Through the fire – the women enduring the Plateau crisis

I, Grace, came into the world in Jos, Plateau State, amidst the cool Hammartan season of January 2001. Coincidentally, the year also marked the onset of the lengthy and harsh series of conflicts known as the “Jos Crisis,” which started in September 2001. Historical accounts indicate that the crisis was triggered by the appointment of Mukhtar Muhammad, a Hausa-Muslim, as the poverty eradication coordinator for Jos North in August 2001.

His appointment was highly controversial in the state and was not the first time Muhammad’s appointment would stir chaos in the state. The protests by indigenous Christians against his appointment went from peaceful to bloody on September 7, and this chaos, which lasted for two weeks, was overshadowed by the destruction of the Twin Towers in the United States of America.

My mother frequently shared tales of her close brushes with death during the period. My brother was six then, while my sisters were 12 and 9, respectively. Running a poultry farm, my mother was essentially a stay-at-home mom, devoting her time and energy to our family. Often by herself and charged with the protection of her children, she remained vigilant amidst the surrounding violence.

The tale of a frantic mother

Tubarones Photography via Pexels

At the time, my family lived in Gengere, Bukuru Expressway, and my young brother felt like one of the people. One fateful afternoon, during the heated crisis, everyone and their families stayed behind lock and key. Still, somehow, my brother found his way out of the house and onto the major road along with the indigenous people of Plateau State.

They picked up sticks and stones, ready to fight for their rights, and my brother, along with them, picked up a stick twice his height to fight for justice. Remember, he was a six-year-old child. A few hours passed, and my mother began searching for my brother. She looked around the house and asked our neighbours if they had seen him. They hadn’t.

Fortunately, a family friend spotted him walking towards the protest site, picked him up, and brought him directly to my mother. My brother was out of harm’s way, but not everyone who joined the fight with sticks in hand was as lucky.

I am only familiar with my brother’s experience and cannot recount the individual stories behind the estimated 1000 lives lost in the 2001 Jos crisis. Nevertheless, it was a time when many women suffered the loss of their sons, daughters, and even their own lives.

Unfortunately for us, 2001 will not be the only year of violence. Three years later, more than 700 people died in the Yelwa community, and in 2008, there were 133 cases of unlawful killing due to communal clashes. After my family moved to Lagos due to my father’s job, we found ourselves further away from the crisis. Our only connection to the turmoil for the next six years was through broadcast news and the accounts shared by friends and family who remained behind.

Like my mother, the women of Plateau State, over the years, have been witnesses and victims of the violence orchestrated by individuals who have been allegedly identified as Fulani herdsmen, unknown gunmen, jihadists, Boko Haram members, and many more. The lack of precise identification has even made it harder for the authorities to prosecute the individuals responsible for the killings of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Plateau people. However, the same cannot be said for individuals who fought for their rights during the End SARS protests of October 2020. But I digress.

The history of violence in Plateau State

The middle belt on the map via Premium Times

It is often stated that the history of violence in Plateau State stems from a complex mix of ethnoreligious and socio-economic factors. These elements have led to violent confrontations and the horrific killings of defenceless individuals in rural areas of Plateau State. The primary sources of these conflicts are identified as tensions between indigenous and non-indigenous communities, including Fulani herders, as well as between Christian and Muslim communities in the state.

Amnesty International’s 2004 report documented that the 2001 crisis led to over 1000 fatalities, and by 2004, the death toll had risen to over 5000 people. Human Rights Watch provided an in-depth analysis of the relentless cycle of retaliatory violence in Plateau State, noting that the November 2008 incidents alone accounted for approximately 700 deaths. Furthermore, in 2010, it is estimated that around 800 Christians and Muslims fell victim to a series of smaller-scale assaults and retaliatory attacks over the course of the year.

In the following years, small-scale attacks in rural farming areas were reported. Areas like Barkin Ladi, Mangu, Shendam, Langtang, Riyom, and Bokkos have been grossly affected. In these reports, survivors of these attacks have named the same set of people as the perpetrators of violence in the state of Plateau– Fulani herders. In the same light, other neighbouring states of middle belt Nigeria have reported similar accounts of killings in their rural areas by the same Fulani herdsmen, who also happen to be Muslim. Survivors of these attacks have recounted the killings as religiously motivated, detailing victorious shouts in Arabic that translate to “God is the greatest, otherwise known as “Allahu-akbar.” The history of violence in Plateau State and across Nigeria, characterised by kidnappings, killings, maiming, and sexual violence, has persisted for an agonisingly long time. This prolonged period of unrest raises critical questions about the priorities of the Nigerian government and the efficiency of the country’s security agencies.

