SPECIAL REPORT: Benue, Plateau villagers yearn to return home amidst fear of unending displacement
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One year after the federal government pledged to rebuild communities and resettle locals displaced by herdsmen, a single house has not been built anywhere in Benue and Plateau states. Now, the displaced persons live in fear that they may never return to their ancestral land.
WITH four wives and 16 children, Hyacinth Neior thought he had achieved greatness until the first night of 2018 when coordinated attacks by herdsmen in nearby villages forced him to flee from his village.
From that moment on, he has been living with his two wives and 12 children in a crammed classroom at abandoned public school buildings in Gbagimba, Guma Local Government Area of Benue State. The other two wives live with the remaining children in their parents’ homes, outside Guma.
“When I was in the village, having many children was not a problem,” says the 54-year-old. “It is this time that I now know that having many children is not easy.” Prior to running away from his village, he was a farmer, producing yam and other root crops.
Neior is one of tens of thousands of villagers in Benue State living in overcrowded camps after herdsmen killed about 73 people and burned their houses in January 2018. From that time, numerous other killings have occurred, including the murder of two Catholic priests and about 13 worshippers during an early morning prayer in a church.
In the first half of 2018, more than 1,300 people were killed in a crisis involving herdsmen and farmers across the country, according to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a trans-national non-governmental organisation. This figure was about six times more than the number of civilians killed in the Boko Haram crisis during the same period.
In Benue, survivors of these mass murders face uncertain future as they have remained indefinitely in camps after fleeing from their communities.
“Once there is life, we feel it is better to stay here to save our lives,” says Neior who believes that he will be killed by herdsmen upon return to his village. “They have taken over our land and they will kill anyone who returns.”
Neior is the chairman of IDPs in Gbagimba camp, helping to coordinate 24,019 people in the camp with the state’s officials. The IDPs were initially housed in a primary school before they were relocated to an abandoned secondary school.
Living in the camp, Neior says, is useless because they are not doing anything and mostly depend on handouts from government and individuals. They need access to their land, to farm and feed their children as they had always done.
Here, more than 15 families are allocated a classroom with men, women and children sharing the space. Rickety mattresses line up the corridors during the day with some lying on them. Nude children play traditional games under the sun, chasing after themselves with sticks. Each family cooks their own food on firewood. In one corner, a daughter roasts two rats while the elderly father bends to help her turn around the meat. A younger child watches on.
One year ago, the federal government had promised to rebuild communities destroyed by the herdsmen and resettle displaced persons.
“I know that being in an IDP camp is not good for anybody at all, children have to go to school, adults have to go to their farms and others to their trades and it is our duty as a government to make sure that everyone is safe to do their work in peace and comfort,” Yemi Osinbajo, vice president, told IDPs last May.
“The reason we are meeting today is to look at how you will return home and be settled in safety,” said Osinbajo who had a meeting with the governors of Benue and Nasarawa during the visit.
But one year after, no house has been rebuilt and no displaced person has been resettled by government in Benue. The IDPs say if government can guarantee their security, they will return to rebuild their houses by themselves. But they cannot go back home because the herdsmen are still lurking around their communities.
Terry Enger, coordinator of Gbagimba camp tells The ICIR that government has not asked the IDPs to return home because the herdsmen have continued to attack vulnerable communities.
“They are willing to go but because of the recent attacks and the fear of being attacked, that is why they are still here,” Enger says, adding that for most of the IDPs, spending another farming season in camp is the nadir of their lives. “The way it is now, our government is trying but its effort is not enough. There is no place like home.”
The camp’s food store is empty and the usual weekly distribution of food items to families have not been done for more than a month. To survive, most of the IDPs say that they go out to scout for menial jobs around the host communities, earning so little that they are unable to feed their children. They complain that their children suffer bouts of diarrhoea and malaria.
“In a week, we record not less than 30 diarrhoea cases in under five children here,” says Godwin Gbawuan, the camp’s health officer. He attributes the widespread infection to unsafe water. “We’ve tested the water from the borehole and we found it is not safe but they still drink it.”
Humanitarian crisis arising from defending Benue valley
A giant bill board outside the Gbagimba camp proclaims Samuel Ortom, the governor of Benue State, “Defender of the Benue Valley”. Defending the Benue valley, IDPs say, means warding off the intruders contesting rights to land around River Benue in a state regarded as Nigeria’s agricultural powerhouse.
