From Scholastica Onyeka, Makurdi

The fear of North bank, a suburb of Makurdi, the Benue State capital, is the beginning of wisdom for many residents. To them, the place is a no-go zone because of its notoriety for all manner of crimes, ranging from cultism to robbery, killings, kidnapping and rape, among others. Indeed, some of the events and stories emanating from the area are not palatable.

On October 20, 2021, about 7am, the body of a young lady was dound  in a nearby bush at Federal Low Cost Housing Estate, in North bank area of Makurdi. It was later discovered  that she was Joy Onoh, a 24-year-old graduate from the Benue State University (BSU), who sold shoes and clothes.

She usually displayed her wares on the social media and on that fateful day an unidentified customer had called and requested that she supplied him with a red turtle-neck shirt. She went and didn’t return. Barely 24 hours after she was reported missing by her mother, her body was found by the police, apparently murdered by an unknown persons.

Similarly, in June 2022, the body of a popular singer/dancer in the state, Terungwa Albert Ikon, aka Ortrees, was discovered weeks after he was declared missing within North Bank. According to reports, he went missing on April 23, 2022, and his body was found dumped near a river, on June 5, 2022.

In another development, two siblings of primary school age were allegedly sold to some ritualists in North Bank by a motorcyclist who was hired by their parents to take them to school.

It was said, on that fateful day, the motorcyclist had taken the children as usual from their home but, instead of taking them to school, he sold them to ritualists. The story was told that when it was closing time and the children did not return, their parents became worried and went in search for them.

The children were reported missing and it was also discovered that the motorcyclist was at large. However, it was said that when he was arrested and he took the police where he dropped the children, and only their uniforms were seen on the floor with blood stains.

“Lo and behold, the children had been butchered and were boiling in a big pot that was put on the fire. The story had it that the parents fainted and never survived the shock,” a resident who didn’t want to be named said.

At other times, it could be rival cult groups. They clash and kill one another and and sometimes their fight escalates to the communities, leading to destruction property of innocent residents. The last was early this year when two cult rivals clashed and one was killed.

Speaking to our correspondent on the criminality in North Bank, the police public relations officer in the state, Catherine Anene, a superintendent of police, noted that the area was notorious for various crimes.

She also noted that because of it’s proximity to Nasarawa State, those who commit the crimes quickly run out of the state and empty into the neighbouring state, making them difficult to trace.

While noting that about three young persons have been killed in the area in the last two years, Anene said the command, under Commissioner of Police Wale Abass, had done a lot to curb crime and maintain peace in North Bank.

North Bank is located northwest of Makurdi, three kilometres from the central business area of Makurdi. For first-time visitors from the North, North Bank ushers you into the Wurukum roundabout, being the commercial nerve centre of Makurdi. For those entering Makurdi from the East and southern part of the country, crossing the River Benue bridges ushers you into North Bank.

Life in the ghetto aspect of North Bank could be likened to other slums across the country. Their stories are often buried or depicted in daunting underdevelopment, criminality, poverty, neglect, filth and all that is not good. North Bank is no exception.

The area, however, has some highbrow zones and Government Reserved Area, where there is the Hudco Quarters, Court 5 and Low Cost Housing Estate, among others.

North Bank also houses some state and federal government establishments like the Federal University of Agriculture, now Joseph Saawuan Tarka University, Makurdi, the Nigerian Army School of Military Engineering, the headquarters of the 72 Airborne Battalion and one of the largest, most populated IDP camps in the state, among others.

The presence of these formations in the area leaves residents confused as to the reason for the high crime rate in the area. Several reasons account for why many people don’t want to go there.

Professor of history at the Benue State University, Gabriel Nyityo, told our correspondent that though he has friends and relatives there, he has never slept in North Bank. He said: “I have never found myself comfortable in North Bank. You see, the idea of crossing the river, forthose of us who have water phobia, I don’t seem to like it.

“North Bank is the area that has two military formations, the NASME and the 72 Battalion, with a university, and then you begin to wonder why the criminalities are there. You can’t pin the root causes of the crimes that go on there. But I know that, over there, in the ghetto part, so many things happen.”

He noted that North Bank was a “haven for herbalists and herbal medicine, a haven for people who believe in spirit worship, water spirit and mermaid worship. That is my thinking of the area. So, I don’t feel comfortable over there.

