By Patrick Egwu…
In every conflict, people are always at the heart of it – from those who were killed, relatives of the deceased and chilling stories of survivors. Sadly, often times, the voices of these people are hardly heard as the power play by politicians always dominates discourse with a show of interests. On April 25, 2016, at exactly 6 am, the agrarian community of Nimbo, in Uzo-uwani LGA of Enugu state was brutally attacked by a group of armed semi-nomadic cattle herders suspected to be from the Fulani ethnic group. The villagers were butchered with the herdsmen’s bullets and machetes. In the end, 11 people were killed and more than 100 injured. The community never remained the same again. In this story, Investigative Journalist, Patrick Egwu travelled to Nimbo community to tell the story behind the story of the victims and their endless wait for an elusive justice over the massacre.
Under a shady cashew tree, Celina Ezugwu sits on a plastic arm chair. She bends down to pick up one of the green leaves that had just fallen from the tree. She squeezes it with both hands and suddenly throws it away, turning her face to where her daughter, Ada, 12, who was washing dishes in a big bowl in front of their four bed room bungalow was.
“We were here on that day when they came and told us that the herdsmen were coming,” she said, her face still where her daughter was. “Immediately, we left our house, started running before they met my husband on the road while he was running and killed him with machete. They left us and killed him in our presence,” she said her voice mumbling.
On April 25, 2016, Celina and her husband, Donatus were getting prepared for the farm when a group of herdsmen – about 50, unprovoked, invaded Nimbo– a sleepy agrarian community in Enugu state and embarked on a killing spree. Seven villages in Nimbo – Nimbo Ngwoko, Ugwuijoro, Ekwuru, Ebor, Enugu Nimbo, Umuome and Ugwuachara were affected in the attacks with houses, vehicles, properties and a church staff quarters razed down.
The invaders attacked at 6 am – well prepared, with guns, machete and clubs. The attack left 11 people dead with more than 100 others injured with gun wounds and machete cuts on all parts of their body. The community bled.
“They killed others too especially our relatives living over there,” she said gesturing to a conspicuous house, lying few meters away from theirs. “Two people were killed there on that day,” she told Ripples Nigeria mentioning their names almost immediately.
Two years after, fear of the herdsmen still remain in the community as reports of them coming back had spread and caused panic on different occasions. “They still come to drive us out of the farm,” Blessing, 24, one of Celina’s older daughters who was watching the conversation said when asked if the herdsmen had come ever since. “We don’t go to our main farm again because they are there. We stay at the one closer to home,” she continued as rays of sunlight reflect on her broad face.
Since the attacks happened, 73-year old Celina, a mother of 8 children – five girls and three boys, sent four of them to live with relatives as she could no longer shoulder the responsibilities.
“Relatives took some to live and train them, one is an apprentice while four are staying with me. Even the one who has finished learning a trade, there is no money to start his own and become a better person in life. We are suffering because of the herdsmen,” she said, adjusting a red cross which was dangling on her chest.
“I heard him shout and scream in pains that day he was attacked,” said Regina, Donatus’ first wife who had just returned from the farm, pushing a wheel barrow with firewood inside. “He was old and weak and we ran as fast as we could in different directions because they came in their numbers,” she said collecting a cup of water which Ada had given her.
‘They asked me to run and never look back’
Holding a sieve made of bamboo sticks, Esther Ugwo separates the nuts of palm kernel from the oily water. She gathered the nuts and chaff and heaped them in a basket close to her. She is producing oil palm in front of her compound as little children chatter in the background and singing school rhymes.
“Keep your voices down or move to the other side,” Ugwo said pointing to a far distance to the children where they could play.
Picking up a metal bucket by her side, she rinses her hands and sat on an armless metal chair in front of her. “They came on Monday in the morning around 6 am,” she recalls. “The youths rang a bell that the herdsmen have come to attack us. I was very scared and we started running out of the house to safety. We didn’t know where to go at that moment,” she told Ripples Nigeria.