Access to this valley has been the cause of lingering crisis between Tiv crop farmers and nomadic Fulani herdsmen. The cycle of crisis often begins thus: cows stray into farms and eat up crops; farmers sometimes kill the misbehaving cows; and herdsmen retaliate by killing the farmers and their children. It is year-on-year crisis, not only in Benue but also across the middle belt and other parts of the country.
Benue State, led by Ortom who has won election for second term, enacted Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law, with the aim of ending clashes between the nomadic livestock herders and crop farmers.
Rather than prevent the clashes – the law became effective from November 2017 amidst protest by the Fulani herdsmen – the state has faced its biggest humanitarian crisis ever since its creation in 1976.
“Since January 2018, they have never been to their villages even to go and look at things there,” says Alexander Chia, the coordinator of the camp at Daudu, Guma. When The ICIR visited the camp in April last year, it had 24,044 people but Chia says the population has increased to 30,777. Then the camp was just rows of blue painted modular housing blocks. Now, additional rows of tiny tents have been built to accommodate increasing number of IDPs.
Chia tells The ICIR that despite the ban on open grazing, the herdsmen have settled in the fringe villages and kill anyone who dares to return to those places to farm. “The Fulani herdsmen do not want the law,” he says. “They want to stay by force. That is why they are forcing farmers to leave the place for them.”
The IDPs say soldiers are supposed to stay on the border areas with Nasarawa State to stop the herdsmen from coming into the state but the security agents rather have their stations at the wards’ headquarters where they sometimes patrol to the villages.
Cosmas Yengev, displaced since last year, describes a scenario why he cannot go back to his village to start farming. “Like now, I am on the farm and they [soldiers] patrol and they leave the place and they [herdsmen] attack me. Before they [soldiers] will go back to that place now, maybe they [herdsmen] will disappear and you will be killed.”
For resettling, there is only condition that needs to be fulfilled. “We want the Fulani to leave our land,” says Alexander Pohor who has been living in the overcrowded camp with his wife and six children. “We want to go back to farm and eat.”
That may be a tall order, Pohor recognises, because the herdsmen do not want to give up the riverine areas that provide all-year-round lush grasses for their animals. “But a law is a law which government must enforce,” he maintains, adding that herdsmen must ranch their cattle as the anti-open grazing law stipulates.
The ICIR was unable to speak with the leaders of herdsmen in the state. Last year, when The ICIR spoke with Haruna Ubi, Benue State chairman of Miyetti Allah, the association of Fulani cattle breeders, he blamed Tiv farmers for the lingering crisis. He had insisted that the farmers often instigated the crisis by confiscating their cows, suggesting a peace accord between farmers and herdsmen.
But Justin Kpi, living in camp with three wives and 13 children, says the Fulani do not obey any agreement. He recalls that they once signed such agreement in 2014 with the herdsmen to stop cows trespassing to farms but the herders still led cattle to eat up their crops.
In much of the state, open grazing of cattle has been stopped. The problem, however, lies in communities close to Nasarawa State where there is no ban on open grazing. Most of the IDPs originally come from these border communities. They complain that the herders come to graze their cattle on their farms and go back across the borders where they live.
As long as the herdsmen still stroll into their farms across the invisible borders, IDPS say, returning to their villages is suicidal. “Life first before any other thing,” says Benedict Nyitor who married his wife in the camp. He dated her when he was a teacher in St. Monic Nursery and Primary in Taavaan, Guma. They now have a new born baby.
Nyitor gets a stipend for teaching children in the camp but his biggest worry is the unanswered question of when they will go back to their villages. “We think about it and we are not seeing anything government is doing to take us back.”
“Hunger is killing us”
Women and children gather round The ICIR reporter at Daudu camp, coming out from their tiny tents. They have two demands. The first one: “we are hungry; hunger is killing us” says their spokesperson, Rebecca Tyro. “A Tiv man may not have money but not food,” adds James Lokoja who interprets for Tyro.
They have not received food items for over a month and they have not been receiving food as frequently as they used to. Not just that, the quantity has reduced and they have many mouths to feed.
Their second demand is that they want to go back to their villages. “Last year, our mind did not settle because we did not farm,” Tyro says. “Now, we are still in camp as this new farming season begins. We want to go back to work and feed our children.”
