Benue farmers/herders’ crisis: ‘We survived the massacre, now, we need to live…’

By Hope Abah

Five months after an orgy of violence broke out in Benue communities between Fulani herders and Tiv farmers, there is now relative peace. But those who were displaced in the wake of the killings are returning to their ancestral homes with mixed feelings.
Tse-Ucenda, a Tiv settlement in Guma Local Government Area of Benue State, was one of the food producing communities in the state until peace took a flight from the vicinity eight months after guerilla fighters, masquerading as Fulani herdsmen, launched series of attack on it and other villages in the area.
The community, like many others in the entire local government, was completely sacked. Not even farms nor produce were spared. Schools, churches and hospitals were equally torched. In fact, nothing which had life – man or animals – belonging to the people were left to survive in the villages during the deadly feud between famers/Fulani herdsmen because they were either killed or fled to safety elsewhere.
It was, indeed, a sad testimony, considering that Guma, which is one of the food producing local governments out of at least eight others affected by the crisis in the state, was ravaged by the invaders who unleashed a reign of terror in the areas such that even the council secretariat situated in Gbajimgba was shut down.
Through the intervention of a high-powered security peace initiative, a ceasefire was achieved and the crisis, which seemed out of control earlier this year, was brought to a halt to enable reconciliation process between the warring farmers and herdsmen.
But a visit to some of the affected areas showed that only an atmosphere of relative peace pervades though fleeing natives have returned to the crisis zones with an assurance of safety by government.
Many of them who spoke to Sunday Trust complained that nothing had changed for the better as the humanitarian predicament which now stares them in the face is equally as threatening as the  attacks that drove them away in the first place.
Emmanuel Tyochio, a native of Tse-Ucenda, lamented how difficult it had been for his family of ten to fend for themselves since they returned to their community after taking refuge for several months with relatives around the University of Agriculture area in Makurdi.
“It has been very hard for us to get food since we returned home because all our farm produce has been destroyed. As you can see, we managed to put together this makeshift hut to serve as shelter for the 10 of us. This is where we sleep and it is not convenient at all,” he said.
Tyochio, who said the presence of the Army in a nearby Torkula village prompted their return to an empty abode, however, admitted that there was a level of cooperation between the farmers and the herders at the moment as they cohabit together.
“We are living together with the Fulani people. They have refused to go and at the moment we are cooperating with each other. The Nigerian Army stationed in Torkula village very close to us has made our dwelling safe and if not for their presence, we wouldn’t have returned home yet,” he added.
For Tyochio, the major hurdle to surmount now is how to successfully cope with movement in the area, at least to transport themselves to market or shuttle between the town and villages to do menial jobs.
This is because the only two major un-tarred roads leading in or out of the community have completely gone bad while the two bridges from the opposite direction equally caved in to the surging level of the River Benue which flows through the area.
 Lamenting the death of his relative who drowned in the river penultimate week on their way to market to buy some food items, Tyochio said: “Since the bridges were submerged, we usually swim through the river to the other-side when coming or going out of the villages as there are no canoes or any other means to do so. Last week, there were three of us on our return from Makurdi where we had gone to buy food. We entered the river to swim to the other side.
“But on reaching the threshold of the village, we noticed that one of us was missing. We then employed a search party but couldn’t find him until the ninth day when we picked up his floating corpse,” Tyochio said.
His father, Tyochio Yahemba, 57, told our correspondent that he was yet to come to terms with the properties and people he lost to the crisis, just as another native, Aondowase Ugonduwua, bemoaned the desolate state of health and educational facilities in the area. “There are no classrooms for the children to go back to school and sick people cannot access any health facilities as they had all been destroyed,” said Ugonduwua.
Sunday Trust observed that apart from Tse-Ucenda, life also seems to be returning to normal in other traumatized neighbouring communities of Ortse, Ukpam, Daudu and Umenger, all located along the snaky forest pathways. Not much of commercial activities were going on at the time our reporter visited.
Some residents of the communities said though they had summoned up courage to return to their homes and farms, they still live in fear due to the presence of new set of herdsmen within their neighborhood.
