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Our lives in exile: Ogun families displaced by herdsmen speak from Benin Republic

Amid denial by the state government that there are no refugees from Yewa North and Imeko-Afon local government areas in Benin Republic, KUNLE AKINRINADE‘s visit to the francophone nation revealed that there are more than 5,000 Nigerians from villages in Ogun State taking refuge in Igana, Egelu, Pobe and Gbogo communities in the neighbouring country following attacks and killings by marauding herdsmen.

  • Refugees desperate to return home, say we have no food, clothes

  • Senate intervenes, asks FG to repatriate displaced residents

The expressions on their faces were clear indications that all was not well with them at their internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp in Pobe area of neighbouring Benin Republic. Sullen, sad and pensive, they intermittently chorused their plight amid assurances by a delegation of Benin Republic government and humanitarian agencies which visited the IDP camp to assure them that their wellbeing was a top priority.

The visit of the francophone country’s government officials on Saturday, March 6 coincided with the visit of some fact finding officials of the Nigerian Red Cross Society, Ogun State Chapter, a few days after the distraught crowd of Nigerians who fled their homes in Yewa North and Imeko-Afon areas of Ogun State arrived in the French-speaking country, following bloody attacks by herdsmen.

They had deserted their villages, namely Asa, Ibeku, Oha, Igbooro, Moro, Agbon-Ojodu, Isuku, Igbo-Oko, Iyana MetaIselu, Isuku Ohunbe, and others, to avoid being killed by the rampaging herdsmen.

“We were forced to migrate to this place (Benin Republic) due to the attacks on our villages in Nigeria by Fulani herdsmen,” a spokesperson of the Nigerian refugees, Ademola Oye, told the Beninese delegation.

“The herdsmen have killed many of our people. Many have lost their lives as a result of the attacks by the herders and many people are still migrating from Agbon-Ojodu, Asa, Ibeku and other villages as a result of the attacks by herdsmen.

“We fled to this country because the Fulani herdsmen were killing people anyhow. They are moving from one village to another killing people, hence we were scared and we have migrated to this place because we feared for our lives,” Oye added.

A number of expectant women who fled with their family members were forced into early labour. Five of them who were delivered of babies at different primary health centres in the neighbouring country are currently being catered to by authorities of the country.

One of them, Foluke Kambi, was forced into early labour after she ran for her dear life when herdsmen raided her village, Asa. She was delivered of a baby boy penultimate Saturday at a public clinic in the Igana District.

Recalling how she escaped death by a whisker, Kanmbi said: “The Fulani herdsmen attacked my village, Asa and Owode-Ketu and other villages in Nigeria. They killed many people but I managed to escape with my family and went through a bush path to get to Igana in Benin (Republic).

“I left my village alongside many others and came to Egelu where we slept inside a store and others slept inside a mosque.

“I went into early labour as a result of the forcible migration and long hours of trekking. I was eventually delivered of a baby boy this morning.

“I am well taken care of at this hospital courtesy of the government of Benin Republic, and my baby is hale and hearty too.

“I want our government in Nigeria to provide enough security for our villages so that we can return home and continue our farming activities.”

One of the refugees at Igana, Mariam Olabisi, recalled that she joined others to run for her safety on a night some herdsmen raided Asa village.

Olabisi, a mother of five, said she was lucky to have fled with her children as some villagers who were caught unawares were killed alongside their family members.

She said: “Some herdsmen forced us to abandon our home when they stormed our Asa village and shot some people dead while several others were hacked to death.

“The herdsmen also razed several buildings and vehicles, including motorbikes belonging to residents.”

It was learnt that Olabisi’s husband had gone in search of food at the time our correspondent arrived the refugee camp.

“My husband is not around now,” she said. “He has gone out to look for food for us.

“Like other refugees, we are hungry and we can barely feed ourselves, hence several men would leave the camp in the morning and sneak back into our farmlands in Nigeria to see what they could get for us to eat at the risk of their lives.

“We are calling on the Ogun State Government not to abandon us to our fate. The government should be kind enough to relocate us to our village and provide adequate security for us.

“Back in our village, we are farmers and we were not struggling to feed. But now, feeding has become a major problem for us. We are tired of living here. We want to go back home. Tell the government to help us.”

Another villager, Madam Ewunmi, who said she was tired of living as a refugee, said: “I am a farmer in Asa, but I can no longer farm because of herdsmen’s attacks which forced us to run to Igana in Benin Republic.

“However, I am tired of staying here because life has been tough, especially with regards to feeding. I want to go back to Nigeria.”

Olabisi’s eldest son, Monday, a 12-year-old primary four pupil, said the situation had taken a toll on his education as he could no longer go to school.

