INVESTIGATION: Survivors of herdsmen attacks tormented by deaths, rape at Benue IDP camps
Fear of the known – killer herdsmen – dissuaded taxi drivers in Makurdi, the Benue State capital, from taking the ICIR reporter to Guma and Logo, the two local government areas in the state that have become the epicentre of repeated hate crimes since the beginning of the year. It was until the next day that a car was arranged for the journey. From Makurdi to Agasha on the sandy bush road and crossing the River Benue on the ferry to Tse-Ikyo and getting to Tse-Ginde, there were neither soldiers nor police in a journey of about three hours. Desolate farming villages laid across in Guma and Logo but those who deserted their communities face another horror in camps – deaths, rape, malnutrition and other indignities – reports CHIKEZIE OMEJE, who visited all the eight recognised camps in the state.
On the first night of 2018, people in Tseghem village in Guma were awoken by sporadic gunshots in Timota, another village about two kilometres away. Williams Jime, 34, and other villagers gathered their families and fled. Some men stayed.
His 28-year-old brother Pever Kwaghando was among the villagers who did not run away. When the attackers approached the village by motorcycles and the courageous men realised they were Fulani militants, they began to run to different directions.
“My brother was the only one killed in our village,” Jime told the ICIR at Tse-Ginde Primary School in Guma where he has been sheltered along with his wife and two children since the attack. The primary school accommodates 20,928 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) forced out of their villages by the lingering crisis between Fulani herdsmen and Tiv farmers.
His brother’s corpse was not discovered until after three days. Shot from behind on the head, the corpse was already decomposing when his cousin discovered it. With their noses covered, they hurriedly dug a shallow grave and pushed the corpse inside it before the attackers whom they alleged had occupied their village could sight them.
Jime’s brother was not among the 73 who were given a mass burial in Makurdi on January 11 after the attacks in several villages in Guma and Logo by the Fulani extremists. “There was nothing we could do than to bury the decaying corpse there in the bush,” Jime says, wiping away the tears that ran down his cheeks with the back of his palm. This was the second time that he was being displaced; his village was attacked and burned by herdsmen in 2014.
Sewuese Mhile, a 15-year-old junior secondary school student, told the ICIR that her father and three uncles were killed in Timota by the herdsmen. She was cooking rice on firewood – with only groundnut oil and seasoning as an ingredient – while her mother sat on the pavement of the school with hundreds of others, monitoring her progress. Every family cooks their own foods, often given to them by the state’s emergency management agents, and usually involving rice and noodles without additional ingredients to cook them.
Since 2013, the Benue State government has documented more than 50 attacks against farmers by the pastoralists, with more than 1,600 people killed in those attacks. The frequent clashes made the state to pass a law banning open grazing of cattle in late last year. Rather than halt the attacks, the anti-open grazing law has sparked another wave of killings since January, the state enduring its worst-ever humanitarian crisis. More than 170,000 people have been registered in eight camps while an unknown number of affected people are taking shelter with relatives in safe communities in and outside the state.
“Generally talking about statistics of IDPs in Benue State is very challenging,” Emmanuel Shior, Executive Director of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), told the ICIR. The reason, he says, is that as the attacks continue, more people desert their villages, increasing the number of IDPs daily. The last figure the state registered three weeks earlier was 176,070 IDPs in the eight camps in Makurdi, Guma, and Logo.
Haruna Ubi, Benue State Chairman of Miyetti Allah, the association of Fulani cattle breeders, blamed the Tiv for the protracted violence and accused them of confiscating cows of Fulani herders.
“When we sit and discuss reconciliation, a binding document must be signed between the Fulani and the Tiv so that they cannot attack them and collect their cows,” Ubi told the ICIR. “If they can stop killing the Fulani and collecting their cows, that is fine. Nobody wants war. We need peace also.”
When Ubi was reminded that the state’s law bans open grazing, he claimed that the herders had relocated to Nasarawa State but the Benue State’s agents had been entering Nasarawa State to confiscate their cows. The ICIR did not see herdsmen or cattle in any of the deserted communities in Guma and Logo. Nevertheless, a day after the ICIR reporter visited communities in Guma, a village was attacked in the morning, with two killed and one injured.
