The Nigerian Government has been ordered to immediately set up a commission of enquiry into the atrocities committed by armed herdsmen against Benue communities. In a landmark judgement delivered by Justice Dupe Atoki of the ECOWAS Court of Justice, the probe is to identify the culprits, prosecute them and take adequate measures to ameliorate the hardship of the victims.
The Court which sits in Abuja was delivering judgement in a human rights violations suit filed by Reverend Father Solomon Mfa, the Movement Against Fulani Occupation (MAFO) and 10 others. The Court held that in Article 1 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights, not only do state parties including Nigeria recognise the rights, duties and freedoms enshrined in the Charter, they also commit themselves to respect them and to take measures to give effect to them.
It therefore ruled that the Federal Government of Nigeria as a signatory “is obliged to protect the human rights of its citizens, in the instant case, the Agatu communities as guaranteed under the African Charter and prevent their violations even by private actors”. The court held that in “view of the fact that the mass killings and destruction were admitted by both parties and uncontroverted, therefore need no proof, the respondent is under obligation to recognise the rights enshrined in the charter and adopt legislative or other measures to give effect to them”.
The court however declined the request to award N500 billion damages and compensation to the victims and affected communities stating that the plaintiffs did not list the names and details of the persons killed and or injured, the actual properties destroyed and its value as at the time of filing the suit in April, 2016. Lead counsel to the plaintiffs, Terence Vembe says they will approach the court again “with a view to making a case for monetary damages for the victims” now that those who suffered losses are easily identifiable.
Counsel to the Federal Government, Dayo Akpata had in his preliminary objection challenged the jurisdiction of the court to hear and determine the suit. The three-member panel which included the President of the Court, Justice Edward Asante dismissed the application and went ahead to consider the matter on its merit.
In the substantive suit, the court also rejected the argument of the Federal Government that what was happening in Benue State was “communal clashes between farmers and herders”. The court upheld the argument of the plaintiffs that it was Fulani Herdsmen that were attacking and killing in the vulnerable Benue communities. Consequently, the court ordered the Nigerian Government to immediately deploy machinery in the affected areas and beef up security to forestall further attacks on Benue communities.
The plaintiffs had told the court that about 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in the over 50 major attacks on Benue communities in the last three years. Most of the mass attacks and killings took place in 15 of the 23 local government areas in the state, including Agatu, Gwer-East, Gwer, Makurdi, Guma, Tarka, Buruku, Katsina Ala, Logo, Ukum, Kwande, Oju, Obi and Konshisha.
Though the ECOWAS Court enjoys the privilege of an apex court in the sub-region, it is not clear whether the Nigerian Government will obey its judgement in this matter. This follows the failure of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration to honour previous judgements by the same court including the order to release the detained former National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki (Rtd) since October 2016 with N15 million fine and threats of sanctions.
Many however say the position of the ECOWAS Court of Justice on the Benue killings may just open the flood gates to similar human rights law suits from other affected communities across the country, especially in Plateau, Kaduna, Taraba and Adamawa States.