It is exactly 16 years ago now after the bustling town of Zaki Biam, in a geographical area known as the Sankera axis of Benue State had a sour taste of Nigeria’s military might when a detachment of the Nigerian Army allegedly invaded the town in a reprisal attack for the alleged cold blooded murder of 19 soldiers sent to restore peace in the town following an ethnic violence in the area.
That attack could best be described as an ethnic cleansing considering the magnitude of the carnage that trailed the attack and the global outrage that greeted the army operation. In that operation, the entire Sankera axis was cordoned off by soldiers with an armada of armoured tanks that were given air cover by helicopter gunboats.
As that continued, the military juggernaut then, proceeded to unleash systematic terror on unarmed civilians, a type that has not been heard of or seen in Nigerian history.
At the end of that military action, no fewer than 300 persons including women, children, young and old were massacred with many of the women violated in that gory expedition.
Many properties were also destroyed at the end of it all and prominent among the victims of the attack was a former ECOMOG Leader and Chief of Army Staff, General Victor Malu, whose houses were burnt and relations killed in the invasion. Same was the fate of second Republic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Benjamin Chaha and lots of other prominent indigenes of the area.
Though Zaki Biam keeps ringing a bell when the tale of the invasion and massacre is mentioned, suffice it to state here that many other towns and communities in the Sankera axis were equally violated in a manner never witnessed in the country after the Nigerian civil war.
Some of the communities invaded and destroyed included Vaase, Gbeji and Ayilamo where up till now, the people are still leaking their wounds and counting their losses just as nothing tangible has been done by the Federal Government to bring succour to the devastated people.
While communities in the Sankera axis still ponder over that gruesome invasion, the May 20, 2017 attack appears to have opened the scars of the wounds being nursed following the carnage inflicted on the people as a result of the army invasion. But ironically, while the first attack drew soldiers from the Yola military base, the fresh one appears to be orchestrated by the enemies within.
On this fateful day, the weather was unfriendly, a sunny day indeed and all traders got up as usual, and were ready for another business of the day.
To some of the traders, the day started on a sound footing with customers pouring into their shops like a deluge of water oozing from a rock with high velocity.
But what began with beams of smiles, later metamorphosed into sad tales about 2pm as unidentified gunmen numbering more than 30, made incursions into the commercial nerve centre of Ukum Local Government Area shooting sporadically at traders and passers- by killing and wounding many people.
At that moment, several people started running helter-skelter leaving their wares at the mercy of the invaders who did not only set them ablaze, but also burnt down over 150 houses including a petrol filing station.
Frankly speaking, the fierce attack was like a nightmare as hordes of residents deserted the area in droves, carrying goods either on their heads or on ramshackle vehicles to escape from the scene of the attack.
Sporadic shootings started renting the air about 2pm when the invaders stormed the town on 12 Bajaj motorcycles and four Toyota corolla cars popularly called ‘Dog Nyash’ and first entered the popular international yam market and opened fire on the helpless traders including food vendors with many of them reportedly killed.
A student who registered for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, (UTME) conducted by the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, (JAMB), was also felled by the bullets of the killers. Children between the ages of four and 10 were also not spared in the operation which lasted for over two hours. By the time the reign of terror had ended, most streets in the area were filled with the corpses of the victims.
The corpses were taken to the morgue at the Saint Anthony’s Hospital, the General Hospital as well as NKST Hospital all in Zaki- Biam, while those injured were taken to the Light of Grace Hospital and Maternity.
The reason for the attack could not be ascertained immediately but insiders linked it to alleged leadership tussle and prolonged dominance and control of the market by some power brokers.
The sentiment also assumed some political dimensions as some Ukum locals felt they were being shortchanged by their immediate neighbours. One notable fact is that Ukum Local Government is the territory of one notorious wanted armed militant leader identified as ‘Gana’ whom the Governor Samuel Ortom’s administration granted amnesty. The militant leader and his gang surrendered over 84 raffles to the state government.
The government appointed him to head the collection of revenue from farm produce on its behalf, but later suspected of involvement in other criminal activities such as kidnapping, cow rustling and killing of innocent people including the Governor’s Senior Special Assistant on Special Security, Mr. Denen Igbana in Tionsha, a suburb village within Makurdi metropolis.
Ortom, in an interview with journalists in Zaki-Biam during a visit to assess the level of devastation, blamed the latest attack on Gana and his gang.
“Our suspicion is clear that this act is perpetrated by Gana and his group who constitute themselves in to a terror group and have been terrorising the people”, said the governor.
The governor, who was conducted round two hospitals by the Sole Administrator of the local government area, expressed shock over the broad day attack.
He directed that some victims whose cases were very critical be moved to the Benue State University Teaching Hospital for continuation of treatment with a promise to bankroll their hospital bills, and promised to assist families of those who lost their loved ones to bury them. Our correspondent who visited some of the hospitals housing the survivors including Saint Anthony’s Hospital and the Light of Grace Hospital and Maternity all in Zaki-Biam among others had stories to tell as most of them recount their ordeals: I was almost burnt – Godwin Mrs. Mercy Godwin, a housewife and mother of four said she was in her shop where she sells pounded yam when she was attacked.
