ROSE EJEMBI, Makurdi
Despite assurances by the governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, leaders of Sankera, and military authorities, mixed feelings of fear and relief have continued to trail the killing, on Wednesday, September 8, 2020, of Benue’s most wanted militia warlord, Terwase Akwaza alias Gana.
It will be recalled that he was in the company of religious, traditional and political leaders from the Sankera axis on his way to Makurdi to embrace the second promise of amnesty when the military intercepted their convoy around Yandev in Gboko and seized him alongside 40 other repentant criminals. Men and officers of the military strike force, Operation Ayem Akpatuma III otherwise known as Operation Whirlstroke, based in Doma Local Government Area of Nasarawa State, subsequently killed him that same day.
A farmer expresses his fears
Since then, many Benue people have been reacting to the news of his death. Most of the pictures that have emerged so far see him as a kind of a saviour and defender against rival tribe and marauding Fulani herders, despite his nefarious activities. According to a farmer from the area, Theophilus Kerto, the manner the military seized and killed him shortly after his surrender in honour of the amnesty olive branch extended to him is worrisome. That fear heightened last weekend, when his gang deputy, in a newspaper interview, alleged that Gana who he claimed seemed to have had premonition of his death, left behind over 200 well-trained gang members, to continue with banditry activities.
Kerto said although he was seen as a criminal by many, he largely used his power and influence to fight in defence of his Tiv people who were being attacked by the Kuteb in Taraba State on the one hand and the Fulani herdsmen on the other hand. “We only started getting worried when his criminality began to surpass the good things he was doing,” he said. “At a point, he became a warlord commanding a retinue of bad boys who were his followers. His gang began to make life unbearable for people in the Zone A axis and in fact, the entire Benue State and even beyond. For instance, his terrorist and banditry activities have reduced some of our villages to rubbles. Social life in some communities within Sankera geopolitical axis was non-existent. Before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools had closed down in some villages for more than two years while economic activities had been grounded as a result of the activities of Gana and his boys.”
Kerto said it made some pleasant news when he heard that Gana had embraced amnesty for the second time and was ready to forsake his old ways. “But just as we were thinking and jubilating that he had turned a new leaf, the worst suddenly happened when the military arrested and killed him.”
An indigene explains why his death’s no cheery news
Another indigene of the area who simply gave his name as Hembadoon said it would have been better if after arresting Gana, he was handed over to the police to be tried in a law court and sentenced. “Personally, I didn’t like the way he was killed even though I know he had committed a lot of atrocities and caused many people pain and anguish. It would have been cheery news for all of us if the soldiers had caught or killed him in his hideout and not after he had surrendered his weapons and charms and embraced amnesty. As far as I’m concerned, the soldiers did not defeat Gana. He gave himself up. That’s why they were able to get him so cheaply. If not, how many times have they gone to destroy his Gbishe abode and were they able to get him at any point?”
A social activist expresses anger and dismay
A social activist based in Makurdi, Kula Terso, wondered why the military singled him out and killed him while he was in a government convoy to Makurdi where he was billed to be presented to the Governor for amnesty. “Out of about 80 repentant criminals with him travelling in a government’s official convoy for the official launch of amnesty in Makurdi, he was singled out and killed in a Gestapo manner. Why? It is sad that moments after he was seized, his death was announced by the military who fabricated a barefaced lie that he was killed in a firefight with them. To my mind, I feel his former partners and their sponsors knew so much that Gana may speak out more if given an opportunity. So, there was no need to allow him breath for even 10 minutes after they got hold of him.”
A federal lawmaker’s concern
In his submission, Member representing Logo/Ukum/Katsina-Ala Federal Constituency at the National Assembly, Dr. Richard Gbande posited that the manner in which he was killed by the military created the impression that all the stakeholders who negotiated the second amnesty for him lured him out of his den and handed over to his killers. “It is sad because our youths will not believe whatever we tell them anymore,” he said. “As it is now, we are also scared for our safety in our constituency because the people are not happy with what happened.
“If the military had caught him in the bush, it would have been a different story but the fact that we the political, religious and traditional leaders ensured that he embraced the amnesty and in doing that, he got killed by the military gives a wrong impression to his men out there that we sold him out which is completely untrue.”
