Reverend Akpen Leva is the Benue State Chairman of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). In this interview, he speaks on how incessant farmers-herders crisis in the state have affected the church and its attendant effect on faithfuls.
How has the herders-farmers crisis affected the church in Benue?
As far as Benue State is concerned, it is a Christian state. Therefore anything which affects the state, affect the Christians directly such as non-payment of salaries, workers strike among others and that is how the farmers/herders crisis has affected the church directly. Almost all the people killed in the crisis are Christians so also the destruction of farmlands, burning of churches, burning of schools and hospitals as well as the displacement of many people have affected the church. In the first place, the churches that were destroyed are not yet built due to lack of money. Over 500 churches have been destroyed so far and it depends on the church to raise money to rebuild them again. The church also have to source for fund to meet the needs of people who are displaced at the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) camp in order to supplement the efforts of government. Our children who attend the schools and hospitals destroyed can no longer do so, meaning that all these activities have impacted negatively on the church. That is why the church is so vocal in condemning all these attacks of herdsmen on farmers.
How many churches have been destroyed so far?
Over 500 churches across the state have been destroyed.
Can you recall how the Tiv Christians have lived with herdsmen in the past?
In the time past, the relationship was very cordial. The herders at that time would come with their wives and children after farmers have harvested all their crops. Then, they would carry just a stick and cutlass to be able to make their tents. If their animals strayed into farms to destroy people’s crop at that time, they would settle it amicably, they would pay the farmers and the relationship was cordial until quite recently when they started coming alone and with AK 47 guns. Now, they also come with hired mercenaries to kill but then they only come for grazing. This time around, they are coming to uproot and occupy which definitely has taken a different dimension from what was obtainable in those days.
At what point can you say things actually went wrong and why?
I can say in Benue state, things began to go wrong in the past 17 years. We started witnessing these attacks since 2001 in the state. Sometimes, they say it was because of the desert encroachment in the far north so they are looking for places to graze their animals but if it were like that, the normal thing would be during the dry season, by the time the rain starts they would go back. However, there is nothing like that now, they come with the intention of not going back and you see them settle even during the rainy season. They kill people and live in their houses, that is the dimension it has taken presently and it simply means that they want to occupy by sending the people away.
How many Christians have been killed as a result of the crisis?
It is very difficult to know the exact number of Christians that have been killed but over 500 Christians have been killed in the state.
How many Christians have been displaced?
Over 200, 000 have been displaced and living in different camps in the state. Some are not even in the camps. Over 500 are staying with relatives outside the camps in other villages yet they are displaced.
How much help have the displaced received from the Federal Government?
First of all, we have to appreciate the efforts of the state government who did a lot at the initial stage in providing relief materials for the displaced. The federal government also intervened by sending relief materials through National Emergency Management
Agency (NEMA). Other non governmental organisations also assisted. Other states governments too came to the aid of the IDPs while the Christian community in the state contributed immensely for relief materials to the displaced. The CAN at national, north central and state levels also came with their own contributions which was distributed to the IDPs across the state. I appreciate all these bodies for what they have done so far. I still want to appeal to other spirited individuals to assist because the
IDPs are yet suffering, they can’t go back to their ancestral lands to farm. They are just at the mercies of well wishers so I call on people to help them.
How do you think these problems can be permanently solve?
In Benue State, we have said that ranching is the best option. Because that is the best global practice. In countries where there are more cattle than in Nigeria, they aren’t experiencing all these fights and all the senseless killings. I think government can encourage cattle rearers to obtain lands to ranch their animals because it is a private business. Government has the capacity to provide waters and other accessories for herders for their cattle. If they do that, they would get good meat of their cattle, milk and other benefits. The practice of moving cattle here and there impacts on the animals negatively. It would be better for the business if the animals are ranched.
What is the church opinion about arguments from certain quarters that the anti-grazing law of the state be repealed?
The opinion of the church in Benue is that the anti-open grazing law has come to stay. Anybody saying that the law be repealed is living in the Old Testament and not conversant with what is happening. Ranching is the best global practice. Anyone talking about repealing the law is ignorant and does not want to help Nigeria. Even government has changed its method of governance to the presidential system so why can’t they change their method of rearing cattle. They should keep those animals in the ranches which is to the advantage of the herders so that their children can be educated. They risk the lives of their children moving in bushes without attending schools but in ranches, they would be in one place where amenities would be provided for their benefits. As far as the church in Benue is concern, ranching has come to stay and it has to stay. There are no other options to ranching but if there are, let such a person bring it to the table so we look at it. As far as we know, ranching is the best solution.
What other help would you say the church needs from authorities concerned?
We need the finances to rebuild our churches, hospitals and schools. We need the authorities to rebuild the homes that have been destroyed. If that is done, it would be better. They can’t pay back the lives that have been lost but if that are able to rebuild the destroyed homes, life would begin all over again.
Can you quantify the loses so far in monetary form?
The loses is over N10billion. Houses, foods and so many things have been destroyed. Even if they give the state that N10 billion, it wouldn’t be enough for the loses. However, if they are able to rebuild all the destroyed places in the state, life would pick up again and that is our request.