Herdsmen Hazards III: The Agatu Massacre [Part 1]

by Festus Iyorah

Following the seven-year bloody reign of the deadly Boko haram terrorists in North east part of the country, Nigeria, is yet again embroiled in another conflict that has killed thousands of people from 63 in 2013 to 1,229 people in 2014, according to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index.

FESTUS IYORAH in this seven-part series reports the hazards the Fulani Herdsmen have caused, dividing people across ethnic and religious lines.

Benue, Nigeria, 5 December, 2016—The day was bright and clear when suspected Fulani Herdsmen struck in February, 8 2016 in Okokolo community in Agatu Local government area of Benue state.

Farmers had made their way back from the farms, just like school children who had also returned home when the attackers struck around 5pm.

“It was a terrible day,” Anthony Peter, 60-year-old remembers, adding: “I escaped with my certificates and documents alone, other things including my textbooks and property were burnt.”

During the massacre, the herdsmen killed and destroyed everything in sight: children were murdered with machetes, women, running to different directions, with their hands on their heads, were gunned down; houses were razed. The aged, bereft of strength to run, forcefully embraced death, indoors.

“Everyone was running, except the aged who did not have the strength to run, some of them did not allow their children to take them when they struck, most of them said they are of no value to the society, why should they run,” Peter, who is also the chairman of Okokolo community in Agatu, said.

Anthony Peter (R) is the chairman of Okokolo Agatu community

“Some of them were burnt indoors, while others were hacked to death as they made efforts to escape,” Peter said, with furrows in his forehead.

Agatu is one of the 14 local government areas Fulani herdsmen attacked in Benue. The farming community shares boundaries with Nasarawa and the ongoing Ugbokpo-Markurdi federal road constructionone could complete a trip to Abuja within 45 minutes, locals say.

Connected by a straight dusty road, the five communities affected in Agatu are Aila, Odejo, Akwu, Okokolo, Odugbehon.

At Okokolo Agatu, one beholds the endless sight of River Benue, where fishing activities and planting by the river bank is a common sight. In Agatu, rice, yam, guinea corn, beans are cultivated. The native Idoma language is widely spoken in this community and they have been living peacefully with Fulani herdsmen for donkey’s years (as far as 1960).

On 8 February suspected Fulani Herdsmen killed more than 500 people in what was christened “Agatu-genocide” by Peter, the chairman of Okokolo, Agatu.

Out of the five communities affected in Agatu, Okokolo is the worst hit community where more than 125 people were killed and about 580 houses were destroyed, the secretary of the community, Alex Ejahi who took account of the whole destruction told YNaija.

Although the number of those who died in their farmlands was not added, Ejahi says “Some were killed in their farmlands,” This made it difficult to know the total number of people who lost their lives in the attack.

Anthony Peter took our reporter through a tour round the worst hit village in Agatu, Okokolo

“Hidden Agenda”

The lingering crisis between farmers and nomadic Fulani herdsmen was incubated as far back as 10 years ago. Peter believes it’s “a hidden agenda” that was not unveiled until recently.

Peter says the plot was hatched in 2013 when the herdsmen first struck, after some group of people from Tiv tribe arrested one of the herdsmen for invading their farms.

“They accused us of causing the arrest, warning us that we would soon see what they would do,” Peter said, adding that their “hidden agenda was to “destroy us and take over the land for grazing.”

Peter, a tall light-skinned man said many incidents premised the so called “hidden agenda” that was hatched in 2013 when they launched their first attack. The Fulani had herded their cows to large farms at Okokolo, destroying their crops.

“Their cows will feed on our crops early in the morning, afterwards, they’ll return to their luga (their makeshift house) as though nothing happened.”

“When you approach them, they’ll deny it,” he told YNaija.

In a bid to install peace, they met with the Fulani communities, and they had a meeting with them after the 2013 attack—a peace agreement meeting that led to the appointment of one of the Fulani as an official in the community council, hoping that things would get better.

It was a complete fiasco, things got worse, they did not only invade farms, they attack their barn to steal foodstuff for themselves and their cow.

“We made a fence round our harvest; they’ll go and feed on our harvest before going to their luga. When you approach them they’ll deny it,Peter said.

Ruins of Okokolo, Agatu community, Benue

Although local media reports say spokespersons for the herdsmen’s association told the police chief that their action was triggered by the Agatu people killing “10,000 cows” Ejahi, a gangly man in his early 50s denies the claim saying “it’s a lie. Their aim is to take over this place (Agatu) for grazing.”

Nigeria human rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe, also disagreed in a testimony before a Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives.

The exiled Nigeria lawyer who was on a fact-finding mission to Agatu said, “Although we saw no signs of dead cows (only dead people) during our tour. The claim is highly improbable. Indeed, we saw as many as 10,000 live cows.”

Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom in an interview after the attack said. “We’ve heard the herdsmen accusing our people of killing their cattle which is not true. But even if it were true, does that give them the right to go about killing innocent people? Two wrongs can’t make a right,”

Bumpy journey to Agatu

Agatu, a roughly 6-hour drive from the capital city of Markudi, is a far-flung remote community nestled out of the farthest edges of Benue state, close to Apa Local Government Area.

As a young journalist, travelling to Agatu for the first time was more than a risk. My journey was met with a string of challenges: there were no direct buses available from Markurdi, and as a result I made my journey in a rapid transit bus to Otupko, from where I boarded a vintage 504 Peugeot space wagon to Agatu.

But disaster struck when we got to Ugbokpo. The 504 broke down – result of a faulty clutch. In no time, the driver disappeared in search of a mechanic to fix the car.

Thirty minutes turned into one hour, one hour into two; the driver was nowhere near. I never knew a greater disaster was ahead: The number of the only contact suggested by a friend was switched off.

I was stranded.

Then the worst happened again: I hailed a motorcycle, the motorcyclist told me there was no hotel to lodge in Agatu, nowhere to sleep and it would take about 4 hours more. By this time, it was already past 4pm.

We set out for a nearby, bustling community of Ugbokpo, where I met a new fixer, Daniel Onyilokwu, a dark burly man in his late 20s. He accommodated me in his house because there were no hotels in the remote community, still a village with no banks and restaurants.

The next day, we set out on another bumpy journey to Agatu on a motorcycle. We travelled for three hours on a dusty, bad road. The community is often said to be too remote for even local journalists to venture. Agatu has, in addition to poor road networks, no hotels, no banks and of course, no restaurants.

See other stories from the Herdsmen Hazards series below:

– Herdsmen Hazards I: Nwa-Offor never became a priest [part 1]
– Herdsmen Hazards II: Nwa-Offor never became a priest [part 2] 


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