By Chris Gyang
The Bassa and Rukuba Road killings have once again brought into sharp focus the very tenuous nature of the prevailing peace in Plateau State and exposed the high level of suspicion and hatred its citizens harbor against each other.
To shed some light on these gory events of the last few weeks, it is important to start with a trip down memory lane. In the process, we should keep in mind the sobering fact that in September 2020, the Global Terrorism Index rated Nigeria as the third most terrorized country in the world – after Afghanistan (which has now been taken over by Islamist terrorists – the Taliban) and Iraq.
In the wake of the 2018 horrific massacres of more than 200 people in Barakin Ladi, Riyom and parts of Bokkos and Bassa local government areas of Plateau State, Rev. Dr. Soja Bewarang, the Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Plateau State, at the time issued a press release on behalf of the Christian Denominational Heads in the state. The church leaders appealed to President Buhari to stop the killings to “avoid a state of complete anarchy where the people are forced to defend themselves’’ as a result of the “ongoing Fulani herdsmen pogrom.’’
The clerics declared that the orgy of killings, which lasted from June 22 to June 24, 2018, were “aimed at ethnic cleansing, land-grabbing and forceful ejection of the Christian natives from their ancestral land and heritage.’’ They bemoaned a situation where government was hiding the true the figures of casualties as “They keep navigating from 11, 86 and 100 figures which in actual sense has a death toll figure so far of 238.’’
They condemned the misleading narrative about ‘farmers’/herdsmen’s clashes’, saying, “The federal government has been so immersed in this false propaganda and deceit while forcefully pushing the policy idea of establishing cattle ranches/colonies on the ancestral farmlands of the attacked communities for the Fulani herdsmen as the only solution to the problem.’’ The ecumenical fathers queried why the killings were being described as ‘clashes’ “when one group is persistently attacking, killing, maiming, destroying; and the other group is persistently being killed, maimed and their places of worship destroyed?’’
And commenting about governments’ consistent, deliberate policy of refusing to pointedly name the Fulani herdsmen as the aggressors, the church leaders advised: “Until we call a disease by its real name and the causatives, it would be difficult to properly diagnose the disease for the right curative medications.’’
And on June 23, 2018, the Church of Christ in Nations (COCIN) issued a statement in which it said the horrific violence “certainly amounts to genocide” aimed at eliminating indigenous Christian populations “for the purpose of creating grazing reserves for local and foreign Fulani herdsmen” as the Federal Government had deliberately refused to rein in the Fulani militia. The church emphasised that “we have had enough of the government’s insensitivity” and took a swipe at the STF “who have failed in their responsibilities of protecting lives and properties.”
We have presented the above sketch in order to, first, give a little background into the Bassa and Rukuba Road killings. Second, to demonstrate that such unfortunate carnage and willful destruction of lives and property have a long history that cannot be wished away; these were not a one-shot affair that suddenly materialized within a few days and from nowhere.
The state and federal authorities are presently making very commendable efforts to fish out the perpetrators of the Rukuba Road killings. They should not forget to also go back to Irigwe land and indeed all other flashpoints in the state with the same speed, resources and determination to unravel the forces that have ravaged those societies for so long so that justice would also be extended to them. Peace is well entrenched only when justice is equitably dispensed.
Let us consider the attacks on the Irigwe people of Bassa LGA of Plateau State, spanning July 23 to August 3.
As the violence eased, two umbrella bodies representing the Irigwe people, the Irigwe Development Association and the Irigwe Youth Movement, in a press conference held on August 1, 2021, stated that they had been under consistent attacks by Fulani herdsmen from the beginning of this year. As a result, “over 40 Rigwe people have been killed by Fulani nihilists in Bassa and Jos North LGAs, over twenty houses razed down, several farming implements and household items carted away, over 500 cultivated crops in different farmlands worth over 1 billion naira destroyed and many unbearable losses.” They listed the names of the victims and the areas where the crops were destroyed.
Obviously lending support to the Irigwe people, Lt. Gen. Jeremiah Useni (rtd.), who is the Chairman, Board of Trustees of the North Central People’s Forum, was reported by thenationonline (August 1) as advising “farmers to defend themselves and crops following the incessant destruction of crops in Plateau and parts of North Central by suspected bandits.” While expressing anger over the spiraling insecurity in the country, the former Military Governor of old Bendel State and former Senator representing the Southern Zone threw this challenge to both citizens and farmers: “You should not allow anybody to attack you, guard yourselves and your farms. You should defend yourselves from anybody who want[s] to attack you.”
Of all the tit-bits that have emerged from the Bassa mayhem, the one that confounded citizens the most was the one told on August 3, 2021. During a breakfast show on Jay FM Radio Station, Jos, Hon. Musa Agah, Member Representing Irigwe/Rukuba Constituency in the Plateau State House of Assembly, revealed what happened when he and some members went to express the concerns of Plateau people about the desperate state of affairs to Governor Lalong.
He said: “Let me tell you what happened yesterday…. Rising from a meeting that we held in the State Assembly, it was obvious, based on the comments that people made, especially from the security outfits, that the only person, as boiling as the situation is at the moment, that can talk to the high command in Abuja is the Governor. We couldn’t even hesitate, we drove ourselves, led by the Speaker of the House of Assembly to Government House to see Mr. Governor so that I as the person that is in the eye of the storm should speak to tell him, in case he has not been fully briefed, to tell him about the true situation on the ground.
“But we waited for more than an hour and much later we were told that the Governor was sleeping. Yes, that was what happened yesterday…. It happened in our presence. That was what we were told.” As the people of the state were looking up to their leaders to pull them out of the quagmire, their governor was cozily having a snooze!
The indigenous peoples of Bassa, Jos North, Jos South, Riyom, Barakin Ladi and parts of Bokkos and Mangu local government areas are not barbarians, as it is being portrayed in certain quarters. In them and their ancestral lands lie the true embodiments of that beauty, love, hospitality and good neighbourliness encapsulated in Plateau State’s sobriquet – Home of Peace and Tourism. But they have been left, abandoned, at the mercy of deadly, murderous land-grabbers for too long that they are sometimes forced to resort to self-help in order to cling to what is left of their ragged lives and parched ancestral lands.
On August 4, 2021, the President of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), Rev. (Dr.) Stephen Baba Panya, addressed a press conference titled: AN URGENT CALL FOR ACTION TO STOP THE GENOCIDE TAKING PLACE IN IRIGWE LAND OF BASSA LOCAL GOVERNMENT AREA OF PLATEAU STATE BY FULANI MILITIA.
It is pertinent to note that Irigwe land occupies a very special place in the annals and spiritual and physical lives of ECWA and Christianity in Nigeria and Africa. This was one of the first areas in which ECWA’s founding fathers first established a presence in this part of the world. Therefore, whatever ECWA says about the general affairs of Irigwe land should be from its heart.
The ECWA helmsman revealed the full scale of the tragedy thus: “For over 21 years, the Irigwe people of Miango … have been under attacks from Fulani Militia that resulted in loss of lives, properties and farmland. The last 2 weeks, especially from Sunday 23rd July to Monday 2nd August 2021 have been the worst nightmare of the entire Irigwe land.”
He disclosed that, after invading more than 15 villages, the militia “burnt and destroyed not less than 405 houses and churches inclusive, displaced about 20,000 people and destroyed thousands of hectares of farm crops.”
According to Rev. Panya, Jebbu Miango, the main town in the area, was completely burnt down, some of its inhabitants annihilated with most of them displaced. Likewise surrounding villages, extending into the southern parts of Kaduna State.
He re-echoed a chilling fact about these attacks which has also intrigued many observers for a long time now: “What is so sad and inexplicable is that, many of the villages, where these killings and burnings are taking place, are basically located behind the 3rd Armored Division Barrack of the Nigerian Army, yet these militias are allowed to continue their heinous murders and carnage without any intervention by the Nigerian Army and other security agencies. This in the least, is very fastly eroding the confidence of the populace in the military and security agencies, as unbiased protectors of all, devoid of tribe, ethnicity or religion.”
The Conference of Autochthonous Ethnic Nationalities Communities Development Associations (CONAECDA) is a network of 400 indigenous peoples’ groups in Central and Northern Nigeria. Disturbed by the atrocities visited on Irigwe land, the group said that it had lined up measures to prevent its peoples’ ancestral lands and property from being encroached upon and, or, destroyed. This would be through fencing and planting protective plants and other necessary barriers.
In a press conference held in Jos on August 12, they warned: “We use this opportunity to notify all intending trespassers that they will be arrested and prosecuted according to the existing laws, whenever and wherever they trespass into our private or public property. All livestock holders are required to barricade their animals to avoid trespassing.”
They pointed out that over 2,500 homes had been destroyed in Irigwe land “between 2nd and 12th of August. Our girls are being trafficked because they are internally displaced.”
Even as these groups and individuals cried out about the carnage taking place in Irigwe land and the resultant humanitarian catastrophe, the reactions of both the state and federal governments were not much different from what they have always been in the past. This only heightened that pent up sense of abandonment, despondency and hopelessness that had accumulated during decades of brutal attacks.
It was in this traumatized state that the Irigwe nation marched out in their thousands on Saturday, August 14, to bury three of their people brutally killed by Fulani herdsmen. It was into this unfolding saga that the travelers from Bauchi were sucked. But these incidents should not be viewed in isolation.
These are parts of a much larger Nigerian problem that is playing out all over our country – with the exception of the core North. It is all about the subordination of other Nigerians to the imperialist instincts of the Fulani. It is quite unfortunate that, as it sometimes happens, ordinary folk on a journey could be caught up in this battle for supremacy and dominance.
In what observers see as an unprecedented move in the history of the Plateau crises, the Presidency swiftly issued a press statement condemning the Rukuba Road attack, saying that it was “a well-conceived and prearranged assault on a known target.” This was immediately followed by the deployment of a DIG to coordinate the investigations.
A police surveillance helicopter, two units of Police Mobile Force and two cells of Counter Terrorism Unit have also been deployed to Jos. This, according to a statement by the Force Public Relations Officer, CP Frank Mba, is “part of ongoing coordinated efforts at restoring public order in Rukuba and environs, following the unfortunate incident of Saturday 14th, August 2021.”
Also for the first time in the history of crises in the state, the massive manhunt launched by the combined teams of Nigeria’s security forces has led to the apprehension of 33 suspects within a record 24 hours. Another strange novelty was the well-publicized visits of Governor Lalong to those injured in the Rukuba Road attacks on admission in some Jos hospitals.
Plateau citizens say they wish this luxury by the governor could also be extended to the victims of the Bassa and the attacks elsewhere in the state; and the hundreds of Internally Displaced Persons in their various camps. They also wonder why the same kind of aggressive security force being deployed to fish out the culprits of the Rukuba Road killings has never been launched against the Fulani herdsmen who have continued to mercilessly decimate them.
But critics believe that all the attention being lavished on the Rukuba Road killings once again underscores a fundamental fact that has become a well-entrenched tradition under the Buhari administration: the lives of certain citizens are more precious than those of others. Some Nigerians are more equal than others.
It is this reasoning that led to the declaration of IPOB as a terrorist organisation and subsequent proscription while Fulani herdsmen (rated by the 2015 Global Terrorism Index as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world) are left to freely flex their muscles all over Nigeria.
It is this reasoning that is behind the brutal suppression of Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho for daring to challenge a status quo that has pushed majority of Nigerians to the fringes of the political, economic and social space. It is this reasoning that has made Islamist terrorists remain unconquerable and fueled kidnapping of school children for ransom and all manner of criminality that has made life unbearable for Nigerians, especially citizens in the geographical north.
It is this kind of reasoning that made Garba Shehu say in the statement alluded to above: “However, to be clear, this is not an agriculturalist-on-patoralist confrontation – but rather a direct, brazen and wickedly motivated attack on members of a community exercising their rights to travel freely and to follow the faith of their choosing.”
But Mr. Shehu knows that the matter is not so simplistic. If it were, the original crises that spawned the Rukuba Road killings would have become a bygone issue a long time ago. The crises have persisted because Garba Shehu and their core northern elite refuse to accept the truth that the root causes of the unfortunate Rukuba killings are tied to the much larger systemic imbalances and injustices that undergird Nigeria as presently constituted.
It is worth reiterating that it is the kind of nepotism and partiality being openly displayed with regard to the Bassa and the Rukuba killings that had been fueling the growing agitation by the five geo-political zones for regional autonomy, restructuring or outright self- determination. Nigerians so urgently seek to free themselves from the shackles of this domineering core North. This compelling argument resonates very well with majority of Nigerians today. After all, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
(GYANG is the Chairman of the N.G.O, Journalists Coalition for Citizens Rights Initiative – JCCRI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)