Inside the deadly herders-farmers crises in Ogun, worsened by ‘compromised’ soldiers

Bose Esho, an 18-year-old mother of two, is yet to come to terms with the sad reality. On this year’s Valentine’s Day, armed men suspected to be herders killed her 40-year-old husband, Sanya Esho.

A commercial motorcyclist and an indigene of Eggua in Yewa North Local Government Area of Ogun State, Mr Esho and another young man were waylaid and murdered on February 14 while riding on their motorcycles.

The other victim, identified simply as Olawale, hailed from Agbon village but ran a motorcycle spare parts shop in Eggua.

“We were preparing to formalise their relationship when the news of Olawale’s death broke,” Titus Elegbede, the septuagenarian chief of Ijabo, a suburb of Eggua, said. Mr Elegbede’s 19-year-old granddaughter, Taiye Falola, is pregnant for the late Mr Olawale.

The young woman’s mother, Elizabeth Falola, said she was afraid of breaking the news of his death to her daughter due to her condition.

Even the police said they were also shocked by the news. Abimbola Oyeyemi, the police spokesperson in Ogun State, told PREMIUM TIMES that the commissioner of police, Edward Ajogun, had just returned from a meeting in the area over the escalating violence when the news broke.

“It is disturbing that on that same day we met them, these young men were gruesomely murdered,” Mr Oyeyemi said to our reporter in his office.

Protracted crisis

A palace chief in Eggua, Adeyanju Adegbenro, said the crisis started more than 10 years ago but was escalated in 2020 by “the growing culture of impunity on the part of the herders.”

He said at least 50 men and women died from violent attacks in the Ketu-Yewa axis of Ogun State in 2021 alone. He said many of the victims had been abducted under “dreadful circumstances.”

“You can notice the extent of the damage from the silence enveloping us. The few of us left in the community are talking in hushed voices out of fear. More than 70 per cent of residents have fled. This is an ancient community that is fast turning into a ghost town,” Mr Adegbenro told our reporter at the palace.

The police spokesperson could not give the number of the victims of the crisis but said as of February 25 when our reporter visited him in Abeokuta, the state capital, 13 deaths had been reported.

How it all started

The recent escalation of the conflict has forced many villagers to flee the area and take refuge in the neighbouring Benin Republic.

About Ketu-Yewa land

Ketu-Yewa land covers five local government areas of Ogun State including Yewa South, Yewa North, Imeko Afon, Ipokia and parts of Ado-Odo Ota. The area is described as a potential food basket for Ogun State and is on an international commercial route linking Nigeria with Benin Republic, Togo and other West African countries.

With an estimated population of two million people who are predominantly farmers, Yewa shares boundaries with Lagos, Oyo and Republic of Benin. It also shares linguistic and cultural identities with many communities in Benin Republic.

Long years of oppression

For reasons of its vast grazing land and nearness to border posts, Eggua in Yewa North Local Government Area has for long been a camping ground for herders who have formed a large settlement there.

According to the palace chief, Mr Adegbenro, nomadic herders mostly from northern Nigeria usually arrive in the community between September and October every year and stay until March and April when the rainy season begins.

But their arrivals always mark the beginning of tension “as they herd their cattle to graze on farmlands,” according to Mr Adegbenro.

“Not harvesting your crops whether ripe or unripe by September is at a risk. And when you harvest, you must not store the crops near the farms, or else they would be fed to the cattle at night. This has been the situation for more than 10 years now,” said Olugbenga Popoola, the secretary of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Yewa North State Constituency 2 chapter.

A chief in Imeko, headquarters of Imeko Afon Local Government Area, who does not want to be mentioned for fear of reprisals, said attempts to stop the cattle from grazing on farms were usually met with violent attacks by herders, and sometimes by “soldiers on the order of these moneybags herders.”

The chief recalled an event in 2018 when a brother of the immediate past traditional ruler of Afon in Imeko Afon Local Government Area, Busari Adetona, “was slaughtered for stoning cows that invaded his farm.”

He said soldiers allegedly “mobilised” by the herders frustrated the community’s efforts to get the suspects in the murder brought to justice.

“Earlier in 2016, a farmer here in Imeko had the whole 27 hectares of his farm completely eaten up by cattle. But after five heads of cattle were found dead on the farm, soldiers invaded our community and beat hapless farmers mercilessly. The farmers were later taken away in military vans for two days before they were released,” he said.

The soldiers were said to be from the 35 Artillery Brigade, Alamala, Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital.

The chief said a man in army camouflage, who claimed to be a major from a command in Kano, sauntered into the palace one day and demanded N500,000 damages on each of the dead cows.

“He said he owned the cattle being managed by a young herder. The farmers were already crying until our Kabiyesi, Oba Benjamin Alabi, told him that the whole community would rather die than pay him a kobo.”

Resort to self-help

As the cases worsened with the years, various communities constituted conflict resolution committees comprising representatives of the palaces, farmers, herders, vigilante groups and officers of the police and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps.