Bernard Ahmbe, 45, his wife and two children were one of the latest arrivals to Daudu camp after his village, Torkula, was attacked by the herdsmen two weeks earlier. He told the ICIR that he had been sleeping outside the camp. “We can’t go back,” he says. “The Fulani will kill us all.”
The two most affected local government areas – very large and sparsely populated by Tiv farmers living in round huts made of leaves – are particularly vulnerable because they share borders with Nasarawa and Taraba states that do not have laws banning open grazing. Only Ekiti and Benue states have passed anti-open grazing laws in the country.
The invincibility of the borders between the states complicates the crisis. In Logo, one side of a dusty and bumpy road is Wukari in Taraba State, while the other side is Logo. Guma also borders Awe and Keana local government areas in Nasarawa State. Most communities in these border areas in the three states are Tiv – the biggest ethnic group in the Middle Belt – constituting about 3.5 percent of Nigerian population.
The renewed crisis has assumed a darker ethnic dimension, as the Fulani herdsmen who left Benue in droves were alleged to have expressed their anger on these Tiv farming communities by burning their huts, destroying their crops and feeding their cows with the farmers’ yam seedlings.
In retaliation, the Tiv have allegedly killed the herders and their cows. As the cycle of violence continues, the Tiv are suffering the heavier causalities. They have been forced out of their ancestral homes into overcrowded camps as the migratory herders attack their communities and disappear into the bushes.
SURVIVED ATTACKS, NOW FACE DEATH IN CAMPS
The death toll in the camps is rising and children are mostly affected. Six out of the eight camps in the state are primary schools with no provision to accommodate the number of IDPs. Usually, up to 300 people are put up in a classroom while others sleep in the field.
At the NKST camp in Logo, Mercy Akaabo, a community health extension worker who is in charge of the camp clinic, records hundreds of cases of urinary tract infection, diarrhoea and malaria every day. The camp does not have water, so IDPs all go to a particular swampy area in the community where they get water from a contaminated stream. Two children have died of diarrhoea in this camp.
In Ayiin camp in Logo where Gabriel Suswam, the former Governor of the state comes from, four children have died in the camp. One of the children had HIV, while others died of suspected cases of malaria and diarrhoea. The intervention of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in providing water storage tanks in the camp and filling them with safe drinking water has improved sanitation but open defecation is still rampant.
Simon Otuba from Tombo-Shagbao village in Logo told the ICIR that he shared a classroom with a teenage girl who would go on to “die mysteriously”. But this was not the only so-called mysterious death that the IDPs had witnessed in the camp.
At Gbagimba camp in Guma, where Samuel Ortom the governor comes from, a young bride scared off the IDPs before she later died in the hospital. Nadoo Asaamoga, the 18-year-old from Iorhom village, was married on December 30 but she and her husband started running from the attacks on December 31.
Two days after standing under the sun to register for the Red Cross’ relief materials, Asaamoga started complaining that her body was on fire. She was asked to bathe to cool down her body temperature but she slumped in the bathroom.
“She was screaming and we asked her whether she was ‘Adzov’ but she said no,” James Terkura, Coordinator of Gbagimba told the ICIR. In Tiv, ‘Adzov’ is the same as Ogbanje in Igbo or Abiku in Yoruba, an evil spirit that is widely believed to have the power to torment its host. “She was repeatedly screaming and saying ‘snakes are coming. Snakes want to bite her,’” Terkura says.
The bride was given malaria drugs in the camp clinic, which she vomited. An injection was administered and her pains subsided. Later in the middle of the night, she vomited black substance. Her eyes became blank; she was opening her mouth and closing it. That was when she was taken to a nearby general hospital where she died within an hour. Three other children and one older woman have also died in Gbajimba camp.
Cecelia Ojabo, Benue State Commissioner for Health and Human Services, told the ICIR that the level of infections does not suggest that there has been an outbreak of diseases. “If there is one case of diarrhoea and vomiting, it is not an outbreak,” Ojabo says. “To be an outbreak, it has to be a significant number of cases.”
So far the state government has provided ambulance in each of the camps for emergency referrals. But the risk of death is still very high in the overcrowded camps lacking access to safe drinking water and bedevilled by open defecation and generally poor sanitation.
RAPE IN CAMP
Apart from the Gbagimba and Makurdi camps, all other camps have no fence around the perimeter. Lapses in security have exposed the women to the danger of rape and sexual harassment.
