From: TONY JOHN, Port Harcourt Hundreds of youths in Rivers State yesterday, staged a peaceful protest in Port Harcourt, condemning the activities of some operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the state police command. Protesting on the platform of Niger Delta Non-Violence Youth Leaders Assembly (NDNYLA), they marched through some major streets in…
- Where bandits warehouse sophisticated weapons
- Plan, launch attacks on target communities
By MURPHY GANAGANA
Rim, is a vast district in Riyom Local Government area of Plateau State, whose map has been violently altered. Until 15 years ago when communal and ethno-religious conflicts erupted in the state, Goon, two hamlets of Janda, and a few other settlements, stood conspicuously on the geographical landscape of Rim district. It is, however, a different scenario, at the moment. Goon and Janda, are among communities in Riyom, where homes were levelled, and the rubbles stare at you as a sad reminder of the innocent souls who perished in gruesome circumstances.
More than one and a half decades after, the inhabitants of the neighbouring communities who survived the onslaught, particularly Jol and Rim, the traditional headquarters of the district, still watch their shadows as they take a step. Located at a distance of about four or five kilometres away from them was a Berom community named Rankum, where the natives are no more and their homes have also vanished.
Perched atop a hill, in its stead, is a camp of herders, who had uprooted the vestiges of the natives and stuck their foot in glorious conquest. The settlement, surrounded by appealing green vegetation, is today, named Mahanga, and epitomises danger and fear for the locals, who say they now face a grim choice: stay and sleep with one eye closed, amid hunger, or relocate to be refugees elsewhere and lose their lands.
“Mahanga is the headquarters of herdsmen, operations in the middle belt, a camp for their warfare, where sophisticated arms and ammunition are warehoused; it is from there that they plan and attack targeted communities in the North Central states, including southern Kaduna. It has been the situation over the years”, said Joseph, a 56-year-old native who does not want to be properly identified.
“During the crises, a helicopter usually landed there to drop arms; it regularly landed at midnight, as from 12.30am, and the security agencies have the intelligence report. This year, a helicopter also landed at Sagas in Fan district of Barkin-Ladi Local Government Area of the state; it landed between January/February this year, in an area occupied by the Fulani. As at 2015, they had amassed weapons that could sustain them in battle for four months. That was an intelligence report that also reached the security agencies”, says Makum, another local.
Mahanga, according to the natives, has become a parallel society in which the culture, traditions and laws of the state are supplanted; an incubator and safe haven for suspected terrorists for recruitment, training, and warehousing of high calibre weapons. Its hilly location provides not only a natural defence, but also isolation, making it a no-go zone for the inhabitants of neighbouring communities, who allege they hear intermittent gunfire from the commune at odd hours.
For these people, they are stressed in thousands, and distress has become a way of life. They are endangered species, struggling daily with the loss of their pride as humans, occasioned by insecurity and perpetual fear of the unknown; they struggle with disillusionment and resignation. They also do not want their population to diminish further.
Emotions were high two weeks ago when Saturday Sun visited Rim, a distance of about four kilometres to Mahanga, separated in opposite direction by a large expanse of arable land from which our correspondent had a clear view of the dreaded enclave. Here, issues on the alleged armoury and other activities are said to be top secret, and members of the commune suspected of divided loyalty are summarily dispatched to their untimely graves. Two persons, simply identified as Tanko and Dio, are said to be among such victims, allegedly poisoned on suspicion of passing vital information to the natives; the latter, reportedly an enlightened and liberal-minded Fulani.
Ironically, situated close to Mahanga, is a base of the Special Military Task Force (STF) code-named, Operation Safe Haven, a multi-agency outfit in charge of internal security in Plateau, which the natives alleged, had not lived up to its mandate of providing a safe haven for them. Besides, they accused some of its personnel of dining with the devil.
“Some of the STF men are protecting them; some also fight for the herders. We have had situations where name tags, ATM and ID cards of military personnel were recovered from theatre of battle. For us, it is a terrible and sad situation”, lamented a 37-year-old man who does not want his name in print for security reasons.
STF commander disputes claim
But Rogers Nicholas, a Major-General and commander of the STF, swiftly debunked the allegation. “It is not true; anybody saying this should provide evidence. As far as STF is concerned under my command, there is nothing like that; we will remain 100 per cent non-partisan, we will remain highly apolitical on these issues. The Nigerian military as a whole is highly apolitical, we are here not to get involved in their local politics; we are here primarily to protect lives and property, we don’t get involved in issues of people hiring mercenaries”, he asserted in an exclusive interview with our correspondent. He also said reports on the warehousing of weapons at Mahanga, were so far not actionable.
Berom monarch counters
However, his words seem not to be a suiting balm for the Beroms in Jol and Rim district. Their traditional head, Da Gyang Dahoro, Gwom Rim, says his subjects are under siege. His greatest worry, however, is that hunger is threatening the lives of the inhabitants of communities neighbouring the enclave, following their inability to access their farmlands due to fear of attacks. Worst still, their resort to farming on any available land within the precincts of their homes, is also met with the frustration of cattle grazing by herdsmen.
