Nigeria: Special Report – How Local Militias Are Ruining Lives, Property in Benue

Armed conflicts in Benue State in Nigeria’s North-central region have not received media attention commensurate with the scale of the menace.

Under a cloudless blue sky one morning in July 2023, Vanger Nyitamen was conveying bags of groundnuts from his thatched house in Akpuuna – a village in Ukum Local Government Area of Benue State, North-central Nigeria – to the popular Zaki-Biam International Market. But the 43-year-old man never made it to the market.

“Gunmen in large numbers stormed the community, shooting sporadically. My husband was among those killed by the gunmen,” his widow, Shiihii, recalled.

Mr Vanger’s brother, Bem, and 22 other residents of Akpuuna were killed in the same incident by the gunmen whom the police in Benue State called indigenous bandits.

The bandits unleashed mayhem on locals for two principal reasons – to take control of markets for tax collection and to avenge the death of their leader, Terwase Akwaza, aka Gana.

Akpuuna residents are not the only victims of banditry in Benue State.

Mbapinen Gbajime, 72, was preparing for the wedding of her only son, Zungwega, billed for 2 September 2023 in Makurdi, the Benue State capital, when her joy was cut short.

As part of preparations for the great day, the 36-year-old Zungwega left Makurdi, about 300 kilometres away, for his rural Tse-Uli community in Zaki-Biam, Ukum Local Government Area of the state. He never made it home.

“Zungwega was almost home when the motorcycle he boarded from Zaki-Biam ran into a roadblock mounted by bandits,” Ms Gbajime, his mother, recalled in their native Tiv language.

“They seized Zungwega and the motorcycle; tied them up before choking them to death,” Ms Gbajime recalled eyewitnesses’ account of how the bandits murdered her son on 21 August 2023, 12 days before his wedding.

PREMIUM TIMES visited the bereaved Gbajimes at their ancestral home at Tse-Uli, an agrarian community in Benue near the state’s boundary with Taraba State.

Seated on a wooden bench in a thatched hut and sandwiched by her remaining four daughters, Ms Gbajime was shelling melons from a calabash as sun rays pierced through the tattered roof.As this reporter alighted from the motorcycle that conveyed him to Tse-Uli, Ms Gbajime wore a forlorn face.

Benue State, located in Nigeria’s North-central region, has been in the throes of armed conflicts – cattle herders’ terrorism and local banditry – most of which have not received media attention commensurate with the scale of the menace in the state.

Hiding under the veneer of Fulani herders terrorism for over five years, local terror gangs within rural communities kill, kidnap, maim, loot and destroy locals’ property, residents say.

A former governor of the state, Samuel Ortom, constantly blamed Fulani herders for the incessant killings and displacement of rural farmers but ignored the indigenous criminals.

The felons have their base in the Benue North-east senatorial district comprising Katsina-Ala, Logo, Ukum, Kwande, Ushongo, Vandeikya and Konshisha local government areas.

Mr Ortom had bickered with the Nigerian military in September 2020 over its killing of Terwase Akwaza, who was popularly known as Gana – a militia leader accused of heinous crimes against communities within the local council areas.

A botched amnesty programme for the gunmen and Gana’s extrajudicial killing by troops of Operation AYEM APKATUMA III led to a deterioration of security in the area as the deceased militia leader’s foot soldiers vowed to avenge his death.

Galma Ibrahim, secretary of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), Benue State chapter, in an earlier interview with PREMIUM TIMES, denied the allegations that Fulani herders were responsible for the violence in farming communities in the state.

Mr Ibrahim alluded to “criminal elements” hiding under the veneer of herders terrorism to attack residents. He referred to the gruesome assassination of a businessman, Terkura Suswam, at his residence in Logo Local Government Area.

Mr Suswam, who was the elder brother of a former governor of the state, Gabriel Suswam, was murdered at his rural home in Logo, six months after Gana was killed. Residents said his assassination in March 2021 was believed to be a fallout of the bandit leader’s killing by the military.

The local bandits loyal to Gana accused former Governor Suswam of luring the deceased from his enclave to the failed amnesty programme of the state government, the sources said. Mr Suswam vehemently denied the accusation.

