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BLOOD ON THE PLATEAU (4): ‘Escape from Rwanda’
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was first published in 2013 by Flair Nigeria. The ICIR is reproducing the five-part series in the light of the resurgence of killings in Plateau State, to help readers understand the genesis, depth, brutality and possible solutions to violence in the state.
In the penultimate part of this series, ‘FISAYO SOYOMBO examines all possible alternatives for terminating years of gruesome killings in Nigeria’s volatile ‘Home of Peace and Tourism’, now wistfully dubbed by some as the ‘Home of Pieces and Terrorism’.
The first known government response to violence in Plateau State was taken on April 22,1994. Ten days earlier, a clash between indigenes and Hausa-Fulani had resulted in five deaths and destruction of property, prompting Mohammed Mana, a Lieutenant Colonel and Military Administrator of the state, to inaugurate a Commission of Inquiry chaired by Hon. Justice Aribiton Fiberesima (Rtd). In the weeks that followed, the committee physically assessed the affected places, interviewed victims and witnesses, examined memoranda, and submitted its recommendations.
The committee’s report was the best-kept secret of the next 15 years. Not until 2009, after two other high-casualty clashes, did the government publish the report and issue a white paper on it. This set the template for a lacklustre culture of inaugurating committees and panels of inquiry. In the last 12 years alone, there have been five committees: three by the Federal Government (Justice Suleiman Galadima Commission, 2001; Emmanuel Abisoye Presidential Panel, 2009; and Chief Solomon D. Lar and Amb Yahaya Kwande, 2010) and two by the state (Justice Niki Tobi Commission, 2001; and Justice Bola Ajibola Commission, 2009). So, as expected, there is an abundance of committee recommendations — all unimplemented.
“For some reason, which is not altogether clear to us or for no reason at all, the government neither issued a white paper on the Fiberesima report nor implemented any of the commission’s recommendations,” Justice Niki Tobi and co wrote after seeing through a committee of their own in 2001. “The crisis [of 2001] would have been averted if the recommendations of the Fiberesima Commission had been implemented.”
In all, the Fiberesima Commission made eight recommendations, one of which — being the only one underscored for emphasis — could be considered the most vital: Government must apply sanctions to all individuals, groups of persons and organisations indicted by the inquiry in order to avoid future occurrence of such incidence [sic]). Till date, no one has been prosecuted for involvement in that killing — or any other.
With the proliferation of committees and the accompanying avalanche of recommendations still unable to halt the killings, the victims and their families offered their voices to the crucial conversation on the most guaranteed way of returning peace to the plateau.
‘WE HAVE TO BEG GOD’
Partially-paralysed 105-year-old Uttawal Marene does not see the place of further committee recommendations (or anything else) in peace-building. Rather, she thinks the solution is spiritual.
“The only solution is Jesus,” Uttawal says from her sickbed. “We have to beg God to bring peace back to the land; because without God, there is nothing we can do. We have to beg God. If not, nothing can bring peace.”
It is an opinion shared by Jumai Adamu, still oblivious of any wrong by the villagers to the Fulani. “They just don’t want peace,” Jumai, whose husband and son were murdered in an attack, says. “The only solution is Jesus; the only way out is to pray.”
According to Yakubu Maki of the same Mile-Bakwai Village in Bokkos Local Government, whose son was murdered in an attack, prayer is the only solution. “We have to pray to God to bring peace to this community, to the plateau, and to all other parts of the country,” says the Mile-Bakwai-born 95-year-old who has lived nowhere else all his life.
GOVERNMENT AND SECURITY; NOT JESUS!
Yakubu Dung, Head of Kungte Village in Jos South LGA, does not consider “prayer” or “Jesus” priority in quelling “Fulani attacks fuelled only by wickedness”, though he concedes the killings are in line with the Bible’s prediction of violence in the end time.
“If it is not wickedness, how will anyone willingly kill an entire family?” Dung wonders, stupefaction etched on his face. “I know that the killers are Fulani because they seized the phone of a passer-by, called his brother, and threatened to return for more deaths. Both the person who received the call and security agents who apprehended the caller confirmed him to be Fulani.”
So, he reasons that the solution is for the government to empower security agents, who should in turn work hard to apprehend perpetrators of the killings. “They should just do a sincere work and this thing will be over,” the 55-year-old says. “The Bible predicted this; but with the help of the security agents and the government, the situation can be a lot better.”
