From palaces to shanties: How herdsmen crisis turned kings to refugees

That night, it first seemed as if a heavy wind was blowing, nearly uprooting the trees and roof of his palace. For minutes, this continued until all of a sudden, the palace’s glass windows were shattered, not by wind, but by bullets.

After 30 more minutes of sporadic shooting, the palace of the Gwom Rwey of Gashish, Barkin Ladi Local Government Area, Plateau State, John Dangyang, was finally set ablaze by the militant herdsmen, numbering about 20.

“It was around 9.30pm on May 6, 2018. I had held meetings with my people and was extremely tired. I was preparing to go to bed when I started hearing gunshots. All of a sudden, the glass windows of my palace were shattered by bullets,” the 52-year-old monarch told our correspondent.

Dangyang said when he was installed on the throne two years ago, he had the desire to see his people, who are mainly into farming and animal husbandry, live and do their business peacefully.

But this has not been the case, with killings by herders becoming almost a daily occurrence.

“My expectation has been messed up by the killer herdsmen. At least two people are being killed every day in my community. Women are being raped,” he said.

“You can’t just go behind your door without the fear of being killed. If the Fulani herdsmen rear their cattle on your farm and you dare to challenge them, you are gone.”

Dangyang himself was nearly gone. On the night his attackers invaded his palace, he spent seven hours hiding inside the toilet of the burning house, soaking his pyjamas in the toilet bowl to cool off his head and drinking water from the same toilet bowl to quench his thirst. Fortunately for him, the toilet was the only place in the palace that wasn’t affected by the inferno.

He said, “I am lucky to be alive today. I was in the burning house for seven hours. As the palace was burning, I could hear the Fulani people outside; they were waiting for me to come out so they could slaughter me, but I hid myself in the toilet.

“I was in my pyjamas. I had to remove the shirt, soak it in the toilet bowl and use the dampened cloth to cover my head. At several points in time, I drank from the toilet bowl. My thought was, I’d rather die in the palace than let some cowards slaughter me. It was a huge risk.

“Thankfully, none of my family members were around that day. My children were in school in the city while my wife went to check on her sister, where she slept overnight.”

Around 4.30am of the following day, Dangyang said his attackers left him for dead.

He said, “I just sat down in the toilet quietly. I knew they had left when I did not hear their movement again. That’s when soldiers came.

“But what amazed me was that they didn’t show up as the herders were attacking me for seven hours even though they were about 50 metres away from the palace. Yet they saw the flames.

“But I was still thankful they came because if nobody had come to rescue me, maybe I’d have died eventually. So when the soldiers came, they broke the steel bars across the toilet window and through there I was rescued.

“Being taken out through the window was the last thing I remembered that day. I became unconscious afterwards. I learnt I was taken to a hospital, where they said they didn’t have the necessary equipment to take care of me. I was then taken to the Jos University Teaching Hospital, where I spent three weeks in a coma.”

Since surviving the attack, Dangyang said he had been living “like a refugee” outside of the palace. He has not been living in Gashish again because “those people (killer herdsmen) are still very much around.”

Still in pain as he talked due to several burns on his body, the monarch said, “I have no palace again because it was razed to the ground. I couldn’t recover anything from the building. The hoodlums even tried to go away with my car, but they couldn’t, so they set it ablaze.

“I lost all my paraphernalia of office. But I am thankful for the life I have. I miss my home. If my palace was rebuilt today, I would go back there today.”

The first time he returned to the community after his recovery to visit the ruins of his palace, Dangyang said everyone thought he was a ghost. They did not believe it was him.

He said, “My people said nobody could have survived the inferno. If not because one of the men who knew I was alive convinced them by showing them pictures of me when I was in the hospital bed, they would not have believed.

“The second time I went to the community was in early November 2018. When some of the Fulani herdsmen who had invaded our community saw me, I saw shock on their faces. But I did them nothing because I have forgiven them.”

‘They want to wipe us out’

For some years, there has been a wave of killings in the Middle Belt, including in Plateau State, where killer herdsmen have reportedly killed scores of residents, who were mainly farmers.

A few weeks after Dangyang was discharged from the Jos University Teaching Hospital, in June 2018, at least 86 people were reportedly killed in attacks carried out by armed herdsmen in Jos, the state capital.

Many more attacks have been reportedly carried out since then, with the Berom Educational and Cultural Organisation saying more than 300 residents were murdered and thousands rendered homeless between June and August 2018.

In Gashish alone, Dangyang said over 300 houses had been burnt, with hectares of farmland and other properties destroyed.

“After one of such gruesome attacks, we ‘harvested’ corpses as if we were harvesting crops. Anywhere you stepped onto, you would find at least a corpse. It is a terrible situation here,” he said.

