Wednesday 9 October 2013

Reign Of Terror In Agatu: The Untold Story.

By: Sunday Itodo, Samsenses O. Odoba, Linda Adaeze Eze

House destroyed with dynamite
In Agatu local government area of Benue State, where there have been clashes between the Fulani herdsmen and the villagers, scores of persons have been killed and many houses burnt, 2 Village Heads have been murdered while the paramount ruler of Agatu has been suspended . SUNDAY ITODO, SAMSENSES ONUMINYA ODOBA and ADAEZE LINDA EZE visited several villages in Agatu where they file in this report that hundreds of people have been displaced while many have fled for fear of recurring attacks. The report also revealed the identity behind the generic ‘fulani herdsmen’. Enjoy.

Agatu is a community located in the northern part of Idoma land in Benue State. The Idoma speaking areas of Doma Local Government and other surrounding communities in Nasarawa State are also predominantly Agatu people who specialise in farming, fishing and petty trading.

The people of Agatu had hitherto enjoyed relative peace among themselves and with the many visitors that had been to the community.

History has it that from the era of Idoma Native Authority in 1920, long before Agatu Local Government Area was created, the people of Agatu were known to be hospitable; the community had played host to other ethnic groups which included, Igala, Igbo, Fulani, Tiv and other Minor groups with the Igalas and the Fulanis as permanent dwellers as they settle within the Agatu territory.

Ironically, the Agatu people may henceforth become those that invest in implements of war and tactics in preparation for what seem like the global trend - war and crisis. The people may not always have to look up in anticipation of trade visitors but also in expectation of possible invaders (attackers), owing to the recent developments in the land.

The ever cohesive Agatu is now gradually degenerating into a war zone, due to unabated minor crisis by the authorities concerned. Analysts have argued that with the rate at which crisis is being perpetrated in the ancient community of the Kwararafa kingdom, if measures were not put in place by the concerned authorities, Agatu might be heading for another phase of Civil war, the type that was witnessed in the late 60s.

Aside some minor rumples that emanated after the elections involving the GDM and UNCP supporters in 1997 and other internal scuffles among the indigenes which were usually been settled amicably, there have been a growing mutiny from a group which is believed to be the ‘Fulani Herdsmen’.

The attack
As days go by, the insurgency is becoming more pronounced as the attackers devise so many means of inflicting pains on the innocent hapless Agatu people, who were only trained with fishing and farming implements and not with weapons of war. Each time these profane serial attackers visit Agatu land, they would kill souls; burn houses and cars; steal cows and other valuables; rape and maim the women as well as destroying their farm produce.

The most recent attack which was jointly condemned by both local and international commentators was occasioned on Sunday, 12th of May 2013 in Ekwo and Okpanchenyi villages of Agatu.

DayBreak Newspaper gathered that the attackers took the villagers unaware as they were all in the mourning mood, owing to the death of one of their prominent sons from Katsina State and some of their sons who lost their lives at Nasarawa Eggon during the ‘Ombutse’ spiritual warfare. “It was at the burial of those who died that the Fulani Herdsmen attacked us unaware”, a villager told our reporter.

In Okpanchenyi Village
Our reporters also visited the Okpanchenyi village where an ex-service man who simply gave his name as Retired Staff Sergeant Moses gave an eye-witness account. "On that fateful day, almost the entire villagers were gathered in the house of one of our rich sons that died from Katsina state, consoling the parents, children and wife on their lost. The different age groups in the village were all there and we were donating food stuffs to the bereaved family.

“Two boys now left the gathering to ease themselves and they ran back to tell us we were being attacked, that the Fulani herdsmen were here, and that was it that when you try to run into your room to get whatever you had that we ran into the matchets of the attackers as they were every nook and cranny of the village. As we tried to run to the other village (Ekwo), we met them running here too as the attacks were going on simultaneously”, Moses said.

Dynamite destroyed houses in Okpachenyi
Sergeant Moses also affirmed that the attackers came with sophiscated weapons, more powerful than what he had ever seen. According to him, “they had real guns, ‘government weapons’, machetes and other guns”. They also came with dynamites with which they destroyed several buildings and cars.