According to Ugwo, she ran into the armed invading herdsmen while she was running to safety. At first, she wanted to say her last prayers, thinking they would kill her, but it never happened. Instead, they told her to run that they came for the men.
“I met them on the way and they told me to turn around and start running that they did not come for women but for men. I was very shocked and scared. I turned and ran with the speed of light,” she said, interlocking her two hands and placing them on her laps.
Ugwo said they entered every room, searching for people to kill. And whenever they meet anyone, the person is not spared. “When they left where I was, they went straight to our neighbour’s house and he was inside with the doors locked. They broke it down, brought him out and butchered him like a cow. They killed about 15 of us,” she said, explaining the graphic scene she had seen.
Not satisfied with the havoc already caused in the community, the herdsmen still destroyed their farms and threatened them if anyone shows resistance. “We are living in fear and starving because they still go to our farms and their cows eat up our crops,” she told Ripples Nigeria.
One of Nnedi Agu’s relative was not so lucky. When they heard that the herdsmen were coming, they started running to safety and she left her husband on the way because he was old. They were almost getting to the main road where they could get help when the herders caught up with him and killed him with machetes.
“We were attacked without knowing what we did,” said Christian Nwodi, the President General of Nimbo community. “We didn’t have any quarrel with them (herdsmen) or touch any of their cows. We were living peacefully before this. Now they have instilled daily fear in us. We sleep with one eye closed and the other open. Our community has never remained the same after the attacks,” Nwodi said.
Living with our scars
When Esther Ayogu’s relative, Patrick Eze, 27, completed his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Jigawa State, he had high hopes of getting a job and helping his family and little siblings. Immediately after completing the year-long national assignment, he returned home to meet his parents and loved ones whom he had left for a long time. Barely one month after returning, the herdsmen struck. He was caught in the field of blood, butchered and left to die. However, he survived, but with permanent scars to all parts of his body.
“Patrick’s father and my mother are from the same family. I was there when it happened. It was early in the morning that they came,” said Ayogu who had come to buy liquid soap at the local market store in the community. “I was at the church to pray that morning. When we saw people running to different directions, we joined them to save our lives. The screams and cries everywhere were deafening,” she said.
When people were running to safety, Patrick was with them and he escaped. But something else happened. After Patrick had ran to safety, he remembered he had left his books and other stuff he came back from the NYSC with. So he decided to take a deadly risk to go back and get them. He never knew what was lying in wait for him on the way. Few meters from his house, he met the herdsmen who were still on the killing spree.
They caught up with him and used their machete to feast on him like a butcher would. Thinking he was already dead, they left him to bleed out.
“But he didn’t die like they thought,” Ayogu said, leaning close to a metal pole in front of the market square. “He later survived in the hospital. They met him on the way when he was going to pick his books and brutally attacked him. It’s just the will of God that it happened that way,” she told Ripples Nigeria.
“If you see him now, all parts of his body are scars. His fingers were chopped off in the process. He can’t use it for anything again. The only thing left for him is that he is just breathing. He is the only one who survived at that spot,” she said.
She described him as easy going. “He is a quiet boy and very intelligent. You can’t see him looking for trouble like others.”
Eze, a graduate of Public Administration from Enugu State University of Science and Technology (ESUT), received about 19 machete cuts and was rushed to Bishop Shanahan hospital and later referred to the intensive care unit of the Federal Orthopedic Hospital, Enugu where doctors revived him after undergoing more than six surgical procedures. However, he doesn’t make use of his fingers again which were chopped off by the marauding herders.
Like Patrick, Innocent Ogbobe lives with a permanent scar which the herdsmen inflicted on him. His left hand was chopped off with a machete by the invading herdsmen. Since then, he has lost part of his being.
“He has lost his senses since that thing (attack) happened,” Ayogu who knows Ogbobe and his family said. “They chopped off his hand during the attack. He survived through miracles,” she said. “Now, he moves aimlessly from one place to the other in the community, laughing at no one and picking dirt.”
