•‘Though our people have returned home (after genocide), where to lay their heads is the problem’
By Peter Duru, Makurdi
Though majority of the people have returned to their communities, Agatu land in Benue State is still in ruins with the signs of the invasion by herdsmen everywhere.
The spectacle is a sad reminder of the crisis that, over the years, claimed thousands of lives while many more were displaced and several others still missing.
A visit to the LGEA Primary School, Ayila Internally Displaced Persons, IDP, camp showed a vivid picture of the pains the people were going through, as several families, including women and children, took refuge in the school while they awaited the completion of repair works on their homes.
At Adagbo village, Egba Ward, a youth leader, Echoda Aboje, said majority of those who fled Agatu at the peak of the crisis, last year, had returned to their homes.
Aboje said, “Though our people have returned home, where to lay their heads is the problem? Many of us no longer have homes in Agatu. You can see things for yourself. People are managing to put up shelter even for a makeshift home.
“Our farms were destroyed with all the crops stored in the food barn, and feeding has become a major challenge for our people.
“Though the state government is making efforts, the truth is that it has been overwhelmed and the implication is that hunger and total deprivation stare us in the face and the future does not look bright if we don’t get external help and urgently too”.
On his part, the paramount ruler of Agatu, Chief Godwin Onah, who acknowledged that majority of his people had returned home, however, lamented that it might take the people several years to recover from the setback inflicted on them by the crisis.
Onah lamented that the rebuilding of the devastated land was a burden government and the people could not carry alone.
He said, “We need help from the international community and well-meaning global organizations, like the United Nations, so that our people can overcome the trauma of the crisis quickly.”
The sad tale of Agatu land compelled a visit by a United Nations delegation to the area.
The delegation, led by Edward Kallon, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Nigeria, also had the UNICEF Chief of Field Office, Enugu, Mr. Ibrahim Conteh, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, Country Representative, Mr. Antonio Canhanduka, among others.
Addressing the delegation, the Agatu Local Government Council Chairman, Mrs. Comfort Echoda, recounted that the Agatu people first had contact with herdsmen in 1946.
Echoda said, “There was peaceful coexistence for over five decades until 2012 when the seed of discord started germinating.
“The various institutions used in the past to settle issues of farm destruction soon gave way to hostility and arrogance. The hitherto friendly atmosphere gave way to lawlessness which was manifested in drug addiction, stubbornness, brutality and militancy.
“The stick and swords, which herdsmen were known for during grazing, lost their closeness to herdsmen and their place taken over by more sophisticated weapons of war.
“In 2013, planned carnage started showing symptoms when herdsmen started moving their families out of Agatu to neigbouring Nasarawa State and no cogent explanation was given for the movement.
“The plan of the herdsmen came to fruition on May 5, 2013 when genocidal attacks and wanton destruction of property by militias started. On this day,14 villages were razed to the ground. Like locusts, the invaders stormed our communities.”
The same picture of devastation had been painted by Governor Samuel Ortom when he hosted the team earlier in Makurdi.
On that occasion Ortom stated: “Between 2013-2016 alone, herdsmen killed more than 1,878 men, women and children in cold blood in 12 local government areas of the state.
“Another 750 were seriously wounded while 200 are missing. Over 99,427 households were affected in the state with property worth billions of Naira destroyed.
“A 2014 report by the state’s Bureau of Statistics found out that the destruction which the invading herdsmen caused across 20 local government areas of the state exceeded N95billion in that year alone.”
The governor pleaded with the world body to assist Benue overcome many of its developmental challenges, including the provision of technical support in the various sectors of the economy, adding that his government had set aside N4billion in 2017 to support UN projects in the state.
Speaking shortly after touring the devastated communities and IDPs camps in Guma, Buruku and Agatu local government areas, the UN Resident Coordinator expressed shock at the impact of the crisis on the people.
He said, “It is a shock to me to see the scale of destruction as a result of the conflict between herdsmen and farmers in Agatu land. What I have gathered is that these people coexisted before.
“And I have come to appreciate that the traditional dispute resolution mechanism through which some of those difficulties could have been resolved had collapsed, thus leading to the hostilities that eventually resulted to the massive scale of destruction.
“The losses are immense and the communities have been uprooted. People have been displaced, educational institutions for children have stopped functioning effectively and the livelihood partners have also been altered.
“I saw that people were trying to pick the crumbs of their lives again moving from displacement settlements and going back to their villages to farm.
“ There is an urgent need to support families to rebuild their homes that were lost. There is an urgent need for families to be supported in a transitional period while they are regaining their livelihood.
“There is also an urgent need to bring in appropriate technologies that will help them regain their livelihood.
“The United Nations is here to better understand what really happened and to also see first – hand the magnitude and the impact of the conflict.
“And, of course, our biggest instrument is advocacy. On my return to my station, I will raise, at the highest level at the international community, the need for coexistence and the need to support the population that has been affected.
“I will also convey to government the need to look at this issue from a holistic perspective and to put in place policies that are very critical to enhancing peaceful coexistence between pastoralists and farmers.
“What is very clear to me is that the pastoralists are under a lot of pressure for grazing land. Secondly, there is a process of desertification that is pushing the herdsmen from the North way down South.
“There is also regional dimension to the problem because all these herdsmen are coming from as far as Chad to the Lake Chad Basin, some of them heading to as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Some of them are heading to as far as Guinea – Conakry in their normal travel. So, it is clear that as these movements continue, and as the herds are getting bigger and bigger and the grazing lands are getting smaller, these tensions will continue.
“By the way, these herdsmen issue is not a problem peculiar to Nigeria, it is a sub Saharan problem. That is why a regional approach becomes extremely critical in trying to find a long term solution to the problem.
“So I now have the basic understanding of the impact of the crisis which i can convey to the international community at the appropriated time”.