Women bear the brunt of the deadly conflicts between suspected herdsmen and agrarian communities in Benue State.
After Nguveren Terseer survived an attack by suspected herdsmen on her village, the 27-year old widow and her two children moved into an internally displaced persons’ camp in Makurdi, the state capital.
Over 70 people, mostly male farmers, were killed in the attack on Logo in January 2018. Ms Terseer’s husband was one of the victims.
Logo is one of the communities in Benue State most affected by the herder-farmer conflict prevalent in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region. The usual suspects behind the attack were Fulani herdsmen from Nigeria’s semi-arid far north who seasonally migrate southwards in search of grass for their cattle. Their migration often takes them into violent conflict with farming communities such as Ms Terseer’s Logo, in the context of intense competition for rapidly declining resources as population expands.
The attacks have precipitated the displacement of thousands of people, such as Ms Terseer, who is now her decimated family’s breadwinner.
She was lucky to escape the herdsman’s bullet on the day that they killed her husband, she told PREMIUM TIMES.
“We were on the farm when they came. They killed my husband.” Asked how she escaped, she replied: “They said they didn’t want to kill a woman.”
She now ekes out a living by selling local gin and cigarettes in a small shop in Wurukum area of the Benue State capital.
But the trauma of watching her husband shot multiple times and butchered, living without him and raising their two children alone is a big burden on the young widow.
Ms Terseer’s story is not unique and is the story of many others.
Three years before the attack that killed Ms Terseer’s husband, a similar one led to the death of Mseer Nyamve’s husband in a different part of Benue.
At her new farm in Logo, where she now lives, Ms Nyamve was tending her yams. The farm had shown prospects of a good yield, even though she had not applied fertiliser to it. It was a yam farm of about 80 rows of 65 heaps each.
At the farm, Ms Nyamve narrated how suspected armed herdsmen killed 17 persons during a raid on Chembe, a Benue community on the border with Nasarawa and Taraba states. The early morning attack on January 30, 2015, claimed the life of her husband.
“We got wind that Fulani were coming to attack so we ran and took refuge in our farms. At dawn, while on the farm, we heard gunshots and began to run again. Unfortunately, my husband could not move fast because of problems with his legs. They shot him from behind twice before he was butchered. I stood there watching them.
“When they shot him I collapsed and began to cry. Although they intermittently looked at me, they did not touch me.”
The widow, who now farms with her seven children, added that “even our crops were destroyed and nothing was left. We have started with little things to keep body and soul together.”
Conflicts such as that of Benue affect vulnerable groups such as women and children who constitute the majority of the displaced population in Nigeria.
According to a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) supplementary report in 2017, an increasing number of households in conflict-prone areas are being headed by women, children and older people.
Out of the 17,700 vulnerable households profiled by UNHCR’s vulnerability screening (November 2016), 18 per cent (6,800 families) have unaccompanied or separated children, 14 per cent (5,400 households) have orphans due to the conflict; 15 per cent (4,900 families) have children hawking or begging; and three per cent (1,100 households) reported their children to be missing.
The stories of Ms Nyamve and Ms Terseer are just some of the heart-wrenching stories of Benue women who have been victims of such violence. Many of them cannot return to their original farms and have to look elsewhere for land to cultivate crops for livelihood.
How It Started
Several accounts traced the beginning of these attacks back to 2015. They recalled the land grazing and settlement disagreement between herders and farmers which escalated into large-scale attacks in January 2018.
On the first day of that January 2018, armed men had invaded two farming communities in Guma and Logo local government areas of Benue State. The locals were deep in their sleep, having had long merriment on New Year eve. The attack left no fewer than 73 persons dead and scores of others injured.
The New Year Day attack opened a floodgate of other attacks which have forced thousands into internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) camps across the North-central state.
At the peak of the attacks, the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) said it registered 483,699 IDPs, mostly women and children.
But for the emergency camp education arranged by the state government and international bodies, children in the troubled areas have had no access to classrooms since 2018.
From 2009 to 2018, IDPs grew in Africa from 6.4 million to 17.7 million, according to the UNHCR. More than 2.5 million of them are in Nigeria.
The UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies have been in the camps collaborating with the state government.
“If someone can help to train one of my children in school, I will be happy. I will also be happy if I have a house to sleep in,” Yahuan Nyityô of Chembe told PREMIUM TIMES.
