19 January 2013

Nigeria: The Rise of Ethnic Militias in Nasarawa

Lafia — Nasarawa State is witnessing more incidences of bloody crises, just as ethnic militias are beginning to emerge, posing serious security to threat to the hitherto peaceful state.

Many parts of Nasarawa State, especially the southern areas, have not known peace in the last two years. Recent incidences of bloody crises, fueled by ethnic hate, and perpetrated by armed groups widely believed to be ethnic militias, have turned parts of the state into a battle field.

Assakio, on the outskirts of Lafia along Shendam Road, fell into the hands of arsonists who killed and fled. Dressed in particular style and brandishing charms of various forms, they sang war songs.

Not long, Eggon settlement of Angwan Kuje, Angwan Alaku and Angwan Railway station, in Giza Development Area was turned into a battle field, where not less than 13 persons were reportedly killed. Mercenaries were accused. Also recently, Agyaragu, another town on the outskirts of Lafia, the state capital - along Makurdi road - witnessed 10 uninterrupted hours of massacre, drawing serious concerns over the tactics used by the arsonists who dressed in a particular style to indicate they had good training.

Between January 9 and 14 this year, Nasarawa boiled again. This time, Bassa, Burumburum, Barkin Abdullahi and Agbashi and neighbouring communities were hit, leaving dozens dead, thousands displaced, and houses as well as other property destroyed. Fighters believed to be militia, allegedly perpetrated the killings which left sour taste in the mouth of dozens of families between Eggon, Fulani and Agatus.

In 2003, barely six years after creation of Nasarawa State from the old Plateau, the state recorded gun violence between militias of two ethnic groups: Bassa and Igbirra in Toto Local Government Area, west of Nasarawa. Maimuna Joyce Katai, a serving female commissioner in the government of Abdullahi Adamu, was killed in the bloody crises that claimed dozens, displaced thousands, and destroyed property worth millions of naira. It took a reinforcement of armed soldiers to quell the disturbances there.

At the same period, Tiv, Fulani and Alago people, respectively, had months of fighting which began in Azara, but spilled into Awe. It was blamed on mercenaries who stripped those areas bare of any living until soldiers were deployed to stop the murderous campaign.

During the administration of former governor, Aliyu Akwe Doma, Tiv and Fulani ethnic groups at the boundary with Benue State, engaged themselves in months of gun violence, reportedly pushed far by mercenaries. In all these, observers say, the presence of armed militias said to be fighting for their ethnic groups should be a source for concern.

Today, Nasarawa is experiencing widespread gun violence, prompting concerns from stakeholders. Victims displaced by these crises cut across all ethnic groups in the state; and no one is spared of the consequences, including government, as they have had to lose sleep attending security meetings. Government said recently that over 50 persons have been arrested in connection with recent bloody crises.

Weekly Trust learnt that there is a steady rise in the number of crises in the state.

One of them is the Assakio crisis of September 2012. Assakio, home to Alago and Eggon, as well as other ethnic groups, experienced communal violence over land ownership tussle. No arrests were made until at a later time, but the Alagos protested, alleging that the police took side with Eggons, who they also blamed for forming a militia called Ombatse, to cleanse the former from the area.

Amale Joseph Amunye, chairman of Assakio Youths Mobilization Forum, who alleged that the police targeted victims for arrests, allowing militiamen to stroll around town freely, said such was capable of heightening bad blood in Assakio. But the police denied having vested interest.

The state government followed up by setting up a commission of inquiry which was inaugurated by the state deputy governor, Dameshi Barau Luka, after complaints raged. The commission's report was made available to Governor Umaru Tanko Al-Makura, months ago.

Al-Makura, last week, promised to release the report at the instance of a group of traditional rulers from the southern areas. But days later, the report remained unreleased.

By mid October last year, the Eggon settlements of Angwan Kuje, Angwan Alaku and Angwan Railway station recorded another violence that killed four people, according to the police who made no arrest. The Fulani and Eggons have traded accusations over the fight.

Some of the corpses deposited at the Specialists Hospital in Lafia, bore bullet and machete wounds. Eyewitnesses said the bodies, some of which were mutilated, were abandoned along the busy Lafia-Makurdi Road.

Eggon, Tiv, Alago and Migili settlements in the southern parts of the state have suffered several attacks in the last one year when the feud between Fulani nomads and Tiv, Eggon Alago and Migli peasants peaked. Nomads and peasants have had series of crises, necessitating the governments of Al-Makura, and Gabriel Suswam of Benue State, to set up a joint committee to maintain peace.

