By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South, Festus Ahon, Perez Brisibe and Ochuko Akuopha
HOW did herdsmen become so powerful to the point of tyrannizing some communities in Delta State?
This is one question many leaders of affected communities could not answer when Sunday Vanguard probed in the course of our investigation, last week, into the menace of herdsmen in the state.
The herdsmen are believed to be so influential that many police officers in the state see them as untouchable. The authorities were said to have transferred a Divisional Police Officer, DPO, in Delta, who led an operation to eject them from a community in Ethiope East local government area of the state.
A police officer, who preferred anonymity, told Sunday Vanguard: “There are powerful individuals providing cover for them, which explain why even if a policeman arrests a herdsman for any offence in the state, there is a way they do the case, it will not see the light of the day, which is the much I can tell you.”
In many communities in Delta, the dread of the herdsmen is the beginning of wisdom. However, it was found out that in some cases, community and youth leaders were the ones who compromised the security of their people by leasing their lands to the herdsmen without knowing the implication of their action.
The herdsmen you see leading cattle are the lords unto themselves; they have sponsors who armed them to rape, steal and murder villagers, using the land leased from the people or forcefully acquired as launching pads.
Elder statesman and South-South leader, Prof B. I. C, Ijomah who served for more than three years as a member of the Nomadic Commission, Kaduna, set up by the Federal Government to assist herdsmen on how to go about their business, said they have an expansionist agenda.
Efforts to check the herdsmen’s excesses in the past had been met with still with some villagers losing their lives, while others, including the lawmaker representing Ethiope Constituency in Delta State, Hon Evance Ivwurie, who mobilized security agents to chase them from their hideout in the area, came under threat.
Ivwurie took the police to the ‘Sambisa forest’ of Abraka, an area in Delta which herdsmen have taken over, built hamlets and tunnels to escape arrest. It was learnt that when the police team got to the place, the herdsmen disappeared into the tunnel and the law enforcement agents could not risk following inside.
In Uwheru, a community in Ughelli North local government area, where herdsmen seem to have taken over state and terrorize residents, they had sent about 31 persons early to their graves in the past 12 years, while 10 villagers are missing.
President- General of Uwheru community, Chief Ogarivi Utso, who spoke on the alleged killings, last Thursday, at the burial of one of the victims, lamented that herdsmen attack both men and women, rape and kill villagers. Some herdsmen reportedly killed an indigene of Oguname community a week after her marriage.
On alleged imposition of tax, Utso cited the case of the chair of Oguname village, Chief Edward Eyamu, who, he claimed, was forced to pay N10, 000 weekly to a Fulani overlord he simply identified as Garba.
He said another indigene of the community, Chief Paul Ovieba, was compelled to pay N70, 000 to herdsmen before they allowed him to commence fishing activity at the Owarien River.
Describing the herdsmen as lords unto themselves, Utso said: “The outrageous tax ranges from N10, 000 to N100, 000 per individual depending on the terms and condition.
“Presently, there is not a single indigene residing at Port Avwo, Akabanisi and Oguname as these herdsmen have taken over the communities after chasing away the residents,”he added.
Speaking on how the herdsmen acquired the lands and became so commanding, the Public Relations Officer of Uwheru Community Development Associaiton, UCDA , Prosper Adade, said: “You wake up and go to your farm as a farmer only for you to see these herdsmen there.
“There is no agreement between the community and these herdsmen and nobody gave the land to them.
“The problem actually arises when land owners upon discovering that their land has been acquired and is being occupied by these herdsmen, ask them to leave, this confrontation is what leads to attacks.
“If we come to a round table today, I can vow that they (herdsmen) cannot point to a person with whom they had an agreement over the seizure of our land. If other communities entered into such pact, there is none with us here in Uwheru.”
Some chiefs collected bribe- Ossai, community leader
Speaking on the cat and mouse relationship between his community and herdsmen, Mr. Joe Ossai, a leader in Onicha-Ukwuani, in Ndokwa West local government area, said, “What happened in our case is that we were told that some chiefs collected money from the herdsmen without telling the community.
“When the people saw that they were destroying their crops, some boys mobilized and asked them to leave the community and that is how they (herdsmen) opened fire on our people. That was what led to the closure of the road to the community for a very long time.
“Later, it was found out that some chiefs collected money from them. The herdsmen are still in the bush and, as we speak, they still come to our community to threaten our people.”
