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Ghost Towns of Benue: Survivors Share their Experiences

Once once-thriving Christian communities of Ugbobi, and Ikobi situated in Apa county are deserted after attacks. The survivors talk to Truth Nigeria.
Once once-thriving Christian communities of Ugbobi, and Ikobi situated in Apa county are deserted after attacks. The survivors talk to Truth Nigeria.

By Steven Kefas

(Makurdi) Amid the lush vegetation and fertile farmlands of Benue State, an eerie silence has descended upon once-thriving Christian communities of Ugbobi, and Ikobi situated in Apa county, 55 miles south of Makurdi, the state capital. The incessant attacks by heavily armed Fulani militants have turned once vibrant Benue communities into desolate ghost towns, their residents forced to flee in terror or pay with their lives, according to Maxwell Oloche, a respected community leader in Ugbobi. Residents of some affected communities shared their experiences with Truth Nigeria on April 4, 2024.

From Ugbobi to Ikobi, the story is the same– streets that once bustled with activity now lie abandoned, homes standing empty like haunting sentinels. Fields that should be verdant with crops stand barren and neglected. The echoes of children’s laughter have been replaced by the ominous stillness that accompanies the absence of human life.

“Our presence here is because we don’t know how to escape,” says Ande Ochigbo, a resident of Ikobi, his voice subdued with resignation. Ikobi, a Christian-farming community, two years ago exported its bountiful harvests across the region. Today, it has been reduced to a mere shadow of its former self, with more than 10,000 people displaced in the county by the relentless tide of violence.

The economic consequences of these attacks are devastating, both in the short- and long term.  The backbone of Benue’s economy has been crippled, leaving countless families without a source of income or sustenance. The once-thriving markets that served as hubs of trade and commerce now stand empty, their stalls abandoned by vendors who have fled for their lives.

“The situation in my community is heartbreaking, barbaric and very pitiable. Hunger is the order of the day, since the Fulani herdsmen have driven us from our farm and have eaten all our farm produce” said Maxwell Oloche, a well-respected community leader in Ikobi.

“They roam almost freely and attack any community they want to,” laments a shopkeeper, Samuel Oche in Ikobi, as rain began to fall on the lush grassland, his words carrying the weight of fear and uncertainty that has become a constant companion in this embattled region.

Deserted houses in Ugbobi community, Apa county. Photo credit: Steven Kefas
Deserted houses in Ugbobi community, Apa county. Photo credit: Steven Kefas

In the long term, the impact on Nigeria’s food production could be catastrophic. Benue, often has been referred to as the “Food Basket of the Nation.” With fertile lands lying fallow in more than half of the state and its farmers displaced, the ripple effects could be felt nationwide, exacerbating food shortages and driving up prices.

The root of the crisis in Benue can be traced back to the contentious issue of open grazing and the state’s efforts to regulate the practice. In 2017, then-Governor Samuel Ortom signed into law the “Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law,” a move aimed at curbing the long-standing conflicts between herdsmen and farmers over land use. 

The law, which banned the practice of open grazing and prescribed stiff penalties for violators, was met with fierce resistance from the Fulani herdsmen community including their political elites in high places. Tragically, Ortom himself narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, believed to be a reprisal for his stance on the issue. 

Despite the law’s noble intentions, the Fulani militants have continued to flout its provisions, engaging in a systematic campaign of violence and territorial expansion. Their tactics are as brazen as they are brutal – entire villages are razed, their occupants massacred or driven into the surrounding forests, leaving the land ripe for the militants’ herds to graze unimpeded.

“They can attack any part of the Local Government Area,” warns a local vigilante commander, who gave his name as Ape Michael, his words carrying the weight of grim experience. Indeed, the attacks have become so widespread and indiscriminate that even the presence of security forces offers little deterrence.

“When Gov. Ortom was in office, the anti-open grazing law was very effective. You would hardly see cattle grazing openly, but today as you can see, they go about grazing on farms and abandoned communities” the commander said in a cell phone interview with TruthNigeria.

For those who have managed to escape the onslaught, life in the displacement camps is a daily struggle against hunger, disease, and the psychological trauma inflicted by the atrocities they have witnessed. Yet, even in these bleak surroundings, the indomitable spirit of the people shines through.

“We will not be cowed,” declares Pastor Agbo Sunday, an evangelical pastor in Ikobi, his eyes burning with defiance. “Our land is our birthright, we don’t have any other land anywhere,” Pastor Sunday said.

As the crisis deepens and the death toll mounts, the international community has begun to take notice. Human rights organizations have sounded the alarm, decrying the escalating violence and calling for urgent intervention to stem the tide of displacement and protect vulnerable civilians. 

However, for many in Benue, the response from the federal government has been woefully inadequate, leaving them feeling abandoned and betrayed by the very institutions sworn to safeguard their well-being.

“Our cries for help have fallen on deaf ears,” laments a local chief, Ameh Erastus in Ikobi. “We have been left to fend for ourselves against an enemy that grows more emboldened with each passing day.”

As the lush landscapes of Benue State become increasingly marred by the scars of conflict, the resilience of its people remains unbroken. Though they have lost their homes and livelihoods, their determination to reclaim their ancestral lands burns brightly, a beacon of hope amid the darkness that threatens to engulf their beloved state.

For now, the ghost towns of Benue stand as haunting reminders of the human toll exacted by this protracted crisis. But with each passing day, the resolve of its people grows stronger, fuelled by the belief that justice and peace must ultimately prevail over the forces of violence and oppression.

Steven Kefas is a conflict reporter covering the Middle Belt region of Nigeria

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