By Louis Odion, FNGE
As the second week of Lent opened last week, the mostly Catholic folks of Odiguetue community could not have envisaged murder and mayhem while in a solemn pursuit of the state of grace riding the steed of faith.
But how mistaken they were; the ecumenical sobriety invoked by days of dedicated fasting would be shattered by the weekend. It was the turn of Odiguetue, my ancestral home in Ovia North East in Edo State, to be visited with murder and terror by genocidal Fulani herders.
Throughout the weekend, my phone rang almost continuously as I was inundated with calls from relations and other folks in extreme anger and grief.
Like most Edo communities customarily hospitable to all ethnic nationalities, Odiguetue had for ages been home to a considerable population of Igbira farmers. Things however took a sour turn last month when, in an unprovoked attack, these Igbira folks were reportedly sacked from their farms by AK-47-wielding herders and their yam tubers fed to the cows.
On Friday, a farm labourer (said to be Benue indigene) was shot at while on his way from the farm.
On Saturday, two other community members (one William Okpoko and an unnamed Igbo man) barely escaped death while tending their farms as the AK-47-wielding assailants opened fire, just to make way for their herd to graze.
In fright and then in flight, one of the victims expectedly left his weather-beaten motorcycle behind.
For the bullets thus “wasted”, the invaders grew madder. So mindless, they would not just stop at allowing their cattle plunder the farms; that bike was vandalized, even in its condition of decrepitude.
The following day, the reign of terror was, in fact, escalated. The herders literally went berserk, shooting indiscriminately from one farm to the other. Caught unawares, not a few sustained gunshot wounds. This time, another community member (said to be of Igbira stock) was not so lucky as he was felled in cold blood by a bullet.
I confirmed this with multiple credible sources.
These atrocities, I am ashamed to admit, have actually been going on for long, largely under-reported, simply because the victims are poor folks. Forgotten by government, the only asset they own is the land, often inherited. The only skill they possess is farming. Now, the opportunity to even parlay that to eke out a living is being denied them.
Meanwhile, as the news of the bloodshed spread by weekend and the now restive youths – ordinarily doughty descendants of ancient warriors who with bare hands had confronted British invaders in the 19th century – began to regroup in the communal square, a police team from Ekiadolor Division stormed the community and, predictably, counseled against reprisal, urging the people to approach the police headquarters in Benin City instead and formally lodge a complaint.
Now, the curious angle: while profusely urging the wounded and the traumatized to exercise more equanimity, the custodians of legitimate firearms otherwise licensed to kill in the pursuit of crime or the defense of justice failed to say the words that would have made more meaning to the disaffected in the circumstance: a resolve to lead the youths and other volunteers into the bush right away to, at least, disarm – if not dislodge – the murderous herders who, besides heaping such gratuitous social insult on the community, have now virtually turned the farmlands to a no-go-area for the locals, thus undermining the people’s economic survival.
Human endurance or patience is certainly tested when the victims are made to bear the additional burden of having to exercise restraint in the face of extreme provocation.
Sadly, Odiguetue is not isolated. These tales of woe are replicated virtually across the length and breath of Edo State today.
Across the land, the body count is mounting. In recent times, no fewer than sixty people have been reportedly killed in such gruesome circumstances. In Ojah community in Edo North, for instance, Jerome Obayemi lost an arm while fending off a herder’s machete blow meant to behead him on the way to the farm.
Elsewhere in Ewu community in Edo Central, two elderly women, Christiana Ikheloa and Fatima Emoyon, were butchered by suspected herdsmen. In neighboring Ekpoma town, Margaret Odiamehi, a grandmother, was allegedly raped and killed while working on her farm.
At a personal level, this writer has had cause in the past to lament his own ordeal on this space. Once, we woke up one morning to find that the forecourt of my private residence in Benin City had been vandalized by cattle stomping past. Such is the sort of monstrosity we are being conditioned to accept as the new normal – cows willfully violating the sanctity of human dwelling.
Responding to the growing siege, the Godwin Obaseki administration, apart from hosting a stakeholders summit, recently rolled out a slew of counter-measures, the highlight of which is the ban on overnight grazing. But as the Odiguetue killings in broad daylight last weekend have undoubtedly proved, such policy would no longer seem adequate.
Already, the revered Benin monarch, Oba Ewuare II, has expressed worry over this clear and present threat. From reports, he has taken proactive steps by rousing the traditional sentinels to be on guard.
What remains is to infuse the political space with equal sense of urgency. The peace and security of the society, let it be stressed, is a shared commitment. Much as political values may differ, the challenge of the moment calls for a bi-partisan response by the political elite of both APC and PDP in Edo.
A bill sent by PDP to the State of Assembly recently seeking a more stringent rule of engagement for the herders ought not be dismissed in entirety ab initio on account of its provenance as I read some easily excitable APC stalwarts have been doing.
It will be imprudent of Edo Government to keep lobotomizing itself with a cocktail of “soft” regulations in the hour of great peril when vigilant neighbours are adopting tough stance. That will only render the acclaimed “cradle of black civilization” the new preferred destination of these savages. Whose interest is thus served?
Really, only those who have had to endure the torture and trauma inflicted by the herders over the time are perhaps better placed to attest that the devil rarely ascertains APC or PDP birthmark before wreaking havoc.
When not sacking farmlands, it is now common knowledge that some of these killer herders convert their “down time” into either kidnap-for-ransom or bloody armed robberies along either the Benin-Okada expressway or the Benin-Agbanikaka axis or the Benin-Auchi corridor.
So, if anyone ought to be incensed at this development and therefore impatient to cut the leash, it should be Obaseki, known to be champion of free enterprise. And for three critical reasons. With Edo’s still weak industrial base, there is no denying that farming remains the largest employer of our people.
Two, mechanized agriculture is at the heart of the 200,000 jobs Obaseki promised to create in four years. With people now afraid to go to farm on account of AK-47-wielding herders lurking in the wild, we should know that existing agrarian jobs are being lost instead, with grave threat to food security as well.
Three, Obaseki’s commendable offer to engage repatriates from Libya is empowering them to seize opportunities in the agriculture sector.
Now, it will be doubly tragic if, after being enslaved and dehumanized in the accursed North African hell-hole, the unfortunate youths who choose to enroll at the new farming camps end up being used as target practice by these lunatics masquerading as cattle-rearers.
So, just when will enough be enough?