Paul Osuyi, Asaba
Most agrarian communities in Delta State are having bitter tales to tell occasioned by the invasion of their lands by suspected Fulani herdsmen. The killer herders have overrun their farmlands with their cattle, destroying both crops and harvested produce.
The invasions were unfettered in most cases, as they menacingly bore arms to ward off any resistance. They raped defenceless women at will, even in front of their husbands and children. The herdsmen have, however, taken their criminal activities some notches higher.
They now storm residential communities, shoot sporadically, seize hapless natives and flee into the bushes from where they negotiate ransom for the hostages to breathe the sweet air of freedom again. In most cases, such victims never leave their custody alive. This is even as the invaders leave in their trail blood and tears. Natives are maimed in the unprovoked attacks.
Investigations revealed that the nomadic herdsmen are forced by changing climatic conditions to migrate South wards for lush green grass. They usually arrive in the communities during the dry season, especially around November, in several truckloads of cows, and take over the open lands, ponds and farmlands, barring indigene sedentary farmers from entering their lands.
They also notify anxious residents of their fearsome presence by shooting their AK-47 guns into the air, warning the farmers to steer clear of their farms for the cows to occupy. They have been known to maintain camps in the bushes from where they launch attacks.
Issele-Azagba in Aniocha North Local Government for instance, has become a metaphor of such unhindered attacks for most communities in Anioma nation, Delta North Senatorial District. The herdsmen invaded the town a number of times, but the attack of October 2019 was more weird. The gun-wielding hoodlums sacked the state government-owned community secondary school during the invasion.
They led away the school principal, shot two teachers, with one of them giving up the ghost instantly. But for the rare bravery of members of the community’s local vigilance group, it would have been a different story for the principal.
However, the ill-equipped vigilance group lost a 19-year-boy to the superior firepower of the attackers in the bush. Despite the daring efforts of the local vigilance group, the herdsmen came back earlier February 2020 to unleash another round of terror. They stormed the town at about 8pm on the fateful day and shot sporadically.
In the process, the suspected masked gun wielding Fulani nomads killed one man, injured another and made away with a 13-year-old JSS 3 female student of one of the private schools in the community. The deceased was said to be returning from an engineering firm where he worked when the gunmen fleeing with the kidnapped girl, opened fire on him at close range, killing him at the point.
The girl’s mother, a teacher in the earlier attacked community school is nursing a baby boy. She was about to turn on the power generating set when the gun-wielding youngsters stormed the compound and attempted to drag her away with the little baby boy in her arms.
However, the criminals decided to leave the mother of three and seized her daughter who had come out of the house, which still under construction, crying and begging the gunmen to leave her mother alone. The poor girl, whose father is said to be from one of the ECOWAS countries and works in the North, reportedly attended school on the fateful day.
It was the distraught mother who raised the alarm when the gunmen dragged her daughter away, attracting members of the local vigilance group and youths who quickly assembled with flashlights for pursuit. Although the kidnapped teenager had been released, residents fled in droves to neighbouring towns including Asaba, and as far as towns across the Niger in the South-East.
As the residents started returning to their home to settle down, the herdsmen struck again on March 4, forcing the just returned indigenes to flee in droves again. Most of those who fled included children and infants taken out of the town by anxious parents and guardians, due to uncertainty about the security situation, amid rumours that at least one herdsman was killed in the surrounding bushes.
The brave adults who stayed back, always assemble at the palace of the Obi (King) where members of the local security outfit keep vigil. Some residents said they felt unprotected and unsafe because the state government seemed to have abandoned them to their fate. This is in addition to the fact that there was apparently no security presence after the policemen who came into the town at the wake of the attack earlier in about four Toyota Hillux vans left.
In Ubulu-Uku, Isele-Uku and Oncha-Ugbo, the story is the same as people live in palpable fear and uncertainty. The Iselu- Uku/Ubulu-Uku five-kilometre road is a death trap as herdsmen have takien over the road killing and maiming.
Recently, Dr Odozi was shot dead while responding to a distress call. A school principal, name withheld, was also abducted on the road and released after payment of ransom. Many people suffered humiliations in the hands of the herdsmen. They were alleged to be responsible for the killing of the traditional ruler of Ubulu-Uku, Obi Akaeze Ofulue and Chikwe Ojinji.
But the Commissioner of Police, Hafiz Inuwa, said the community has not been abandoned, adding that his men were on top of the situation to bring the perpetrators to book through discreet investigation.
He said a crack team of policemen deployed in the area had engaged some suspected armed herdsmen in an exchange of gunfire. He confirmed a meeting between the Issele-Azagba community leaders and members of the Arewa (Hausa/Fulani) community in the area led by the Imam of Asaba Mosque at the palace of the Obi of Issele-Azagba, Francis Ijei, with the objective to get to the root cause of the problem. Such meetings, Daily Sun gathered, have become regular interaction in most communities where activities of rampaging herdsmen have become unbearable.
But the Obi of Abavo Kingdom in Ika South, Obi Uche Irenuma II, whose kingdom is also on the throes of the marauding nomads, said resolutions of such meetings are obeyed in breach by the herdsmen. The Obi alleged that the herders have converted harvested yams to food for cattle, adding that they have used their cattle to destroy other economic crops.
