Sunday, 14 August 2016

Running The Gauntlet In Benue

Outside the Northeast where Boko Haram insurgents operated for about seven years before they were neutralised, and apart from the Niger Delta where there is dreadful unease in anticipation of a military invasion to curb militant activities, Benue State in the North-Central geopolitical zone is probably the most attacked state in Nigeria.

In October 2001, soldiers invaded a number of communities in Logo and Zaki-Biam local governments to revenge the abduction and murder of 19 soldiers whose mutilated bodies were dumped around Zaki-Biam by a Tiv militia.

The murdered soldiers were part of a military detachment deployed in the area to keep the peace between warring Tiv and Jukun communities. Over a hundred people were killed in the revenge attack, a replay of the killing and revenge attacks that took place in Odi, Bayelsa State, a few months after ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office in 1999.

There was no inquiry in 1999 to investigate the Odi massacre, and there was also none to examine a replay of that affliction in Zaki-Biam in 2001. Impunity has thus flourished everywhere, just as the festering problems that caused militias to take the law into their own hands have not abated.

In the latest Benue attack, soldiers reportedly razed about 100 houses in Katsina-Ala, Gbishe and Tor Tonga towns while searching for a militant leader, Terwase Akwaza, earlier declared wanted for murder by the police. The invasion was sanctioned by the state security council which was anxious to end the spate of militant attacks in those communities.

In February 2016, herdsmen swooped on Agatu in the same state and, by some estimates, killed over 300 people in revenge for the alleged slaughter of scores of cows, perhaps for wrongful grazing. Other estimates put the death toll at some 500. While the Senate attributed the killings in Agatu to Boko Haram, and the federal government maintained undignified silence, a Fulani leader openly claimed the killings were in retaliation for the killing of hundreds of cows owned by Fulani cattle owners and the murder of a notable Fulani leader on peace mission from the West African region.

No inquiry has been set up to investigate the killings, let alone interrogate those who accepted responsibility for the mayhem.

Nigeria is rife with self-help. Few people retain hope in the justice system to arbitrate conflicts and resolve them. And just as many people are opting for self-help, even law enforcement officers and other security agencies, including the military, have also embraced self-help.

The killing of eight policemen in Odi, Bayelsa State, in 1999 was indefensible; but the indiscriminate revenge killings staged by soldiers were also absolutely indefensible. Yet no lessons were learnt. Murdering 19 soldiers in Zaki-Biam was barbaric; yet nothing justified the revenge attacks by security agents, especially when innocent people were massacred. Nothing excuses the criminal activities of the militant leader, Mr Akwaza, and his group; but it was unprofessional and deplorable for security agents to virtually burn down whole communities after failing to apprehend the militants.

Indeed, in the past few months, Benue State has been under siege from sundry forces, both lawful and unlawful. The state, one of the food baskets of Nigeria, needs relief from its agonies. While herdsmen need to be tackled vigorously by both the federal government and its security agencies, which have shown gross dereliction of duty, it is also urgent for the state government to adopt civilised and constructive measures in dealing with criminals in Benue communities.

The government may be right to say its carrot approach had ended in its engagement with militants, but in wielding the stick, perhaps a much bigger stick than it envisages, the state has a responsibility to ensure that innocent people are not needlessly endangered. Often Nigerian governments have approached threats to peace and stability emotively and immaturely. They need to adopt very scientific approach in tackling crime and militancy.

There is no alternative to science if the problem is not to spiral out of control one day.

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