By Professor Pita Agbese
Although Benue State is highly polarized, polarized by politics, polarized by ethnicity, there is probably considerable consensus that warehousing Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) permanently in IDP camps is not an ideal solution to the violence that forced the IDPs from their homes. Providing immediate shelter and safety for innocent people on whom wanton violence was visited by marauding terrorists should have been a temporary exigency. Benue’s IDPs have stayed in IDP camps for far too long without any end in sight. At first, these camps were necessary to safeguard their lives and provide a place of refuge for the children, men and women. It was also imperative as a temporary solution until the state was able to devise a permanent solution to the crisis. It does not look like the state government is working on the resettlement of these victims of the orgies of violence in contemporary Nigeria. Yet, it is essential for the IDPs to be resettled. It is important for them to resume their lives which were disrupted by violence. Ironically, by leaving IDPs in IDP camps, they unwittingly have been ranched while the livestock over which their lives have been devastated roam the streets freely. This is unacceptable. There is an urgent imperative to give the IDP back their human dignity by restyling them. We must ranch livestock and give freedom back to our people. This imperative is anchored on a number of arguments. I will set out those arguments below and offer suggestions on how to deal with the problem of Benue’s IDPs.
The Case Against IDP Camps
First, the camps themselves are in deplorable conditions. Pictures show open sewers and ramshackle dwellings. If we must camp them, let us camp them in better living conditions. Even where more permanent buildings have been erected, the IDPs are kept away from other communities of the state. There aren’t enough classrooms in the camps and the children learn under trees. This is deplorable. It should be unacceptable. If IDPs must stay at camps, the conditions of the camps must be reasonably liveable. If new schools cannot be built, the children must be bused to schools in neighboring villages.
Second, there is no dignity living as an internally displaced person. It is dehumanizing for these proud men and women, these hard-working farmers and artisans, to be reduced to living on other people’s charitable donations. Warehousing them at IDP camps also opens them to being used as political props for photo opportunities by unscrupulous politicians who supposedly show empathy to their plights by breaking bread with them or celebrating their birthdays at the camps or using them as campaign platforms for political offices.
Third, leaving IDPs to remain in camps prevents the state government from exploring viable options to the violence between cultivators and livestock farmers. It creates a false sense of a solution. For the state, keeping IDPs at camps is akin to out of sight, out of mind.
Fourth, there is absolutely no reason why Benue citizens should be displaced persons in their own states. If we cannot provide a more permanent place for our own people within our own state, what then is the essence of our shared statehood? Why must a Benue indigene have an ancestral home as the only home in his or her own state? Why can’t a Benue person displayed from Guma be resettled permanently at Igumale in Ado Local Government Area?
Fifth, keeping IDPs in camps is a financially opaque policy. How much does the state spend on the IDPs and on maintaining the camps? Does the figure remain constant even after some of the IDPs, possibly out of frustration, have voluntarily left the camp? How much has Benue expended on IDPs and by how much have Good Samaritans aided the state government’s efforts? How many people are employed to run the camps and what happens when the camps close down?
Sixth, the lives of IDPs, their talents, their creativities and their hardwork are wasted at IDP camps. Being at camps is also unsettling for most IDPs. They cannot plan for a future while they remain at camps. They have no idea when they will leave. Thus, there is a permanence to their temporality. A permanence that is permanently unsettling.
Seventh, many of the adult IDPs are parents. It is very difficult to raise families in IDP and refugee camps. Life in camps is too disruptive to allow for the proper upbringing of children.
Ending the Ranching of IDPs
Resettling IDPs either in their original homes or elsewhere in Benue State must be the top priority of the Ortom administration. Ortom has proposed building another airport on the site of the still-born Cargo Airport. The Benue State House of Assembly must reject the proposed airport out of hand. Lagos has several times the population of Benue State and yet, it has only one airport. Even Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, has only one airport. Kano, one of the oldest commercial cities in Nigeria, has just the Aminu Kano International Airport. One, just one. Why should Makurdi have two airports? Moreover, the aborted Cargo Airport which was supposed to be Ortom’s signature project, has been shrouded in obfuscation and mendacity. Ortom must be kept away from another airport project. His morbid fascination with building phantom airports must be stopped in its tracks. A fraction of the money which Ortom has earmarked for this project is enough to resettle IDPs and give them a new lease in life. The Benue House of Assembly must take the airport money away from Ortom and give it to IDPs.
Second, Ortom and the Benue State administration as a whole, supported by the Benue people, must demand that police and soldiers be drafted to the villages from where the IDPs fled. Soldiers and other security personnel must be deployed to those villages to provide security on a twenty-four hour basis to allow the IDPs to return home. If the federal government is unwilling to do so, I’d suggest that Benue should recruit State Public Safety Officers and deploy them to the troubled spots to ensure safety and security that would then convince the IDPs to return home. Just as some state governments use their own funds to reconstruct federal roads and get reimbursed by the federal government, the same principle can apply here. Benue State should bill the federal government of all expenses incurred in recruiting State Public Safety Officers to provide security at the villages from where the now IDPs fled.
Alternatively, the Benue State government should offer monetary incentives to allow IDPs who wish to leave the camps on their own and go and resume their lives elsewhere to be able to do so. Since the state government has an accurate census of the IDPs, this option will be relatively easy to implement. A flat fee should be given to all IDPs who wish to leave the camp.
The state government should also encourage Benue people to extend hands of brotherhood and sisterhood to the IDPs by adopting them and asking them to come and live with them. This option is however not workable as long as Ortom refuses to pay salaries and retiremet benefits.
Helping to re-settlle the IDPs will be a far bigger achievement for Ortom than building ten mirage airports that will serve only as a boondoggle for Ortom’s cronies. We should not allow Ortom to boast in Nigeria and in Washington, DC, that his law against open-grazing of livestock is working if the victims of herders’ terrorism continue to be ranched while cows roam freely in Benue.