All around the world, unfortunate things happen day in day out. But the type witnessed in the Zaki Biam massacre of 2001 is the type rarely perpetrated by a nation’s military forces against the citizens it is meant to protect.
The matter of the Odi massacre in November 1999 had not totally died down when another assault which had a similar twist was already being hatched in the Tiv community of Zaki Biam, Benue State.
The stage was set for violence when a group of militia forces, known to have been instrumental in the disputes between the Jukun ethnic group of Taraba State and the Tiv of Benue, murdered a company of 19 soldiers from the 23rd Armoured Brigade of the 3rd Armoured Division of the Nigerian Army which was dispatched to restore peace and order to the warring communities.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, the military retaliation to avenge the death of their colleagues in arms began on Monday, October 22nd, 2001 when soldiers invaded and rounded up residents in Gbeji village for a supposed meeting; then they made the men sit on the ground and rained fire on the victims indiscriminately.
More killings were said to have taken place in neighbouring villages and towns as the soldiers also invaded the villages of Vasae, Anyiin Iorja, Ugba, Sankera – all located in the two local government areas of Logo and Zaki-Biam. Other witness reports claim that some of the victims’ bodies were then set ablaze after they had been shot dead. For two days, there was widespread destruction of property and buildings in these villages, even as some of the residents had been able to escape and leave their homes behind in the carnage it would witness.
Although a state funeral was held for the slain soldiers, former President Obasanjo who attended the event neither mentioned the wipe-out of the communities in Zaki Biam nor did he or his predecessors apologise for the indiscretion of the military personnel who carried out the retaliatory mission.
As was the case with Odi in Bayelsa, hope of respite would later come years after when a settlement was awarded to the victims of destroyed communities in Zaki Biam who were lucky enough to escape. The Tiv human rights activist, Mr. Gaadi, had instigated and led 13 others lawyers to sue Obasanjo and the Nigerian Army after the killings. The group was only able to secure a victory after 6 years of legal battle when a Federal High Court in Enugu ruled in favour of the massacre victims and awarded N41.8billion for damages against the government on July 5, 2007.
The judgment creditors then secured an absolute order to compel the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to release the funds to victims of the massacre. The Federal Government refused to obey the court order. The administration of Goodluck Jonathan was even accused of diverting N8 billion of the total settlement amount into other government matters on the January 14th, 2015.
No one knows what remains of the Zaki Biam or whether the victims have finally gotten respite. But one thing must remain sacrosanct to the ruling elite as they push to enforce laws and govern the people – the lives of all Nigerians must be treated equally, be it a soldier or a civilian; rich or poor. All animals are equal and some are not more equal than others.
Human Rights Watch
Featured image source: The Guardian Nigeria