Benue communal crisis over electricity: Many small arms, light weapons are in the hands of youth – Hemba

On March 13, 2023, youths in the neighbouring communities of Otukpo and Obi local government areas  (LGAs) in Benue state launched a communal war over a power outage, causing death and destruction that is still being investigated, according to the police.

Read the investigation HERE.

In this exclusive interview with The ICIR conducted before the change in government on May 29, the special adviser to the then Benue state governor on security matters, Paul Hemba speaks on the crisis.


The ICIR: How did the crisis between Igede and Idoma youths come to you and the state government?

Hemba: The crisis came to me, the Benue state government and even the people in the affected communities as a shock because the Idoma and the Igede people have always coexisted very peacefully. In fact, the Ochi’Idoma, the paramount ruler of the Idoma kingdom presides over both Idoma and Igede land. The people share so many cultural affinities, they intermarry, and there are similarities even in the spoken language. There has never been a crisis of that scale between them, so I will say that crisis came as a surprise to many of us. Even the elders from the communities we spoke to never expected such an eruption.


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The ICIR: From your record, how many people died or are missing due to the crisis? The police said no death or missing person was reported to them; however, the youth leaders said they recorded casualties, and some people were still missing.

Hemba: Well, we got conflicting figures from both communities. At some point, we felt the figures were not reliable because some people died, and their corpses could not be seen. Due to the nature of the crisis, some people were burnt in their houses; some were killed in the bushes while trying to escape the violence. So, it is understandable why there are varying figures. In fact, it is the reason we still have a lot of reported cases of missing persons. For this particular reason, I can not give reliable data on the casualties at this moment.

The ICIR: The Jos Electricity Distribution Plc which some people blamed the crisis on for failure to restore power, said there might be another reason beyond electricity; how true is that claim?

Hemba:  From my investigation and interaction with both communities, I have not found any other underlining factors that degenerated into that crisis except that of electricity. But the issue of electricity is not the only trigger; poverty, lawlessness on the part of the youths and lack of adherence to laid down rules are some issues. Our youths in the country generally are jobless, and they are under pressure, so any slight thing acts as a trigger.

A lot of small arms and light weapons are in the hands of these youths

A lot of small arms and light weapons are in the hands of these youths, so issues that hitherto could have been resolved through dialogue and understanding by elders and community leaders, but instead you find youths resorting to the use of firearms which are readily available in their hands.

The ICIR: How can your government make JED Plc more responsive when there is a power outage?

Hemba: For now, we have drawn their attention, and we will be monitoring the situation to ensure that if there is any problem with electricity, the company responds promptly, especially in all these volatile areas. But we will engage with the company more constructively and peacefully, not capitalising on their shortcomings to fight ourselves or even the company. We must be patient and follow due process in resolving conflict and not take the law into our hands.

The ICIR: You blamed the crisis on the proliferation of illegal arms in the state, but what measures has the government put in place to curtail the use of illegal arms?

Hemba: We are looking at the possibility of another amnesty programme to reduce the number of illegal weapons in their hands. My message remains that the youth remain patient with authorities as nobody gains from violence.

The ICIR: How possible is the proposed amnesty programme since your administration ends on May 29?

Hemba: Government is a continuum, and we hope that the incoming administration will look into and implement some of the recommendations we will make at the end of this dialogue that is going on. The problem of illegal possession of arms is not just in Benue state but across the whole country.

Government is a continuum, and we hope that the incoming administration will look into and implement some of the recommendations we will make

There is a large number of illegal arms in the hands of idle youths and unauthorised persons. Even politicians buy these arms and give them to these youth for election purposes. After the elections, the politicians can not control them, so they use the guns for communal crises, armed robbery, kidnapping, cultism, and what have you. So I think this should worry not only the state government but the federal government as well.

The ICIR: Victims on both sides accused the state government of abandoning them. What have you done to ameliorate their suffering?

Hemba: The government has sent some relief materials. Of course, it may not be enough but remember that this crisis happened at the time the whole country was facing the general elections. The attention of everybody was diverted, but it is not like they have been abandoned. The elections came with its own issues throughout the country. But we will still look for ways of drawing the attention of the government and concerned organisations to see ways of alleviating the suffering of affected persons and communities as quickly as possible.




     

     

    The ICIR: What measures has the government taken to resolve the crisis and avoid similar occurrences in the future?

    Hemba: We got in touch with the traditional ruler, particularly the Ochi’Idoma and traditional rulers on both sides, to dialogue together and recommended ways of preventing a future occurrence of violence of that magnitude between the two neighbouring communities.

    Initially, the Igede people were sceptical. They feared the Idoma people might harm them if they came to Otukpo. But that was just a mere perception. Eventually, we held a meeting with them in my office.

    In attendance were traditional rulers, youth groups, opinion leaders and stakeholders from both sides on the directive of the Governor (Samuel Ortom). They all regretted all these misconceptions and the violence that happened.

    So far, they have promised to cooperate with the authorities of the state government and the traditional institutions to dialogue and lay down their arms. So we are hopeful that the crisis will be resolved.

    Sinafi Omanga is a journalist with The ICIR. His Twitter handle is @OmangaSinafi and Email: [email protected]

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