Six persons are missing two weeks after suspected armed herders waged an attack on an agrarian Benue community, PREMIUM TIMES can exclusively report.
This was confirmed during a group interview with now-displaced survivors of the attack, one of the fatal spinoffs of Nigeria's conflict involving pastoralists and farmers.
Mnena Athanisius and Ladia Tange are the two women among the missing persons, according to a list the attacked community gave this paper. Others are Pius Kwanh, Tyavkase Zaki, Aondoaver Achin, and Raphael Tarvihi, all men.
Abaji is a small community of farmers, near a body of water that flows from River Benue, more than an hour's bike ride from Jato-Aka Town in Kwande Local Government Area of Benue State. Just near the unpaved path to the community, there is a military post.
At about 10 a.m., on March 3, the Abaji survivors told PREMIUM TIMES, some members of the community were at the river, fishing, when the herders struck.
"I jumped into the river to escape the attack," said Aloysius Yaga, one of the survivors.
The attackers reportedly used both guns and machetes, killing six persons in the wake of the attack. The community said the six persons killed were different from two members of the community earlier burnt with their motorcycles on a bridge before the village.
The police spokesperson in Benue State, Catherine Anene, had confirmed the attack in a March 4 statement, blaming herders. However, she, then, said three corpses were recovered from the scene of the violence - the community said six now.
Ms Anene repeated the same figure when interviewed by PREMIUM TIMES Wednesday night.
She confirmed the community had reported missing persons. "But the investigation is still ongoing," she said.
'Abandoned by soldiers'
While the attack lasted, the soldiers from the nearby military post reportedly offered no response despite being stationed just nearby.
"If you are talking about that village, we are not responsible," a soldier at the military post said, essentially confirming the villagers' allegations. "We are under Taraba (93 Battalion). You know we have a procedure in the army."
Abaji community shares a boundary with Taraba State, and, according to commercial motorcyclists, is just three hours away from Cameroon.
A photo of the displaced survivors
The people of the community have now been uprooted from their homes following the attack and are now occupying a parcel of land with new huts just opposite the military post.
"We are still scared because they are still around us but we are staying because of the soldiers," said Orpine Shauhar. But the community insists the soldiers failed them when they came under attack and for not being able to help them reclaim their land and homes.
"Our major concern is that any time there is an attack, the soldiers tell us they are under Taraba (State)," lamented Mr Shauhar, with a query in desperation: "Are we not all Nigerians?"
Benue hosts the 72 Special Forces Battalion but soldiers from the army unit were only seen at checkpoints several kilometres to Abaji, one of Nigeria's abandoned communities with no form of socio-economic service.
Army spokesperson Sagir Musa could not be reached by phone on Wednesday and Thursday for comment.
Rains have started slowly In Nigeria's humid south and are being expected in parts of the sub-humid Middle Belt, where Abaji is, with farmers across the regions set for the wet season farming.
But in the country's far northern drylands, rains may only start in June, according to meteorological forecasts.
With an extended dry season up north, herders are forced to migrate towards the Middle Belt and further southwards, engaging in intense, usually violent, competition for resources with sedentary farmers.
So, for several years, communities like Abaji have fallen victims of the deadly violence involving the migrant herdsmen, who view land as a common resource in rural areas where governance is far removed.
"For more than seven years, that's what we always face during the dry season," said elderly Mr Shauhar. "What they do is to attack us to make us run away and to allow them to take over our land for their cows."
"Not just one land," one of them interjected. "They have taken over our farms and destroyed our cassava."
The Abaji people are now unable to farm, a major economic impact of the violence. "By this time, because of the rains coming, we should be on our farm planting but we can't do anything," Mr Yaga said. "This is where (we) sit from the morning."
Nets used for fishing by the community
However, they have devised a survival strategy amid their difficult circumstances. At night, the men in a group would go fishing.
"We'll take the fish to Jato-Aka to sell and use the money to buy food," Mr Yaga said.
Benue State has in place a piece of legislation prohibiting open grazing. But despite such law and constitution of livestock guards for enforcement, open grazing still continues in the state, PREMIUM TIMES can report.
"That is true," affirmed Terver Akase, a spokesperson for Governor Samuel Ortom. "But the law is to be implemented by security agencies. There are livestock guards but they are not armed and cannot stop armed herdsmen invading the state."
"That is why the state is considering setting up a security agency to complement the federal police, which is overstretched. Imagine some local governments having 35 policemen for 200,000 people."
Asked if the state government was aware of the displacement of the Abaji people and the disappearance of six persons, Mr Akase said, "I don't have the details but you don't have to be surprised if you hear any case of a missing person. They (bandits) attack and take people away. The police should be able to provide an answer."
Disembarking on Tuesday evening, armed herders were sighted grazing their cattle on lands the Abaji people said belong to them.
Except they are helped by the police or the military to reclaim their lands and homes, they may have to wait for rains to start in the far north for the armed herders to leave.
Meanwhile, PREMIUM TIMES could not speak with any of the herders for security reasons. A local fixer and a commercial motorcyclist insisted they could only go towards the herders if accompanied by soldiers stationed nearby.
The soldiers told PREMIUM TIMES they were not responsible for the area and moreover they would need permission from "higher authorities."
The Benue State chairman of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), Haruna Garba, said the herders involved in the violence are not members of his group.
"They are not Fulani, they are not our members," he said. "How can Fulani still go there when the government is seizing our cows?"
PREMIUM TIMES understands that nomadic herders who migrate southwards from the north or from neighbouring countries, including Niger Republic, during the dry seasons are not necessarily members of MACBAN.