“I don’t have historical evidence, but when you look at the historical background, it is open to the widest of forests and lands that can take you from any part of the country to the North.

“It takes you also to the thick forests in Gbajimba, Guma LGA, where you still have traditional way of existence, traditional ways of worship that are rather fetish.

“I think it’s a combination of those spiritual, occultic societies that is driving the kind of things you see happening over there.”

According to him, the southern part of Makurdi seems more populated by Christians, schools and churches and has more of Christian enlightenment, while the North Bank is viewed more with traditional and occultic worship.

“In North Bank, you can think of St. Mary’s and a few pentecostal churches that are gradually moving in. Yet, the people who stay there are very comfortable,” he observed.

He also observed that North Bank had fewer economic opportunities such as the North Bank market, the cattle market, an agro miller that was no longer working but had not received attention and a few hotels, which hardly get patronage due to fear of being harassed by criminals.

“I know of people disappearing in North Bank; people who are picked from the south and they end up there, children, young adults and even elders. They lure them over there and you hear nothing about them again. The place is just like a jungle.

“Even the few highbrow areas there, such as the Federal Low Cost Housing and the Court 5, are not well patronized in terms of development,” he said and expressed the hope that government would look that way to address the challenges.

On crossing the bridge from the Wurukum roundabout, along the North Bank highway are some traders selling Benue traditional fabrics of different shades and colours; “anger” a Tiv cloth in black and white stripes, Idoma cloth called “Apa” or “Edema” by the Edumoga people and the Igede’s “Ogodogodo” traditional attire usually in blue, black and white stripes.

These traders add colour to the area as passersby look in admiration at the beauty the clothes display. One of the traders who didn’t want to be named confirmed that the area was a no-go area in the past due to the crime rate.

“But all that is in the past. Now we are enjoying relative peace. Thanks to the divisional police officer, Osuma Eze, for his efforts and the Bem Boys.

“If it were before now, as you are speaking to me, two or three boys would just alight from a bike and approach you. They would just say give me the phone. If you hesitate a second, one would raise his shirt and show you a gun. You would have no option than to obey,” he said.

A source close to the police who pleaded to remain anonymous, noted that, in the past, it used to be “kpor! kpor! kpor (gunshots)! in North Bank. He said in North Bank you couldn’t move around by 7pm in the past, especially around Ter Guma Street.

The source, who also resides in North Bank, said the police, at first, met with all the community leaders, after which a peace accord was reached and signed. He said, every two weeks, the police called for meeting of the youths and community leaders to discuss security issues, reminded them there was a peace accord and encouraged them to keep it up.

“The red skin and black skull no longer fight each other, unlike in the past when they didn’t see eye to eye.

“Some ran away and those were the ones who committed offences and when the police was looking for them, they ran, but many have repented from their old ways.

“Places of relaxation were stifled, People were not coming here because they were scared. Hotels and beer parlours lost their business.

“The police have put in place machinery, local vigilante, to complement the office of the police in ensuring that whoever foments trouble would be picked and dealt with.”

An ex-serviceman, Pa James Agbo, who has lived in North Bank since 1981, told our reporter that North Bank was very peaceful and very cool in the distant past: “There was no problem in those days. You could walk from here to town even in the middle of the night, there were no issues.

“This whole wahala started in the last eight years. We, in the army quarters here have no problems here but around St. Mary’s to Lafia and SRS Junction, straight to the area housing IDPs, that is where the problem is,” he said.

He explained that “some boys have formed themselves into bad groups and they just go about fomenting trouble. The cult boys usually fight themselves and most of the time, when they are hungry, they burgle people’s houses and shops. They fight themselves and kill one another.”

Pa James further expressed concerns over the near neglect of the area in terms of development by past government administrations saying: “Here, government has done nothing for us. Most of the roads are not motorable. For instance, the road opposite Court 5,  down to the old road, you can’t drive a car on that street. The whole of North Bank is like that; it’s only Ter Guma Street that is good.

“We have large refuse dumps all over. The worst of it all is the dump by St. Mary’s Primary School. In the past, it would take weeks before the authorities come to clear it.”

He, however, commended the management of the Benue State Environmental and Sanitation Agency (BENSESA) for their efforts recently, noting that, sometimes, the general manager goes out with his officers to clear the refuse, which he said keeps piling due to the large population in the area.

