Benue IDPs: When Will They Go Back Home?

By Denen Achussah

For some, it is nearly two decades now. Others, 2021 makes it the third year that they flee their homes.

Attacks by armed herdsmen in Benue State escalated, since the 2018 New Year Day attack. Only recently, the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), Makurdi announced a staggering figure of over a million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the state.

It is a sharp increase in figures, from the first decade of the 21st century to the present. Clashes between invading herdsmen and crop producers in Benue State drew national and international attention in the late 2000s.

This prompted the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) to erecting shelter in Daudu, Guma Local Government Area (LGA), to accommodating local farmers fleeing the attacks and attacks prone areas. In 2018, the condition worsened, marking continuation of vicious attacks on local communities.

Thousands of homes and dozens of villages have been either completely or partly destroyed by the crisis, findings by The Voice show. This is in the face of hundreds of deaths with others left with life threatening injuries.

“And the end to this is not in sight,” Emmanuel Shior recently said in a Radio Benue audience participatory programme. He said SEMA is battling with numbers seeking shelter and how to feed them.

The problem

What began as minor skirmishes between herdsmen and crop farmers has extended to full blown attacks. It began with alarm from crop producers that herdsmen were grazing on their farms.

“Naturally, the two farms cannot be practiced on the same piece of land; animal and crop production.

“And you see, back then, it was a typical Fulani man and a Tiv man so that even if they evade your farm the issue will be amicably resolved. But now, it has taken another dimension.

“Sometimes, even if there are no cattle, they chase out people and settle. Like, now, they have come again. But the Fulani used to come after harvest. If they are grazing on your field and you complain, they tell you to allow the cattle to feed. When they are done, they will go. And you see them with AK-47. They are right there in Mbakyoonddu (Gwer West LGA), grazing on our fields,” Benjamin Nyibiam, told The Voice.

And that seems to be the core of the problem, which has given rise to thousands of IDPs in camps and host communities across Benue State.

Benjamin believes the insecurity in Benue State, is fueled by Islamisation agenda.

“It has been their practice; to occupy. They are in Mbakyoondu now. They used to come without crisis. But now, they have warriors with them,” Benjamin says. The situation, in his words is worsened by increase in population and demand for land as well as improved farm practices.

To prevent conflict between the two groups, the 8th Benue Assembly enacted the Open Grazing Prohibition and Establishment of Ranches Law (2007).

On 22nd May, 2017, Governor Samuel Ortom gave assent to the law. After six months of grace period, the law came into force in November, 2017. And Miyyeti Allah Kautal Hore, said it will not respect it.

As a harbinger, locals raised the alarm on the withdrawal of Fulani women, within their localities. It has become a warning for an impending attack.

Comfort Msurshima Bako, who has been displaced from Yelewata shared her experience: “We heard that Agwei (local word for Fulani herdsmen) were attacking villages in Gbajimba (Guma LGA headquarters). The following day, the ones in our area started packing out of their rugas. So, my husband called one of them to enquire, since he was his friend. But his friend told him there was no problem.”

Unknown to Rebecca and the people in the community, an attack on Yelewata was due. “That evening, we heard gun shots in the neighbourhood and behold, it was Agwei. Everyone was on the run,” Rebecca went on.

In one fell swoop, on the 2018 New Year Day, men believed to be armed herdsmen militia struck. No fewer than 78 deaths were recorded. Locals in Guma and Logo LGAs of the state were targeted in that one day attack.

A mass burial was conducted for the victims. It marked the period of continuation of pains, despair, fleeing, life in camps and hopelessness in Benue State, due to activities of armed herdsmen militia.

Social ways of life have been lost, with children forced out of school as their parents have been displaced from their ways of economic livelihood.

The attacks would spread to local areas including Kwande, Agatu, Makurdi, Buruku and Gwer West.

Although herdsmen raised the issue of rustling, analyst are of the view that their avowed stance against Anti-Open grazing law has aggravated the security situation in Benue State and the plight of the IDPs.

Hit and run attacks by men believed to be herdsmen militia have persisted to this date.

In April this year, an attack was launched outside Abagena IDPs camp. No fewer than six persons were killed. Aondohemba Pasenja, 38, who survived it said the attackers came about 10 O’clock at night. He was lucky to escape their bullets. His in-law was not fortunate, as he was not only fed with bullets; his body severed with cutlasses.

