Ibi — The old fishing town of Ibi used to be a serene, peaceful place but the religious riot that engulfed the town Sunday morning has rewritten its history. Snuggling on the south-eastern bank of River Benue, Ibi town with its sprawling red roofs and dusty streets is home to fishermen, who fish in the Benue waters and farmers who farm the rich alluvial plains of the Benue valley.
Now tension hangs over the old town as smell of blood and burnt buildings fill the air.
The town also had a booming fish market, especially at this time of the year but now the place is deserted.
Thousands of people, mostly women and children were seen fleeing the violence on foot and on bikes to neighbouring villages. And for them, the sectarian crisis has come at a very terrible time. With the scars of the destruction wrecked on them by the floods that ravaged their farmlands and washed away their homes, it is like adding salt to injury.
Faith Nungwa, a young lady who was seen trekking along Ibi Wukari road with a heavy load on her head, said she and her family members have been sleeping in the bush and they have to find a way of leaving the town before another round of violence.
"We were in church on Sunday for morning service when suddenly we heard sounds of gunshots. Everybody was tensed up and the Pastor had to end the service and as we came out, we saw smoke billowing into the sky and people we running helter skelter and we knew that all is not well in the town. We had to run for our dear lives and hid in the bush," she said.
Already some refugees have camped at Ibua and Dooshima villages, a safe distance from the boiling Ibi but with little or nothing to eat, as they have left their foodstuff and cooking utensils behind.
"We are just settling down after the floods washed away our farmland and displaced us from our homes and I never imagined that this disaster will befall us. Thank God for sparing our lives but crisis is the last thing that we want in Ibi now," Titus Iorja, a fleeing resident, said.
At least 10 people lost their lives in the crisis which started on Sunday morning and continued up to Monday.
Uneasy calm has returned to the town with the imposition of a 24-hour curfew on Monday, but life will no longer be the same for adherents of the two religions who, before now, have co-existed peacefully as there will be mutual suspicion between them.
It all started like a mere quarrel between members of the Boys Brigade of Nigeria, who mounted a roadblock near their church, the Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria (CRCN) at the heart of the town. A Muslim passerby insisted on passing through the roadblock, which escalated to riots resulting to the loss of lives.
Witnesses said the man forced his way through and he was beaten mercilessly by the Boys Brigade. He was said to have survived the beating and went and mobilised his people who came "on retaliatory mission" and allegedly attacked members of the church. Two people were hacked down immediately as Christians and Muslims rose up in defence of their religions. Houses, shops and places of worship were torched in the few hours of fierce fighting before security forces intervened.
Chairman of the Ibi local government Ishaka Adamu however said the violence was not sparked off by religious sentiments as people were made to believe. He said the crisis was political and sponsored.
He said politicians a behind the violence but decline to mention names of those that fuelled the crisis. He said the local government will do all within its powers to ensure that the violence does not escalate and it does not reoccur in the future.
The Chief of Ibi His Royal Highness Alhaji Abubakar Danbawuro lamented that Ibi that used to be a peaceful town has lost its peace. He called both Christians and Muslims to tolerate one another, saying "what tolerating one another and living in peace will give you violence will not give you. So I call on all my subjects both Muslims and Christians to live in peace with one another as brothers and sisters. It is only then that we can achieve our goals in life," the third class chief said.
The Taraba House of Assembly has set up an ad hoc committee chaired by the deputy speaker Abel Peter Diah to investigate the immediate and remote causes of the crisis.
While addressing newsmen in Jalingo on Thursday, the deputy speaker said the committee has invited the chairman of the local government who is the chief security officer of Ibi and the traditional ruler to assist the committee in its investigations. He said all heads of security agencies stationed in Ibi and the chairmen of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and Muslim Council in the local government will be invited to give evidence to the committee.
"We want to do a thorough work and see if there was negligence by the authorities," adding that "Taraba has enjoyed peace and we cannot afford to lose the peace that we have been enjoying so we are doing a thorough job to see that the report of our findings come out on Tuesday.
Already the chairman has mentioned some names to us and after our findings we shall invite whoever is implicated in the crisis to appear before us and clear himself," he said.
Meanwhile, security forces drafted to keep the peace have arrested over 200 militia men and handed them over to the police.
A highly placed security source said the militia men who were armed with guns and machetes engaged the security forces in a shoot-out for several minutes before they were overpowered and arrested and taken to Jalingo, the Taraba State capital.
Our source said some were killed in the exchange of gunfire but could not give figures. A mobile policeman was shot by one of the militia who was in a military camouflage and he was receiving treatment at General Hospital Wukari.
The Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) of the Taraba State Police Command Amos Olaoye confirmed the arrest. "We arrested some suspects in connection with the Ibi crisis and we are investigating them to know where they came from and how involved they were in the crisis," he said.
He said the 24-hour curfew imposed on the town by the state government on Monday has brought normalcy to the town.
There are reports of violence still going on in the villages around Ibi especially at night but the police said that it is just speculation.