From blackout to chaos: Inside Benue communal crisis over electricity

This report covers the fatal crisis that escalated at an electric isolation point between youths of Obi and Otukpo Local government areas (LGA) in Benue state after the Jos Electricity Distribution (JED) Plc failed to restore power. The ICIR crew Sinafi OMANGA and Olayinka FATUNBI who visited the communities, report. 

It felt like a ghost town. Three men sat under a mango tree in a local market square that used to be filled with residents of the Ijegwu community, Obi LGA, Benue state. During a visit on the afternoon of April 20, 2023, Several buildings lay in ruins – burnt to the ground.

Shortly, five men and two women emerged from behind some of the houses. One of them is Jacob Orokpo, the soft-spoken district head of the village. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

Realising that he was speaking to journalists, the village chief said he did not know where to begin the story.


“I was not around when the crisis broke out,” he told The ICIR.   “I was advised not to come back because the community was on fire. When I came back a few days ago, I did not know my house again,” said the octogenarian, who was still visibly shaken.

Charred items such as furniture, sets of desktop computers, television screen, kitchen utensils, tubers of yam and ornaments that once filled the apartments of the village chief are a poignant reminder of the jarring incident.

Jacob Orokpo, District Head of Ijegwu has been rendered homeless.

Orokpo said he is now homeless and has nowhere to seek refuge.

Thirty Km away lies another neighbouring community with a similar level of devastation and desolation. Blessing Sunday, a 38-year-old resident of Otobi in Otukpo LGA, was picking ripe mango fruits on Friday morning of April 21, 2023.

“I lost everything that I have laboured for so many years. Even the clothes I’m wearing are not mine. Somebody gave them to me. I lost everything,” cried the mother of four.

Ever since she fled with her four children, Sunday said they have gone to different places in search of where to lay their heads. “Only God is helping us,” she added.

Blessing Sunday, resident of Otobi-Otukpo in her building that was burned down.

Ordinarily, residents of Ijegwu and Otobi should be going about normal activities in the farms or markets and children attending schools, but those days are gone since they fled a communal crisis that rendered them homeless.

As the attention of Nigeria’s over 200 million citizens and the international communities focused on the 2023 general elections, youths in the neighbouring communities of Otukpo and Obi LGAs in Benue State launched a communal war, causing death and destruction that is still being investigated, according to the police.

The genesis…

On Monday, March 13 what appeared like a peaceful protest saw youths of Ijegwu march to where the transmission isolation point that supplies electricity to the neighbouring communities is located.

There had been a protracted power outage in Obi, which has a population of 193,098 Igede-speaking people, while neighbouring Otukpo, with a population of 266,411 predominantly Idoma-speaking people, enjoyed relatively constant power supply, according to residents.

Speaking to The ICIR, Ogbu John-Lion, the national president of Ito Youth Forum, an umbrella body for youth groups in Obi LGA alleged that youths in Otukpo LGA “deliberately tampered with the transmission line in order to put Igede land in darkness.

But his allegation was based on suspicion fuelled by historical distrust between the two communities.

He said Jos Electricity Distribution (JED) Plc failed to reconnect the power despite the youth’s effort to draw the attention of the distribution company to the situation.

“The company did not explain or assure us of restoring electricity, and for more than two weeks, we were in total blackout.”

“How was it possible that our neighbours had light but we didn’t? So we went there peacefully to find out for ourselves what the problem was and to suggest how to fix it”, said John-Lion.

Ogbu John-Lion in company of some youths in Obi LGA

On reaching the isolation point, John-Lion said Idoma youths attacked and shot one of them, Jacob Iji, who climbed the electric pole to “rectify” the fault. However, John-Lion said he did not know the name of the person that shot and killed his kinsman.

“That day alone, five unarmed Igede youths were murdered in cold blood”, John-Lion added.

In contrast,  the youth leader of Otobi-Otukpo, Agbo Okwanya said they were only resisting the attempt by Igede youths to tamper with the transmission line that could have endangered the lives of residents.

Okwanya also denied allegations that they disconnected lines that supply power to Igede land.

“We are not JED Plc, all the Igede youths needed to do was to draw the attention of the transmission company to the problem but instead they transferred their aggression to us.