“They killed our people for nothing,” said Augustine Akor, 55, who is still haunted by the bitter memories of the killings. “I was there when it happened. They killed my relatives and neighbours at Ugwuachara. Since then we have been living in fear thinking they might come today or tomorrow,” Akor told Ripples Nigeria.
Sometimes, he wished the attacks never happened. “I don’t like remembering this or talking about it. I always feel sad. It still seems like a dream to me,” he said moving away from where this reporter was standing.
Battling famine and poverty
The people of Nimbo community and neighbouring villages are predominantly farmers engaging in the cultivation of maize, cassava, pepper, garden egg and rice among others. The attacks of April 25, 2016 came with dire consequences on the community. Their economic activities which had been flourishing before now came crashing. Output in farm produce has dropped significantly.
Most of the farmers no longer go to farm because they are still living in fear that the herdsmen might attack again. Those who summoned courage to go to the farm leave as early as 4-5 pm. Even while going, they go in a group and come back same way. Their normal lives have been distorted – a wave of fear still hovers around them. One month ago, reports filtered in that the herdsmen were coming into the community. They all fled. It turned out to be a false alarm.
The little profit they make from selling their produce to traders who come to the town from different parts of the state to buy from them in order to feed their families has been affected negatively.
“It has not been smooth. Ther has not been another bloody attack but they are still destroying our farms and produce, said Nwodi. “Since then our people have left our main farm where we have a boundary with Kogi state to come down to the village and start cultivating here because they are scared.”
According to Nwodi, the main farm which is located along their border with Kogi is the most fertile among other farm lands. But since the attacks and frequent sighting of the herdsmen and their cows, they have all relocated to the farms at home for fear of another attack.
“That is our major farm and as a result we have been dying of famine because the soil around the villages is not as fertile as that of the main farm,” he told Ripples Nigeria.
“We are starving because we no longer cultivate the way we used to,” said Celina. “If we are in the farm and see them, we leave everything and start running. They come with their cows to eat our crops. We don’t want them here again,” she said looking distraught.
Before now, Celina said she takes her produce to the market to sell and buy things for the family. “I cultivate cassava and sell in the market but I don’t do that again. I want them (government) to help us end this so we don’t die of hunger,” she said.
“They will leave the grass in the open field and move straight to your farm to eat and destroy what you cultivated,” said Obioma Ugwuja who recently sighted the herdsmen in her farm. “If you see them and say anything, they will rape you, but if you are a man, they will kill you immediately, she lamented.
“We have moved back to our home farms to cultivate. We don’t know what to do again and we can’t fight them,” she stated, standing up almost immediately.
Waiting for compensation
Promises of compensation were made to the community after the attacks. The staff quarters of Christ Holy Church, one of the churches in the community was razed down alongside cars, motorcycles and other properties and personal belongings. Other houses were affected too with attendant looting. These promises, however, never came.
Ayogu who attends the church and was there for early morning service when the invading herders came, said that nothing was given to them to rebuild the church building that was destroyed.
“We started the new building over there by ourselves,” she said pointing to the direction where the new building is situated. “Our headquarters in Onitsha gave us some money, other good Samaritans also gave us money and we added that to the one we have and started the building.”
Ayogu said she lost all her personal belongings in the church quarters as she only managed to escape with her life and clothes she was putting on that day.
“All my clothes, shoes, and other properties were inside there when they came. And you know I cannot carry them while running, so I left them and everything was destroyed and burnt down,” she said.
“They have not given us anything. Nothing at all,” said Benjamin Ngana whose Toyota bus which he uses for commercial transportation service was burnt by the invading herders.
He was lying down on a brown raffia mat under a provision store in the community. Bare-chested, he places both hands on his knees to stand up. He picks his shirt from the ground and hangs it around his shoulders. “If they gave anything and some people cornered it, I don’t know. But I didn’t receive anything,” Ngana said looking furious.