The monarch said the killer herdsmen had a mission, “and it is to wipe us out of our settlements and make us refugees so they can have access to our land for their cattle.”

He recalled the beginning of the crisis was when ranching was implemented by the state government.

Dangyang said, “At that time, the Fulani herdsmen asked us which land we wanted to give them. We didn’t take them seriously. We said we didn’t have any land to give them. We told them we also needed land to farm and in the first place, how dare they request land from us when they are strangers here? Then the attacks came!

“We have very vast land where cows can graze and there is abundance of water in our villages, and this is why they find the place beautiful and good for their cows. And now, they want to send us the indigenes packing.”

The monarch was hopeful, particularly because the state government had been working together with the Federal Government to site a police station in Gashish.

‘They razed my palace, burnt my daughter, two grandchildren’

Dangyang is not the only monarch who was attacked by herdsmen.

For the Paramount Ruler of Barkin Ladi Local Government Area, Edward Gyang, who ascended the throne in 1985, his dream of living his whole life in his palace was cut short when herdsmen attacked his home on April 19, 2015.

The herders invaded his palace and communities under his domain, slaughtered the residents, and burnt their homes and farmland.

According to Gyang, he was observing morning prayers with his family when they heard sporadic gunshots.

The monarch said he called the military that day and soldiers arrived in the community in four trucks and an armoured personnel carrier.

However, Gyang said the soldiers claimed that they had been overpowered by the attackers, hence they could do nothing but retreat.

“When we saw we were not going to be protected, we had to run,” the monarch recalled. “But my daughter, a widow in her 30s, was killed and burnt with two of my grandchildren. They were in their house in a nearby community and couldn’t escape from the attackers.”

He added, “About six villages were attacked at the same time that day. It was a coordinated attack such that if they attacked you in one village, you couldn’t escape to another.

“The attackers were just too many, and there might also be foreigners among them because we saw some Fulani people that we had never seen before. My driver, Buhari, was also murdered.”

Gyang, who said he had a premonition of the attack, added that his palace was burnt and that for the past three years, he had been living like a refugee in the state.

He said, “I dreamt of the attack before it happened. My palace was near a hill. I dreamt that some people in large numbers were coming to attack me, chanting dreadful songs and armed with different weapons. It was a few days later that the attack happened.

“As the attack was happening, I summoned the courage to go outside and start the car. I was able to save my wife, children and one of my brothers who is blind.

“I had to make daring manoeuvres to escape being shot until I drove the car out of the compound. As soon as we escaped, my palace was torched and up till now, I have not been living in my own home. I stayed in a guest house in the state capital for one year and thereafter, I moved into a small place that looks like a shanty. It has not been easy.”

Just like Dangyang, Gyang said the aim of the attackers was to dispossess them of their land.

He said, “We had been staying with the Fulani herdsmen right from time and no disagreement had ever occurred among us. In fact, in some of the villages, there is intermarriage. But all of a sudden, things started changing drastically, making one to wonder, why?

“This crisis started sometime in 2001 and it was caused by an explosion in the population of humans and animals, as well as a shortage of land. The Fulani man wants to take over the land. He wants to take charge over all the land for his cows by driving out the indigenes.

“Human beings are being slaughtered, pregnant women butchered, and children killed like animals. The criminality is mind-boggling.

“There is a village near mine where displaced indigenes have always gone back to mould bricks to rebuild their homes, but each time they did that, the Fulani would demolish everything. If you saw some of the villages, you would never believe people had ever lived there. Churches, schools and homes have been destroyed. There is no peace.”

Despite all, Gyang hoped his lost possessions would be restored someday and his people would also be able to reclaim their homes peacefully.

“The state government has promised to rebuild the palace since 2015 and when it does, I will move back to the village. I am waiting for the government to fulfil this promise because I don’t have the means to rebuild it,” he said.

Monarchs live in fear

Another monarch, the Gwom Rwey of Vwang, Gyang Gutt Gyang, said unlike in the past when an average Fulani herdsman did not lay claim to land ownership but just wanted to rear his cows and leave the land, things had changed.

“They suddenly showed an increasing appetite to acquire our land, expand their territory, feed their cattle and settle down,” he said.

He added, “The sad thing is that the attackers are known and these are people we have been living together with all our lives; we have married one another and some of them are even district heads in our communities. But they want more.”

Narrating how the crisis started, the monarch said in the early 2000s, all the herders who bought land from natives started selling them back and relocated.

The monarch said when the herdsmen started facing challenges where they had relocated to, they decided to return.

He added, “But instead of settling down in places where land had not been cultivated, they started grazing their cows on farmland. We plant a crop here called ‘acha’, which looks like grass. These herders graze cattle on farms where this crop is planted and when you complain, they strike you down.

