From Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
“Adedayo, ao jo so bayi” (Adedayo, we didn’t plan it this way). These were the words of the wife of Capt. Adeolu Adedayo during the burial of her husband and 11 other slain soldiers in Makurdi, the Benue State capital, last Monday.
The widowed mother of three little children went on to ask, “Who will wear them?” when her late husband’s cap, shoes, belt, walking stick as well as the Nigerian flag were handed over to her by the Commanding Officer, 72 Battalion, Makurdi.
Indeed, it was a moment of grief, pain, anguish and wailing for the military, Benue State government and families of the deceased soldiers as the coffins were lowered into the graves and the remains of the 12 soldiers laid to rest. The soldiers met their end while trying to keep peace during a land dispute between Bonta community of Konshisha LGA and Ukpute-Ainu Community of Oju LGA all in Benue State.
Our correspondent gathered that the land dispute, which has festered for decades, resurfaced again towards the end of last year and, by last week, had snowballed into a worrisome crisis.
This development, it was learnt, caused the drafting of some military men from the 72 Battalion in Makurdi to the troubled area.
Sadly, that fateful Easter Monday, while Christian faithful were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the local militia, popularly known as ‘Bonta Boys’, was said to have ambushed the 12 soldiers who were on duty in the area.
One thing led to another and the soldiers were reportedly led into the forest, killed and burnt, while their service rifles and ammunition were taken away by the militiamen.
This, it was gathered, caused serious trouble as the military allegedly bombarded the Bonta village and adjourning communities including Tse-Jembe, Tse-Anyom, Gbinde, Mbaakpur, Aku, Agidi, Gungul, Adoka, Guleya, Awajir, Shiliki, Achoho all in Konshisha LGA as well as Ullam in Gwer LGA.
As the bombardment continued, a group from the area known as Shangev-Tiev Assembly (STA), on Friday, at a press conference in Makurdi alleged that over 70 people had been killed in the area, with over 100 people still missing. This they said, was in addition to destruction of property, burning of houses and food barns, which they noted had caused serious humanitarian crisis in their domain.
The group, while condemning in strong terms the killing of the soldiers in the area, also condemned the invasion of their communities by the military.
But reacting the same day, Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom, debunked claims by the STA that over 70 people had lost their lives in the military invasion, saying only eight lost their lives during the bombardment.
The governor listed those that were killed to include two bandits who had exchanged fire with the soldiers as well as a crippled man whose house was destroyed and it collapses on him, while another was a middle-aged person who was running and in the process, fell and died, in addition to four others.
“That is the report I got from the chairman. So, I am taken aback to hear that an unknown group held a press conference and said 70 people were killed.
“I wish to call on the people to refrain themselves from making unguarded and unverified statements because this will not help matters. You will only succeed in aggravating the matter. You will only succeed in pouring petrol on an existing fire and you know the implications.
“You know , if the security men, especially the soldiers were not here, we will not be here today. Herdsmen, local bandits would have consumed us.
“I am on top of the situation and monitoring it. I have not slept for the past three days ensuring several interventions. So, we do not want any situation that will amplify the one we already have. If anyone has any evidence contrary to what the chairman told me, he should bring it out, instead of making inflammatory statements”, the governor said.
Also, the Defence Headquarters, in a statement signed by acting director, Defense Information, Onyema Nwachukwu, last week, gave a vivid report of how the soldiers were killed and their corpses burnt by the militia.
The Defence Headquarters also dispelled allegations that several people were killed during the military operation in Konshisha.
“The Defence Headquarters wishes to put it on record that, apart from this initial 10 bandits, there are no other civilian casualties recorded in any part of Konshisha till date.
“We, therefore, challenge anybody from Konshisha to present to the public the 200, 70 or 30 dead bodies of innocent persons, male, female or children, killed by troops in Konshisha.
“There was never a massacre as being touted by some mischief makers. The remnants of the bandits that escaped from Bonta withdrew into neighbouring villages where they kept on attacking troops as they continued with the search operation through Bonta into other parts of Konshisha.
“Knowing the implications of killing troops in cold blood, most of the villagers fled their homes which were then occupied by bandits who kept firing at troops from the settlements as they advanced into Konshisha.
“Troops repelled the attacks and destroyed the houses and other buildings, which the criminals used as hideouts for the attacks. The use of abandoned settlements by bandits to attack troops is popular with insurgents.
“The aim is to draw military fire into the dwellings and then turn round to blame soldiers for the destruction. This is common guerilla tactics bandit designed to whip up public sentiment against security forces and this is what played out in Konshisha.
“This accounts for some of the burnt houses being reported in the press. Some of the phones of the dead soldiers were also tracked to some of the settlements,” Nwachukwu said.
He added that the bandits should be blamed for the destruction because, according to him, they used the settlements as hideouts for attacks.
“It will be wrong to blame soldiers who are in Konshisha on legitimate duties when some of them were murdered in cold blood.
“Some of the buildings being paraded today were actually burnt during earlier communal clashes between Konshisha and Oju, all of which the sponsors of the mayhem are now blaming on the military.
“Finally, the Defence Headquarters wishes to state that soldiers deployed to Konshisha displayed commendable restraint by adhering to the rules of engagement in the face of unprovoked attacks and, therefore, deserve accolades,” the DHQ spokesperson said.
And speaking on the day of the burial, Governor Ortom, who was practically shaken, condoled with President Muhammadu Buhari, the Chief of Army Staff and families of the deceased soldiers over the loss.
“I condole Mr. President, who is the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, the Chief of Army Staff and indeed the leadership of our security forces in the country. On behalf of government and people of Benue State, we condemn the killing of our innocent soldiers who were out there to keep peace in our state.
“It is unfortunate that this incident took place. I want the Nigerian Army, the families of the deceased and indeed all Nigerians to know that the attack on security personnel is an attack on all.
“This attack was unwarranted, it was not needed because all these patriotic soldiers were there to keep peace and that was why they were ambushed. Otherwise, we all know what soldiers can do and the capacity they have to defend themselves.
“So, we condemn this and we want to assure everyone that my government will join hands with the security forces to ensure that all those who perpetrated this sad act are brought to book.
“I equally want to apologise to the bereaved families. In the course of my trying to manage this challenge, if I said anything that was offensive to the families of the deceased, I want to say that I am sorry.
“As a leader, I needed to say something, the people needed to hear from me, and as at that time that I made the comment that it was two soldiers that were missing, it was based on the information that was made available to me.
“But all the same, please, I am sorry. It is the responsibility of this government to also join hands with the leadership of the army to see how we can support the bereaved families. May God rest their peaceful souls,” Governor Ortom said.
Also, during a meeting of the State Security Council with prominent stakeholders from Konshisha on Tuesday, the council came up with 10 resolutions to address the situation.
The meeting, among other things, called on the militiamen to return the slain soldiers’ weapons unconditionally even as it urged stakeholders from the area to refrain from making inflammatory statements that could aggravate the situation.