The immediate past governor, Ibikunle Amosun, also inaugurated a committee which directed nomadic herders to register at the palaces of their host communities.

But the head of the farmers’ association in Imeko Afon LGA, Abdul-Azeez Ismail, said the herders always violated conditions that were jointly set. Thus in 2020, communities across Ketu-Yewa land banned nomadic herders from grazing in their areas.

“When we heard this, we called the resident Fulanis in Eggua to advise their visiting brothers not to go to some of these villages, including Asa, Ubeku, Agbon-Ode, Iselu, until all the issues were addressed. But they were recalcitrant,” Mr Adegbenro said.

According to residents, in November 2020, villagers in the area chased away some herders from grazing in their villages.

Findings by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that violent engagements between the villagers and herders continued till December 2020, when two herders, identified simply as Baga and Joro, were declared missing.

The development was reported to the police at the Eggua division and later escalated to the state command.

According to another Eggua chief, Samuel Oluwole, the police and community members helped in the search for the missing herders. The police spokesperson, Mr Oyeyemi, said they were last located in Benin Republic.

Mr Popoola said in spite of that, herders had continued to threaten the villagers with dire consequences.

Again, soldiers waded in

On December 19, 2020, soldiers from the same 35 Artillery Brigade accompanied some herders to some villages, including Ubeku and Asa, and reportedly harassed the villagers. A villager who does not want to be named for fear of being attacked alleged that the soldiers were led to the communities by a son of the Seriki Fulani in Eggua town, Mohammed Adamu.

Irked by the development, some traditional rulers in Yewa North LGA addressed a petition to the commander of the brigade, accusing its men of violating the rights of the villagers. The petitioners include the Oniggua of Iggualand, Micheal Dosumu; the Eselu of Iseluland, Akintunde Akinyemi; and the Alademeso of Igan Alade, Gabriel Olalowo.

The petition, which is titled “Matter of Urgency” and dated January 7, urged the military authorities to “identify, investigate and prosecute the suspected soldiers” for their “connivance and involvement in the attacks on the villagers.”

However, another set of soldiers soon returned to the affected villages to further threaten the residents to withdraw their claims in the petition.

The spokesperson for the brigade, Haruna Tagwai, in a telephone interview with our reporter, confirmed the receipt of the petition. He also did not deny the follow-up intimidation.

“Yes we received the petition and I can confirm to you that investigation is ongoing,” Mr Tagwai, a captain, said.

The villagers said the harassment, killings and abduction of villagers had heightened, and that many could no longer go to their farms.

“We continued to live in fear as inter-community movements became increasingly difficult. Our schools were shut for many weeks because the cattle were competing for space in the schools. Things degenerated to the level that we had to go to the police to get clearance before we could go to our farms,” Mr Popoola said.

Force headquarters summon

In January, nine community leaders across Yewa North Local Government Area received an invitation from the FIB special tactical squad of the Nigeria Police at the Force Headquarters, Guzape in Abuja.

The invitation, dated January 26, 2021, and signed by Kolo Yusuf, a deputy commissioner of police, accused the villagers of “criminal conspiracy, unlawful possession of prohibited firearms, causing grievous hurt and mischief.”

The leaders were directed to report to Abuja for interrogation on February 6.

The nine, PREMIUM TIMES’ findings revealed, are Messrs Popoola and Adegbenro from Eggua; the traditional chiefs of Orile Igbo-Oro and Agbon villages, the regent of Ijoun village, and one Olayode Williams.

The invitation was also extended to the traditional ruler of Igbo-Ita village and a retired teacher from Ijoun village, identified as Mr Fakambi, who are both dead.

The traditional ruler reportedly died two years ago while Mr Fakambi died about four months ago.

Following the invitation, Governor Dapo Abiodun of Ogun State stepped into the matter.

“When the matter was escalated to the governor, he intervened and we were told not to bother again. We hope we would not be arrested any moment soon,” one of the concerned villagers who does not want to be named told our reporter.

Igboho’s intervention

On February 1, the self-acclaimed Yoruba nationalist, Sunday Adeyemo, aka Sunday Igboho, visited Igangan in Ibarapa axis of Oyo State to “warn the herders against continued harassment of the villagers.” This was later followed by a violent attack on the herders’ settlement and the burning of their cattle and market.

One of the herders, identified simply as Alhaji Jiji, was reportedly set ablaze in the attack.

“Since that day, peace has eluded us,” said Mr Adegbenro.

More records of violent attacks

From Igbogila to Eggua, Oju-Ogun, Agbon, Igan Alade, Imeko, Afon, Iwoye-Ketu, Owode-Ketu, Idofa, Ijoun, Oja Odan, and Igbo-Oro, among others, sorrow, tears and blood fill Ketu-Yewa land.

Two days after Mr Adeyemo’s actions in Oyo State, persons suspected to be herders set the whole of Oju-Ogun village, near Eggua, in Ogun State on fire.

The youth council chairman for Yewa North Local Government Area, Adekunle Akerewusi, conducted our reporter around some affected communities but declined to accompany the reporter down to some of the villages including Oju-Ogun for fear of being attacked.