He said: “I don’t like what we are going through here at all. I was in primary four at the public elementary school when we were chased out of our village by herdsmen who attacked us and killed several villagers.

“It is almost one month since we ran to this country for safety and life has been tough for our family. I want the Ogun State Government to help us return to our ancestral community.”

Speaking at his palace, the monarch of Egeluland in Benin Republic where the IDP camp at Igana is located, Oba Adio AbdulWahab, said the influx of the Nigerian refugees was worrisome.

He said: “In the night of February 14, 2021, villagers in neigbouring Asa, Ibeku, Agbon-Ojodu, Igbooro, Seke Aje, Moro, Iselu and Isuku were in their beds when they were attacked by herdsmen who shot sporadically and killed a man and burnt his body, hence the villagers ran across the border to my domain for safety, and this community was flooded that night by the displaced Nigerians.

“My people and I then accommodated them and sheltered them. Over 200 of them slept on the foyer of my palace here while others slept in a mosque built for me by my subjects and numerous others slept in a public school over there.

“Their number kept growing and we had to inform our government and local council areas and a temporary camp was established for them after two weeks of staying in this community.

“Several agencies of government in Benin Republic crossed the border to the troubled villages in Nigeria and took photographs of the scenes of the attacks and they have submitted their report to the Beninese authorities.

“As a result of their report, the Benin government and their development partners have decided to build a permanent camp to accommodate people from Nigeria who are victims of perennial attacks by herdsmen.”

No fewer than 2,539 persons were reportedly killed and 253 others kidnapped between 2017 and May 2, 2020, in 654 attacks, carried out by herdsmen in various parts of Nigeria.

The figure, according to José Luis Bazán, an independent researcher and analyst based in Brussels, Belgium, was based on the compilation of news reports published on vicious attacks by herdsmen.

The report titled ‘Working Document — Fulani Militias’ Terror: Compilation of News (2017-2020),’ revealed scary statistics of vicious attacks, deaths, and kidnappings by the herdsmen.

Also, the Global Terrorist Index 2019 published by the Institute for Economics and Peace attributed the increase in terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa to Fulani extremists.

The report reads in part: “In 2018, Fulani extremists were responsible for the majority of terror-related deaths in Nigeria (1,158 fatalities), with an increase by 261 and 308 per cent respectively from the prior year.

“Fulani attacks were armed assaults (200 out of 297 attacks) against civilians (84 per cent of the attacks).

“In 2017, there were 99 attacks resulting in the killing of 202 people while 12 were kidnapped. In 2018, the attacks intensified, rising to 245, resulting in 1,478 deaths.”

our-lives-in-exile-ogun-families-displaced-by-herdsmen-speak-from-benin-republic

The number of those kidnapped during that period rose to 29. Last year, 169 attacks, 524 killings, and three kidnappings were reported.

In 2020 as of May 2, according to the report, there were 141 attacks, 335 people killed, and 137 kidnapped.

Several villagers in Yewa North and Imeko-Afon council areas of Ogun State had lost their lives to perennial attacks by herdsmen who forcibly graze farmlands and destroyed cash crops.

In February this year, 28 villagers were killed by herdsmen within one week, hence, the villagers fled to neighbouring Benin Republic for refuge.

The Nation gathered that some herdsmen who also fled to the francophone state in the wake of reprisals were repatriated to their home country, Niger Republic, by the interior and public security ministry of Benin Republic.

A government source in Benin Republic told our correspondent that the repatriation was carried out after diligent profiling of the displaced herders to ascertain their true nationality.

“We currently have about 5,000 Nigerian refugees at the IDP camps in our country. They were displaced by herdsmen who attacked their villages in the neighbouring Yewa area of Ogun State in Nigeria.

Out of the figure, we were able to identify some of the herdsmen displaced from Nigerian villages to be nationals of Niger Republic, and about 100 of them at Pobe refugee camp have since been sent back to their country, while others identified to be Nigerian Fulani herdsmen are the ones allowed to stay in some of the camps here,” said the sources who spoke in confidence because he was not permitted to speak on official matters.

However, The Nation spoke with other identified local herdsmen who were taking refuge in various parts of the country.

At Gbogo, a Benin community about one hour’s drive from Oja Odan town in Nigeria, a popular Nigerian herdsman, Alhaji Abubakar Bakare a.k.a. Larondo, who was taking refugee with his family in the community, lamented that life had become hellish for him and his family members there.  Bakare, a native of Kwara State who settled in Oja Odan more than four decades ago, resided in Ago Fulani area of Oja Odan until he was chased away by indigenes of the community who carried out reprisals in the wake of attacks by herdsmen on villages in the area.

