By Peter Duru, Makurdi & Femi Bolaji, Jalingo
Just when the euphoria of a hard fought gubernatorial election victory was yet to die down in both Benue and Taraba states, neighbouring border communities of Atsenga village in Ukum and Kente in Wukari local government areas of both states curiously took up arms against each other in a bloody conflict that was ignited by a mere misunderstanding by two youthful friends.
The bizarre ensuing conflict left at least ten persons dead including an aged women who was reportedly burnt alive in her house. Also consumed in the crisis were over 300 houses, huts and farmland which were all razed.
An eyewitness account had it that the altercation between the two friends got out of hand when alleged armed Jukun militia from Taraba state were engaged and mobilized to execute the conflict that rendered many homeless while women and children were forced to flee their homes to neighbouring villages for safety.
According to the witness, “we have been living peacefully together in the border communities of Igbongum, Vaase, Gbeji, Kente and Atsenga without any problems but from what we heard the whole thing started on Monday afternoon as a quarrel between two young men who were friends, a Tiv man from Benue state and his Jukun friend from Taraba state and before anybody knew what was happening the situation got out of hand and the border community was on fire.
“From what we heard, as a result of the altercation the Jukun young man went and mobilized his brothers who invaded Atsenga with arms, shooting and killing anything in sight.
“They also went as far as burning down houses, cars, food barns and huts including farmlands. In one of the burnt houses an aged woman, one Mama Yanenge who could not escape was burnt alive in her house while several other persons were either hacked or shot dead by the invading armed Jukun youths.
“From that point the conflict escalated, as we speak over 300 houses and huts have been burnt. The sounds of sporadic gunshots could also still be heard from within the community while residents including women and children have all fled their homes for fear of being killed.”
Vanguard gathered that the Chairman of Ukum local government, Mr. Ibellogo Tor-Tyokaa who alongside his Wukari counterpart summoned courage to visit the affected area to assess the situation and plead for calm narrowly escaped death when they ran into sporadic gunshots by the armed youths.
“They were rescued by the military personnel who were drafted from Gbeji to the area to quell the crisis. It was the military that guarded and led them out of the area when it became obvious that they have been trapped and were looking helpless,” the witness said.
Though intermittent conflicts between border communities of both states had in the past reverberated, it however took the dogged commitment to peaceful resolution of such conflicts by the government of both states to have such crisis resolved amicably.
However, last week’s unexpected crisis took everyone unawares but the swift intervention of both state governments to stem the conflict which had the propensity of spreading into the hinterland of both states saved a situation that would have engulfed communities in both states where the Tivs and jukuns cohabited for decades in several villages of both states.
Records have it that the Tivs are known to be the second largest ethnic group in Taraba state with strong presence in seven out of the 16 local government areas of the state while the Jukuns are also known to have strong presence in three local government areas of Benue state. Hence, an unchecked crisis between the ethnic nationalities could ignite a far reaching tribal war in the Benue valley with its attendant socio-economic consequences.
Reacting, Benue state Governor, Samuel Ortom who wasted no time in detailing his Security Adviser and top government functionaries to the troubled spot regretted that the conflict which started as a minor disagreement between individuals led to loss of innocent lives and destruction of property. He appealed to the warring communities to embrace peace.
The Governor in a statement through his Chief Press Secretary, CPS, Terver Akase assured the feuding parties that he was in consultation with his Taraba State counterpart, Governor Darius Ishaku and had taken far reaching measures to end the conflict and restore lasting peace to the border communities and appealed to the people of the affected communities to embrace the initiative.
“I therefore appeal to the people of the affected communities to support the peace initiatives of the governments of the two states to prevent further conflicts in the area.
“The Jukun and Tiv in particular should emulate the example set by their sons, the Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of the Catholic Diocese of Jos and Most Reverend Father James Bature whose peace building efforts have immensely contributed to settling the age-long rivalry between the two ethnic groups spread across Taraba and Benue States.
“We must appreciate the fact that there is no alternative to peace, which was why l promptly directed my Adviser on Security to visit Taraba State shortly after the unfortunate incident where he held meetings with key stakeholders including the Aku Uka of Wukari, as well as Chairmen of Ukum (Benue) and Wukari (Taraba) local government areas,” Ortom noted.
While sympathizing with victims of the crisis, the Governor assured that security agencies had been directed to apprehend perpetrators of the violence for prosecution to serve as deterrent.
On his part, Taraba state Governor, Darius Ishaku in the wake of the crisis expressed worry over recurrent clash between Tiv and Jukun ethnic groups, thus called for calm among warring parties.
Ishaku in a statement by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Bala Dan Abu, condemned the killings and destruction of property wondering why a minor conflict between a Jukun and a Tiv person would degenerate into a bitter conflict leading to loss of lives and property.
He also warned that “frequent conflicts can only lead to disruption of economic activities and aggravate poverty and hunger, and as neighbours, the two groups need each other for economic survival.”
Also, Chairman of Wukari LGA, Adi Daniel while recounting efforts employed to douse tension between the warring ethnic groups confirmed the casualty figure stressing that several households, including Government Day Secondary School, Kente, were burnt down by the attackers.
“I made efforts to contact my counterpart in Ukum LGA in Benue to appeal to his people to lay down their arms and embrace peace, “ Adi said.
Adding his voice to the plea for calm, President General of Tiv Youth Organization, TYO, Comrade Timothy Hembaor urged the warring communities to cease- fire and toe the part of dialogue.