Okpanam residents sleep with one eye closed- Monarch
The traditional ruler of Okpanam in Oshimili North local government area, HRM Mbanefo Michael Ogbolu, raised the alarm about the activities of herdsmen in his domain about a week after he wrote a petition, dated April 28, 2016, to Delta State Commissioner of Police, Alkali Baba Usman, alerting of a plan by herdsmen to seize the community’s land.
He said the herdsmen were stationed at nearby Umuokake village and Obodogwugwu farmland from where they planned to invade.
In the petition entitled, “Menace of Fulani Herdsmen In Okpanam Kingdom,” the traditional ruler said because of the fear of possible attack and the herdsmen on the rampage in the area, Okpanam residents now sleep with only one eye closed.
He said that very “worrisome and nauseating is the fact that the said cattle rearers have illegally acquired our land around Ala-Obi, between Iyi Uku stream and Aja-Obi on Umuomake village, Obodogwugwu Quarters, Okpanam and they have set up a permanent settlement in the area without authorization.”
Describing the herdsmen’s activities as colonization of part of Okpanam land, the Ugoani said they destroy traps and steal animals caught by the traps, destroy crops, molest and rape female farmers in the area.“
“As a matter of fact, they have installed a Seriki (king) in our forest, and all efforts to reach them with a view to ascertaining how they gained access into our land have proved abortive because of the sophisticated weapons they wield,” he said.“He explained that the occupation of Okpanam land by the cattle rearers was similar to the activities of Boko Haram in the North which, according to him, government and security agencies must stop.
The monarch said that investigation revealed that Unuomake village in Okpanam sold the land the herdsmen occupy to the Delta State Post Primary Education Cooperative Society, saying the herdsmen’s cows destroy their farmlands while the cattle rearers wield sophisticated weapons to harass residents.
He recalled that in October 2014, he wrote a letter to former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, drawing attention to the wanton destruction of Okpanam farmland and attacks against farmers.
Herdsmen fight back
A source, however, said the herdsmen acquired the land from the community, years ago, for grazing, but when the people refused to allow them access to the land, they decided to fight.
The herdsmen, according to the source, wrote a letter to the Okpanam monarch, notifying him of their preparedness to assume ownership of the land at all costs, a situation that drove fear into the residents.
They encroach on our land from Edo — Uwabuofu
Youth President of Obiaruku community in Ukwuani local government area, Comrade Chika Uwabuofu, denied there was an agreement with herdsmen to graze their cattle in the community, saying, “but they encroach on our land, destroy our crops and harass our people on their farmlands.”
His words: “They have a settlement at Urhonigbe community in Orhiomwon local government area of Edo State which shares a common boundary with us, and from there, they move into our community. Their coming is on a seasonal basis. During the rainy season, they stay in their settlement but in the dry season they come to our community. We do not have any relationship with them, they do not know us and we do not know them.”
Mr. Ken Osademe, the councillor representing Ushie Ward 10 in Ndokwa East local government legislative arm, however, told Sunday Vanguard: “The relationship between us and the herdsmen has been peaceful. We have not been having problems with them. That does not mean, occasionally, people will not come to report that herdsmen have encroached on their farmland.”
Communities losing patience with herdsmen- Okowa
On May 30, in Asaba, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa convened a stakeholders meeting to address the pain in the neck. The stakeholders frowned at the fact that herdsmen carry weapons to attack with security agencies doing little to stop them.
At the forum, held under the theme: “Fostering Peaceful Co-existence Between Farmers, Host Communities and Herdsmen in Delta State”, were representatives of traditional rulers’ council, communities, farmers, local government council chairmen, Cattle Dealers Association and Cattle Breeders Association.
Also in attendance were representatives of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Muslim leaders, civil society organizations, Army, Police, Department of State Security (DSS), Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and Nigeria Imigration Service.
Declaring the meeting open, Okowa urged participants to speak freely about the way out of the quagmire to ensure a peaceful state.
How we are managing crisis- CP
The state Commissioner of Police, Usman, in his speech at the parley, called for tolerance, cooperation, mutual respect and peaceful co-existence among groups in the case and the communities.
At the meeting, it was resolved that security agents should be proactive and arrest anybody caught with AK 47 rifle while they should be more vigilant at the Ohoro-Bomadi Road to ensure that farmers and villagers are not attacked by herdsmen.