30 Mar

The tragedy in Benue – Zaki Biam through the eyes of people there

Fifty. That is the minimum number of people residents say were killed in an attack on the evening of Monday, 20 March, 2017 by gunmen on the yam market in Zaki Biam, Benue State. Samuel Ortom, the governor of Benue State, has said that the number of dead is less than twenty.

At about 3 pm on that day, the gunmen, amongst whom was a woman, stormed the market in a pick-up truck, four Toyota Corolla vehicles and about twelve motorcycles, and began shooting at the hundreds of traders, customers, and passers-by. Properties worth millions of naira, were destroyed, and SBM has counted no less than twenty people in hospital with various injuries, mostly gunshot wounds. Of the dead, most were women and children—including students from the Amensi Secondary School.

In one of the graphic photos to emerge in the aftermath of the massacre, a student is seen sprawled in the dusty earth, his school bag still on his back and his shirt neatly tucked into his green trousers. He was on his way home from school, but he did not make it.

The very next day, in Jato-Aka, a few kilometres from Zaki Biam, five young men, Orngu Aondoga, Kator Atime, Aondogu Anenga, Terseer Deban, and Sam Aya, were among a group of youths who had intercepted a truck that had some Fulani passengers. They claimed that they intercepted the truck specifically because the passengers were Fulani, and bearing in mind the incident in Zaki Biam the day before, they were suspicious.

Having stopped the truck, they insisted on a search, but it never happened as men in military uniform arrived the scene and opened fire to disperse the crowd that had gathered. A little boy, on the way back from school, was killed.

Worrying suspicions

Three months after the Agatu Massacre in 2016, the Inspector General of Police announced the arrest of eighteen herdsmen. However, none has been charged to court, and this has been noted by various communities in Benue. They have also noted that despite a statement by the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, none of the group’s members has been arrested. Pressure is mounting on Governor Ortom as a result.

While no one has accused the Fulani of being involved in the attack on Zaki Biam, some community leaders, citing the example of Terwase “Ghana” Akwaza, who was arrested last year, have said that the Fulani have in the past commissioned local criminals to attack communities. Anger is mounting, and attitudes are hardening.

Inferences

The economic impact of the Pastoral Conflict has been devastating. The average household in Benue, Kaduna, Nasarawa, and Plateau states, that have been affected by this conflict could see their income rise by at least 64 percent if the conflict is resolved.

The conflict has had an outsize toll on agricultural activities, and SBM has already observed a causal effect on the prices of foodstuff in markets in major population centres.

While the authorities continue to argue on what is to blame for the incessant killings going on in the food basket of the country, the killings continue unabated and have become more brazen with each attack.

We are also seeing even harder attitudes develop. Every person we spoke to, accused Governor Ortom of trying to remain politically correct in spite of his people dying regularly from these attacks.

In the region, there is a sharp rise in the profiling of people based on their ethnicity. Many of the people profiled may be, and are indeed innocent, but they are profiled nevertheless, leading to a breakdown of trust amongst communities. This is because of a loss of confidence in the ability of the security forces to dispense justice.

Two years ago, most respondents to our Terror in the Food Basket report in Benue expressed an interest in dialogue. That has changed. Most now say they are left with no choice but to organise for defence. Even the governor, whom many Benue citizens accuse of being “politically correct” has started taking a more hardened stand. This is dangerous, as when people lose faith in the government, and resort to self-help, conflicts tend to escalate, and atrocities mount.

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