“They now use foreign Fulani militants to acquire our land. If you go to some of our communities now, you will find foreign Fulani herders there. Once they chase the people away from their land, they will share the land among themselves. This is what is happening.”

Although the Federal Government had established several peace meetings to stop the attacks, Gyang said the killer herdsmen were emboldened to carry out attacks every day.

He said, “Let me be frank, before this present government came on board, the attacks were not as severe as this, but when President [Muhammadu] Buhari was sworn in, we heard it directly from some of these Fulani herders. They said, ‘Our own is now in government; no idiot will send us away from this place.’ So if we say anything against them, they attack us.

“They say it publicly whenever we go to security meetings, ‘As far as we are concerned, nobody can say we should leave any land. If they say so, we will kill.’ Security men will be there watching and say nothing.”

The monarch said herdsmen could graze cattle on their land during the dry season and when the rainy season comes, they should leave, just as they usually did in the past.

On the accusation that the herdsmen attacks escalated when President Buhari came on board, the President’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mr Garba Shehu, did not respond to request for comments, as calls to his phone number were not picked, while text messages sent were also not replied to.

Meanwhile, another monarch, the Gwom Rwey of Heipang, Paul Tadi Tok, said he had not been living in his palace since attacks had seen his fellow monarchs targeted.

He goes to his palace to attend to “serious issues only” at Heipang, a developing town where there is a local airport and an inland container depot still under construction. Once he is done with the important issues, he returns to the city where he lives like a normal citizen.

“I live in perpetual fear, and this is the reality for now. I think, as being planned by the state government, if we have the presence of policemen in our communities, it will help a lot in stemming these attacks,” the 47-year-old said.

Our members not behind attacks, says Miyetti Allah

Despite several accusations against the Fulani herdsmen as being behind the deadly attacks in Plateau State, the Secretary General of the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, Mr Alhassan Saleh, denied the claims.

“The reality is that no Fulani herdsman is occupying anybody’s community. All the Fulani herdsmen who are in communities displaced by the crisis have been there right from time. The Fulani have been in such communities for close to 100 years. They are settlers, not foreigners,” Saleh said via telephone.

He added that the crisis in Plateau State had been going on for about 16 years.

He said, “I grew up in the state and I know what I’m talking about. No Fulani herdsman is killing anybody or burning anybody’s homes. I’m not denying these things are not happening, but they are not carried out by our people.

“In the ongoing conflict, there are Fulani people in about 33 communities who have been displaced as well, but nobody is talking about them.”

Saleh said the solution to the crisis was that the police should investigate the attacks, and arrest and prosecute those who were perpetrating them.

“There should also be the presence of the police in the troubled communities so these attacks can stop,” he said.

The spokesperson for the Nigeria Police Force, Mr Jimoh Moshood, said he would get back to our correspondent to comment on when the police would deploy their men to the troubled areas in Plateau State.

But he had yet to do so as of the time of publishing this report.

Peace key to rebuilding destroyed communities –Security experts

An expert in conflict resolution based in the United States, Mr Tobilola Amusan, said via LinkedIn that the best thing the Federal Government could do for its people was to protect them.

“Peace is very key to having a stable society and the government should work towards achieving it,” he said.

Amusan said the reintegration of the monarchs, as well as their subjects, into their communities should be a top priority.

“What is happening in Plateau State and other states in the Middle Belt is very unfortunate. But there is a way out of every crisis. Security should be provided for the people so they could go back to their normal lives,” he said.

The same thoughts were expressed by a Jos-based security analyst, Mr Frederick Pam, who also noted that the displaced monarchs would not be able to return to their communities unless security was put in place.

“In most of the communities where the attacks took place, there is no presence of police there,” he said.

“But I learnt that the state government has requested for the deployment of the police from the Federal Government, which has been granted. If there is security, there will be peace.”

We’ll rebuild palaces for refugee monarchs –Govt

The Plateau State Commissioner for Information, Mr Yakubu Datti, said there were already plans in place to rebuild palaces for monarchs displaced by killer herdsmen.

He said the state had keyed into a N10bn resettlement fund approved by President Buhari to rebuild communities affected by the herdsmen crisis.

Datti, however, noted that since security was the most important factor, the state government had been working with the Federal Government to seek the deployment of riot policemen in communities affected by the crisis.

He said, “Last week, the governor and members of the state security council were in Gashish, Barkin Ladi Local Government Area, to inspect the police barracks being built there. We want to secure the communities first.

“As soon as it is approved by the police, they will deploy their men in these communities. The police will be living among the people 24/7.

“And of course, once this is done, the resettlement of monarchs and other displaced people will happen. Palaces and communities will be rebuilt as we have already keyed into the N10bn resettlement fund approved by the President.”



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