This Day (Lagos)

6 July 2013

Nigeria: On the Trail of the Ombatse

ALIKIOR IS A COMMUNITY IN EGGON, NASARAWA STATE WHERE SCORES OF SECURITY AND POLICEMEN CURIOUSLY MET THEIR DEATH; AN INCIDENT THAT HAVE BEEN MIRED IN CONTROVERSY. STANLEY NKWAZEMA VISITED THE COMMUNITY THAT IS MORE OR LESS FROZEN IN THE PAST. HE ALSO GOT THE OMBATSE CHIEF PRIEST TO TELL HIS OWN STORY

The journey... Ordinarily, I should have informed my family friends about my trip to Lakio in Eggon, Nasarawa State. This is the community where scores of security personnel including the police and SSS met their deaths. The mission was to assess this community and perhaps get to meet the leader of the Ombatse Cult, High Priest Lega Ahgu, to get his own side of the story on the death of the security men in May 7, this year.

As we left Abuja by bus that early Sunday morning, so many questions kept coming up. Is it worth it? Why all the risk? But then somebody has to unmask this man whose cult is at the centre of the storm.

When we finally got to Eggon after about three and half hours drive, we had to wait by the Nasarawa Eggon Secondary School to meet the president of the Eggon Cultural Development Association, Mr. Chris Enva Maman and one of his men who had to park their cars and join us on the last lap to Lakio village. It was here we were given the first lecture about the Eggons. Maman, as if he wanted to sway us, was quick to tell us "we don't start a fight... Even the Whiteman never captured our people. We did not migrate," he said, adding that the hills by our right side of the road was the first home of the Eggons before they walked to different parts of the Middle Belt and beyond. "The traditional Eggon culture is not corrupted because they are hardworking. They don't wait for you to bring food for them. We are self-reliant. We are more republican. We are more than the 47 per cent of the entire population of the state, he told his guests. He said the onslaught against his people "started in 1999 when Alhaji Abdullahi Adamu became the governor of the state. He went about thinking of how to corner and box the Eggons so that they won't be powerful. Eggons are the dominant group. As we talk about 269 Eggons have been killed. Forty-nine communities were attacked and 2259 houses burnt. At no point did the government send the police to protect our people."

As we moved towards our right on the way to Lafia, the historical perspective continued. It dawned on us that we were in for a journey full of experience. The road to Lakio from Eggon is bad and bumpy and civilisation still seems like light years away. When we eventually got to there, the vigilantes who keep watch over the village blocked the road and insisted we got down from our vehicle. But Maman and his member quickly got down and intervened after informing them of our mission.

We were again confronted with harsh reality that indeed blood flowed in the area when we saw nine burnt and vandalised Hilux Pick-Up vans, some by the road side and others simply on grassland.

Face-to-face with Ahgu, the Ombatse chief priest... Apparently expecting us, the chief priest quickly ushered us in. Looking quite frail, Lega Ahgu was seated in a plastic chair in the courtyard calling the shots. The young, old men and women went about their errands.

As he started talking, I realised that the man was not only revered but his words are held in high esteem. High Priest Ahgu was indeed pleased that we dared to come to "find out the truth". The high priest who could neither speak English nor Hausa said he was not at home the day the security operatives came calling. He disclosed that they have been living in peace with Fulani herdsmen even though he adds there have been series of skirmishes between the herdsmen and some communities in the middle belt. Ahgu denied any knowledge of the killings and the coming of the security operatives to the Village.

"Nobody came to tell me they were coming to arrest me. I don't understand a word of English or Hausa. I was in the neighbouring market when they said they came. I never had any foreknowledge of the security operatives. Nobody has invited me. But if I am invited, I will go," he said through an interpreter.

