A Reporter’s Diary in the Middle Belt – Day 2
Two weeks ago, the area was overrun by suspected herders who killed, looted and burnt what they could in dozens of communities across it and four other local government areas (LGAs) – Jos South, Bokkos, Riyom and Mangu.
In the small village of Bet, no life was lost but houses were burnt and farm produce was looted. Yusuf Pam Gwom, the village head, pointed to the hills where the nomadic Fulani had set up shelters. The roofs of their houses were visible, and some inhabitants were riding motorcycles ferrying women into town, with no sign of violence towards them from the villagers. There was also nothing to suggest that the nomads were killers or had carried out the killings in the vicinity.
Still, Gwom bitterly lamented: “They have soldiers guarding them, but we that are suffering here have nothing.” The first attacks on the community happened on Thursday 21 June. There were others on the day after that and also 23 June.
On Sunday 24 June, Gwom and other elders were unrelenting in their decision to attend the community church – a branch of the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN). But they said they suspected that the marauders would target them in their time of weakness, so they made the service short. Instead of a three-hour service beginning at 9am, they halved the running time. Their strategy proved to be life-saving, as the attackers came again.
“The service was just one and a half hour,” Gwom recalled. “After that, we began to hear gunshots from the hills, so everybody was running. Non-stop shooting past 12 noon till 1:54pm. I looked at my time. The women and the children went down to the [St. John Vianney] seminary nearby to hide while the men stood firm to protect the community.”
Counting the displaced
In early July, the Plateau State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) said there are 38,051 displaced people across 31 camps in the state. Today, I visited a camp – the St. John Vianney Seminary in Barkin Ladi, a stone’s throw away from the village of Bet. It was empty.
Rev. Fr. James Davou, the seminary’s rector, chatted exclusively with The Africa Report. He gave me a status update on the displaced people who camped there two weeks ago. They left for two reasons, he said. First, their communities are are now relatively peaceful. Soldiers under Operation Safe Haven, the military task force charged with keeping the peace in the state – which Davou insists began in 2011-2012 under the Goodluck Jonathan administration – patrol major roads within these LGAs. Still, he sounded a strong note of warning and all but discouraged me when I ask about visiting the mass graves in Gashish district, an hour away. “Go with the military or not at all,” he stressed.
The second reason for the closure of the camp within the school was because the schoolboys who were on holidays returned and were preparing to write their exams in a few days.
The identity of the attackers remain a source of national controversy. Victims and many people in the Middle Belt insist that they are herdsmen with an agenda to Islamise Nigeria. This belief is rooted in the fact that inhabitants have lived peacefully side-by-side with the majority-Muslim Fulani ethnic group for decades.
Climate change and other complications
But the situation has worsened as climate change continues and the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari struggled to come up with a response. In 2000, the retired general led a delegation to then Oyo State governor Lam Adesina to protest what he believed to be the complicity of the state in the killing of herdsmen. That fact, his status as a cattle owner and his reluctance to condemn the killings wholeheartedly have led many in the Middle Belt and southern Nigeria to argue that Buhari sanctions the murders.
At an April 2018 function in London, Buhari claimed the herdsmen were not Nigerian and were mercenaries trained and armed by Libya’s late leader Muammar Gaddafi. Davou disagreed partly, saying that former neighbours are also complicit. “It’s a mix. There’s foreign herdsmen and also homegrown ones […] some are not Nigerians,” he began. “Buhari’s government has successfully banned the importation of foreign rice but cannot ban importation of foreign herdsmen? Does that make any sense? He himself admitting that they are from Libya, he should be ashamed of himself.”
Trouble in the neighbourhood
Right in the middle of the last incident, a suspected herdsman was arrested in Barkin Ladi by a Mobile Police unit. A cop in that unit told Davou that the suspect said he was from the neighbouring country of Niger. “He confessed that they are from different cells where they recruit them. In his own group alone, there were 17 of them. I’m relating to you what an officer told me because I was not there [during the arrest]. According to him, they were hired on a three-month contract, they were among those who did raids in Benue and Nasarawa and came out to this axis. They have already spent two months of their contract and this is the last lap.”
Throughout our interview, I can tell that he is agitated but trying to stay calm and stay true to the calm gait that all spiritual fathers are expected to come factory-fitted with. For long periods, he succeeded at it, raising his voice only at intervals.
Fire and brimstone
After the Barkin Ladi killings, Lagos-based pentecostal preacher Paul Adefarasin raised a storm, claiming in a fiery sermon that an Islamisation agenda was underway to complete the jihad of Usman dan Fodio centuries ago.
Davou agrees with his colleague of the cloth but elected to make a proper distinction still. “There are good people among them,” he smiled. “There is no way an entire race is evil. When Germans came out to exterminate the Jews, was it the whole of Germany? It took one madman, Hitler. It doesn’t have to take the entire race to make it terrorism. But what is the ratio? The issue of an agenda is clear.”
Grousing over grazing
Can there be a solution or reverting to the peaceful past? “There’s no where in the world where you have free grazing,” said Davou. “The world has gone beyond that. It may have worked in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but most of those places that were bushes and villages have become cities. The best solution is ranching, but there have to be proper negotiations. What seems to be happening or what the government seems to want to do is to confiscate people’s lands […] When they listed 10 states as pilot states for ranching, Ebonyi was one of them. Did the governor not come out to say they have no land for ranching? What does that tell you? That they were not even consulted. How will you decide to grab hectares of land for ranching without consulting me, the owner of the land?”
Life goes on, for some
While the debate goes on, the internally displaced people are adapting to their new homes and counting their losses. Amina Warsum, whose husband, Godfrey was burnt alive in his house in Kwangjo, is already going about the business of being breadwinner for her three children.
When I get to COCIN camp housing more than 400 people in Koros, also in Barkin Ladi, she was at her farm harvesting potatoes out of the fear that during another attack, her produce would be looted. On her return, social workers from a local nonprofit, Christian Women for Excellence & Empowerment in Nigerian Society, shared toiletries and a few other relief items with her and other women in the small camp.
He never made it back
Sitting next to her was 16-year-old Priscillia Joshua, who is out of school because of the unrest in her home town of Razat, near Ganaropp. Her entire family fled when the suspected herdsmen first attacked that weekend, hiding under rocks. Her uncle, Hosea Devoe, decided to go back in the evening to get blankets for his seven children to survive the chilly weather uphill. He never made it back.
“A neighbour who was hiding in the house next door told us two soldiers were arguing,” explained the teenager. “One was telling another not to fire at just anything moving because it could be a villager.” The other one still shot anyways and the bullet hit poor Devoe in the chest. His family, who managed to survive the suspected herdsmen and the cold of the night, found his body outside his house the next day.
*Caption picture on topFr. James Davou is the rector of the St John Vianney seminary at Barkin Ladi,
which was temporarily home to people displaced by herder-farmer violence