NOT A CRISIS BUT A WAR — A JIHAD
At Tatu Village, Pam Adamu Jugu is candid enough to admit lacking knowledge of the magic wand for the Plateau debacle. However, he wants all misconceptions about inter-ethnic/inter-religious clashes and cattle rustling cleared. He insists that there is no crisis. And as far as Tatu is concerned, cattle rustling is an imaginary phenomenon.
“The question we have continued asking ourselves is why anyone would attack us. And we have no answer yet,” Adamu, 58, says. “We want to tell the world that we are not in crisis. When there is crisis, it means two or more people or groups have disagreed on something. In our case here, we have not disagreed with anybody or any tribe anywhere.”
Even though he cannot “precisely ascertain” who their attackers are, he knows “from all indications” that they are Muslim Fulani desperately looking to capture Berom land for themselves, their cattle, and their religion.
“This war is a religious war. I look at it as a Jihad,” he says assertively. “Some say the Fulani are nursing grudges against the Berom for stealing their cattle. But in Tatu Village here, no one has ever stolen cattle. Our people used to have cows, but they have all been stolen away by the Fulani. In fact, as we speak, there is no one in this village who has a single cow.”
Ponchang Miner and Nandir Vongchak, two relatives of victims of an attack in Wase Local Government, believe that killings in that region will end with the division of the local government into two, one for the Taroh and the other for the Hausa-Fulani.
“At the moment, the Hausa are the ones securing the few job openings in Wase LG,” alleges Ponchang. “The solution is for Wase to be divided into two. If it is done, the killings will stop, because each ethnic group will have had its interests served. And there will be more job opportunities for the Tarohs.”
Grace Nansoh of Locost Village believes the burden of ending the killings rests with the government. It is government, the 23-year-old declares, that must ensure sure-fire security in the state, and prosecute violators of the sanctity of human life.
“To stop the killings, government needs to take serious actions,” says Nansoh, whose father was shot, butchered and set ablaze in Wase. “They have to take a look. People are losing their loved ones; children are losing their parents. So, government must take serious measures. Government must identify the troublemakers and deal with them.”
DIALOGUE, GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION
Like Adamu, Obadiah Bolka of Kukah Village believes the whole talk of committing murder as reprisal for rustling of cattle is drivel. He knows that cattle sometimes trample on crops, and admits it is possible that a farmer or two will want to hold on to the animals. But to take human lives in vengeance for alleged cattle theft, he argues, is inexcusable.
“We have to be honest. In a village like this, we have several kinds of people: young and old,” he says. “It might be possible for the young ones to steal cows trespassing on crops, but I think the response should be how to resolve the issue — and that is not by killing. Taking revenge on human life is unacceptable.”
Obadiah admonishes government to implement the Land use Act in a way that will settle land disputes between indigenes and settlers.
“Based on the 1978 government policy on land, all land in Nigeria belongs to government. But if there is any way of lending land to people, it should be done in a way that is clear to everyone,” he says. “By the time someone is occupying a land and another person is saying it is his own, it would bring misunderstanding. So, we are crying that government should come into this situation and solve it once and for all — by making it clear that every individual has the right to live on land. And once you occupy a land, it doesn’t mean that you are above every other person.”
In respect to land not in urban areas, Section 6, Subsection 1, Paragraph 1 of the 1978 Land Use Act grants local governments the right to grant customary rights of occupancy to any person or organisation for the use of land in the local government area for agricultural, residential and other purposes; or — as Paragraph 2 states — grant customary rights of occupancy to any person or organisation for the use of land for grazing purposes and such other purposes ancillary to agricultural purposes as may be customary in the local government area concerned. Regrettably, efforts to speak with relevant local government and land officers on the applicability of this section of the Act to the killings did not materialise.
A SPURNED SACRIFICE; THE FLEEING SOLDIERS
For many reasons, Rwang Dalyop Dantong cannot believe or explain the volatility that has come to define his darling Plateau State. It is a puzzle this reporter shares. In all the correspondences that culminated in the half-an-hour interview at the Solomon Lar Amusement Park — from the civility with which he responded to a journalist’s interview request, to his timely early-morning appearance at the park — Rwang cuts the picture of a man too soft-hearted and affectionate to hurt a fly. This palpable good-naturedness, he maintains, is the hallmark of the average Plateau man.
“The Plateau man, especially the Berom man, is hospitable, accommodating; and almost every ethnic group in Nigeria lives peacefully with us,” he says, bolstering the declarations with his trademark soothing mien. “We give land very freely to people. We have never had any problem with anybody.”