The big question... Then who killed the security operatives and vandalised their vehicles? "I can tell you that I don't know about it. I don't know anything. I told you I was away; I went to a market in Shargba in the neighbouring village. It was when I returned that they told me about it. So whoever is accusing me of killing anybody is just lying. We don't kill people here. Whoever said we visited some churches and mosques and was luring and forcing people against their will with the aid of concoctions in order to force them to join the Ombatse group is not saying the truth," the man insisted. I persisted: But people died or were killed in your village; what is your reaction? "When I came back from the market, one of the state commissioners came here. I told him I knew nothing about the deaths. We spoke at length and nobody has come again. Just as you saw or heard, that is what I am telling you, nobody has invited me for questioning," the chief emphasised.

In Eggon land, the chief priest said that it is not all indigenes that are members of the Ombatse. "Only very few who have chosen to be pure at heart, who don't want to be sorcerers, wizards, witches, robbers, or who covet another man's wife are members of the Ombatse. If you are an Ombatse member and you go contrary to the rules, nobody will tell you that you will face the wrath of the gods."

President, Eggon Cultural Development Association, Chris Maman, said he first got a call on the incident around 6:15pm on that fateful day. "But honestly, I'm yet to understand why government should send 127 security operatives with 12 Hilux Pickups fully armed with grenades and sophisticated weapons to a peaceful community? What this man does here, as you can see, is helping people who are sick. If government was interested in what is happening, it should have sent the people. The police were sent here to accomplish the task of dehumanising, criminalising and decimating the Eggon people.

"When they were sending mercenaries here to deal with our people, they could not succeed, so they decided to deal with our people by sending such a large number of armed security operatives...We want peace and would want to know what happened to those operatives. It is only God that can explain what happened. The community does not have the capacity to do that," Maman stressed.

Although the state governor, Alhaji Tanko Al Makura, confirmed he ordered the invasion of the community, there are still unanswered questions. From the Police, a total of 104 policemen comprising four superintendents, four inspectors and 96 rank and file officers were deployed for the operation. Their mission, according to Police Operation Order No 7/2013 dated April 30, 2013, was to achieve the following: Identify all the black spots of Ombatshe hideouts in other to curtail criminal activities, raid all black spots in other to weed out bad ones as well investigate and prosecute all the arrested criminals.

They were to establish records of such identified criminals for future use, identify new hideouts for surveillance and monitoring. In the document obtained by THISDAY, "The DPO for Nasarawa Eggon is to identify and locate all the black spots in the area, while the Assistant Commissioner of Police in Lafia will ensure effective security coordination of all security arrangements in this operation..."

Interestingly the document said that, "all officers and men engaged in this operation will not be fed during the period of this operation. Officer and men engaged in this operation should feed well before the commencement of the operation. Again, the date for the operation or the 'fall in Time' was scheduled at 0600hrs on Wednesday, May 2013. All officers and men involved in this operation order will fall - in at State Headquarters for briefing."

However while the operation was carried out six days after the initial date, families of the slain security operatives claimed that their breadwinners, most of who came from the Police Mobile Unit at Akwanga were deceived into believing that they were leaving for Markurdi only to be diverted on the way to Lafia to move into Alikio village.

Under the sub-head, Discipline: "All officers and men engaged in this operation are to be polite and civil to members of the public and exhibit high sense of discipline and professionalism. They are also warned to adhere to Force Order No 23 on the use of firearms."

THISDAY sources also confirmed that the State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Abayomi Akeremale, who was listed in the Order as the Overall Commander, had only about six days left to retire from the service before the ugly incident. It was also gathered that rather than sign the Order, the document that ordered 104 Policemen out on such an operation was signed by an Assistant Commissioner of Police, B Department in Lafia.

But as we left Lakio village through Lafia towards Abuja around 3.00pm, there were many questions yet answered. Who or what killed the security operatives?

"The mystery of the deaths predates the colonial period. We were created here on the hills by the gods. Even the Colonial Masters couldn't succeed. It is only God that can explain what happened," president of the Eggon Cultural Development Association said as we left them at Nasarawa Eggon back to Abuja.

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