When our reporters demanded to know the actual figure of the casualties on that fateful day, the elderly man said nobody knew the accurate figure as there were people who are still missing; he however claimed that no fewer than eighteen people were confirmed dead in Okpachenyi on the first day.

His words: “we lost 18 people thus far and counting since everybody is not back from their hiding yet, we can't tell who is alive or dead or missing. The other day, we discovered dogs eating decomposed corpses whom we can no longer identify. …As you can see, these are all the people that you can see in this village now. This has been a place where more than a thousand people lived”.

Investigations also revealed that the attackers also hewed the private parts and other parts of the body of their victims; this affinity is akin to ritual or sacrificial killing!

The effrontery of these insurgents does not preclude the custodians of culture and tradition in the area. DayBreak Newspaper reliably gathered that the traditional rulers are prime targets of the Herdsmen. Many Village Heads have lost their lives while their properties were also damaged. The residence of the Paramount ruler of Agatu Kingdom, the Och’Agatu was razed by the attackers in their recent invasion.

DayBreak crew visited the new Village Head of Okpanchenyi (the son of the Late Village Head who lost his life in the attack), Mr Abba Benard Emmanuel to condole with the royal family. Mr. Abba said he could not believe what happened to his father and he wished he woke up from the nightmare.

With heavy heart, the new chief tried to recall what happened on that fateful day. “I was together with my father and an elder brother at the burial of one of the village sons, and then left back home before all these things started. When we heard the noise, I ran into his room to pick him out, telling him he might get burnt inside. When we got out, we were chased by the attackers and my dad asked me to run and leave him, when they had nearly caught up with us. Which I did and ran and they killed him right there and then”.

When asked what he would do next as the new Village Head, Mr. Abba said he had already instituted the process of restoring serenity to the village. “...paramount among them is to bring my people back home, even though I see it to be scary for them due to the amount of blood of relatives that has been poured on this very soil.

“As you can see, the community is in a complete standstill; no activities are going on presently; schools and clinics are out and the students have missed out of these past exams already. This is my task which I can't do alone but with the people”, he said.

DayBreak Newspaper also gathered that the security operatives sent to provide coverage for Agatu people only stop at places that are not crisis prone. According to a source, “the few soldiers that were brought as a result of these attacks only stopped at Obagaji and Ogwule villages which are not crisis affected”. Thus, the villages that are at the receiving end are now left to cater for themselves.

In Ekwo Village
The Okpanchenyi story is not different from that of neighbouring Ekwo village where the contemporaneous attack was also occasioned on that fateful day. Mr. Oche Ali, the Youth Leader of Ekwo narrated how the village was invaded.

“We have never had any problems with the Fulani herdsmen. On the morning of 12 May 2013, we were at the burial of my sister in-law and another man that died, we also lost one of our brothers who was a police man in the Eggon ‘Mbuste’ police massacre, so virtually everyone in the village was at home making arrangements for three burials. While we were at my sister in-law's burial, people started running from the edge of the village, saying they saw a lot of people coming towards the village with weapons, and the elders of the village said nobody should run since we didn't previously have problems with anybody.

“So we all stayed till they got closer to the village and started shooting, then the youths and women who had the strength to run took to their heels leaving the old feeble ones behind to the mercies of the machete and bullets of their attackers. So, they nearly wiped out all the elders of the village. They chased us and we ran helter sketcher to the bushes and rivers.

“By the time we returned, we met dead bodies littered all over, we also discovered that our village head was among those massacred with our houses and belongings burnt, we discovered more corpse in the bushes. We lost 22 people in this village on that fateful day, two of them were visitors that came to marry from our community”, Mr. Oche said.

The Youth Leader therefore called on the security personnel attached to Agatu LGA to as a matter of urgency come to Ekwo village in order to give courage to the women and children who have refused to come back to the village.

Destroyed properties in Ekwo village
His words: “our wives and children have refused to come back home from Apa, Ugbopko, Otupko, Makurdi and other villages they have run to for safety. Another painful thing here is the fact that the security forces the government brought for our safety have refused to come here where the real deal took place but have instead stopped at Ogwule, leaving us to our fate should such an attack re-surface.

“We need the security operatives to come here to strengthen us and allow our wives and children come back home for us to continue our farming as that is what we do best and only. So we appeal to the authorities to come to our rescue, else hunger will kill the remaining of us, seeing that we have not been going to our farms."

The Immediate Cause
What could have accounted for this protracted barbaric trend that is capable of wiping off the entire generation from the surface of the earth? A reliable source among the elders who would not want his name mentioned recalled how the recent crisis started.

"The problem started from a village called Egba, where the cattle of the herdsmen were feeding on the beans that were planted for dry season, when the owners of these farms complained the Fulani herdsmen would respond by flogging them with their sticks. That is when fighting broke out and 4 members of this village were killed and their houses burnt same day.

"So we have always faced oppression from these herdsmen as they wouldn't allow our crops rest, to the extent of uprooting our crops for their cattle to eat. We have reported to the police at Obagaji and all the time we lost the case because the Police are more interested in who will give them more money than in finding out the truth. A week after they attacked Egba village, they spread to other neighbouring like Okokolo, Adana, Openyi on a Sunday”, he said.

The source further disclosed that the heinous act are being perpetrated by mercenaries working with the Fulani Militia from a part of Idoma speaking people in Nassarawa state, Hausa speaking people in Aloko, Ayele and Ochelonya villages ( all in Agatu, Benue) as well as Ibiras from Kogi state. “They get to be more than 1000 people attacking us at a time, that's why they were able to surround these two villages (Ekwo and Okpanchenyi) at the same time”, the source said.

The remote cause
Grazing on farm crops alone, being a natural phenomenon with host communities to the herdsmen would not have instigated such a generic invasion. There are indeed more to the eyes than expected. A Health Officer from Ogwule village, Mr. Joseph Haruna spoke with DayBreak crew.

“Right from the unset, when the Agatu LGA was established, the herdsmen have been here with no problems whatsoever. And it happened that whenever our people cultivated farm crops, the Fulani herdsmen allowed their cattle to graze on our crops. This happened for a long time with no resolution.

Haruna Joseph
“It got to a time when the Fulani women brought Nunu ( cow milk) to us that were poisoned, when our people drank these Nunu, they fell to die but were rushed to us at the health centres where they were treated and made to recover. When we reported this issue to the chief of the herdsmen, he said it was a mistake and we should forgive them, which we did and it ended any trouble that would have arisen.

"There was a time when the herdsmen complained about their cattle been stolen from around Okokolo village, this led to the herdsmen bringing in mercenaries to destroy Okokolo, Adana, Ogugbe, Alopa where an un-verified number of people were killed in these villages. That attack preceded those of Ekwo and Okpanchenyi, where over 60 people lost their lives with about 40 houses burnt. Thereafter, they went to Warri Village and some other neighbouring villages where they killed and robbed people (mostly women) on their voyages”.

The Council Chairman declines comment
DayBreak crew paid a visit to the Executive Chairman of Agatu Local Government Council, Mr. Stephen Dutse during one of the meetings with Agatu Traditional Council held at the Council secretariat, Obagaji.
All efforts by our team to get the Chairman to speak on issues bordering on the crisis proved abortive as he declined comments. “I don't want to tell you something now and regret telling you when you are gone" was all the reporters  could get from Mr. Dutse who appeared perplexed while trying to swap between the Executive Council and Traditional Council meetings going on simultaneously at the Headquarters.

Knowing that the council Boss declined comment, the Chiefs and other high ranking dignitaries at the meeting refused to speak with DayBreak crew.

The Royal Rumble
Looking at the Agatu crisis with the third eye, one could vividly deduce that there are other dissident factors that operate on a higher stratum among the Agatu indigenes. The operational tendencies of these unpatriotic elements appear pretentious as they are resident among the people without been suspected. Those turncoats are of Agatu origin and some of them are highly placed and respected in the community, thus, making no one to look in their directions when eye brows are being raised on each attack.

