*’Security agents see them, know they are occupying our homes’

*Women, children who ran to schools were trailed, killed

*INEC holds elections in occupied villages

Long before the current widespread insecurity across Nigeria, Plateau State had been a theatre of killings-no thanks to conflicts between the natives and nomadic herdsmen.

The bloodbath, which has continued till date on an alarming scale, has left thousands killed and displaced since 2001. Apart from killings, which seem to have become the new normal, the natives are claiming that 102 communities have been annexed by herders.

They are angry and want to return to their ancestral lands said to have been occupied and renamed by the herdsmen. Son of the first Gbong Gwom of Jos and spokesperson for Southern Middle Belt Alliance, SAMBA, Prince Rwang Pam Jr., in this interview, tells the story of the 102 ‘’occupied’’ communities.

He wants the state governor, Simon Lalong, to commence the implementation of Plateau State Anti-land Grabbing Law, adding that,“once the governor makes it operational, lands would be returned to their owners while the herdsmen return to where they came from.’’

By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor

You recently raised the alarm that about 102 communities in Plateau State have been invaded and annexed by Fulani herdsmen since 2001. To anybody, the conquering of communities sounds strange in modern times…

We are living in an age where almost everything is possible, both the good and the bad. Unfortunately for Plateau State and most parts of the Middle Belt, we have been under attack since 2001. There are always skirmishes in Jos.

But that is always settled politically. Within these 20 years, various governments that had the interest of the people at heart had constituted various commissions of inquiry. The Justice Nikki Tobi Commission is one. And their reports are all in the public domain. There is an agenda for the cleansing of the indigenous Plateau and Middle Belt tribes. These are people that don’t have any other country but Nigeria.

While this started long ago before the administration of Buhari, we saw actions by previous administrations to curb the menace. After Governor Joshua Dariye there were a lot of crises and killings. After him, over 500 people were killed in Dogonawa in one night. Dariye did his best to curb the situation. Jonah Jang and Dariye, by their body language and actions, indicated that they have the interest of the people at heart.

Could you explain that…

They took steps to avoid conflict areas with wisdom and wide consultations. They didn’t hold elections in Jos North. They appointed caretaker committees or interim leaderships to avoid conflict. If they were to appoint, they looked for indigenous persons to lead. They looked for Afizare people or even somebody from Miango because they knew those people are indigenous.

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They tried to maintain peace. Jang went a step further by establishing a vigilante group that had the support of people and the state House of Assembly. It was known as Operation Rambo. Youths were employed. Instead of taking up arms and fighting, instead of going into drugs or drinking from morning to evening, they were conscripted into the task force.

They were being paid and the police were there to guide them. They complimented the security of the area, making the situation deteriorate into what it is now. But under the current administration within which the whole thing escalated, from the federal to state level, it is a different ball game entirely. In the Buhari and Lalong regime, the annexation happened regularly. Weekly, you hear about people being killed in all corners of Plateau State. In places like Barkain Ladi, it went on. They will capture and kill.

And those who are able to survive run and hide somewhere. Sometimes they run to shelters like primary schools and churches. But some of them were followed to the primary schools and were killed there. Every single week there is an act. And when I say attack, I mean people who were sleeping in their homes being killed. Women and children are killed. There is nothing like humanity in the hearts of perpetrators. The most worrisome is that in the face of these, our President has never deemed it fit to visit Plateau State.

Even when government spoke about the killings, it said they were being done by non-indigenous Fulani. Surprisingly, in their regime, the borders of Nigeria were open for all Fulani all over the world to come in. Funny enough, this was the same time that borders were closed for regional trade. Some northern governors even said all the Fulani in the world are welcome. Nobody is stopping this mass movement into Nigeria. That is why the crisis in Plateau and other parts of Nigeria is increasing.

