The Authority correspondent, Steve Oko, reviews the escalating herdsmen/ farmers’ clashes in parts of the country, which has hit the South East geopolitical zone and brought with it its deaths, pains and agony, with highhandedness from security operatives, who are believed to have always sided the herdsmen, for inexplicable reasons. He brings to the fore, the urgent need to stem the tide of this evil wind, especially as it has continued to rise tension in the zone, before greater havoc is wreck and before it becomes too late.
Like a moonlight tale, the much- talked about clashes between herdsmen and local farmers hitherto reported only in the northern parts, have spread to the South East. The recent unprovoked destruction of farm produce by the cattle rearers which led to protests by farmers in Ugwuleshi Autonomous Community in Awgu Local Government Area of Enugu State, have sent serious shock waves down the spines of people of the zone, particularly those who never imagined such ugly experiences could occur in their native land.
Although the Awgu incident was not the first to be recorded in the zone, women in Ezeagu, Udi, Enugu North, and Enugu South LGAs, sometime in October 2015, protested the criminal activities of the herdsmen in their communities. They accused the nomads of not only pillaging their farm produce but also of unbridled armed robbery, raping, maiming and killing of their men and women.
There have equally been reports of occasional clashes between herdsmen and land owners in some parts of Abia State especially in Bende, Ikwuano, and Arochukwu areas. The impunity of the herdsmen who defiantly herd their animals into farmlands for grazing, thus inflicting heavy economic injuries on the host communities, have remained the major cause of these frictions. It was also reported early this year, that some Fulani herdsmen in Ohafia, Abia State, had the temerity to hoist their flag (an illegal flag for that matter), in an area close to the large expanse of land belonging to the 14 Brigade of the Nigerian Army, after allegedly declaring it as “Fulani Republic”.
The illegal and proactive flag has since been reportedly dismantled by security operatives, but they have not made any arrest nor brought any of them to book, fueling the larger-than-life and arrogant posture of these Fulani herdsmen.
In the aftermath of the Awgu clash which however claimed no casualties according to available reports, but no fewer than 76 adults from the community were “stolen” by people who adorned military uniform, who have been disowned by the military and dubbed them “fake soldiers”. These uniform men, landed in the community in a gestapo style, rounded up the men and bundled them to Umuahia and curiously, secured a court, to remand them in prison. The villagers were first arraigned hurriedly in a Magistrates Court before being crammed into a dingy prison cell as they were, of course, denied bail by the court. As at the time of filling this report, the hapless villagers have spent two weeks in custody.
Despite efforts and assurances by the Enugu State Governor, Chief Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, there is yet no hope in sight that these attacked and provoked villagers would be released any time soon. The revelation by the Solicitor-General cum Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Abia State, Mr. Enyinnaya Okezie, that the case file of the arrested villagers was yet to be sighted by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) 12 days after they were arraigned, lent credence to this assumption.
But, more worrisome is the circumstances in which the villagers were hurried to the Magistrates Court outside jurisdiction and scene of the purported clash (locus in quo), denied bail and remanded in prison custody for at least 14 days (as at the time of this piece). Abia judiciary, no doubt, has no jurisdiction over a community an purported fracas that took place in Enugu State. And the arraignment of the locals in a court outside their state, calls for legal inquiry and fact-finding so as to ascertain if there is legal infraction, which laymen, believe is the case. This is more so, since comments credited to the Army showed that the alleged “men in military uniform” who arrested the villagers and bundled them into trucks to Umuahia were “fake soldiers”.
The Public Relations Officer ( PRO) of the 14 Brigade Ohafia, Major Sydney Mbaneme, had while reacting to the allegation that solders carried out the operation, said the “men in military uniform” were “fake soldiers”. He also said they might be civilians who camouflaged themselves, adding that “if at all they are soldiers, they are not our soldiers”. The Army Spokesman had explained that if the said soldiers were real soldiers the attention of the cantonment would have been drawn to it, adding that “when such arrest is made, the first thing is to carry out preliminary investigations and inform their various units”.
Similarly, the Zone 9 Police Command Umuahia, where Enugu State falls under police administration, had also denied any involvements in the arrest. The zonal Police Public Relations Officer (ZPPRO), DSP Emma Jiakponna, had denied any knowledge of the arrest.
These denials heightened concerns and worries across the zone on the true identities of those who effected the arrest; of the identity of those who prepared the charge sheet and arraigned the 76 villagers.
In their separate reactions, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, and the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB, have labeled the “fake solders” as elements of Boko Haram on a mission to overrun Igbo land. They both called for investigation into the identity of the security operatives and who authorized the cross- state raid and how they got to the court and which Magistrate head the matter. IPOB went a step further and issued a 72- hour ultimatum (beginning from 6:pm on Tuesday March 29) to the federal government to release the 76 villagers or face the wrath of its members locally and internationally.
“IPOB is hereby giving president Muhamadu Buhari 72 hours beginning from 6pm, Tuesday 29th March 2016, to release the 76 youths of Umeneshi Community Awgu, together with the two women earlier abducted by the Fulani fighters. The raw show of power and bravado by Fulani herdsmen at Umuneshi, Awgu Community of Enugu State just cannot be accepted by any civilized society.
“The raw show of power and bravado by Fulani herdsmen at Umuneshi, Awgu Community of Enugu State just cannot be accepted by any civilized society. First, the ever recalcitrant Fulani marauders abducted two women on their way to the farm. All entreaties to release the two women fell on deaf ears. The youth of the community mobilized to free their women, but the Fulani warriors informed their kinsmen at the military bases in the neigbouring Abia State.
