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BLOOD ON THE PLATEAU (5): The memoir
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 finale of this series on the brutal killings in Plateau State, ‘FISAYO SOYOMBO highlights the high points of an 11-day expedition to many of the state’s most interiorly-located villages, headlined by a touch-and-go 134-minute motorcycle trip that nearly turned awry. He also shares an eyewitness’s approach to bailing the north-central state out of the pointless waste of lives.
Arriving Jos for the first time ever, I had certain stereotypes that were set in stone. I was expecting to be welcomed by ruin, by a precipiced city so risky to navigate, either during the day or at night. I was not to blame. I had naively become accustomed to several variants of the newspaper headline, “Jos Boils Again”. The Internet is replete with them.
Well, I was disappointed. Jos, it turned out, was as peaceful as any other Nigerian city. Many of the villages where these killings occur are actually several hundred kilometres from Jos city itself. And as I discovered in a matter of days, the ascription of the violence in the villages to “Jos” has been the greatest disservice of go-between media reportage of the killings to unsuspecting readers. Perhaps the confusion is explainable: the villages are dangerous; reporters are scared of death; so rather than reports from journalists who have physically accessed the danger zones, what we have are third-party-sourced news reports.
THE IRONY THAT IS PLATEAU
Beginning from my first journey out of Jos on December 11, 2013, I was stunned by the kindness and friendliness of the average Plateau man. From Wase Junction where we disembarked from a car to mount a motorcycle for the 25-minute ride to Nyapkai Village in Langtang North Local Government, I counted nine villagers who raised their arm in a surprising show of camaraderie to two strangers speeding past. During the 59-minute motorcycle ride from Bokkos to Mile-Bakwai Village days later, I counted 16 villagers who did the same.
All over the towns and villages I either visited or navigated, this practice was commonplace. And residents willingly and cheerfully offered sincere directions to strangers. Any stranger who has been misled in a city like Lagos, for example, will appreciate the value of this virtue. A young man (whose family of eight was murdered) enthusiastically climbed an orange tree in the compound to pluck the fruits for my guide and me. The peasant that he is, he compulsorily wanted to entertain us with something — anything. So, I was grappling with a riddle all through: how is a state brimming with such endearing levels of friendliness simultaneously engulfed in decades of inter-ethnic resentment?
WASE IS GATEWAY TO HEAVEN — OR HELL!
After Daniel Zitta rued his displacement (alongside hundreds of villagers) from Kadarko Village in Wase Local Government, I became curious about Wase. I was told that in Wasetofa Village, the Fulani killed many Taroh and razed their houses. All Taroh in the area had fled. Well, if all that happened, if hundreds were driven out of their natural abode, then I had to see Wase. I wanted evidence. I wanted to photograph rubbles of the destroyed houses; I wanted to talk with anyone left in the village.
“Who will take me to Wasetofa Village?” I asked curtly, glancing in the direction of Pa Geofrey, the Head of Nyapkai Village. He shook his head in discord. My glance shifted to the motorcycle rider who had doubled as interpreter of the village head’s response to my questions. “Not me,” he replied without awaiting my question. Then I turned to Samson Zwalnan, my guide, an exceptionally courteous young man who would later exhibit courage too impressive for a non-journalist by accompanying me on some other dangerous trips without uttering a word of complaint. He cowered.
Samson it was, who gave me an explanation. “You want to enter Hausa-Fulani territory?” he retorted rhetorically. “I am not the one to take you there. Those guys are not friendly one bit.”
Being one who rarely accepts the meaning — or even existence — of the word “no” when I am convinced about a cause, I pressed further. “If you won’t take me there, Samson, please give me the directions,” I said, grabbing him by the arm. “Give me the directions and wait for me here while I go.”
But Samson would not budge. “I won’t take you there. And if you insist you want directions to Wase, I am not the one who will give you,” he responded, his mind clearly made up. “You want to enter Fulani Territory wearing a shirt and pair of jeans? I can promise you that you won’t survive up to a minute in that village before you are gunned down.”
