Welcome to my insight on ‘herdsmen killings’, where I will be focusing on the attacks and killings in Benue State in North Central Nigeria. I will be sharing my views and knowledge on the history of the attacks, providing facts and figures as best as I can.
My name is William Ukor, a retired Nigeria police officer. Five years prior to my retirement after Thirty-Five years of service, I became ill and consequently lost my hearing-due to the effects of the drugs administered on me in the hospital.
However, I remain committed helping in the ways I can in the fight against injustice and criminality because I believe that we are created free individuals with rights and privileges which no one has the right to unjustly deny anyone of their human rights.
An Insight into Fulani Herdsmen Attacks On Benue and Other Communities In Nigeria
Quarrels between farmers and owners of domestic animals over the destruction of crops by the animals are as old as the domestication of animals by human beings. Even in villages where only goats, sheep and other smaller ruminants are reared, owners exert themselves to ensure that crops remain safe from the animals. Owners of bigger ruminants like cows, donkeys, horse, etc, do even more to restrain them-considering their capacity for extensive damage to crops within a short time.
Nomadic animal herders used to take permission from leaders of communities where they intended to stay during their yearly visits (mostly during the dry seasons) before moving in with their families and cattle.
In order to prevent such incidents, domestic animals are either kept within fences or tethered to posts or trees at the back of villages. Groups that rely solely on the rearing of animals for survival and wealth creation also recognise this necessity. For whenever they come across crops in the course of their movement in search of feeds, they do their best to keep the animals from staying into farms. This practice underscores the superior value humans place on food crops over animals. Also, societies the world over recognise individual ownership of land, that’s why governments at all levels compensate owners of any portion of the land needed for even public utility projects. In most, if not all, Nigerian communities, land boundaries exist between one village and another and between one family and another. In recognition of this tradition that is respected by our laws, nomadic animal herders used to take permission from leaders of communities where they intended to stay during their yearly visits (mostly during the dry seasons) before moving in with their families and cattle. And they never stayed beyond the period allowed by their hosts. Therefore, the recent change in attitude by herdsmen came to many as a surprise. Why have they decided to take up arms against the same communities that used to allow their cattle to graze on their land and drink from their streams?
Naturally, the victims, and Nigerians at large, now suspect that the herdsmen are foot soldiers of some prominent individuals in and outside government who are bent on using cattle as an excuse to pursue a Fulani expansionist agenda.
The attacks are clear acts of aggression, which the federal government of Nigeria needed no prompting to intervene and ensure that the culprits are brought to justice.
Unfortunately, many top officials in the services of the federal government have been trying to protect the killer herdsmen and downplaying the magnitude of the havoc they have caused to communities. These herdsmen have been variously described by some of these top officials as “foreign herders” yet the same individuals, including president Buhari himself, have been working hard to convince states and local govt authorities to provide land for the settlement of the same “foreign herders”! Naturally, the victims, and Nigerians at large, now suspect that the herdsmen are foot soldiers of some prominent individuals in and outside government who are bent on using cattle as an excuse to pursue a Fulani expansionist agenda.
The role of security agencies in the herdsmen crisis has not improved since 2001. Instances abound of how the military and the police, instead of going after the invading herdsmen, concentrated on disarming youths who take up whatever weapons they could find to defend their communities. Self-defence is natural to all living things, including plants! Why then would members of security forces who could not defend the people in their homes prevent the same people from defending themselves? Most of the time, they leave such communities defenceless for the attackers to easily overrun… with frightening casualty figures. There is no doubt that security personnel receive orders from the federal government through their commanders not to attack the herdsmen (unless when defending themselves).
Benue became virtually a refugee camp, with Daudu, a sprawling Tiv village 22 km from Makurdi, along the Makurdi-Lafia Highway, hosting the highest number of internally displaced persons.
When the mass killings started in 2001 in Awe Local Government Area of Nasarawa State which later covered nearly all of Nasarawa South senatorial district and extended to Taraba and Plateau State in the same year (with Tiv as the main target), the response by security personnel was appalling. Thousands of villagers were killed, their properties freely looted and homes set ablaze by guns and machetes-wielding youths.
Police officers of Tiv extraction had to be transferred from the affected local government areas to “safer” places. It was clear that neither the police nor the military who are usually called to help where the police have failed had no answers to the mindless killing of the defenceless villagers by groups that had resorted to murderous lawlessness to express whatever grudges they had against their fellow citizens. And even when the Tor Tiv, late Dr Alfred Torkula was nearly killed in Assakio in Lafia local government area of Nasarawa State during a peace meeting for the resolution of the crisis, no one was arrested even though the culprits were Assakio youths who were, no doubt, known to the chief of the town where the meeting took place. The feeling among the victims that they were on their own heightened fear, resulting in frenzied mass-movement to safer areas. The sight of thousands of people, with women carrying babies on their backs and barefooted children carrying mats on their heads along bush paths and the highways, brought back memories the Nigerian civil war. Benue became virtually a refugee camp, with Daudu, a sprawling Tiv village 22 km from Makurdi, along the Makurdi-Lafia Highway, hosting the highest number of internally displaced persons.
Daudu remains a refugee camp till date.