Ayiin camp, which is the biggest camp with over 35,000 IDPs, has been particularly notorious in rape cases. A rapist pretended to be one of the IDPs and followed a teenager to one of the classes where he lay down beside her. In the camps, everyone sleeps where there is a space with no segregation of men and women, as well as children.
The rapist waited until late at night when hundreds of people in the classroom seemed to have fallen asleep. He used one hand to cover the girl’s mouth and used the other to grope her private part. The girl’s mother, who was also lying beside her, was alert to grab the rapist’s hand and shouted. When the rapist was interrogated on why he attempted to rape a girl in such crowded space, he said he felt the girl would start enjoying it after a while. He was eventually given 20 strokes of cane and set free by community stakeholders.
When two women from the camp went into the bush to fetch firewood to cook, they were sexually molested. The camp coordinators could not prove whether the women were assaulted by the herdsmen or the locals.
The rape cases have not just been about outsiders; at least seven attempted rape cases have been perpetuated by the IDPs. The culprits were decamped.
“The hosted community stakeholders and committee in the camp decided to handle the cases,” Johnson Labe, a member of Benue NGO Network (BENGONET) who works in the camp told the ICIR. Camp coordinators, he says, have decided henceforth to report any new case of rape to the police and ministry of women affairs.
Rape has not been reported in other camps but, Emmanuella Ingoroko, a midwife at Daudu camp, believes that such cases might have been happening but the IDPs chose not to report them. “The people understand one another,” Ingoroko says. “They commit it but they understand one another so they will resolve any case among themselves.”
RISK OF NATIONWIDE VIOLENCE
The north-central part of the country, also known as Middle Belt, has been the hardest hit in the clashes between farmers and cattle herders. This year alone, hundreds of people have been killed and houses destroyed in Benue, Kogi, Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba state.
On February 20, the Nigerian Army launched operation ‘Ayem Akpatuma’ or ‘Cat Race’ in Tiv to halt the violence, yet attacks in the farming communities by the herdsmen have continued.
Theophilus Danjuma, Nigeria-Biafra Civil War veteran, former Chief of Army Staff and former Minister of Defence accused the army of bias in curtailing the violence. “Every one of us must rise up,” he said recently. “The armed forces are not neutral. They collude. They collude. They collude with the armed bandits that kill people, kill Nigerians. They facilitate their movement, they cover them.
“If you are depending on the armed forces to stop the killings, you will all die one by one. The ethnic cleansing must stop in Taraba State, must stop in all the states of Nigeria. Otherwise, Somalia will be a child’s play. I ask every one of you to be alert and defend your country, defend your territory, defend your state. You have nowhere else to go.”
The clashes between farmers and herdsmen have claimed thousands of lives across the country, particularly in the Middle Belt. According to the Global Terrorism Index, Fulani herdsmen were responsible for more deaths than Boko Haram in 2016. The Fulani militants were named the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world in 2014 and the Global Terrorism Index shows that the Fulani extremists have killed over 2,500 people in Nigeria between 2012 and 2016.
A knee-jerk reaction by the Federal Government has given rise to speculation of a sinister plan by the Fulani pastorialists to dispossess inhabitants of their ancestral farmlands.
Mansur Dan-Ali, Minister of Defense, blamed farmers and anti-open grazing law for the crisis. “Since the nation’s Independence, we know there used to be a route followed by the cattle-rearers because they are all over the nation,” he said. “You go to Bayelsa, Ogun, you will see them. If those routes are blocked, what do you expect will happen? These people are Nigerians. It is just like one going to block shoreline, does that make sense to you?”
The cattle route, if it existed as the defence minister described, is certainly no longer visible in the states where clashes between farmers and herders have been frequently occurring. Or rather, the herders have not been adhering to the route. The herdsmen are certainly everywhere – in cities and villages – grazing their cattle indiscriminately and sometimes destroying farms.
The Federal Government has over the years budgeted for the creation of grazing reserves but there is no evidence of these grazing areas in most of the states, suggesting that the money has either been mismanaged or was never released.
The victims of clashes between farmers and herders over grazing rights, who are mostly peasants in remote communities, may not understand the politics of their fate but they feel abandoned and neglected by the Federal Government.
In Benue, the neglect is not just about the failure of the government to protect them and their property but also that the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has only sent paltry relief materials to the burgeoning displaced persons in the state once.