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One of the largest and most commercially important towns in Taraba State, Wukari is now a ghost town following a sectarian crisis between its major ethnic groups that left at least 31 people dead, many injured and untold destruction of personal, social and commercial property. Most of Wukari’s residents have either fled to other places or they are lying low in their houses following the imposition of a 24-hour curfew by the Taraba State Government.
Right now, Wukari is crawling with soldiers and policemen that are enforcing the curfew. All the routes leading into Wukari from Zaki-Biam, Ibi, Jalingo and Takum are now heavily guarded by soldiers and policemen. All over Wukari itself, hundreds of houses, shops, churches and mosques are a smouldering ruin and dozens of vehicles were burnt in houses, along the streets and in a motor park by the rioters.
All these deaths, injuries and destruction stemmed, unbelievably, from a football training match. According to witnesses, some youths were participating in a football training session within Wukari on Saturday last week when a heated argument ensued between two players. One of them was Jukun while the other was Hausa. One of the boys then ran to his house and brought out a gun, returned to the pitch and shot dead the boy he was arguing with. That was heinous enough, but what followed was even more so. Other boys soon got into the fight along inter-communal lines and before you could say peace, the whole of Wukari and its environs was sucked into the mayhem. Rampaging youths from the two combatant communities chased one another with guns, machetes and knives, hacked people to death, inflicted grave injuries, looted shops and commercial property and set houses and vehicles on fire. Churches and mosques received the heaviest brunt of the fighting, as did Hospital Road, Wapang Ngaku, Yam Market and Wukari Garage.
Even though initial reports said five people were killed, the police later put the death toll at 31. A day later, Taraba State police commissioner Jibril Olawale Adeniji said even more corpses had been found, including some police officers and their children who were killed in the mayhem. He said the police had so far arrested 125 suspects in connection with the crisis but that after screening them, 72 “were found not to have been much involved to warrant prosecution” while 53 others who were found to have been deeply involved will face prosecution. According to the commissioner, the police also recovered many guns, cartridges, live ammunition, cutlasses and assorted charms from some of the people arrested who were caught while breaking into shops and houses.
Nor was this the first time that such an episode was occurring in Taraba State in recent times. Only three months ago, there was a clash between the Muslim and Christian communities of nearby Ibi Local government Area of the same state, which left 10 people dead with churches, mosques, commercial and residential buildings destroyed by arsonists.
How did a disagreement on the football pitch result in such inter-communal mayhem which sent a struggling commercial town many years back in terms of infrastructure, commercial viability and peaceful co-existence among its peoples? At this point, we can only latch at straws. Touring the Wukari war zone last week, Acting Governor Garba Umar described the extent of damage as “unimaginable.” He then identified lack of job opportunities for the teeming youths as a contributory factor to occurrence of violence in Wukari and other places.
Certainly, youth unemployment is a recipe for restiveness any day but it is not a license for the orgy of violence that took place in Wukari on Saturday last week. Whether or not they were employed, those who were apprehended and were found to have committed arson, assault and murder must be made to face the full wrath of the law. This is very important because while they were perpetrating the mayhem, many of the youths believed that they were “fighting” for the good of their ethnic and religious communities. They fully expect their ethnic communities’ full backing and protection from whatever may follow. It is time to prove to them the fallacy of their assumptions. They must be shown that they personally bear full responsibility for all the criminal acts that they committed. Hopefully, this would be a warning to other youths in the future, in Wukari and other places, to learn to refrain from perpetrating grave mayhem just because of a dispute on a football pitch or any other place.
A stakeholders’ meeting on peace and security held at the instance of the Taraba State government in Jalingo last Thursday would aid this process. The meeting had in attendance leaders of both Jukun and Hausa communities from Wukari. The leaders were unanimous in condemning the violence which they said has impeded years of peaceful co-existed in Wukari. They thus disowned the rioting youths; let us hope the latter were listening.
This episode is coming at a time when Taraba State as a whole is passing through a period of political uncertainty occasioned by the long hospitalisation of Governor Danbaba Suntai and the uncertain rule of an acting governor. Still, it now falls on Acting Governor Garba Umar to get to the roots of the inter-communal tension in Wukari and other parts of Taraba State and to take all necessary measures to prevent these from leading to more mayhem in the future. It is heart warming that he spoke about a long term plan to provide jobs to the youths of Wukari, but visiting the mayhem’s perpetrators with exemplary punishment is one sure way to start.