By Oluwatobi Enitan and Fatunbi Olayinka
MIXED reactions continued following the establishment of the Benue Community Volunteer Guards by Governor Samuel Ortom.
Ortom had, on August 4, 2022, inaugurated the 500-man Community Volunteer Guards in response to attacks by armed Fulani herdsmen in rural communities in the state.
According to Ortom, the volunteer guards would complement the efforts of conventional state security agencies.
The governor, in a separate move, wrote to President Muhammadu Buhari asking permission for the volunteer guards to bear arms.
As a result of allegations and counter-allegations following the development, which pitted the government against the Fulani herdsmen, CIRI spoken to parties involved in the saga.
Ortom, in an exclusive interview with CIRIexplained that the lack of interest shown by the Buhari-led federal government in the killings and displacement of more than two million people in Benue necessitated the establishment of volunteer guards.
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“So in terms of the Fulani attacks on our communities, what we’re trying to do may not necessarily end them, but it will minimize the level of insecurity that we have on our lands, because the conventional security of the State has done its best, but I can tell you that from 2017 alone when we enacted the free grazing ban and enacted provisions for ranching, to date over 120 members of the security personnel have been killed; more than 5,000 people from 2011 to date have been killed,” Ortom said.
The governor also disclosed that the state government secured the conviction of more than 400 Fulani herders and confiscated more than 25,000 cows for non-compliance with the anti-grazing law.
“Four locations have been designated for a public hearing and we have followed due process. It went through the Executive Council of the State, it went through the House of Assembly. The House of Assembly arranged four different venues for the public hearing, it was held and passed and I signed it in 2017. Miyetti Allah came out and said they would never obey this law.
“Most of these people aren’t even Nigerians, they come here and say they won’t obey the laws of the land. If I wasn’t a child of God, if I didn’t believe in legality, if I didn’t have respect for the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I myself would have taken up arms to go and fight.
But National Secretary Miyetti Allah, Saleh Alhassan in an exclusive interview with CIRIsaid the governor’s actions were not helping the country.
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Alhassan said, “All these vigilantes that state governors are creating are not helping the country. What they are trying to show is that there is a lack of trust in the authority of the state to maintain law and order, so you are now starting to create your own little army.
“If the Fulani decide, they will create their militiamen, on which our organization has started working and launched their activities. Do you know how many millions we will have? It’s not thousands, and we have them in the millions. Will it go well for the country?
“When you have non-state actors carrying weapons, all the volunteers that Governor Ortom recruited who profiled them? Who knows their true background? Some may be hardened criminals.
“He auctioned over 90% of the cattle he seized, not necessarily in Benue state. If you say the cattle encroached, it is assumed that they entered agricultural land. But in the case of Governor Ortom and his terrorist squads under the name of Livestock Guards, they seized the cattle of poor innocent herders, small Nigerian herders and no one came to their aid.
“We seize a whole herd belonging to a household to go and sell it at auction. It’s the only thing they have for a living, and you’re taking it completely now. You are the governor of the state and the chief of security; you are supposed to take care of all the citizens in your domain, assuming that even the cattle you seized in Benue state, if they encroach on any land, you have a law that provides for ranching, you refused to allocate the land for ranching.
Benue State Governor’s Special on Security, Paul Hemba, a retired Colonel, said the volunteer guard staff were properly selected and trained.
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“Members of the volunteer guards were selected from the state’s 23 local government areas. After they passed them through the screening process, we further forwarded their names to the various security agencies, especially the police and the DSS. We took them to the camp at the Ikpayongo College of Education and got instructors to train them from the various security agencies including the police, DSS and civil defense.
“They were trained for three weeks. We intend to return them to their communities to assist conventional security agencies in intelligence matters. In terms of numbers, the various security agencies are largely insufficient. They are doing their best, the army, the police and the civil defence, they are doing their best, but they cannot be everywhere.
Benue State Volunteer Community Guard Commander Ayuma Ajobi, a retired army captain, said the creation of the security team was long overdue.
He noted that the volunteer guards would abide by their rules of engagement.
According to him, the formation was not created to conduct conventional warfare.
“We were not trained to fight conventional warfare, but to reduce civil unrest, civil unrest and to defend our various communities. So you can see the difference,” Ajobi said.
Anene Sewuese Catherine, Police Public Relations Officer, Benue State Police Command, declined to speak about the volunteer community guards when the ICIRs reporters called his office.
But she highlighted the efforts made by the police to maintain law and order in all parts of the state.
She said: “In the axis of Sankara, the collective name of Logo, Katsina-Ala and Wukum local government, we used to have banditry there, but as we speak we have a serious deployment of officers alongside other sister agencies. A massive deployment put an end to bandit activity in the area. So it’s relatively quiet. Within the metropolis, Makurdi, Gboko, Otupko, the neighborhood is quiet; the abduction and cult issues have been brought under control.
CIRI asked residents of Benue in Makurdi what they thought of the community volunteer guards.
Benjamin Ankwa, an indigenous man, said the new outfit will help restore peace in some communities.
“I love what the Governor has done with the safety equipment. The main objective of the team is to ensure that the lives of the people of Benue and their safety are protected, and I want to believe that they will help bring peace to Benue State,” he said.Another Benue indigenous, Zenedesha Jacob Terungwa, said he expects the security team to tackle all forms of criminal activity in the communities.
Also speaking, Ade Mary, a resident, said the outfit would complement police and military efforts to secure the state.