By Emma Ujah, Emma Elebeke & Laide Akinboade
The traditional stool in every African society brings with it awe, wealth and imperial satisfaction to make the traditional ruler the envy of most people. However, for the Oche Achega, the paramount ruler of Achega in Agatu Local Government Area of Benue, his reign has been marred by the burden and sorrow of being a continual mourner. Agatu, once a serene, prosperous local government area, producing large quantities of food stuff and fish, is now a ghost of itself, no thanks to deadly attacks by Fulani fighters since 2013.
For many centuries, the peace-loving Agatu people’s only main challenge was the impassible Otukpo- Oweto Road which made it difficult for them to convey their farm produce to the market. Today, however, the once-thriving community people do not just worry about means of livelihood, they worry about their very existence. Most of those who survived the attacks have deserted the villages, while the elderly and children, who could not run away or had nowhere else to go, live in the nightmare of the attacks. To Agatu, life has lost its meaning as the attacks could happen anytime, leaving behind young widows and orphans who are too young to imagine why their parents were being hacked to death.
Between November 2013 and January this year, the traditional ruler lamented that over 200 people have been killed by the Fulani attackers in his community.
The attackers, he said, used two main strategies to exterminate the defenceless villagers: surround the settlements, set the houses on fire and shoot down anyone that runs out of the burning buildings. The fact that many of the poor villagers lived in thatched huts made their case worse. Besides, the Oche Achega said modern houses which could not be easily ignited were attacked with petrol bombs.
What worries the king most is the increasing sophistication of the weapons with which the attackers launch their assault.
His words, “The first time they came, they came with bows, arrows and guns, including AK47. Then, they came through Oweto via Nassarawa in Nasarawa State.
The second time was in December 2013, they came through Kogi State and attacked Egwuma and environs. That same period, they also came to Okokolo, Ocholanya, Abogbe where they killed 15 people.
“So far, about 200 lives have been lost and many people displaced, due to the incessant attacks and nonchalant attitude of government.
Some of my people ran to Ugbokpo, the headquarters of Apa Local Government Area and Odugbeho where there are about 10,000 displaced people today.”
Oche Achega said his concern heightened following the discovery that the Fulani raiders were also hiring mercenaries from Mali and Chad to fight Agatu people.
In the process of repelling the attackers, the Agatu vigilante, he stated, discovered that some of them were indeed not Fulani and had no idea of the terrain of the theatre of war.
‘No security presence’
The monarch lamented that the state and federal governments had abandoned his people to be slaughtered like beasts on their land. He said that it was only the initial attacks that attracted any form of response from the government as a few policemen and soldiers were sent there but that it was only after the attackers had carried out the killings and destruction of their properties worth billions of Naira.
“The negligence is at all levels. The state government hasn’t made any serious effort to curb the attacks. That is why we decided to cry out.
The only time government showed concern was the last time they sent a detachment of soldiers after the attack on Abogbe and left the following morning”, Oche Achega said.
“And as I am talking to you now, there is no single security presence in the area. So many people on the coastal lines are no more in their houses.
They have sacked Ocholoyan, Abogbe, and there are so many of them. They just occupy the communities for a short period of time and then leave with the intention to come back because they know our people will fight back”.
‘Vigilante to the rescue’
According to the chief, the only resemblance of security in Agatu are the local vigilantes who are essentially young men who chose to die in the battle to repel Fulani attackers than stay in their parents’ homes and be shot dead or burnt.
He regretted that the boys had no arms to match the attackers weapons.
No NEMA assistance
“I can tell you that since then, no NEMA official has come to our rescue. In fact, the Federal Government has not done anything. Even those who have been displaced are not being attended to”, Oche Achega said.
“The problem has been the issue of farmland. I think farmland has been the major issue in the matter. In 1986, because of the issue of destruction of farmlands by the Fulani cattle and the killing of a woman on her farm, they were driven away by our people. Now they want to come back and they think the way to go about it is to attack our people, kill or drive away the survivors and then occupy our land”.
On the immediate cause of the current crisis, the monarch said: “The present attacks started as a result of the problems the Fulani herdsmen had with Tiv people. They was a peace meeting to be held to settle the matter. Unfortunately Tiv people ambushed the Fulani leaders on their way to Ocholoyan and the Fulani blamed Agatu people for the attacks.
“Since that 2013, the Fulani people said they wouldn’t agree to a settlement and, in January 2015 alone, they have attacked us more than four times but each time they come, my people repel them and they have been fighting with mercenaries.”
He disclosed that although the Benue State government had organized several peace meetings in the past, the meetings had only been between Tiv and Fulani, they have never involved the Agatu people.
“The state government hasn’t shown any concern for the Agatu people in this regard because there is no presence of security personnel in the affected communities. I think it is pure negligence of government. Maybe, the reason is because the government is overwhelmed by insecurity in the country, that it does not matter to them when people die.
“There was never a time we attacked the Fulani, they will just cross over the River Benue, kill our people and run across the river into Nassarawa State.
“We need a detachment of mobile police force at the coastal lines like Abogbe, Ocholanya and Ogbanchenyi that have been sacked.
The people are in the bush and no more land for them to farm again and Okpanchenyi is the town that produces the bulk of the food we eat in Benue State. We all know that Agatu people are farmers and major agricultural contributors in Benue state. And now that they are supposed to be preparing for the raininy season, they cannot do so because of fear.
“We want government to take a step to reconcile the Fulani herdsmen and Agatu farmers as it is seen in the civilised world.
Agatu is ready for peace.
I want to urge the state and federal governments to take practical steps to secure our villages. Farming is very important to us. What oil is to the Ogoni and other Niger Delta people is what agriculture is to our people. Just as oil contributes to the nation’s economy, our farming contributes a great deal to the economy of this nation. Therefore, we should be allowed to pursue our legitimate means of livelihood without hindrance from any group of people in the country. We are on our ancestral land and we have nowhere else to go”.