Justin Tyopuusu and John Charles
A local farmer from Wukari Local government Area of Taraba State, Mr Agbu Atoshi, is afraid to go to his farm like many of his colleagues to avoid being killed.
Atoshi said he lost two relations when suspected Tiv men attacked them on the farm near the General Hospital Wukari in August, 2019.
He said, “This is the time we are expected to be on the farm, but one doesn’t dare go to the farm. Many people have been killed while on the farm. Even at the outskirts of Wukari, it’s dangerous to be on the farm. Last year many people who tried to farm near the Wukari General Hospital were killed and because of that many of us can’t go to the farm again.
“This is a minus as far as food production is concerned. I want government to find ways of resolving the crisis. I also want the government to provide us with fertilisers and other farm inputs to help us in areas we are managing to go to farm.”
For Msua Tyoikyaa, farming which is the main occupation of the people of southern Taraba, is now a no-go area, as militia men have taken over the area.
“Government should provide a platform for sincere dialogue that will lead to a solution to the crisis. As it is now, we don’t have a source of livelihood again and if this continues, many youths would take to crime to survive,’’ said.
Food crisis looms in the state just as it’s imminent in Benue State. In Taraba, the Jukun and Tiv ethnic groups who are mostly farmers locked horns in bloody clash which has forced farmers to stay away from their farms for two consecutive farming seasons. Both groups have continued to trade blame regarding the crisis in southern and parts of central senatorial districts of the state since April 1, 2019.
What began as a little misunderstanding in Kente between two neighbours; Tiv and Jukun in Wukari council has spread to Wukari, Ibi, Donga and Takum council aeas in the southern senatorial district and as well as Gassol and Bali in the central zone.
Though the state government has initiated series of peace meetings, there appears to be a missing link since the deliberations have yet to yield fruits in the current trend of events as the attacks continue to spread.
When our correspondent sighted some farmers along Peva-Sai -Abako road on the border between Taraba and Benue, it was a scene of people desperate to survival hunger. While some were busy farming, others sat on tree tops in the area, keeping watch of any impending danger.
Mr Friday War-Adi, who was among those watching out for any danger, told Saturday PUNCH that they had devised a strategy to ensure that they produce food for their families next year.
War-Adi added, “We are family people with a lot of dependents so we must go to the farm or else we won’t have any means of survival. Our livelihood depends on farming and local businesses and as it is now businesses have collapsed and farming too is threatened.
“Few weeks ago, some of people were killed on the farm when suspected Jukun militia from Rafin-Kada attacked them on the farm. We have therefore decided to form a group of men and women to ensure we plant something no matter how small against next year.
“All of us on my farm will move to another person’s farm tomorrow until everybody cultivates their farm. There is hunger already in the land and the situation will be worse next year if we don’t do something.
“Before now, a minimum of 33 trucks load of yams and grains usually left Wukari market daily; 17 in Tor-Iorshagher market and between 70 and 100 at the Peva market on a weekly basis to different parts of the country. But today one hardly counts five in all the markets except Peva which is still trying.
“But with the military (operation Whirl Stroke) harassment of people in the area and the controversy over who controls the Peva market between the Takum Local Government chairman and elders of the area, more and more people are keeping off from the market.”
No framing, no crops
Another farmer, Nuhu Bayonga, urged government to provide security for farmers in the southern to enable them access their farms.
Bayonga said, “Can we even have security personnel deployed to all the communities and farms in the area? Government should quickly fast track the return of peace in the area.
“I use to cultivate over 20 hectares of land, but now I can’t boast of cultivating even two hectares. It’s a serious problem. Ninety-five per cent of people here are farmers, even the Igbo traders and Yoruba who are doing business here do go to farm. But now, out of this percentage only about five are going to farm in areas close to the town with relative security.
“I am seeing a serious hunger next year and it will not only affect us but those coming from other places across the country to buy foodstuff. There is nothing more important to us now than peace. We want peace so that everybody will continue with his normal life. For now, the challenges are just too much.’’
Worried by the prolonged feud between the two groups, the forum of clergy of Tiv extraction led by Rev. Fr. Simon Akuraga, recently held a meeting and called on the Taraba State government to rethink its strategies in addressing the crisis.
“The cleric stated, “We are worried that it has become a habit that our elected government officials find it difficult to visit attacked communities. Even when attempts are made, it is often one-sided.
“This same attitude is often transferred to those living in IDP camps, where they suffer less care and attention. This seeming lack of empathy will only continue to breed the seeds of mistrust and will make the government appear complicit.
“The rate of hate speeches, blackmail, and name-calling sometimes orchestrated by organs and functionaries of government remains worrisome. The lingering crisis which has destroyed the economy of the areas under attack is also threatening food security of the entire state as the epic centre of agricultural production is now a no- go area..