“Do they have evidence that we were responsible for the power outage in their land? We were just protecting public infrastructure in our community against Igede youths who came here ready for war”, Okwanya said as he recalled the brawl that ensued at the electric isolation point, which later became a theatre of bloodshed.

Okwanya identified one of his kinsmen, Ogili Onu, as the first casualty from his community. “He was shot by the Igede youths on this road”, he said, pointing to the community access road.

Like John-Lion, Okwanya told The ICIR he did not know the name of the person that shot and killed his kinsman.

Agbo Okwanya in company of some youths in Otukpo LGA
Photo credit: Fatumbi Olayinka

As the cacophony of war chants and gunshots filled the air, women and children took to their heels but both communities went back to mobilise militias for the war of attrition that residents said lasted about three weeks. The once bubbling neighbouring communities are now shadows of the past.

Power outage is a recurrent challenge in Nigeria, where an estimated population of 200 million rely on only 4000MWs  distributed electricity instead of at least 200,000MWs based on the energy demand of a country with a Nigerian population size.

Over 92 million Nigerians lack access to electricity, according to the Energy Progress Report, by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2022.

Government abandoned us, victims cry…

Findings by The ICIR during a four-day visit to ascertain the level of the humanitarian disaster in both LGAs show that over three hundred houses were destroyed. The youth leaders said approximately three thousand persons, including children, were displaced.

Without IDP camps, most of the displaced persons have taken refuge with relatives in other towns and villages, according to residents, mostly men whom this reporter met in the deserted villages.

“This place is not safe for women and children until we can provide shelter and food. Without humanitarian assistance, this will not be possible in many years to come”, said Matthew Adekpe, a former leader of Ito Youth Forum.

David Ekwo, a member of the Otukpo Traditional Council, decried the  “slow response” from relevant agencies to the humanitarian crisis that rocked the communities.

“Perhaps, the state government was distracted by the elections because the crisis began a week before the governorship and state assembly elections”, he observed.

Special Adviser to Benue State Governor on Security Matters, Paul Hemba, in an exclusive interview with The ICIR indirectly attributed inactions from the state government to the 2023 general election.

“The general elections came with its own issues,” he told The ICIR

He explained that efforts by the state government to intervene in the crisis were slow because mobile police had been deployed to monitor the elections across the country. The governor’s aide further argued on the bias of Obi residents against the military, which would have intervened in the matter.

“It was after the elections that we deployed mobile police along the boundaries because the Igede people opposed the intervention of the military for the mere perception that the military, whose base is in Otukpo, would join forces with Idoma people against them.”

Paul Hemba

On the humanitarian disaster, Hemba said the government was “seeking the attention of concerned organisations to see ways of alleviating the suffering of the people”.

But in his reaction, an Abuja-based security analyst, Ben Okezie described the efforts of the Benue state government and security agency as “not good enough”.

“it is unfortunate that the state government and security operatives gave more priority to elections over protecting the lives and property of citizens,” he said.

Okezie recommended state policing across the country to avoid state governments making excuses for failure to protect the lives and property of citizens.

Schools shut down as residents flee…

More disturbing to Ekwo, the Otukpo chief, is the future of many children who were forced out of schools by the crisis.

“Our major concern is the fact that thousands of children could not sit for the second term examinations of the 2022/23 academic session, which their mates in other schools across the federation took,” Ekwo disclosed, highlighting the concerns of the school pupils.

“Schools in the communities were sacked, but whatever we do, the plight of children should be paramount. This act is unfortunate and condemnable,” he said

David Ekwo, a member of Otukpo Traditional Council said they were still mourning.

Three schools in Otukpo and four in Obi LGAs have been closed down due to the displacement of residents. The schools in Otukpo are R.C.M Primary School Otobi, L.G.E.A Primary School and Ankan Nursery and Primary School, Ojantele.

L.G.E.A Ijegwu Ito, New Age International Academy Ijegwu Ito, L.G.E.A and Royal Pride Secondary School Opirikwu Ito are schools closed down in Obi LGA.

No fewer than 40 primary and secondary schools have been shut down across Benue state due to insecurity, according to the state Commissioner for Education, Tarnongo Saawuan.

UNESCO in 2022 places out-of-school children in Nigeria at 20 million, and insecurity is a contributor to this data. The situation contravenes the position of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) 4, where access to basic education is considered vital to promote lifelong learning opportunities.

