By: BALA B. BITRUS.
Before now, and for long, one of the states that prides itself for its subsisting peace with true homogeneous coexistence amongst its diverse population was Niger State.
For long, the state has enjoyed this appellate through successive regimes, civilians and military alike.
With its advantage of being one of the two states with the largest landmass second only to Taraba, Niger State is about one-tenth of Nigeria’s total landmass.
The State is not only a home to many high profile personalities but the birthplace to some of Nigeria’s top notch leaders. Notable amongst who include Nigeria’s first President, Dr. Nmamdi Azikiwe, the ex Biafran War lord and the Ikemba of Nnewi, Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu, literary giants and icons like Chief Cyprian Ekwensi, Abubakar Imam and a host of others.
For sure, the place of Niger State in Nigeria’s history is pivotal as a melting point of the country’s political history and growth. Not to mention its unique central location in the heart of the entity called Nigeria.
Again, there is no harm in recalling via historical journey, that the territory of Niger had once served as the point of declaration of the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates from where the modern Nigeria came into being.
The territory of Niger equally once served as the administrative headquarters for the invading colonial masters with Lord Luggard and his fellow compatriots’ striding the land areas of Wushishi, Zungeru and Baro where they pitched their tents as their abodes.
This is a little of how important Niger state has been in time past. Little wonder therefore that the state has a rare appellation of being referred to as the Power State.
And this is true. Not just because it has produced two former Heads of State for Nigeria, not only because it is the only state that hosts the country’s three hydro electric dams, the Kainji, Jebba and the Shiroro dams (with an additional one in the offing; the Zungeru Hydro Power Plant), but by and large, because it has arguably been Nigeria’s political power base.
Indeed, nothing can be said about Nigeria without Niger State because even Nigeria derives its name from the river that traverses the territory of the state. Therefore, for an average Nigerlite, it is a pride of a thing for him to assert “nothing about us without us”.
Through successive administrations, the state had remained a key player in the development and growth processes of Nigeria. It has been playing its role, contributing majorly as a food chain supplier to many places in the country.
The state for two consecutive years between 2013 and 2014 was rated as one with the lowest poverty index by the national bureau of statistics. It was rated as the highest producer of rice and ranked tops amongst yam tuber growers in the country.
For years on end, the state and its citizens enjoyed relative peace and harmony as it rates high as a place where there is little or no dichotomy between settlers and the indigenes.
Only pockets of isolated cases of petty crimes, thefts, banditry, robberies and acts of overzealousness were usually recorded by the Police and other law enforcement agencies.
Besides this, the state has not had such anxious moments over high profile security issues except for when some dreaded Boko Haram members attempted to use Suleja as their landing pads to get to the adjourning Federal Capital Territory for their nefarious activities against establishments and other targets.
At four different times between 2012 to 2014, some terrorists stroke Suleja town with their lethal explosives the worst incident being the attack at the St. Theresa Catholic Church during a Sunday Mass.
On the heels of these challenges, security agencies rose to the occasion. They were apt and resolute as they spread their dragnets to arrest the threats to lives and property across the state.
But over time, especially in the recent past, the state has been in the news but for bad reasons.
This year alone, there have been tension and outburst of ugly upheavals and organized criminalities in parts of the state. The religious uprising at Tegina, Kagara area of the state where at least two lives and property worth millions were destroyed over a case of intolerance.
The invasion and attacks by suspected Fulani herdsmen in some villages in Beji areas of Bosso last July had left on its heels, sorrow, tears and blood.
And while this incident was still very fresh in the minds of the citizens, and as hundreds of households were settling down in their resettled makeshift camps at the Bosso Primary school following the destruction of their homesteads by the marauding herdsmen, the worst for now occurred Thursday and Friday, 4th and 5th August, 2016.
The six villages of Kpaidna, Legbe, Lunku, Kopa, Bambe and Dagma came under severe gun attacks. This time around it was at night when visibility was nill.
This time around the “invaders” were not the suspected herdsmen. But the sounds of the guns were alike. Whoever dared to stand in the cross fire had himself to blame.
The villagers jostled out of their beds to the deafening sounds of the firing guns. As they scampered, some were felled by the flying bullets.
Some of the villagers within a spur went for their weapons in their closets to fight back their “invaders” in self defense.
As the exchange of fire lasted, not a few bodies were spewed on the ground and the bush paths. Wailing and shouting pervaded the skyline in the dark night. Minutes afterwards, the place became quiet.
The “invaders” had retreated or so it seemed. A quick look by the village head revealed that the so called “invaders” were kitted in military gears. This was not the same type of invasion which the villagers had imagined it was.
The Village Head in company of some of his subjects reported to the Military Base. Soon, a group of service men led the way back to the scene of the gun battle to confirm who the invaders were.
But it turned out that the bodies of the men in military wears were men of the Special Task Force on vigilance against the marauding herdsmen.
In a fit of fury, the soldiers were angered by what they saw. They also joined in an instant reprisal attacks. The orgy spread to other adjourning villages as the fight continued till the next day.
Youths and men from the villages scampered as the reality dawned on them. But there was nothing they could do in the circumstances of the incidence. They became targets of attacks and arrest.
As the day broke, the news spread. The rumour mill became rife with stories and tales. More servicemen were drafted to the villages in the area.
The damage had already been wrought. As at the time of filing this report, eleven active service men were counted amongst those who were taken out by the weapons of the villagers. Four others were the villagers who were felled by guns of the men in uniform. Fifty seven persons were arrested by the military men for their roles in the attacks.
This is the worst encounter recorded by the military in any of its engagement in the state. The casualty level was high.
The General Officer, Commanding (GOC), 1 Division of the Nigerian Army, Major General Adeniyi Oyebade had by Sunday 8th August rushed to Niger State and to the troubled scene of the ugly encounter with his men to see things for himself and to calm down frayed nerves, particularly within the military circle who had recorded such a huge casualties.
His visit no doubt was crucial and very timely before more hell was let loose. The entire Gbagyi villages around Beji in Bosso area had suddenly became desolate no thanks to the fear of reprisals by the security agencies who were drafted to the villages soon after the attacks.
The GOC not only called for restraint by the military but asked the villagers to return back to their homes assuring that no punitive measures would be taken against the villagers.
He confirmed that the affected soldiers were members of the Special Task Force set up by government to check the excesses of herdsmen that have been waylaying some villages in parts of the state and neighboring states.
He said those found to have stockpiled weapons illegally, would be brought to book just as he confirmed that a cache of assorted weapons were mopped up from the villagers, a fact which corroborates the mission of the Task Force members to the villages.
But the question on the minds of many is, was the wee hours of the night (1:30am) the appropriate time to launch such a mop up? Was it not proper for the Commander of the Task Force to have intimated the Village Head or the Ward Head of their mission that night? Was the shootout avoidable giving the circumstances of the background fear and apprehension by the villagers of a possible attack by herdsmen?
While the carnage remains a regrettable thing, the salient fact that now stares the state is the sudden drift to insecurity to lives and property across the state especially in the last one year.
Niger State has never been this bad. Authorities in the state need to reappraise the security network and apparatuses of the state.
Cases of criminal activities in the state capital especially and council areas across the state are on the rise.
Just on a Sunday evening recently, around 8:00pm, some unknown gunmen attacked and killed two Police men on patrol at the Mandela Junction in the heart of the city and made away with their arms and ammunition.
It is therefore imperative that the administration in the state should reevaluate its security network, increase surveillance and patrol across towns, cities and villages.
The image of the state as a peaceful one is fast amassing a notorious stigma never heard of before.