Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of people, including women and children, have been displaced as a result of sustained conflict between herders and farmers in various parts of Benue State, with the most affected being in rural, farming communities. In this account of the tragic and existential struggles in camps of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and their host communities in the North-Central state of Nigeria, Denen Achussah, explores the endangered future of thousands of displaced children trapped away from their homes with their helpless parents.
IT IS school hours, but Peter Iorhemba, 45, is seated with some of his children outside a makeshift tent. He has seven. Others are outdoors, playing with other children of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at Udei, a rural settlement in Tse Igyôrogh, Mbayer/Yandev Council Ward of Guma Local Government Area (LGA) of Benue State. All of Peter’s children are of school age, but most of the older ones are now dropouts. The younger ones are yet to see the four walls of a classroom.
Alunan Sewuese Rita, 10, wants to attend Divine Love Girls’ Secondary School in Katsina-Ala. But her father, Sammy Zion Alunan, 36, is helpless. Alunan, a father of three, is lost in the world between thanking God because he still breaths and the education of his children. Although he survived the 2018 New Year Day herdsmen attack in Benue State, Alunan is nursing deformations as a result of the attack, which put him out of farming or handling any difficult tasks.
Women have become widowed, with scores of children to look after. This is because what started as a mere misunderstanding between cattle owners and crop producers has grown into full scale assault on farming communities, displacing hundreds of thousands according to figures from the Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) and the International Community of the Red Cross Society (ICRC).
In the face of the humanitarian crisis as a result of the attacks, pundits fear the future of many a Benue child looks “disastrous.” With parents losing sources of livelihood as a result of the attacks, the education of their children becomes problematic, if not totally written off. Worse is that many of such parents are reduced to what is now a perpetual existence in Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps.
Away from home due to attack on their communities by arm-bearing wing of cattle owners, the future of children in Gwer West, Guma, Makurdi, Logo and Kwande LGAs of Benue State is threatened due to lack of access to functional education.
Since 2011, when the attacks became intense, the Benue State Government has opened no fewer than ten IDPs camps, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), building one. Government-recognised camps include Abagena; Daudu I; Daudu II; Uikpam; Gbajimba; Anyiin; Naka; Mbawa. IDPs are also found in host communities, including Jato-Aka, Nyihemba, Obagaji, Katsina-Ala and other unidentified locations.
The camps provide shelter for those fleeing the attacks. Some children that were born in some of the camps are now of school age. In July, 2022, SEMA said over 80 children have been born in IDPs camps alone.
Forced to flee home and without any more means of livelihood, the education of IDPs whose children have come of school age is problematic. Teachers, space, resource materials and environment are among topical issues towards the education of the children. But days are ticking into weeks, weeks into months and months rolling to years; yet many of these children are creeping into adulthood without formal education.
In 2018, Tribune newspaper reported Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State as saying that 60 per cent of the displaced people in his state are children of school age.
Hillary Chia, 65, is a retired teacher from Jato-Aka, in the Kwande Local Government Education Authority (LGEA), Benue State. He fears that children of IDPs “will be useless” as a result of not acquiring education. He is concerned that “we are in a computer era, and if you don’t go to school, it will be difficult to operate.”
According to Chia, it is worse that children of nowadays don’t want to go to farm. He was however quick to add that even if they want, “there is no land to farm. And the parents are poor.”
Apart from inability of the displaced parents or relations to pay dues required of children in public schools, many public schools have been reduced to rubbles due to the attacks.
A 2018 report of the Presidential and State Committee on the Assessment of Damages caused due to the attacks put the figure of schools, including those of Universal Basic Education (UBE) junior schools destroyed in seven LGAs at 94.
In many communities, some public schools are converted into IDPs camps. This is the fate of Guma, Gwer West and Logo LGAs. The development forces pupils of such schools to relocate, to merge with other schools in safer communities but many children are unable to endure the distance.
In 2018, the Benue State Government through her emergency agency, SEMA, started an emergency education programme for children in IDPs camps. It was a volunteer programme, with enlightened IDPs serving as teachers.
