Fear has gripped residents of Gboko town, the ancestral home of the Tiv nation, as troops of the Nigerian Army in seven trucks moved into the city occupying major streets. Our correspondent gathered that Gboko had last Wednesday witnessed serious skirmish- es where the police con rmed the death of sev- en persons.
LEADERSHIP Friday gathered that prior to the arrival of the army in the town, infor- mation had ltered-in that the mission of the army was to allegedly destroy the town follow- ing the killing of some travelers in the area the previous day by criminals.
In a swift reaction however, spokesman for the Army, Assistant Director, Army Public Relations, 707 Special Forces, Major Olabisi Olale- kan Ayeni in a telephone conversation debunked the insinuation that the soldiers were deployed to Gboko to cause harm to anyone but to keep the peace and maintain law and order.
He said: “Yes, the soldiers are already in Gboko. But what happened is that when they got there, they went round in about seven Hilux to register their presence in Gboko, to scare away criminals and law breakers who will want to cause disturbance and havoc in the area. “
The people were just afraid seeing the movement of the soldiers. We have heard about the insinuation but that is not true. The Army’s presence in Gboko is to maintain peace and not to kill or burn houses. e army is for all Nigerians and not for a single set of people. It is against our ethics, it is against our profession to take side,” Ayeni added.
Meanwhile, Benue State government has directed all security agencies to arrest all vehicles with covered plates numbers and banned the use of sirens by individuals in the state. In the new order only traditional rulers are permitted to cover their plates numbers up to the end of February, 2018 after which issues relating to their numbers will be sorted out.
In a related development, the Defence Headquarters on Thursday denied reports that Nigerian troops had been deployed to Benue State following deadly attacks on Fulani in the state.
“The claim is not true and it now appears like some people are playing politics with security,” defence spokesperson, John Agim, told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Thursday night. “The troops only went on a specific mission and have since returned to base.”
Panic spread quickly across Benue on Thursday after images surfaced online of a convoy of troops riding along major roads in the state, where several attacks linked to farmers-herders crisis have been recorded in recent weeks.
Some newspapers also reported the images and quoted a spokesperson for 707 Special Forces Brigade in Makurdi as confirming the deployment and assuring Gboko residents of their safety.
Daily Independent quoted Olabisi Ayeni, a major, as saying that the soldiers arrived Gboko in seven Toyota Hilux vans ”to scare away criminal elements.”
The Defence Headquarters, however, insisted to PREMIUM TIMES in a follow up enquiry Friday morning that there was no contradiction between its account Thursday night and the statement by the 707 Brigade spokesperson that troops were indeed on ground in Makurdi Thursday.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt from Gboko residents that the only soldiers seen around the predominantly Tiv town as at Friday morning were those working with the police in Operation Zenda.
“Those ones have always been around because they mixed with police when Operation Zenda was launched to combat herdsmen attacks some years back,” a resident said.
The pictures of the military convoy, whose authenticity PREMIUM TIMES could not immediately ascertain, were circulated a day after a mob killed seven travellers in Gboko, an industrial town about 90 kilometres southeast of Makurdi, the state capital.
The police identified the victims as Fulani who were travelling to Kogi and Taraba States. They were killed at a motor park by suspected Tiv thugs who burnt their remains, police said.
The state police commissioner Fatai Owoseni said suspects had been taken into custody in connection with the killings.
Governor Samuel Ortom had also imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Gboko and charged security operatives to ensure prompt arrest and prosecution of all suspects.
The state government also increased a ransom for the most wanted militiaman in the state from N10 to N50 million on Thursday.
The incident was largely presumed a fallout of January 1 attacks in which suspected herdsmen murdered scores of villagers across two local government areas of the state.
The state government buried over 70 persons in a mass grave near Makurdi on January 12.
President Muhammadu Buhari responded by ordering Inspector-General of police to move to the state on January 9 as parts of his administration’s efforts to return calm and a lasting peace to the affected areas.
Meanwhile, Benue residents have criticised the president for deeming the situation in the state critical enough for deployment of soldiers only after the killings of Fulani.
David Ogbole, a Makurdi-based Pentecostal preacher and founder of the Movement Against Fulani Occupation, described the movement of troops in the state as “shameful” and “belated”.
“The military presence in Benue State is only relevant to the degree to which they crack down on Fulani militia, kill or capture them in the spirit of justice,” Mr. Ogbole said in a statement to PREMIUM TIMES Thursday night. “Anything other than that renders them a burden and an unnecessary sight.”
“He that is not for us is against us. He that comes late, never came at all,” he added.
While denying the alleged deployment, Mr. Agim said the military could only get involved if the police are unable to contain the violence and ask for a back-up.
He said the troops went on a special mission to further destroy shrines suspected to be hideouts of “Tiv militia” in Zaki Biam and Katsina Ala areas.
Mr. Agim, a brigadier-general, said the military has bases in all the 36 states, but only the president can order their active deployment in areas that require intervention.
“As witnessed with the Boko Haram menace, the military is the last line of defence,” Mr. Agim said. “So it cannot just jump up and go into security issues.”