Silence reigned for the next minute or thereabouts. There had to be a way out, I soliloquised. “Okay, then; we go elsewhere,” I blurted with a cheer. “I can always get a Fulani in Jos to take me to Wasetofa tomorrow. With one of their own, I should be safe, you know.”
Samson handed me a chilling warning. “Don’t try it. Wase is shortcut to heaven!” It was the only time he raised his voice in the 11 days of our togetherness. Reluctantly, I let “no” have the victory. I didn’t “try it”.
A WEIGHTY REGRET
Every day for 11 days, I explored the possibility of speaking with a Hausa-Fulani. Now, that is because every single village I trod, families and neighbours of slain villagers accused the “Fulani” of masterminding the murders. On December 19, 2013, one day before my scheduled departure from Jos, I received the telephone number of a representative of the Fulani at one of the dialogue fora. By the schedule of the prospective interviewee, a physical appointment was impracticable. That was understandable. In the next few days, a makeshift telephone interview never quite materialised — despite a string of trials. On the deadline for going to press, the Hausa-Fulni man in question lost it. He made it clear he didn’t want to be “disturbed” — in a raised voice, directed at a stranger.
The regret is the failure, in a total of 21 days, to get a Fulani response to accusations that the ethnic group is to blame for the killings. It was some sort of lifeline, too, for a representative of the Fulani to contradict all the blame that had been piled on them; and it was fluffed. The blames aside, an important statistic indict the Fulanis: none of the villages where deaths were recorded is a Fulani zone. Certainly, the death of people from all ethnic groups save the Fulani is a big statement on the identities of the victims as well as the terrorists.
On the heartening side, it was maybe testament to Samson’s repeated claims on the “unfriendliness of the Hausa-Fulani”, on why I should avoid their territories altogether, on why treading Wase in the company of a Hausa-Fulani made no guarantee that my life was secure.
RAWURUM IS ON THE WAY TO HEAVEN
Monday November 16, 2013, was the one day I wondered if I overstretched my luck by coming to Plateau. Since October when I read media reports of the murder of Pa “Tsok Gwom and eight members of his family in Kukek Community in Bakin Fogi District of Barkin Ladi local Government”, I swore I would not return to Lagos if I didn’t locate Gwom’s house and the solitary grave where all “nine” were interred. Two corrections. First, Gwom’s son, Solomon Pagyang, confirmed that eight — not nine as reported by the media — members of the family were murdered. Next, the residents said the name is actually Ket Village — not Kuke — as widely reported.
My guide, a motorcycle rider, and I arrived at Ket Village at about 1pm, first securing clearance from the village head, Mr. Luka Pam, before going on to seek out the victims. Solomon was summoned while we interviewed other victims. But it was only after the interview with him that it became clear that the house of the victims was sequestered on the outskirts of the village.
Time was nearing 3pm, and we still needed to see Rawurum Village. From the moment Rwang Dantong confirmed a five-month old baby was shot in the mouth in Rawurum, I knew I would sacrifice anything to get to Rawurum. It was time to go. But then, what evidence had I that Tsok Gwom and the seven others were truly murdered? I mounted Solomon’s bike, and my guide mounted the rider’s. We arrived at the house after about 15 minutes. I photographed the bullet-riddled house where they were murdered; I snapped the mass grave where all eight were hurriedly buried.
Proof complete, we zoomed to Rawurum, ignoring the protestations of our motorcycle rider and clinging to a neighbour’s assurance that Rawurum was “just 15 minutes” away. How wrong we were! That was exactly 3:12pm.
One hour later, we were still on that motorcycle — on the way to Rawurum. It was a particularly horrible journey to undergo. For most of it, the footpaths were bumpy, rocky and encroached by shrubs. On so many occasions, we had our hands over our faces to prevent the shrubs from slashing at us. And twice, we all disembarked from the cycle to push it through streams coursing through undulating, rocky land paths. Both were gruelling exercises.
One and a half hours into the journey, the bike rider — who had been busy raining cusswords on the fellow who inexplicably told us we would arrive at Rawurum in 15 minutes — slowed to a halt. He had had enough and would go no further. Of course, he had a valid argument. It was 4:47pm; we hadn’t arrived at Rawurum; we were unsure if we were close to it. The cloud was beginning to darken, which meant danger was lurking. In darkness, these villages are pretty unsafe.
