•Famine looms: All the food, all the yam and cassava and the rest of them have been destroyed and given to cows
BY PETER DURU, MAKURDI
Chief Edward Ujege, the President General of Mdzough U Tiv, is also the Chairman of tribal leaders in Benue State. In this interview, Ujege speaks on why the people of the state are disappointed at the visit of President Muhammadu Buhari to the state last Monday, why killings continue in the state, the implication for the economy and the on-going military exercise, Ayem A’ Kpatuma or Cat Race, in the state and lots more. Excerpts:
You were one of those who spoke at the town hall meeting held in Makurdi when President Muhammadu Buhari visited. What was your take-away from that meeting?
In my speech, I lent credence to the fact that the Benue State Open Grazing Prohibition Law of 2017 came to being as a result of the suffering and killings that we have been going through since 2010 and also made it clear to the President that the law was not responsible for the killings.
We also informed him of several other things the Inspector General of Police, IGP, and other of his appointees were saying that were not relevant in the Benue case that also shows a lot of hatred and dislike for us which probably indicated that they were misguiding him on the happenings here and the truth of the matter also.
But I think we made a good case of it. We had expected that when he stood up, he would, at least, condole with us for the number of people killed, which is over 2,000 and even far more. We also have close to 170,000 people in the eight Internally Displaced Persons, IDP, camps in the state at the moment. Our children are not going to school anymore. All sorts of things are happening to us as a people.
We had expected, as I said, that a father had come to make pronouncements that would give us relief, but he said nothing to that effect. In fact he spoke for around three to five minutes which was an anti-climax because he didn’t comment on the people killed. For instance, in America, when such things happen, the President is there almost immediately to condole and identify with the people. But he didn’t identify with us. We expected that he would make a pronouncement or give us hope that he would compensate and give relief to the IDPs. We didn’t hear anything of the sort.
We had requested for security agents to make it possible for the IDPs to go back to their ancestral homes; there was nothing like that. So I don’t know whether that is his own way of doing things, but we had expected much more.
From the itinerary released before the visit, the President was supposed to visit one of the IDP camps, the one in Gbajimba specifically, but that aspect of the programme was cancelled. Are you also disappointed that he couldn’t make it to that camp?
I don’t know what is happening to Benue State and the government of Muhammadu Buhari. It looks as if security agents that were sent here for the visit were so tensed. There were more police than we had ever seen in the state. And compared to the time the President spent in Nasarawa and Plateau states and other places he visited, and I think he slept in some of the places and spent quality time with the people, here we were given three minutes each to say whatever we wanted to say. Some of us had much to say but couldn’t, it was really unfortunate and I don’t know why. It looked as if he was trying to fulfil some requirements of government or so. He is our father, we voted for him and appreciate him and we were looking forward to him giving us a lot of solutions to the problems we have, but he said next to nothing.
Some people believe that following the visit of the President, the people of Benue would be spared of attacks in the rural communities by herdsmen. Do you hold that same view?
We pray and hope so but not until the attitude of security officers and ideology change. We were supposed to have a military operation, Ayem A’ Kpatuma or Cat Race, to end the killings instead of the exercise, Ayem A’ Kpatuma, that was launched. An operation is more intense because they will make sure that they disarm the invaders. Till today we do not know why it was changed to an exercise.
The Inspector General of Police also recently gave a directive that vigilante groups and the likes should be disarmed across the country but he made no mention of the disarming of militia herdsmen which means they are allowed to go about with AK 47 rifles and the like. So on the part of restricting and monitoring the attackers who have sent our people away from their homes, we are looking forward that the military that are here, and for the time they are here, will be able to arrest the situation. With regards to the issue of food or whatever relief that could come to the displaced, we also expected that things would happen but the President said nothing, there was no promise. He said until he comes back for election before he would make promises, so I don’t know what that means.
Looking at the on-going military exercise, Ayem A’ Kpatuma or Cat Race, are you impressed with the performance of the military so far?
So far not so good, we expected more. You see, the major thing is that if you go to the eight IDP camps now, you will see that people are actually suffering, they are managing to feed. Water is a problem, places to sleep also. Majority of the people there are women and children, and the children are no more going to school which means that the economy is completely down. No farming activity is taking place. This development is a prelude to an economic disaster.
