Faceless terrorists in a convoy of Toyota Corolla cars and seven motorcycles invaded Zaki Biam, Benue State, in the afternoon of March 20, shooting to kill anyone within sight, including schoolchildren on their way home from school. The piles of corpses and other gory scenes they left in their trail, which are now trending on the Internet, are horrifying. For three hours, the killings continued without let, challenge or resistance. As the people fled, the killers turned their attention to the destruction of property. After they had done so much damage and satiated their blood cravings, they disappeared with their vehicles. Till date, none of the assailants has been arrested. The death toll is in dispute. Some say that 52 men, women and children were killed. Others have offered a lower figure.
The Federal Government’s reaction has been commendably swift. President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, to muster necessary police resources to round up the killers and end the tide of violence and wanton killings in Benue State and the country at large. The Police chief had visited to brief the President and spoke with the press thereafter, saying that the Police have deployed a special squad in Benue State to fish out the prime suspect, a man identified as Terwase Akwaza, who is also known as “Ghana.”
He said the killings were the handiwork of criminal elements already on the police wanted list, who, contrary to popular suspicion, were not the usual suspects, the “Fulani herdsmen.”
A possible evidence of this is the so-called reprisal attack five days later at Tse-Chia village near Kasar in Zaki Biam. The attackers burnt four houses, with three persons burnt to death in one of the houses. The primary target was one of the drivers of the vehicles used for the Monday attack.
We can see the first signs of another intractable communal fight between the Tivs and Idomas or between Tivs and Jukuns. It is a bad sign that the age-old feuds have not been laid to rest. Now is the time to reopen all the channels of communication to get all the sides back to the peace table before the situation gets out of hand as it did in 2001. The ethnic militias must be monitored. In 2001, the Tiv militia was said to have been responsible for the abduction of Nigerian soldiers, which led to an invasion of the town by the military, with attendant loss of lives and destruction of property.
As a matter of urgency, the Federal Government should in consultation with the Benue State Government invite the warring groups to sit down to review their relationships and speak frankly about fresh grievances and provocations. The killings in Zaki Biam may lead to a fresh round of communal fighting, if not properly handled. This is not the time for such insanity. The country is going through a recession. It needs perfect peace to recover. Zaki Biam is the largest yam market in West Africa. What the town needs is peace.
More efficient law enforcement is needed. Even more crucial is police intelligence gathering, to be able to preempt crisis before it happens or escalates. The police must go down to the community level to monitor the state of things among the various communities and be able to identify flashpoints and individual trouble makers. They should also liaise with the leaders to maintain peace.
The March 20 killings in Zaki Biam are bad enough. The Federal and State governments must ensure that the little fire thus lit is fully extinguished.