EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was first published in 2013 by Flair Nigeria. From today till Sunday, the ICIR will reproduce 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.
For 11 days in December 2013, ‘FISAYO SOYOMBO scoured the perilous villages of north-central Plateau State where more than a thousand people have been slaughtered in the last two years. After covering an estimated 13,117km, he returns, in this five-part series, to tell the chilling story of venomously-orchestrated serial killings that should worry not only the federal and state governments, but the ordinary people, including those living faraway from the plateau.
Marene Uttawal speaks slowly — sparingly. And when she does, it is with the help of an interpreter. She moves only sparingly as well. And, again, when she does, her motion is hardly beyond rotational. This is because she is paralysed in the lower region of the body.
Anyone who knew her nine months back would shudder now at how unkindly fate has dealt with her. Going on 105 years at the time, she roused from sleep at dawn every day to take her turn on the farm like nearly everyone else in the village. Working year-round in a manner that belied her old age, she more than subsisted on the maize, guinea corn and Irish potato farm she tended.
Then came the devastating halt. In March 2013, “unknown armed men suspected to be Fulanis” invaded Mile-Bakwai Village — located in Mangor, Bokkos Local Government Area of Plateau State — gunning down 18 people, among whom were her son and grandson. On hearing the news, Marene suffered a stroke, which resulted in partial paralysis of her lower limb. She has been bed-ridden ever since.
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA
It is easy to curse Marene’s luck when her doom is reviewed in isolation. Not so in other circumstances. For sure, Felix Davou would have happily taken her place. Felix was only four months old when gunmen broke into his parents’ home in mid-November 2013 and fired at his stomach, disembowelling him and summarily snuffing life out of him before he even knew what “life” meant. Four other members of his family were also murdered in that raid. That was in Tatu Village, Jos North Local Government. In that attack, November 26, 2013, 15 people — mostly women and children — were murdered.
Elsewhere in Rawurum Village in Barkin Ladi Local Government (9°32′00″N 8°54′00″E), another nursling was being put to death. In one of the crudest manifestations of depraved thirst for blood, invaders placed a gun in the mouth of Julius Bula and pulled the trigger! At just five months old, there was no chance Julius would live for a split-second more.
It may be hard to imagine a harsher fate for an infant. But actually — and sadly — there is. Whether David or Gyang or Rotji, no one knew what the baby’s name would have been had he/she been born. The foetus was only “seven months” in its mother’s womb when the bullets of a cold-blooded killer hurled it back to just where it was emerging from. Those who would have known — the father and mother — did not survive the attack either, the former, in fact, dying in a most gruesome manner (He was shot twice, after which his head was “scattered completely” with a big stone.). The four other members of the family breathed their last that night as well. The family of 48-year-old Irmiya Chollom Deme was, simply put, exterminated.
As the latter parts of this real-life narration would authenticate, the killings in the villages of Plateau, when weighed on the scale of brutality, are unrivalled anywhere in Nigeria since the Civil War of July 6, 1967 to January 15, 1970. Not even killings masterminded by Boko Haram rank any close.
On the gauges of consistency and casualty figures, too, the Plateau killings offer sufficient reasons for any conscientious Nigerian to be troubled. In the five months of May to September 2013 alone, 67 Berom — one of the most populated ethnic groups in the state — were killed. So says the Berom Youth Movement, a group dialoguing with other ethnic communities to stem the killings.
In the same period, eight people were injured, 844 cows rustled, 45 farms destroyed, eight houses burnt, and nine motorcycles burnt or wrecked. The veracity of these claims was, subsequently, independently ascertained. In all, from January to December 2013, at least a total of 535 people were murdered. And in the 10 days leading up to the end of the year, there is scant assurance that the figure will remain unchanged.
GENESIS OF THE CRISIS
Hard as it is to imagine, Plateau State actually earned its epithet, ‘Home of Peace and Tourism’. While by 1985, each of Kano, Borno, Kaduna, the defunct Gongola, and Bauchi states had suffered at least one high-casualty bout of ethnicity or religious violence, post-Independence, Jos, the Plateau State capital, remained the quintessential bastion of peace in the north, notwithstanding its cosmopolitan ethnic and linguistic makeup.
It was Ibrahim Babangida, the then Military Head of State, who upturned that order. In 1991, Babangida, a Hausa from Niger State, sanctioned the creation of Jos North Local Government in a manner that the indigenes — most populated by the Berom, Anaguta and Afizere tribes — believed to have advanced Hausa-Fulani interests.
Both the indigenes and the Hausa-Fulanis were seething with pent-up rage that was ultimately unleashed three years after, following the seesaw appointment (and subsequent reversal) of Alhaji Aminu Mato, a Hausa and a Muslim, as Chairman of the Caretaker Management of Committee of Jos North Local Government.