Obasanjo Soldiers kill innocent civilians in Benue over the death of 19 soldiers
In Taraba state, combined squads of Fulani and Jukun militias went from one Tiv village to another killing, looting and burning houses at will. Buoyed by their success in Taraba state, the militia extended the attacks into Benue state in parts of Ukum, Logo and Katsina-Ala local govt areas. Clad in army uniforms, they would go to a village and announce that they were there on peacekeeping duty and then suddenly open fire on the unsuspecting people. Security agents were aware of these tactics of the militias as the police in Abako had to relocate to Kasina-Ala after the town was razed to the ground by men in military uniform who pretended to be soldiers. Words then went round among Tiv communities at the boundary with Taraba that the people in army uniforms were militias and not members of the Nigerian army. This was how the “19 soldiers” were mistaken for the militiamen and eventually killed by some Tiv youths defending their communities in Benue state. If security agencies had been active in putting a halt to the attacks, they could have certainly trapped the fake soldiers. It was therefore shocking that the federal government pretended to be unaware of what had been going and went ahead to send the military to into Benue on a killing spree against innocent civilians over the death of the 19 soldiers.
Like in Nasarawa state, Fulani herdsmen moved with their herds of cattle into areas deserted by Tiv people in Taraba state. In the series of meetings held at the instance of the federal, Nasarawa, Benue and Taraba state govt, no mention was made of the involvement of Fulani herdsmen, the initiators of the pogrom. Attention was focused on Jukun who only used the opportunity to try to fulfil their age-old desire to send Tiv people out of Taraba and Alago people who had joined the Fulanis against Tiv of Nasarawa state.
The Obasanjo government, from all indications, was being misled by some well-placed individuals in the presidency who had a personal interest in the crisis. The real initiators of the crisis, Fulani herdsmen, were cleverly shielded as all discussions were about “indigene/settler problem”. This diversion meant that only those ethnic groups indigenous to the affected areas were expected to state their grievances and make suggestions for the resolution of the crisis. Jukun of Taraba and Alago of Nasarawa, whose fear of “political domination” by the majority Tiv people of the two states moved them to join the herdsmen in the pogrom, vehemently argued their case against Tiv during the series of meetings that followed. Those who keenly followed the crisis from the beginning were however not deceived; they knew Jukun and Alago only used the opportunity to show their dislike for Tiv, who became “strangers” in those states shortly after the areas were severed from the former Benue province to form different states-even though the Tiv remained in the same areas they had been living before the advent of colonialism.
Herdsmen killing religious dimension
Between 2002 and 2004, incidents of violence against farmers by herdsmen became regular occurrences in parts of Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa and Plateau state. In Plateau state, the crisis took a religious turn when villagers chased armed Fulani herdsmen into Yamini and it became Muslims vs Christians fight. According to a report by Human Right Watch on the 2004 bloody crisis in Yelwa Shendam (which resulted to the declaration of the state of emergency in Plateau State by the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo): “In February 2004, after nineteen months of relative peace in Yelwa, violence in the area escalated again. The trigger for the escalation appears to have been an incident on February 21 or 22 in Yamini, a predominantly Muslim village about thirty kilometres from Yelwa. A clash occurred between some Fulani, who were angry at the theft of their cattle, and Christians from Langtang South who chased the Fulani into Yamini. It was reported that the Fulani had killed several people in villages in Langtang South in retaliation for the theft of their cattle”.
The trend (of conflicts between Fulani herdsmen and farmers becoming religious crises) repeatedly manifested in Plateau state and the southern parts of Plateau state. Even Benue state with an overwhelming Christian majority was not spared as Muslim youths destroyed cars and shops at Wadata market in Makurdi over the alleged killing of a Muslim man in the town. The Wadata mayhem took place when Makurdi was witnessing regular protests by Benue people over herdsmen attacks in the villages and at the outskirts of the town. Many Nigerians believe that Fulanis are cleverly using Muslims in areas outside the core north, where they have been working hard to extend their hegemony. Unfortunately, ignorant Christian youths sometimes vent their anger on non-Fulani Muslims when their loved ones are murdered by marauding herdsmen. The attacks on Muslim villagers in the North West, particularly in Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto and Kebbi state, should convince any observer that religion is only used in Christian dominated areas as a ploy to get support from non-Fulani Muslims of such places.
Apart from the earlier attempts by the federal and state governments to prevent similar incidents of violence like that of 2001/2002 in which Tiv people were the targets of the attackers and the 2004 religious crisis in Yelwa Shendam, Plateau state, there was another attempt in 2008 to find solution to the herdsmen/farmers crisis in the states of Benue and Nasarawa. Named the “Sultan of Sokoto’s Fulani/Tiv Relationship committee”, the committee had representatives from Tiv, Fulani, security agencies and state government officials. However, the reports of the committee were not adopted for implementation because of conflicts of interests. For instance, the Fulani group quoted a 1998 document prepared by the federal ministry of agriculture directing every state in northern Nigeria to set aside 10% of its landmass for grazing reserves and insisted it must form part of the final recommendations. After the failure of that committee, Fulani herdsmen started moving in large numbers with their cattle into Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba state and settling wherever they wanted without taking permission from the natives as was the case before then. By 2010, complaints about the destruction of crops by cattle became rampant in those states. From 8th to 10th February 2011, herdsmen launched bloody attacks on part of Gwer West, Benue state, killing 19 persons and burning many villages. On 14 February 2011, during an emergency meeting called by Governor Gabriel Torwua Suswam over the attacks on Gwer West communities, Alhaji Sale Bayari, then National Secretary of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACABAN), boldly stated that Fulani herdsmen attacked the people of Gwer West because they did not allow them to graze cattle on Gwer West land. April 21, 2011, was the turn of the people of Yandev/Mbayer council ward in Guma Local Government Area; 23 persons were killed and tens of villages were burnt to ashes. The attacks quickly extended to parts of Nasarawa state against Tiv villagers.