Akombu Mngu-umbur Mary, an IDP turned teacher at the SEMA emergency school with support from Victims Support Found, says emergency teachers were paid allowance for two months, since the programme began at LGEA Primary School, Anyiin IDPs camp, Logo LGA, in 2019.
Mary, like the rest of the teachers are IDPs that have volunteered to teach the children whose parents cannot afford to send them to school. These children, though camped in school premises, are out of school. “I am in the same shoes with them. So, I know the pains,” Mary told National Record her motivation for continuing to teach in spite lack of compensation. Beside, two of her three kids form the pupils’ population in the emergency school.
Mary lost her husband to the attacks on 22nd August, 2020 and is now the breadwinner of the young family. She says God has been helping to take care of the children otherwise she can’t point at what she is “doing to take care of” her children. Her desire is for them, and the children of the others, to acquire formal education.
In host communities where displaced parents have sent their wards to public schools, they “find it difficult to pay” maintenance fee that is charged. Akaha Iyough, the Principal of UBE RCM Jato-Aka is afraid this will affect the children “drastically.”
For these children and their parents, what is the value of the provision in Chapter II of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999 as amended), which promises “equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels”?
Right to Education reports that in 1999, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Katarina Tomaševski, developed what is known and adopted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its General Comment 13 on the right to education (1999, para.6), called 4As namely: Available, Accessible, Acceptance and Adaptable.
“To be a meaningful right,” Right to Education adds, “education in all its forms and at all levels shall exhibit these interrelated and essential features:
“Available – Education is free and there is adequate infrastructure and trained teachers able to support the delivery of education.
“Accessible – The education system is non-discriminatory and accessible to all, and positive steps are taken to include the most marginalised.
“Acceptable – The content of education is relevant, non-discriminatory and culturally appropriate, and of quality; schools are safe and teachers are professional.
“Adaptable – Education evolves with the changing needs of society and challenges inequalities, such as gender discrimination; education adapts to suit locally specific needs and contexts.”
Notwithstanding that education is a right of the child and the legal framework thereto, access to basic education for the Benue child in IDPs camps, including host communities remains a hard nut to crack.
Cancelled dreams of the vulnerable
Tyoor Ate Gbagire, District Head Moonkwagh, Kwande Area Traditional Council, says those mostly affected are women and children. He sees a future of robbers, with children not going to school. Tyoor Gbagire thinks immediate action should be taken to curb insecurity and restore normality.
“We are crying to government and other Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), to help us so that our children will go back to school,” Chief Otache Paul, the Clan Head of Ologba, in Agatu LGA cried out. Okokolo, Akwu, Adagbo, Aila and Ologba, among other clans in Agatu, Benue South Senatorial District are mauled, brought to rubbles, affecting both education of the child and socio-economic life.
The Clan Head suggests that children in new environment may even resist going to school as a result of fleeing home. He says they will “like it most” if they go to school in their own village. The fear of being killed is another factor. It explains why most families are yet to return to their places of origin – the fear that the killers are still lurking around.
For children that are displaced with their parents and are excelling in education, the parents are looking for help to support their education.
Alunan, earlier mentioned, wants help for his daughter, Sewuese. Sewuese says she wants to be a banker. She has passed entrance examination to Divine Love Catholic Girls’ Secondary School Katsina-Ala. It’s a boarding school and one of the prestigious girls’ schools in Benue State.
According to Alunan, Sewuese “is intelligent” and “would not want her to waste. But I have nothing to do because the government has abandoned me.”
Alunan cannot farm because of the injuries he sustained in the attack that sacked Tomatar, a rural community in Guma LGA.
“The little one here (referring to Sewuese), has done her best. So I need support to enable her further her education,” the father of three said. At the moment, he resorts to begging for alms to take care of his daughter’s school needs. He is nevertheless thankful to God that he is alive today, given the gravity of the attack on his life, saying, God has purpose for him to be alive.
In 2021, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had raised concern over the lack of access to education for children at the IDPs’ camps in Benue State, warning that such would adversely affect the future of the children, The Sun newspaper of 21 November, 2021 reported. UNICEF’s Chief of Enugu Field Office, Dr Ibrahim Conteh, according to the report was on tour of the camps when he voiced out his concerns.
While the Nigerian child has a right to education, a fact repeatedly stressed by UNICEF, the child’s global body, chanting that every child has the right to learn, UNICEF, however, acknowledges that “one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria.” It adds that “even though primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 10.5 million of the country’s children aged 5-14 years are not in school. Only 61 per cent of 6-11 year-olds regularly attend primary school and only 35.6 percent of children aged 36-59 months receive early childhood education.” A greater number of this population from Benue State are children of IDPs, investigation shows.
At the return to democracy in 1999, the Federal Government of Nigeria introduced the Universal Basic Education (UBE) “as a reform programme aimed at providing greater access to, and ensuring quality of basic education throughout Nigeria.” In 2004, the Compulsory, Free Universal Basic Education law was enacted.
Interestingly, all the Acts, including the Child Rights Act, are domesticated in Benue State, although substantially inoperable. Without education, what does the future hold for the Benue child, especially, the one in IDPs camp?
Apart from food, most parents have expressed concern about the education of their children. Some would even wish to have spirited individuals that may take over the education of their children. Irrespective of their social status, attacks by arm wing of cattle owners has changed the world of these category of the Benue population.
The height of the onslaught was the incident of 1st January, 2018, when armed men invaded Benue farming communities in Guma and Logo LGAs. The armed men left no fewer than 73 persons dead with scores injured, as they machete and gun down others. As events would unfold, the attack of the 2018 New Year Day was but the beginning of heightened attacks, which has left thousands of IDPs in camps across the Benue Valley.
As it is with every crisis situation, the most vulnerable among the displaced population are women and children. Some of the women have become breadwinners of their families and are widowed because herdsmen have abruptly cut down the shoulders on which they once leaned.
The craze for grazing in Benue State, amidst increasing population and demand for land for food production has seen multitudes of local farmers killed in dehumanising circumstances, with cases of rape, ripping of pregnant women’s wombs as hectares of fields, storage crops and property are destroyed. Schools and health facilities are not spared in the attacks.
Sar Erdoo, the Information Officer, State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), Makurdi, says 156 schools are either destroyed or displaced in four LGAs of Logo, Katsina-Ala, Makurdi and Agatu, with a total student enrolment of 43,020. She could however not provide figures from Guma, Gwer West and Kwande LGAs.
In addition to the destruction of the local economy, many of those displaced are still traumatised as a result of seeing loved ones slaughtered, decapitated or disembowelled or raped by the vicious attackers. In spite of military operations in the affected areas, majority of those that are displaced from their homes are yet to return.
Humanitarian priest in the Makurdi Catholic Diocese, Rev. Fr. Solomon Ukeyima, has been working with IDPs since 2011. It began in Guma LGA, when he was at the St. Francis’ Mission Daudu, and when he was transferred to the St. Augustine’s Parish, Demekpe, in the Benue State capital, the reverend gentleman has not stopped mobilising support for the thousands of the IDPs.
He is touted as one of the leading voices that led to the enactment of the Benue Anti-Open Grazing Law of 2017, the law which herdsmen have vehemently resisted and vowed to do everything possible to stop its implementation.
According to Fr. Ukeyima, lack of access to education by the displaced children portends danger ahead. “Apart from the emotional and psychological pains, they (women) are left alone to train the children. They are now vulnerable, without security because of the absence of the man of the house. Sometimes the way their husbands were butchered and their homes burnt leave them traumatised,” Fr. Ukeyima told National Record.
The remote cause of the conflict is the invasion of crop fields by cattle. What started like little misunderstanding escalated into full scale conflict claiming hundreds of lives with hundreds of others left with life threatening injuries and thousands of women and children stranded in existential snares. The State Emergency Management Agency in Makurdi reported over 1,500 deaths due to the attacks. In one fell swoop, no fewer than 73 persons were killed.