When the appointment was announced by Mohammed Mana, a Lieutenant-Colonel and Military Administrator of the state, the indigenous ethnic groups revolted. And when it was overturned, the Hausa/Fulani community went berserk. The fusion of this two-way aggression was a riot on April 12, 1994 that claimed five lives, as well as two markets, an Islamic school and a mosque. Ever since, Jos has been soldierly in its emergence as a den of horror killings, zooming forward and never cowering in the battle of its diverse peoples for ethno-religious dominance.
National Caretaker Chairman of the Berom Youth Movement, Mr. Rwang Daylop Dantong provides an illuminating perspective to the 1991 rumpus over Jos North Local Government, which he says set the template for all other politically motivated killings in the state, Jos particularly, till date. He traces the 2001 crisis, during which more than a thousand were killed, to the same Jos North tussle.
“The Hausa community, whom we were hosting here on the plateau, decided to initiate this jihadist policy of taking over somebody’s land. They sought ways of overtaking the Jos City,” Dantong says. “So they wrote a memo to Babangida without involving the stakeholders, the owners of the land.”
According to Dantong, when Babangida granted their request against the interest of the indigenes, “in such a manner that he carved the Jos North to favour the Hausa community”, the indigenes revolted, because despite the creation of Jos North, they “still outnumbered” the Hausas in the place.
“That year that it was created, indigenes, especially the Berom, were highly aggrieved,” he adds. “It was the year of election, so we didn’t participate — out of protest.”
He would later concede that the Berom blundered by boycotting the election. Their attempt to reverse that error was accompanied by bloodshed.
With the Berom boycotting, Ismaila Mohammed, a Hausa-Fulani, coasted to victory in the chairmanship election. The Berom contested subsequent elections and won; but by then, the Hausa-Fulani already considered themselves more populated, and therefore found no rational reason to lose an election.
“When we returned to our senses, we agreed to protect our land by participating in subsequent elections,” Dantong says. “And so, in subsequent elections, we outnumbered them. Each time we won, they thought they were more in number, so they resorted to violence. So, basically, from 2001, the violence in Jos has been spawned by elections.”
In recent times, though, Jos itself has lost its infamous status as a lair of bloodletting, instead ceding the ignominy to the many villages on the peripheries of the state, where the killings have been more ethnic than political.
CASUALTY VERSUS BRUTALITY
With the template for violence already laid in 1994, a recurrence was only a matter of time. That happened in 1998 when a Berom man, accused of plucking garden eggs without authorisation from a farm owned by a Hausa, was beaten to stupor. The Berom rallied round their man while the Hausa backed theirs, and the result was the killing of an unconfirmed number of people.
On September 7, 2001 — first time the city of Jos was turned to a hellhole — disagreements over the attempt of a Christian lady to navigate a road blockade by an ongoing Juma’at service triggered a violent clash. Combined with mounting tension over the appointment of a Hausa, Alhaji Muktar Mohammed, as Coordinator of the Jos North Poverty Eradication Programme, the clashes lasted six days, leaving hundreds dead and several thousand others displaced.
Further crises in 2002, 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2011 were either of religious, political or ethnic colouration and attracted the interest, however frothy, of the government. While the root of the clashes has largely remained unchanged, the pattern, method and the scale have. Dishearteningly, the brutality of these killings has surged. What began as a clash of groups has now degenerated to the serial, unidirectional killing of a certain group of people.
‘KILLING THE DEAD’
Obadiah Bolka Nanan pushes aside the hollow plate from which he and his brother, Rotji Nanan, 21, are scooping porridge. It is barely 15 minutes since his arrival from the farm in Kukah Village, Shendam Local Government (8°53′00″N 9°32′00″E / 8.88333°N) — the same farm where his ninety-something-year-old father was shot and hacked to death three months ago.
His skin glistens, sweat streaming from underneath his hairlines to just beneath his ankles. Not only has he had a hard day at the farm, life has been hard for him since September 10, 2013 when he lost his father and his brother in a single attack.
Whenever both father and son went to the farm, it was the norm to return home in the evening, at 7pm or thereabouts. But this time, none returned by dusk, prompting the family to dispatch a search team to the farm. Two lifeless bodies were all they saw.
Whenever Obadiah reflects on the double tragedy, he is enveloped by sweat on the outside and tears in the depth of his heart — not so much for why they were murdered, but how.
“They shot him. They slew him. They destroyed him,” he says, clenching his fist and gnashing his teeth in anguish. “They cut him with knife at the back of his neck. They cut him with axe on the head. They slashed his right temple, and they still cut his right eyes down to his cheekbones.”