But there was no way I would sit on a motorcycle for a draining one-and-a-half-hours only to return with naught. “We will not turn back unless we have found Rawurum,” I said sternly. “We are men. We have to be strong. We cannot give up.”
Speaking through Samson, my guide-cum-interpreter, the rider made it clear he would move no further. He switched off the engine and disembarked. And he wanted his money. That, to me, was blackmail. I responded, blackmail for blackmail: “You were contracted to convey us to Ket and Rawurum, before returning us to Bakin Foron Junction. No Rawurum, no money.” I added, though, that I was prepared to up his pay by 50 per cent.
Samson passed on my message. The raise, I suppose, worked like magic. In two minutes, we were back on the road, the rider cooperatively speeding faster to beat time. After travelling a total of 2hours and 14 minutes on motorcycle, we finally found Rawurum, and headed for the house of the seven-man Ladi Bula family (including five-month-old Julius) that was exterminated. That was 5:26pm.
By the time we were exiting at exactly 5:55pm, the rasping December harmattan of Jos was out to haunt us. If I committed any pre-travel goof, it was to underestimate the weather gulf between Lagos and Plateau States. Samson, whom I thought would have been accustomed to such harsh conditions, was himself shivering profusely in front of me, despite wearing a sweater. The cold worsened some half-an-hour later, as darkness finally enveloped us. By the time we had travelled an hour, my body was stony and my fingers stiff.
Worried, like me, by the danger of a night travel, the rider hurtled anxiously once we hit the highway. At that point, a part of me wondered if I would survive the trip. With my head suddenly assuming a bloated weight, I feared I would fall off the bike any moment. To stay active, I reached for my phone and blared music into my ears through the headphones. It kept me pseudo-conscious. After travelling on motorcycle a total of 1 hour and 49 minutes, we arrived at Barkin Kogi, where Samson and I slipped into a waiting taxi. We uttered no word until we reached Jos, each one patently ruminating over what might have been.
A VALEDICTORY KILLING
Three days before I left Plateau, gunmen struck again, this time in Larwin Village, Heipang. Five people died instantly; one more person died at the hospital the following morning; three sustained injuries. In error, the media reported that all six were members of a family. They were not.
Of the six, only one, Pam David, was an adult — a 25-year-old. All others were kids: Jerry Dalyop, 5; Miracle Ishaya, 3; Deborah Ishaya, 5; Judith Emeka, 3; and Promise M. C., 3. This latest attack somewhat validated Daniel Choji’s allegation of a grand extermination plan against the Beroms. Why, I have continued to wonder, will anyone kill innocent children?
CHUNDUNG: VENGEANCE IS GOD’S
Chundung Dalyop, the mother of Miracle and Deborah, was so disconsolate her reaction was laconic. “I feel highly aggrieved with what happened,” she said through an interpreter. “Only God can comfort me; and God alone can avenge the killing of my children. I leave all that has happened into the hands of God. But truly, emotionally, I feel the pains so greatly.”
‘IF YOU DIE…’
The following day, I showed up at the mass burial for the slain six! I arrived just as the curtain was brought down on the burial of the five who died instantly. All five went into a single grave. The corpse of Choji’s nephew, who died much later, arrived just as I was disembarking from the car. I saw him being lowered into an adjoining, small grave, as prayers were offered for the repose of his soul. It was a crushing sight that brought the reality of the killings down hard on me.
Attending that mass burial was one of the riskiest decisions of the trip. As Rwang Dantong said, if a senator and a state lawmaker could be killed (in July 2012) while attending a mass burial, the common man, such as me, has no hope. My heart raced as Dantong collected me at my lodge and we made off for Heipang. This was one of the perils that a number of friends had warned me to avoid. Joan Omionawele, a journalist with a national daily, was the one who had laced her message with the scariest choice of words.
“I don’t like that type of journalism o. Not in a country like this,” Joan had chided me on learning of my trip. “I won’t cry over you if you die. Instead, I will be very angry — not at the killers but at you.” Her argument was that she had seen journalists “go down the drain” without even been remembered. She was right.