When Agyaragu was hit in November, attention disappeared from Assakio and Alaku, for a while. Agyaragu was completely overrun by arsonists, who many accused of being members of Ombatse, an Eggon group which leaders have continually denied involvement in any violent campaigns.

Leaders of Ombatse, Eggon for "time has come", claim they are a spiritual group of the Eggon people. According to reports, Ombatse was founded by six leaders to cleanse society of sundry ills, but the group members were widely blamed in the Agyaragu arson which police confirmed as claiming 10 lives within hours. Eyewitnesses said the arsonists targeted houses of Migili people. Soldiers and policemen were deployed to restore normalcy.

On January 9, Bassa in Agwada Development Area, west of Nasarawa, was hit. Trouble started after a robbery incident which the Eggon ethnic group blamed on Fulani. The leadership of Fulanis in the state corroborated the story of robbery, but denied involvement. By about 10pm of that day, barely two hours after the robbery incident that claimed the victims, Bassa went up in flames. Crisis broke and later spread to neighbouring communities.

Burumburum and Barkin Abdullahi, some of Eggon settlements outside of the area, and near Lafia, were hit too, in what Mohammed Hussain, state secretary of Miyetti Allah, a Fulani socio-cultural group, said "claimed over 100 of our people." But Chris Mamman, leader of Eggon Cultural and Development Association (ECDA), dismissed the allegation.

Ibrahim Musa, a relative of some of the deceased, told newsmen in Lafia that he lost two brothers and a son to the gun violence, while the family was trying to flee the troubled spots in a pick-up van.

"We got an alert early yesterday from our kinsmen in Bassa, asking us to leave our settlement following renewed clashes in their area. But before we could do that, armed men attacked us and killed five of our kinsmen," he said. He said the attackers, who he accused as militiamen, wielded dangerous weapons and used machetes.

Chief Medical Director at Dalhatu Arab Specialists' Hospital (DASH), Dr. Ahmed Yakubu Askiku, confirmed that corpses were brought by the police, from the crisis, but declined to state numbers. The police spokesman in the state, Cornelius Ocholi confirmed killing, but refused to state numbers.

Hussain, the Fulani leader, said Miyetti Allah has had series of meetings with Fulanis on the need not to take laws in their hands, and swore that the people did not attack Eggons, but were the victims.

But Mamman, the Eggon leader, said Eggons are only bearing a bad name given them by propagandists who are bent on exterminating them. He accused Fulani of perpetrating the Bassa, Burumburum and Barkin Abdullahi killings, and said "I tell you, Ombatse is not a violent group. Ombatse is a deity of the Eggon nation, a movement that concerns itself with purity of members. We believe in divine protection when we observe the laws of purity. So you see, we can't fight because we have a divine protection."

A day later, soldiers working under Operation MESA stormed Lafia with an AK47, three locally made pistols and over 100 live ammunition as well as three new motorcycles and assorted charms which they said were recovered from a group that fought in crisis. They also arrested nine persons, and paraded them in Lafia.

On January 14, another crisis was reported in Agbashi, headquarters of Ekye Development Area. Not less than eight persons were feared dead after an early morning raid on the town by gunmen who also set ablaze many houses and other propertiy. The gunmen, suspected to be mercenaries, stormed the town, three days after a man was said to have had his hands chopped off in a fight between an Agatu farmer and a Fulani herdsman.

Eyewitnesses said the gunmen entered the town at about 6pm, and shot at sight. The eyewitnesses said the raid lasted a while. The police spokesman Cornelius Ocholi confirmed the raid and said only two lives were lost, five houses burnt and some injuries.

Anthony Obande, lawmaker representing the area in the state House of Assembly, blamed Fulanis. Utushoho (traditional ruler of the area), Chief Musas Alade, also said Fulanis carried out the attack after claiming that their people were killed in the fight between the farmer and the herdsman.

Obande blamed the government and security agencies for failing to station men in Agbashi. He said although soldiers were finally sent there on January 13, they were withdrawn shortly after, and by daybreak of January 14, the attack on Agbashi came. He said many questions have remained unanswered.

But Hussain, the Fulani leader, blamed the traditional ruler for the attack on his town, saying the chief failed to allow for the release of corpses of Fulanis allegedly killed earlier.

Meanwhile, Governor Al-Makura's media aide, Iliyasu Ali Yakubu, said it is mischievous for anybody or group to blame the government. "The governor has had days without sleep because of those areas. He has not only had security men stationed there, he also requested for reinforcement from Makurdi. He has met with the Chief of Army Staff, the Inspector General of Police and the National Security Adviser on crisis in the state. He is doing more."

For now, observers say the crises in Nasarawa State should be tackled before it is too late.

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