By Chima Amadi
Gabriel Suswam stilled his look at me and took a deep sigh and said “Doc, I am certain that Buhari will arrest me very soon, not because of any corruption but because he knows I know too much about these killings. He won’t stop the killings”.
This was in 2016 but first a background.
I was just settling down in London in 2016 as a Chevening Scholar at the London School of Economics when I got a desperate call from a friend who is from Benue.
She was weeping and told me stories of ongoing massacres in her village by Herdsmen with no one reporting them while CSOs and influencers went silent.
She said no one wanted to speak up because they all supported the new government of President Muhammmed Buhari. I informed her that I also campaigned and supported the government but that was no reason to condone the kind of murders that she just described.
I promised to get back to her and started surfing the net for any information on ongoing killings in the Benue. True to what she told me, information was scanty with only untrustworthy blogs and citizen reporters alluding to anything of the sorts.
Benue state Governor, Samuel Ortom himself was singing the praises of the new government. Knowing who this friend was, I knew she was not one to raise a false alarm especially when she had told me that five of her uncles in the village had already being hacked to death.
She sent me picture evidence via WhatsApp. I made some calls back home but most of the usual vocal voices were not interested. The opinion then was that the out-gone government of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ) messed up and it would take time for things to come back to normal, especially as there were signs that the Boko Haram terrorists were being repressed and overwhelmed by the new admin.
However, when I saw more pictures and videos, this time, of pregnant women being disemboweled by the herdsman and some local youths engaging in Cannibalism (roasting and eating a herdsman), I knew I had to act. I flew into Nigeria the next week and started putting in place A CSO Colloquium on the crises.
My approach was to use my networks and connections to get prominent figures from both divides to come speak in a nationally televised event. The Secretary-General of the Miyetti Allah is someone I had known very closely for over 20 years.
I then reached out to some Benue citizens and that was how I contacted Gabriel Suswam, the former Governor of Benue state. After a few hiccups, we finally met late one night in his home.
What he told me was chilling. Due to National Security concerns I will not reveal certain aspects of our discussion, but he was very bitter. He said during the transition between GEJ’s government and the incoming President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) administration, he was summoned to the Villa and Jonathan took him to the then President-Elect.
GEJ told PMB in Suswam’s presence that he wanted only one favour from PMB.
He told PMB that he didn’t care if he was probed or if his administration’s efforts at national development were reversed, but PMB should please do something for him.
According to Suswam, GEJ informed PMB that the brewing Herdsmen crises could eclipse the BH insurgency in all ramifications, and that, if not tackled with expediency Nigeria may not recover.
He said he had set up a committee chaired by Suswam to travel round the world looking for solutions and that they now fully have a plan that can resolve the issue.
He begged PMB to invite Suswam for talks and to look at the recommendations of that committee.
Suswam told me that he was made the Chair of the committee for an incident that happened in his state. Sometime in 2014, herdsman had sacked whole villages, killed, raped women and burnt farms and homes of communities in rural areas in Benue.
He said he didn’t believe the reports he was getting until he started seeing refugees pouring into Makurdi.
One day, he mobilized his entourage which included police men, press, soldiers and others and proceeded to see things for himself in those communities. He said when they got to a few kilometres to the village the soldiers in his convoy, acting on instructions from Headquarters refused to proceed any further but he insisted on continuing.
Ten minutes into the trip all hell was let loose. They were ambushed by Herdsmen and a battle ensued. A barrage of gun shots was unleashed on them from all sides. He said there were over 100 well armed Herdsmen shooting at them.
Those in the convoy retreated but he was already in the middle and so decided to fight for his life. He took an AK from one of the retreating mopol men and with a few others that remained with him faced the Herdsmen fire for fire.
He told me he was a trained marksman having lived in the US. In the process, two of his security aides were shot but they continued fighting until the Herdsmen retreated.
He said he left for Makurdi and returned the next day fully prepared and saw how villages had been taken over by cows. This time, the Herdsmen didn’t shoot him and some of them pulled out their phones and were snapping him.
He decided then and then that, if he did nothing Benue would be overrun. He took actions that saw to a curtailing of the actions of these killers. It was against this backdrop that GEJ made him the chairman of the Committee.