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Innocent Atuku, the secretary, Ihyarev Area Traditional Council, went historical. He said: “Where we are seated is the seat of Mue Ter Ihyarev, Chief Simon Ajoh, who is in charge of eight districts in Makurdi. The entire Makurdi has 10 districts. By the virtue of our lineage, it is divided into Ihyarev and Masev and Ihyarev, being the predominant indigene of this place, they have eight districts under him.

“Originally, the headquarters of Ihyarev is supposed to be in Wadata but unfortunately, Mue Ter resides in North bank,

“North bank used to be very horrible, very terrible place. Those of us who reside here, once you mention North bank or that you reside in North Bank, you will hear, ‘Ah! Why would you live in North bank?’ That was because of the rate of crime here then.

“But the monarch has been able to sanitize the place. You know, he is a retired DSP and throughout his career, he has been in the Criminal Intelligence Bureau (CIB) and coupled with his stool as a traditional ruler, in conjunction with the police and other security agencies, they have been able to find a way of reducing crime relatively.”

Atuku said before now, crime was on the high side. Cult activities was very high. “This one will say I am red (Red Skin) and that one will say I am black, (Black Axe).  What the chief did was to invite them to his palace and because this place is neutral, they feel safe and now opened up and declared their identity.’

He noted while they killed and carried out revenge killings, they also engage in other vices, including snatching of hand bags, phones and other valuables in broad day light.

“Killings was most found in the cult circle. The crime was very high in North bank to the point that our mothers here, came out cladded in black and demonstrated the killings up to the commissioner of police at his office. When they met with the police commissioner, they told him they were tired of the killings.

“Customs demand that when you give birth to your children, they should bury you but they are rather burying their children because of cult activities.

He noted that stakeholders came together to find solution and stem the tide.

“Fortunately, we had a Makurdi local government area chairman, Tony Degegh, (immediate past) who is from North bank then and a member of the Assembly, Hon Thomas Kwaghkudi, we held several meetings.

“We tried as much as possible to hold several meetings. We invited the boys, spoke with them in conjunction with the youth leaders, it was a long process. We made them know the consequences of what they were doing and gradually, they saw reasons with us and formed a group called Bem Boys. Bem is a Tiv word which means ‘Peace’ and this was how crimes has reduced in North Bank.

“The duty of the Bem Boys is to fight crimes and most of the boys who are members are repentant cultists. So, they go to the nooks and crannies, they know their hiding places, they go and fetch them out. So as we speak now, we have been able to enjoy relative peace unlike what it used to be.

“Before now, we see them on the streets. His Royal Highness even his children’s phones were taken on the streets here. These things happen around 8am to 9am sometimes when they want to go to the market. The boys will just come on their bikes and with guns, they will tell you to bring your phone. If you refuse they will show you gun. But all that has reduced, there is relative peace here now.”

He noted that most of the people residents in North bank area are mostly from the rural areas. “They are farmers and their greatest source of income is farming. Some of them build houses here and their children stay in the houses and go to school. They come occasionally from the villages to check on them but because of the incessant herders/ farmer crisis, people are forced to move to town.”

He noted that Benue is entirely a civil service state and once you are not a civil servant, you don’t do anything but farming.

While regretting lack industries in the area, Atuku said the people who had some business concerns in the past had to relocate their businesses because of the high crime rate.

“We used to have one agro miller here in North bank where the Indians milled the Olam rice, but because of the persistent criminal activities in the area and high government taxes, the company was compelled to fold and moved down to Nasarawa State.

“They employed most of our children and youths yet they still go there and steal their things such as rice and all other company things. So, they left and most of those who they employed lost their jobs and were worse for it. Even those who would have loved to come here to site their businesses are discouraged.”

The Mue Ter secretary, who noted that causes of crime are relative, blamed poverty, poor parenting background, peer group and high rate of unemployment, saying many people are schooled and are willing to work, but can hardly find anything to do.

“In North bank, I will also attribute the crime rate here to the nature of the urban setting. We are living in a cluster; low income earning environment. So, these are likely areas where you find the least categories of people. These are the peer groups.

“These crimes are caused by the peer group influence because they can easily come together and have influence on others.” He also identified high rate of poverty as root causes, saying it is so high that people could be lured into crimes.

