By Peter Duru, Makurdi
From August 2017 to August 2018, Benue State witnessed the worst humanitarian crisis in the history of the state.
In fact, between August and September 2017, the state had its dose of flood disaster which left close to 150,000 persons displaced in Makurdi, the state capital, and other communities lying on the coastline of the River Benue.
That flood disaster was an acid test for the Ortom administration.
But the government tacked the challenge through the State Emergency Management Agency, SEMA, in partnership with local and foreign partners.
Meanwhile, it was just when the over 150, 000 persons displaced by the natural disaster had relocated from the Internally Displaced Persons, IDP, the camp opened for them by government and were making concerted efforts to pick together with the bits and pieces of their lives that the unexpected happened.
The last day of 2017 and 2018 New Year’s Day were days Benue will not forget in a hurry.
It will also go down in history as the darkest days in the lives of innocent rural farmers of Benue.
They were days armed herdsmen launched coordinated attacks on Logo and Guma local government areas of the state, sacking several communities and killing over 60 in one fell swoop.
The attacks persisted and within days close to 80 persons were killed and more communities sacked.
And like a bush fire, the attacks spread to communities in Guma, Makurdi, Kwande, Agatu, Tarka, Logo, Gwer, Gwer West and Buruku local government areas and Benue suddenly became a huge IDP site.
The killings continued unabated and the stench of blood could be smelt across Benue communities and, within five months, over 500 persons had been slaughtered by the marauders who were bent on resisting the newly enacted Benue grazing law and taking over communities in the state.
At that point, the IDP situation got out of hand. Benue government was left to cater for over 500, 000 IDPs with its meagre resources.
But the people became resolute preferring to lay down their lives to protect their new grazing law and also stand unswervingly with Governor Samuel Ortom irrespective of the political divide.
Regrettably, however, the crisis exposed the Ortom administration to the enormity of the insecurity and humanitarian challenges it had to contend with.
The government at the time was left with no other option than to establish eight IDP camps in strategic locations to provide shelter and minimum comfort for victims.
The administration, through SEMA, provided relief materials and other forms of humanitarian support for the victims.
Curiously, the National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, which many had expected to lead the way in providing intervention for the victims, came in with assistance, but pundits believed they could have done much more.
The over 500, 000 IDPs received tremendous support from the state government and kept toiling in the face of fierce adversity.
And while the government was battling with the IDPs, the crisis in the southern part of Cameroon also took its toll on Benue with the arrival of over 6, 000 refugees from the troubled southern part of that neighbouring country.
The Executive Secretary of SEMA, Mr Emmanuel Shior, clearly understood the mandate he had from Governor Samuel Ortom after successfully evolving strategies to ensure prompt intervention in all humanitarian challenges and emergencies in the state.
It was perhaps based on this understanding that on assumption of office, the SEMA boss wasted no time in establishing the Abande and Imande Agbatse refugee camps in Kwande LGA to cater for the returnee Cameroonians.
Ortom later approved the relocation of the refugees from that camp to Anyake settlement also in Kwande LGA on the advice of the Interior Ministry.
Speaking recently on the refugee and IDPs situation in the state, Shior said, “We have been managing them but their population keeps increasing because we keep receiving what we call walk-ins or new arrivals but, at the moment, we have about 6,000 Cameroonian refugees at Anyake settlement area.
“But, again, following the concerns of the host community and other partners with respect to the need of the refugees and to give them more space for farming, Ortom approved their relocation from Anyake to Ikyogen Cattle Ranch.
“That government land is vast enough to accommodate them and even more because the security challenge in southern Cameroon that compelled them to flee their country to Kwande is still there and they are moving in droves to Benue”, he said.
“Painfully since 2017 till this time, it has been an onerous task on the part of the Benue government to accommodate them given that the government is also saddled with the challenge of IDPs.
“The financial burden is very huge. We have appealed to the Federal Government, through the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons, for support. They have supported quite alright especially in the area of provision of food. They have also helped in the area of data but that support is not enough because their number keeps increasing.
“We are also appealing to the National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, to come in. Part of NEMA’s mandate is to also cater for refugees and not only IDPs. They have promised to intervene.
“We have also continued to interface with UNHCR which is the leading supporter in the humanitarian crisis. We are also working with a host of other humanitarian agencies”.
“But the Benue SEMA needs more support in this regard for the refugees as well as the IDPs situation, more so that we are faced with the prospect of flooding which Nigerian Hydrological Services Agency predicted.
“As a humanitarian agency of government with a mandate to respond to such situations, we are preparing together with other line agencies Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs, but we need real support.
“We also want to add our voice to that of our governor urging the Federal Government to fulfil its pledge of N10billion for the rebuilding of communities destroyed by armed herdsmen so that the 483, 692 IDPs we are presently catering for can go back to their ancestral homes.”
Shior added that the state government had already strategically set the stage for political and economic stability, investment innovations, and opportunities, and renewed hope in purposeful and God centred governance approach as well as unfailing assiduity in providing security to the Benue people.
“The about 483, 692 IDPs in Benue are particularly grateful that the governor, through SEMA, has consistently provided them relief materials and other forms of humanitarian support just as proper attention is being accorded the Cameroonian refugees in Kwande LGA, which the governor sees as part of his administration’s responsibility,” he added.
Speaking on the Benue situation, the Country Director of Global Amnesty Watch International, Comrade Terrence Kuanum, said, “Benue SEMA under Mr Emmanuel Shior has, over time, built a synergy with organizations like the UNHCR, UNICEF, among other NGOs, which is highly commendable.
“The Federal Government should urgently release the N10billion it promised to avail states affected by herdsmen crisis. Benue should be given its share to enable SEMA and the government put in place adequate arrangements to have the IDPs move back to their ancestral homes.
“Undoubtedly the refugee and IDPs situation in Benue requires concerted and far-reaching support from the Federal Government to assist the state government and SEMA to give adequate support to the victims and further sustain its policy of providing humanitarian assistance to the needy,” Kuanum added.