“The implications of the over one-year crisis remain grievous. Today, there is widespread hunger and starvation in southern Taraba with a tendency of escalation to other parts of the state.
“For two consecutive years, most farmers cannot access their farms due to fear of attack. Those who attempt to go to farm risk death and many people have been killed in such manner.’’
Mrs. Nancy Terfa, a mother of two who said feeding her children and others living with her was now a big challenge, lamented that if nothing urgent was done, hunger would send many to the grave.
“A tin of rice now goes for N900 as against N400. A bag of maize is now N18, 000 as against N5, 000 last year. The cost of food has gone up to an all-time high.
“Worst of it all is that we can’t go to farm. From over 10 hectares of farmland I used to cultivate, I am forced to manage this small portion of land in the neighbourhood and the same scenario applied to others,” she said.
But the state Commissioner for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Dr. David Ishaya, said government was not unaware of the challenges posed by the crisis on food security.
Ishaya told Saturday PUNCH that government had provided 700 metric tonnes of improved rice seeds to farmers for free in all the 16 council areas the state as well as Soya beans and Sesame seed to 2, 200 farmers as palliatives to assist them in the 2020 farming season.
Ishaya said, “We have also given out 100 tonnes of maize, procured 100 trucks of fertilisers NPK 20-10-10. We are expecting the arrival of the raw materials from Morocco and hopefully next week, we will start the distribution of the fertilisers.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was delay in the arrival of the raw material and so some marketers are adulterating fertilisers to make quick money. We don’t want to put our farmers at risk and that’s why there is delay in the procurement of fertilisers this year.
“We are giving loans to farmers in form of inputs. We are giving half inputs like herbicides, insecticides and fertilisers and cash to enable farmers boost their yields.
“For those in crisis area especially in the southern zone, we are making plans to encourage dry season farming in the area. We have dispatched a team of irrigation experts in the southern zone which has a good window of raining season.
“Also, as part of deliberate measure to assist farmers our loan comes with a low interest rates to farmers and we encourage some of them to establish modern livestock ranch for the production of milk, beef, animal feed, modern rice milling centers among others.”
The commissioner said the measures were designed to make agriculture a viable venture to attract more people especially the youth and to reduce youth restiveness, create jobs and boost food security.
Residents recount losses
Residents of the affected communities in southern zone also recounted their losses to the crisis.
Mrs. Amayikai Naphtali told one of our correspondents that her rice mill was destroyed when Tiv militia attacked Sondi in the Wukari local government area of the state.
“Businesses are not moving again. I have relocated to Wukari but things haven’t changed. The crisis has affected businesses and life generally in our area.
“The truth is that most of our customers are Tiv who have been displaced and can’t come to Wukari market at the moment. We were only left with students who were also forced to stay at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I want to call on Governor Darius Ishaku and his Benue counterpart, Samuel Ortom, to jointly find a lasting solution to the crisis,” she said.
The village head of Ananum community, Isaac Ananum, who said he lost 15 people to the crisis lamented that the village was destroyed by militia on May 5 and June 6, 2020.
“This village is one of the most economically viable places in Donga local government. Go to the market square and see the level of damages caused by the militia.
“No one in government is talking about what we are going through. Thousands of people have been displaced and the village destroyed.
“All the two attacks happened on a market day and took people unawares. People who stored goods and had investments lost them to the crisis.
“The best explanation we got was that an helicopter landed there with arms. I am still waiting for the proof of the allegation and who authorised the helicopter to fly the air space when the Federal Government ordered lockdown of the country over the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ananum lamented.
A businessman in Taraba, Mr Samuel Nege, claimed that he lost over N40m worth of rice and property to the Jukun/Tiv crisis when his warehouse was attacked.
Nege said irate youths on May 17, 2020, invaded his house in Gidin Dorowa, carted away 1,400 bags of rice and destroyed his store and houses.
Nege said; “We all know the economic implication of not having farm produce; the prices of food items will increase and hunger will fester in the land. I want to call on the Federal Government to rise and put a stop to the crisis for the good of all.”
While the elite continue to engage in high-level peace meetings to resolve the crisis, the locals want the Taraba State government to urgently deploy security forces to the affected villages in the southern and central zones to end the killings and ensure their safe return.
Top on the list of their demands is that government should assist in providing housing and farming materials to enable them gather their lives and move on.
But the Diocesan Priest of the Catholic Diocese of Jalingo, Rev. Fr. Ephraim Sani, said government had a responsibility in ending the crisis.