Losing lives and livelihoods

On December 24, 2023, three local government areas in Plateau State were attacked by unidentified bandits. According to Relief Web, more than 160 villages were overrun by attackers. Homesteads, communities, and villages were ripped through and burnt by these bandits, causing the deaths of over 300 people, 171 recorded injured, and an estimated number of 18,275 displaced people.

Pastor Gabriel, the lead pastor of Christ Apostolic Church (CAC), was returning home around 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. As he walked with a friend, they heard loud shouts approaching their village. Initially unsure of the commotion, Pastor Gabriel soon recognised the cries of “Allahu Akbar.” Moments later, the night erupted in a frenzy of gunshots and screams. In his attempt to escape, he was wounded by an assailant. Once the turmoil subsided, he desperately searched for his family. Tragically, upon reaching his home, he discovered that his wife and five children had perished in a fire. Additionally, his storehouse, filled with grain from the recent harvest, and the church where he served were both destroyed in the flames.

Lydia Emmanuel, a resident of the Bokkos local government area, narrowly escaped with her life during the night’s attack. Her husband fell victim to a vicious assault by the bandits, suffering severe machete wounds. Lydia herself was shot three times; while the bullets were not lethal, they caused substantial injuries to her waist and the side of her breast. In addition to the personal trauma, her house was completely burned down, and she also lost several close family members in the violence.

“They thought they had killed me, but to the glory of god, they didn’t. I was able to run to safety when I saw they had gone. In my area, they killed 11 people, and every house was burned down in my community.”

On Christmas Day, the Bokkos community was enveloped in grief as they tallied their devastating losses. The deceased included friends, family, neighbours, children, husbands, wives, and pregnant women. In the ensuing days, mass burials were solemnly conducted. However, the aftermath of the tragedy left many residents of Bokkos, Barkin Ladi, and Mangu local government areas with no choice but to seek refuge in other parts of the state.

Existing as women in conflict

Himarkly via iStock

In a profoundly patriarchal society, women and girls not only navigate these societal challenges but also endure the harsh realities of living in violence. They confront a range of dire issues, including sexual abuse, period poverty, food scarcity, and pervasive insecurity. The experience of being a woman in conflict zones is undeniably more severe and fraught with hardships compared to the life of a woman in a peaceful environment. This duality of facing ingrained societal biases and the additional layer of conflict-related struggles significantly intensifies their plight.

While speaking to Tawakalit Kareem, a development practitioner and gender analyst, about the gendered impacts of violence in Plateau State, she explained, in detail, how the gendered impact of conflict is often relegated to the background. Still, its existence remains prominent in the lives of the victims.

Women and girls in conflict zones are particularly vulnerable to severe forms of violence, notably sexual violence. Menstruation presents an added challenge; as explained, the stress often triggers unexpected periods, and basic medical care for such needs is scarce. For many Nigerians, menstrual care might be a routine matter, but for those in Plateau State’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, it’s a luxury often out of reach.

Addressing the prospects for women and girls affected by this violence, Kareem voiced deep concern for those in Plateau State. She emphasised that without specific and focused interventions, the outlook is grim.

“Unless we take deliberate and targeted actions, I have to say, it’s not looking good.”

She highlighted how conflicts disrupt the education of young girls, pointing out the significant implications of this issue. Available data reveals a correlation between limited educational access and the prevalence of early child marriage and female genital mutilation. Additionally, these disruptions adversely affect future economic opportunities for women and, more broadly, impede progress toward gender equality.

“Even if things eventually balance out to some level, girls’ parents often have to consider other risks, including that of sexual violence against their children, especially if schools are targets of these crimes.”

Kareem added, “Women who are farmers and the primary earners in their families face significant challenges in an environment of insecurity. They are often unable to tend to their farms or engage in commercial activities as usual, directly affecting their financial stability and the overall sustainability of their families. This is just one of several impacts from such a volatile atmosphere.”

An eye for an eye makes the world go blind

Berur Chebii via Pexels

Christine Vihishima, a volunteer at the IDP camps and founder of the Thinking Cap Literacy Initiative, delved deeply into the topic of social media commentary. She shared insight into the numerous suggestions offered by netizens on how the people of Plateau could respond to the massacre, including ideas like taking up arms and retaliating.

“To be honest, it is a very dicey situation. It wouldn’t solve the problem if everyone took arms. Many of the population remain uneducated and are not enlightened enough to understand the principles of self-defence. If we put arms in the arms of these people who do not have the necessary orientation and training required, they would not be any different from the people they are fighting against,” she explained.

