How we battled Fulani herdsmen for four years, by Agatu militia commander
It was September 2012. The rain was pelting heavily in Agatu, a Benue State community. The sleep was as sound as it could be.
Yam harvest was just three months away. Fulani women would hawk cow milk popularly called nono, providing Agatu farmers with fresh milk.
The men moved around with their cattle, grazing the lush greenery of the field while the fresh rain water provided succour for their animals from the scorching sun.
Trouble was nowhere on sight for the Idoma speaking community of 66 villages. The Fulani who speak Fulfulde, were by every standard good neighbours.
But at the other side of town, there were historical skirmishes between the Gwer (populated by the Tiv speaking people of Benue State) and the Fulani over cattle rustling.
Okango Owaje, is a 40-year-old farmer in Ogwule-Kaduna, one of the Agatu villages.
He remembers the Fulani by their cow milk also known as nono and fura, a cake made from millet.
He said that in September 2012, the supply of the cow milk ceased unexpectedly. The fura was also missing. The hawkers had not been seen for more than three days. Words soon went round that the Fulani were leaving town.
Owaje said that the migration was strange because the Fulani were not known to leave town during the rainy season - the grass was still green and the ponds could hold substantial water.
In November 2012, on a Sunday morning at about 5am, the peace of Agatu was lost. Owaje was jolted up from sleep by wailing and lamentations of mourners.
He stumbled out of his apartment to see distraught faces screaming that more than hundreds of suspected invaders have taken over Okpachenyi, just two villages away from theirs.
“I met children, pregnant women, older people, crying that Fulani had entered Okpanchenyi,” he told TheNiche.
Dauda Ibrahim was Oguwule-Kaduna’s youth leader. He asked Owaje to accompany him to Okpachenyi to assess the situation.
“When we got to Olentenu, we started hearing the sound of gun. We started seeing dead bodies on the way. We hid behind a big mango tree to observe. It was from there we saw the attackers,” Owaje said.
He said that the attackers were about 300. Those with guns formed what appeared like a perimeter fencing around the village while those with clubs and cutlasses swooped into homes to loot and kill.
From his observation post, he noticed that a man that was riding his motorcycle and oblivious of the attack, was apprehended. He had a little child with him. Owaje said that the attackers took the child from the man and butchered him.
He also saw the attackers offered a seat to a blind woman who appeared to have been left behind during the flight.
“They gave her a malt drink from one of the Igbo people shops they had just looted, which she refused to drink. They explained to her that their mission was to kill Agatu men. They left the woman unharmed,” he said.
Owaje and Ibrahim retreated back to their village.
On their way, they saw Amos from Engila village, decked in all black as their attackers, except that he wasn’t wearing their hats and booths. He was also heading to Ogwule-Kaduna.
They lost sight of Amos. He later reappeared in Ogwule-Kaduna in changed clothes.
“I became suspicious. But Ibrahim told me it was not possible for Amos to betray our people. Luckily, some women recognised him as part of the attackers. Before we could apprehend him, he ran away,” Owaje said.
Amos was later arrested in Lagos. He confessed to being the person that showed the invaders the way after collecting N150,000 and a Bajaj motorcycle from them.
In Ogwule-Kaduna and in other Agatu villages, the youths were mobilised into an army. They adopted the school uniform of a nearby community secondary school for identity. They began military drills with bow and arrows, clubs and cutlasses.
Politicians representing the area, including the then Senate President, David Mark, used their influence in government to ensure military deployment. They arrived the local government capital immediately. But it took over a month for Ogwule-Kaduna to get 67 soldiers.
Meanwhile, Owaje said that they got information that their village would be attacked in three days. “On the exact day, they came through Bagana towards Kogi. They destroyed the villages on their paths and killed seven people that day,” he said.
He said that after the attackers succeeded in sacking a village, they would move their cattle to graze the farms.
The attackers had already annexed another village called Aiyele. It became their camp. It was from there they launched subsequent attacks. The attacks became a daily occurrence.
When the military arrived, their truck was always having mechanical fault. The soldiers would have to deploy on foot. The militia, with their clubs and cutlasses, also would take positions in the vast forest.
In one of the fights, Owaje said that they got a brand new AK47 from their attackers.
“We captured one alive. He said he was confused, that he didn’t know what was happening. He said he was given something to drink and the next thing he could remember was that everybody around him had gun. He told us he came from Yobe,” Owaje said.
He said their attackers annexed Ejima village and left it intact because it was to serve as their base.
The death toll was rising, Owaje said, stressing that they became desperate for help.
Like Moses in the Bible, Owaje said that a Catholic priest, Adah Aje, announced that God had told him how the invaders could be defeated.
“He fasted for one month. He told us that everybody should buy chaplets. He prayed on the chaplets and anointed it with oil. He said if we don’t steal or sleep with any woman, the invaders’ bullets will not harm us.
“The chaplets worked. We would go out to fight and return complete until some of our people started breaking the rules,” he said.
In 2013, Ogwule-Kaduna militia commander became war wary. His father, a former army officer, counseled him to desert the group because the opponent was more superior armed. Owaje was appointed to replace him.
“I was given the command. And I led the war for three years,” he said.
The invaders would not relent, Owaje said. The fighting break was rare, not more than a week.
In January 2016, the battle became severe in Oweto. They garrisoned in the village to ward off the invaders whom, according to rumour, would be led by a medicine man from Mali and a naked woman bearing calabash on the head.
And like a Nigerian epic movie, the medicine man led the way, closely accompanied by the naked calabash bearing woman along with more than three hundred invaders, all bearing assorted weapons and guns, Owaje said.
“We shot at the medicine man and the woman, the bullet did not penetrate. The invaders were not scared of death. They were swooping on us. At that point, we knew that the battle was lost. We started shouting while retreating, telling everyone to flee,’” he said.
Media report estimated the death toll to be about 300, resulting into national outrage.
Owaje said that they lost the war because of a communal dispute between two villages - Olekochologba and Egba - over the ownership of a river.
According to him, the Olekochologba people struck a deal with the invaders to help them defeat the Egba people in exchange for a discreet passage for them through the River Benue.
According to Owaje, that was ace for the invaders.
But the Agatu militia succeed in arresting and killing the Malian medicine man and the naked woman, who was carrying his pot of charm through divine intervention.
While the Malian man was buried, Owaje said that the woman was not, stressing that her corpse has not even decayed till today in Agatu.