“No compensation yet of any sort from the government. Nothing like that happened,” said Nwodi. “We are still expecting them to do something. They need to pay compensation to the victims as they promised because they have children and can no longer send them to school or feed well because of the herdsmen. Those whose houses and properties were destroyed should be compensated to start life afresh,” he said.
For some of the widows who lost their husbands, Nwodi said “Some of the widows have moved out of the community because they have no one to take care of them and their children.”
After the herdsmen, came Malaysian Boys
The attacks by the herdsmen left the community on edge – vulnerable to future attacks. To avert this, a neighbourhood security watch was set up by the community and other stakeholders to protect them against any invasion. The watchmen were armed. Some months after they were set up, they were reported to have a clash with herdsmen they sighted close to the community. They drove them away and kept guard and the herders never came back, at least temporarily.
From keeping the community protected and safe from harm, the group degenerated and changed course. They no longer became a neighbourhood security watch but notoriously referred to themselves as “Malaysian Boys” and their base changed from the security post, to a forest they nicknamed “Malaysian Forest”. They became the new herdsmen that were known in the community as they started terrorizing and robbing members of the community. It didn’t end there. Anyone who doesn’t agree to their philosophy or opposed them is reportedly killed.
The gang and their criminal activities became widely known after they kidnapped and collected ransom before killing the head of security in Uzo-Uwani council area, Ejiofor Enechi and his cousin, Emmanuel Okejah last year. Since then, more killings, abductions, extortion and threat to life have been going on in the community. In an ironic fashion, the neighbourhood watch turned Malaysian Boys, reportedly disguised as Fulani herdsmen to kidnap residents, visitors and other influential members of the community for ransom. They in turn, were said to have blamed the acts on the herders.
“They were recruited as neighbourhood watch members so it was from there that they changed because they left the purpose of forming them to doing other bad things. They went astray,” Nwodi said.
Residents in the community were all afraid to say anything about the group. When Ripples Nigeria approached them for comment, they declined to say anything. And those who summoned the courage to do so, pleaded that their identity be kept hidden.
“They suddenly changed and became our nightmare,” said a teacher at the community secondary school in the community who begged for anonymity for fear of reprisal attack from the group. “Last two weeks, people started running when they heard that the Malaysian Boys were coming. And what they do is that they go about extorting people in the community, looting property and even razing down houses.”
“Please don’t ask me about this again. I won’t tell you anything. In fact, I don’t know, a middle-aged man said when the word “Malaysian Boys” was mentioned to him.
The Enugu state police command had declared members of the gang wanted and termed their activities criminal and unlawful. Manhunt for the members began almost immediately.
“The efforts we are making is not something we will relay out to the public in order not to jeopardize our operation,” said Enugu police spokesman, Ebere Amarizu when asked to comment on the gang. “But be rest assured that we are doing something because if I tell you what we intend doing in that regard or our future plans, those people (Malaysian Boys) will find out and they will take other steps to scuttle our efforts. But we are doing something, we have done something and we are still doing something,” he said.
On their movements, he said “Their movements have been restricted and we have developed a network that will ensure that they will be picked up anytime they are sighted but I cannot give you details of that now. We have measures on ground already because we are monitoring them because they don’t live in town but inside the bushes where they have their operational base. So we need to synergize so we can be able to get them one after the other.”
However, Nwodi said the gang recently surrendered to the leadership of the local government in the area. “They surrendered themselves to the chairman of the local government around January. The governor came and directed the chairman to set up a committee that will look into their grievances and why they were disturbing the people,” he said.
On what their grievances are, “It is an aftermath of the herdsmen attacks because initially they were fighting them (herdsmen) off from the community after that thing happened. So they felt they were not compensated as those who drove out the herdsmen, so they picked up arms and turned against the community. Now everything regarding them has calmed down while peace talks are on,” he said.