We are not the cause of desertification if that is what they claimed is pushing them into Nigeria. Of course, it is not. It seems there is an agenda to annihilate indigenous tribes through killings and occupation. That has continued village after village and hamlet after hamlet. Internally Displaced Persons, IDPSs, in the state are not being carried along like those in the North-East. At one time, the Vice President came, after another set of massacre where dozens were killed in Barakin Ladi, the victims were kept in Bukuru, Jos South Local Government Area, N10 million pledge was made to assist them. Nobody has heard anything about it till date. It seems our people have been marked for annihilation.

INEC

During elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, still sends materials to those villages where indigenous people have been forcefully driven out from their father’s land. In fact, I was among election observers. We went round but couldn’t go to those annexed villages.

But people in IDP camps were asked to go back to their villages and vote. We asked ourselves how that could be possible because their villages have been taken over by herdsmen. I have neighbours who were absorbed by relatives and friends. Some are from those villages taken over by invaders. One among them is a village head. He is an old man.

Some young men among them went back to the village to visit their farms. It was not even in the village but on the outskirts. But as they were there, they were shot by herders. Luckily, they escaped with their motorcycle with gunshot injuries. They went in the morning and came back early. When I asked why they returned so early, they narrated their experience. They said the invaders have erected their flag and changed the name of their village.

That is how Hamahangai came about. Government is aware of this. Any time you hear about demilitarization of communities to curb the crisis, it is only indigenous persons that are stripped of anything they have. Any time there is an attack by the herders and the indigenes defend themselves, law enforcement agents will come for those who defended themselves and not the attackers. These attackers do not vanish. Security agents know they are occupying our homes. Government has never for once gone there to demilitarize them. Government has never classified them as terrorists.

These people come with arms. We often see our relatives with bullet wounds while corpses litre the places. Clearly, there is a plan to annihilate us. When attacks happen, some say it was allegedly committed by herdsmen. They are not alleged herdsmen, they are Fulani herdsmen. Survivors know their identity and when they come to attack, they shout “God is great’’ in Arabic. They kill women and children while mothers watch their daughters being raped. It is just pathetic. The killings have continued because government allowed them. The annexed communities have increased to 102 because government allowed it to happen.

Do these invaders take over uninhabited territories in the communities or areas where the displaced people resided?

Clearly, they come to communities where people are domiciled. They come to ancestral homes where people live, displace the indigenes and take over their homes. In the past, they passed by while grazing without any problem until their agenda started unfolding. They are very conversant with the unconventional pathways to Nigeria. They capitalize on that to invade communities. They mobilise and attack communities. First, they intentionally take their cows into existing farms and if the indigenes question them, calamity starts.

They will withdraw and go but within three days, the community would be attacked. They dismember pregnant women and kill others while the survivors run away. After that, they begin to stay in those houses and cultivate the farmlands of those they have displaced. For instance, at the tomatoes market in Barakin Ladi, all the farm produce there was harvested from the indigenous community farms where the owners have been displaced.

They bring in the tomatoes from the villages where they sacked people and are now living comfortably. They have stayed there for some years and now cultivate the farms. Some of our jobless boys, who used to scrape the soil for minerals like tin, go there and they are harassed. They pay money to the invaders to go anywhere close to their homes just to scrape the soil for tin to earn a living.

They are there and government knows. There was an incident involving a secondary schoolmate of mine. He had a school and there is a military post nearby. The Fulani who were camped around there were not up to two football fields away, started shooting in broad daylight into the community where my friend resided. They shot a woman.

Those who were coming stopped at the military post and the herdsmen came, shouting God is great, slit the woman’s throat and anybody they could get. When the security agents were asked why they didn’t intervene, they said they had not been given an order. And it goes on. It is like a plan because government has no reason not declaring these people as terrorists. We have no choice but to believe that government is supporting them. It is not farmers/herders clashes as they want you to believe.

But the Fulani/natives clashes in Plateau are often presented as farmers/herders clashes…

That is what they always say to avoid sanctions by the international community. They want the international community to think the indigenes are troublemakers. Farmers should be on their farms. And if there is going to be a crisis, they would be armed in the farms to attack Fulani communities. How many communities, where the herders have stolen and annexed, have been attacked by indigenes?