Police not aware of casualties, missing persons – Spokesperson…

Both John-Lion, the Igede youth leader and Okwanya, the youth leader of Otobi-Otukpo said their communities recorded seven casualties respectively, making fourteen deaths.

Okwanya added that eleven persons from his community were still missing. , But The ICIR could not independently verify this number.

Ekwo, the traditional chief in Otukpo who spoke earlier, confirmed that the missing persons were women and youths whom the “invaders (referring to the Igede youths) trapped and murdered in cold blood”.

Hemba, Ortom’s special adviser on security matters, confirmed that several lives were lost.

However, the retired military colonel said the state government had yet to arrive at the exact number of deaths and missing persons.

“We got conflicting figures from both communities. Some people died, but their bodies could not be found due to the nature of the crisis. Some were burned in their houses, and others were killed in the bushes while trying to escape.

“For these particular reasons, I cannot give a reliable figure now”, Hemba told The ICIR.

However, the Nigeria Police Force denied knowledge of any death or missing person.

The Benue state police spokesperson, Catherine Anene, said the cases were not officially reported to the police command.

“No party reported dead or missing persons to us. The police cannot give accounts of killings that were not reported. They did everything on their own. That crisis is a case of absolute lawlessness”, she said.

She added that an investigation was still underway to arrest and prosecute masterminds involved in the crisis.

Two months after the incident, the police are yet to arrest any suspect.

Is JED Plc responsible for the crisis?

The Jos Electricity Distribution (JED) Plc is one of the indigenous power distribution companies (DisCos) in Nigeria. It is a product of the Federal Government Power Sector Reform of 2015; as part of efforts to further domesticate and provide stable electricity to the people.

However, a resident of Obi LGA, Joseph Obaike, whose family’s property was destroyed, blamed the crisis on the company for not attending to complaints when he informed the office about the power outage.

Obaike said he had made a phone call to the technical staff of JED in Otukpo by the name Ogbu Ateh about the blackout, but he never acted.

“Not even a feedback after he promised to get back to me. I called again more than ten times, but he did not pick up the calls”, Obaike said.

Joseph Obaike inside the rubbles of his building
Photo credit: Fatunbi Olayinka/The ICIR

It is the same perception held by all Obi residents The ICIR spoke to.

But the company exonerated itself despite its perceived role in the crisis for failing to restore power to the aggrieved customers.

JED’s head of corporate communications, Friday Adakole Elijah, in a press statement disclosed that “wind storms occasioned by heavy downpours in Otukpo” destroyed electrical installations that caused the power outage in neighbouring communities”.

Elijah added that the “company was not in receipt of any formal or informal complaint” about protracted power outage from its customers in Obi LGA.

According to the statement, the company’s technical crew was on the way for fault tracing in Otobi on the Monday when the crisis broke out but “were told to go back because youths from Obi Local Government have been mobilised to go and destroy the isolator situated in Otobi Ipakangwu.

“It was the attempts to destroy the isolator by the Igede youths and the resistance by the Otobi Ipakangwu youth that led to the crisis as the Igede youth insisted that the Isolator must be destroyed”.

“It is our candid belief that the remote causes of this crisis may be something different from the issue of isolators or lack of power supply,” Elijah added in a telephone interview.

JED Plc Business Unit, Otukpo
Photo credit: Fatunbi Olayinka

Findings show JEDC Plc’s communication failure

A search on the website and social media platforms of JED show that the company usually gives updates to explain reasons for power outage or when rectifying a technical fault that would cause blackout. It also informs customers when power would be restored.

For instance, in July 2022, the company informed customers that “there will be a planned outage in Otukpo Region to enable technical crew carry out maintenance on 132Kv bus bar”.

In another announcement on February 11, 2023, JED Plc promptly apologised to customers in Bauchi, Gombe, Plateau and Benue for a power outage it said was caused by the “tripping of a 330KV power line”.

A public announcement by JED Plc

However,  findings by The ICIR showed that the company neither communicated to the communities about the power outage supposedly caused by heavy rainfall nor informed the residents about its effort to rectify it, at least not until after the clash.

The vice chairman of Obi LGA, Ogor Ajine, said the crisis could have been avoided if  JED Plc had given timely information to the residents.

Ogor Ajine faulted JED Plc for not issuing the statement till after the crisis escalated.