She sat under a mango tree in the thatched house her husband left her with.
None of her four kids has gone past high school. They are working hard to bring their father’s farm back to the state it was before he was killed. Since troops of Operation Whirl Stroke (OPWS) in May cleared the area, Ms Nyityô and others in the community have returned to their farms.
“Now, we have to start all over trying to raise the farm again,” Ms Nyityô said. The family cultivates yam and groundnut, two of the dominant crops in the area.
Several women who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said cattle grazing on farmlands usually triggered the confrontation because when the herdsmen are confronted, they would respond with violence.
However, Gaurus Gilolo, a member of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), denied that the attacks were carried out by herdsmen. Speaking to PREMIUM TIMES, he said “there was no Fulani in Guma and Logo local government areas in 2018. The government made a law in 2017 and Fulanis were chased away and over 26,000 cattle killed by the livestock guards.”
Mr Gilolo said when the Fulani are attacked, nobody says anything about it because they are mostly in the bush and the media never cares to hear from them.
Plight of widows
Solomon Ukeyima, a reverend father in the Makurdi Catholic Diocese, said: “nobody can sufficiently say anything about the plight of women widowed by the militant herdsmen.”
Since 2011, Mr Ukeyima has been working with IDPs, beginning in Guma LGA when he was at the St. Francis Mission in Daudu. When he was transferred to the St. Augustine’s Parish, Demekpe, in the state capital, the cleric continued to mobilise support for the IDPs.
His was said to be one of the leading voices that called for the enactment of the Benue Anti-Open Grazing Law of 2017, a law herdsmen have since vehemently kicked against.
“Apart from the emotional and psychological pains, they are left alone to train the children. They are vulnerable because of the absence of the man of the house. The way their husbands were butchered and their homes burnt have left them traumatised,” he said.
Helen Teghtegh of Community Links and Human Empowerment Initiative (CLHEI) began a campaign against gender-based violence (GBV) in response to reports of sexual exploitation in IDP camps.
“Every female in the camp is vulnerable and they mostly depend on the government, NGOs and kindhearted people,” she said.
“We had a case of a woman who was raped while other women were around. Probably a male figure’s absence aided the crime. The perpetrator was a security personnel with a gun but if a male was present, it probably would not be so. Widows are highly vulnerable and may face more harassment,” she said.
The Baka Market IDPs camp is on the fringes of 72 Special Forces Battalion in Makurdi. The Executive Secretary of SEMA, Emmanuel Shio, spoke of the government’s efforts to check the abuse of women and young girls in the camp.
“Baka is a non-official camp, it is difficult to monitor the happenings in the camp on a daily basis except for food distribution. But SEMA is in partnership with domestic NGOs to monitor the cases of sexual harassment. We promise that no one accused of sexual harassment, be it staff or soldiers, will go free, the law will take its course,” he said.
In the past, IDPs had hoped for resettlement in their original homes. The resurgence of armed attacks has however dashed these hopes and aspirations.
Mr Shio said, “the idea was to keep them in camp for a short period of time but it is important to look at the cause of displacement and because the headers are still lurking around communities, it is difficult for the Benue State government to think of resettling them at the moment.”
Violence has had far-reaching humanitarian and economic impact on Benue State and has created big security problems. This has been compounded by the presence of over 10,000 Cameroonian refugees in Kwande local government which the state government through SEMA and other domestic NGOs are supporting, according to Mr Shio.
A gender and social activist, Bashirah Balogun, said women in IDPs camps do not feel safe and are exploited for access to basic supplies. “All the camps should be adequately protected, both the official and non-official camps and women should be considered on all mechanisms including leadership positions in the IDPs camps. This will help in curbing gender irregularities and exploitation.
“The staff and managers of the IDPs camps should be checked from time to time because some of the staff and community members may be the perpetrators of sexual exploitation.
“Everyone in the camp deserves psycho-social and social support, especially women who have seen gruesome murder of their spouses and children. Trauma hays a long term effect and cannot be undone without actual psychological interventions,” the activist said.
She called for the empowerment of the women with skills that can sustain them and provide their basic needs.
Ene Obi of Action Aid suggested the government should send female security personnel to the camps. She also recommended that local governments should be responsible for IDPs camps in their areas and should be appropriately supported for the role.
Support for this report was provided by Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism with funding support from Free Press Unlimited.