He described his death in the hands of the military as extra-judicial killing even as he called on youths of the area to remain calm and law-abiding. He said: “Even though I have been consistent in condemning the reign of terror he unleashed on our communities, extra-judicial killing of a surrendered, repented militant cannot be condoned. The Rule of Law and International Humanitarian Laws are sacrosanct and must always prevail hence, extra-judicial killings of suspects is unacceptable. If you arrest a person, he is under your control. So as a professional military man you cannot gun him down.”
Noting that extra-judicial killing is an infringement of the citizens’ rights to life and state violation of international human rights charter of which Nigeria is a signatory to, he urged the federal government to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of the militia leader and to take further measures to address social, political, economic and environmental challenges that breed banditry and criminality in the region.
Tiv socio-cultural group weighs in
Reacting to the killing, the Mzough-U-Tiv (MUT), a Tiv socio-cultural group also described Gana’s death as extra-judicial murder by the military. President General of the organization, Chief Iorbee Ihagh, a retired Comptroller of Prisons said that his killing is condemnable and a conspiracy against the Tiv tribe. “This is extra-judicial murder and MUT calls for a commission of inquiry into the killing,” he said. “This is a conspiracy against the Tiv tribe. Why do you kill somebody who has voluntarily surrendered? It happened in South South, Southwest, Niger-Delta, in the North and other places and nothing happened. He would have been taken to court and tried instead of just wasting him in that manner.”
He noted that the deceased militia warlord was in the same vehicle with a Rev. Father and his council chairman when he was arrested by the military and subsequently killed. “The military should stop lying that there was a shootout because there was nothing like that,” he stated. Going further, he urged the military to release those other repentant youths who were arrested along with Gana so that they can continue with the amnesty. Saturday Sun learnt from sources close to the state security council that this has already been done.
The man, Terwase Akwaza by those who know him
Those who were close to him described him as someone who hated injustice and unwarranted oppression especially against his Tiv people. They see him as a man who loved to stand up for his people no matter how difficult the situation may be. This notwithstanding, many of them see him as a two-edged sword that is capable of cutting two ways. While he was alive they were afraid of him because of his criminal tendencies like kidnappings and assassinations, mostly carried out by legion of followers loyal to him.
It was also a common belief in Benue that if you mentioned his name for bad, he had the mystical power to appear and fight you. And, he often uses the same power to defend his people. According a community leader from Logo Local government area of the state, he, at a time led a gang of fighters to defend his Shitile people against Kuteb in Taraba State.
How he got his nickname, Gana
“The bravery he exhibited during the battle was what earned him the nickname “Gana” (a name which means “the warlord of communal crisis”), Anawah said adding that the name stuck with him till his demise. It was further gathered that in 2012 when the Fulani herdsmen attacked Benue, maiming and killing the Tiv farmers in the state, he was said to be at the forefront of those who launched reprisal attack against the invaders and repelled them. However, his act of bravery was missed in 2018 when Fulani armed militias unleashed terror on some local government areas in the state including Logo, Guma, Makurdi, Gwer West and Gwer East.
A resident of Kastina-Ala who gave his name as Timothy Ioerumber said by 2018 when Fulani invaded Benue, he could not help because he was already on the wanted list of police. “He couldn’t have risked being arrested, so, he had to stay away and you could see how the Fulani militias feasted on some parts of the state,” he said. It was also believed that because he had no formidable source of income, he and his boys would often take to criminality such as armed robbery and kidnapping during peace time in a bit to fend for themselves.
His roots, history and metamorphosis
Chief Joseph Anawah, a community by leader told our correspondent that Gana hailed from Gbishe in present-day Katsina-Ala Local Government Area of Benue State. “He briefly attended secondary school at Totonga in 1997 and joined the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and ran errands for his political godfathers. But they later abandoned him. As a result of this, his source of income became comatose. In 2005, there were communal skirmishes between Kuteb of Taraba and his Shitile people in Katsina-Ala. Akwaza joined Tiv youths to go into battle against the Kuteb to protect his people, His bravery gave him the pseudo name of Gana.
“By the time the crisis subsided, Gana formed a militia group and in the course of looking for means of survival, took to criminal activities of robbery. And, wherever there is disagreement, squabbles in the community, he and his gang would intervene. He was on this when the Fulani/Tiv farmers crisis erupted in 2012 and he, having mastered the act of militia fighting, was at the forefront to defend his people against the attackers. His bravery during that crisis was said to have made him popular among the youths many of who became his followers. From there he became a monster that allegedly got involved in criminal activities in that axis. “Politicians also found him useful during election in 2015,” Anawah said. “He was very visible and active before he was granted amnesty in 2016.”