By Comrade Daniel Onjeh
Three days ago, Mr. Raphael Okpe, also known as Popular, a native of Orokam, Ogbadibo L.G.A. of Benue State, was kidnapped on Igbogidi Akere Road, Orokam, where he had gone to deliver food to his workers. Mr. Okpe is a renowned Timber Merchant in Idoma land, who is personally known to me. Consequently, a joint rescue team comprising of local vigilantes and security agencies was promptly mobilized and went after the kidnappers. Although they succeeded in rescuing Popular, it was discovered that two members of the team; Paul Ojile (an elected PDP Councilor awaiting swearing-in this Tuesday) and Agbo Onogwu (a youth vigilante member) were missing from the squad.
Unfortunately, when the rescue team returned to the forest the following day in further search of the missing duo, they were both found dead, with their throats slit. The perpetrators of this dastardly act were Fulanis. They had confessed to Popular before his rescue that they had no time to waste with him, as they were sent on a special mission from Sokoto State, hence if ransom was not paid to them immediately, they would kill him and move on. The police and other security agencies must investigate this incident thoroughly, because it might not be unconnected with the death and destruction visited upon a community in Edumoga, Okpokwu L.G.A. last Sunday, where over 14 people were killed and several houses destroyed.
This killing has seriously stoked tension in Orokam and its neighbouring communities; with the people baying for blood in revenge. Fortunately, two of the Fulani kidnappers who had changed their outfits to mingle with the community and wriggle their way out, were arrested by the vigilantes in neighboring Otukpa, and Popular identified them positively as being among his kidnappers. They are currently at the Police Command, Makurdi, assisting the Police with further investigations.
For me, this incident is a huge burden to bear. I grew up with Fulanis in Kaduna and had excellent relations with them. In my hometown, Orokam, which hosts the largest and most integrated Fulani community (Iru) in Benue State, there has never been an act of criminality attributed to them. In fact, their mosque is standing right next to a Methodist Church; and for many years, there has never been tension of any sort arising from their presence and activities in the community. Even Popular confirmed that the Fulanis that kidnapped him were not from Orokam.
Even though I’ve had cause to intervene in some instances in the past, to quell rising tensions between my Idoma brethren and the Fulanis dwelling in our community, the issues involved had only been accidental; and not deliberate acts of criminality or provocation by either side. For instance about 12 years ago, the Woman Leader of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in Ogbadibo encountered a near-fatal accident when the motorcycle she was riding on at night, ran into a herd of cattle on a major highway. Although she survived the incident, she sustained deep cuts to her face, and lacerations all over her body. The sad incident triggered agitations by the members of the Ogbadibo community who felt that the Fulanis must be made to pay for crossing the major highway with their cattle, and especially at night. I vividly recall that I mobilized other leaders of the community to join me in appealing to the people, especially the youth, and that led to the total de-escalation of tension over the incident.
But the stories we are hearing in recent times about the Fulanis unleashing terror on the Benue South communities, are heart-wrenching. They kidnap their victims indiscriminately, without considerations of their financial statuses, and demand incredible sums as ransoms. And when the victims’ families fail to deliver the demanded ransom on time, they proceed to slaughter them like mere animals. The Benue South community is still reeling from the pains of the brutal killing of Honourable Paul Ojile and Agbo Onogwu, by Fulani armed militia.
Back to the current issue, although Popular was lucky to escape with gunshot wounds to the leg, two of our brothers paid the supreme price. While it is a fact that the perpetrators of this dastardly act are foreign Fulanis, they could not have come to Orokam without the assistance of some local Fulanis.
The Chairman, Okam Forum, Mr. Owoicho Ameh, has commendably reached out to all clan heads and chiefs in Orokam and Owukpa, as well as security agencies; the youth and Fulani leaders in both communities, for a meeting which was held yesterday, Saturday, 18th June, 2022, to calm the seething tension and find a lasting solution before the situation escalates. The meeting was apt and timely.
In my opinion, three institutions have crucial roles to play in brokering and maintaining lasting peace in the affected Benue South communities:
1. The Fulani Community: The onus is on them to prove that they are not complicit in any way, in the dastardly crimes perpetrated in the community that has long accepted them wholeheartedly and treated them cordially. They must identify and fish out all the foreign Fulanis amongst them, as well as the informants that collaborate with outsiders to commit crimes in the community. Failure to do so may have grave consequences for their continued peaceful existence in their host communities. At the moment, the tension is very high and can only be defused if they cooperate fully.
2. The security agencies: They must not compromise in their investigations, no matter the pressures from known and unknown quarters. Those arrested over the incident must be grilled thoroughly and all their accomplices across Benue arrested and prosecuted. The killers of Honourable Paul Ojile and Agbo Onogwu, two previous victims of Fulani terror in the Benue South communities, must face the maximum penalty for kidnapping and murder. All their accomplices, both far and near, must equally be arrested and brought to justice.
3. The Judiciary: Once a case is established against the Fulani kidnappers/bandits/killers, the judiciary must courageously uphold the law and not succumb to any threat or intimidation from any quarter. Justice must not only be done on the matter, but it must be seen to be done.
In turn, I am calling on the people of Ogbadibo and Idoma land in general, to embrace the Fulanis in their midst. But the Fulanis must first expose all the enemies amongst them, especially informants and bad eggs. If the two Fulanis arrested are not brought to justice, many innocent Fulanis might suffer collateral damage, as the tension is high and still mounting. The Fulanis took advantage of the hospitality of the Orokam people, hence the onus is on them to prove that they have nothing whatsoever to do with these acts of criminality and terrorism, by exposing the collaborators and criminals in their midst.
Finally, it is instructive to note that the kidnappers/ terrorists fled without their phones, which were retrieved by the vigilantes and handed over to the police. This is a major breakthrough which would greatly assist the police in profiling all the actors. The call logs are to be thoroughly scrutinized and all contacts subjected to discreet investigation. It should not be limited to calls made or received only during the period under investigation, but should be comprehensive and all-encompassing. A breakthrough in the analysis of the call logs would have further significance on similar cases involving marauding Fulanis across the Middle Belt. All entreaties, lobbies, diversionary tactics, pressures, threats and intimidations must be resisted by the police and the Department of State Security, under whose purview this case falls.
In my opinion, these are the only panaceas for lasting Peace between the Fulanis and their host communities of Benue South.
In closing, I wish to express my heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims of this dastardly crime, the good people of Orokam and Owupa, and the entire Benue South community. May God comfort and grant those bereaved the fortitude to bear their irreplaceable loss. And may God keep and protect all the people and lands of Benue Zone C, and expose its transducer home and abroad. The Idomas are known for their strength and resilience, and I strongly believe that we shall overcome these unfortunate happenings threatening our peaceful existence on our own ancestral soil.