Since I was born and now am getting old, I have never experienced anything like this in my lifetime. It was a day that men became women; we ran side by side to places of safety in the bush, we did not see each other differently.
- Mama Ayinekweye Owara, 60, widow and resident of Assakio, Nasarawa State
It was difficult for me to appear stoic while I listened to Mama Ayinekweye recount what happened in her village; the brutality she recounted brought tightness to my chest.
Imagining such violence in this serene farming community was almost impossible. When our vehicle parked in front of the big tree that morning, the village was calm and quiet. Numerous heaps of yams, some as high as my shoulder, seemed to congregate around the cool shade generously provided by the branches and leaves of the tree. Some mats were spread in the middle, and on them, a gentleman taking a mid-morning nap without his shirt on. The stifling hot breeze that hit me as I stepped out of the vehicle, along with the quietness, made me wish I could ask the gentleman on the mat to shift so I could take a rest beside him, in the midst of those yam heaps.
A typical day in Assakio community starts sluggishly till events pick up around midday. Then by six in the evening all is calm and quiet once again, the only exception being on market days. However, this normalcy was broken one early morning in February 2014. Before the sun had fully rose, masked attackers stormed the community wielding weapons. The masked men began killing and maiming, seemingly indiscriminately, while others set homes and properties ablaze.
Mama Ayinekweye, whose words opened this piece, was born in Assakio about 60 years ago and experienced the conflict first hand.
See, our house was burnt down. While I ran blindly to find safety, I saw the smoke rising in a distance. Some women were running beside me I saw a child being snatched from the mother’s back and macheted. I am a widow and my son in-law who was our main support got slaughtered like a ram by the assailants. I lost everything just like that.
The killings, arson and mayhem enveloped the community for 11 days without any interruption by formal security agents. What sparked the violent outbreak is unclear. Some say it was a religious crisis, others believe that land disputes sparked enmity. Most claim it was well orchestrated intimidation and organized crime. Yet others opine that cultural intolerance was the cause.
My agony is not about who is right or wrong, or who started what. Nor am I concerned much about who did or did not do what. What I am bothered by is how rapidly human life in Nigeria has become so cheap. In the centre of all these opinions and complexities are innocent women, children and the elderly who died at the hands of some cruel men. People are killed without any just course of action. No one is disturbed by the plights of others as long as it is not one of “us” or “mine”. And seemingly it is of even less importance if those victims are female. Reports and media coverage reveal that across Nigeria women and children tend to suffer violations, displacement and trauma more than any other group in the event of such a crisis.
My task in Nasarawa State is to monitor ongoing research work being conducted by ActionAid Nigeria which aims to better understand the sexual violence women and girls experience, especially during conflicts. Our goal is to find lasting solutions and access to justice for victims of such violations.
As I listened to one tragic story after another on that calm, quite day in Assakio, I could not help but wonder what this country is turning into. In recent times the spate of violence across the country had worsened, as reported by many media stations. Women and children face various kinds of abuses even in times of peace, let alone when things are compounded by crisis situations. How are they to talk of rights when at the muzzle-end of a loaded gun? Where are the human rights defenders to help these women’s voices be heard? Where is the government to uphold the security of their citizens?
I was overwhelmed by the accounts I heard from the people in Assaiko, especially the women, and yet they, the actual victims, show admirable strength and resilience. As Mama tells us:
Now I and my daughter own a food canteen on the main road. It is one of the rehabilitated burnt shops. We sell food and make little income which we are using to roof the burnt house. Peace is gradually returning to Assakio. Though I still get scared sometimes, especially at night when we sleep, I have small confidence that with the military post around, any attack will not be as bad as the last.
Such is the quiet optimism I observed among the members of the community; they are eager to pick up the pieces of what is remaining of their lives and carry on. According to the acting village head, Baba Angulu Odey (Sarkin Noma), the residents are committed to rebuilding but with little money and little support from the government, it is difficult.
I am happy that peace is returning to my village and I have tried to call other brothers and sisters who have fled the community to neighbouring states and local governments for safety to return. The state government sent some relief materials to help us rebuild but it was very inadequate. Some people got nine pieces of roofing sheets and five thousand naira cash. My people are grateful to the state but if federal government can do something we will appreciate. The presence of the military is helping to calm tension and no attacks so far.
It pains me every night when I watch the news, to realize that the various forms of violence plaguing Nigeria is spreading rapidly and unabated. In April, Boko Haram fighters took away over 200 girls like groceries from the corner shop. To date, they still remain missing and the government is seemingly doing little to find them. I wonder where these young women are now? And how they must be missing their parents. It feels strange and discomforting; like Mama Ayinekweye, I am afraid and unable to sleep some nights. I just wish that along with her sleeplessness I could gather her confidence and optimism to carry on, but for how long do we just “carry on” amidst the plots, threats and fresh attacks? Nigeria needs a solution.
Written By: Albert Pam, Partnerships and Local Rights Programme Advisor, ActionAid Nigieria