By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—The Presidential Panel set up to investigate alleged human rights violations by the Nigerian Army, yesterday, held its inaugural sitting in Abuja, with Benue indigenes narrating how soldiers helped rampaging herdsmen to attack their communities.
This came as the chairman of the probe panel, Justice Biobele Georgewill, said the proceeding will provide a unique opportunity to those that have genuine and verifiable cases of human rights abuses by the Armed Forces, in the course of managing and containing local conflicts and insurgencies, to submit their memoranda.
He said the panel will hold a public hearing in each of the six geo-political zones of the country on selected dates and centres.
It will be recalled that the panel, which was constituted by the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, while he was the Acting President, was tasked to, among other things, “review compliance of the forces with human rights obligations and rules of engagement, especially in the local conflict and insurgency situations.”
Shortly after Justice Georgewill, Chairman of the seven-man panel, declared the sitting open, residents of Moon Valley communities in Kwande Local Government Area of Benue State took turns to narrate their experience.
They narrated how about 30,000 persons were sacked by the military from their abode.
Represented by their lawyer, Mr. Mike Utsaha, the community told the panel that while 28 persons were killed in the attack, 91 compounds and property were destroyed.
According to the community, the attack was carried out by the 93 Battalion of the Nigerian Army in Takum, Taraba State.
The community, through an 18-page memorandum submitted to the panel, stated how following intense and sustained attacks from 2013 to 2015, they were massacred and displaced from their ancestral land by the combined team of soldiers and herdsmen.
In his testimony, the first petitioners’ witness, Mr. Jacob Kwaghkper, who is a retired Deputy Director with the National Commission for Colleges of Education, told the panel that from 2015 to June 2017, five communities that make up the Moon Valley were subjected to intense, sustained and coordinated attacks by soldiers from the 93 Battalion and herdsmen, leading to the death of 28 people.
He told the panel that the herdsmen, with the active support of soldiers, were still occupying ancestral lands of the five communities.
Lamenting before the panel, Kwaghkper said: “The soldiers are even providing security for the herdsmen, who are occupying the ancestral lands of the communities.
“The displaced people of the communities, who escaped from the series of sustained attacks, have become refugees in Cameroon and internally displaced persons, IDPs, taking shelter in various places in Kwande Local Government Area of Benue State, under the watchful eyes of both the federal and state government without any form of assistance.”
Another witness, Mr. Agbo Utah, told the panel that soldiers watched as herdsmen burnt down his compound.
He also narrated how he was beaten, arrested and detained for a week by soldiers who disrupted local government election held in the area in 1998.
Aside the narratives, the displaced communities prayed the panel to order immediate restoration of their ancestral lands with adequate compensation.
They further want all places of worship, schools and markets that were destroyed as a result of the attacks by soldiers of the 93 Battalion, Nigerian Army, Takum, Taraba State, and herdsmen, be rebuilt on their original sites.