News filtered in last week that Suswam had been arrested on gun running charges , fulfilling his prediction in 2016 that he would be arrested.But the events that led to his arrest was precipitated 2 weeks ago.Suswam was in Kwande local govt to receive an APC decampee into the PDP. When he got there he said he was not there to talk politics but to speak up against injustice to the Tiv nation and Benue people as a whole. He called out Akume and Gemade for being silent while Benue people were being massacred. He told the crowd that Ortom the Governor was helpless and had since been denied access to the president. He reminded the people of the actions he took to protect them from the herdsmen. Unbeknownst to him, certain persons recorded the speech which he delivered exclusively in Tiv but for the mention of constitution and took to the DSS. They translated it and pronto charged him to court.
Now, I was surprised that Suswam would have that courage to speak up given that he had declined my invitation to him to come speak at the colloquium I was putting together and in fact, was even afraid to release essential documents to me which was why the initiative could not hold. Why was he so afraid? We will have to look at his meeting with the the president elect to find the answer to that question.
Following his introduction to the PMB, GEJ left both of them alone to work out a possible meeting time. PMB was noncommittal and didn’t want to have the meeting but Suswam persisted and begged that even if he can’t meet with PMB he could at least allow him the opportunity of submitting the report to him. PMB would have none of that. Suswam claimed that after that failure, he remained in Abuja to see if he could use other influential persons to get PMB to meet with him but they were all exercises in futility. In frustration, he returned to Makurdi to focus on handing over to Ortom. He was therefore surprised when shortly after he returned he got a call from someone telling him that the General was ready to see him. He gathered all his documents and made an Executive Summary for ease of digestion for GMB and hurried to Abuja.
He said he was very nervous when he got to meeting that evening but PMB was very convivial unlike the impression he got from the previous interaction with him. He sat down and got ready to do his presentation but amazingly , PMB was not interested in hearing either the work of Committee or their recommendations. He said PMB was more interested in knowing if he Suswam has any insider knowledge about the modus Operandi of the herdsmen. Suswam said PMB was of the firm conviction that the herdsmen were the victims and had been pushed to the wall due to rustling.
PMB made other statements which Suswam said made him to start shivering in fear and he knew he was going to be a target. He also wanted to know how weapons that the Benue people used to nullify the attacks of the herdsmen during Suswam’s time got to them and not how herdsmen got theirs. After an over two hours discussion PMB still didn’t want to collect the report of the committee. Suswam said he left there and decided to go on exile but after two months outside he summoned courage and returned to face the consequences head-on
He said he started feeling the heat when all his accounts were frozen and properties impounded by EFCC. I quickly reminded him that the records of former governors were not the best when it came to corruption and that the government had a duty to investigate anyone that they thought had abused the trust reposed on him especially where there were allegations against him. He agreed but said he was the only past governor under GEJ that had met such treatment and whose accounts were frozen. Take note that this was in 2016. Of course some more governors have since come under investigation. I reminded him that the President wanted a solution to the mayhem. That was when he told me that with a mindset that the herdsmen were the victims, there would not be a political will to act decisively and that the killings would only get worse.
I asked him to come and have his say in front of cameras and the Miyetti Allah representatives that I intended to bring since it was important to hear from both sides. He said if he did that he would not live to tell the story. Exactly two months later, Suswam was arrested.
Now, I asked Suswam a very important question: how come you were able to keep the herders at bay but Ortom could not? He said Ortom came on board riding on the goodwill of the president and of course read the body language of the president very well. In a bid to please his masters, Ortom decided to emasculate Benue youths.
He announced an ill-conceived amnesty and asked all the youths to come surrender their guns and other defense instruments that they had. He promised them huge sums of cash and other incentives such as jobs and empowerment. Basking in the euphoria of support from Abuja, he succeeded in convincing these youths and they laid down their weapons. That was a huge mistake. Ortom didn’t come true for them but instead started owing salaries. Having seen that the line of defense had been weakened, the herdsmen returned with a vengeance. Ortom also set up a task force made up of some of these youths to go placing levies of the herdsmen. These levies were increased by over 100 percent of the normal levy that was in place and since the herders could not afford them, their cattle were killed in huge numbers. Since these communities no longer enjoyed the protection from the youths, they became easy targets for the rampaging herdsmen who sacked them and took over the communities till date.
How do the herders get these weapons? TY Danjuma had answers that and that was Suswam’s position too.
Finally, I have not seen Suswam again since then and neither do I hold brief for him. I have edited many of the things he told me and only reproduced what I thought was necessary to give insight to the lack of political leadership in dealing with this crises.
The Nigerian Army, DSS , Police, etc all have the capacity to stop this madness. What is lacking is the political will, a will that the president must muster if he truly wants this boodshed to end.
- Chima Amadi