Twenty-four residents were killed and 20 others feared missing after suspected herdsmen struck again in Benue State Monday afternoon, residents have said.
Residents of Omusu and two nearby communities in Okpokwu Local Government Area told PREMIUM TIMES Tuesday night that the attackers entered their villages around 4:00 p.m. Monday and carried out a two-hour deadly assault.
Emergency officials described the attacks as “very brutal” and said three villages were affected, with more than 2,000 displaced persons now desperate for relief materials.
“They killed people to their satisfaction before they left,” said Attah Alexander, a resident of Omosu community. “It was deliberate and there were no policemen around to stop them.”
The killings come as the state prepares to receive President Muhammadu Buhari, who finally caved in to those calling on him to pay condolence visits to victims of deadly attacks that had left hundreds dead since he assumed office in 2015.
The attackers also struck despite the presence of Nigerian troops in the ongoing peace-keeping exercise named ‘Ayem Akpatuma’ or ‘Cat Race’.
Many of those killed were identified as women and children.
Mr. Alexander, who later joined in emergency efforts, said he was amongst those who counted 24 bodies and moved the injured to the hospital.
“Ten people were taken to the hospital with several injuries from gunshots and cutlasses,” he said. “We’re still looking for 20 people that we’re not sure if they’re dead in the bush or still alive but missing.”
The three villages that were attacked include Omusu, Okana and Okpilikpo, according to residents.
Benue police commissioner, Fatai Owoseni, did not immediately respond to PREMIUM TIMES’ enquiries about the attack Tuesday night, but Daily Trust quoted the police spokesperson in the state as saying that 16 persons were killed.
Governor Samuel Ortom paid an emergency visit to the area on Tuesday afternoon, railing against the impunity of the killer herdsmen who were said to be on a reprisal attack.
The governor met with the locals in Okpoga, seat of Okpokwu LGA about 155 kilometres southeast of Makurdi, the state capital.
Paul Onuh, a legal practitioner and resident of Okana, told PREMIUM TIMES there was an altercation between some herdsmen and villagers on Sunday evening.
Some herdsmen were said to have been brutalised and scores of cows rustled allegedly by some thugs around the communities.
“They came to complain that they were attacked and their cows were rustled during the incident,” Mr. Onuh said. “But no one in this community could carry out such attack.”
The lawyer said he wondered how the herdsmen were able to openly graze across the state during the day despite an absolute ban on their activities.
“It is unfortunate that the herdsmen are still grazing illegally across the state and killing people in the process,” he added
A mass burial for the dead is planned for Friday in the communities.
“The governor has mandated me to respond immediately by providing emergency relief materials to the displaced persons,” said Emmanuel Shior, executive secretary of Benue State Emergency Management Authority.
Mr. Shior feared that the latest disaster would complicate situation for his agency, which is already managing dozens of camps for the internally displaced in the ongoing attacks linked to herdsmen.
Thousands in the IDP camps are complaining of acute food shortages.
Military exercise, not operation
The latest attacks marked the first large-scale killings by suspected herdsmen since soldiers were deployed in Benue and other states regular attacks across the north-central.
It’s also the first major attack in Idoma-speaking part of Benue, coming two years after suspected herdsmen attack on Agatu left more than 500 dead. Most of the attacks recorded in the state since January 1 have occurred in Tiv-dominated Logo and Guma Local Government Areas.
David Ogbole, a Makurdi-based preacher and campaigner against herdsmen brutality in the state, said the latest incident bolsters his suspicion that troops are not permitted to go after the attacks.
“What the soldiers were sent to do is an exercise, not a military operation,” Mr. Ogbole, leader of the Coalition Against Fulani Occupation, told PREMIUM TIMES Tuesday night. “They cannot engage the attackers in the real sense of it.”
Mr. Ogbole said troops in Benue are operating in a manner distinctly different from their counterparts in the war-ravaged Northeast.
“It was termed an exercise instead of an operation. Similar military expeditions in other conflict zones like ‘Lafiya Dole’ in the Northeast were all operations but that of central Nigeria involving herdsmen militia was reduced to a training exercise with a Tom and Jerry medical programme,” the preacher said.
“As an exercise, the deployed military personnel had no orders to engage or apply force to subdue the territorial menace. As we speak, the military now provides cover for the increasing number of herdsmen and cattle to graze on farmlands and plunder the harvest of deserted Benue communities.”
But John Agim, a spokesperson for the Defence Headquarters, countered the pastor’s claim that soldiers are not permitted to use maximum force against attackers.
“It is not true,” Mr. Agim told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Tuesday night. “The troops have orders to engage when necessary.”
Mr. Agim, a brigadier-general, said the attacks continue despite military presence because there are no enough personnel to secure all communities.
“The communities are many across several states, the military cannot be everywhere at the same time,” he said. “But wherever we have reports of suspicious moves, we quickly intervened.”
Mr. Agim said the attackers are also deploying weapons and using tactics which are quite advanced, indicating that some powerful persons might be sponsoring their activities.
“But make no mistake, the military is up to the task of containing them,” he said. “We’re not helpless in this situation at all.”