By Douglas Burton
Terrorist attacks in Benue State, Nigeria, have left nine dead since Oct. 8, prompting a Catholic bishop to appeal to the European Parliament for help in the face of what he says is inaction by the government.
An attack in the town of Yelewata, 20 miles north of Makurdi on the road to Abuja took place midday on Oct. 12 and left six confirmed dead and many others injured, Father Moses Iorapuu, the communications director for the Diocese of Makurdi, told CNA.
According to Iorapuu, the gunmen, who were speaking the language of the Fulani tribe, carried out the attack in the presence of members of the Nigerian army stationed in the town.
A group of about 100 radicalized Muslim terrorists entered the town from three directions and exchanged fire with civilians and military for three hours, according to Father William Shom, the Yelewata parish priest.
Approximately 12 soldiers and a group of local men using single-shot craft guns attempted to push back the terrorists firing assault rifles and carrying machetes, Shom told CNA. As soon as shots were fired, most of the town’s 3,000 residents started to pack up and head for safer areas, with those remaining sheltering at night in St. Joseph’s church, Shom added.
“Our local youths got angry with the soldiers and demanded that they go after the terrorists in the bush,” Shom said.
The terrorists ambushed a convoy entering the town Thursday night, killing one man, Shom said. The soldiers, who man a checkpoint in Yelewata and are armed with assault rifles, waited for reinforcements. Four trucks of infantry arrived in town on Friday.
Benue is a majority Christian state that has suffered raids and massacres from Muslim terrorists sheltering in neighboring Nasarawa State for two decades, according to Father Iorpapuu, who faults the Nigerian military for complicity.
Since the spike in attacks by armed Fulani herdsmen started in 2019, there has never been an arrest of an attacker, he said.
Bishop appeals to European Parliament
On Oct. 11, the bishop of the Makurdi Diocese reported the Benue crisis to the European Parliament in Brussels. Bishop Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe went to the European Union as part of a trip organized by the international charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) to Germany, Belgium, Holland, and Slovakia to give a voice to the suffering of Christians in Nigeria, according to a text from ACN.
“Figures from the Benue State government reveal that as of June 2022, Benue State has suffered more than 200 attacks with property loss [of] more than 500 billion naira and close to 2 million people displaced and living in camps across the state,” Anagbe told the gathering.
“Many children have had their education truncated as their parents, unable to go to their farms, cannot cater for their school needs; there is a palpable food insecurity, there is the complete loss of human dignity as men, women, and children often resort to unsafe coping mechanisms for survival,” the bishop said.
Nigerian authorities have taken a stance of little to no intervention, according to the bishop.
“At least three Catholic priests have been kidnapped in Nigeria since this July: Father Peter Udo of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Uromi; Father Philemon Oboh, St. Joseph Retreat Center, Ugboha; and Father Peter Amodu of Holy Ghost Parish, in the Catholic Diocese of Otukpo,” Bishop Anagbe went on to say. “In all of the cases above nothing serious has been heard to [have] happened to the perpetrators.”
That observation was similar to what Father Iorappu told CNA about the recent attacks in Yelewata.
“The Nigerian military are there, and even have a checkpoint at the entrance to the town, but they are compromised,” Iorapuu said.
“Hundreds of terrified residents are sheltering in St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Yelewata,” he added.
Farmers attacked tilling their land
In the displaced persons hub of Gbajimba, (pronounced ba-JIM-be) 25 miles east of Makurdi, the community of St. Athanasius School is recovering from the murder of the husband of the head schoolteacher on Oct. 8.
The city is in Guma Local Governance Area and is a hub for hundreds of surrounding abandoned villages. The city hosts close to a million internally displaced people who are prevented from returning to their farms for fear of the armed terrorists who could ambush them, Iorappu said.
Two parishioners who went into their fields to collect cassava or yams were murdered Saturday, according to Iorapuu. The victims were Amos Shemberga, husband of the school’s head teacher, and his friend, Thomas Ger.
“The people of Gbajimbe are hungry, and they put caution to the winds to retrieve unharvested vegetables,” Iorappu said.
The terrorists are besieging Gbajimbe, the hometown of Gov. Samuel Ortom, to punish the governor for enforcing the law prohibiting open grazing in the state, Iorappu told CNA.
“I have been watching this process of forced ethnic removal by terrorism for 20 years,” he said. “Their objective is to conquer the people so that they will leave the area. They destroy the churches. Those people who remain will have to convert to Islam.”
Yelewata, the scene of the Oct. 12 attack, is no stranger to terrorist attacks, Iorapuu said.
“Yelewata being a border village has been under attacks for a long time, including burning of churches, which prompted the posting of the military to protect the people,” Iorapuu wrote. “However, the situation improved, and the people who had taken refuge in safer areas began to return for the farming season.”
“With these fresh attacks, many have run into the catholic church of St. Joseph’s and the primary school, but many others were seen heading towards the town of Daudu and Makurdi,” he continued. “Daudu has the largest concentration of internally displaced persons [IDP]; the first IDP camp here was established by the Diocese of Makurdi in 2001.”
“[At this time], no relief materials have been provided for the thousands displaced and no arrests made and no official response from the federal government,” Iorapuu told CNA.
Parishioners traumatized, bishop says
Bishop Anagbe told the European Parliament that many of his parishioners and their caregivers are experiencing trauma.
“As I have always maintained, it is impossible to maintain one’s equilibrium after witnessing the massacre of innocent and defenseless people in the face of harsh economic conditions, notwithstanding our role as God’s ministers. The pain is much and the wounds are not likely to heal any time soon,” he said.
Calls to a police spokesperson in Makurdi were not answered by time of publication.