Speaking on the way forward and the government’s obligation to its people, Vihishima expressed displeasure at the Nigerian government’s efforts to curb the current situation. “I believe that a government that truly values the lives of its citizens will go to any length to protect the lives and property of its people. And it is obvious, from what has been happening for over two decades on the plateau, that the Nigerian government does not value the lives and property of its citizens,” she said.

“It is regrettable to see because when you think about it, what is a government without its citizens?”

The loss of lives and property endured by the people of Plateau State over two decades starkly reflects the government’s actual commitments. More significantly, it sends a message to its citizens that they are marginalised and rank low on the government’s list of priorities.

What do the survivors have to say?

Plateau killings: President Buhari says it's unjust to blame him for herdsmen killings | CNN
A crying woman consoles another one who lost her husband during clashes between cattle herders and farmers by Pius Utomi Ekpei via Getty Images

As recently as Christmas Eve 2023, in three local government areas of Plateau State, there were reports of a tragic event. Various news sources reported that over 300 people lost their lives in coordinated attacks targeting homesteads. As a resident of Plateau State, the news not only came as a shock to me and my family but also ended the streak of peace we had hoped for in the state. Following this incident, I sought some women’s perspectives from Plateau State.

Simi Davou Makai – Riyom LGA

The crisis isn’t what anyone would wish for because it is devastating; people leave where they call home because they can no longer live there. Farms have been destroyed, houses burnt down, and women and children are being killed. It’s a terrible thing to see.

Zion Dabit – Pankshin LGA

I feel sad and heartbroken about the crisis that struck some communities in Plateau State. In fact, words aren’t enough to describe how I feel. Due to this crisis, women will be affected in many ways. Some of which are widowhood, loss of small-scale businesses owned by women, sexual offences like rape, and molestation, emotional and psychological trauma, loss of self-esteem, and so on.

Joan Dyiltu – Kanke LGA

The crisis is something I wouldn’t want anyone to experience, but the people of Plateau State have had to deal with it for a while now, which is disheartening. Aside from the fact that we all have to live in fear and with the trauma of losing loved ones, whenever these people attack, they take some women as enslaved people and wives. I’ve heard about women being forced to have children for these people, and it is a scary thing to experience. Not to mention the loss of children, husbands, sisters, lives, and everything you consider valuable at once; some women have had to watch their husbands die while trying to get them to safety, and some have witnessed their children be killed right in front of them. I’ve heard so many gruesome stories, and if we’re being honest, a lot of the donations sent through NGOs are not directly getting to these women, and some of them have to go from house to house, gathering what they can to survive and take care of their children. There are a lot of things that women are forced to adjust to during the crisis, and it is unfortunate to see.

What did the authorities have to say about the Plateau crisis?

While seeking a statement from the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Police in Plateau State, Mr. Alfred Alabo, on the killings in Plateau State, he stated that he has no knowledge about Marie Claire Nigeria and refused to speak to us on the topic. He said he only speaks to media houses he is familiar with, and Marie Claire Nigeria isn’t one of them.

Be that as it may, research has shed light on a crucial aspect of law enforcement. It reveals that positive police-public relations are vital in ensuring that the public doesn’t view the police merely as intelligence collectors. This positive perception is critical as it encourages the public to share essential information that can significantly aid in crime detection, prevention, and apprehending criminals.

Therefore, if the PRO refuses to speak with the press, it implies that the Nigerian Police Force has no intention of de-escalating the situation and providing the public with information that will assure them that the Nigerian police are working effectively toward curbing the continued violence in Plateau State.

Her fate lies with the government

While NGOs and humanitarian organisations strive to support and assist those affected, Ms. Tawakalit notes that their efforts often resemble applying a band-aid to a deep, potentially septic wound.

The future of women in Plateau, whether indigenous or otherwise, hinges on the Nigerian government’s recognition of their worth and dignity.

The destiny of the Plateau woman is deeply tied to the government’s commitment to providing robust security measures.

The prospects for women in Plateau also depend on the government’s willingness to listen and respond to their voices and concerns genuinely.

Ultimately, the well-being and future of women in Plateau are grounded in the Nigerian government’s adherence to its constitution, upholding the rights and protections it promises to all citizens.

Authors

  • Grace Hans-Bello

    In love with all things artsy and beautiful. That, of course, includes the women I write about.

  • ChiAmaka Dike

    Chiamaka is the Features Editor at Marie Claire Nigeria. She is a woman who is passionate about God, women, and top-notch storytelling in all formats. Send all feature pitches her way - chiamaka@marieclaire.ng

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