- How They Terrorise Taraba Villages
- They Steal Our Cattle, Collect Tax – Herdsmen
- Guns Planted on Them Part of Conspiracy – Ortom
- Joint-Security Team Investigates Nine Arrested Militia
They sat on the dirty floor, three each in a row, casting their gazes wildly around as journalists scrambled to take their shots. The nine men had been arrested some days earlier in Taraba State with five AK-47 rifles, said military officials who were parading them before the media. They claimed to be employed and armed by the Benue State Government.
The arrest, coming at a time parts of the two neighbouring states were swept by multiple outbreaks of violence, especially between herders and farmers that have claimed almost 100 lives in the first seven days of this year alone, created a tension of its own and further stoked the raging fire of suspicion and insecurity.
Just days earlier, gunmen suspected to be herdsmen had sacked some villages in Benue State, shooting and stabbing children, women and the old, in an early morning raid. Coincidentally, as the military held a press conference to show the armed men to the public, the government of the neighbouring state was finalising arrangements for the mass burial of the victims of the New Year attack. But the gunmen they have arrested are not herders.
All of the men wore dark T-shirts with badges identifying them as agents of Benue State and they all wore jeans trousers.
The army said the men were apprehended by troops from 93 Battalion, Takum last Sunday at a border village called Arufu in Wukari Local Government of Taraba State after they had crossed from Benue.
The suspects initially told the authorities that they were 60 in number in their own camp, located across the boundary at Gbeyi, Benue State, “However, further investigation revealed that they were more than 1,000 at the camp, while over 700 of them bear arms,” a military source told journalists after the arrest.
A claim by the suspects that they were on the payroll of the Benue State Government added a new twist to a spiraling situation. The state government was paying them “a monthly stipend of N15,000,” they told their interrogators, adding that they were being owed close to five months of salaries at the time of their arrest.
However, the Benue State Government denied the claims.
Providing a hint about their activities, the suspect said they were trained by ex-servicemen.
‘Our plight in the hands of Benue militia’
|The nine militias arrested at Arufu, a boundary town between Taraba and Benue|
The arrest of the suspected militia opened a floodgate of complaints by locals in Taraba State who accused the armed men of terrorising their communities. This is even as they narrated how the armed men were rounded up on that fateful day and handed over to the military.
According to residents of the area, the armed militia had stormed the community at odd hours that day in a pickup van, creating fears that they were there for something sinister, forcing the people to confront them.
Quickly, Malam Bello Jauro recalled, the suspects were surrounded by Jukuns and Fulani and asked to explain their mission in the area at such ungodly hours.
He said when the suspects replied that they were members of Benue State Government’s vigilante on an assignment to arrest some cattle, their suspicion was heightened.
Malam Jauro further recalled that after a thorough search of the vehicle conveying the nine men, five AK-47 rifles were discovered, which the suspects could not explain how they got.
“We were left with no other option than to hand over the suspect to army who were on patrol in the area,” he said, adding that they were subsequently conveyed to the battalion’s headquarters in Takum.”
Reports had it that as the troops set to transport the men to their barracks, other militia members mobilised and attempted to free them, but the soldiers stood their ground and eventually had their way.
A resident of nearby Chinkai, also Wukari Local Government Area, Malam Suleiman, complained that even though the outfit might have been empowered to prevent cattle from entering only Benue State, they cross at will and came into Taraba to arrest cattle and collect tax from owners.
He said the group was notorious for arresting cattle in Taraba and taking them to Benue in the name of enforcing the anti-open grazing law in Benue State.
“There was a time the group attempted to arrest one man in Arufu town, but the community resisted and sent them away but in the night, unknown gunmen attacked the town, and as a result, one person was killed while another was wounded,” he claimed.
Giving his account of the community’s encounters with the militia, the Hardo of Chinkai, Malam Musa, said the suspects had a camp at Goji market in Benue State, further alleging that they had been responsible for cattle thefts in many parts of Wukari Local Government Area in recent times.
Hardo Musa alleged that 400 cattle belonging to Dodo Jaile and Yahaya Usman were stolen by members of militia gang arrested by the military in Dake and Chinkai areas.
He further accused Benue of trying to create ethnic tensions in the area.
“There is no misunderstanding between the Jukun, who are the host tribes, and the Fulani in the area. Our fear is that some mischief makers such as the suspects arrested are coming to cause havoc in order to further smear the name of Fulani,” he said.
According to him, there were instances where people disguised in Fulani attires and attacked communities in order to set the people against the Fulani.
Arrest of ‘armed militia’ will not stop grazing law – Ortom
But as members of communities in Wukari count their losses to the armed group and heaved a sigh of relief over their arrest across the border in Benue, residents are denying the existence of government-sponsored armed militia and their camps.
Benue villagers at the border who spoke to our correspondent said they were aware of only the Livestock Guards enforcing the recently enacted anti-open grazing law of the state in the area.
“I’m a native of the community bordering Arufu, where it was alleged that soldiers from Taraba State arrested nine militias, funded by the state government. I want to state that no militants’ camp exists in this environment. If there were and they had guns, I think they would have used the weapons on our attackers. We have been under siege since the New Year with no one to defend us,” he said.
But a community leader in the area who declined his name on print told our correspondent that the arrest of the nine people was actually made in Kente and not Arufu as widely reported in the media.
According to the local, Kente, a Taraba community where the guards were arrested is a border settlement sandwiched between Gbeji and Vaase in Ukum local government areas of Benue State, adding that Arufu was no where close to Kente.
“I had to point this out because something isn’t right about these arrests. I’m from Ukum LGA, my village lies at the border close to Kente where the actual arrest took place. But, the truth remains that in the whole of Sankera axis, comprising of seven local government areas, we do not have any militia.
“The people arrested, by their uniforms, suggested that they are members of the Livestock Guards recently constituted by the state government to ensure people complied with the anti-grazing law; that the same government now denied them is what I’m confused about,” the source added.
Another resident from Gbeji, a neighbouring town to Kente, also intimated that to the best of his knowledge, there were no such things like armed militia in the Ukum axis of Benue State, as he further posited that no militant camp existed in the surrounding.
“What we have here is vigilante and the Livestock Guards which came into existence recently. The operation of these two security bodies is well known to the locals, and they don’t bear guns.
“For us here, we are suspecting foul play with the arrest of the guards. The Federal Government must be up to something with these guns, which I personally believe were planted on those boys arrested for some mischievous purpose,” he said.
Beyond the rural fringes of the state, the suspicion of a conspiracy about the men and the guns has found a foothold in the state capital and with no other person than the state governor himself, Samuel Ortom.
As emotions poured out on Thursday when 73 victims of the New Year Day attacks were being buried in Makurdi, Ortom recited this line: “If they planted those guns on the people so as to make us fear, we will not be intimidated. If our boys indeed have those guns as they have alleged, would they not have defended themselves.”
He then advised Nigerians to be aware of what he described as a grand conspiracy against the Benue people in order to promote the archaic practice of open grazing in the state.
His spokesperson, Terver Akase, had earlier faulted the allegations too, denying that the state government hired and armed the men.
“We wish to state categorically that the Benue State Government under Governor Samuel Ortom has not recruited any militia group and armed them since he assumed office.
“Ortom is widely recognised for his disarmament policy, which brought the amnesty programme, leading to the recovery of about 700 arms and ammunition, with over 800 youths laying down their weapons to embrace the programme across the state,” he said.
Akase also noted that it was on record that the present administration inherited the State Civilian Joint Task Force from the previous government but later proscribed it and that following the enactment of the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law in Benue State last year, the government set up Livestock Guards to help in implementation of the law.
He added that the Livestock Guards are not armed personnel as their job is to mainly ensure compliance with the regulation of ranches establishment and prohibition of open grazing of animals in the state.
‘Joint-security investigation under way’
Hundreds of kilometres in faraway Enugu State, security agencies have launched an investigation, trying to piece together how the suspects got the AK-47 rifles, which until Obansanjo’s second tenure, were only issued to the military – now including police, immigration, customs, prisons & civil defence. See Infograph.
Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that the investigation was being conducted by a team, comprising the military, Department of Security Services (DSS) and other agencies. The probe started immediately after the suspects were transferred from the military barracks in Takum to 82 Division headquarters in Akapa, Enugu, a military source disclosed.
93 Battalion is one of the battalions directly under the command of 82 Division.
Confirming the presence of the nine suspected militia members in Enugu, spokesperson of the 82 Division, Colonel Sagir Musa, said: “Yes, they have been handed to the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army.
“I wouldn’t know if any further arrests have been made or not. I wouldn’t want to preempt those working on the matter in Taraba State. If more arrests are made in the future, and there is an update to give you, I will let you know. But for now, let’s leave it at that,” he said.