In May 2015 I was travelling into Taraba, one of the north-eastern states of Nigeria that share a border with Cameroon. It felt as if I had left Nigerian territory. It was not just the burnt-down villages and trees; it was the absence of life in the towns that were still standing.

The driver explained to me that there had been several violent clashes in the state. It was almost too difficult to keep up with the causes: political differences had quickly become polarised between Christianity and Islam. There were the recurring cases of inter-ethnic violence between the nomadic Fulani herdsmen and Tiv farmers. Then, towards the end of 2015, a hotly contested gubernatorial election erupted in violence with each court judgment – and there seemed to be no external intervention. Because of this, in Taraba, people have had to take matters into their own hands.

Read: Herdsmen vs Farmers: a conflict that Nigeria’s government can no longer ignore

We were returning from a poetry event in Jos that September when our car was stopped at a road block. It was explained to us that we had to contribute money to pay the soldiers who would guarantee us safe passage through the warzone that lay ahead of us. Had the soldiers waited for the government to deploy them, hundreds of travelers, me included, would have been slaughtered that day. And going by the resounding absence of news on Taraba State in the country’s media, my corpse would not have made the evening news.

During the last violent crisis between Tiv farmers and Fulani herdsmen in 2015, the village head of one of the Tiv clans in the forest regions of Donga Local Government refused to move, even as the rest of the village escaped to a new location. His legs had been damaged in a previous attack, so he sat before an open window and kept shooting at the attacking herdsmen. I asked one of the villagers where on earth the retaliating Tiv man had found his guns and was told that they had come from Cameroon, through Cross River State. When the village leader’s people returned, they found him still there. They have not moved since.

The dark side of self-reliance

The problem with this self-reliance is that it is not sustainable, and that people end up taking the law into their own hands. This was evident in the most recent crisis that followed the arrest of one Umaru, who had been apprehended by security operatives on suspicion of breaching the peace in Nguroje town in Sardauna Local Government Area on 16 June 2017. The man who accused Mr Umaru, Mr Riwi Ahmadu, is a Fulani man. Mr Umaru’s children went to Mr Riwi’s house to demand the release of their father. When he did not comply, they set his house on fire. Things only escalated from there.

It was believed that the arrest of Umaru was instigated by the Fulani and what followed was a massacre of Fulani residents and the destruction of property across the local government area. A few arrests have been made and the injured have been taken to the nearby cities of Gembu, Serti and Jalingo for treatment, but some victims fled to Cameroon before any help came from the government. Even though a semblance of peace is returning to the area, indigenes across the state are on edge, waiting for the next crisis.

Fleeing to Cameroon

There is a growing population of Nigerians from Taraba State who are stranded without jobs in Cameroon after fleeing from war. Many of them cannot come back because they have nothing to come back to. One Tiv student of mine told me that he was moving to nearby Benue State, where there was a greater population of people who spoke his language.

Read: A clash of histories in Cameroon

The education of young people has been most affected by this state of affairs. Students come to school only when they can afford school fees. Most of my students only appeared in class in the second and third terms of the year as they returned from hiding with their families. One of my students had to sneak back to his community to cultivate his slain parents’ desecrated farmland to raise the money that would pay his school fees in the aftermath of the crisis in 2015. Many girls have had to marry or turn to prostitution to provide stability for their families, while many boys await being mobilized as pawns in the political clashes.

The public secondary schools in the region rely heavily on members of the National Youth Service Corps – post-graduate government service workers – who may not be interested in teaching as a profession. In the end, many graduates from Taraba end up not being on par with their peers from other parts of the country. Some senior secondary school students in the local government area where I served could not even read. It is for these young ones that I fear the most. They may have been forgotten by the rest of the country; they may not understand mathematics – but they understand violence.

Taraba State on Google Maps

Permanent solutions are needed

Right now, the people of Taraba are trying to make things work on their own, but what Taraba State needs most of all is a thorough re-orientation. The ability for people to value one another is the only thing that is missing in Taraba State. The diversion of public funds, the ongoing political crisis, the chronic lack of revenue – all these things could be fixed if people were able to look beyond their ethnicity and religion. But because hate has become so systemic, at this point it would take government intervention to bring about any resolution.

All these things could be fixed if people were able to look beyond their ethnicity and religion.

Because hate has become so systemic, at this point it would take government intervention to bring about any resolution.

I believe Taraba State is potentially the food basket of the Nigerian nation. Its landmass, the scale of agriculture there, and the size of its labour force could help Nigeria export food. However, this would require farmers and fishermen who felt safe. The children of this state need to feel safe. They need to believe that they really belong to the state or they will continue fleeing.

Taraba State could be the food basket of Nigeria, but that would require farmers and fishermen who felt safe.

The introduction of programmes that would repair relations between the diverse ethnic groups in the state, a federal government that intervened swiftly in times of crisis and had a visible relationship with the state – all of these are sorely needed. The generation of state revenue, an improvement in the lifestyle of the people and general security relies heavily on this. Maybe then those who have fled to other parts of the country, or other parts of the world, could come home and educate the next generation.

*Based on report on the premiumtimesng.com article of 21 June 2017