By Peter Duru – Makurdi
No one saw it coming, but somehow the three strong words, ‘I am sorry’ that came from the mouth of Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State to the families of the 12 soldiers that were killed on Easter Monday by armed militia at Bonta community in Konshisha Local Government Area, LGA, of the state, during their burial last Monday, helped to doused the tension and fear of an escalated military action in Konshisha LGA.
The 12 soldiers met their untimely death during a routine peacekeeping patrol of Oju and Konshisha LGAs where the neighboring communities had been at daggers drawn over a disputed piece of farmer land.
The protracted crisis which had in the past claimed several lives and property prompted the initiation of a peace process by the state government which included the demarcation of the disputed land.
Unfortunately, just few days to the commencement of the demarcation exercise the crisis erupted again and the military had to step in by ensuring regular patrols of the troubled spots to deescalate tension and ensure the return of peace to the area.
Regrettably, the soldiers while on routine patrol were ambushed by a militia gang who killed them and confiscated their arms and ammunition.
Though initially the personnel were declared missing and a search for them was on but the confirmation of their murder by their captors necessitating a military operation in the community to track down the masterminds of the heinous crime and to recover their remains including their arms and ammunition.
The operation according to the stakeholders and traditional rulers in Konshisha LGA led to killing of two members of the gang of bandits and four others who lost their lives while fleeing the crisis area during the operation and also led to the destruction of houses and property in parts of the LGA.
Though in line with its tradition, in the course of searching for the slain personnel and missing weapons, the military carried out an operation which created collateral damage in the communities.
The government had to summon the traditional rulers and stakeholders in the community with a matching order which was also reiterated by the State Security Council that the missing weapons must be recovered and returned to the military and members of the militia who masterminded the murder of the soldiers should also be arrested.
And while the military carried on with its operation several groups pleaded for a halt in the action since it was exposing the innocent to danger and suffering.
Among the groups that appealed to the military was the Mzough U Tiv, worldwide, an umbrella body of all Tiv speaking people across the globe.
The President General of MUT worldwide and Chairman of leaders of Benue socio-cultural organisations, Chief Iorbee Ihagh condemned the action of the bandits and regretted that the military personnel who were deployed to the troubled spots in the community had to pay the supreme price in such a dastardly manner.
“We know how painful this could be but we are appealing to the military to restrain themselves from unleashing mayhem on innocent people who are also victims of these criminals element.
“I sincerely advise that since we cannot unfortunately bring back the killed soldiers, we adopt the community based approach to investigate the matter and ensure that all the confiscated weapons were recovered and returned to the military authorities.
“We know that the military have suffered loses and are now in an operation to recover their missing weapons and in the course of doing that have caused collateral damage in the community, we still urge them to realize that two wrongs cannot make a right.
“Those behind the heinous murder were criminal elements and our common enemies who did not enjoy the backing of the chiefs and stakeholders. That is why we are appealing for calm and restraint to allow the people help them fish out these criminals,” he said.
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It was gathered that the military had given the Benue state Governor their word to halt the operation to allow the stakeholders search and recover the missing weapons and have members of the militia arrested.
The Governor at the burial ceremony that took place at the Military Cemetery Wurukum, which had in attendance families and close relations of the slain soldiers, top military personnel and sympathizers, condemned killing and tendered a heartfelt unreserved public apology to the families of the slain military personnel which was like a soothing balm to the bereaved families and the military.
Hear him, “I condole Mr President who is the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, the Chief of Army Staff and indeed the leadership of our security forces in the country.
“On behalf of government and people of Benue State, we condemn the killing of our innocent soldiers who were out there to keep peace in our state.
“It is unfortunate that this incident took place. I want the Nigerian army, the families of the deceased and indeed all Nigerians to know that the attack on security personnel is an attack on all.
“This attack was unwarranted, it was not needed because all these patriotic soldiers were there to keep peace and that was why they were ambushed. Otherwise, we all know what soldiers can do and the capacity they have to defend themselves.
“So we condemn this and we want to assure everyone that my government will join hands with the security forces to ensure that all those who perpetrated this sad act are brought to book.
“I equally want to apologise to the bereaved families, in the course of my trying to manage this challenge, if I said anything that was offensive to the families of the deceased I want to say that I am sorry.
“As a leader, I needed to say something, the people needed to hear from me. And as at that time that I made the comment that it was two soldiers that were missing it was based on the information that was made available to me.
“But all the same, please I am sorry. It is the responsibility of this government to also join hands with the leadership of the army to see how we can support the bereaved families. May God rest their peaceful souls,” Governor Ortom said.
According to the Convener of the Middle Belt Movement for Justice and Peace, MBMJP, Comrade Joe Bukka “the humility exhibited by the Governor by that singular act in public glare calmed frayed nerves and disarmed the highly aggrieved and sore hearted. It deescalated the mounting anxiety and tension and further reassured everyone that his government will ensure justice for the murdered peacekeepers.
“That also contributed in no small measure in sealing the promise the military made to the Governor to cease further hostilities in the communities to allow the stakeholders and traditional rulers the opportunity to comb the communities for the confiscated weapon and eventual arrest of the bandits.
“It is highly commendable and worthy of emulation. Our leaders must learn from that singular action and realize that wisdom and humility irrespective of your high office, moves mountains,” he said.