From 1994 till date, the clashes-turned-attacks were ccompanied by some landmark tragedies that should ordinarily have restored peace to the troubled state. One of them is the killing of Rwang’s immediate elder brother and senator representing Plateau North at the National Assembly, Gyang Dalyop Dantong, while attending the mass burial for hundreds slain in Riyom and Barkin Ladi local governments in July 2012. Rwang is stunned that the senator’s death has had little influence on Plateau’s acute need for peace.
“You see, we should — out of that death alone — allow peace to return to the state. That was what I expected,” he says in his characteristic measured tone. “Peace should return to Berom land, because if a whole senator went to a place to settle issues, and he was attacked and killed, that is quite unfortunate. I felt that that tragedy alone would touch the hearts of people to resolve their differences, to turn from evil and return to reality.”
The nadir of the death itself is the failure of soldiers at the mass burial ground to mount any form of resistance against the attackers. More than a year on, his disappointment is still evident.
“I was disappointed in the military, highly disappointed that a whole senator and a majority leader of the House of Assembly were with the military, and all the soldiers could do was tell them to run for their dear lives,” he laments. “Then what is the hope of the common man — the common man who has no security around him? The soldiers told everybody to run; and they themselves ran rather than face the attackers.”
A FLICKER OF HOPE
His disappointments notwithstanding, Rwang knows a number of attitudinal and religious changes over the years offer a glimmer of hope for the eventual arrival at a solution. The Berom, he reveals, are no longer ritualistic.
“Most of us are born-again Christians. Therefore, our people have embraced God as the final solution to this thing,” he says. “We have groups in the Berom nation, such as the Berom Ministers Forum (BEMFO) and the Berom Outreach Ministries, which engage in fervent prayers for God’s intervention.”
In addition, various ethnic groups have welcomed peace-focused non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to the plateau, such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue that has engaged the Berom, Afizere, Anaguta, Fulani and Hausa in a six-month dialogue.
“We are highly committed to this dialogue, but the unfortunate thing is that each time we enter the dialogue, we come up with a roadmap towards actualising resolutions of the dialogue,” he says. “Each time we go into it, every ethnic group comes with its own problems, so that we can table and solve them. But unfortunately, for the Fulani man, it ends up at that forum. He doesn’t go down to the grassroots to explain to others what we are really doing at the dialogue.”
Leaders of all the ethnic groups, he continues, must be sincere; and if they can, there is nothing so difficult to handle. “If a Fulani man, for instance, is talking of cow rustling — and this is the major concern they always raise — then they should come up with names of the suspects, if they have.
“There are ways to deal with suspects — and those ways are always better than engaging in violence. Most times, the Fulanis confess that they launch reprisals for theft of their cows. But in the end, they will kill innocent children. For instance, during a recent attack … a father who saw the assailants was protecting his child of two years. They shot the man; they shot the child. The most worrisome is the case where a gun was put into the mouth of a five-month-old baby, and he was shot. For God’s sake, is that a reprisal? Is that how a solution can be worked out?”
DIALOGUES, DIALOGUE, AND MORE DIALOGUE
His appeal is that existing fora for dialogue should be fully explored by all the concerned groups. “We should come to a roundtable,” he insists. “Let the Fulani tell us what the problem is; after all, we have been living together and socially interacting with them for decades.”
He transfers the pain in his heart to his eyes when he recalls the good days prior to 1994, when there was no problem at all — when a Berom man could sleep in a Fulani man’s house and the Fulani man could do same in a Berom’s.
“We gave them all the lands free; and it is not as if we restricted them from grazing. There are the grazing routes; there are vast lands we made available for them to graze,” he says. “But now, the world has changed. There are many ways by which animals can be fed. It must not always be by going around in search of grass.”
As far as he knows, the Berom would remain relentless in their commitment to peace-building because, as he says, they are highly hospitable and reputable peacemakers. “On our own part, the Fulani have been allowing their cattle to destroy our farms,” he says. “But we have never at one point said because they destroy our farms, we will attack them. We have always taken the issues according to the laws of the land by reporting them to the police or other appropriate authorities. Compensation has always been paid, and it ends there. But in their case, they would just complain that cows are missing; and the next thing is that they would attack, sometimes wiping out an entire family.”
