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Standing on the graves of Agatu before crisis turns to tragedy

By Dele Sobowale

“ Late, Joseph Enenche,  Joseph Yakubu, Joseph Alabali, Eluma  Godday, Ojo Godday, Abia Michael, BlessingMichael, Ngbede Anjonu, Ayo Joseph, Ikwuunife Anjonu, Sunday Edo, Isah Edo, Ibrahim Otache, Abu  Alhassan, Andrew Samson, Onyachei John, Eluma Ochechie, Ibrahim Jumoh, Ochewuikuru Pius, Musa Ikpa, Musa Ibrahim, Anjela Ogoto, Ekoja Ochiba, Jenebu Ocheinu, Oyigowo Yakubu, Yakubu Ishu, Saduan Itologwu, Allihasan Isa, Yakubu Ali, Onune Sule Daddy Isaac, Ochokpefu Alabali, Momoh Kasimu”—33 out of several unknown victims of the siege of Agatu. Source: EDOR OBIABO, The ADA-GALE of Aila, Agatu, Benue State, at Egba Agatu, May 4, 2016.

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” US President John Kennedy, 1917-1963.

President Kennedy made that remark during his inauguration address in 1960. I landed in the USA nine months after the assassination of the man who made my American university education possible. But, I always had in mind his advice to Americans. And, I don’t see why it can’t apply to Nigerians. Until now, I never had an opportunity to do something for our country. The genocide at Agatu changed that position. Suddenly, it was difficult to sleep. The thought of several hundred fellow Nigerians slaughtered and thousand rendered homeless by other fellow Nigerians was more than I could bear – especially when everything in the media point to the possibility that more carnage might be on the way. It was time to set out and find out what can be done.

So, in a way this series of articles is tribute to the “Agatu 33”, named above and others nationwide still to be named. I have just started work. As soon as possible, I will cover Nimbo and other places  in search of answers to the questions asked by ace columnist Lawal Ogienagbon, in THE NATION OF May 5, 2016. “Why is it that herdsmen have suddenly become killers? Are they being treated as outcast in their host communities? When did such hostile treatment begin? Something must be behind the sudden transformation of these herdsmen.” Unless we find answers to those questions, we might slide into an unwanted war before we realize it.

Like most tragedies occurring in Nigeria, the siege of Agatu by armed men, had been badly reported and mostly misinterpreted in a manner that is now drawing us towards uncontrollable violent conflict. The “Agatu 33”, for lack of a better name to describe them, would either become known in the history as the strongest wake up call for national action regarding the incessant fatal clashes between the herdsmen and farmers/host communities or they will constitute the first installment in a series of deaths resulting from other clashes in the future.

Most of us might not be aware, but, there are groups, North and South, which for reasons known to them and us, want Nigeria to break up. This crisis has presented them with the opportunity to achieve their objectives by posing as champions of their people. Those opposed to the “Balkanisation” of Nigeria are confronted with the devil’s choice. They can take the easy way out and join the mass hysteria whipped up by the “militants”. Or, they can make the tough choice and stand up for Nigeria. I have chosen the latter. But, in order to convince others sitting on the fence, irrefutable facts are needed.

In fact, the Agatu invasion and subsequent reactions, reports and commentaries can be used as a case study on how ingrained prejudices, rumours, misinformation (deliberate or inadvertent) and outright lies have combined to push us to the brink of another civil strive – but one with a difference. This would not be like the last war in which there were declared “enemies”. Any conflict starting on account of the herdsmen crisis will result in several fronts at once. Anyone expecting a North versus South encounter is self-deluded. The ethnic nationalities on both sides can never come together to create a united front. .

The trip to Agatu, with a brief stop-over in Ukpabi Nimbo, Enugu State, has proved to me that we are already suffering some of the unintended consequences of an undeclared war. It is in order to avert nationwide tragedy that I undertook the fact finding tour at my own expense. Whatever readers find on these pages are entirely the facts uncovered during the trip, not only about Agatu, but about the crisis in other places that is threatening to tear our country apart.

For those readers who might ask the question “why do you think you can offer a different insight that would help avert pervasive violent clashes”? Let me provide some reasons as best as possible.

First, several weeks after the invasion, it became noticeable that something was wrong with the reports, the commentaries and the recommendations by several highly placed individuals – especially newspaper columnists. Like Lawal, I was not getting any answers to why the sudden attack. Was it possible that nobody had been to Agatu to investigate the matter?

Second, the staff of the leading Nigerian newspapers, as I should know, are predominantly Southern Christians; while the Fulani herdsmen, who ha been judged in absentia and found guilty, are almost all Muslims. The few Northern Muslim columnists engaged by the Lagos/Ibadan media houses can be counted on the fingers of one hand; and you wouldn’t even use up all of them. So, let us honestly ask ourselves, “Can a Northern Muslim group expect impartial justice from a jury composed of all Southern Christians? It is very doubtful.

In fact, the use of the words “Fulani herdsmen” is prejudicial and demonstrates total ignorance. I know that because in my ten years in the North, seven were spent rearing cattle and engaging herdsmen. At no time were they all Fulani. At North Brewery Limited, Kano, at least three of the senior managers including me, had livestock and engaged herdsmen and women (that shows another common lack of knowledge), one Supervisor worked for all of us, late Yinusa Idi, who was a Gwari, man not Fulani. So, there is pervasive ignorance among the Lagos/Ibadan media people who are supposed to be informing the people. Instead, they have continued to combine ignorance with prejudice and are busy whipping up hysteria everywhere. I feel disgusted each time a respected columnist writing on this issue mentions Fulani herdsmen. When my vendor delivered THE PUNCH on Saturday, May 7, 2016, with screaming headlines FULANI HERDSMEN ATTACKS, I promptly gave the paper to the woman selling roasted plantains. If the editors of a leading paper are so ignorant, what can one expect from the masses?  So, I owe it a responsibility to Nigeria to correct the massive falsehood in the Southern Nigerian media about this crisis. ALL HERDSMEN ARE NOT FULANI. That is the first fact that must be established.

I received the shock of my life when I landed in Agatu with a free-lance photo-journalist, Oche King. No newspaper or magazine correspondent had been there. All the stories on which responsible people were basing comments, which could destabilize Nigeria, were hearsay o, rumours…

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