Instead of protecting them, security officials extort them
Soon after the attacks in 2016, and with the visit of the state governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi and other notable individuals to the community, calls for stronger security measures became loud. Even the federal government became involved and was subsequently dragged for actions.
Ugwuanyi had claimed that he got security intelligence that some herdsmen were planning to attack the state days before the real attack happened and promptly summoned an emergency security meeting where he briefed chiefs on the impending danger. But nothing happened.
The commissioner of police in the state at that time, Ekechukwu Nwodibo was later redeployed over the attacks. While testifying before a panel probing the killings last year, he admitted that the got intelligence reports that the herdsmen would be attacking the community and also deployed special officers to the area despite the fact that the attacks later happened. He however denied that the police abdicated their responsibilities of protecting citizens in the area.
To avert future attacks, the governor announced plans to deploy more security personnel, build a police post and a barracks in the community to ensure maximum security of lives and property.
“The governor deployed soldiers to the community since three months now to avert future occurrence. As far as the soldiers and police are here, it is enough measure because I don’t think there is another way to ensure security of a people if not by deploying troops and security forces,” Nwodi said.
Two years after, construction of the structures, though at a slow pace, is still ongoing. Currently at the lintel level, Ripples Nigeria observed work in progress at the site which is about 5 kilometers from the village where the attacks happened. Workers were busy carrying out one task or the other. The expected time of completion of the project could be ascertained as Ripples Nigeria could not access the contractor to speak with him.
“They are very slow. Too slow,” said Paul Ugwu an indigene of the community who is obviously furious with the slow pace at which the project is moving. “That building should have been ready by now and security team having their operational base there. What is the big deal in putting up such a small project for two years now?’’ he queried.
When our correspondent was on his way to the community for the investigation, he met five security posts on the way – a sign that security has been beefed up and is steady in the community. Four out of the five were police posts, with well-armed officers in their pick-up trucks and the other one, a military check point with two soldiers.
However, investigations by this reporter showed that instead of embarking on patrols and routine checks especially in the forests sharing boundary with Kogi and the community where the herdsmen had come from, the security officers were fixed at their security posts, extorting money from residents of the community, visitors and local traders returning from the market.
While going to the community, at each of the five security posts, our reporter’s cab driver would be asked to pull over by the security personnel so he could “settle” them. At the third check point, the cab driver protested that he had given some money at the last check point, but the officers would refuse, demanding that he (the driver) brings money for them.
“We are not the same people. You have given them and so you will give us our own,” one of the officers said during the ensuing argument.
At a point, the driver told the officers that he does not have change but only N1000. “Bring it, I have change,” one of the officers quipped. The same exchange of money from one security check point to the other happened while we were leaving the community.
“Yes, that is what they do, whenever you are passing there whether with a bus, car or motorcycle, they will stop you to collect money without committing any offence. Is that what they sent them to do? Obinna queried when asked if he has been a victim of the extortion.
Justice served or denied?
Two years after the attacks, the victims are yet to receive justice and adequate compensation for the crimes committed against them despite the arrest of the suspects by the police. On May 25, 2016 exactly one month after the massacre, the police Force headquarters under the leadership of the former Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase paraded five suspects behind the attacks. The suspects; Mohammed Zurai, Ciroma Musa, Saleh Adamu, Suleiman Laute and Haruna Laute were paraded in Abuja.
Arase, at a briefing at that time, said that there is an overwhelming evidence to arraign the suspects in court as a video clip of the gruesome killings was found in the phone of one of the suspects (Mohammed Zurai).
A human rights lawyer, Barr Olu Omotayo and president of the Civil Rights Realization and Advancement Network (CRRAN) has been at the forefront in filing suits and calling on the Attorney General (AG) of the State to call for the case file of the suspects and commence process to initiate criminal trial of those arrested.
“I believe that two years after, justice has not been done to the victims of the massacre,” Omotayo told Ripples Nigeria. “Last year, we filed a suit at the state high court in order to compel the AG to either charge them (suspects) or release them. But the state government was shying away from their responsibilities,” he said.
