Close to 30 communities suffered horrific attacks in two Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Plateau State on Christmas Eve, leaving more than 150 people dead.
Saturday, 23rd December 2023
As dusk descended, a chilling breeze seeped through Kambar Pelli, a community in Ruwi, Bokkos Local Government Area (LGA) of Plateau State, and residents retired for the day oblivious of the horror lurking around.
Augustine Ezekiel, a hunter, was on a night watch with a colleague when he heard strange movements. As he moved to check, he heard loud bangs on the door of a nearby building.
Some people were trying to force their way into the house which lay beside a vast field of bush and farmlands that stretched to Kerang in neighbouring Mangu LGA.
Gunshots rent the air and Mr Ezekiel took cover behind a tree. “I saw two people behind the house while I hid behind a tree. Immediately, I knew they were not here for any good,” he told PREMIUM TIMES in January.
“I shot at one but he fled. There were many of them. I couldn’t stand them, so I ran too.”
Mr Ezekiel’s first destination was his home, located two houses away from the house under attack, to make sure his family fled before the attackers reached them. When he got home, his wife and mother had already taken to their heels, giving him a sense of relief.
Annihilating a Lineage
Inside one of the six rooms in the attacked house was Armak Isa. Mr Isa said he was nudged to consciousness from his sleep by gunshots and loud bangs on the doors.
“Almost immediately they were in our compound hitting the doors with stones,” he said, adding that the attackers spoke Fulfulde as they broke into the rooms one after another.
“I opened my door, scaled the fence and ran,” he recalled.
That night, the assailants killed Mr Isa’s entire family: his older brother, Panmun Isa; Panmun’s wife, Namban Panmun and their four children – Makroghop, Tapji, Jiret and Precious.
The assailants did not stop.
They crossed to the next building, where Mr Isa’s other elder brother, Besan Isa, resided. They fatally shot him, his wife Gifty Besan and their children, Katbam and Shalom.
The eldest daughter, Patience tried to flee but she was shot dead just before she made it out of the building.
Mourning a wife and mother
The following morning when villagers and neighbours gathered to assess the carnage from the night, Mr Ezekiel had not seen his wife and mother, but he did not panic. For all he believed, they were seeking shelter somewhere safe.
As he walked with a friend beside his cactus-fenced house, he saw the hand of a lifeless body just behind a banana tree.
He moved closer to find the lifeless bodies of his wife and mother beside each other. While his mother, Maryamu Ezekiel, was shot in the head, the bullet hit his wife Bammun Augustine in her bosom.
As he mourns a wife and mother, his father Ezekiel Marwa mourns a wife and daughter-in-law.
By the time the assailants left that night, they had killed 16 people, all of whom were buried in a large mass grave the next day. The attackers also burned one car and destroyed another.
Identifying the attackers
At Kambar Pelli, some survivors said they saw the attackers on the night of the incident.
According to their accounts, the attackers spoke Fulfulde, and some of them wore military uniforms.
Danjuma Ezekiel believes there were military men amongst the attackers, due to the precision of the shootings. “The manner of the shootings made us believe there were soldiers among them. It is not just Fulani shooting. Which Fulani would learn how to shoot people in the head?” he said.
“They were shooting in the compound and they were speaking Fulfulde,” Armak Isa corroborated Mr Ezekiel’s account
The first of many
That late-night attack at Kambar Pelli, allegedly by Fulani militia, triggered a series of attacks and reprisal that affected more than two dozen communities in Bokkos and a few others in Barkin Ladi LGA the next day, PREMIUM TIMES gathered from interviews with residents and victims, community leaders, peace advocates and security officials.
Multiple sources say the reprisals that followed the tragic event at the Kambar Pelli attack contributed significantly to escalating the issue.
As the attacks continued, so did the casualties multiply and by the time it slowed down on Christmas day when the attention of the world was on Plateau State, more than 150 people had been reported dead, with hundreds of others injured, and way more people displaced from their homes.
The communities affected by the conflict in Bokkos LGA include Fat-Makada, Ngochong, Shar, Mper, Shambring, Pyakmalu, Farmes, Bukjir, Ngokksar, Lut, Lalem, Kwantu, Sangyang and Mutfet.
The others aree; Ndun, Yalwa-Nono, Bodel, Makarang, Chirang, Tahore, Tamiso, Tufe, Shorom, Dares, Maiyanga, Kerana and Butura Kampani.
