For Benue, we weep

Nightfall comes like a dreaded disease seeping through the pores of a healthy body and ravaging it beyond repair A murderer’s hand, lurking in the shadows, clasping the dagger, strikes down the helpless victim.

I am the victim.

I am slaughtered

every night in the streets.

I am cornered by the fear

gnawing at my timid heart;

in my helplessness I languish.

Man has ceased to be man

Man has become beast

Man has become prey.

I am the prey;

I am the quarry to be run down

by the marauding beast

let loose by cruel nightfall

from his cage of death.

Where is my refuge?

Where am I safe?

Not in my matchbox house

Where I barricade myself against nightfall.

I tremble at his crunching footsteps,

I quake at his deafening knock at the door.

“Open up!” he barks like a rabid dog

thirsty for my blood.

Nightfall! Nightfall!

You are my mortal enemy.

But why were you ever created?

Why can’t it be daytime?

Daytime forever more?

Benue is not Soweto, the South African Black community, where death in the hands of murderous apartheid enforcers was a routine pastime. Blacks dreaded night time because it usually brought sadness and deaths. The anguish and tears of victims could be heard, tearing through the stillness and eeriness of the night.

The fear of being butchered at night by the marauders was so thick that, the talented poet, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, wrote that famous poem, NIGHTFALL IN SOWETO (reproduced above), which deployed vivid imagery to depict the emotional, psychological and physical torture faced by the people, as they contemplated death occasioned by the approach of night.

Benue is not Soweto. But Benue is Soweto. Nightfall in Benue is time to fear marauding herdsmen. Nightfall brings bloodshed. Nightfall brings sorrow and tears. Nightfall brings death; a harvest of deaths.

Just at the beginning of a brand new year, when the world rose to the promise, which the fresh year offered, death came to Benue. At night! Night is a metaphor for fear, for death. Not tired of spilling innocent blood, in the name of searching for grazing space, they unleashed violence on hapless citizens. Clutching cutlasses, clubs, guns and other weapons, they went on a killing spree, levelling everything and everybody in sight. At the end of their deadly exploit, 73 persons lay dead.

Are these guys human? Are they from earth or hell? The herdsmen many of us grew up seeing, carried ordinary sticks, were friendly and courteous. But, when did they graduate to clutching AK-47, and revelling in violence? Who are the people arming them, and what evil agenda drives them?

Again, are they from earth or hell? Men who kill their fellow men are certainly not human. What kind of persons would kill others over grazing fields for their cows? What kind of persons would place more value on their animals above the lives of fellow humans? What would justify murder over economic benefits accruing from tending cows? Who will halt this madness?

Oh, Benue, the famed food basket of the nation, I weep for thee. From food basket, they have turned thee, this agrarian state, to the blood capital of Nigeria. There, O God, blood flows freely like a burst pipe. I can hear the cries of mothers whose kids and husbands have been murdered by marauders from wherever.

Men, too shocked and traumatised, have eyes red and swollen, shake their heads in regret and sorrow at the tragic happenings in this season of madness. Oh, Benue, a land enveloped in grief, as 73 caskets are lowered into the cold, lonely earth, victims of a senseless onslaught by blood-thirsty herdsmen.

Oh, Benue, I weep for thee. I weep for the slain 73, and many others whose blood have been shed as a sad testament of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man; a sad, tragic narrative of the failure of governance and leadership, at the centre and the state.

Many are wondering: How come the Muhammadu Buhari administration, which promised to do better than the spineless Jonathan government in protecting life and property, has suddenly become flatfooted in the Benue debacle? No excuse is acceptable in the Benue killings by herdsmen. Now, they have since spread terror to Plateau, Kaduna, and other North-Central states, and all the government offers are excuses and rationalisations. This is not right; that is not responsibility.

A government’s primary duty is the protection and safeguard of the lives of its citizens. If that government fails to do so, it must be sober and show empathy.

Lives have been lost; the people are in mourning, with all kinds of conspiracy theories flying everywhere. I expected the Number 1 citizen to have flown to Benue State by now, or made a special broadcast assuring the people of their safety, while commiserating with them. Well, the fact that President Buhari dispatched the Minister of Interior, General Abdulrahman Dambazzau and Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, to Benue is commendable. Also, the president’s meeting with Benue stakeholders today is a step in the right direction.

Governor Ortom will also have to carry the can in his shoddy handling of the situation. According to the Benue helmsman, he kept crying to the federal authorities about the threats of violence by the herdsmen, but they did nothing. I believe he could have taken his case to the public before now. He could also have done more in protecting his people. He didn’t do that. Now, many Nigerians are calling him a ‘weakling,’ including many of his own people. Truly, he deserves our sympathy and pity, but how does that bring back the dead?

Of course, I am sad and angry as I write this piece, this memorial to the dead of Benue; the injured and displaced; all those who have suffered any kind of loss in the Benue insanity.  I am angry at the level they have allowed things to degenerate in Benue and other parts, where life has become, according to Hobbes, “short, nasty and brutish.” No thanks to the herdsmen.

There have been talks of “ranching” and “colonies” for cattle. I am still trying to understand what that means. I had thought those who engaged in herding or cow business were engaged in private business? How and why have they elevated private engagements to government matter?

Will the government provide land for goat, chicken, pig or fish farmers sooner than later?

What if tomorrow goat farmers ask for land for their animals, will government yield to their demands, or are some animals more equal than others?

Have I been too hard on herders? I don’t think so. Have they suffered some losses from local farmers, who steal, kill and slaughter their animals? In some parts of the North-Central, I heard that has happened quite often. If this is so, that act ought to be strongly condemned. Unjust acts are unjust acts, no matter who perpetrates them.

But, what can compare to the loss of lives? Absolutely nothing! That’s why I believe the government must, as a matter of urgency, bring the killers masquerading as herdsmen to book, to face justice. They should be fished out, prosecuted and sentenced according to the laws of the land. If they go scot-free, it would send a dangerous signal that some groups of people can be above the law; that they can kill and nothing will happen. That, ultimately, will lead to anarchy, as everyone will be a law unto himself or herself. And the nation becomes diminished, while we all suffer.  A nation without laws or obedience to laws is not a country but a banana republic. And we are not! Or are we in a republic of herdsmen?