He said the information would have dispelled the suspicion that the power outage was caused by Otukpo residents whom the Obi people accused of “disconnecting them”.

“I can’t heap all the blame on JED Plc, but I believe if they had come out with information on time, it would have helped in calming the situation,” Ajine said during an interview with The ICIR in Otukpo, Benue state.

Proliferation of illegal arms worrisome

In the wake of the incident, the Benue state government expressed concerns over the proliferation of illegal weapons in the hands of some citizens in the state and across the country.

Hemba, the Special Adviser to Benue State Governor on Security Matters, told The ICIR, that illegal possession of arms is why youths in Obi and Otukpo LGAs resorted to violence with its attendant devastation.

He said, “The crisis came to us as a shock because the Idoma and the Igede people have coexisted peacefully and share many things in common.

“Electricity is not the only trigger. The availability of illegal arms in the hands of idle youth is another factor responsible for the crisis”.

Hemba added that the state government was considering an amnesty programme as a strategy to recover illegal arms in possession of the militias and other criminals in the state.

He explained that the amnesty programme will curtail communal crises and other criminal  activities such as cultism, armed robbery and kidnapping.

Asked how feasible is the amnesty programme since Ortom’s tenure would officially end on 29 May, 2023, Hemba said, “government is a continuum” with “hope that the next government will look into our recommendations”.

Ortom’s amnesty programme 

During his first amnesty programme in 2016, Ortom blamed his predecessor, Gabriel Suswam, for the proliferation of arms in the state.

The Governor stated that Suswam believed in violence and bought arms for youth to achieve his political ambition.

“The amnesty programme succeeded because more than 800 young people came out and surrendered. We have in our possession over 600 assorted weapons and ammunition that we collected from these young men”, said Ortom.

Similarly, the Presidential Committee on Small and Light Weapons, in the same year, disclosed that it recovered and destroyed over 1,500 assorted weapons during the Benue state amnesty programme.

Governor Samuel Ortom (L) and predecessor, Gabriel Suswam

In another batch of amnesty programmes in 2020, Ortom granted pardon to “42 repentant youths” for laying down illegal arms.

However, Ortom’s successor, the Governor-elect, Hyacinth Alia, in one of his campaigns, faulted the amnesty programmes executed by Ortom’s administration.

Alia noted that criminals who were given amnesty went back to crime due to the failure of the government to “properly rehabilitate and reintegrate” them into society.

The Catholic priest turned politician, who was the  governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) at the time, pledged to introduce a “comprehensive amnesty programme for repentant militia” if elected governor.

Alia later won the March 18 gubernatorial election as declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), but it is not clear yet how soon he would begin his amnesty programme.

To account for some of the losses due to the proliferation of small arms and repeated crises, the Executive Secretary of Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), Emmanuel Shior said the state has lost a total of 5138 people to violent clashes since Governor Ortom assumed office in 2015.

The SEMA boss attributed most of the killings to farmers-herders conflict in his call on the federal government to boost security and attend to the infrastructural needs of thousands of displaced people in the state.

The electric isolation point where the crisis escalated is located on the boundary between Otukpo and Obi LGAs<br />Photo credit: Sinafi Omanga/The ICIR
The electric isolation point where the crisis escalated is located on the boundary between Otukpo and Obi LGAs
Photo credit: Sinafi Omanga/The ICIR

Resolving the crisis…

The Benue state government has set up a panel of traditional rulers, lawmakers and other stakeholders from the two LGAs to resolve the conflict through mediation and reconciliation. The panel had its first sitting on April 17, 2023.

One of the mandates of the panel recommending measures to forestall any future occurrence of such a crisis, according to Hemba, who said, “both communities have regretted their actions and tension is gradually going down”.

As of the time of filing this report, no suspect has been arrested or arraigned by security operatives for the wanton destruction of lives and property in Obi and Otukpo communities.

    With no arrest so far, it is not clear yet if the panel set up by the Benue state government would recommend prosecuting the masterminds of the crisis.

    For the several residents that have been rendered homeless, the struggle is no longer about electricity alone but about how to make ends meet on a daily basis.

    “If we had got the power supply, this disaster would have been averted,” Obaike said, laying the blame at the doorstep of the power distribution company.

    “For now, we will monitor Jos Electricity Distribution Plc to make it more responsive when there is power outage especially in volatile areas,” Hemba stated.

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

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