His 22-year-old brother Chorbis Nanan was dispatched with a single gunshot that holed his brain from a side of the head to the other. “He was shot in the head,” Obadiah adds, demonstrating with his index and middle fingers pointed at his right temple. “There was a bullet wound on either side of his head. They shot him when he was hunting for firewood.”
To Obadiah, his slain 90-year-old-plus grandfather was more than ‘the father of his own father’. Pa Abednego Nanan Jilang was essentially his father, his natal father having passed on in 2001 after failing to survive a sickness. This is why he inadvertently uses “grandfather” and “father” interchangeably on the late Abednego.
The attackers reportedly poked fun at the two slain men, positioning their bodies as though they were sound asleep. Their corpses were retrieved with the help of the Police and buried some 100 metres from the main family house.
‘AFTER SHOOT AND CUTTING HIM, THEY SET HIS BODY BLAZE’
Before the interview can start, the video must be turned off, Grace Nansoh, 23, insists. It is not cowardice but candour. She understands the inevitability of an emotional breakdown in the course of the interview. She is human, after all. Very few ladies whose fathers have been “killed three times over” can survive a video interview without caving in to the enormous emotional drain of recounting the experience.
Teary-eyed, Grace narrates how her ill father, 50, was stranded at Zamchang Village in Wase Local Government (located 126km south-east of Jos) during an invasion by the Hausa/Fulani, how he telephoned his wife to render real-time account of the razing of many houses, how the Hausa/Fulani menacingly besieged the village with the sole intention of ousting the Taroh and any other non-Fulani within reach, how he was short-circuited by ill-health and was consequently overhauled and mauled while fleeing.
“He was killed while escaping,” Grace recalls, the tears in her eyes blossoming into watery balls that inelegantly nestle on her eyelashes. “Actually, I don’t know how to say it.”
Grace soon finds a way to, after recovering from a two-minute poignant capitulation headlined by a seven-second spell when tears unrestrainedly gushed out of her eyes.
“I saw his body,” she says in a shaky, grief-stricken pitch. “First, they shot him, then they macheted several parts of his body. After that, they set his body ablaze.”
The dismembering of Mr. Nansoh did not end there. As Grace explains, one of his eyes was knifed, as well as one of his hands.
“It was evident that they inflicted several wounds on him with the aid of machete and knife,” she concludes with a heave signalling resignation to an unalterable fate. “When his body was brought home, we buried him over there” — a rough-and-ready tomb prepared by burrowing through the sand to make out just enough space for a body, culminating in a heap of sand on which a sizeable stone gives away the positioning of the cadaver.
DYING FOR LOVE
On another day or perhaps under a separate circumstance, late Chollom Irmiya Deme, a resident of Tatu Village in Barkin Ladi Local Government, might have evaded the killers’ bullets.
Left with two choices — life, villainy and misery on the one hand; and martyrdom on the other hand — the 48-year-old, rather than abandon his family in the cold, chose the latter, exhibiting remarkable bravery by returning to protect his family against armed killers. For his guts, he was rewarded with death — cruel death.
“Chollom was first to escape from the house when random gunshots rent the air,” recalls Pam Adamu Jugu, chosen to speak on behalf of Head of Tatu Village on account of his fluid elocution of the English Language.
“I believe that he must have come out to verify the goings-on; and when he saw the gunmen approach, he ducked.”
The killers did not bother to comb the environs for the breadwinner. They instead went for his wife and five other members of his family. It worked.
“From his hiding, Chollom heard his darling wife scream ‘Daddy, daddy; we’re going to be killed,’” Pam continued, his breath seizing for a moment as he approached the tragic climax. “He could not help himself, so he had to emerge from hiding to defend his family. Sadly, he was overpowered by the attackers, because they outnumbered and out-armed him.”
The assailants shot Chollom in the stomach, before crashing a mammoth stone on his head. “They broke his head into pieces,” Pam blurted chillingly. “They destroyed him completely.”
While Chollom’s “complete destruction” was ongoing outdoors, a split gang of gunmen indoors was busy bloodying the six occupants to death. After an unsuccessful attempt to forcibly enter the house, they circled it, blazing gunshots inwards from window to window. Mrs. Yop Irmiya, 37, was shot in the stomach, the same stomach housing her seven-month pregnancy. Rose Irmiya, their nine-year-old daughter; Challom Irmiya, their nine-year-old son; Chollom’s brother, and an unidentified person, all fell to the killers’ bullets.
Inexplicably dissatisfied with just gunning all seven down, the assailants then proceeded to set their bodies ablaze. Save that of the head of the family who was slaughtered outside, the corpses of five of the other six were seared. The sixth was charred beyond bodily identification. In under an hour, the entire Chollom Irmiya household had been annihilated.
…to be continued