Samuel Aondowase, a native of Ortse, said that they were not even sure of harvesting the crops they planted recently as the herders were multiplying in the area on a  daily basis, coupled with the fact that sometimes the cows strayed into their farms to destroy their plants.
The situation is not different in Tse-Nyikyaa village, located 11 kilometers on the outskirts of Makurdi town, as many victims of the crisis are now living like destitute in their own land.
“It would not be the first time people of the area would witness such crisis but not in this magnitude,” Comrade James Aondona Bine quipped. Bine had just arrived in the village from Makurdi with few bunches of building material, to start the reconstruction of family buildings that were reduced to rubble.
His village was severely torched and only a handful of them have returned to pick the shattered pieces of their lives.
Sunday Trust gathered that there were those who were not in a hurry to return home as it had not been easy for them to weather the storm, especially these victims who had lost their husbands and children in the crisis.
 Bine said: “The villagers returned in trickles. First, they came in from neighbouring Makurdi town because there were no places to sleep. They came under tense circumstances with fear of unexpected attacks. Subsequently, they made makeshift arrangements to sleep over and gradually, they returned to farming activities. As you can see, it is not easy to adjust to this kind of settlement.”
He maintained that the monumental loses by his kinsmen were not just about houses but wealth, including properties that would never be recovered, stressing that the life of the inhabitants in its social, economic, education and in all ramification had been negatively affected.
“This is not the first time such attacks had happened in our surrounding community but this magnitude is high. Usually, the villages in the hinterland hide their treasured properties with people here for safety due to incessant attacks in their domain. But this time, when the invaders came, all those treasured properties were burnt to ashes while they made away with other loots,” he said.
The traditional head of Nyikyaa, Chief Emmanuel Nyikyaa, who defied the rains  to assemble mud- blocks to erect fresh walls of his collapsed burnt houses, said his subjects had now resorted to all forms of menial jobs to earn a living and to cushion the effect of  the trauma suffered as a result of losing their valuables.
He appealed to governments as well as wealthy individuals for food, compensation and assistance to rebuild their homes, saying:  “We need food; we need our houses. Some of us live under trees; others have managed to put up thatched houses.”
“We sell firewood and then use the cash to buy little food which the money can afford. We lost thousands of tubers of yam, livestock, cassavas, rice and many other farm produce to the crisis, beside our brothers who were killed. We lost our sources of livelihood and some of us may never recover again,” said Beke Justine whose house is one of those left in ashes.
So far, the intermittent presence of policemen on the road, petty trading activities and the return of commercial vehicles as well as motorcyclists plying the route are the main proof of reasonable restoration of life in the affected places.
In the pitiable makeshift arrangement which Mama Kwaghkaha Minan, a 75-year- old woman now calls a home that houses seven other adults, a blackened frame of an old bed, a handful of bended cooking pots and a few clothes hung loosely on a rope are all that remained for her family.
She told Sunday Trust that she was among other fortunate residents that had fled the village alive with some degrees of injuries inflicted on them by the invaders who set their houses and many belongings ablaze.
“I escaped with some degrees of burns on both legs after the invaders took us unawares and set our houses on fire. I can’t sleep at night due to pains,” Minan said as she scratched the affected part of her body.
Another woman, Ikimbe Shagbaor, who lost her husband and a child to the crisis lamented, “I lost everything to the crisis including my husband and a child. I have no food, no cloths and no house to live. It has been pretty difficult to cope. We need help.”
The 30-year-old said she has managed to cultivate a small piece of farmland on her return to the village in May, this year, hoping that the current peace would not be elusive to enable her use the proceed of the harvested crops at the end of the season for the up-keep of her four surviving children.
For Igbawua Bartholomew, the government can do more to alleviate their suffering and ensure that the herders who have crossed over to the Nasarawa side of River Benue do not return to their land after the rainy season to cause more problems just as he also appreciated the government’s intervention that helped to bring them back home.
He said: “It was government’s intervention that brought us back home. We appeal to government to extend more helping hand in any area they can to alleviate our sufferings and to endeavor to curtail future occurrence.