We had expected that immediately the military came in, they would create an atmosphere that would help the people to go back to their ancestral homes and reclaim their places. You know that the crisis happened at a time when we were preparing for harvest. All the food, all the yam and cassava and the rest of them have been destroyed and given to cows. So the economy of the state is down and very much down. So we are expecting much more from them. They have not carried out the first part of their assignment here, so how can we give them pass mark? I am not giving them pass mark. Until they stop the killings and ensure that the people return safely to their homes and without further threats and attacks, I cannot say the exercise has met the expectation of the generality of the people of our state.
You will also recall that at the commencement of the exercise, the military issued a pamphlet to the public which we were also not happy about because, through that pamphlet, they seemed to have encouraged herders to live with us and graze in our communities without recourse to the subsisting anti-open grazing law.
It was clear from the pamphlet that the military acknowledged that the herdsmen are responsible for the large scale massacre and massive destruction in our land. Yet, without addressing the issues of justice, reparation and compensation, they were compelling Benue people to accommodate the perpetrators of the heinous crimes.
Moreover, in the pamphlet, there was no reference to the Open Grazing Prohibition and Establishment of Ranches Law 2017, which addresses the fundamental issues of making farmers and herders to coexist.
The military was not only silent on the law, but encouraged open grazing with all its concomitant consequences. This silence on the law points to the fact that they are not in its support and are not ready to ensure its enforcement.
They also assumed very wrongly that Benue people are responsible for cattle rustling which is not the case as rustling can only be undertaken by professionals in cattle rearing.
It is basic knowledge that only herdsmen engage in that business.
From the content of that pamphlet, we are scared that the military exercise in Benue could be providing cover for herdsmen to take over our land which is unacceptable.
We expect them to assist in chasing away the invaders and restoring peace which can only be possible through the enforcement of the anti-open grazing law.
Moreover, the publication of the pamphlet in Tiv language gave the impression that the Tiv people are the target of the exercise, whereas the herdsmen attacks cut across the entire Benue which is multi ethnic. So the profiling of the Tiv people is also unacceptable.
What is the implication of the crisis to the food security of Benue?
Definitely, it goes without saying that there is no food security; we may not be able to feed ourselves not to talk of commercial farming. There will be shortage of yam, cassava, millet, name it. Even our oranges have been hacked and destroyed. All our citrus trees have been destroyed. Those that do fishing on our rivers for business can no longer do that. Our animal husbandry has been affected also; you know that we do a lot of pig farming and all that. The invaders have killed all they met in our communities. In fact, Benue State and indeed the entire country would be adversely affected by the crisis.
We all know that most of the oranges that go to the North come from Benue, most of the cassava that go to the South-East come from Benue, most of the yam that go to the South-East, South-South and South-West come from Benue. The list goes on and on. So it is a disaster obviously. It’s terrible. I don’t even know how to described the implication of this crisis.
Days ago, we woke up to the shocking story of how women and children were massacred in Omusu village in Okpokwu local government area of the state. As the Chairman of the ethnic leaders in the state, what was your first reaction to that incident?
Well, this is one of the ways to assess the exercise, A’ Akpatuma, and to assess the police. My first reaction was that we had cried out to our President and he gave orders publicly and security officers either have done enough or have not done enough by their own estimation. But the fact is that if they had done enough, this issue wouldn’t have taken place. My first reaction is that the President should get them together, redirect them to ensure that it is the last that would happen in Benue. We have suffered enough and we have really suffered in the hands of herdsmen. And we are looking forward to seeing a change and an end to the senseless killings in our state.
Are you pleased with the way Governor Samuel Ortom has been confronting the challenge of herdsmen incursions in Benue?
Governor Ortom is a fantastic young man, he is a man of God and his motto is ‘In God We Trust.’ He is a man who is looking for peace for his own people. He is a man who is looking for security for his own people. He is a man who is looking for self-determination for his own people. Governor Ortom has given his all to this struggle, but, unfortunately, he doesn’t have the security apparatus that should have been given to him by the Constitution of the country.
Although he is the chief security officer of Benue, he doesn’t have the apparatus to enforce what he wants to do. He has said and done enough and we are very proud of him. You can imagine, the police are answerable to the Federal Government through the Inspector General of Police. And the IGP has not done anything to help our situation here.
How can a man, see where people are being killed and say it is a communal clash? How can a man, where people are being killed for many years, more than 15 years and they find a solution to it through the enactment of a grazing law, come out to say it is because of the law that the people are being killed? How can a man wake up and say before you enact the law, you must make sure there is a ranch and a free ranch is provided for herdsmen? Is that possible? Is he running the duty of the judiciary, the legislature and the executive? He should not.
Actually he has not helped matters, if he had not made any statements, the herdsmen wouldn’t have had the guts to come forward and attack us the way they have been doing.