The worse local areas hit by the attacks are Guma, Gwer West, Makurdi, Logo, Agatu and Kwande. But for Makurdi, which is the Benue State capital, the other local areas are on the border of the state with Nasarawa, Taraba and the Cameroon.
A visit to the aforementioned areas shows a near desolate land. School structures, worship places, health facilities and homes have been razed, vandalised and or brought to rubbles. Most of what has been destroyed is yet to be rebuilt. Worse is that the people’s economic way of life has been taken away from them.
And because of the strain on availability of land for agriculture and housing, many, though willing to get land outside their homes for food production, lack the resources to hire land.
“If you don’t eat, can you pay school fees?” an IDP, identified as Peter Iorhemba of Tse-Igyôrogh, Guma LGA asks, saying, his preoccupation, if he has “any job” (work on someone’s farm) is to feed his young family. That seems to be the fate of many a parent.
“I’ll appreciate the following: If someone can help to train one of my children in school, I will be happy. I will also be happy if I am helped to construct a house to sleep in,” Yahuan Nyityô, widowed because herdsmen killed her husband pleaded. She is from a rural settlement of Chembe, Logo LGA.
Her case is similar to thousands of others that can no longer send their children or wards to school because they have lost their only means of livelihood: Farming.
And SEMA boss, Dr Emmanuel Shior, says the future of children who are displaced with their parents and are not going to school “is very bleak.”
According to Dr Shior, “the future for this category of children and also for our country, and particularly, Benue State, which is the epicentre of this huge humanitarian crisis is very bleak. If you have humans, especially, children, who have not gone to school and who grew up with the experience of crises, they will become aware that what has sent them away from their rural communities to be in the camps is insecurity. Some of them even saw their siblings, maimed, killed, injured.
“These pictures are internalised in their psyches and there is nothing to change that. The school, which should have closed the gap and erased those pictures and give them hope that they will grow up and become responsible citizens is not there. There is nothing to mould their characters. You can see that the picture is not a very good one. That gives the picture of a future that is problematic; it gives a picture of a future that is related with untold crises. And the availability of children and youth that are not in school can also be used for criminal activities by those who sponsor criminal activities such as Boko Haram insurgency, ISWAP, banditry, and all of that. So the society at large is worse at it.”
Dr Shior, therefore, called on the Federal Government to support the emergency education programme by the Benue State Government for IDPs, to ensure that the “programme is carried out appropriately and sustained. Otherwise, if it is not sustained, it will come to nothing” because Benue State Government cannot do it alone.
Above all, he reiterated the need for the Federal Government to improve on the security in rural communities to return the IDPs immediately, to their homes so that they “are not kept in the camps for too long.”
Meanwhile, the Executive Chairman, State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) Makurdi, Comrade Joseph Utser has said that the attacks have exerted strain on schools in urban centres. He noted that as much as the Benue State Government is working to providing these category of children opportunity to learn, the Federal Government needs to intervene.
Comrade Utse reckons a specific programme, targeting IDPs children is important for the future of these children that are forced to flee home.
In 2019, Noble Laureate Prof Wole Soyinka visited the IDPs with the view to showing love to the people, most especially, children, who he said were denied better lives in their homes.
To fulfil the promise he made to the children, in 2020, Governor Samuel Ortom, received 107 different books from the Nobel Laureate, for onward presentation to the children. The books, according to Prof Soyinka, were to encourage teaching and learning.
Prof. Soyinka, who interacted with pupils at Abagena IDPs camp, Makurdi raised the need for improved quality and library for the emergency school.
Barring any changes, both in terms of security and the education of children in IDPs camps, as well as children of IDPs living in host communities across Benue State remains uncertain. Their future, as rightly pointed by the SEMA boss, Dr Shior remains bleak. The adverse effects are better imagined.
This report is supported by the MacArthur Foundation through the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ).