3 January 2009

Nigeria: Jukun, Kuteb Ignite Age-Old Rivalry - Scores Killed

The staccato burst of gunshots like those of submachine guns spitting pellets of death rattled the neighbourhood of Likam Mountain on the outskirts of Takum with deafening intensity.

The belligerent town of Takum in the south of Taraba State was once again wrapped in a blanket of confusion as the planned observance of a cultural festival called Takachiyawa set the Jukuns and their Kutep neighbours on a fresh warpath.

Ordinarily, Takum, the headquarters of Takum local government area of Taraba State, never goes to bed early. This probably confirms its credentials as the socio-political and commercial nerve centre of the southern zone of Taraba State. The departure from this routine occurs only when there is a major political or ethnic uprising. Of course, Takum can be rightly said to have had its fair share of political and ethnic crises, especially the latter, since the creation of Taraba State.

Ironically, the ethnic crises which have bedevilled Takum local government area over the years, and which have never left any oxygen of peace in the air for the people to breathe, have been perpetrated by two neighbours: the Jukun and Kuteb. These two ethnic groups who have a common historical bond are predominantly found in Takum, Wukari, Ussa, Donga and the newly created Yangtu Special Development Area Council.

Available records show that ever since the first ethnic crisis between the Jukun and Kuteb broke out in 1991, Takum has only experienced graveyard peace. The two neighbours have been at each other's throat maiming, killing and destroying property.

Only last week, precisely on Saturday December 27 2008; just a day after Boxing Day, another round of hostilities erupted in Takum between the Jukun and Kuteb leaving in its wake destruction of lives and property. Not even the Christmas spirit of love and brotherhood was able to prevent the neighbours from attacking each other.

By last Sunday, a day after the crisis erupted, no fewer than five people were reportedly killed. Although there was no official confirmation of the death toll, the figure was believed to have risen to about 20 early in the week.

As it was with similar crises in the past, the military barracks located in Takum played host to thousands of refugees, mostly women and children, who relocated there for safety following the outbreak of fighting between the rival ethnic groups. There were conflicting accounts as to the immediate cause of the recent Jukun, Kuteb crisis.

One account attributed it to alleged abduction of a Jukun kinsman by youths suspected to be of Kuteb extraction. The Jukun man [names withheld] was said to have been dressed in traditional regalia in readiness to lead a procession for the observance of Puje, an annual cultural festival of the Jukun. The abduction was said to be the Kuteb's way of protesting the observance of the Puje festival on the grounds that their own cultural festival, the controversial Kuchicheb, was prevented from holding following the ban slammed by the Taraba State Government on cultural festivals in Takum early last year.

The severed remains of the abducted Jukun kinsman was said to have been discovered in a pool of blood later that day prompting the eruption of heavy fighting between the two rivals leading to high pitch tension that spread from Takum to neighbouring local government areas.

Another account attributed the recent crisis in Takum to the planned hosting of another annual cultural festival called Takachiyawa which is said to be jointly observed by the Jukum and Chamba people of Takum. Based on security reports over the planned observance of Takachiyawain in Takum on December 27, the Council Chairman, Musa Ahijo, was said to have convened a security meeting on December 24.

Weekly Trust gathered that in attendance during the security meeting which took place at the Council chambers were: the Chief of Kuteb in Takum (Ukwe Akente), the Chief of Jukum/Chamba, the Sarkin Hausawa as well as their youth leaders. Also in attendance were the Police and SSS in Takum.

During the meeting which lasted for several hours, the Council Chairman was said to have reminded the stakeholders of the subsisting ban on cultural festivities in Takum. The Chairman was quoted during the meeting as saying: "If the Jukuns insist on observing their Puje, they should go to Wukari; if the Chamba must hold Takachiyawa, they should go to Donga and if the Kuteb must hold their Kuchicheb, they should go to Ussa."

Although the planned hosting of the Takachiyawa on December 27 was put off by the outcome of the security meeting, a new twist was have been introduced to the unfolding drama. In the early hours of Saturday December 27, a lady of Chamba extraction [names withheld] was said to have dressed up in traditional attire and rode on a motorcycle shouting: "Takachiyawa must hold".

When the lady rode past Anguwan Akate ward where the Kuteb are predominantly found in Takum, she was said to have been accosted by angry Kuteb youths who stripped her of the traditional regalia, leaving her stark naked without hurting her. The lady was said to have ran towards a Jukun dominated area weeping that she was stripped naked and manhandled by Kuteb youths. Jukun youths were said to have quickly mobilized for a retaliatory mission which triggered fierce fighting between the Jukun and Kuteb.

Before long, the staccato sound of gunshots spitting pellets of death rattled the neighbourhood of Takum and its environs with deafening intensity. Consequently scores of Takum residents who were still in the convivial spirit of Christmas celebrations abandoned their social activities and took to the military and police barracks in Takum town. Others fled to neighbouring Ussa, Yangtu and Wukari towns.

The battle ground later shifted to a mountain on the outskirts of Takum called Likam where a fierce gun battle was said to have intensified. A military source told Weekly Trust that the first detachment of soldiers who got to Likam Mountain to handle the situation was turned back due to the superior firepower of the fighters who were said to be heavily armed with dangerous weapons.

Although no official confirmation of the death toll was made public, it is believed that no fewer than 20 deaths may have been recorded during the Jukun, Kuteb crisis in Takum. Several houses belonging to some prominent sons and daughters of the area were set ablaze while property estimated at millions of Naira were destroyed.

The situation was, however, brought under control the following morning when a truck load of armed Mobile Policemen was drafted to Takum to beef up the security situation in the troubled area. On Monday the death toll was said to have risen even as the Taraba State Police Command assured that the situation was under control. Solomon Isa, the command's PPRO said another detachment of Mobile Policemen was drafted from Jalingo to beef up security in the troubled area while also calling on people to go about their normal businesses. A dusk to dawn curfew was imposed on Takum by press time.

Takum local government council chairman, Musa Ahijo, who was engaged in series of security meetings with stakeholders since the outbreak of the crisis condemned the incident and called on the warring parties to sheath their swords and embrace peace.

Ahijo who attributed the recent crisis to conflict over traditional festivals called for mutual understanding among the warring groups. While putting the death toll to five, the Council Chairman disclosed that a number of arrests were made. Among those arrested, he said, were youths caught with dangerous weapons as well as some others who were caught looting property during the crisis.

The Taraba State Government was yet to make any official statement on the recent Jukun, Kuteb crisis by press time as Governor Danbaba Suntai was away to his country home of Suntai in Bali local government area where he spent the Christmas.

This is the second time Ahijo was having a dose of the Jukum, Kuteb crisis as the current Takum Chairman. In March 2003, while serving as the Council's caretaker Chairman, an alleged attempt by the Jukun to prevent the Kuteb from hosting their banned Kuchicheb festival sparked up fighting by the two neighbours that left no fewer than ten people dead while several houses with property worth millions were destroyed.

In the aftermath of that crisis, the state government put in place an administrative panel of inquiry to investigate its remote and immediate causes. But with the outcome of the panel's report, and indeed several similar ones in the past, yet to see the light of day, the question observers are asking is: when will the senseless killings between the Jukun and their Kuteb neighbours ever end?

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