Speaking of underdevelopment in the area, Atuku said North bank has been neglected for a very long time. According to him, Makurdi started from Wadata, within the Central Mosque and moved down to Katungu in North bank.

“There is a lot of negligence of government presence in the North bank. For instance, we don’t usually have light here. The light that passes through the bridge, sometimes, for weeks to one month, we won’t see light.

“And because of the crimes we spoke about earlier, an average man who wants to start his life, would not want to start it here in North bank.

“Most of the people who reside in North bank here are indigenes of this place. Most people who are here are the Ihyarev people. It’s not as if they love it here but because this is their home and they don’t have a choice.

“Our young men who are coming up have started moving out. Once they have an opportunity, they move out to stay in town.

“So, I think that the major cause of underdevelopment here is lack of government presence. You hardly see good roads here, you hardly see pipe borne water. People have to sink their boreholes and you don’t see light. Once it rains, you no longer see light; sometimes, they tell you the light is vandalized. It will take two to three weeks before the light is restored. Sometimes you get tired of it.”

He lamented lack of proper waste management, saying the area has no specific place to dispose waste and people just dump their refuse along the streets and burn it and you can imagine the health hazards.

He called on the government to turn their face to the area for development. “When you don’t have access road, when a crime is being committed in North bank here, even for the police man, there is a limit you can go when you are going after the criminals. When you get to a certain place, you can’t go further because there are no roads.

“But once you have access roads, it limits the rate of crime naturally because once you commit a crime, you can easily be identified, followed and picked. So we need state government presence here.”

He said the ‘C’ Division which is the largest division with the largest coverage lacks adequate manpower, saying the area deserves, at least, three divisions because the ‘C’ Division in North bank is covering the whole of Makurdi North with about four council wards, which are the biggest in Makurdi.

He explained further that the area is bordering Lokobi in Nasarawa on one left side, in another side we are bordering with Doma people in Nasarawa and there are no access roads too.

“Previous governments abandoned North bank. Right from 1976 when Benue State was created, we have not had any viable government facility that has direct impact on the community.”

He also expressed worry that the presence of the military has not help them much adding that the soldiers rather, are always harassing them. “We don’t benefit anything from them. They are here and the herders would still pass through here, kill our people and go back freely. So, as far as I’m concerned, we don’t know their value here.

Lamenting their predicament further, the Ihyarev son stated that “even though North bank has a very good topography where if you just want to build a house, you just need to dig a small foundation because it’s an upland, they still don’t have access roads.

“We don’t have a swampy area. But because there are no roads, no government facilities and that is why people don’t come here.º

“The general hospital we have here, when you go there, you can’t find a doctor, you can’t find a nurse. So when you have an emergency situation and you want to rush someone there, you are wasting your time. So, instead of going there, we start running to town to the Federal Medical Center (FMC). The place has been neglected completely,” he said sadly.

In an appeal, Atuku said the people of North Bank hope for a change this time. “With the new government, the new governor needs to turn his face to North bank and going by his acceptance speech, I think we see hope in him and we believe that he is going to look into our plight. We feel that we will be better off in the next four or five years.

Despite these challenges, North bank is not all bad afteral as it is home to Nigeria’s numerous tribes and ethnic groups. Besides the Ihyarev who are Tiv people, you have Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Igede, Idoma, Jukun, Etulos, Igala, Igbira Fulani among others.

Majority of them told our correspondent that they have stayed in the area comfortably for years. Asked what is good about North bank, the scribe of the Ihyarev traditional council said: “Food is cheap. Land is not too expensive or difficult to buy and nothing is expensive here because predominantly, we are local people.

“I cannot guarantee you of any other thing but food is cheap, land is not expensive. So, it’s a place for a beginner. As a beginner, if you want a place you can stay, start your family, get a place to farm, you can come to North bank.

A student of Joseph Saawuan Tarkar University, Makurdi, who identified himself simply James, acknowledged the high rate of gangsterism and cultism but stated that house rent is cheaper in North bank compared to other parts of Makurdi.

He also noted that while food is cheap, it is also fresh. “Here, we are close to the farmers, the village markets are here, the abattoir is close. So, we students like it here so we can manage what we have,” he added.

It is however expected that the incoming administration will  attend to the pleas of residents of North Bank to ensure the area receive adequate attention like other parts of Makurdi town.