by Franklyne Ogbunwezeh
Enugu State in Nigeria’s southeast has until now largely been spared the jihadist violence that has cut across Nigeria from northeast to southwest. But a spate of attacks by militant Fulani groups is raising fears that Enugu is becoming a new hotspot in the sectarian conflict.
Since November, dozens have been killed and whole villages have been cleared of inhabitants in Isi Uzo Local Government Area, close to the border with Ebonyi and Benue states. Conflict has been rumbling in the area since 2016, with periodic outbreaks of violence, which have recently intensified.
The Nigerian newspaper Daily Post reported on 14 December that, according to residents, over 50 people had been killed “within the last few weeks” by rampaging Fulani herdsmen aided by Igala people from Benue State. The Igala have been engaged in a long-running border dispute with the people of Enugu.
The latest reported attack took place early on Sunday 18 December when the rural Eha Amufu community was invaded by armed herdsmen, Punch reported. Local vigilantes engaged the invaders but were outnumbered, it said. A community leader told the paper that at least 10 bodies had been recovered.
Previous attacks occurred on 7 and 8 December, leaving an estimated 25 dead, according to Punch.
Less than three weeks earlier, on Saturday 19 November, Reverend Ben Collins Okwesili, the priest of St. Paul´s in Ndiagu Aguamede, a parish in Eha Amufu, was in his church addressing members of the Catholic men’s organization when they heard gunshots.
Little did they know that Fulani jihadists had just killed one of their members, Stephen Obeagu, in the presence of his mother and sister. According to Collins, the assailants told the women that they “don´t kill women, that they are here to kill only men”.
The invaders were said to have even gone as far as checking the sex of the baby the women had with them, to see if it was a boy. Thankfully, it was a girl. They left after asking the women to point out the road leading to Ikpakpara, one of the villages that was subsequently attacked.
As soon as he heard about the killing of Obeagu, the priest contacted the security agencies. He followed this up with a visit to the Army headquarters in Eha Amufu, to request the military authorities send soldiers to patrol the community.
It was while there that the Army received reports that a full-scale invasion of the community was taking place. They were told that Fulani militants were moving from house to house and killing people with machetes, rather than firearms, so as not to attract attention.
The invasion went unchallenged for hours, said Collins.
Two days later, the militants struck again. A total of 12 persons were killed in an attack on four villages in the parish, namely Ohualamgbede, Ikpakpara, Ekwuakpa and Onuchukwu. Several other people were reported injured or missing.
"Following the incident on Saturday 19 November, we started making plans to beef up our vigilantes. I went on to involve the Nigerian Army. Then came the brutal attack on Monday 21 November. That left the community in utter despair,” said the parish priest.
He named those killed in the attacks on 21 November as:
1. Ogenyi Ruben
2. Eze Johnson
3. Ogbu Okechukwu
4. Onunze Sunday
5. Ogbu Ernerst
6. Ede Ikechkwu
7. Onah Obinna
8. Olinya Sylvester
9. Oku Chimezie
10. Odo Samuel
11. Chidi Samuel
12. Chidi Favor
Collins said there had been “a mass exodus” of villagers following the attack on the community.
“Before this ugly incident, the inhabitants of six villages within my parish had been displaced from their land and were living as internally displaced persons in other villages.”
The whole community is now deserted. There is no one to mourn the dead, as they all have been forced to flee their homes, the priest added.
“The major challenge is how to support the internally displaced families."