There has been a lot of propaganda around the rash of ethnic and economically driven killings that have spread across the Nigerian Middle Belt. At the very forefront of this humanitarian crisis is Benue, which on January 1st 2018, was at the centre of a maelstrom of violence that left 100 people dead. Propaganda and differing statements have obscured the actual events of that day, and moved the focus away from the itinerant communities at the heart of this massacre. Investigative journalist Patrick Egwu travels to Benue’s communities to follow the violence and shine a light on the victims ignored by Nigerians and vilified by government.
These are their stories.
BENUE, NIGERIA – When Wanger Mgande and her husband Emmanuel returned from church on January 1, 2018, she never knew she would never see him or his smiles again.
Sitting in a classroom hall at the Gbajimba camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Guma, Mgande rolls from one end of her raffia mat to the other. Suddenly, she stands up, folding her wrapper close to her chest and moving to close the metal window to prevent the dusty harmattan breeze from entering the hall.
Sitting down again, she gently lifts up the mat and retrieves a pocket-sized coloured photograph of her husband, Emmanuel, 75, she’d carefully folded in a brown envelope.
She pauses for some seconds, staring at the picture.
“That’s him here before he was killed by the herdsmen in our house”, she says resting her head on the yellow wall. She gestures to the photograph, urging me to look closely at it, “He took this picture last year when he visited his brother living in Makurdi.”
Mgande, 40, is one of the local farmers in the village who either lost their husbands, children or close relatives following the new year day massacre in Guma and Logo – two agrarian communities in Benue.
Mgande and her husband had just returned from the new year’s thanksgiving service at a local church where they worship. Too poor to afford vehicular transportation, the couple had walked to their church several kilometres away from their home and were exhausted by the time they returned. They decided to rest before finding something to eat.
Less than 15 minutes after they had returned, the herdsmen struck. Mgande’s neighbour who lives two mud houses apart had run home to inform them of the approaching herdsmen.
“We were resting at home when our neighbour living close to us came to tell us that herdsmen were coming to attack us. Moments later, we heard the sound of gunshots towards our direction. I started running out of the house with my three children, leaving my husband behind because he was old and frail and could not run fast as we did,” she tells me, almost breaking down in tears.
After running for some minutes with her children, they heard her husband crying and calling for help. Nobody was in sight to help him.
“We heard a cry from our house ‘come and rescue me, come and rescue me.’ I knew my husband was the one shouting but we kept running to safety until the sound of the cry faded,” a visibly emotional Mgande says, her eyes still fixed on the photograph.
Four Fulani herdsmen armed with assault rifles had ambushed her husband as he ran and maimed him using machetes, slitting his throat and leaving his lifeless body for flies to feed on.
Hours after Mgande and her three children had fled from the attacking herdsmen, she returned, escorted by other villagers and local vigilantes, and together they searched for her husband.
“When we later went back to search for him, we saw him on the ground, in front of our house with machete injuries all over his body. They slit his throat and blood was everywhere. We started crying,” she sobs even now, overwhelmed by the mere act of vocalising what she saw.
On that day, Mgande (whose farm is dedicated to the production of Cassava and tomatoes) and other victims of the attacks never expected the gory attacks they were subjected to.
“We were surprised after the attacks happened. We go to farm sometimes with fear because of previous attacks. We never knew anything like this would happen.”
Since 2012, suspected herdsmen have invaded villages and communities in the state. The annual death toll from these attacks have risen from 162 in 2013 to 241 in 2014, 262 in 2015 and 604 in 2016 according to the Movement Against Fulani Occupation. Currently, the toll stands highly above 2,000 with more than 50,000 persons displaced.
About 100 deaths were recorded during the January 1 attacks. At first count, it was 73 people. One week later, 20 more bodies were recovered from the bushes who were not part of the first batch.
“Following mobilisation by youth of the community, the police and other search party volunteers, more 20 bodies were recovered from the bushes. Some of them were already decomposing,” Joy Shikula, the camp commander of the Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) tells me flipping through a register with the names and other information of the IDPs. “Even now, some of the villagers are saying they are yet to see the bodies of their loved ones. They don’t know if they are dead or alive.”
Twelve days after the killings, Mgande who now lives at a refugee camp and other recently widowed women deserted their villages for fear of another attack, joined other villagers who had lost their loved ones to bury her husband. Emotionally traumatised, she has been having nightmares ever since.
“I see him when I sleep all the time. It’s as though I was dreaming. But when I wake up, I will see nobody by my side,” she says, adjusting her headscarf.
Patrick Egwu is a reporter with YNaija. He covers conflict, technology, health, education and other development issues in Nigeria. A 2nd place winner of the Haller Prize for Development Journalism in Kenya in 2016 and 3rd place winner of the Ameenah Gurib-Fakim Science and Technology prize in the 2017 Zimeo Excellence in Media Awards in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Patrick is passionate about giving voice to voiceless, marginalized and disadvantaged communities through his stories.