Since 2016, Okpokwu Local Government Area of Benue State has been in the grip of coordinated stealing, bloodshed, kidnapping, random firefights and burning of houses. Night life stopped and even day light became unsafe. Women could not sell agrarian products in the markets and hope to go home safely with it. The last of such bloodletting took place July 29th, 2019, less than a month ago when no less than five persons were killed in a daylong gun battle between two warlords around Okpoga, the local government council headquarters.
Neither the federal might nor whatever security might the Benue State Government had been unleashed on the players in this game between 2016 and today. But all that has changed or is changing so fast. In fact, a peace deal the United Nations would envy has actually been pacted. The speed at which the pacting was accomplished is itself a deal. And this is how it happened.
Somehow, Engineer Abounu, the Deputy-Governor of Benue State got concerned this time and wanted something to happen. And then things began to happen. But it was not the sort of things many were expecting. Either the Benue State Government or the Deputy-Governor as a person did not want to fight violence with violence. Instead, he set out for the kind of outcome that eventually took place on August 23rd, 2019 at which the warlords involved openly embraced each other, sealing a peace pact.
The names of the two warlords successfully brought into embrace of each other in the said ceremony might not ring a bell in Nigerian newspapers as warlords but they were warlords in every sense of the word. Before now, the one simply known and called Mathew Ellah lived in the forests, sleeping in a different forest every night around his own Edumoga District of the Okpokwu Local Government Area in Benue State, central Nigeria. Some people claim that he has trained many bad guys around the local government area. He was feared, thought capable of doing and undoing in matters of violence and was actually involved in a number of firefights here and there in the vast local government area. But things have changed. He is now to be the backbone of peace restoration in the entire local government. He is to disarm his boys and oversee a process of their re-integration into normal community life.
So also is his counterpart on the opposite side. Known as Lawrence Omale but more popularly called Chesco, he is a warlord in the sense that he rose to, according to him, counter Mathew’s infiltration into Okpoga District in the same local government. As the chief of vigilantism in Okpoga District as distinct from Edumoga District, he saw such crossing into his territory as putting five fingers into his face by Mathew. In other words, if Mathew were not transgressing into his own community or the sphere of community sanctioned vigilantism, there would not have been escalation of violence between the two in the past four or so years that their enmity led to clashes on different fronts, with grave risks of spiraling into wider communal violence between Edumoga and Okpoga Districts if care was not taken. That’s his own narrative and it is instructive that the Police in the area said they have no problem with him. Someone even said he has basically been the vigilante commander for Zone C. Zone C is the entire nine local government areas occupied by the Idoma nationality in Benue State.
Determined to go beyond the claims and counter-claims, the peacemakers made up of what the communiqué calls critical stakeholders set to work. They first offered to Mr. Mathew what negotiators in multilateral diplomacy call Negative Assurance. They told him to come to the peace table, assuring him of no arrest or any harm. The first victory is that Mathew came. That is to the credit of the Deputy-Governor who alone could have made him come. And then began the complex negotiation of the way forward. At one instance, Mathew claimed that at the heart of the problem is his refusal to kill someone at the instance of Chesco. Of course, Chesco denied this and retold the story of Mathew’s forays into his district as the key crisis point. Land claim was also raised as an issue. That too was overcome. It was overcome when the forces for peace asked: so, what next after all the claims and counter-claims?
At last, peace was agreed, meaning that Mathew transformed from the bad guy behind claims or allegations of stealing, killing, burning houses or kidnapping to being the one who will henceforth make sure that there will be no such things in the area. According to the communiqué, “both Matthew Ella of Ollo and Chesco of Okpoga should gather and sensitize their followers on the peace and ceasefire”. It also added: The killing, kidnapping and robbery should cease from the day of peace, (August 23rd). In other words, a massive disarming is in the offing, then debriefing and re-integration, so to say.
Will it work? Won’t they relapse into the old ways? Yes or no will not answer this sort of question. One instructive insight into what is likely to happen is this. At the peace negotiation under the auspices of the Deputy-Governor’s Office, the quality of pounded yam served was such that Mathew was overheard lamenting what he had been missing in the years he was in the bush. That single slip informs the inference that he would seize the opportunity for a return to normal life which the peace deal has offered him.
Secondly, a peace rally being planned to be a massive show is also on the way by September 14th, 2019. It is to be attended by all dignitaries in the state. Again, according to the communiqué, this will take place at Olanyega and Ugwu Okpoga “for the purpose of unifying the two communities, offering of prayer, cleansing of the land, granting of amnesty/surrender of arms and making passionate appeal to all the families that have lost their loved ones during the crisis”. Olanyega is the District Headquarter of Edumoga where, additionally, two communities on either side of the Otukpo – Enugu Federal Highway, have been violently asserting ownership of the site on which the primary school built by the colonialists in the 1940s stood till its destruction in the last of the violence. The rallies would consolidate the agreements and transform the whole process from promises to enactment of the promises, showcasing a success story.
There is a reason why this peace deal is not a local matter. It is the Early Warning component. When warlords of one variant or another can seize a countryside and impose authority, using violence, it is the surest indicator of a collapsing state. All scholars and practitioners of Critical Security Studies and central authority in modern states take a serious view of it across the world. It is the surest sign of trouble in Africa. A peace pact might have been put in place at last but the fact that the area was seized at all and many other areas in Nigeria are under siege should indicate that there is need to act quickly. Whether the quickest move is for the state to wade in and consolidate this peace deal through developmental intervention is open to debate but a quick peace consolidation is necessary. Assisting those chaps we are calling bad boys today towards their reintegration could be a more sustainable option than other alternatives. It does not require a huge budget to design and operationalise a model project that can engage them beneficially.