The recent communal clash involving famers and Fulani herdsmen in Benue with its attendant killings and destruction of property has raised concerns that leave much to be desired for urgent action to prevent recurrence.
Statistics from the Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) indicates that no fewer than 300 persons died in a renewed outbreak of violence in Agatu Local Government area of the state.
According to the statistics, property worth millions of Naira are destroyed while more than 10, 000 persons are displaced from the villages of Aila, Akwu, Enogaje, Odugbeho, Ugboju, Okokolo, Ocholonya and Adagbo, among others.
Observers trace the origin of the crisis to feuds in 1986 over farmlands owned by the Idoma people of Agatu community which the farmers claimed have been destroyed by the Fulani herdsmen’s cattle.
They note that previous attempts to resolve the issues which should have prevented recurring attacks such as the recent alleged invasion of the Agatu community on March 5 by the herdsmen have failed.
At a recent peace meeting called by Solomon Arase, the Inspector-General of Police, the Fulani community in Benue, alleged that the crisis started after 10,000 cattle belonging to its members were allegedly killed by the Agatu.
During the meeting, Ado Boderi, who spoke on behalf of the Fulani community, alleged that some elements from both sides escalated the crisis in spite of the quick intervention of the governor.
He said that Fulani herdsmen were a peace-loving people, noting that their major challenge was the problem of cattle rustling.
Responding to Boderi’s allegation, Kpa Iduh, who spoke on behalf of the Agatu, decried the continued unprovoked attacks on his people by the Fulani.
He observed that the crisis, which started over five decades ago, had recently taken a dangerous dimension because of the types of weapons the herdsmen were allegedly using to fight against them.
“The herdsmen are bent on turning our land into their grazing area, thereby rendering us homeless and without food,” Iduh said.
Allegations from both parties notwithstanding, stakeholders insist that the Agatu crisis should be handled with the seriousness it deserves to forestall further bloodshed and destruction of property.
While peace dialogue is ongoing, stakeholders, therefore, solicit pragmatic and concerted attention on alleviating the suffering of the numerous victims of the crisis, especially the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
In the light of this, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently visited various IDPs camps in Benue and distributed relief materials to the victims.
The agency donated relief materials worth 21 million Naira including solar lamps, mattresses, blankets, cooking pots, detergents and antiseptic soaps to the IDPs in Agatu community during the visit.
In one of such visits of the agency, Angele Dikongue-Atangana, UNHCR Country Representative, recently presented the items to the victims in Apa Local Government Area.
She expressed concern about the destruction and the deplorable condition of the women and children in the camp.
She noted that the relief materials would help in alleviating the sufferings of the IDPs while efforts would be made to ensure that they were resettled in their homes.
“The assistance is timely and of essence due to the increased number of IDPs from other villages and their need for basic amenities.
The items will go a long way to improve the living condition of these displaced persons. Majority of the IDPs are women and children who chose to remain in different host communities for fear of further attacks,” she observed.
The country representative promised that UNHCR would continue to partner with the government of Benue to build capacity for the protection of IDPs.
“The amount of damage done to Agatu communities is similar to what obtained in Borno and other states affected by insugency in Nigeria.
As at now, over 2.2 million Nigerians have been displaced from their homes in villages and towns seeking refuge and protection in camps and communities.
The Great Lakes Protocol and the Kampala Convention make it mandatory for member states to develop national legal frameworks to protect the rights of the IDPs,” she said.
Receiving the relief materials, Boniface Ortese, the Executive Director, Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), thanked UNHCR in Nigeria for its continuous humanitarian assistance to IDPs across the country.
He gave an assurance that the state, through the agency, would ensure equitable distribution of the items.
Sharing similar sentiments, Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue appealed to the Federal Government and international organisations to assist in rebuilding the destroyed parts of Agatu Local Government Area.
He said that SEMA remained a dependable platform for contributing to capacity building, direct material support and other governance initiatives.
“We will reach out to the Federal Government through the Victims Support Fund and other avenues to secure assistance towards rebuilding the area,” he said.
Ortom said that the government was determined to ensure that all communities destroyed by the herdsmen were rebuilt to enable the refugees to return home.
“We understand that the herdsmen come from Mali, Ghana, Congo, and Republic of Niger, among others but this must stop,” he said.
Ortom stressed that the state would not forget such invaluable gesture by the UNHCR, recalling the role of the agency during the flooding between 2012 and 2013 that ravaged the state.
In his comment during the presentation of the relief materials, Bishop Michael Apochi, the Catholic Bishop of Otukpo Diocese, urged the Federal Government to apply the golden rule to end the recurrence of communal clashes in Agatu community.
He observed that the community had witnessed attacks on houses, hospitals, worship places and farmlands.
He added that the Agatu had lived with the Fulani over the years and wondered what could have caused the crisis.
The bishop, who also serves as the Chairman, IDPs Camp Management Committee in Agatu, expressed displeasure that the attacks by herdsmen had devastated the community.
He observed that although troops of the Nigerian Army deployed to the community to provide security did well, Federal Government should urgently take measures to curb unprovoked attacks in rural areas.
Sharing similar sentiments, a retired soldier and one of the victims, Daniel Ochefu, said that the situation in Agatu community was beyond the capacity of the state and local government council.
“You can see the camp. We hardly get food to eat; no water, no drugs even the accommodation in the school can hardly take a quarter of the refugees in this camp.
“Toilet facilities are not there; most of us are forced, most times, to defecate in the open in spite of its health implications.
“We want to go back to our homes, if our security is guaranteed. We cannot continue to live like this; our children are no more in school and we cannot carry out our daily responsibilities to our families,” he said.
A News Analysis by Rachael Abujah of News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)