A TRIBE UNDER THREAT
Daniel Choji has one conviction: there is a grand plan to drive the Berom into extinction. And at the heart of this devious plan are a complicit trio: the Federal Government, the Army, and the Fulanis. While the Federal Government, in his estimation, has been negligent about security in Plateau, the Fulani hinge their killings on false accusations of cattle rustling by the Berom, as proven by the killing of six people at a compound in Heipang on December 17, 2013, none of whom has ever owned or stolen a cow. Finally, he accuses soldiers of siding with the Fulani — for ethnic and pecuniary interests.
“People were just having their dinner, and unknown gunmen arrived to attack them,” he says of the assault that resulted in the death of his cousin, Jerry Dalyop, aged five, and five others. “Soldiers drove in shortly after the attack. They rushed into the bush in the direction of the attackers; and we believe that they went in there to drive away the attackers. One, they didn’t come to interact with the victims. Two, they were not after the aggressors.”
Considering that the soldiers moved towards the direction of the aggressors and subsequently drove out, Choji believes it is spot-on to assume that the soldiers re-emerged from the bush in company of the aggressors. And to have kept mum on their findings, to have ignored people whose families have just been murdered, to have uttered no word to anyone on the whereabouts of the assailants or on the plight of victims, according to Choji, is testament to the soldiers’ grave complicity — a line of action that has now become routine.
“This has always been the issue in most of the attacks. The situation is very pathetic,” he laments. “The soldiers did not even say anything to the victims, because they came on a mission. If they had come with the mission of safeguarding the community, they would have driven straight to the compound of the victims to ask for the direction that the aggressors followed. But that they didn’t do. They came in, passed by the compound, and drove inside. Only God knows what they went in there to do.”
These soldiers are complicit in these attacks, he reiterates, “without mincing words”, which is why he will continue imploring the Federal Government to reconsider the composition of soldiers on the plateau, “because they have not come as neutral umpires, but are doing certain people’s bidding”. This, he insists, is the basic recipe for forestalling what could eventually degenerate to full-scale inter-ethnic clash reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide.
In Choji’s view, the ongoing attacks are devoid of religious colouration. There are Muslims among the Berom; the Christians among them have interacted with Muslims; all of them, their parents interacted and lived with Muslims. So, he is sure the killings are nothing religious. Simply put, they are ethnic.
“The killers are just a set of aggressors that does not want to see the Berom people on the face of the earth,” he says. “These people want to extinct the Berom people; and the Federal Government is aware, because the government normally has information of most of these attacks. The soldiers and mobile policemen who have come on the pretext of protecting us know who the aggressors are. Attackers come in the military uniforms; and by the time you mention it, the Army makes a defence. But in a short while, the world will know who these people are.”
He wants President Goodluck Jonathan, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to be more involved in the military affairs of Plateau or vest state governors with autonomy over the Police in their respective states. For all Choji cares, non-military alternatives to resolving the killings are on the table of the government and security chiefs.
“There are so many options, he says. “If the government really wants these attacks to end, I am assuring you that this terrible trend will end. The Military should work by the rules of engagement. They are here on an assignment to protect both the victims and the aggressors. A soldier — whether Fulani, Muslim or Christian — should be unbiased.”
Building on that, he begs the Army to shed itself of money-grubbing soldiers, as corruption has been the bane of these attacks. “You send a soldier on an assignment; and after six months, he wants to ride a flashy car, build a skyscraper or build a house that he hasn’t built in 20 to 30 years of his military career,” he fumes. “Soldiers who are ready to work are the ones who should be posted to Plateau, while those who want to enjoy these luxuries and make quick money should leave the Army and maybe join politics.”
He reckons the solution will be anything but easy to come by, considering that the attacks are only part of a complex web of sinister plots oiled by private individuals with vested interests.
“The aggressors have money. They hire the soldiers; they give them money,” he alleges. “Verify the [bank] account of most of these soldiers: both the officers and the men on ground. You will see the influx of cash into their accounts each time there is an attack.”
He emphasises for the umpteenth time that government and security agencies can ill-afford to dawdle on addressing the litany of unresolved killings in the villages of Plateau, especially as all concerned parties — even if the ringleaders cannot be personally identified — know exactly what they are up against.
“The soldiers know the aggressors. We know the aggressors, and they are the Fulani, because the soldiers have accompanied the Fulani, not once or twice, into our villages in search of cows,” he says emphatically. “That is only when the soldiers react. They react when cows are missing, but when people die, soldiers don’t react. They are the aggressors, the soldiers and the Fulani. The Berom, meanwhile, are the victims.”
…to be continued.