Those traitors provide the necessary information, support and logistics needed by the ‘Fulani Herdsmen’ to carry out their routine invasion against their own people.

The grave of the slain Village Head of Okpachenyi
What on earth could have made some Agatu indigenes to become endemic enemies of their own people? A source who pleaded anonymity disclosed to our team that such unpatriotic attitude may not be unconnected to the lingering in-house chieftaincy tussle among some prominent men in the land.

“Our boys are selling themselves out, as a result of poverty and hatredness emanating from some folks who lost out of the chieftaincy contest”, the source said.

When Daybreak crew was at Obagaji to see the Local Government Boss, one Mr. Amos from Engila village, a middle age man who was alleged to be an informant and anchor man for the herdsmen was arrested and brought to the Headquarters. He was taken by the police to the state CID Makurdi, where some other suspects (Agatu indigenes) who were linked to the crisis are currently being held.

Agatu local government is not alone in the so called ‘royal rumble’. Some local government areas in Benue, especially in Benue South have equally had their own share in chieftaincy crisis.

Prominent among them is the age-long chieftaincy tussle which has for long polarised the people of Ado local government. The Ado tussle has not only led to internal crisis, it has also fractionised the entire people into two opposing groups – ‘the royal’ and ‘the non royal’ fundamentalists.

Otukpa in Ogbadibo local government area is not also left out in this category. The ‘Och’Otukpa’ dynasty has been a bane of contest since 2005 when the stool became vacant. The protracted tussle between Chief Sunday Ekele and Chief Augustine Iwodi has not only resulted to wanton killing of a young man in 2006, it has also become a subject of litigation which had gone round the various courts of law in Benue.

However, what makes this Agatu story different is the contractual betrayal of the entire Agatu community either by those who lost out in the chieftaincy tussle or those who would want to hide under some guises in order to foment trouble. That has sold the entire people out to the Herdsmen and other agents of destruction attacking the community.

Rising from the Idoma Area Traditional Council at Och’Idoma’s palace in Otukpo on 28th of May 2013, HRH Chief Elias Ikoyi Obekpa, the Och’Idoma IV handed a suspension letter to the erstwhile paramount ruler of Agatu Kingdom, Chief Godwin Onah. The letter was in conformity with the decision of the entire council, which came hard on Och’Agatu over his perceived ‘poor handling’ of the Agatu crisis.

Och'Idoma IV
The letter signed by the secretary to the Idoma Area Traditional Council, IATC, Mr. Joseph O. Adah, did not categorically state the offence of the Och’Agatu but merely said, “the council took this decision at its sitting of May 28, 2013, while reacting to the recent crisis in Agatu local government area.”

Meanwhile, a source closed to the embattled Och’Agatu who would not want his name mentioned has argued that the suspension of the Chairman of Agatu Traditional Council by Och’Idoma was ill-implemented as the Chief had no hands in what they accused him of.

Rather, the source accused the Idoma Area Traditional Council of ‘jumping the gun’ by suspending Och’Agatu, stressing that “he was been punished for not allowing the Fulani Herdsmen to attack the Tiv people through Agatu axis.

“That is why if you look at the suspension, they did not state any reason. Instead, they said they have appointed a five-man committee to look into the remote and immediate causes of the crisis. I say, that is like putting the cart before the horse. It is only God that will help us. When they were discussing some of these issues, they made sure that our traditional ruler was not present, but that day, I don’t know what happened,” the source said.

In the main time, the Odejo k’Apa, Chief John Antenyi has been mandated to oversee the Agatu Traditional Council while “the beaded Clan Head of Enogaye, Chief Sunday Oyi’gatu” is now the “Acting District Head of Agatu District.”

The absurdity of the suspension
One of the raison d'ĂȘtre behind the suspension of the Agatu Monarch, who is the eldest among the council of Chiefs in Idomaland was to restore peace and serenity to the ancient community. Unfortunately, the Idoma Area Traditional Council’s proclivity for settling Agatu crisis by this singular act was not apt. Suspending Och’Agatu’s dynasty may not have been the most cogent approach to ending the nagging imbroglio the community has found itself in.

