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OP-UNEDITED | Agatu as a Metaphor – By Ilemona Onoja

By Ilemona Onoja

Yesterday, the Benue State Commissioner of Police, Paul Yakadi, announced that the communities attacked by Fulani herdsmen in Agatu Local Government Area of Benue State were now occupied by about 5000 cows accompanied by hundreds of armed herdsmen. It was widely reported last week that herdsmen, armed with automatic assault rifles, had attacked Okokolo, Aila, Adagbo, Akwu, Omikuidi, Ocholonya and Odugbeho communities in Agatu killing more than 300 people and displacing more than 7000.

The brazen forceful takeover of ancestral lands of the indigenous people of Agatu has gone on unabated for a while now. And it follows similar trends in other parts of the North Central region of Nigeria. The trend is simple – attack communities, kill as many as possible, dislodge the indigenous people then occupy their ancestral lands for grazing purposes.

The sheer viciousness of these attacks have caused the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) to name “Fulani Herdsmen” as the 4th most deadly terrorist group in the world after Boko Haram, ISIS and the Taliban. The report shows that Fulani herdsmen killed a total of 1229 people in 2014 alone, a figure which is predicted to be drastically higher when the 2015 GTI is published.

It is worthy to note that much of this casualty figure occurs in the North Central region of Nigeria where the soil is fertile and vegetation abounds leaving the herdsmen with little work to do to graze their cattle, although there have been incidents and attacks as far as Ondo in the South West, Delta in the South South, Taraba in the North East and Imo in the South East. The problem is, much of the lands they choose to graze upon are farmlands belonging to the indigenous people of these areas which are the major food sources for the country.

The killings in the North Central have been horrendous. In some case, whole families have been wiped out. I know a lady, who along with her mother, are the sole survivors of a family of 8. There are so many stories of this nature, stories that tell of fathers murdered, of brothers missing, of sisters raped, of women carted away as sex slaves.

As a result, there are so many Internally Displaced Peoples’ (IDP) camps all over the north central. In many locations, displaced people have been forced to relocate and now squat with relatives and friends all over the country. Most of these people no longer have sources of livelihood as they have been forced to abandon productive farmlands in search of safety elsewhere.

Therein lies the first of a series of latent challenge that Nigeria faces as a result of this menace. A report by a research organisation, SBM Intelligence, indicate that many of the farmlands in the North Central have not been cultivated for years, with some of them not producing any crop at all since 2012. The report further ties the menace of the Fulani herdsmen to rising costs of food items in local markets across the country.

Simply put, if the trend continues unchecked Nigeria faces a food crises of huge proportions. Once we factor in the humanitarian crises arising from the violent activities of these herdsmen, the only picture presented is a gloomy one.

This picture is perhaps made worse by the current administration’s FX policies. Although the intentions are noble, restrict access to FX for the purchase of imported goods as a means of compelling people to buy local produced goods, the implementation of such policies at the time of food shortages will only make things worse.

With our farmlands occupied by armed cattle grazers and not being productive, the food we eat will have to be imported. Restricted access to FX will only most probably lead to high costs of importation of food items or an increase in smuggling through Nigeria’s weak & porous borders. Both will result in one thing – higher cost of foodstuff in the markets. In short, we will be looking at 1984 like food shortages & queues for essential commodities.

The second of the series of latent challenges is also as scary. We face the possible emergence of an armed militia in resistance to the Fulani herdsmen. A visit to any of the numerous IDP camps across North Central will reveal the palpable anger that pervades the region.

You will see them – young, restless, angry, seething with rage. Most pondering on whether they will ever get the right opportunity to seek vengeance for the pain & suffering they have all been dealt. All that is missing is a catalyst. All that is missing is a misguided mad man with funds, access to the global arms black markets and knowledge of Nigeria’s illicit trade routes.

Any visitor to any of the IDP camps will leave with a feeling that if the young people, and my goodness there are so many, there is given access to arms and assault weapons, the North Central region of Nigeria will become an immediate hotbed of violence & bloodshed as they seek vengeance, retribution and repossession of lands that have belonged to their lineages for centuries.

We have gotten a glimpse of the depth of this rage before. We, as a country, are just not paying sufficient attention. Sometime in 2012, angry youths in Plateau State began an armed defence of their ancestral lands from attacks by Fulani herdsmen with the strategy that attack was the best form of defence.

They killed Fulani in hundreds in the most horrendous manners. Such was the savagery of the attacks that youths were filmed killing Fulani men, women & children and eating their hearts and other body parts raw. There is a video of this on youtube. I am told that several pregnant women were cut open and the foetuses in their bellies eaten. RAW!!!

All this together does not present a pretty picture for the region and, indeed, for Nigeria. We sit on the keg of gun powder, with a timer ticking slowly towards the inevitable explosion unless we change the ways we approach these issues. And rapidly too.

Until then, Agatu is a metaphor. It is a metaphor of the failure/refusal/neglect of the government to live up to its primary responsibility to protect the people of the region from an armed invasion and occupation of their lands.

Until then, Agatu is a blood stained, corpse ridden metaphor of the Nigerian government’s lip service to the existence of a plan to reduce Nigeria’s dependence on oil as a major source of revenue by boosting agriculture – you simply cannot have any agricultural plan without having farmers who can access their farmlands.

Until then, Agatu is a bloody, death filled metaphor of the anger of the youth in the region, an indication of the blood that has been shed and the blood that will be shed in the future in this deadly cycle of violence.

Until then, Agatu is a metaphor for us to remind ourselves of the things that we would rather forget.

Ilemona Onoja is a commercial solicitor based in Abuja. He can be found on Twitter as @the_harrasser


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