But indigenous people would be in their beds at night, the herders would attack them. What are they looking for in the rooms of the indigenous people? Some of our people who they kill are not farmers. Some are government workers. Others have regular jobs in town. Some are artisans. But their entire communities are attacked by the herdsmen and anyone found is killed for committing no crime. Hundreds of people are killed monthly in Plateau State.

The picture you painted gives the impression that the Plateau State government, headed by a governor who fits into the indigenous person narrative, seems handicapped. What do you think?

What is happening in Plateau is surprising when you consider how the Benue State governor fights for his people. Governor Ortom is the governor we wish we had four of his type in the Middle Belt. Our governor publicly said Buhari is his father. Our governor said he would die for Buhari. And that is in the public domain.

The governor seems to be reluctant to do anything that would offend his principal. The governor has no intention of helping out. There is a bitter rivalry between the immediate past governor and the current one. We thought it would just be a political thing, but it seems they are taking it personally. When they started killing, especially Berom people, the incidents were given different interpretations. They said Berom people are rustling cattle. Are the Bassa people rustling cattle too? Are people in the South-West rustling cattle?

Are the people in the South-East rustling cattle? All those are just rhetoric to justify their looking away. This governor, on December 25, 2020, was talking about signing the bill on anti-land grabbing, kidnapping and cultism. In the broadcast he made, he said we can’t fold our arms and watch our people massacred by criminals. For goodness sake, how long would it take his arm to unfold since he made the statement nearly a year ago? How many people have been killed from December 25, 2021, to date?

What stopped the bill from being implemented? The House of Assembly, after the massacre in Bassa, said the law should be implemented. When corpses were brought to the House of Assembly, the then-Speaker of the House gave the governor two weeks to implement the law. But he was removed from office for saying that. When the governor was inaugurating Plateau Youth Council, he said he had already constituted a task force. Who are the members of the task force? Where are they sitting? What are their terms of reference? Our governor has a Plateau name, but how Plateau he is and acts are questions I do not know the answer to.

If truly law enforcement agents stand by and watch Plateau natives killed, what makes you think the anti-land grabbing law would be enforced?

In Benue State and every other state, all lands within the state are under the authority of the state governor and not the President. No one can be given land without the assent of the state governor. No compensation can also be made without the approval of the state governor.

The previous administration, without anti-land grabbing law, had Operation Rainbow. Everyone has the right to defend himself. The people came together and were defending their communities. The moment this governor came on board, Operation Rainbow was disbanded.

Now, we have a law passed by the Plateau State House of Assembly. By implication, it was passed by the people of Plateau State. The bill was signed into law in December last year. The mechanics and how to get it operational are what the governor has been delaying. Would it be effective? Yes, it would be if the governor wants it to be effective. Previous administrations had demonstrated the will to protect the sanctity of life. Other states are doing the same. The South-West states are unanimous on that. They are protecting people from criminal elements among herdsmen. Once the governor makes it operational, lands would be returned to their owners while the herdsmen return to where they came from.

Oftentimes reports about peace parley between Fulani and Plateau people emerge. But it doesn’t take long for the same pattern of killings to happen again. What could be responsible for this?

I don’t know whether killings are part of the training given to herdsmen or it is just their methodology. In Bassa, they have had peace agreements not once and not twice. They were called, met and agreed to live in peace. They even signed agreements with elders of both sides present. On their way back, the same indigenous people would be attacked.

And if they are not attacked on their way back, the following week the same community where these elders come from would be attacked. The true intention of the peace agreements is in non-verbal communication. We have come to a point where we are no longer afraid of either President Muhammadu Buhari or his associates. We are no longer afraid of any herdsman, whether he is declared a terrorist or not.

People who are afraid still die, people who are not afraid still die. We have come to a point where we would defend ourselves. This is 2021. Imagine a child whose mother survived one of the killings in 2001. That boy is now a young man of 21 years. And that is the grievance of the Speaker.

These are people who grew up hearing gunshots. Do we keep running forever? We have come to a point where we won’t run away from them again. They can deceive the international community, but Nigerians including some Hausa communities know that what is happening in Plateau is morally wrong.

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