Perhaps, there are other factors that have irked the crisis which need thorough investigation. The best angle to attack a living tree is from the root and not the shoot. Analysts in Idomaland have argued that “though Chief Godwin Onah may have slices of involvement in the saga but his suspension is not enough indices to ending it”. They opine that Och’Idoma would have waited for the report of the panel of enquiry that was set up to look into the remote and immediate causes of the crisis.

They attack again
Despite the suspension of Och”Agatu two months ago, the riotous killing still goes on unabated. Just last week July 30th, the ‘Fulani Herdsmen’ struck again in two communities of Agatu leaving two persons dead while properties worth millions of naira were damaged. This latest attack had come barely one week when the herdsmen struck in some communities killing eight persons and leaving many others homeless.

Before this recent attack, the Herdsmen used to fly into Agatu from Nasarawa State with jet boat enroute Oweto River where they inflict throb on the innocent villagers before jetting back to their hideout. Latest research has proven that they have devised other means and route for their invasion.

Benue State Commissioner for Works and Transport, John Ngbede, had on Wednesday (31st July) disclosed to newsmen in Makurdi, the impending attack of Fulani on other Agatu villages.

He said, according to reports reaching him, some  mercenaries are presently camped at Ibadan Acquacha, a border town between Benue and Kogi states, to cross to Opequa in Kogi State, and enter Ochichi in Apa LGA of Benue, through which they will gain access to Agatu communities.

“Early this morning, we gathered that some mercenaries are camped at Ibadan Aquita border area and are intending to cross through Opagnai in Kogi State, to Ochichi in Apa, our neighbouring council area in the state, anytime from now to launch an attack”, Ngbede stated.

Speaking further, the Agatu bron Commissioner called on the Federal and States Governments to as a matter of urgency, intensify efforts at ensuring that the various borders of Agatu LGA is well secured and if possible, with helicopter hovering around the villages, in order to forestall further reoccurrence.

When contacted on the arrested Agatu indigenes at the State CID, the Police Public Relations Officer, Benue State Command, DSP Daniel E. Ezeala confirmed the arrest but could not speak further on whether they have been released or not. “I can’t answer that now, I have to consult my records to know if they have been released or not. Meanwhile, investigation is still going on”, he said.

As we speak, the entire villages in Agatu are becoming deserted everyday for the fear of the unknown. When our reporters visited Oweto village on Friday 2nd August, the population of the area remained scanty as only soldiers were seen with heavy weapons around the Oweto river, the angle where the Fulani Herdsmen attack Agatu people from Nasarawa state.
They enter through Oweto River

DayBreak crew escape attack
It is very pertinent to note here that some perilous elements have taken undue advantage of the predicament rocking Agatu by committing heinous crimes such as rape, assault and robbery in the community. As a matter of fact, it is very hard to distinguish gunshots emanating from the Herdsmen invasion from those of the normal robbery attacks.

At the course of carrying out this investigative report, the DayBreak crew escaped gunshot attack one night in Ogwule village, where they had to pass the night for onward movement to another village the next day.
There arose a great pandemonium at the middle of the night when the reporters woke up to the sound of gunshots around the hinterland of the village. The reporters got out of their rooms only to notice that the villagers had started running out of the village with their bags and personal belongings on their heads.

When one of our reporters sought to know why they had to run and where they should run to if the enemies got closer, he got this response: “our visitors, look, please come with us to where we are going now, this place is no longer safe for you. Egwuma village is under attack now and we were been informed that Ogwule shall be the next point of call to the invaders, that is how we see it here always, we cannot sleep with our two eyes closed”, the host to the crew replied.

The next morning DayBreak reporters were told that it was a robbery attack in Egwuma village and not Fulani invasions as speculated. Further investigations also revealed that the gunmen were speaking Agatu dialect fluently during the course of their operation, the same language that some ‘Fulani Herdsmen’ speak each time they rain attack on the community.

This has gone a long way to solve the puzzle about who the ‘Fulani Herdsmen’ really are. The name “Fulani Herdsmen” is actually a generic name!

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