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Benue community volunteers: Imperatives, obstacles of neighbourhood vigilantes

By Samson Kukwa-Yanor, Makurdi
04 November 2022   |   3:08 am
The recent attack suspected that left not less than 36 persons dead in Benue State, came as a reminder of such incessant attacks that have heightened security concerns in various parts of the country.

[files] Ortom. Photo/facebook/benuestategovernment

The recent attack by suspected Fulani herders that left not less than 36 persons dead in Benue State, came as a reminder of such incessant attacks that have heightened security concerns in various parts of the country.

The killings, which took place penultimate Wednesday in Gbegi community in Ukum Local Government Area of the state, unsettled everybody in the state. Speaking when he visited the community, Governor Samuel Ortom, told the grieving families that the unfortunate incident was very sad.

Ortom, who was represented by the Secretary to the State Government, (SSG), Professor Anthony Ijohor, was accompanied on the visit by Senator Gabriel Suswan and Speaker, Benue State House of Assembly and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), governorship contender, Mr. Titus Uba among other stakeholders.

The insecurity in various parts of the country has compelled state governments to embark on homegrown strategies to secure the life and property of their citizens. Three months ago, the Benue State government joined the league of states with internal security systems or vigilantes.

For instance, Ortom contended that since the Federal Government has failed to provide security for the people, a license should be approved for the Benue State Government to procure sophisticated weapons for the Community Volunteer Guards to protect the people.

He argued that the limited conventional security agencies were overstretched and as such unable to provide adequate protection for the people, adding: “We are standing on our request for the Federal Government to give us a license for our Volunteer Guards to bear AK-47 and other sophisticated weapons. The security agencies have been overstretched, that being the case, our people have to defend themselves.”

Even, Senator Suswan, who is also a former governor of the state, remarked that the unchallenged killings implied that “power has been transferred to non-state actors; they are totally in charge now, and come to kill people at will, go free and no person has ever been arrested.”

While blaming the Federal Government’s “irresponsibility and failure to provide security for citizens,” the representative of Benue North East in the Senate decried the rising insecurity in the country.

“The Federal Government has failed woefully in the protection of lives and property. So far, 36 bodies have been recovered from this dastardly attack by herdsmen. This is totally unacceptable by all standards. It is a clear indication that the Federal government has failed in the protection of lives and property of the people that they swore to protect,” he asserted.

In the absence of state police departments, such improvised security groups are programmed to augment the services of the regular Nigerian police and other federal security agencies.

However, the question that started making the rounds in the state after the inauguration of what Governor Samuel Ortom called the Benue Community Volunteer Guards (BCVG), was, could this be another laudable effort that is doomed to fail?

Recently, Ondo State governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, chided the Federal Government for deploying double standards in its relationship with state governments over the arming of local vigilantes. The governor, who was instrumental to the formation of the Western Nigeria Security Command (WNSC), otherwise known as Amotekun; alleged that while the FG approved the purchase of AK47 weapons for the Katsina State vigilantes, his region, Southwest, was denied such grace.

The Federal Government as well as the Chief of Army Staff rejected insinuations of partiality between North and South, stressing that no individual or group is entitled to high-caliber assault weapons like AK47.

But, while the allegation of double standards remains a subject of controversy, the dangerous circle of insecurity is widening as banditry, kidnapping for ransom, cattle rustling, herdsmen attacks and murders continue to make life chaotic in the country.

After shouting to high heavens about the herdsmen attacks and destruction of farmlands, it was with great enthusiasm that Benue State Governor, Dr. Samuel Ortom inaugurated the BVGC on August 4, 2022, at the Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) public square in Makurdi.

The governor outlined that the Benue Community Volunteer Guards were the precursor of the now-defunct Benue Livestock Guards. And, just like the Community Volunteer Guards, the Livestock Guards was birthed by the Governor Samuel Ortom administration five years ago in an effort to stem the perennial herdsmen killings in the state.

The Livestock Guards was formulated as a fallout of the Benue State anti-open grazing and ranches establishment law promulgated by the state House of Assembly in 2017. The law was designed to curtail open grazing of cattle and other livestock, as well as, advocate for the establishment of ranches instead.

The government expressed the hope that by curtailing the random movement of cattle, the so-called farmers-herders conflicts would also be effectively checkmated. But, five years down the line, the state has suffered the most horrendous and barbaric killings never before witnessed in her history. It was within this period that the infamous 2018 new year’s day massacre that culminated in a mass burial took place.

After that orgy of violence, instead of abating, the situation has degenerated. For instance, in Guma, Governor Ortom’s Local Government and one of the worst hit areas of the state by the marauding herdsmen. Inhabitants of the entire local government, comprising ten council wards, have been forced to desert their villages and converge into only five towns, mainly in the headquarters of the five council wards: Yelewata town in Nyiev council ward, Gbajimba in Nzorov ward, Agasha in Kaambe ward, Daudu in Mbawa council ward and Abetse in Abetse council ward. The implication is that an entire five council wards have been completely deserted.

Other Local Government areas affected include Gwer West, which is known for its huge cultivation of rice. Only Naka, the council headquarters and a few other settlements are still inhabited by people. During the 2019 general elections, all the 92 polling units in the council were stationed in Naka for fear of herdsmen attacks.