In an encounter with Saturday Sun in his palace, the monarch bemoaned the plight of his people. “Currently, there is hunger in the communities because we have been deprived of carrying out subsistent farming, and nobody is taking care of the people; the children need school fees, the widows are everywhere with nobody to assist them and those who are farming behind their houses, cattle are busy destroying the crops. The communities are under siege; we sleep with one eye closed”, he remarked.
While the natives had heaved a sigh of relief from the years of the locusts, they say the atmosphere hanging over them is that of an eerie peace. Apart from fear over the existence of an alleged armoury of sophisticated weapons at Mahanga, and the invasion of their temporary farmlands from which they manage to feed, they are burdened by the incessant rape of their women; their wives, mothers and daughters, allegedly by armed herders.
Barely two weeks ago, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, had in his Eid-el-Fitr message to Muslims in the country, urged the Federal Government to probe the source of weapons carried by herdsmen. ‘‘The real herdsmen do not carry guns, but move with their cows and sticks…Agreed, there are bad eggs among the Fulani, but those carrying arms and perpetrating heinous killings are not herdsmen. Those carrying arms are criminals and they should be treated as such. The government should, therefore, probe the source of these weapons and take appropriate action; they should face the wrath of the law”, he was quoted as saying.
We’ve no evidence of arms in Mahanga – General Rogers, stf commander
Commander of the Special Task Force in Plateau State, codenamed Operation Safe Haven, Major General Rogers Ibe Nicholas, says though he had reports of sophisticated weapons warehoused at Mahanga, the dreaded Fulani enclave, he was yet to be availed with credible evidence. A former Chief of Civil-Military Affairs at the Army Headquarters, he spoke on the outcome of his several visits to Mahanga, his mandate as STF commander, and other issues, in this exclusive interview:
As commander of the STF, what is your mandate?
I am Major-General Nicholas Rogers, Commander of Operation Safe Haven, Jos. The mandate of the STF has been expanded to cover four local government areas of Southern Kaduna. Our area of operation covers the whole of Plateau State, two local government areas in Bauchi, Bogoro and Tafa-Balewa; these are areas that have contentious issues, and the crisis in southern Kaduna. Because of the relative peace that the Operation Safe Haven has achieved on the Plateau, the Army Chief, and Chief of Defence Staff, had directed that I should take over four local government areas in southern Kaduna. They are Jama’a, Zangokatap, Sanga and Kaura local government areas. These are the major crisis areas in Kaduna. The mandate of Operation Safe Haven is to restore peace in Plateau, protect lives and property, and that is what we are also going to do in southern Kaduna.
In terms of security, what situation did you meet on ground when you came on board?
When I came on board, I met operational vehicles, troops under the command. The Task Force is made up of the Nigerian Army, the Nigeria Air Force, personnel of the Nigeria Police Force, the Civil Defence and Prisons. I met this structure on the ground, and there were also some structures that were also in place in terms of peace development. When I came in, I did a tour of the 17 local government areas in Plateau State, and two local government areas in Bauchi State, to assess the situation myself. I interacted with various community leaders, the Miyetti Allah, the Jama’atu Nasiru Islam of Nigeria, the Christian Association of Nigeria, traditional rulers, youth leaders, market women and the National Union of Road Transport Workers, among others, to see for myself and ask questions, but I discovered that people were not talking. We adopted people-oriented strategies on peace initiatives; I started organizing peace parleys with small groups of 10, and I continued to expand it to a group of 50, then to a group of 100, for the purpose of ensuring that the measures go down to the grassroots. When I came to Plateau, the Fulani and the Berom were not talking, they don’t attend the same market; they don’t cross over to each other’s territory. When I got them talking, I discovered everybody wanted peace, just that there was no coordination. We started creating avenue for them to talk to each other, and as we speak to you now, Fulanis do Keke Napep (Achaba) in Berom villages, and Beroms also go to most of the Fulani-dominated areas. If you go to the mining places, you will see both Berom and Fulani doing mining together; that is as a result of quick intervention. When there is crisis, I will move to the scene, sit down with the people and resolve the issues. We set up various sub-committees and they have my contact; once there is something, they would call me for quick intervention and I will make some assurances. We also have challenges with the cattle breeders and the farmers; but we have also been able to bridge that gap and ensure that there is peace. We have a system where if a cow enters a farm and damaged crop, we will get you and the owner of the farm, assess the level of damage, and you will pay. Where cattle is rustled, we will get the community to pay and that has been working peacefully even though that is not the best way out, that is what we have on ground.
You are a combatant. How prepared were you for this assignment?
Well, before I came here, I have had a lot of experience. I was a Brigade commander in Adamawa State before I was moved to Sambisa Forest to combat Boko Haram. When I left there, I was at Defence Headquarters, Department of Internal Affairs; later, I was made Chief of Civil Military- Affairs. As Chief Civil-Military Affairs, I had a broader view of how to relate with civilians, crisis management system; there is a lot that General Buratai impacted on me as a Chief of Civil-Military Affairs, he give me opportunity to open up the system; it was under me that we had Human Rights Desk in the Army, and we opened discussion with the Human Rights Commission. It was under me that we had Amnesty people at the Army Headquarters. That exposure was given to me by the Chief of Army Staff, and that helped me; he sent me here based on the experience I had over the years in dealing with civilians and managing issues of crisis, and it is that spirit that is driving the peace building process; it is about negotiation, sensitisation, give and take. I also had issues of developing impact projects that has won a lot of the locals on the side of peace, particularly in some areas where we have absence of government. There are areas with problems of water, health facilities and schools; we have intervened by providing boreholes where there is no water, we have intervened by providing free medical outreaches to those communities, we have also intervene by renovating schools, and this is what we do try to do in building peace.