The priest who addressed a press conference in Jalingo recently said; “The escalation of the fighting comes with dire consequences on human life and all aspects of our life and work. As a mainly agragrian state, farming activities have been severely hampered; other aspects of economic life are also adversely disrupted.
“We call on the state government under the leadership of Darius Ishaku with the support of the Federal Government to invest more time and resources in the security of the state.
“As the chief security officer of the State we appeal to his good conscience and his paternal responsibility to constantly visit and ensure that adequate security personnel are deployed in the affected areas. In truth we believe that not much has been done and there is a feeling of abandonment of the common people by government.”
But the Special Adviser to Governor Darius Ishaku on Media and Publicity, Mr Bala Dan-Abu said, the governor had done enough to end the killings.
Dan-Abu said Ishaku held several meetings with Tiv and Jukun leaders in Jalingo for the purpose of achieving peace between the two groups, knowing that agriculture remained the mainstay of the state economy and continuous fighting would hamper food production.
“In 2019, a major stakeholders meeting on the crisis was held in Abuja, sponsored by Gov Ishaku, and attended by a Federal Government delegation led by Boss Mustapha, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. The governor has done more than enough, what is missing is the resolve on the part of the Tiv and the Jukun to embrace peace.
“Peace cannot be forced on the people by government if the desire for peace finds no expression in the attitude of those directly involved,” Dan-Abu said.
Benue crisis yet to abate
One of the farmers at Torkula village in the Guma Local Government Area of Benue State who had turned into a commercial motorcycle rider popularly called okada, Terso Iorton, painted a gory picture of how he fled the village to seek another means of sustenance elsewhere in the state.
The former farmer who now rides motorcycle in Makurdi said, “The crisis started in 2012 when the marauding herdsmen invaded our community and attacked us in the guise of cattle rustling. Nine people including two of my brothers were killed; all our crops and houses were destroyed. In fact, they reduced the village to rubble.
“It was a dry season and by the time rain set in we returned to our village and rebuilt it in our own way. Unfortunately, the herdsmen returned and sacked the villagers twice in 2015 and it became all-year round attack from 2017 till now.
“Having spent the whole of 2018 and 2019 in the camp at Abagana and unable to return to the village for fear of attack, some of my friends and I had to move to Makurdi town to do menial jobs to sustain our family. Before now, I cultivated yams and rice and had about 10 hectares of farm destroyed by the invading herdsmen in 2019.
“They did not only destroy our farmlands, they took over the community and sent everyone packing. Now, no one dares to return to the community for fear of being killed.
“Within the last eight years, these marauding herdsmen turned our village to battleground. Over 56 people lost their lives. The village has been deserted, ’’Iorton lamented.
Over the years, Fulani herdsmen had been residing in Benue State and the people co-habited peacefully with their host communities, the Tivs, Idomas, Igedes and Etulos.
The indigenous people of Benue are predominantly farmers, the Fulanis are herders, yet despite the differences in occupation, they lived harmoniously and in some cases inter- married.
Though there were skirmishes then occasioned by cattle straying into the farms belonging to Benue farmers and destroyed the farm crops, each time it happened, it was amicably resolved and in some cases, the parties laughed over the situation.
But events in the last couple of years seemed to have severed the relationship and turned the one-time best of friends into enemies, no thanks to the heinous crime the killer herdsmen introduced into the crisis.
Report had it that the violent attacks on Benue communities by the armed herdsmen started in 2011. Initial security report indicated that the armed herdsmen militias were possibly the offshoot of the Boko Haram fighters who fled the North-East through coastline down to the North-Central.
Reports had it that between 2011 and now, the armed herdsmen launched several attacks on the state. About 5,000 people including pregnant women and children had been killed including tens of thousands of people displaced from their ancestral homes in about 10 of the 23 local government areas of the state.
The attacked council areas are Guma, Logo, Agatu, Gwer West, Kwande, Tarka, Okpowku, Oju, Ado and Makurdi. Unfortunately, the foregoing local government areas are known for their efforts in growing farming crops such as yam, cassava, sesame, guinea corn, rice, maize and others.
This development has affected farmers in the state who are scared of going to farm for fear of attack by armed herdsmen. Some of them had also relocated to urban centres like Gboko, Otukpo and Makurdi towns to do menial jobs such as okada riding and as cleaners.
For Vitalis Tahanongo, a mechanised farmer in the state, the fear of herdsmen attack is causing him a lot of worry.
Tahanongo stated that he had over 500 hectares of farmland where he cultivated rice, yam, mill and soyabeans in commercial quantity. He added that he had to abandon the farm after armed herdsmen destroyed the crops and turned the place to their abode.
