The smaller problem began on Thursday, April 17, 2003. On that day, the Adikpo people of Kwande Local Government Area of Benue State, had two days to an imminent election. It was a decisive vote. Were they going to endorse George Akume’s four years as governor of Benue state and gave him four more years, or were they going to vote for their son, Wanteregh Paul Iyorpuu Unongo, who they rejected in 1999? On Thursday, the signs of the eventual vote emerged.
For reasons unknown, in spite of his successful civil service career, Chief Ason Bur, the former Deputy Governor of Benue under the military administration of Col. Fidelis Makka was unpopular amongst his people. Most of his policies and stands on issues, were held in disdain by Kwande people. But, suddenly, the year 1999 came and for other reasons, Kwande people decided to take a very popular stand with Bur.
Bur had brought a political party to Kwande, The People’s Democratic Party, PDP one of the then newly formed parties and for once, Unongo who had always had the minds of the people would be rejected. To the people, it was a signal for Unongo to take a bow. That was why, candidates like George Akume who Bur promoted in Kwande won overwhelmingly in 1999.
Akume was seeking another term in 2003. Bur’s candidate had been tested for four years, so the people could make their informed decision on whether to re-elect him or not. They had his performance as a guide.
In 1999, Bur brought Akume to Kwande as someone who very few knew. He was presented as a seasoned permanent secretary whose reign would bring development. On Thursday, April 17, two days to the polls that Akume sought another four year term, the people indicated that they would vote against him in Kwande Local Government.
Ason Bur and the few people that the PDP system favoured in the immediate past four years made a very big mistake in those days in the face of this rejection. Like they had done in 1999, they still wanted the people to hear from them about Akume. They ascribed the unusual powers of saying Akume had succeeded to themselves.
Wantaregh Paul Unongo was strategically located, not just to regain what he lost in 1999, but he wanted to cash in on the failure of Akume as governor to re-launch himself. Unongo is from Kwande. The people, for whatever reasons again, decided to go with Unongo, contesting the gubernatorial election against Akume.
Unongo had been vague when he said this but, to me that was the problem statement of 2003 which initiated a political Babel in Benue State. He told the restive youths to get ready to protect their votes. There were many political song composers who philosophised about this concept of protecting votes. So, the protection votes started on 17th April, 2003 on the streets of Adikpo . To me, that was the day the Kwande crisis began.
The youths put road blocks to stop and search cars they suspected. There were rumours of importation of arms, cash and ballot papers. They youths went about in search of these in every strange car they saw. The first victim of this crisis was a PDP chieftain, the late Chief Mrs Margaret Gom. Her car was seized and some of her aides beaten.
These activities rolled over to Friday a day before the poll. On Friday April 18th 2003, very few PDP men could be seen around town in Adikpo. It was during the Catholic Holy Week activities, but the youths sang war songs, indicating they had rejected Bur, Akume and PDP.
Hon Adzua Ashongo, was the caretaker chairman of Kwande Local Government Area. He was a tough talking man known then as ‘Igbyuriwyaanyi’- remove the teeth of a dog. He was under pressure to deliver Kwande, even under such a situation, to PDP. On April 19 Saturday, day of election, Ashongo appeared with strange military men.
Meanwhile, protection of votes by the youths continued. To some, including me, it had become a picnic or carnival of a sort to move with the youths to see their dare devil activities in the name of votes’ protection as they were urged by Unongo . That was how I witnessed the massacre of defenceless souls that Saturday.
The army opened fire on these vote protectors. They suspected the army had connived with PDP. So wanted to check even the army. This was an issue the army could have handled with more tact, but tensions and fear, coupled with lies told to government by the sinking PDP men, they killed many, including even some who had nothing to do with the protection of votes.
Immediately they shot and killed some members of Adikpo town, the army left the town. That was when the burning of houses began. Some of these youths regrouped, and they were also joined by some members of the town who were only angry, to go about burning down the houses of some PDP chieftains in Adikpo town like Bur and Ashongo. Even the house of the then Ter Kwande, the late James Adzape was burnt down.
How did the PDP respond to this? The local people call the response ‘Kpakpor’ it is an interesting Adikpo story that laid the foundations for the emergence of political warlords, militia leaders and criminals in Benue State.
For many years, most of the people living at the border areas in the state had engaged in crises of sort over land. These skirmishes were very fierced and recurrent as such that ragtag militias had been organised for Homeland Defence by most of the communities at the border.
It was from these groups that the political class who faced the election and was lacking options in 2003, would retort to. Kwande would become a political Babel where the language of political thuggery and militias would be honed into a system.
Some of the strong men were carefully selected, especially from Katsina-Ala, Ukum and Logo Local Government Areas, camped and trained after which they were sneaked into Adikpo and later Unongo Village in Kendev area of Kwande and Jato Aka Town.
During these political operations, exercises and missions, most of the chosen warlords were nameless. They were trained to use the most complex weapons in the market. They were to squash the rising opposition to politicians’ ambition.
Today, it is clear that those who planned the Kwande invasion were oblivious of the long term effects. They didn’t realize or consider how difficult the mopping up of the arms was going to be in the aftermath of these operations.
They didn’t even know the strength and dexterity of some of the militia men they had recruited. How thoughtless could our political class have been?
Since militias were camped in Kwande in 2003, the years after have been very dreadful. It became fashionable to arm young men during elections and the system has been re-enforced by other politicians.
These young men have shown that politicians can abandon their campaign promises and the people, but they cannot be used and dumped. They have learnt to use what have been acquired for them during the election to engage in crime and patiently wait for another election year.
Akume overwhelmingly won the gubernatorial election in 2003 and the strong political will of the people was subdued, but most of the warlords who were gathered in Kwande for that operation have not been tamed . They have created criminal camps and niches of influences here and there. As we collectively seek for peace in Benue State. This is a lesson that we shall learn and be cautious about, today or tomorrow.