Since Channels Television reporter, Eneche Akogwu, 32, was shot on January 20, 2011 while reporting the pandemonium at Farm Centre Police Station in Kano State following multiple bombings by Boko Haram, no one has done anything to immortalise him. Few even know that Zakariyya Isa, a reporter with the Maiduguri Network Centre of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), was murdered by the same sect for being “an informant to security agencies”. Isa, like Enenche, has been forgotten.
“I don’t like to live in fear,” she went on. “But if anything happens, just know that you were unfair to your family and friends, Fisayo Rolihlahla Soyombo Madiba. Mind you, I’m not trying to be funny.”
Although I felt pangs of fear on an occasion or two, the prospect of death never quite crossed my mind — for one important reason. The people (mostly children) dying in Plateau needed someone to unearth and tell their unknown stories; their endangered friends and families needed help. If I travelled that far and risked that much to get hold of their stories, then there was no chance I would die. I had to live, if only because I had to tell their story!
One day before my departure from Plateau, I implicitly responded to Joan’s words with a status update on social networking site, Facebook. “If you’ve found a cause for which you can die,” I wrote, “you have found a cause for which you should — and you will — live!”
ENDING THE KILLINGS: EVERYONE KNOWS!
Truly, I did not witness the birth of the crisis that has, in recent years, metamorphosed into spasms of organised killings. But having traversed a number of villages that many of my Plateau-born friends and acquaintances have admitted never setting foot on, I can say with a measure of certainty that restoring peace to Plateau is not as difficult as the continuity of the killings suggests. And as a matter of fact, the ultimate solution was recommended a massive 20 years ago.
Aribiton Fiberesima’s commission of inquiry laid the foundation for the solution back in 1994: Government must apply sanctions to all individuals, groups of persons and organisations… culpable in the killings.
The ongoing dialogue initiatives are massive. They are commendable. Credit to the Plateau State Government, non-governmental organisations, and the various ethnic groups! But all the progress will be pointless if anyone can break into a compound unchallenged, and wipe out all its inhabitants. To prosecute the perpetrators, they must be apprehended. To apprehend them, security in the state must be watertight. Sadly, at the moment, security in the villages is as porous as a basket.
The Special Task Force (STF) soldiers deployed to Plateau, I could not find them. They were absent in the villages where they were most needed! Of the total 11 villages I visited, I found soldiers in only two: Mile-Bakwai and Kukah. The ones at Mile-Bakwai seemed domiciled there, ready to confront any impending threat. The ones at Kukah, all I saw them do was frog-march the driver of a private car for driving too close to their roadblock before slowing. In all the other nine villages — Nyapkai, Dipbong, Zamchang, Locost, Ket, Rawurum, Kungte, Tatu, Larwin — I did not run into a single soldier.
So those villagers are all vulnerable. To worsen this vulnerability, all these villages — save Larwin and Kukah — are inaccessible with a car. The villages in question can only be accessed via footpaths — after several minutes (or sometimes hours, as with Rawurum) of travel on motorcycle. Their location way off civilisation leaves little room for response policing or soldiery. At the moment, these villages lack security; and until it is put in place, the killings will continue, notwithstanding the intensity of dialoguing.
ACT, PRESIDENT JONATHAN; ACT!
On Sunday December 29, 2013 at a church in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital territory, President Goodluck Jonathan delivered a charge reminiscent of his famous I-had-no-shoes-no-bags presidential election campaign speech of September 18, 2010.
“Any child of Nigeria can be where I am,” he said this time. “I come from the smallest state in this country — even within the state, one of the smallest communities in Bayelsa State; even within the community, one of the smallest families. But I am here today by the grace of God.”
The President must know — if he didn’t — that many children in Plateau who have no shoes like him are perpetually at risk of death; they stand no chance to, like the President, fulfill their dreams. On December 17, 2013, five children aged five, five, three, three, and two were callously murdered by attackers. A dozen others have died already in 2013. Will the President, as Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic, continue looking the other way? Mr. President, you have to “give a damn” this time!