“The deaths are many. We can no longer move after 4 p.m. For more than two weeks I couldn’t visit the office at the local government headquarters in Ayetoro. There is even no transportation because everyone is afraid.”

According to the Onimeko of Imeko, Benjamin Alabi, in January, Dele Olowoniyi, a young farmer, was slaughtered on his farm at Oha, a suburb of Imeko.

The deceased’s only son and wife were, according to the monarch, taken to Abeokuta by his elder brother.

Also, Yakubu Tiamiyu, a 40-year-old generator repairer and vigilante member in Imeko, was on February 4, stabbed to death allegedly by herders while addressing a conflict on a farm in the community.

His wife, Omowunmi Tiamiyu, told PREMIUM TIMES how Mr Tiamiyu was called early in the morning on the fateful day by his colleagues to some farms invaded by cattle.

“Before he left that morning, he gave me N500 to take our three-year-old son, Khaleed, to school since he could not wait to do that. I didn’t know it was the last time I would see him,” she said.

The deceased’s elder brother, Idowu Tiamiyu, said their aged parents were yet to recover from the shock of the gruesome murder.

On February 24, a farmer in Imeko, Ayinde Oguntade, was stabbed in the eye allegedly by herders who grazed cattle into his farm.

Similarly, on March 1, Elizabeth Pascal, a young woman, was killed on her way to the stream, allegedly by herders at CAC Olorunda Moriwi community in Imeko Afon Local Government Area.

But Yakubu Sanusi, a butcher, was lucky. He was kidnapped but released after parting with N1.25 million as ransom.

“I went to buy cow as usual but while we were haggling, we just heard gunshots and all of us started running in different directions. Unfortunately for me, I fell down. That was how they caught me and tied my hands,” Mr Sanusi narrated.

He said he was tied up and held in the bush for three days until his family members raised the ransom for his release.

There were also cases of 31-year-old Isiaka Apesin, who was killed in Owode-Ketu, and Bayo Oguntosin, aka Ayangbe, who was murdered in Odan-Iga village, both of them allegedly by herders.

Adam Abubakar, aka “Ojonla,” a Yoruba interpretation of Friday, is a lieutenant of the Seriki Fulani in Imeko Afon LGA. He decried the escalating conflicts between farmers and herders in the area. He said in the last 35 years that he has lived in the area after moving from his home state of Kwara to Imeko, he had not witnessed such a level of animosity and violence between herders and villagers.

“The unfortunate thing is that the name Fulani is being destroyed from far and near. So we are making efforts to join hands with the villagers and farmers to find a lasting solution to the problem. We are also as unsafe as the farmers. But we are sure that there is nothing that is beyond God’s control,” he said.

Will Amotekun halt the drift?

Though the state government set up various crisis-resolution committees at different layers and distributed palliatives to some of the affected victims, hundreds of villagers have fled to Benin Republic.

Many of the refugees have vowed not to return home until they are guaranteed security. The villagers said the police officers deployed to various hotspots including Eggua and Ibeku cannot protect them against the herders’ “imported mercenaries.”

But the police have pledged to continue to engage the warring factions and increase monitoring and surveillance in the area.

The Chairman, Ogun State herders-farmers conflict resolution committee, Kayode Oladele, sounded hopeful during a chat with PREMIUM TIMES. While acknowledging the severity of the clashes, Mr Oladele said the situation was under control.

“Our committee was constituted on February 20 but we couldn’t start work until about a week later. What we met on the ground was not palatable; there were so much confusion and animosity. There was also controversy over the matter of refugees whether they have returned or not. But I can tell you that peace has returned to Yewaland.

“On the matter of refugees, as you know, in Yewaland, we are one cutting across the two countries of Nigeria and Benin Republic beyond the colonial boundaries. Our land transcends even up to Port Novo, the capital of Benin Republic. So we have those who moved to the other side at the peak of the crisis, but many have returned back home.

“So economic activities have resumed, and there is improved security monitoring and surveillance in the area. Apart from the security task force that was set up to tackle the crisis, the government also just inaugurated the Amotekun corps to give support to the joint security task force that was in place in the area.

“The governor also emphasised that the first task of the Amotekun will be to give a fillip to the activities of the existing security operatives,” he said.

He added that a yet to be released report by his committee will address all pending issues in the quest to bring lasting peace to the area.

But contrary to Mr Oladele’s assurance, on April 9, a medical director at Imeko general hospital identified simply as Oladunni, and a nurse, Olajide Durojaye, were abducted at Olubo village along Abeokuta-Imeko Road.

The abductors also attacked the local vigilantes and hunters mobilised to search for the victims, injuring two of them and burning two of their vehicles and 10 motorcycles.

Meanwhile, efforts to get the reaction of the head of herders’ community in Ogun State, Kabir Muhammed, were unsuccessful. Mr Muhammed, who is also the southwest regional leader for the group, neither picked many calls to his telephone line nor replied messages sent to him.

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