Will you say you have won the war?
It is difficult to say we have won the war; what we have now is relative peace. We still have threats in southern Kaduna, but we have calm down the whole thing. What we are doing now is the sustenance of peace.
What are your challenges at the moment?
We have not been getting enough support from some agencies. The resources for this operation is provided by the Defence Headquarters and the Chief of Army Staff; it is clear that resources used for peace in Plateau State comes 100 per cent from the Chief of Defence Staff, and then, Chief of Army Staff; there is no doubt about that. The state government does not support us with (financial) resources, although the governor has promise to support us with vehicles, but that has not been done. It could be because of the current economic challenges; the economy of the state is not too strong, but the government has made promises which are yet to be redeemed.
The state government said there is peace, but looking at it from security perspective, would you say there is peace in Plateau?
Yes, the peace in Plateau is as a consequence of the efforts of the STF and I stand to be challenged by anybody. The peace we have today is as a result of the effort of the STF; that is what I can say. I know that the state government has its own apparatus for peace, but I stand bold to say that the peace we have in Plateau is as a result of the effort of STF. The reason I am saying this is that when we came in, we discovered that for years, there are so many things that had not taken place. Within the last few months, Plateau Conniver came on board, the Plateau polo tournament also came on board; the Federation of Civil Service Games came on board, and the Nzem Berom Cultural Festival was also held. All these activities came on board as a result of the peace we have in the state. I assure you that insecurity is over; people should go about their normal duties.
The natives say Fulani have taken over their homes and farmlands in some communities, and fears are that some of the young ones whose parents have been killed and their lands acquired would grow up to become terrorists on mission of vengeance. What is the STF doing on this issue?
The issue of land, boundary disputes, land disputes, are purely state government affairs, and I know that the office of the deputy governor is handling issues of disputes and land destruction; it has nothing to do with the STF. All I know is that we will enforce peace on the Plateau, and where there is contentious land issues, we go there and find out that most of the lands have legal issues, and we insist that where there are courts issues, the decision of the court must prevail. We will not allow land issues to create problems for the state.
Is there any possibility that settlers could have access to land legally?
I don’t know what you mean by settlers; I don’t want to be dragged into the issues of settlers.
There are allegations that some of your men had been hired by the Fulani in battles with the natives, and ATM/ID cards of military personnel were recovered in some instances?
It is not true; anybody who is saying this should provide evidence. As far as the STF is concerned under my command, there is nothing like that; we will remain 100 percent non partisan, we will remain highly apolitical on these issues. The Nigerian military as a whole is highly apolitical; we will not get involved in their local politics. We are here primarily to protect lives and property; we don’t get involved in issues of hiring mercenaries. We are fighting in the Northeast, and you know Nigerians, when you lose, you put the blame on other people. Honestly, the STF is not involved in all these issues; the state government can testify to this, the commissioner of police and the DSS can also testify.
There is a village called Mahanga in Riyom; we have reports that there is a camp there where sophisticated weapons are stockpiled, and some training on warfare undertaken. Are you aware?
I have been to Mahanga about five times, and I have not seen anything like that.
But have you heard about it?
I have heard about it, and I am also asking who is spreading this rumour. Anybody with information should please come and take us to the place. If you have information about where arms and ammunitions are, you can come to my office and tell us; you don’t need to expose yourself to danger, then, we will go there. I have been at Mahanga severally, and I have interacted with the people severally; we didn’t see any trace of weapons. The way we have relationship with other communities in the state, that is how we also have with Mahanga people.
How did you join the military, was it a dream come true?
Well, I will say it is an act of God. When I joined the military in those days, Captains were still very few; I never knew I will get to the rank of a Major General. I thank God Almighty for making me what I am; I want to specifically, say it anytime, anywhere, that I owe a lot to General Buratai; he is somebody we can follow anytime, anywhere; he has shown professionalism in the Army, he has shown responsiveness in the Army.
Can you recall a close shave in the line of duty?
I was shot severally in Liberia; we were on a military operation and we were going in advance to attack a location, and I was shot. At Sambisa forest when I was a Brigade Commander, I also came across one or two ambushes. If you are going for an operation, you expect that something can happen.
Was there any situation you regretted joining the Army?
I have no regrets; the Army has made me what I am; I owe a lot to the Nigerian Army, which I will continue to serve.
Does killing mean anything to you?
Of course, killing means a lot, we are all human beings. It is not easy to kill a person, but in the course of operation, where you are fighting a war you have to take off the other man before he takes you out, if you don’t kill him, then, he will kill you.
What makes you happy?
My family; my wife and children.