Emmanuel Shior, executive director of the Benue State Emergency Management Agency tells The ICIR that he just returned from a travel and would try to ensure that the IDPs get food.
Based on the latest update, Shior says, the state has 486, 692 IDPs in six official camps and 16 other camps, adding that the security situation has not improved for the IDPs to return to their villages. “Fulani herdsmen are still occupying some of the rural areas and they have come with their cattle. They are grazing feely. So you cannot have the IDPs return to such places.”
He is disappointed by the attitude of federal government towards the IDPs. “State government alone cannot shoulder the humanitarian situation,” Shior says. “We can’t understand why President Buhari cannot take proactive measures to address the plight of the displaced people in Benue and also to stop the killings.”
IDPs in Plateau want to return home after nearly one year in camps
On the night of June 24, 2018, Anna Thomas escaped from her village with her four sons but without her husband. As gunshots and ensuing commotion took hold that night, their house was burning and the husband was inside.
“Fulani herdsmen first came to the house my husband was sleeping. They killed him and put fire in the house,” she tells The ICIR, sitting with her back leaning on piles of bag at the hall of Nigerian Mining and Geosciences Society in Anguldi, Jos where she has taken refuge with her sons since the attack.
Her husband and her father-in-law were killed in their village Tissan in Gashish District in Barkin Ladi Local Government Area. In all, across other villages in the area, 85 people were killed in one day and their houses were burnt down.
Sitting across her mother-in-law and three other women in the camp, Thomas says that the coordinated attack was the worst they had ever faced in the lingering crisis between Berom farmers and Fulani herdsmen.
In July 2012, a serving senator representing the area in the Senate, Gyang Dalyop Datong, was murdered by herdsmen while attending a burial of about 50 people earlier killed by the herders.
“We did not know we would spend more than three days here,” says Thomas who is afraid that they may suffer the fate of Dogo, Masseh and Pwbiduu villages whose people, IDPs say, have not returned since the 2012 attack.
They say their hope of returning to their villages is farfetched. Most of the people that took refuge in the camp have deserted it, not that they returned to their villages but they have secured accommodation elsewhere. Those left behind, like Thomas and her family, have nowhere else to go except their villages whom they say are not safe anymore.
What they initially thought to be a few nights stay has stretched to nearly a year. They say they will return home once security is guaranteed and their houses are rebuilt.
However, the National Emergency Management Agency (NAMA) claims that IDPs from Gashish have been resettled.
“These people have now been integrated into their ancestral homes,” Eugene Nyelong, coordinator of NEMA North Central Zonal office, Jos, tells The ICIR, adding that the federal government has approved a police post in the area to respond swiftly to any attack.
After The ICIR told him that government has not built any house for the displaced persons, Nyelong says “we gave necessary assistance in terms of building materials.”
Displaced people from Gashish disagree with NAMA on resettlement. Dakab Alamba, community leader of Jos Branch of Gashish says out of the 18 communities that were affected by the crisis, only three have been returned. The three communities, he says, are Kakuruk, Kuzen and Kurra Falls where the herdsmen did not burn houses but the people ran off out of fear.
Alamba lists the building materials donated to Gashish district by the government in February to include, 180 bundles of zinc, 150 bags of cement, some roofing woods, and about 50 bags of nail. “Government gave those materials to see if the people can be resettled but we discovered that almost all the villages were affected” he says, adding that the building materials were not even enough to rebuild one village but they decided to share them across the villages.
In Heipang, opposite Plateau State Polytechnic, where some of the IDPs from Gashish have been sheltered in a church and primary school, they say the building materials given to them are too small. Irmiye Magit, the camp leader tells The ICIR that three villages received 35 bundles of zinc and 600 pieces of wood, adding that the only people that have been resettled are villages that houses were not razed down by the herdsmen.
“People like us that suffer badly in that attack, none us have been returned home,” Magit says. “Our fear is that the attackers are still there. There is no way we will go back and start to do work without adequate security.”
As farming season has started, the IDPs are yearning to return to their villages, but they say they cannot pick up their lives without support from government in rebuilding their homes and providing adequate security.
Already, most of IDPs have left the camps and settled in their host communities, yet they face uncertain future.
“If we stay here, we do not know about our future. Where are we going to farm?” says Demafulu Mangai who lost his uncle and three children, as well as his houses and car to the herdsmen attack. He rented one room in Ban where he put seven members of his family and goes to his village to mine tin.