He said his subjects can no longer access their farms for fear of being kidnapped, killed or maimed, disclosing that the whereabouts of two of his chiefs have remained unknown after they were allegedly abducted along Obianyinma-Okpe Road.
The royal father stated that the tension in his community has heightened as a result of the unwholesome activities of herdsmen, and appealed to the state government to declare a state of emergency to avoid total breakdown of law and order. He alleged that the herders were operating more than seven camps in Obianyima, Ekwuoma, Azuowa and Oyoko communities in his kingdom, from where they plan attacks and hold kidnapped victims.
But for the people Oko-Amakom in Oshimili South Local Government who were once ravaged by the marauding herdsmen, it is a different song at the moment, following the dislodging of about 1,000 herdsmen from the island through a combined effort of the Senior Special Assistant on Security to Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, Cassidy Iloba, and the Special Assistant on Special Duties, Alhaji Mukhtar.
The Akwe of Amakom, Nwamana Frank, said: “We now enjoy peace as the herdsmen were making life unbearable for our people. Not only will they destroy our crops and climb palm trees to drink our palm wine, they were also raping our women. People were scared from entering their farms since after the rainy season in November last year when they invaded our farmlands. We pray they do not return again.”
Already, the Delta State Council of Traditional Rulers, after an emergency meeting in Asaba, through its chairman, Dr Emmanuel Efeizomor II, described the attack as very provocative, warning that any further attack in any Delta territory by Fulani herdsmen would not be taken lightly. Efeizomor who is the Obi of Owa Kingdom in Ika North-East hailed the prompt response of the community’s vigilance outfit and the police, which repelled the herdsmen in some communities.
Daily Sun investigations revealed that the dilapidated nature of most linking roads in the communities is one of the sustaining factors for the herdsmen to keep operating in the areas especially the kidnapping of travellers.
For instance, the national adviser to Issele-Azagba Development Union, Paul Offor, wondered why the state government has not fixed the Issele-Azagba/Otulu Road after the heinous invasion of the community school in October last year.
Apart from the linking community roads, the trunk A roads traversing Aniocha North Local Government are in terrible condition, making them a haven for criminals to operate. The hoodlums, mostly herders, take advantage of numerous deplorable spots on the Onicha-Ugbo/Idumuje-Ugboko Road, and Issele-Uku/Ubulu-Uku Road to unleash terror.
Chairman of the local government, Chuks Oseme, said no fewer than 83 cases of kidnapping were recorded in the last four years, noting that many victims were released upon payment of ransom while others were brutally murdered. He said it was painful that the traditional ruler of Ogodo community was kidnapped, while the contractor handling the Okwunzu Road project was kidnapped leading to its abandonment.
He recalled the kidnap and murder of the Medical Director of Good News Hospital, Dr Andrew Odozi, stressing that the recent attacks on Issele-Azagba put the area in poor light. He attributed rising crime rate to the “topography of the area that makes the place attractive for habitation and porous for Trans order/inter community crime to the extent that thick forests have now become safe haven and transit camp for kidnappers.”
Commissioner for Information, Charles Aniagwu, said government would continue to partner and support the synergy between vigilance groups and security agencies to enhance the security of life and property:
“You will also agree that kidnapping can take place anywhere even at homes, and so we are interested in the overall security of every part of the state and I must tell you that our collaboration with the local vigilantes in the state is a step in the right direction.
“We hope to continue to strengthen them because what has happened has shown that the collaboration of vigilante groups and other security outfits is a good decision and we will stay on course with that right decision as it is yielding desired results.
“We will continue to empower them to make them more capable with a view to ensuring they play a more important role in our quest to ensure a more secured and peaceful state.”
Traditional rulers in Anioma land condemned the incessant attacks on their subjects by herdsmen, warning that they can no longer tolerate such attacks if nothing is done to stop it. Rising from a meeting of the monarchs at Owa-Oyibu in Ika North East Local Government, the monarchs advocated a uniform community security outfit to effectively police the district:
“Our people are no longer going to the farm for fear of either being attacked, maimed, killed, kidnapped or raped and we are saying that enough is enough.” They warned that the peaceful disposition of Anioma people should not be misconstrued for either weakness or cowardice, insisting that any further attack on any part of Delta North would be met with disastrous consequences.
The forum resolved to immediately re-activate and reinvigorate the vigilante groups in various communities with a view to beefing up security within the district. It took a swipe at some unscrupulous elements in various communities who were allegedly conniving with the herdsmen to wreak havoc on the people.
It called for thorough screening and profiling of members of vigilante groups and Okada operators to ensure that bad eggs were not recruited into the community’s vigilante outfit. While calling on security agencies not to compromise security as that could be counter productive, the forum urged the police and military officers to treat any information received with utmost confidentiality even as they insisted that such information must be processed and treated with dispatch.
The state Commissioner of Police, Mr Hafiz Inuwa, said the command, in synergy with sister security agencies and stakeholders in the communities, were doing a lot to end the recurring attacks. He said the command was working closely with local vigilance groups in the communities to fish our criminals.
While not ruling out internal connivance with the criminal elements among herdsmen, he vowed that under his watch, criminals would be made to face the full weight of the law.
He noted that the crisis between farmers and nomadic herdsmen was as a result of migration but warned that the herders should be about their grazing activities without trampling on the rights of their host communities.