First, Omotayo said he filed a motion for the suspects to be brought to Enugu to face trial for the crimes they committed in the state. But the AG instead of bringing down the suspects to Enugu, filed a counter suit for them (suspects) to be tried in Kogi state, arguing that it was there that they gathered and planned the attacks before coming down to Nimbo to unleash the mayhem.
In his wisdom, however, Justice H. A Olusiyi declined jurisdiction and ruled that the suspects cannot be brought to Kogi to face trial, because the crimes were committed in another state (Enugu) and not Kogi.
After much pressure, suits and petitions, the suspects were later brought down from Abuja to the state and were subsequently arraigned them before an Enugu Chief Magistrate’s court on March 21, 2017 on a two count charge of conspiracy and murder in Charge No. MES/69C/2017. No plea was taken from the accused as the court presided over by Justice Anthony Eze remanded them in Enugu prison and ordered that the case file be transferred to the office of the Attorney General for necessary action towards their arraignment at the High Court.
However, Omotayo said the trial at the Magistrate Court and remand in prison without further action, won’t guarantee justice to the victims until the suspects are charged before a High Court which has jurisdiction to preside over such matter.
“They brought the accused person from Abuja and arraigned them before a Magistrate who later remanded them. But they are being remanded at the Magistrate Court on Holden charge and not that they have been charged for the offenses of murder, arson, among others that they committed,” he said.
The purpose of bringing them to Enugu according to Omotayo, “Is not just to keep them in Holden charge at Enugu prison. The right thing is to still push the AG to charge them at the High Court which he has not done. It is not done anywhere in the world where government does not have respect for the lives of its people. The AG has not told us why the suspects are kept in Enugu prison without being charged because the police have done their own part by arresting them.
He said until they are arraigned before a High Court which has the jurisdiction to try cases of murder and conspiracy, justice is still elusive for the victims of the massacre. He insisted that the Magistrate Court transferred their (suspects) case file to the AG for him to file an information by looking at the police evidence and charge the suspects before a High Court. But that never happened.
Omotayo expressed fear that the continuous stay of the suspects on remand in prison without arraigning them in a high court would make it easy for them to be granted bail. “The reason for the suit was to compel them to arraign the suspects. But it is wrong to arraign them at the Magistrate Court. The proper place for arraignment should have been the High Court because it is only there that cases could be tried. One day, a powerful individual might stand up and go and file for a bail application for them to be released. If this happens, then that is the end of justice for the victims,” said Omotayo expressing disappointment.
However, a recent court sitting regarding the case came up at the Nsukka High Court which also has jurisdiction to hear the case. The prosecutor, Gabriel Offordile Okafor said the trial of the suspects was stalled because they did not appear in court.
“The comptroller has consistently refused to produce the suspects in court including last Monday and we don’t know why. So the matter could not go on. He wants the case to be transferred to Enugu and wrote to the chief judge, Justice Anthony Onovo but it was declined because there was no reason for that and the witnesses cannot be travelling from here to Enugu just to present evidence,” he said.
Okafor said the court in Nsukka has made an order for the comptroller to produce them in court in the next sitting which is May 15. “He must produce them on that day failure of which we shall know the next action to take to compel them.”
Two years after the massacre, the suspects have not been brought to book, and there are worries that the may just escape justice on technicalities. ‘’My job in making sure that justice is served to present the evidence to the court so they can decide. We have been to court more than five times. We put all our facts before the court and they will decide,” he said when asked if he believes the victims will get justice in the end.
For Celina and Regina, their husband’s death has taken everything from them as the burden has become unbearable.
“If he had died naturally when God wanted, we would have accepted it with faith. But his life was cut short by these people for no good reason. Look at us now, we have been suffering since. We want them to suffer for what they did,” Celina said, folding both hands across her breast.
***This investigative project by Ripples Nigeria was conducted in partnership with the Ripples Centre for Data and Investigative Journalism.
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