Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State yesterday escaped death by a whisker when a protest against killings by Fulani herdsmen turned violence. Also, soldiers reportedly shot dead five people during the protest organised by the National Union of Benue State Students (NUBESS).
This came as President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday commiserated with Ortom and the people of Benue State over the killings.
The protest, which was later hijacked by hoodlums, started about 7a.m. and lasted for over five hours as irate youths made bonfires and blocked the Wurukum roundabout which links the state with both the North and South of the country. Travellers were stranded in the scorching sun as some drivers had to take their passengers into the bush for cover until the situation became calm.
It took security men several hours to dislodge the protesters who carried various placards bearing inscriptions such as: “PMB act now or lose our votes in Benue,” “We are tired of burning our loved ones, Fulani must leave,” “PMB must come down himself,” among others while they were shouting “No going back.” But hours later, the state Commissioner of Police, Mr. Bashir Makama, led his men to dismantle the road blocks and disperse the protesters.
Shortly after, Governor Ortom, in company with top government functionaries and security aides, stormed the area.
The governor trekked from Mr. Biggs roundabout to Wurukum roundabout to address the protesters. Speaking with journalists, the National President, Ihyerev Youth Association, Hon. Ben Titus Terna, decried the nonchalant attitude shown by the Federal Government towards the senseless killings in the state.
Terna described the killing as a grand conspiracy against Benue people. He said: “The President has remained adamant. We are defenceless and have resorted to defend ourselves. We will continue to stage this protest for seven days. We want the entire world and international community to come to our aid.”
Ortom, who cut short the Security Council meeting, headed straight to the scene of the protest, but his attempt to address the protesters was vehemently resisted by the youth. The protest turned violent as the protesters insisted that President Muhammadu Buhari should address them.
Consequently, the protesters started throwing stones, empty water sachets and logs of wood at the governor while others thunderously booed him. But security men responded swiftly and whisked the governor out of the riotous situation in a Hilux van just as policemen shot live bullets and canisters of tear gas into the air to disperse the crowd.
In the process, five protesters were said to have been shot dead. When contacted, the spokesman for the 707 Special Forces Brigade, Major Olabisi Ayeni, denied responsibility for the killing.
He rather accused the protesters of attacking soldiers. Ayeni said the affected officers were immediately rushed to the hospital for treatment. He said: “How can they said our men killed the protesters, they were the ones that attacked our officers. It is not true at all and the Army personnel are not responsible for the killings.”
Addressing journalists at the Banquet Hall of the Government House, Ortom expressed concern at the anger of the people but urged them to remain calm. The governor assured the protesters that his administration is proactive in securing the lives and property of the people, reiterating that there is no going back on the Anti-Open Grazing law.
He said: “There is no alternative to ranching. I pray with the people not to engage in reprisal. Let us remain law-abiding.” Ortom restated his call on security agencies to arrest leadership of Miyetti Allah Kautai Hore, who, according to him, has vowed to thwart the Anti-Open Grazing law. He added: “They are sabotaging the law.
The Federal Government should rise to the responsibility and arrest leaders of Miyetti Allah Kautai Hore. If they do not do this, then they are telling us that we are not part of Nigeria. They are trying to throw us into a state of anarchy. This is unacceptable. Justice will take its course. “We have requested for deployment of more security in Makurdi and its environs. We will get to the root of the matter and so, nobody should take the law into his hands.
Any gathering of any sort is not allowed in Makurdi without permission of the Commissioner of Police.” Meanwhile, the protesters called on the Presidency to bring the culprits of the attack to book.
One of the protesters, Mr. Terhemen Anum, told journalists that some residents in Guma and Logo local government areas and yet-to-be-determined number of peasant farmers, women, children and the aged were attacked while “no one has spoken from the high places”. Another resident, Ruth Agba, said there was evidence that the gunmen killed some farmers, burnt down their homes and destroyed their farms and crops.
She said the attackers operated like Boko Haram terrorists while the extent of impact and devastation on the people should be declared as terrorism.
The police also said they had arrested eight herdsmen in connection with the New Year day killing. The state Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), ASP Moses Yamu, announced this in a statement issued in Makurdi. He said: “Eight herdsmen, six in Guma and two in Logo, have been arrested in connection with the attacks.” Yamu said the command had made additional deployments to the troubled area to forestall further occurrence and restore confidence of the people.
The PPRO said the situation in the two local government areas had been brought under control while investigation was ongoing. He said: “They attacked Tomater village in Sengev Council ward, Akor village in Nzorov council ward and Bakin Kwata village in Umanger council ward of Guma LGA.” President Buhari, in a statement by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, expressed sadness at the killings which he described as “wicked and callous”.
He said it was unfortunate that the attack was carried out even on innocent children. The President assured the governor and people of the state that relevant security agencies had been directed to do everything possible to arrest those behind the regrettable incidents and avert further attacks. He said: “This is one attack too many and everything must be done to provide security for the people in our rural communities.”
Buhari also commiserated with families of the victims and wished the injured speedy healing. Apart from the five people reportedly shot dead during the protest yesterday, it was learnt that scores of others were injured following sporadic shootings by the Army and Mobile Police Force in Makurdi. It was learnt that those injured were rushed to the Benue State University Teaching Hospital while those who died on the spot were taken to the morgue.
The Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Northern Nigeria, Rev. Yakubu Pam, has called on the Federal Government to investigate the killings of District Head of Numana Kingdom, Dr. Gambo Makama, his wife and two others and the murder of several people in Kaduna and Benue states on New Year day.
In a statement issued in Jos, Pam condemned the killings of Christians in the North and urged the Federal Government to fish out the perpetrators of the brutal act. He said: “We are worried of the attacks in Guma and Logo local government areas of Benue State where over 50 people were murdered in cold blood on same New Year day. This is equally disturbing and worrisome to us.
“CAN is not only condemning in stronger terms these mayhem and carnage but is calling for the immediate arrests and prosecution of all perpetrators of this heinous crimes without let.” Also, former Vice President and chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, has described as unacceptable the cycle of blood-letting which has led to the loss of lives across the country.
Atiku said the killings in those states and other senseless killings that have preceded them in the past across our country are ungodly, a throwback to the stone age, and a hindrance to the promotion of peace and unity in the country. Former President of the Senate, David Mark, also condemned the series of violent attacks, which he described as barbaric, reprehensible and inhuman.
Mark urged the Federal Government to adopt an urgent and strategic approach to halt further tragedies in the three states and other parts of the country. Apex Southern Kaduna organisation, the Southern Kaduna Peoples’ Union (SOKAPU), has asked the Federal and Kaduna State Governments to do more in ending the killings in the area. SOKAPU National Public Relations Officer (PRO), Mr. Yakubu Kuzamani, said: “Issuing press statements after each attack with intent to show empathy and even announce the redeployment of more troops also look good but has not stopped the attacks.