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By: Emmanuel Yawe

 Published January 24th, 2011

For the eight years he served as Nigeria’s elected President, Obasanjo never thought much about Benue as a State. If he did, it was a state he never cared to visit, to see.It is on record that he paid eight ‘State Visits’ to a particular state in the south/south – an average of one visit per year. He never paid one such visit to Benue for the whole of that period.  His first visit to Benue after becoming President in 1999 was on January 1 2003. On that day, worshipers attending an obscure Pentecostal church in Makurdi, the state capital, suddenly found the President in their midst. As the frightened congregation wondered what to do with the big stranger, the Pastor offered him his pulpit where he announced meekly that he came to seek forgiveness from the people of the State.

About a year before then - in October 2001 – the world was shocked by what the military under Obasanjo did in that state. The Nigerian media has wrongly termed what happened that year as the invasion or sacking of Zaki Biam. The truth however is that Zaki Biam is just the headquarter of a Local Government in a senatorial zone of six Local Governments. This whole zone was cordoned off by soldiers with an armada of armored tanks that were given air cover by helicopter gunboats. The military juggernaut then proceeded to unleash systematic terror on unarmed civilians, a type that has not been heard of in Nigerian history. The Human Rights Watch did a very detailed and painstaking report on the invasion. It includes the atrocities at Gbeji where soldiers gathered unarmed people in the market square, supposedly for a peace meeting and shot many of them at point blank range. Others at the gathering were shot in the legs, drenched in petrol and then set ablaze. Over a hundred people died in this incidence alone.
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A special target for the invading army was the country home of Obasanjo’s former Chief of Army staff General Victor Malu. A few months before then, he had disagreed with Obasanjo over military issues and was dropped. His family house at Tse Adoor in Katsina Ala local Government was raced to the ground; his mother of over 80 years drilled and beaten while his blind uncle of over 90 years was thrown into a burning house where he roasted to death as his shocked wife watched. She was later shot to death.

Roadblocks were mounted and Tiv tribesmen who were travelling in vehicles brought down and shot. In fact the damage done to human life at Zaki Biam was minimal because as news of the mass slaughter of Tiv men by soldiers spread, they all fled the town into the bush. Still the soldiers made sure they leveled all buildings in Zaki Biam, including that of Benjamin Chaha, former Speaker House of Representatives.

Obasanjo never went to see the damage that was done by his soldiers but he allowed his Vice President Atiku Abubakar to go. The Vice President expressed horror at what he saw. Chuba Okadigbo, then Senate President also went and in disbelief said the brutality used to destroy Zaki Biam was not used even during the Biafra civil war.
The first reaction of President Obasanjo was to deny the involvement of Nigerian soldiers in the massacre. Then as evidence became irrefutable, he argued that what happened in Benue is what people should expect when they kill soldiers.

Due to domestic and international pressure, Obasanjo’s reluctantly set up a panel under Justice Okechukwu Opene to investigate communal disturbances in Benue, Plateau, Nassarawa and Taraba states. This panel and its terms of reference did not meet the expectations of those who wanted the atrocities during the Benue invasion properly investigated. To expand the panels scope - covering other states - looked like a deliberate diversion. Still, people cooperated with the panel and by 2003, it submitted it’s report.

The report went the way many other panels set up by governments in Nigeria go – thrashed and forgotten. It is believed that the government of Obasanjo refused to release it because it said one or two things in its conclusions that were not in favor of his government. This was reinforced by the fact that his successor, Umaru Yar’adua and his army chief tendered a public apology to the people of Benue for the conduct of the military during the massacre.
The massacre also attracted litigation. Dr Alexander Gaadi who claimed to have suffered physical torture, loss of property and relations during the invasion took the government to court and won his case. A Federal High court in Enugu granted him the over 40billion Naira he claimed as damages.

The military invasion of Benue is one issue Obasanjo has hardly talked about in public. Earlier, he announced during the burial of the 19 soldiers killed in Zaki Biam that he had directed security agents to fish out the culprits. This would have been an easy job because those who committed the crime exposed themselves by posing in photo sessions with their victims. These pictures were widely published in newspapers. But evidently Obasanjo’s hitmen were not in Benue to look for the murderers.

I have presented one occasion in 2003 where Obasanjo apologized for the massacre - on January 1 when he gate crashed into a local church. The second was on February 14, Valentines day. He told his audience at IBB square in Makurdi that he launched his re - election campaign on that day because he wanted to show the Benue people how much he loves them. He also wanted to ask for forgiveness over the massacre.

It is quite strange that last week he traveled to Makurdi, a town he loathed to visit as a President and announced that George Akume the former Governor of the state should be held responsible for the massacre.

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