Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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Benue is one of the few states in the former northern region where there is inter- ethnic and inter religious harmony. Elites from the Tiv and Idoma, the two major ethnic groups in the state often squabble over political spoils and offices. But these disputes do not go deep. The ordinary Tiv and Idoma tribesmen live happily as one people.
It is easier to hear of one Tiv clan fighting another and same with the Idoma than to hear the Tiv and Idoma fighting each other. The same can be said of the smaller indigenous tribes of the state – the Igede, the Etulo and the Jukun.Benue is also home to a large number of Ibo and Hausa merchants. They live amicably with the local folks.
If inter-ethnic conflict is rare in Benue, inter religious conflict is even more rare. Christians, Muslims and those who believe in African traditional religions do their own thing without bothering what their neighbors are doing. Few states in the north have such religious harmony.
“I ask you in the name of God to accommodate your country men.” This spontaneous advice from President Muhammadu Buhari came as a rude surprise to a delegation of prominent Benue indigenes who came to cry on his shoulder after the state was invaded on New Year’s Day this year and defenseless folks were massively mowed down.
Over the years, the itinerant Fulani herdsmen also treated Benue as home. The Benue grass, they confess is the best for their cattle. But beginning from 2008 or so, their relationship with the sedentary farmers of the state has not been very cordial. From the friendly easy going and even shy Fulani cattlemen have emerged an aggressive breed of AK47 wielding herdsmen. They march their cattle to destroy your crops, dare you and gun you down.
Over the years, this breed of herdsmen has fouled the atmosphere not only of Benue but neighboring Taraba, Nasarawa, Plateau and Southern Kaduna. To have gone on a killing spree of local folks as they slept on new year eve dreaming of a new year the next day was the most heartless thing to do.
After the massacre, most people felt the President should have visited the state to show his concern. He did not. It was the people of the state that came to him, pleading for sympathy. His plea with them to go and accommodate their compatriots was therefore ill placed. I suspect he was ill advised to make such statement. A brief look into history will make my point.
During the first republic, Benue was controlled by the United Middle Belt Congress, UMBC. The party wanted the giant north ruled by the Northern People’s Congress to be split and a Middle Belt region created. Issues were joined when the NPC opposed the creation of the proposed region. Some people saw the NPC – led by a Fulani Prince, Sir Ahmadu Bello the Sardauna of Sokoto as the party for the ruling Hausa Fulani Moslems – and the UMBC led by a Tiv Christian, Joseph Tarka as a party for the minority Christians. To dispel such wrong notions, Joseph Tarka brought Ibrahim Imam a Moslem from Borno, gave him the majestic Tiv name of IwarIwarGatie and a constituency where he contested and won elections into the Northern Regional House of Assembly.
Again, not too long ago, riots broke out all over the far north over the introduction of the Sharia law. Moslem youth murdered many Christians in Kano, Kaduna, Zamfara, Kebbi etc. As the corps of the murdered Christians arrived Benue, tempers rose high. Some angry youths set ablaze the Mosque in Gboko. George Akume who was governor of Benue at the time immediately drove to Gboko, brought the rioters to heel and ordered the rebuilding of the Mosque at government expense. This was done – speedily.
The actions of Joseph Tarka during the first republic and those of George Akume under this present dispensation are perfect examples of how tolerant the Benue man could be. If President Buhari had been properly briefed, he would have avoided making the gaffe.
As part of the measures to stop the wanton killings in the state, the President ordered the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris to relocate to the state. The IGP disregarded the order only for the president to confess later at a public meeting that he was not aware that his order was disregarded.
The President, Commander in Chief has also authorized exercise AyemAkpatuma – Cat Race – to check the herdsmen’s menace. The mass killings by the herdsmen have continued in Benue regardless. The exercise has since come to an end.
Last week, soldiers from exercise AyemAkpatuma went on a mission to Naka, headquarters of Gwer West Local Government to revenge the death of one of their own who was killed by a mob there. Pictures of the heavily armed soldiers are all over the social media as they supervised the Local Government headquarters which they set ablaze and was swooning in inferno.
A few days later, we heard the sad news of the murder of two priests – Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha in a deadly attack by herdsmen onSt. Ignatius Quasi Parish UkporMbalom.in Benue together with 17 parishioners who were attending a morning mass.The violence in Benue, the destruction of farms, the deaths and the agony of the internally displaced persons appears to have no end.
Some of us have expressed the fears that this may soon become a religious conflict. The similarities in the manner of operations – particularly the attack on churches – between the rampaging herdsmen and Boko Haram is becoming very eerie. Somebody somewhere wants to ignite a religious war in Nigeria using Benue.
What amazes me is that this government appears to be helpless in stopping this slippery and dangerous drift.