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This is in spite the presence of military Operation Whirl Stroke (OPWS), launched in 2018. OPWS was launched to curb cases of banditary, herdsmen/farmers conflict, armed robbery, cattle rustling in Plateau, Nasarawa, Benue and Taraba States.

IDPs camps

To provide shelter to IDPs, Benue State Government through its humanitarian agency, SEMA designated camps for IDPs.

IDPs are therefore camp at Abagena, John Mark/Mbawa, UBE Naka, Pilot Science School Anyiin, Uikpam, Gbajimba, UN Shelter Daudu, with thousands living in IDPs host communities. Notwithstanding that five council wards in Kwande have been displaced due to activities of armed herdsmen, Kwande and Agatu have no IDPs camps.

Investigation by The Voice shows that those displaced in the two local areas are taking refuge in host communities, including Aila, Obagaji, Enungba, Nyihemba, Jato-Aka, with others travelling out of the state to continue with life.

Life in camp is tiring and boring. Yet, one cannot go back home. Most of the IDPs, who spoke with The Voice are deeply concerned about what to eat the next day, education of their children and going back home.

Lying helplessly in those heat ridden tents provided by IOM among other IDPs in critical need are Likita Kerengwa of Tse-Goji and Iorlaha Kortse of Tse Akpôr. They are octogenarians.

Kerengwa is nursing a strange wound while Iorlaha looks more of someone needing urgent medical attention. This is in addition to the huge need for food aid.

Esther Tyozer, is taking refuge at the Peace Camp, Gbajimba. She is with her six children.

She was on the farm with her children when the killer herdmsmen militia struck. They killed two of her male children – one 20 and the other 17.

“We were preparing field for maize when we saw them coming. We desperately run for our lives. But they took my two sons. After two days, we found their dead bodies,” Esther said.

Now, she depends on gleaning and supplies from the state government and or spirited individuals for food.

“I also work on people’s farm for money. Like today, it’s for my neck pain or I would have gone to work to get money for food,” she explained.

The thought of her children and her farm is sickening. “I don’t like talking about it; I am in deep pains and sorrowful,” Esther pleaded.

It’s no different story with other IDPs. They are hole up, in camps. It is frustrating that a people who once were in charge of their lives now have to depend on supplies from government, NGOs, spirited individuals, groups and Christendom for their needs.

“My worry is what I will do when this one (supplies from International Community of the Red Cross (ICRC)) finishes,” Margaret Timbee, 35, an IDP at Uikpam camp laments. It was the third time she received food supplies from ICRC.

“This is the third time I am receiving supplies from red cross (ICRC),” she says, adding that apart from that she works for others to raise money for food.

“ICRC has done a lot of good to me. I never knew I’ll survive this. They gave me food twice in the past. Just when I ran out of food and thought all hopes were lost, they are here again,” she adds, with excitement in her eyes.

Benue SEMA is responsible for the profiling and the statistics of IDPs. Other partners such as UNHCR, supports Benue State Government in terms of funding according to SEMA ES Shior.

Other humanitarian partners are Médecins Sans Frontières (MSN), BENGONET, with Fr. Solomon Ukeyima and his friends standing in for IDPs in terms of both food and non food supplies.

“The burden is very heavy on the shoulders of the state government. And that is why I said earlier that federal government should have taken over this responsibility of taking care of the IDPs because Benue IDPs are also citizens of Nigeria,” says Shior.

He adds: “It requires a lot of money in providing food frequently to the IDPs; there is need to provide shelter for them, there is need to provide medical care, there is need to provide security and Benue State Government has done this for over three years.”

Many have left the camps in search of food. Those who are left behind have the choice to go out and work on fields to get food or sit and wait for supplies.

“The living condition here is very poor; we have problem of food,” says Sooter Ater (name has been changed), one of those IDPs that have suffered rape in the hands of herdsmen. She is taking refuge at NKST Pilot School Anyiin camp.

Sooter now rely on her son, Terkimbi, 10 for proceeds from lead mining in the area to meet the family’s ends. Her husband was skilled on the farm by the marauding herdsmen militia. She would later be raped during one of her rounds to fetching firewood as a means of livelihood.

MSF team, which hitherto supports the camp with medical needs have moved out. In September this year, the camp received its latest food supplies, including rice and noodles from SEMA. It was a second supply this year.

Apart from food and other basic needs, education of IDPs children is another important challenge. But Abagena camp, which has structures for basic education, other camps like John Mark and UN Shelter until recently have no school structures for children. Even at that, they are grossly inadequate.

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Most parents, including Sooter, Mercy, Abraham Umenger are concerned about the future of their children.

“I have no joy living here. My children are no longer going to school. Even food, there is none,” says Tabitha Naakaa.

In the case of Kwande, Joseph Dzer says locals sometimes have to pay soldiers to burry their loved ones.

“The only people living in Kyô-Awen are Fulani; there is no Turan man there. Yet, it’s our land. Even where we are going. (referring to Menakwagh), there was nobody. If you have to go across and bury someone, you’ll have to pay soldiers One Hundred Thousand Naira,” Joseph says.

Njôrov-Tiev (part of Mbadura), Yaav, Chembe (part of Kumakwagh), part of Mbakyôr, with the whole of Môôn in Kwande LGA have been displaced, adds Joseph, who is taking refuge in Jato-Aka. Some of those displaced in the aforementioned locations have made make-up shades on the banks of River Katsina-Ala, with others taking refuge at Lower Benue River Basin Development Authority (LBRBDA) Project in Jato-Aka. Others are at Nyihemba and Jato-Aaka.

It is the hopelessness in camps that nearly led Kwaghaondo Gav to throwing away her baby that the baby was not real; a spirit.

The baby, one-year old Kumawuese had developed a strange condition with a whitening face and peeling skin. Without knowing what to do, the young parents resorted to their relatives who advised Kumawuese be thrown into the evil forest.

It took a social media post by the baby’s step brother for the intervention of Nuhu Kwajafa, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) GIPLC.

“I didn’t know what to do and decided to share it on my timeline if she could get help. Fortunately, help came and she was taken to the hospital,” Vandefan told The Voice.

The number of such hopeless situations that are not accounted for are better imagined.

IDPs say the tents are extremely hot in day times and very cold at nights.

“Look at these tents: They are very hot in the day time and very cold at night,” Levi MsughAôndo Utim told The Voice.

Food security under threat

Herdsmen occupation in Benue State, represents a very bad weather for farmers. In the words of Bem Uggoh, a political economist, herdsmen attacks on farming communities in Benue State posses “a very serious treat to food security so that even for their sustainability, farmers can’t get not to talk about feeding the markets.

“It is a very serious challenge even to government and people in general.”

Hitherto farming communities have fled their ancestral lands and are taking refuge in IDPs camps. Instead, herdsmen, have occupied those areas. Those who have taken up such lands are not crop producers.

“It looks more like a sabotage. It’s no longer like the traditional clashes during trespassing. They kill and even occupy. It is more like a terroristic act. Herders come in organised form to attack farmers, displace them and chase them out with the ultimate aim of occupying the land. From a traditional point it has degenerated to great security concern with grave consequences on economic productivity,” Ugoh opined.

He reckons there is already sufficient evidence of “food crisis given the decline in agriculture productivity. Some of the rice farmers for instance have been caged in IDPs camps for close to two years. Most of the areas for agriculture productivity are lying dormant. Farmers cannot go back to farm. The capacity is declining.

“Benue is traditionally the food basket. The major occupation of the larger population of the state is farming.”

To the political economist, “agriculture has been made dormant by insecurity. We are even suspecting sabotage from the oil cartel. The oil cartel know that Nigeria has not develop any technique for oil refining.

“But if we are serious about providing an alternative source for the economy it must originate from agriculture.”

Food producing LGAs including Kwande, Logo, Buruku, Guma, Makurdi, Gwer West and Agatu are experiencing the pangs of herdsmen invasion.

“Fulani or herdsmen attacks have created a lot of problems for Gwer West. A lot of people have been displaced. They have no homes. They are occupying schools as IDPs camps.

“It has affected education because the schools no longer have enough space to accommodate students. The people too are not going to farms. Those who manage to sneak to their villages to get food are ambushed and killed. It has created more and more terrible problems for the LGA. Pregnant women have still births and so on. We are really suffering to take care of these people,” Grace Ashi Igbabon, Gwer West LGC Chair told The Voice at Naka, the Gwer West LGA headquarter.

According to her, because “a lot of people couldn’t go to farms, we are envisaging a lot of food shortages. We are experiencing peace now because the water level is high and they (herdsmen) have gone back. Once it recedes, they will come back. And it’s their wish that there should be hunger.”

Way forward

Governor Samuel Ortom has always emphasised that ranching is the only way forward for the protracted attacks on farming communities in Benue State by armed herdsmen militia.

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He recently lamented before a delegation from the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development led by Dr. Abubakar Suleiman the deplorable condition of IDPs across the state.

Ortom, who is concerned that innocent people have continued to suffer untold hardship without a concrete plan by the Federal Government to ensure they return to their ancestral homes is requesting the federal government to according IDPs in the state equal attention with IDPs elsewhere in the country.

Last year, when stakehokders met for the third anniversary of Anti-Open Grazing Law, Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACABAN) said it was ready for dialogue.[assets-library://asset/asset.JPG?id=7A24673A-BBAD-4590-B15F-DB47238693E7&ext=JPG&presssync=1&resize=600&width=300&height=400&linkType=MediaFile&orgWidth=780&orgHeight=1040]

The state holders had met under the theme: Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law, 2017: A Recipe for Security and Peaceful Co-Existence.

Alh. Adamu Lawal Toro, represented the Natoinal Secretary of MACABAN at the event.

At the end of the event, a communique issued, with the following recommendations: “Individuals and associations such as Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, must tone down their acerbic rhetorics, which rather than help calm situations, have exacerbated tensions.

“Only a symbiotic relationship with the Government, which has powers to make Laws under the Constitution for the good governance of the State, can produce the much needed harmony and conducive climate for rearing of livestock in Benue State and Nigeria in general.

“Further sensitisation, citizen engagement and consultations, are required to calm fray nerves that the Law is not what it has been perceived to be.

“The Benue State government and Federal Government should find incentives that will encourage herders to embrace ranching in line with the Law.

“The Federal Government and security agencies should cooperate with the Government and people of Benue State to ensure a smooth operation of the Law as pilot case, to see if the archetype could be applied uniformly across Nigeria to end the wanton destruction of lives and property.

“There should be smooth operation between the Federal Government through its agencies to ensure the security of lives and property of the people. This will also enable internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return to their respective communities and carry on with their economic activities.

“The State government should continue to sensitize the people on the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law 2017 to enable them take full advantage of the numerous benefits contained therein.

“The Government of Benue State should fully constitute and activate the Advisory Committees for each Local Government Area in the State as provided for in the law. These Committees will offer advice and make recommendations concerning the administration and implementation of the law in all areas of the state.

“Traditional rulers should be made part of the implementation of the law in the state.

“The Federal Government of Nigeria should embrace the practice of ranching for the entire country and prohibit the free movement of foreigners and livestock into the country as well as to rescind the policy of issuing visa to foreigners on arrival.”

Bernard I. Hom, SAN was Chairman of the session.

According to Bem Ugoh, “Anti-Open Grazing Law is not a severing oath between farmers and herdsmen.”

His thinking is that “government has brought a lot of policy enunciation on how to resolve this conflict but like I said the underlying factor is the issue if security. Both farmers and herders must be protected because they are partners in agricultural productivity.”

He reckons “there are genuine herders but because those bad ones have constituted a serious security threat and it becomes a blanket cheque. The way forward,” Ugoh adds “is to sharpen a policy that will guarantee the security of both farmers and herders. There is need to look at this law to strike a balance because you cannot throw away the baby and the water. The two must be secured to exist in a parallel form. The main target is to strenghten local economy through agricultural productivity. There must be a balancing factor.”

On his part, the Benue State’s chief humanitarian officer, Shior is appealling to the federal government, “to make good its promise of Ten Billion Naira; the share that is supposed to be for Benue State should be given to Benue State IDPs.”

In 2018, the Federal Government promised to help rebuild homes destroyed by herdsmen attacks. That promise is yet to come to fruition.

According to Shior, “there is need to plan more about their welfare; to plan more about their shelter, pending the time Benue State Government will do a robust plan. And we hope that the federal government will also support that plan in ensuring that we do not only provide food to the IDPs but there is also a plan to return them to their ancestral homes.”

In 2020, Community Links and Human Empowerment Initiative (CLHEI) began a sensitisation campaign to ensure that IDPs return to their homes. The campaign was being championed by the CLHEI Executive Director, Helen Teghtegh.

However, that seemed to hit the brick rock because of hit and run attacks on locals sneaking into their ancestral homes to farm.

At the moment, the future remains bleak for the IDPs. The question remains: When will Benue IDPs go home?

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