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Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
After weeks of anxiety and tension, peace is gradually returning to Makurdi, the Benue State capital.
Governor Samuel Ortom recently held an expanded meeting with stakeholders in the state, during which everyone agreed to ensure peace in Makurdi as well as all the towns and villages across the state.
The meeting was necessitated by another mayhem in the state on Saturday, January 13.
All seemed to be well with Makurdi that Saturday morning as the people went about their lawful business in all parts of the town, but while the people were going about their business, some agents of doom were busy brewing the wine of chaos. And just after 10am, they began to serve the people who were just recovering from the pain of having to bury 73 people murdered in cold blood by herdsmen two days earlier. Soon after, a protest started in the town.
The violent protest was said to have been sparked off by a rumour that a Hausa man had been killed by a mob in the Wurukum area of Makurdi. The protest soon spread to the popular Wadata Market, where thousands of people from within and outside the state usually buy second-hand clothing, popularly known as okrika.
Soon, it became a free-for-all and assumed an ethno-religious dimension. Many innocent citizens, who did not even know the cause of the matter, were caught in the crossfire. Other parts of the town such as Ankpa Ward, Madikpo, Behind Modern Market, Nyionghuhul and North Bank were also engulfed.
Houses and vehicles were either burnt or vandalised, while the hitherto busy metropolis suddenly became deserted and quiet. Business owners closed their shops and markets were quickly shut down as the rioters took over most parts of the town, unleashing mayhem.
Efforts by security agents to bring the violence under control initially yielded little results, as the rioters seemed to overwhelm the already overstretched security apparatus in the state. Many of them had been posted to police flashpoint in rural areas prone to raids by the herdsmen.
The state government and the security agencies had to call for more reinforcements and the protest was partially brought to a halt. Ortom, who was out of town that morning, had to quickly return. He then ordered a ban on the operations of motorcycle riders popularly known as okada, at night.
Ortom, who made this known at an emergency security meeting held at Government House, Makurdi, that Saturday evening, said the duty time for commercial motorbikes was now between 6am and 6pm, till the security situation in the state became normal.
Soldiers were also brought in with armoured trucks stationed in strategic areas to quell the mayhem while other agencies such as the Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corpse (NSCDC), and the Department of State Security (DSS) also joined forces with the police to bring the situation under control.
By Sunday morning, the governor addressed an expanded security meeting with religious and community leaders at the new banquet hall of Government House, where he attributed the cause of the protest to rumours.
Various speakers at the security meeting agreed that the protest came as a result of rumours that two Hausa men were killed at the Benue Links Park in the Wurukum area of the town.
Others also said it was because some Hausa traders disregarded the order of the state government that all shops and markets be closed on the day of the burial of the Benue 73, as a mark of honour to the dead and the state.
However, nobody at the meeting, which was graced by representatives from the Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and Ijaw communities, as well as the Tiv community, could name those who were killed or their place of residence.
Those who spoke for the Hausa community, including Mallam Baba Ahmed and Mr. Abdulsalam, said they got information that some Fulani men were killed and, before long, the information went viral and snowballed into a violent protest.
Both Ahmed and Abdulsalam commended the governor for the peace initiative and pledged their support to the governor’s initiatives at ensuring that peace returned to the state.
On their part, leaders of Masev, Ipusu, Tyoshin and Isherev communities from Makurdi, including Senator Fred Orti, Fidelis Myinm and Chief Thomas Alom described the protest as unfortunate. They urged the governor to ensure that all those alleged to have participated in the mayhem are apprehended and prosecuted.
They also thanked the governor for the steps he had taken since the implementation of the anti-open grazing law, stressing that his disposition showed that he wanted peace and had put in measures to avoid crises.
Other speakers from the Yoruba, Igbo and Ijaw communities, Steve Alademerin, Chief Chinedu Eze, and others, also called for peaceful coexistence among the different tribes in the state.
Imam Umar Shuaibu, chief Imam of Izala Central Mosque, Makurdi, who was accused of preaching inciting messages in his mosque, debunked the allegation. He said he had all the recordings of his messages and could make them available for scrutiny.
Deputy Governor Benson Abounu enjoined everyone in the state to learn to obey the law and respect one another. He said the Saturday mayhem could have been avoided, if some shops were not opened on the day of the burial of 73 victims of herdsmen’s attacks in the state.
“I want to believe that what happened in Wurukum was eventually found to be false. We should caution our youths. Even if they want to respond to issues, they should first seek clarification from their elders. We must also learn to obey the law and respect each other.
“It could have looked like the Hausa were taking sides with the Fulani. What happened yesterday could have been misinterpreted. I commend the commissioner of police for his timely intervention. If you feel wronged, you have a channel to put forward your grievances. If shops were not opened on the day of the burial, maybe what happened wouldn’t have happened. We must learn to be each other’s keepers,” Abounu said.
Governor Ortom explained that the meeting was to usher in peace and rebuild confidence in all the residents of the state as well as to further let them know that one of the objectives of his government was to encourage harmonious living.
He disclosed that 10 people who were injured in the attack were receiving treatment at the Benue State University Teaching Hospital. He enjoined everyone living in the state, particularly religious leaders, to continue to build bridges of peace in their places of worship.
While stressing that not all Fulani were killers, the governor said he had good Fulani people working for him in government and in his private business. He noted that it was only Fulani who carried guns to steal, kill and destroy that were criminals.
“It is wrong to tag all Fulani as killers because herdsmen came and killed our people. Our problem is with those criminals. Anyone who steals, kills and destroys is a criminal. So, there is need to expose such people rather than shield them,” he said.
The governor also decried the role of cultists and criminals who ignite crises in the state so as to pillage. He recalled that even when the security agencies brought the crisis under control, some hoodlums were still looting people’s property.
“We must expose and eliminate such criminals from the state. That is why I am building another cell at the Makurdi Prisons. Some who are seated there have their children who are cultists and they are not doing anything about it.
“The law allows the governor to give amnesty to anyone who renounces cultism. We will forgive such person. But anyone seen or caught in the act of cultism will be prosecuted and jailed,” he warned.
He urged the people of Benue not to attack anyone: “Attacking people here can spark crisis in other parts of the country.
“Two wrongs can never make a right. If you go on reprisal, you will attack people who know nothing about the crisis. Let us build bridges and create peace in our preaching. Prayers for political leaders must be sustained. If this had escalated, you would know what would have happened in Gboko, Katsina-Ala and on our highways.
“Let not youths constitute themselves into security agencies. Anyone caught would be prosecuted. We have resolved to work with security agencies who know what to do. All the youths need to do is to supply information to the appropriate authorities.”
The governor thereafter visited Wadata, Madikpo, Rice Mill and Ankpa Ward, among others, to see the extent of damage caused during the protest.