He stated, “I am a big-time farmer with over 500 hectares of farmland within the Makurdi Local Government Area of the state. I had a terrible experience in 2017 and 2018 when I cultivated over 300 hectares and also raised a nursery before herdsmen took over the farmland. I could not harvest even a grain. For now, I have abandoned that area. The farmland is lying fallow.’’
The farmer said that in 2017 alone, he lost about N30m crops to the marauding herdsmen, adding that he incurred similar amount in 2018 which forced him to abandon farming.
He added, “I spent almost N2.8m to raise a nursery before it was abandoned. Herdsmen invaded the place, fed their cattle with all what I had there for almost three months. The total investment I lost in the farm is over N30m because I spent more than N265, 000 to cultivate one hectare of land and all were destroyed by the Fulani herdsmen.’’
The farmer said that the implication of the incessant attacks by herdsmen on Benue communities was food insecurity which he said was already hitting the nation hard with high cost of food stuffs in the market.
Tahanongo regretted that Federal Government which at the inception promised that agriculture would be one of its cardinal priorities had yet to see why it had to tackle the challenge headlong.
He said, “Attacks on farmers in Benue and across the country is already posing danger to our economy. You can see that prices of food stuffs have gone up. A basin of maize that used to be N2, 000 now goes for N10, 000.. Also, a bag of rice is now going for N25, 000. It’s already causing hardship.
“And the reason is that some of the farmers, be it peasant or commercial farmers can no longer go to their farms. Many are in IDPs camps because they have been chased away from their ancestral homes.
“It is unfortunate that the Federal Government which claimed to have prioritised agriculture is handling the armed herdsmen militias attacks on farmers with kid gloves.’’
Another farmer, Donald Iorhembe, described the situation farmers in Benue found themselves as ‘pathetic’, saying, “at times, I wonder whether we are part of Nigeria.”
He noted that the President, Major General Muhammad Buhari (retd) was not acting swiftly when the herdsmen crisis was increasing.
He explained that due to the incessant attacks by herdsmen on Benue communities, nobody was interested in farming because most of the farmlands were no longer safe.
Iorhembe stated, “I am from Umenger village in the Guma local council and I had about 20 hectares of farmland where I used to cultivate rice and maize. Those days, one would love to be a farmer because of the money one would make.
“Then, we worked till late in the evening until the coming of the killer herdsmen in 2011 and instead of receding, the attacks continue unabated.
“In 2014, I lost members of my family; my parents and three siblings to attacks. Many stayed long in the camp and when there was no hope of returning to the village, everyone had left and taken up menial jobs. .
The state Chairman, All Farmers Association of Nigeria, Aondongu Saaku, noted that the effects of the incessant attacks by armed herdsmen on Benue communities could not be quantified.
Saaku lamented that about 10 local government areas of the state were forcefully occupied by the armed herdsmen who he said had agenda to take over the state.
He said that since the majority of Benue people were farmers and major victims of herdsmen attacks. He stated that about N30bn had been lost to the attacks in the last nine years.
Saaku stated, “We cannot quantify what we have lost. Is it the thousands of farmers murdered in their prime or the destroyed farmlands, crops and our houses which we initially estimated to be over N30bn as of 2018?
“You can see that between 2018 and now, the same armed herdsmen have continued to invade and kill our people unprovoked. If it is not Guma today, it will be Logo or Agatu tomorrow. At the last count, over 10 of the 23 local government areas of the state had been attacked by the Fulani herdsmen. Whenever they attacked an area, they left their signature on their victims. They butchered them, go into the barns to bring down the harvested crops to feed their cattle and burnt down the leftover and leave to burn other houses.
“They do these to make sure they take over our land and since they don’t have food, they know that food is a weapon in war. They do all these to weaken us and those who could escape would later find themselves in IDPs camps.
“Many of our farmers are scattered in IDPs camps across the state. They can no longer go to farm and the farms have been taken over by the herdsmen. It’s a pathetic story in Benue,” Apparently worried by the incessant attacks on his people, the state governor, Samuel Ortom, called on the President to declare armed Fulani herdsmen in the state as ‘terrorists.’
Ortom, who spoke through his Chief Press Secretary, Terver Akase, said the continuous invasion and killings of innocent people in the state were unacceptable.
He said Benue State has a law prohibiting open grazing of livestock, stressing that only a terrorist group would deliberately choose to violate the legislation as Fulani herdsmen had done since the law was enacted in 2017.
“Declaring the armed herders operating in Benue State as terrorists will end the wave of impunity and guarantee the rule of law, ‘’he stated.
The governor reassured Benue people that his administration would not surrender the state to criminal elements either herdsmen or any other group.
He added, “No amount of threats and attacks will stop the enforcement of the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law of the state.