By Peter Duru
The name Terwase Agwaza is a household name in Benue state. The renown militant leader came into prominence few years ago in the Sankera axis, precisely Gbishe and Tor Donga areas of Katsina/Ala local government area of the state. At the time, rumors had it that his words were law in that part of the country. He was feared by the locals and politicians alike because of his reach and his large follower-ship.
In fact the locals at Gbishe regarded him as a lord whose words must be obeyed. Words had it that he that he, alongside his retinue of gang members, was responsible for many crimes in the state. The gang was accused of masterminding the series of high profile kidnappings, killings and cow rustlings that almost became a daily occurrence in that area.
Bothered by the level of crimes in the state, Governor Samuel Ortom, on assumption of office last September, declared an amnesty for all criminals in the state.
The programme created opportunities for those in possession of illegal weapons to submit same for specified token while those involved in violent crimes were encouraged to turn a new leaf while the state government on its part set mechanism in motion to rehabilitate them.
Hundreds of illegal weapons were voluntarily handed over to the government by their owners and among those who took advantage of the novel programme were the dreaded ‘Gana’ and his gang.
Gana alongside his loyalists, in an elaborate ceremony at the Benue State Government House, surrendered several weapons to the state government and in return were rewarded handsomely with a contract to collect Produce Taxes in the Sankera area of the state, an axis renown for the massive production of food crops.
The decision of the government to rehabilitate Mr. Agwaza was seen by many as a welcome development that would ensure security of lives and property in the volatile Sankera axis.
However, the relationship between the government and Mr. Agwaza went sore following last May’s cold blooded murder of Mr. Denen Igbana, the Senior Special Assistant, SSA, to the Governor on Special Security who at the time oversaw the amnesty programme of the government.
Igbana, a retired Police officer, was killed by a gang who waylaid him in front of his house along Naka road, in the outskirt of Makurdi town. The manner he was killed was narrated by an eyewitness to Governor Samuel Ortom who paid a sympathy visit to the family of the deceased.
The eyewitness and Tax Collector in the area said the assailants struck at about 1:32am He explained that the SSA had come home only to run into the assailants who were armed with sophisticated weapons, “they opened fire on his vehicle (a Toyota Hilux) perforating the car on all sides.” “Igbana ran out of the car, shouting and heading towards my own house but they shot him on his leg he fell down, at that point his killer came closer to him and he started shouting, ‘Gana so you can kill me, you want to kill me, what did I do to you?.”
At that point he was shot severally again and the people fled.” Governor Ortom who could not hold back tears as he listened to the narrative said the deceased was one of his trusted aides who played a vital role in ensuring the success of the administration’s amnesty programme.
The Governor then charged security operatives to apprehend the masterminds of the killing, saying, “they have killed part of me but I’m still alive and I will ensure that anyone responsible for this dastardly killing even if it is Gana as being alleged, would be made to face justice.”
Shortly after the death of Mr. Igbana, the Police apprehended an aide of the Governor, a Special Adviser on Special Duties, Mr. Joe Kyagba for his alleged complicity in the matter and was subsequently arraigned for murder before a Makurdi High Court.
The Police also moved to arrest Mr. Agwaza who in a television interview had maintained his innocence in the matter, explaining that he was not at the scene of the killing and had no hand in the spate of crimes in parts of the state.
However, in an account of his interaction with Mr. Agwaza after the murder of his aide, Governor Ortom stated that he had insisted and prevailed on the ‘Gana’ to submit himself to the law to prove his innocence which he turned down.
According to Ortom, “after the killing of Denen Igbana, Gana found his way, as usual and saw me in Government House, and denied that he knew anything about the killing. “I then advised him to submit himself to the police since I heard from the tax collector, the son of Igbana and several other people that the late Igbana accused you while he was dying of being responsible for his death. And since you are coming from the criminal world, if you are not responsible you may know some people who might have masterminded the killing.
“I asked him to try and identify those people and then he would be vindicated. But where he is unable to do it, the Police will definitely come into the matter, and once they invite him he should respond by going to the police.
“I cautioned that he shouldn’t attempt to run away because if he does that the assumption will be that he was responsible; because the Bible says the thief runs when no man purseth.
“I told him that if you have not committed any crime you have no reason to be afraid of the Police, that my government believes in rule of law and due process. If they invite you, go there and exonerate yourself. The worst that will happen is that the police will arraign you in court and you will have the opportunity of having lawyers to defend you.
“Unfortunately, when the Police invited him he called me again to inform me that the Police invited him and I said look, that is what I told you earlier, report to the Police. There wont be extrajudicial killing in my government. I believe in the rule of law and due process and the Commissioner of Police knows this. I will not allow anyone do anything harmful to you, that I can assure you.”
Ortom recounted. However, despite the assurances, Agwaza withdrew into his shell refusing to submit himself to law enforcement agencies which sparked suspicion compelling the state government to declare him a wanted man. In fact, in furtherance of that declaration, Governor Samuel Ortom also vowed that he was going to personally lead the manhunt for Agwaza in order to get him arrested and ensure that charges were preferred against him.
Few days after, the state was woken up by the news of a special joint military and Police operation in Gbishe to apprehend Agawaza. The Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai who confirmed the operation said that the army besieged Gbishe in a manhunt for Agwaza for his alleged involvement in series of crimes and the murder of Mr. Igbana.
General Buratai spoke when he attended the pulling out ceremony of five retired Generals of the Nigerian Army Corps of Engineers at the Nigerian Army School of Military Engineers, NASME in Makurdi. Represented at the event by Major General Lincoln Ogunewe, the Chief of Policy and Planning, General Buratai stated that the joint operation was intended to restore normalcy in the area.
He said, “It will be a crime if we keep quiet in the face of the heinous crimes going on there, so we will ensure that all the masterminds of the crimes were arrested and brought to justice.”
Corroborating the development, the state government in a statement by the Secretary to the State Government, SSG, Dr. Bem Melladu, accused Agwaza and his loyalists of masterminding the surge in kidnapping and robberies in parts of the state.
Melladu said the action of the government followed the refusal of Mr Agwaza to report to the police to answer charges of murder, kidnappings, and armed robbery levelled against him. Part of the statement read, “the operation was approved by the State Security Council.
Security reports have linked Mr. Agwaza with the assassination of Mr Denen Igbana, Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Special Security, five Civilian Joint Task Force members in Ukum local government area and several killings as well as the kidnap of the Dangote Cement Company Indian workers.
He said the wanted man escaped during the operation but reiterated the state government’s determination to have him arrested and brought to justice.
It was also learnt that among those killed in that operation was an alleged second in command to Mr. Agwaza who was popularly known as ‘Jugas’.
Determined to track ‘Gana’ down, Just few days ago, the Benue state Security Council slammed a N5million price tag on him. Governor Samuel Ortom made this known while inaugurating the state, local government, district and ward security committees entrusted with the responsibilities of ensuring peaceful coexistence between herdsmen and farmers across the state.