The Ter Nagi, Chief Daniel Abomtse, who is the traditional ruler of Gwer Local Government Area, another locality adversely affected by the crisis, bemoaned the scar on the communities which he claimed was yet to heal. He thanked the federal and state governments for the initial provision of relief materials and security to victims of the crisis, urging them to further provide compensation to the victims as most of the people are faced with imminent hunger.
“To be very frank with you, my people are yet to recover from the shock of the mayhem. Some places in the interior of Sangev and Gbange-Torgov districts are still deserted and yet to resume normal activities. This is due to their closeness to Nasarawa State, which is currently boiling and you know anytime, Nasarawa catches cold, the inhabitants of coastline communities in Benue sneezes.
“My people are still living in apprehension and they are not finding life easy. With no houses to live in, some of them sleep under trees and they are facing hunger. It is very alarming and I think the government of President Jonathan should quickly set up the machinery to compensate victims,” the royal father said.
 He explained that on the part of the traditional council, they have educated the people to cultivate the habit of living in clustered settlement and to imbibe communal farming in order to promote togetherness as an antidote to disperse apprehension.
The traditional head added that the majority of his subjects had been sensitized to avoid perching in smaller settlements so that they can promote self- defence and attract government’s support, adding that they had been encouraged to take to menial jobs to generate income for feeding.
Chief Abombtse, however, noted that there was no physical presence of the herders in densely populated ravaged communities in his domain at the moment but admitted reported cases of migration of Fulani herders from Nasarawa to border villages in parts of Guma and Makurdi Local Government Areas.
He advised his people to forgive and forget about the past so that they can forge ahead, pointing out, however, that the issue of restoration is a gradual process that requires time to heal.“My people should forget the past, bury the hatchet and show love. We need each other for any meaningful development,” he said.
On his part, Garus Gololo, Secretary of Myetti-Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, Benue State chapter, expressed confidence that peace had come to reign between the Fulani herders and Tiv farmers as they currently cohabit harmoniously in Guma.
He, however, disputed reports of new Fulani herders into the Tiv communities, saying “no strange Fulani has returned to Tiv land. The Fulani people living peacefully now in Guma are the returnees from Nasarawa state who earlier fled the crisis”, he said.
Gololo said that the herders who deserted parts of Makurdi and Gwer Local Government Areas respectively were yet to return due to the rainy season. He said it was usual for those of them in that area to migrate back to Nasarawa during the rainy season and to return when it is dry season.
“We have reconciled and are living peacefully with each other. No more problems,” Gololo assured.
Similarly, a member of the Peace and Reconciliation Committee set up by Governor Gabriel Suswam Alhaji Abubakar Tsav, described the healing process in the area as, “so far, so good.” According to him, there hadn’t been further attacks on both sides of the divide.
Tsav, however, guaranteed that the disarmament committee, headed by Aliyu Teshaku, was still on ground to disarm the armed militia, just as he appealled to the new commissioner of police in the state to take steps to disarm such groups or any other armed youth in order not to pose a threat to the forthcoming elections in 2015.
To deal with the imminent hunger, the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) said it was not resting on its oars as it had asked the victims to fill forms to enable the agency acquire necessary details about the losses incurred.
SEMA’s Executive Secretary, Adikpo Agbatse, said the agency was at the stage of compiling the statistics for the victims’ need into volumes with the intention to organize a launch for their rehabilitation and food relief assistance. Already, he said, the agency, in collaboration with several individuals and corporations, had donated items to the affected people when they initially returned.
But he said the donations were like a mere drop of water in the ocean. “One thing is sure, the people need new homes. They need drinking water, food, and medical attention which also should be urgently addressed as thousands of them who fled their homes had obeyed government’s directive to return.”
The question on the lips of many victims are what is the number of person who are currently famished by the crisis? Where can people now live? What would they eat? Is their safety truly assured? Perhaps, the government would do better to pay attention to their cries as it gradually transits its leadership in the coming months.

Source: Daily Trust

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