Nigerian billionaire and Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, opened direct negotiations, Monday, with the Gboko community of Benue State where soldiers at his multibillion dollar cement factory killed seven locals.
The meeting came barely 24 hours after Premium Times exposed the massacre.
Mr. Dangote arrived in Gboko early Monday where he met with state officials, including Governor Gabriel Suswam, and the leaders of Gboko and Mbayion community where the killings took place March 18, before naming a high-powered committee to negotiate and reconcile with the community.The committee, headed by Joseph Makoju, the immediate past Chief Operating Officer of the Dangote group, and former Managing Director, Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, held its first meeting in Gboko Tuesday.
The Chief Press Secretary to the Benue State Governor, Cletus Akwaya, said that the meeting took place.
Mr. Akwaya said the Benue State government had no hand in the killings, but noted that Mr. Dangote was ready to settle with the aggrieved community.
“I am sure they discussed every issue in dispute. The issue of the unfortunate killing of the youth was one of the things discussed at the meeting. I want to say that as a government, we are aware that some of the issues in dispute should have been ironed out at the highest possible level,” Mr. Akwaya said.
The Ter Gboko II, Gabriel Shosum, confirmed that Mr. Dangote visited the state governor in a bid to open discussion on the matter.
“They have started moves to dialogue with the community,” Shosum, said. “Yesterday there was an inaugural meeting was held in Makurdi between representatives of the community and Dangote Group. I have supported the moves because I don’t want the people of my community to suffer.
“Mr. Dangote personally held a meeting with the governor and agreed that a committee should be put in place. We are ready to cooperate with the community but the company must be sincere in its dealings with us.”
The spokesperson of Dangote Group, Anthony Chiejina, also confirmed that efforts were being made at rapprochement with the host community in Gboko.
Chiejina noted that the President of the Group personally visited the state to kick off the process of dialoguing with the aggrieved community.
He said, “You can’t compare life with anything. Even if it’s one person that was killed, you cannot exchange profit with human life. We take life very seriously. We are a responsible company and we are doing everything to ensure that lasting peace returns to the area.”
The talks came as a breakthrough for the community that had waited for more than four months for justice and compensation after soldiers opened fire on protesters there, killing seven of them and injuring many more.
The demonstrators had gathered to protest the shooting, by a soldier, of 19-year-old Terhile Jirbo, who was attacked for relieving himself near the cement factory, and refusing to pack the waste with his mouth when a soldier ordered him to do so. Jirbo survived the attack on March 18, but the bullet tore his mouth apart and left him permanently disfigured.
Villagers who responded after the shooting by staging what several witnesses said was a peaceful demonstration to the Dangote factory, met a bloody pushback by the troops.
After hours of protest, the soldiers opened fire killing seven of them, including a woman who was shot in the head at close range.
The 19-year-old woman, Doose Ornguze, a resident of Tsekucha, near Mbayion, survived the first shot at her, and was trying to crawl to safety before a soldier walked up close and fired into her skull.
Ms. Ornguze was the parent figure for her two younger siblings, and managed to keep after herself and two siblings in school, despite losing their both parents years back.
Months of investigations showed years of tension between the community and the Dangote firm, and exposed how neither the government nor the company reached out to the community or punished the trigger-happy soldiers.
Military and police authorities said investigations were ongoing four months after the attack.
But the report, published Monday, sparked outrage from local and foreign human rights group who called for extensive and thorough investigations into the killings, and for punishment for the soldiers responsible for the attacks.
The United States-based Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian government to “urgently investigate and bring to justice those responsible for the alleged shooting by security forces of Terhile Jirbo and the subsequent killing of peaceful protesters”.
The president, Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Anyakwee Nsirimovu, said the attacks again showed the military’s lack of regard for human lives and must be immediately investigated.
“When these kinds of things happen and people see other ways of getting back at society, they readily pick on it. That is why it is easy for groups like Boko Haram to continue to have recruits all over the place because of the structural violence and terrorism of the state,” said Nsirimovu.
“What happened in Gboko is an example of what turns ordinary people into taking extreme reaction against authority. Government must bring the killers of the youths to justice.”
Romy Mom, who heads the Abuja-based Lawyers Alert, a non-governmental organisation, said the killings merely conformed to a history of violence by the Dangote group against the Mbayion community of Benue State.
Mr. Mom said Lawyers Alert was in the process of compiling such cases of violations when it received reports of the latest attacks.
“For several years Mbayion community have cried and did everything to bring Dangote to the negotiation table but to no avail. It is a shame that it has taken the blood of the Gboko martyrs to bring him to the negotiation table,” Mr. Mom said.
The meeting between the community and the firm on Tuesday took place at the Royal Choice Hotel, Makurdi, and had two directors of the company, the acting company secretary and assistant general manager, community relations in attendance.
The Gboko community team was led by a Sabestine Hon, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, while the traditional ruler of Gboko, Ter Gboko II, Gabriel Hosum, was represented by local chiefs from Mbayion.
Eight other leaders of Mbayion community also attended the meeting, while the Gboko local government Chairman, Nathan Zenda, and the state Governor, Gabriel Suswam, represented by the permanent secretary to the Government House, attended the meeting as observers.
A source at the meeting said first talks merely “laid the ground rules to be followed when the major issues in dispute are brought to the table”.
“I can tell you that the meeting was cordial and sincere but we can’t predict what will happen when our delegation brings some of the serious issues on the table,” the source said.
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