Majesty, Prof James Ortese Ayatse, the Tor Tiv and paramount ruler of the Tiv nation, who is also the Chairman of Benue State Council of Chiefs, in this interview with JOSEPH WANTU at his temporary palace in Gboko, expressed sadness over the barbaric, unprovoked attacks and killings of his subjects by marauding Fulani herdsmen, saying it was a well-planned, coordinated genocide against his people.
What is your general reaction to the New Year killing of your subjects by armed Fulani herdsmen?
Thank you very much for the visit at this time when my domain has been invaded by strange armed herdsmen, killing innocent people, destroying farmlands of our people and burning down their houses. It is something that has saddened everyone and you can see that the whole state is in mourning mood.
The Tiv Area Traditional Council (TATC), right from the day it happened, has been mourning. It is barbaric; there is no justification, they came unprovoked, attacking the people, killing them and burning down houses.
So, for us, the Tiv nation, this is a very sad moment and it is a moment that we believe has been avoided, it is a moment that we have a feeling has been well-planned out and well coordinated, with the aim clearly to carry out genocide on the Tiv people and probably take over their land. It has been done in a most merciless and barbaric kind of way. Everybody is saddened and we feel very unhappy that this is happening to us as citizens of Nigeria, as a country we sacrificed our own blood to keep united in the civil war.
There is no family in Tiv land that didn’t lose one or two persons to sacrifice for the unity of Nigeria and having done all that, only for a group of people to organise and attack us unprovoked. It is really sad. You can see, in the Tiv tradition, when you tie a cloth round your waist, it indicates a very sad moment. As paramount ruler of the Tiv nation, it tells you that the whole Tiv nation worldwide is in a mourning state.
Since the New Year, the killings have continued. Even as we are talking, the killings are still going on. It is our belief that the whole thing is targeted and is well-planned and it is nothing short of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Tiv nation.
The invasions, attacks and killings of your people have been going on for several years unabated. Are you satisfied with the actions taken by the federal government so far to curb these killings?
Well, what I can say is that federal government has made some efforts, but I will be deceiving myself and everybody to say that I am satisfied with the efforts, because the killings have continued and the forces that have been deployed, I don’t consider them adequate and committed to addressing this situation. This is because if they were, the killings would have stopped.
So, yes, efforts have been made by the federal government to see to it that this situation is arrested, but I don’t think the efforts are adequate enough. We are grateful that Mr. President has directed the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to relocate to Benue State until everything is arrested. He (the IGP) has made a statement, which was quoted in the newspapers, that the attack was a communal crisis. I am not sure he has denied it yet, if he has, I have not read it.
We don’t share borders with the Fulanis, so for them to move from wherever they are to come and attack us and somebody considers it a communal crisis, I think I need to learn English Language again. To me, it is an attack unprovoked and our people are been killed and butchered. If a state made a law, following due process, the law was passed, signed and a grace period of six months was given and the implementation started. Is it not another way to say impunity and anarchy have taken over our country that you cannot obey any law that is established?
We are trusting God that with the coming of the IGP, we will see more seriousness in the deployment of the forces. We will see their actions and mandate and command they have, whether to save lives or to facilitate, we will see. If they stop killing my people, then I will know that it is a serious effort.
I am aware that there are threats by Miyetti Allah Cattle Herders to attack our people, those threats were reported widely in the newspapers and the government of Benue State followed up by officially reporting the threats to the President, the IGP, the security agencies, DSS and so on, and yet this thing happen and the reaction and response time has not been fast enough and we are still loosing lives. I heard there was an attack that resulted in some police officers losing their lives.
The federal government rose from a meeting with some governors recently and announced the establishment of cattle colonies. Do you see this as solution to the problem we are having in the state?
I don’t know how it will operate, as it is a new terminology. It is not part of the best practices we have known. Before now, they were talking about grazing reserves, and now it is establishment of cattle colonies in areas where indigenes are not cattle rearers. We know the states in the federation where the cattle actually live.
For us in Benue State, the cattle rearers come during the dry season, searching for grass and as soon as the rains return, they go back to the north. So, I can’t comment on the cattle colonies until we know what it is all about. But there is an existing law in the state, which I believe should be implemented. I don’t know whether it is coming as a federal law and even if it is a federal law, it has to be domesticated before it can be applied in different states.
What role has the Council of Northern Traditional Rulers, which you are a member, played to nip the crisis in the bud?
The matter came in the last general assembly of the council, it was discussed and the council set up a committee to study the situation and make up recommendations on the best way to solve the problem. The committee is yet to submit the report, therefore, I will not have a definite statement of what the council has said or done. But I know that on individual basis, many of the members have been involved in trying to mediate to make sure we get to the path of peace where there are crises.
What is the TATC doing to ensure that your subjects come to live in clusters, as most of the places attacked look like scattered settlements?
In terms of the settlement pattern and how it has made us vulnerable to this attacks, the TATC has actually set up a committee and we are waiting a report on how to advise our subjects to be able to settle together in clusters to reduce incidences of attacks.
It is commonsense that if they stay together, they will be better prepared to defend themselves. But going by the traditional way of settlement of the farmers in my domain, they want to settle as close to their farmlands as possible. That has been the pattern, but I think with what is happening now, we will advise them to change their settlement pattern, so that we live in clusters, as that will create a double advantage of better security and making the land available for mechanisation.
Are you not worried that President Muhammadu Buhari has not visited the state since the crisis started?
Yes! In times like this, when we are under attack, brutally wounded and in sorrow, we need his comfort and encouragement.
Yes, he has sent the minister of Interior to come and interact with us and the IGP to come and see how he can address the situation, the President has not come yet, but I am still expecting that he will come, because if he doesn’t come, we will not think he is treating us as friends. This is because things have happened elsewhere and he had gone there in person.
To have the President visit a place that is mourning over this kind of attacks going on in Benue State will speak volumes of his care and concern for the people that voted him. Even if he just comes and waves at us and says, ‘look, we are aware of what you feel. I have come to commiserate with you, I will go back and see what can be done.’
There is a difference between going there yourself and been represented. When you go yourself, your whole physical, emotional, spiritual and everything is involved and you can assess the situation better when you see yourself. Your level of commitment and empathy is bound to be different.
What words of encouragement would you give your subjects in the face of these devastation and killings?
My advice is for them to remain calm and look up to Almighty God and not to carry arms to retaliate, but to continue to pray for His intervention.
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