Four communities were affected in Barkin Ladi LGA. They are Tudun Mazat (NTV), Darwat, Hurum, and Gana Ropp.
No community was attacked in Mangu LGA between 23 and 25 December, residents and community leaders in the area told PREMIUM TIMES.
Sunday, 24th December
Between 7 and 8 a.m. on Sunday, 24th December, residents of Fat-Makada said they started hearing gunshots that startled them and left them confused.
PREMIUM TIMES interviewed residents including the native Ron people and Fulanis in the community.
Talatu Mahanan, an indigene and resident of Fat-Makada, said her husband and children had left for church while she was getting ready. She had barely stepped out of her home when she suddenly heard gunshots.
Mrs Mahanan said she did not see the shooters. “The gunshots were coming from this side,” she said, gesturing to Fulani settlements located behind her house.
Bitrus Bulus, another resident, said he recognised two of the four attackers he saw that morning. According to him, two of them were their Fulani neighbours.
“I identified them because I was in the church. In the church, the distance is not up to 100 metres that I saw them. Four of them came around the church premises. Thank God nobody was in the church at that moment because we all had to run away from church. I identified two but the others, I don’t know them. I so much believe they came with others,” he said.
But their Fulani neighbours, some of whom this reporter met and interviewed, denied the accusations, saying they were also startled by the same gunshots.
Ya’u Muhammad and Hussaini Adam said what followed the gunshots was a troop of attackers on their homes.
“We saw people approaching our homes with guns and we came out scared. As we tried to run, we saw a lot of people from different sides,” Mr Muhammad said.
Mr Bulus said the assailants on the Fulani settlement were natives; residents of neighbouring communities who were agitated by the attack of the previous nights.
However, Mr Muhammad, disagrees, saying those people were the ones shooting the previous night.
The attackers started razing the houses of the Fulanis until the military arrived shortly after, residents interviewed confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES.
“We were just trying to flee the communities when the soldiers came and we thought they would stop them. Surprisingly, they burnt some of these houses in the presence of the soldiers,” Mr Adam said, adding that it took some time before the soldiers could control the situation.
More than 10 houses owned by the Fulanis in this community were burnt.
Mr Bulus said two natives died and three others were injured. He noted that those who died were not residents of the community but were among those who came from different communities to carry out the reprisal attack on the Fulanis.
PREMIUM TIMES tracked one of the deceased, Danlami Zakaria, also known as Amushe, to his home in Luwan, several kilometres from Fat-Makada, where he and others were said to have come from that morning.
The incident at Fat-Makada was a reprisal arising from the tragic event in Kambar Pelli, residents, a peace advocate and a top official of the state’s Operation Rainbow told PREMIUM TIMES. The official did not want his name in print.
Operation Rainbow is a Plateau State government-established paramilitary neighbourhood watch initiative.
Understanding the Geography and People
Bokkos LGA is home to three of the over 40 ethnic groups in Plateau State, namely Ron, Kulere and Mushere, all of them speaking distinct languages.
The people of Kambar Pelli, where the initial attack occurred, are Mwaghavul who predominantly reside in Mangu LGA. But Kambar Pelli and some communities in Ruwi and Mushu geographically fall under Bokkos LGA.
While the Mwaghavul language has similarities to Mushere which is spoken in some parts of Bokkos, it is said to be a distinct language in itself.
The mob that attacked Fat-Makada were Mwaghavul people from neighbouring communities who were angered by the attacks on their kinsmen at Kambar Pelli, PREMIUM TIMES gathered.
They accused the Fulanis in this settlement of complicity in the attack at Kambar Pelli. But the Fulanis at Fat-Makada denied knowledge or complicity in the attack.
“If anyone said the Fulanis in this community know about the attack at Kambar Pelli, they are not being fair,” one Fulani resident said.
Some Fulanis in other communities were also reported to have attacked more communities in another reprisal.
The mutual mistrust between the Fulanis and Mwaghavul people can be traced back to the strained relationship that reached its peak in Mangu LGA last year, residents say.
Between May and September last year, the conflict between the two ethnic groups grew into an ethno-religious conflict that left more than 100 people dead and several communities torched.
According to residents in different communities in eastern Bokkos, last year’s conflict in Mangu spilt into some parts of Bokkos last September when some Mwaghavul people from Bwai, a district in Mangu LGA, sacked Fulanis from Bwai in southern Mangu LGA and parts of Ruwi and Mushu in Bokkos LGA.
At the time of the 23 December attack on Kambar Pelli, PREMIUM TIMES was told the nearest Fulani settlements were Fat-Makadi and Fwerekuna.
Based on multiple accounts by both the Fulanis and Ron residents, those who carried out the reprisal at Fat-Makadi are mostly Mwaghavul people assisted by some Ron residents.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that a Fulani man in Fwerekuna, a community in Ruwi, raised an alarm that some unknown herders were seen settling close to them, a week before the Christmas Eve attack.
An official of Operation Rainbow told this newspaper that they received the intelligence report and informed the village head, district head and heads of security agencies between 18 and 19 December.
The village head of Ruwi, Nicolas Random, confirmed this to PREMIUM TIMES in a telephone interview.
Mr Random said the arrival of the ‘strange Fulanis’ was reported to the Commander of Sector 5 of the army’s Operation Safe Haven (OPSH) in Bokkos, T.T Paave, a lieutenant colonel.
“He (Sector 5 Commander) gave them (the strange Fulanis) a directive to leave. How can people just come and stay close to houses without their knowledge, without talking to them? Just silent. So he told them to leave. He spoke to their leaders, he called the Chairman of Miyetti Allah and told them to leave, but they didn’t leave,” Mr Random said.
However, the next morning after the attack at Kambar Pelli, Mr Random said, the ‘strange Fulanis’ left. He also said the resident Fulanis in Fwerekuna also fled that morning. PREMIUM TIMES could not locate the Fulanis in Fwerekuna for an interview.
“People were angry, running up and down. So, they told me that the Fulanis in Fwerekuna Ruwi had run away. They don’t know what makes them run away,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Sources in Bokkos told this newspaper that the Sector 5 Commander, Mr Paave, was replaced with Isaac Indiorhwer, also a lieutenant colonel, a few days after the Christmas Eve attack.
The Ron and Fulanis interviewed in Bokkos told PREMIUM TIMES that they have coexisted peacefully over the years and have not had reasons to physically attack each other.
This reporter understands, however, that there are latent conflicts that have resulted in mutual mistrust.
According to the village head of Ruwi, Mr Random, the primary issue between the Fulanis in Ruwi and the Ron people is the destruction of crops by cattle, a situation he said they had faced for years.
“What we have been battling is the issue of farmers and herders. The Fulanis in this community used to destroy the farm produce of the natives. We have been complaining for a long time. Year in year out. That is what we encounter in this area,” he told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview held at the palace of the district head of Bokkos, Monday Adanchin.
The palace was razed the next day by residents protesting against the arrest of some young men in connection with the death of a Fulani man in Bokkos on 4 January.
The battle between herders and farmers over land is not peculiar to Plateau. It is the root cause of many fatal clashes in states like Kaduna, Benue and Taraba and has been exacerbated by climate change that has urban development. Because the herders and the farmers often belong to different ethnic groups, the crisis then takes an ethnic dimension. Efforts by successive Nigerian governments to resolve the violence have failed.
In Plateau, Mr Random, the head of Ruwi, added that some neighbouring communities have also experienced security issues such as kidnapping and robbery.
“Most of the problems we are encountering are from the strange Fulanis,” he said.
“Mostly those that come from different places to graze. They can just settle wherever they like without the knowledge of the owner of the farm or the ward head or the village head. They can do what they want. They can just go and put a tent where they like without any consent. And people would panic. People are scared whenever they see strange Fulanis.”
Meanwhile, the reprisals did not end at Fat-Makada, PREMIUM TIMES gathered.
A top official of Operation Rainbow in Bokkos alongside other residents, including Ron and Fulani people, told this reporter that the Mwaghavul people assisted by some Ron residents also descended on Fulani settlements in Kopmadarkin, Ngochong, Shar, Mper, Shambring, Pyakmalu, Farmes, Bukjir, Ngoksar, Lut and Lalem.
They all, in separate interviews, said the Fulanis in turn, attacked communities including Kwantu, Sangyang, Mutfet, Ndun, Yalwa-Nono and Makarang.
According to the Chairman, Plateau Central Zone, Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigerian (MACBAN), Umar Ori, Fulani residents of Sat in Mushere district were mourning the death of one Bashir Bello when they were attacked and their houses razed.
He said Mr Bello, the deceased, was an Okada rider whose body was found on 22 December in Kawel, also in Mushere district, with his head battered.
Later that Sunday evening, Benjamin Iliya, a resident of Matan Kubet, said some Fulanis launched attacks on some communities around Mangor district.
He said apprehensions were already building among residents even before the attack happened. “Around 4 to 5 p.m., security information reached us that they are coming from Josho around Daffo to attack our communities,” he said.
“They gathered close to Tuje, one of our people saw them and he informed us that they had seen strangers. But before people would understand, they surrounded Tuje.”
According to many accounts, they attacked Chirang, Tahore, Tamiso, Tuje, Dares, Maiyanga and Butura Kampani. They also killed people and burned houses in some Barkin Ladi LGA communities bordering Bokkos including Tudun Mazat (NTV), Darwat, Hurum, and Gana Ropp, shooting, killing and razing houses.
This attack turned out to be the deadliest, resulting in more than 100 deaths and hundreds injured. It was carried out almost simultaneously, according to residents.
The military would later say in a statement that it received more than 30 distress calls around the same time, overwhelming its personnel’s ability to prevent all attacks that night.
The Chairman of the Gan Allah Fulani Development Association of Nigeria (GAFDAN) in Bokkos, Saleh Yusuf, said he was aware of the attacks and counterattacks but cannot say for certain who carried out the attacks.
“They kept retaliating on the Fulanis and that was what brought about the crisis in Bokkos,” he said in a telephone interview.
“The killings and burning of Fulanis houses on Sunday. That was why there was a reaction from other Fulanis in other parts of Bokkos.”
The attacks and reprisals between 23 and 26 December left more than 300 people dead, according to a tally obtained from an official of the Red Cross in Bokkos.
Jethro Bitrus, the Emergency First Aid Team Leader of the Red Cross in Bokkos, also provided this newspaper with a breakdown of the communities affected. PREMIUM TIMES could not independently verify the actual number of casualties.
As of 30 January, Mr Bitrus said, they were still yet to ascertain the full names of the deceased.
A troubled, unstable state
Plateau State is a troubled state that has witnessed several conflicts that usually metamorphose into ethno-religious crises.
Mangu, Jos North, Barkin Ladi, Riyom and Bassa are some LGAs that frequently witness these conflicts. Attacks by unknown persons, usually attributed to the Fulani cattle herders, are also prevalent in most LGAs in Plateau State.
Meanwhile, the aftershocks of the Christmas Eve tragedy are still being felt across communities in Bokkos as serial killings continue.
According to a tally kept by this newspaper as reported by residents, more than 10 people have been killed in subsequent reprisals in January.
On 1 January, for instance, the corpses of Ridwan Ismail, a Ron Muslim man and Muhammadu Tuka were found in a well in Ndun.
According to Mr Ismail’s father, Ismail Yusuf, the two had gone to Ndun to carry Mr Ismail’s motorcycle which he lent a Fulani friend before the attacks.
He said his son felt safe to go pick up the bike in Ndun because he was a native.
“It was on Thursday, 28 December,” the father, Mr Yusuf, recalled.
“We were calling his phone and it was ringing for so long until it started saying switched off. Till we slept that night, we didn’t see him come back. The following day, on Friday, we reported to the soldiers that both men were missing. The soldiers referred us to the police. The police told us that the Commissioner of Police or AIG was on his way so they won’t have time that day. So on Saturday they still did not attend to us. So we went to meet the hunters. When they got there, they found where they were burnt. His older brother recognised his clothes. They traced their bodies to a well.”
On 3 January, the Chief Imam of the dun community, Sani Idris, was reported killed and his brother Aliyu sustained a gunshot injury.
On 4 January, an unnamed Fulani man from Hurki village was killed in Kasuwan Awaki.
On 6 January, three natives were macheted allegedly by Fulani herders in Tamiso.
On 17 January, two people were killed in two separate incidents; One was a farmer killed on his farm in Mbar, and the other was a Fulani man.
On 18 January, a Fulani man, Ismail Audu was reported killed in Ruwi.
On 25 January, Masha Makingat was killed, and two others injured in an attack in Danbukur village.
The killings have subsided but the root causes remain, especially the cattle grazing by Fulani herders on farms owned by natives.