A lawyer and human rights advocate, Ephraim Ayati, traced the history of the violence to 2019 when it began in Katsina-Ala before it later spread to Logo and now Ukum, the epicentre, described as a “war zone” by the Benue State Police Command.

Ms Gbajime is still inconsolable over the obliteration of her family’s lineage in patriarchal Tiv society due to her only son’s murder by the bandits.”For Zungwega, whenever I talked about marriage with him, he promised to marry and have many children beyond my expectation that would carry on the family name after the death of his brothers,” the septuagenarian widow said.

But a more painful aspect of her loss is the battle of economic survival occasioned by Zungwega’s death. He had become the breadwinner, thanks to Ms Gbajime’s relentless toiling on her farmland and the loans she took from local cooperative societies to see Zungwega through the university.

“We are farmers. So, I took loans and paid later after selling farm produce to sponsor Zungwega’s education, hoping he would cater for me in my old age. Now, I have lost him and everything,” Ms Gbajime wailed as she counted her loss.

On his part, Shiwua, a 68-year-old retired headteacher, grapples with raising the 24 grandchildren left behind by his slain sons.

Vanger and Bem were killed, alongside 22 others, in Akpuuna in July 2023 while taking groundnuts to Zaki-Biam International Market.

“While Vanger had 11 children, Bem had 13. How do I cater for these children and their mothers,” Mr Shiwua wondered as he took this reporter to the mass grave site where the remains of his sons and 17 out of the 22 other slain residents of Akpuuna were interred in August last year.

As the sun set on the Akpuuna community on 2 September 2023, 40-year-old Shiihii Vanger, Mr Vanger’s widow, lamented the burden of catering for the 11 children left behind by her deceased husband.”Tilling the soil as a woman to provide food and other necessities of life has been difficult,” she said.

Recalling the tragic event that threw Mr Vanger’s family and the entire community into horror with an indelible scar, the head of the Akpuuna community, Zaki Ornguga, said the criminals who invaded the community were more than 50.

“The bandits rode on motorcycles into our community in the morning. They were not Fulani herdsmen; they began to shoot indiscriminately and burn houses for over an hour and when they were done, 24 people were dead,” Mr Omguga said.

Bandits at the heart of the carnage

Two bandits, called Chen and Fullfire, lead the two gangs behind the murderous charge in the Sankera axis of Benue North-east senatorial district, comprising Logo, Katsina-Ala and Ukum local government areas. The gangs have relentlessly attacked communities, leaving in their trails blood and anguish.

Last September, the police spokesperson in the state, Sewuese Anene, announced the arrest of Fullfire whose real name is Terhemen Mzaga.

Why violence persists

Straddled on a tilted tree trunk in front of a table filled with alcoholic drinks on the southern fringes of Makurdi in mid-September last year, Aondona (not real name) scowled as he sipped from a calabash bowl of burukutu, a local drink made from fermented guinea corn.

With his entire face stitched and fingers shattered, Aondona’s look depicts the dangerous life he had lived as a bandit in the hinterlands of Sankera. He claimed to have renounced banditry after he survived a major offensive from the military in Zaki-Biam.

“These boys want to be in charge of markets where they can collect weekly taxes on farm produce,” Aondona said under the condition that his real identity is not revealed.

He traced the history of banditry to the Kundav community in Ukum where some young men killed four traditional rulers in separate incidents around 2019.

Security experts across the three main local government areas of Ukum, Katsina-Ala and Logo, blamed the escalation of the violence on a failed amnesty programme for repentant bandits by the then-Governor Ortom administration.

The government had reportedly issued revenue receipt booklets to gangs; enabling them to levy each truckload of yams and other farm produce N500.”There will be no peace. These two things, I have told you: the (failed) amnesty (programme) that claimed lives (of Gana and his foot soldiers), and stoppage of weekly earnings from the markets. These two things I told you are at the root of what is happening in Sankera,” Aondona said, corroborating the views of experts on the issue.

To sustain their gangs, Fullfire and Chen resorted to kidnapping; deploying the proceeds from ransom payments to procuring arms from Taraba State in the north-east.

Kidnapping and illegal taxes on locals have been the oxygen that is driving banditry in Benue State. Last July, a medical doctor, Asema Msuega, was abducted by gunmen in Ukum while on malaria supervision duty.

In another instance, an 81-year-old former chairperson of Ukum, Raymond Erukaa, was kidnapped in September but died in captivity in October after his abductors squeezed a N2 million ransom from his family.

Since the upsurge in banditry in 2021, the hoodlums have imposed taxes in the Torov, Ityuluv, Kundav, Adzendeshi and Mbayenge communities of Ukum.

Using “Orkpande” (chiefs in the hamlets) as tax collectors as it was in colonial Nigeria, the bandits levied traders and farmers and forced the closure of markets in Kyado, Chito, Gbagir and Joota villages located along the Zaki-Biam-Taraba highway.

Before the spike in criminal activities, over 300-lorry loads of yams were offloaded weekly at the multimillion naira Zaki-Biam International Yam Market, where N80,000 was levied per vehicle.

But that is no more as the market now operates skeletal services because of double taxation by the bandits.

“These bandits want to be the only collector of revenues from traders and farmers. Farmers pay them with bags of groundnuts, guinea corn, tubers of yams,” a farmer who did not want his name in print for security reasons told this reporter in September during his field trip to Ukum.

Living in dispersed settlements, the bandits imposed taxes that ranged from N200,000 to 500,000, depending on the number of households in a particular community.

Heads of local governments fashioned out a way of appeasing the criminals with “handouts,” after Mr Ortom reportedly stopped the payment of N10,000 allowance per month as part of the amnesty programme.

“To end it (the criminality), he (Mr Ortom) asked us to come out of the bush promising to pay us N10,000 per month. But we were making millions of naira from market taxes and other things.

“Now, we are left with nothing after some of our members were deceived and killed by the military,” a bandit in Katsina-Ala narrated his grouse with the government.

With a vast network of informants in the communities, the bandits run operational bases across the local government areas, attacking their prey with precision.

Like in many states of Nigeria, the emasculation of the local governments in Benue State contributes to eroding the capacity of local authorities to play any significant role in checking the activities of the criminals. This is one of the remote reasons for the persistent spike in crimes.

The absence of social and economic opportunities like jobs and skills acquisition have also rendered young people susceptible to crime.

However, the incumbent governor, Hyacinth Alia, who assumed office last May, launched a 10,000-youth-empowerment programme in ICT, aimed at providing digital skills for both local and international job opportunities.

“There are many vacancies in ministries, departments and agencies. Very soon, we will commence employment of the youth into the state’s civil service,” Mr Alia told journalists in Makurdi last November.

Terlumun Uji, a professor of History and International Studies at the Federal University of Lafia, Nasarawa State, drew a connection between local banditry and herders terrorism that has plagued the state for over a decade.

Mr Uji said for too long, rural communities in the state were neglected by successive governments, creating an avenue for the recruitment of youth into thuggery for election purposes.

“The recourse to the use and control of militant groups has been a strategy of the political class to manipulate elections and eliminate opponents,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.

Mr Uji noted that rural communities are the most underdeveloped sectors of Nigeria with a high concentration of poor people with limited access to the means of production.

“There is a dialectical relationship between what is poverty and underdevelopment and how that explains banditry, thuggery and violent extremism,” the don said.

He said oligarchs amongst pastoralists needed mercenaries for the advancement of their land-grabbing campaign, which they found in “young indigenous people” in Benue State.

The armed mercenaries resort to kidnapping, killings, robbery and extortion when there is no political mission to execute.

“It is a thin line that divides herdsmen militia from banditry. It is an entire system that is knitted together.”

Experts blame the herders-farmer conflicts on the government’s failure to develop the two economies – crop farming and pastoralism – a problem aggravated by the shrinking of the Lake Chad Basin that stretches across the north-eastern Nigerian state of Borno.

Countermeasures fail

Worried by the crippling violence in Ukum, Katsina-Ala and Logo, Mr Ortom banned the use of motorcycles in 2021 in the three traumatised local government areas. But the action was overturned by a State High Court in Benue and later affirmed by the Court of Appeal in Makurdi.Human rights lawyer, Mr Ayati, argued that the move was counterproductive as it did not tackle rising crimes but only inflicted hardship on residents whose livelihoods depended on commercial motorcycling.

Despite heavy deployment of soldiers and police officers in a major operation called “Operation Zenda JTF” along highways, bandits continue to overrun communities.

From Katsina-Ala to Ukum, there are over 30 military checkpoints along the 180-kilometre stretch of the Zaki-Biam-Taraba highway. However, the inaccessibility of hinterlands in the event of distress calls could be blamed on either the lack of motorable roads or their deplorable condition.

For instance, the feeder road from the Akpuuna community where 24 people were massacred in July remained impassable when PREMIUM TIMES visited victims of the attack in September.

But, Tiza Imojime, Benue State commissioner for works, told this newspaper that efforts are on to commence construction of rural roads across the state.

In a countermove in October last year, Mr Alia “implored traditional rulers to up their ante by ensuring that the security situation in their various domains improved for the better.”

The governor did not announce any plan to equip traditional rulers to rise to the security challenges in their domains.

A Nigerian professor in the United States, Pita Agbese, said “entrusting security to men who had no means of ensuring their own security or the security of their subjects was foolhardy.”

On 18 September 2023, the police spokesperson in Benue State, Ms Anene, announced a breakthrough with the arrest of Fullfire and some of his gang members for the carnage at Akpuna village earlier in July.

“These gang members specialise in kidnapping, attacking and killing members of the public. The most recent is the gruesome murder of innocent people at Akpuuna community on 21/7/2023 in Ukum LGA,” Ms Anene said.

The magnitude of the problem

While it is difficult to ascertain the quantum of casualties and losses occasioned by local banditry alone, the Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) puts the number of lives lost to insecurity in the state between 2010 and 2022 at 28,997.

SEMA is the state’s agency saddled with the responsibility of catering for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and other survivors of emergencies in Benue State.

Further disaggregation of the data showed that 54,476 houses and crops valued at over N21 billion were destroyed by violence majorly orchestrated by herders.

The crisis did not spare public institutions as the data revealed the burning of five police stations and 33 markets across the state during the period reviewed.

Vincent Gisaor, an economist and lecturer at the Federal University, Wukari, Taraba State, said the burning of markets aggravates the destruction of the state’s rural economy; where business transactions relevant to production, distribution and exchange have been halted.

Just as police facilities were shut down, the Benue State High Court division at Sankera in Ukum was also closed. The judge, John Shishi, was forced out of the court by violence.

Over 54,476 houses have been reportedly destroyed excluding thatched houses. In Akpuuna community, for instance, the bandits last July set 13 houses ablaze as they went on the rampage.

In Zaki-Biam, over 28,000 people are sheltering at camps, while Katsina-Ala and Logo grapple with 30,058 and 29,813 displaced persons, respectively.As of September 2021, SEMA said 1.6 million people in Benue State were displaced by insecurity. The number constitutes one-fifth of the state’s total population of eight million people.

Since the emergence of Mr Alia as governor in May 2023, armed violence persists despite some meetings with heads of the Nigerian military to tackle the issue.

Benue has been in the throes of armed violence with the recent massacre of police operatives and bank customers in a daylight armed robbery at Otukpo, the southern part of the state.

Charting a way forward, experts recommended an effective local government system that provides agro-skilled centres to empower the local economy and create a value chain.

In Nigeria, much of the money from the central government to the local government is believed to be seized by some state governors.

The attendant consequences have been insecurity and the collapse of social amenities like schools and clinics.

Mopping up illegal arms and prosecuting perpetrators of crimes are also important in tackling the problem.

“We need some kind of rehabilitation and demobilisation of armed youths. We need to develop a youth policy that mobilises young people for development,” Mr Uji recommended.

(This report was produced with the support of the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development and the Open Society Foundations.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *