Two weeks after Nigerian Army withdrew troops from Benue, attackers said to be clad in military fatigues stormed two communities in the north-central state shortly after sunset on Tuesday, killing at least 10 villagers and wounding multiple others, it was learnt.
Locals who provided details of the killings on Wednesday evening feared the death toll in one of the communities could rise three-fold by the time emergency services and security agencies finally arrive to properly access the situation.
The first attack occurred in Gbeji Village in Ukum Local Government Area at about 6:00 p.m. Tuesday, with attackers first opening fire at the playground of a Catholic Church parish where children were playing football before making their way into the village proper, witnesses said.
“They stopped at the church in their Army uniform and shot and killed an old man who was watching football and the children dispersed immediately,” said a Garfa Iorhe, 31, from Gbeji.
Mr Iorhe said he could tentatively confirm seven people were killed in the attack, but repeatedly stated that they expect the number to rise.
“We counted seven bodies when we sneaked into the village this afternoon,” he said. “But we’re still waiting for the police and SEMA (Benue State Emergency Management Agency) workers to arrive and go inside the village very well.”
“We expect that they would recover maybe 25 or 30 bodies or more from the village,” he said.
The second attack claimed three persons in Channel One, a small village about two kilometres from Gbeji. Channel One, traditionally known as Gbwer, is in Logo Local Government Area.
“We suspect that the same herdsmen who attacked Gbeji also came to Channel One to kill people there because they also dressed like soldiers,” said a resident who pleaded anonymity because he’s a member of local security unit and was not authorised to give information to the media.
Residents are fleeing the villages and others nearby, leaving some of their dead and seriously injured loved ones behind, it was gathered. They said a police unit was near the village along Wukari-Anyiin Road, but was too helpless to put up any resistance against the attackers.
Benue police commissioner, Fatai Owoseni, did not immediately provide updates about the killings on Wednesday night.
Richard Nyajo, the chairman of Logo LGA,, said he had been informed of all the attacks and had passed the sad news to the police.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “The killings have become everyday experience for people here.”
Mr Nyajo said he learnt from the fleeing residents that the attackers were in military uniforms, expressing grave concerns about the looming humanitarian disaster as more villagers are trooping to relatively safe towns in the local government.
The attacks are the latest of resurgence assaults following the end of ‘Exercise Ayem Akpatuma’ by the Nigerian Army. The military ended the exercise and withdrew the troops despite saying it had extended the exercise by two months to further stabilise the region, residents said.
Over 250 people have been killed across three states alone since the Army withdrew the troops two weeks ago.
Although the Army denied withdrawing the troops, residents across three states insist there is no evidence to show that the exercise was extended as announced, and PREMIUM TIMES requests to the Army for the location of the troops participating in the exercise were rebuffed. The residents, including a local government chairman, told PREMIUM TIMES the troops left their villages on March 31, exactly the same day the exercise was initially billed to end.
Terkura Suswam, a community leader in Logo LGA who was amongst those who raised the alarm that soldiers have been withdrawn from Benue villagers, told PREMIUM TIMES the soldiers have not returned as at Wednesday night.
“We appeal to the federal government to bring this soldiers back,” Mr Suswam, a brother of former Governor Gabriel Suswam and founder of Ashi Polytechnic, told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Wednesday. ” I am a title holder in Tiv land and I am crying because my people are being wiped out day by day, week by week.”
Mr Suswam said even though the ‘Ayem Akpatuma’ did not actually curb the killings linked to herdsmen in Benue State, the presence of soldiers helped reduce the frequency of the attacks for the six weeks they were around.
“When they were around, they couldn’t really go into the hideouts of the attackers, but their presence scared some of the killers and the killings reduced,” he said. “Now, the killers are back and they’re killing almost every hour.”
Mr Suswam appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari to show sympathy towards Benue people by giving the crisis the attention it deserves.
“You have the Nigerian Army lying that ‘Exercise Ayem Akpatuma’ soldiers are still in our communities when in fact there are no soldiers,” Mr Suswam said. “This clearly shows that the highest authorities in the land are not taking the matter seriously and only the president could rescue us from this situation.”
“He should sympathise with us and give this matter a priority as demanded by T.Y. Danjuma,” he said. “We’re agrarians here and we cannot allow herdsmen to keep destroying our way of life to suit their own way of life.”
On Tuesday, Governor Samuel Ortom called on the youth across the state to group themselves and protect their communities before it’s too late.
Security analyst Chris Ngwodo told PREMIUM TIMES the resident’ sighting of attackers in military uniform was hardly new.
“Villagers have raised this alarm in the past that killers are wearing military fatigues,” Mr Ngwodo said. “This is not entirely out of the ordinary. Even the Nigerian Army has previously apprehended people wearing military fatigues.”
Mr Ngwodo urged the Army to return troops to the villages and station them there for a protracted period, although this suggestion runs contrary to his personal views on security.
This killings have gone on for too long and they just have to stop,” Mr Ngwodo said. “Now we have to accept the situation where we have to use military to police communities. it is not normal. I am personally against it. But it is understandable when you have to deploy soldiers in areas where senseless killings are going unabated.”
He also urged increase staffing for security agencies across the country to stymie the frequency of the attacks.
“When they combined all our men and women across security agencies, they’re not up to one million,” he said. ‘”but they should station troops and have ongoing campaigns where you have bandits wreaking havoc against defenseless citizens.”