Mbabai, the village where Tarnongo Mike Utsaha was buried on 1 April, 2023, used to be part of the municipality of Makurdi, the capital of Benue State. It only became part of Guma Local Government Area in Benue North-West in 1987. Current governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, also comes from Guma.
The LGA derives its name from River Guma, which empties into the River Benue, part of a network of fresh water sources that have historically defined that part of Nigeria as the nation’s food basket. With arable land drained by an abundance of freshwater sources on the foothills of the rainy season, this is a neighborhood that should ordinarily bustle at this time of year.
The journey into Guma with Mike’s remains revealed the opposite. Mbabai and its neighboring villages had long been drained of life by mass atrocity. Mourners to the funeral needed the forceful presence of massive deployment of hundreds of well-armed soldiers along the route and in surrounding bushes to reassure them about their safety.
The compound in which the burial itself took place was nearly desolate. A capacious country home belonging to Mike’s dad, a retired judge, had been burnt twice over in attacks reportedly perpetrated, the villagers said, by armed herders. All the mourners could do was linger in the village long enough for the body to be laid into the ground before everyone scampered, grateful that there were no atrocity incidents.
As the mourners left, it was impossible not to ask how the people of Guma, nearly all of whom cannot afford what it takes to secure the kind of martial deployment that accompanied Mike’s cortege, bury their dead. It did not take long to find out.
Mgban is a village also in Guma, not too far from Mbabai. Like Mbabai, Mgban has also been decimated by regular attacks from armed herders. Most of the village lives in internal displacement. By an arrangement involving the state government and the Benue State Emergency Management Authority, the Benue State Police Command deployed several police officers every evening to guard the Local Government Education Authority (LGEA) Primary School in Mgban, so that those left in the community can go there to sleep at night.
That was until one week after the burial of Mike Utsaha. Shortly before mid-night around Good Friday, according to survivors, the police officers deployed around the LGEA Primary School in Mgban all entered their vehicles and left the premises without warning. The villagers already at the school to pass the night had no place else to hide.
Moments after the police retreated, armed attackers arrived, making game of every person in sight, mostly the aged, women, and children. Initial casualty count was over 43 killed by sunrise. By the end of the morning after the massacre, another 45 had also been evacuated to nearby hospitals in critical conditions. The dead got a quick and perfunctory mass burial.
Less than 36 hours before the Mgban Massacre, on Wednesday, also in the Christian Holy Week, another attack on mourners in Umogidi in Entekpa-Adoka District of Otukpo LGA reportedly killed at least 52 persons. Another mass burial was all that they could get.
48 hours before the massacre in Umogidi, a similar attack liquidated at least 47 un-armed persons in Ikobi village in Apa LGA, including the local chief.
Amidst this orgy of massacres, Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, who has since lost the ability to safely visit his village in Guma, traveled to Port Harcourt, Rivers State, around 6 April, reportedly to attend the commissioning of projects by his counterpart in Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai, both of them as guests of Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike. It was a characteristically thoughtless journey by a man who had long ago lost any sense of what a governor exists to do.
The symbolism of the encounter in Rivers State between the governors of Benue and Kaduna States, once implacable political foes, was not lost on many. In Port Harcourt, they could have been mistaken for a compatibly contented political pairing. Less than two years ago, in May 2021, they were at each other’s throats exchanging choice epithets with the abandon of drunken sailors in a bar-room brawl.
Between them, these two men have presided over arguably two of the worst records of mass atrocity in Nigeria in the past eight years. In 80 days in the first quarter of 2023, Kaduna State reported at least 125 killed and 60 abducted. Those who specialize in tracking these incidents would swear that these numbers massage the reality. Over five days in the first week of April 2023, Benue State lost at least 134 persons in a killing spree. In the period since the end of the presidential election in February, over 400 have reportedly been massacred in Benue State alone.
The timing of these massacres is significant. On 8 April, 2023, Daily Times reported that “[p]alpable fear pervades the entire horizon as renewed incidents of banditry, kidnappings, killings take centre-stage after a ‘cease-fire’ noticed in Nigeria ahead of the general elections in February and March.”
The previous day had witnessed the high profile abduction of law professor and former Deputy Governor of Nasarawa State near the Federal Capital Territory, Onje Gye-Wado. The newspaper also recounted a staggering rise after the vote of mass abductions of children as well as massacres in many states around the country including Benue, Edo, Imo, Kaduna, Kano, Nasarawa, Lagos, Zamfara, among others.
Confronted with this trend, President Muhammadu Buhari, whose primary job is to guarantee the safety and security of all these people, had a statement issued in his name calling for “an end to extreme violence.” It was disconcerting to see the president mistake himself for a non-governmental organization and reduced to condemning violence and calling for something to be done about it, as if he had forgotten that it was his place surely to do that something. The statement also seemed to imply that violence was alright if it was not considered “extreme”, but provided no criteria with reference to which to determine what extreme violence means. It was a very odd kind of thing for a president to say. But this Nigerian president has built his brand around toxic awkwardness.
Then, three days after issuing this statement, entirely in keeping with his habit of disregard for Nigerians over the past eight years, the president sauntered off to Saudi Arabia on 11 April for a nine-day long jaunt. What he went there to do was unclear, a fact no much helped by the desperate effort by his team of media handlers who were busy spreading false information about the trip.
While Buhari remained in Saudi Arabia, Samuel Ortom quickly announced the demobilization of the Benue State Livestock Guards, the militia group established to enforce the state’s anti-open grazing law. Many people read this to mean a suspension of the law itself. The Governor begged to differ, claiming that the law still remained very much in force without explaining who will now help him to enforce it.
Those who wonder how these killings have lasted and deepened in intensity for as long as they have need not worry anymore. With a law without enforcers and a state rapidly turning into a cemetery, Benue State’s Governor Ortom probably knows one or two things most others may be unable to voice. First, the owners of the atrocity killings in Nigeria are back after the business of election rigging. Second, it is not difficult to know who they are.
When Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Matthew Hassan Kukah, spoke in his Easter Message about the urgent mission of helping Nigeria “recover from the feeling of collective rape by those who imported the men of darkness that destroyed or country”, he knew what he was talking about.
•A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at [email protected]