“I was in my shop and around 2 o’clock, three hefty and fierce-looking young men dressed in military uniforms, accosted me demanding I should surrender the whole money I sold for the day to them. I refused to comply, then one of them corked his riffle to shoot me but ended up injuring me on the hand.
They further inquired to know if I were Tiv by tribe, but I told them I am not, but actually I am a Tiv woman. I did that to save my life. They spoke English with me throughout.
The next thing they did was they locked me and some women in my shop, brought fuel to burn us inside, but one of them intervened and stopped the idea. As I speak with you, they destroyed everything I have in my shop in Zaki-Biam here. That is what happened to me and I thank God Almighty for saving me in the hands of the killer group.
I have only one cloth left –Aondohemba
Mrs. Hembafan Aondohemba, a mother of three also narrated her ordeal to our correspondent. According to her, when she heard the sporadic shooting, she asked what was happening and after been informed she started running home for her dear life when the invaders spotted her and fired on her thigh. “I am a food vendor at the Zaki-Biam Market.
So, when I heard that some hoodlums have invaded the town and were killing people, I started running home. “And because they were at every nook and cranny of the town, they saw me as I was running and aimed their riffle at me and shot me on my leg.
“As if that was not enough, they proceeded to my house and set it ablaze. My husband had travelled for a business trip when the incident occurred and because I had no power to struggle and remove some of my belongings, everything we have was consumed in the inferno.
“See the clothes I am wearing on my hospital bed, this is all I have for now. I am appealing to the Governor of Benue State and other philanthropic individuals to come to the aids of the victims.”
Killers came on motorcycles –Lyamhuan
Mr. Ayem Lyamhuan is a popular commercial motorcyclist in Zaki-Biam town who was also not spared. “I carried a passenger and dropped at his residence and on my way back, I was told gunmen in army attires are shooting and killing innocent people anyhow. “I rode past two of them, one was at the front and he was the one that shot me at thigh of my left leg.
They were killing both women, children and even older people anyone their eyes catch, they will kill or injure badly. “My major source of livelihood is the okada which I do to feed my family and train the children most of which are in school. Now I am lying in bed here in the hospital and I am wondering how they would be coping with life.
“Some of the killers were moving on Bajaj motorcycles while others were walking and carrying out the heinous act. I thank governor Ortom for his visit to see things for himself and appeal to him to assist us for the treatment because we alone cannot be able to meet the charges here.”
Vital organs of some of the victims affected, says doctor
Our correspondent also spoke with the Chief Medical Doctor of the Light of Grace Hospital and Maternity, Dr. Chukwunonso Bartholomew, who confirmed at the time of visit that seven persons including women and children who sustained terrible injuries were brought to the hospital for treatment. “All the ones (patients) brought here are still alive we are to do the initial resuscitation.
What we are doing now is to transfer them to specialist hospitals where their cases would be adequately handled. As you can see with some of them, very vital organs were affected”.
Herdsmen not responsible for the attack –Makama
The Benue State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Bashir Makama, has exonerated marauding Fulani herdsmen from the attack on Zaki-Biam saying it is more of communal.He said: “Well, investigation has just commenced and we were all with you in the hospital, you saw it yourselves. Seventeen deaths were recorded and about 11 injured persons including three children.
“And of course just like I said, this is not the Fulani herdsmen kind of crisis but this is more of communal. And again, I don’t see it as communal because nothing is in contest but I see it as common criminal who have come to create terror in the minds of people in this place and we are going to follow them.”
When asked if Gana was involved in the attack, he added: “Information is trickling in actually because even at the time of this incident, somebody mentioned his name that he had arrived and you know, Gana is just a common criminal that everybody knows his antecedents.”
Police not enough to secure Zaki-Biam, says Ortom
Meanwhile, the governor has cried out that security operatives especially the police are not enough to provide security to residents of Zaki-Biam. He said, “Our suspicion is clear that this act is perpetrated by Gana and his group who constitute themselves into a terror group and have been terrorising the people.
“This is not the first time, he has been killing. He killed civilian JTF, he killed vigilante group members, killed traditional rulers, killed his uncles, and has been killing all over the place. “Just last week, about eight people were killed in Ayati, same in Ukum local government and the latest being the attack on a market in Zaki-Biam.
It’s a shame and I want to take it up with the communities from Sankera. I am going to invite them to a meeting and the traditional rulers who are the custodians of the land I will give them an ultimatum to produce him (Gana) because he is still residing in Gbishe area specifically in Katsina-Ala local government area. Security should be the responsibility of all, not just security agencies or the government it should be all of us working together to achieve it.
The police are not enough to provide security and at the same time do intelligence gathering and provide information. The people must be willing to do it. You can imagine the consequences of living with a terrorist like Gana.
We are going to hold a Security Council meeting where more decisive actions would be taken based on professional advice that will be given to us.” Ortom assured the people that security would be beefed up in the area to avoid a recurrence.