholas told Ripples Nigeria. “My farm, the one I have yam on, has been leveled by these herdsmen. And when you try to ask them questions, they will say to you, who are you? Are you from this area? And even if you are from this area, you are not the owner of this land; the land belongs to the federal government, and they have rights to any land. And if you are alone on the farm, they will try to beat you up. I have had a very bitter experience.”
As Nicholas spoke with Ripples Nigeria somewhere close to his farm, about two herdsmen were seen grazing the field. “These are their children,” Nicholas said, pointing in their direction. “And where you see them grazing are people’s farmlands,” he said, adding that no one can stop them. “If you go there, they will try to beat you up, or cut you with their cutlass.”
The only option left for Nicholas is to beg the herdsmen so they can spare his farm. “And even when you plead with them and they had assured you of not coming the next day, it is that next day you will see them again. Go to my farm, and see what they did yesterday and you will shed tears. And while I was trying to plead with them, they said if I shout they are going to uproot my yam and eat, since they are also looking for food.”
Nicholas wants the authorities to do something, because if anyone of them attempts to do anything, the consequences may be colossal. When farmers run to security operatives to report the uncouthness of these herdsmen, the herdsmen would have fled before the security operatives arrive at the scene. “The security people will now be asking us, where are they? And when we can’t find them, they will call us liars and won’t respond the next time we go to them”
Even at the camp, the herdsmen still graze over our farmlands
But, We Pay For Damages
Disguising as potential buyers, Ripples Nigeria’s team approached one of the herdsmen grazing on farmlands not too far from the Guma camp. With a friendly mien, the young herder told the team that his father, who he said was at home, has the final say over the purchase of any of the cows.
When eventually asked if people complain about the way they go about grazing on farmlands, the herder said, “if we touch any body’s farm, we will pay for the damages.” Even when his cows were seen on the farmlands, he argued that they are being careful not to graze on people’s farmlands so as to avoid paying compensations.
We pay farmers whose farms we touch
More Tales From The Other Side Of The River
Buruku is one of the local government areas in Benue State that has been severely attacked by these marauders. Driving many kilometers of the potholed road from Makurdi— the state’s capital— through Gboko, the dusty path that leads into communities in Buruku is as silent as the graveyard. “Many people have been displaced here,” pitifully shaking his head, John, a driver taking Ripples Nigeria’s team to Buruku said.
The team’s first stop was at a rickety public primary school building where a couple of displaced persons from the other side of River Katsina-Ala are camped. With their sorrow-laden faces, the hapless victims, mostly children and women, sat under the gentle breeze of the mango tree by the primary school.
Displaced persons from Buruku
“These people came to our house last year April,” Valva Igbarumo, a displaced farmer at the camp here began the sad story. “Ogune Igila, my uncle, was killed. I lost Apeh, my brother. My father wasn’t spared, too.” The herdsmen came grazing like they have always done, and suddenly they started shooting at these villagers. Surviving the attack, the villagers packed their things and moved to a safer place. After a while, they returned to their place, with the thought that it was safe for them. As if the attackers were somewhere hiding and waiting for their return, these villagers were attacked again, this time, with more brutality that Igbamuro lost three of his family members.
“These herders do invite some of their brothers who know how to shoot to come and kill us,” a traumatized Igbamuro claimed. He had since moved his immediate family to the camp. Describing what the attackers looked like, Igbamuro said they wore uniform that appeared like that of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps. “They have this long curly hair, and they are big like giants.” Igbamuro explained that the attackers are not the regular Fulani herdsmen whom some of them usually interact with. “We can tell the regular Fulani herder to move his cattle away from our farm and he will listen, but when these other people are around, the herdsmen find the courage to remain on our farmlands”.
Igbamuro is more worried about his inability to return to his farm. “This year, God has given us rain, and I wanted to return to my farm, but the herdsmen are still occupying everywhere, grazing on the farmlands.”
I want to return, but the herdsmen have occupied our village
As there is no access bridge, Ripples Nigeria’s team used the local ferry to get across River Katsina-Ala to the other side of Buruku where most of the villagers at the camp ran from.
On the other side of the River, the tales of woes, and killings are no different, even the Miyette Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) confirms the killings, but made some astounding revelations on the identities of the killers.
The seeming conspiracy begins to unravel, as Ripples Nigeria digs deeper.
The story continues here: INVESTIGATIONS… ‘THEY WANT OUR LANDS’: Horror, brutal killings as grazing disputes overwhelm Benue (Part 2)
By Femi Owolabi…
Field Assistants: Ember Lim, Ufuoma Oghenerume
Info-graph: Dare Adekoya