Then, in Agatu and Logo Local Councils, the situation is the same. Large swathes of land have been appropriated by gun-totting herders, thus dislocating farming activities and forcing the hapless villagers and farmers into Internally Displaced Persons Camps (IDPs) scattered across the state.

With the situation on the ground, it did not take long for all to see that the Livestock Guards could not protect the people. Consequently, Governor Ortom did not hesitate to disband the outfit and, in its place, set up the Benue Community Volunteer Guards (BCVG).

But, at a closer look, it seems there is no difference between the two security outfits because apart from the fact that they are not allowed to bear arms, the volunteers are outnumbered by the herdsmen, who levy attacks in their numbers. The masses are at a loss to fathom what could make the Volunteer Guards succeed where the Livestock Guards could not, when the scenarios remain exactly the same, save for the change of name.

First, the Livestock Guards failed to stop the killings by herders and their mercenaries not because the perpetrators were superhuman. Rather, it was believed that they failed for the simple reason that unlike the killers, who were very well armed with sophisticated weapons, the Livestock Guards were not.

Secondly, it was gathered that the killers perfected their act through painstaking planning and tactics. For instance, virtually all the hardest-hit local governments are those bordering Nassarawa State, namely, Logo, Guma, Gwer West and Agatu.

Adopting a hit run tactics of guerilla warfare, the killer herdsmen were reported to be in the habit of sneaking in to carry out their sordid attacks and then sliding back into Nassarawa State. Unfortunately for the state government’s countermeasures, both the anti-open grazing law and the Volunteer Guards were laws promulgated by the Benue State House of Assembly, which had no bearing or binding on Nassarawa State.

It was based on that snag that the issue of national security architecture and alleged double standards come into play. The general perception among Benue indigenes is that both the Livestock Guards and the Benue Volunteer Guards are security outfits ambushed by national frustration. Yet, like the Western Nigeria Security Network Agency code-named ‘Amotekun’, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the Katsina State security outfit and many others springing up across the country, the Benue State security outfits come as a loud vote of no-confidence on the Nigerian security system.

Persistent killings by armed herdsmen and ‘unknown gunmen’ have been going on without respite in most parts of the country under the nose of security agents. Many prominent personalities including Nigeria’s former President Gen Olusegun Obasanjo and former Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Theophilus Danjuma among several other high-profile Nigerians, including Governor Ortom, have on several occasions accused the Federal Government ominous silence and passive complicity.

The federal government’s actions and inactions, rather than assuaging those suspicions, have instead heightened them. Few herders, if any, in all the years of the orgy of violence and terrorism, have been brought to book. That fact is what feeds the pervasive sentiments in the country that arms-bearing herdsmen seem to be enjoying the protection of the central government.

In what appeared to lend further credence to the general suspicions, is the Federal Government’s refusal to grant Amotekun, the right to bear firearms. Perhaps the government knows that being a similar security outfit, the Benue Community Volunteer Guard could also line up in search of the same approval.

It is obvious, therefore, that without firearms, the BCVG has been effectively reduced to a toothless bulldog that can only bark, but never bite. That could explain why the Benue State governor accused the President Buhari-led administration of being absolutely insensitive and disdainful to the plight of Benue citizens languishing in the IDP camps.

On May 15, 2018, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who was representing President Buhari, visited some Benue IDP camps and promised to donate N10billion for the rebuilding and rehabilitation of the victims of herdsmen attacks.

In his remarks at the occasion, the VP stated: “Your destroyed homes by herdsmen attacks will be built better than what they were. This is going to be done to you, not as a favour, but as a right that has to be given to you by the government as citizens of this country.”

Considering the trauma, the hapless victims had undergone and were still going through, the Vice President’s remarks sounded really reassuring and soothing. But, while the IDPs continued to wait for patiently for the fabled Gordon, pangs of disappointment set in when it was reported that the same Federal Government had redeemed the $ 1 million it donated to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

A letter of gratitude by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which was sighted by reporters read; “The Secretary–General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Hissein Brahim Taha, has commended with appreciation the generous donation of one million dollars made by the Republic of Nigeria to the Humanitarian Trust Fund for Afghanistan.

“This donation comes in time to add to a new momentum to OIC’s efforts to contribute to easing the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and to help in catering for the needs of millions of Afghan people, including women and children.”

That the perceived demonstration of less concern is fueling the series of self-help efforts by the state government is not debatable.

Further, in a federating nation, where the entire national security architecture is vested in the hands of the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces, any security outfit by any section of the country would be ineffectual without the blessings of the Commander-in-Chief.

Another bottleneck is that, while the terrorists and unknown gunmen are outlaws who kill and literally vanish into thin air, the Volunteer Guards, which is a creation of the law, are expected to operate within the ambit of the law. Consequently, by denying them the license to carry firearms, the law has denied them the authority to kill, not even in self-defence, but at the height of extreme provocation.

Already, perhaps to spite the governor and his volunteer guards, there have been sustained attacks on communities in the state in the past few weeks since the inauguration of the volunteer guards leaving in its wake death and destruction.

Within the past three weeks alone, Yelwata in Guma Local Government, Mchia and Mou in Logo Local Government and Gbishe in Ukum Local Government Areas of the state have been brutally attacked and tens of people killed and maimed.

However, as laudable as the Benue Community Volunteer Guard initiative may be, the euphoria and expectation that greeted its formation seems to be dying down. Many citizens of Benue State feel that its usefulness, and even survival, have become doubtful.