He told The Nation that he fled to Benin Republic on February 13, 2021 after his three houses were razed by irate youths who also killed more than 100 cattle belonging to him and stole a sum of N3 million he kept in his bedroom

“My nine houses were razed by irate youths of Oja Odan who stormed my abode in Ebute and Ago Fulani, looted my house and took away the sum of N3 million and also killed the over 100 cows I was breeding.

“Two of my family members—my senior brother and younger brother’s wife—were also killed in the attack. I fled here with more than 50 members of my family, including my five wives, children, grandchildren, my brothers and their wives and children as well.

“However, it’s been difficult living here because we are hungry; there is no food to eat and no clothe to wear. We are still wearing the same clothe since we fled our home in Nigeria and it’s been pretty tough coping with life here.”

Bakare urged both the federal and state authorities to intervene and restore law and order so he could return to the country and continue living in his Ago Fulani home.

“Apart from restoring us back to our Nigerian home, we are calling on both the federal and state authorities to come to our aid and rescue us from hopelessness. At the moment, we need food and we need clothe and shelter too,” he said.

The Nation had exclusively reported that villagers in the two local government areas had fled to neighbouring communities in Benin Republic following the killing of about 28 villagers by herdsmen in one week.

The report titled ‘Herdsmen crisis: Residents flee Ogun villages, head for the Benin Republic’, was published on February 20, 2021.

Some of the villages attacked by the armed herders include Ateru, Moro, Ologun, Agbon-Ojodu, Asa, Igbota, Ogunba-Aiyetoro, Oke-Odo, Ibore, Gbokoto, Iselu, Ijale, Ohunbe, Igbeme, Owode-Ketu, Igan-Alade, Lashilo, Oja Odan, Ijoun, Ateru, Moro, Ologun, Iyana Meta, Igbooro, Egbeda and Kuse, and Oha, where they killed residents and destroyed cash crops.

our-lives-in-exile-ogun-families-displaced-by-herdsmen-speak-from-benin-republicIn a swift reaction, the state government had refuted the report that residents affected by the attack of herdsmen in Yewa North and Imeko Afon Local Government Areas were now seeking refuge in neighbouring Benin Republic. The Chairman, Ogun State Peace Keeping Committee on Farmers/Herders Conflict, Hon. Kayode Oladele, made the remarks at the meeting of the committee held in Abeokuta.

He said that those reportedly moving to Benin Republic were not actual inhabitants of the communities but those who came from the neighbouring country to lease farmlands in the area.

Oladele had said: “There was a publication that Yewa farmers are now refugees in Benin Republic. That has no iota of truth. Yewa, being a border community, also plays host to other people from our sisters and brothers on the other side of the border that is on the side of the Republic of Benin.

“We have the Hohori and some Egun who come from time to time to lease farmland in Yewaland, live with us and they have been doing that for years. So, when the problem and conflict started, the natural thing is for them to return to their home country.

“Therefore, many of the people that you are seeing are not actually the original indigenes of Yewa; they are the people from the other side of the border, who because of the crisis have moved to their country.

“So, it is not as if Yewa people have relocated. We don’t have a refugee crisis in Yewa.”

The Nation’s report was however confirmed by the state chapter of the Red Cross, which issued a statement urging a drastic intervention by the state authorities.

The Executive Branch Secretary of the Ogun State chapter of the Nigeria Red Cross, Oluwole Aboyade, said his team had visited some of the troubled areas – Igbooro, Asa, Moro, Ibeku and Agbon-Ojodu, noting that many residents had deserted their homes to seek refuge in Benin Republic.

He said: “What I saw there alongside my team, I will term it a very serious disaster. The people have deserted their homes and they now sleep in Benin Republic. You can imagine people leaving Nigeria to seek protection in another country. The situation is more than pathetic.”

Aboyade said his recent visit to the refugees in IDP camps in Benin Republic revealed that they were living in pathetic conditions.

He said the Red Cross, as a humanitarian organization, would seek assistance from Nigerians to help in bringing succour to the residents of the affected Yewa communities.

Aboyade said: “The nature of our job is humanitarian agency established by an Act of Parliament of 1960 to take care of vulnerable ones either as victims of herdsmen attack, banditry, disasters, epidemic and health challenges. In all of these, we responded to any challenges that affect human lives.

“Our concern is to raise awareness about the plight of the residents of the communities. In the course of our assessment, we found that a number of people were hacked to death, including minors, and we even saw the place where victims of the crisis were buried. Hence we decided to visit the refugees in Benin Republic.

“Although we know that the state government had provided some food items as palliatives for the villagers, I think they need more than that.

“Yesterday, I shed tears when we visited the villages in the Benin Republic to see the victims taking refuge there. My team met with the monarch of Egelu Kingdom where our people fled to, and they were well treated.

“We also met with the councillor of Igana who took us around where the people were being sheltered, including the hospital where some of the women were delivered of new babies.

“One of them, who is a native of Asa village, said she fled into the country after the village was attacked by herdsmen in the night and went subsequently into forced labour.

“She said she was taken care of and that she didn’t pay a dime for delivering her baby at the hospital.

“Some non-governmental organisations in the francophone state had also given the victims food, clothes and other items to take care of themselves, but the items could not go round.

“However, there is no place like home, and that is the reason these people want to come back home provided the government would guarantee their security so they can continue with their farming endeavor.

“They need water in their villages and that should be provided for them because they have to travel several kilometers to get filthy water from a village stream. Hence, we are calling on well-meaning Nigerians to come to the aid of these people.

“We are not a political organisation and we are not against the state government. Rather, all we want is for the plight of these people to be given urgent attention by concerned authori ties.

“The government of Benin is even planning to construct a building for Nigerian victims of herdsmen attacks which have become perennial in recent times.

“We have seen that Governor Dapo Abiodun has put in place some initiatives to cater to the welfare of the villagers, but the intervention is not enough and this is the reason we are urging the government to do more.

“And this goes for both state and federal lawmakers representing the affected areas because these are the people they would still approach for votes when an election beckons.”

The state government however insisted that residents were not fleeing to Benin Republic to seek refuge.

Speaking on a live cable television programme on Plus TV Africa monitored by our correspondent, the Special Adviser on Media and Public Communications to Ogun State Governor, Pastor Remmy Hassan, said those who were moving to Benin went there to reunite with their kinsmen.

Hassan said: “In the border areas of Ogun State, there is a kind of ethnic identity that transcends the border. In other words, we have some group of people who also have their kinsmen across the border and they have a way of crossing the border to have one thing or the other to do across the divide depending on the convenience.

“If we say that someone is having a refugee status, the question is according to the United Nation’s standard, are they willing or unable to return to their home? I don’t think any of these is their case.

“Besides, if the nation they are alleged to have sought refugee (sic) has not in any way gotten across to us to say that they are holding any of our citizens refuge (sic). So, the fact that these people have reasons to have their kinsmen across the border  and stay put with their kinsmen following a flash of crisis shouldn’t be taken as anyone seeking refuge in a foreign land.”

An official report sighted by our correspondent revealed that the Mayor of Pobe Munici pal in Benin Republic, Simon Adebayo Dinan, had visited the IDP camp at Igana with other government agencies on February 18 to mobilise relief packages for the refugees.

The report reads: “It was this February 18, 2021, in the Igana District, a locality stormed by these refugees. The Mayor was there with a delegation from the National Agency for Protection under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior and Public Security.

“This follows a series of correspondence  that the Mayor, Simon Adebayo Dinan, sent expressly to the prefecture of Pobe, the National Agency for Civil Protection, the Beninese Agency for Integrated Management of Border Spaces, the World Food Programme, the UNICEF, Care Benin-Togo, the Republican Police, the departmental directorates  of health and social services, etc.”

Meanwhile, the upper chamber of the National Assembly, the Senate, has asked the federal government to repatriate displaced residents of Ogun State who are seeking refuge in Benin Republic after attacks on their communities by suspected herdsmen.

The resolution followed a motion sponsored by Tolu Odebiyi, the senator representing Ogun West, on Wednesday March 11, 2021.

“Many communities, namely (but not limited to) Asa, Oho Agbooro, Moro, Ibeku and Agbon Ojodu, were affected by the criminal activities of these suspected herdsmen,” he said.

“The countless attacks by these criminal elements have forced many residents of these areas to desert and relocate to a refugee camp in the Pobe area of Benin Republic in search of safety, with many of them forced to live in very unfavourable conditions in refugee camps.

“The state government alone cannot be left with the onerous task of resettling these displaced citizens, hence the need for support from the federal government to effectively return the affected citizens back to their various communities.

“If the Benin Republic that is a neighbour to Nigeria could accommodate Nigerians, give them food and set up a refugee camp for them, Nigeria needs to positively step up on how we treat our citizens who are victims of an internally induced crisis.”

The senate also urged the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the humanitarian affairs ministry, and the Border Communities Development Agency (BCDA) to provide relief for the affected persons.

The motion was adopted after it was put to a voice vote by Senate President Ahmad Lawan.

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