The soldiers stormed the community, beat up and arrested all 76 youths, bundled them to zone 9, ordered them charged and remanded in prison without as much as allowing them to make statements.
“As at today the 76 youth remain locked up, the two women remain missing as Fulani supremacy reigns supreme.The brutal show of power and arrogant display of “we own Nigeria” demonstrated by the Fulani is not only nauseating but despicable.”
But 14 days after the incident, and speculations of who possibly carried out the arrest, the Abia State Police Command said the villagers were arrested by the Army and handed over to the police for persecution . The PPRO in the state, Mr. Udeviotu Onyeke who confirmed this to our correspondent said the villagers were handed over to the police immediately after they were arrested by the Army. He further said five count charges had been slammed on the villagers. The charges according to him include: conspiracy to commit arson, unlawfully setting ablaze of 90 houses belonging to Fulani herdsmen, illegal possession of five locally- made single barreled guns, and going armed with 42 machetes and causing apprehension and terror to members of the public.
Meanwhile, when the Army PRO was confronted with the explanations by the Police, he promised to get back to our correspondent later but as at the time of filling this report he never did. Further efforts to reach him did not yield any fruits as he did not pick calls put across to his phone even though they all rang out. He also did not respond to a text message sent to him as at press time.
Be that as it may, the traditional ruler of the community , HRH Igwe Godwin Nwobi, had in an interview with our correspondent, decried the activities of herdsmen in the community. He had accused the herdsmen of settling in the community’s land some 10 years ago without authorization. He also alleged that the cows of the herdsmen had been grazing on their farmlands, thus destroying their crops which serve as the community’s only source of livelihood. According to the monarch, all pleas and warnings by the community to the herdsmen fell on deaf ears as the impunity continued. He said that the impunity of the herdsmen got to an intolerable point, hence the decision of youths in the community to stage a protest.
According to him, it was after the protest that they got information that two women in the community had been allegedly abducted by the herdsmen. He said when the villagers gathered in the community’s square to brainstorm on a rescue mission that they were surrounded by “ the men in military uniform” who arrested them. The monarch also said that the incident occurred two week after the community had lodged a complaint before the Commissioner of Police, Enugu State, but regretted that the complaint is yet to elicit any action. He called on government to save his subjects from the hands of the herdsmen who he alleged were armed with sophisticated weapons.
“It is wrong for our people who fled the North because of Boko Haram to be treated as slaves in their own land. We don’t want to be destroyed by herdsmen like they did in Agatu, Benue State. Government should please come to our rescue . We appeal to our Governor, and other South East Governors to save Igbo land from herdsmen invasion before it is too late”, he agonised.
The Enugu State government also got a public bashing for alleged reluctance and indifference over the plights of the 76 arrested locals before it eventually woke from its slumber. Our correspondent had during the initial stage of the incident, reached out to the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Mr. Uwakwe Abugu for his reaction on the steps taken by his boss to secure the release of the villagers . He had said that “it does not require the attention of the state government before something is done”. He also told our correspondent that he had practiced journalism for 26 years and that from his experience, it did not require any in-put of the state government before the injustice is exposed by journalists.
Apparently upbraided by his principal for the remarks described by IPOB in a swift reaction as “irresponsible and disgraceful “, Abugu quickly denied it, while the Governor through another media aide, Mr. Louis Amoke disowned the purported statement credited to the CPS. Perhaps ,as part of the damage control measures, the Governor later embarked on a ‘forced visit’ to the community, 13 days after the incident. After sympathizing with them, he promised to secure the release of the arrested villagers and to also help end the crisis.
But when contacted for his comments, the leader of Hausa/ Northern Nigeria community in Abia State, Alhaji Danladi Yaro, said he would like to get detailed knowledge of the incident first before commenting on it. Yaro who spoke two weeks after the incident said : “ my people are meeting today over the matter. I will like to get to the root of the matter before commenting on it. I don’t want to be take sides. I will be neutral”.
Meanwhile, it has become necessary for the stakeholders especially the Federal Government and the security agencies to rise to the occasion and curb the excesses of herdsmen in some parts of the country. Admitted that not all herdsmen are bad, but the atrocities of some of them as witnessed in parts of Plateau, and Benue States where communities are sacked by gun wielding herdsmen are very disturbing. In some instances, these criminally- minded herdsmen believed not to be citizens of Nigeria also engage in other criminal activities such as kidnapping, robbery, murder and rape of women in their host communities. The recent adoption of a Yoruba elder and ex Secretary to the Federal Government ( SFG) Chief Olu Falae, is a case in point. Similar cases involving lesser mortals abound and sometimes pass unreported.
The much-talked about establishment of grazing fields for cattle has remained a political issue. The proposal has been heavily criticised on the fear by many that carving out a grazing field for the Fulanis in any state outside their land means giving them a territory in that state. Time has come for the National Assembly to legislate against wanton and mindless destruction of crops and farmlands by cows in the name of cattle rearing , after all, both the cattle rearers and farmers are all in business. It will be a grave injustice for any body in the pursuit of his personal business to constitute a terror and source of economic loss to another who is also legally in a business. What is wrong in using the instrument of law to restrict the herdsmen and their cows to their various villages and communities or don’t they have their place of origin?
The excesses of the herdsmen should be curbed before they wipe out our local farmers as already being witnessed in Agutu, Benue State. Nigeria may not survive another ethnic unrest in addition to the current heat by Boko Haram and other national challenges threatening its peace and stability. Now is the time to unite against herdsmen ‘wahala’ before it gets out of control.