Ombatse: The Lethal Cult

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How a previously little known group, which calls itself a spiritual organisation, rose to prominence through astounding brutality

Until 7 May, not many Nigerians outside Nasarawa State could claim to have heard the name, Ombatse. That has changed, as Ombatse, advertised by the Eggon people of the state as a cultural and spiritual group, forced itself into national and international prominence by murdering over 50 security operatives. By that singular act, Ombatse has kept Nasarawa State, which is rarely among the headlines, in the news–albeit for the wrongest of reasons. Attention turned towards the state, with many labelling the group a cult and an ethnic militia, descriptions rejected by Mr. Chris E. Mamman, National President, Eggon Cultural and Development Association, ECDA.

So, what is Ombatse? According to Mamman, who spoke with TheNEWS in Lafia, capital of Nasarawa State, it is a spiritual movement that seeks to bring the Eggon people together, irrespective of their religious inclinations. “Ombatse means that it is time to liberate our people and it is exclusively for Eggon males. Our forefathers lived longer without the use of modern medicine because of Ombatse. It is not a new movement; Ombatse has been the Eggon people’s way of life before the advent of Christianity and Islam,” Mamman said.

•Police vehicles destroyed by Ombatse  in Alakio village
•Police vehicles destroyed by Ombatse in Alakio village

The group appeared to have been in recession for a while until, according to Mamman, a string of deaths of illustrious sons of Eggon due to witchcraft necessitated its revival.

Membership of Ombatse is open to all Eggon males, irrespective of religious persuasion. Members, explained Mamman, must studiously avoid adultery, especially with fellow members’ wives, witchcraft and membership of secret cults.

“Ombatse entails purification from fornication and criminal activities. We don’t sleep with other members’ wives, members don’t belong to secret cults and we don’t practise sorcery. If any member runs foul of these, the punishment is instant death. It is not like the punishment for Christians, who have to wait until judgment day to either go to heaven or hell, or the Muslims, who believe that their sins are forgiven when they perform ablution. Ombatse punishes instantly. This has kept our members away from crimes and has reduced incidents of criminal activities in areas inhabited by the Eggon people,” Mamman added.

The last part of Mamman’s claim is incapable of standing the least invasive scrutiny. Sources in Nasarawa told this magazine that as Ombatse membership grew, information about the group’s bizarre ways, especially its initiation rites, began filtering to the authorities. Persuasion, said sources, was not one of the strong suits of the Ombatse, which regularly coerced people of Eggon descent to renounce their religious preferences and embrace its ways. This aroused the suspicion of security agencies.

Late last year, 2,000 armed youths from Eggon-dominated areas converged on Alogan Hills in Lafia Local Government Area, where the group was billed to hold its initiation ceremony. Sensing the possibility of violence, the authorities deployed security operatives to the venue of the ceremony. But the operatives were no match for the youths, who chased them away from Alogan Hills, the group’s holiest shrine.

•Gov. Al-Makura: Worried about Ombatse’s activities
•Gov. Al-Makura: Worried about Ombatse’s activities

The government would hear more from Ombatse. Between 30 May and 1 June 2012, a violent clash raged between the Eggon and Alago ethnic groups in Assakio, headquarters of Lafia East Development Area of Lafia Local Government Council.

Security sources informed TheNEWS that  members of Ombatse, who fought on the side of their Eggon kinsmen, were ruthless in battle, accounting for a minimum of 22 lives. The Alago ethnic group lost 363 residential and commercial buildings, including the palace of their traditional ruler. The Eggon lost 92. Non-natives were also hit.

Five months later, the state government launched an inquiry into the disturbance. The commission saddled with the inquiry was headed by Isa Ahmed Ramalam, a retired jurist. Among other things, the  commission recommended that the now ousted Commissioner of Police in the state, Abayomi Akeremale, must be advised to be very vigilant. Also, the state government was advised to have serious thoughts about Akeremale’s continued stay in the state. As at last week, there were no indications that the recommendations had been implemented.

But after its success in repelling security operatives sent to disrupt its initiation ceremony, Ombatse grew in popularity among the Eggon. Membership figures jumped, as youths, mostly uneducated peasant farmers and the unemployed, viewed it as route to influence in the society.

They were soon joined by the educated. The group was said to have been especially attractive to those seeking political relevance. Sources said prominent Eggon people, who viewed the group with disgust, were convinced of its powers and importance with threats of bodily harm and had no need for another invitation to embrace it.

The growing influence of the sect increased the discomfort of the state government and put the governor, Alhaji Umaru Tanko Al-Makura, under considerable pressure.

On 3 May, a meeting of all heads of security agencies in the state held at the Government House in Lafia. As the meeting dragged deep into the night, other members of the state security council soon joined in what security sources called “urgent security briefing”.

One issue said to have received the support of all those in attendance was the arrest of Lega Agu, the 76-year-old spiritual leader of the sect. Agu is also known as Baba Alakio. Having received reports of security operatives being worsted in the past, the government knew it had to prepare well for the arrest of Agu.

The state police command mobilised a detachment of anti-riot policemen, mostly from the Mopol 38 Barracks at Akwanga. They were to be supported by 10 operatives of the Department of State Security. The security agencies appeared to have the number to deal with the kind of humiliation meted to them at Alogan Hills.

They figured that a group which reacted violently to the disruption of its initiation ceremony, would need little motivation to stave off the arrest of its spiritual head.

•Frank Mba: We lost 46 men
•Frank Mba: We lost 46 men

The security agencies’ suspicions were right, as an ambush by Ombatse resulted in the 7 May massacre. One of three survivors of the failed operation, who is receiving treatment for bullet and machete wounds at the Dalhatu Araf Specialist Hospital in Lafia, told TheNEWS that a majority of the men who went for the assignment did not know where they were going to. The survivor, who did not give his name because the police authorities have barred them from speaking to the press, said: “At about 10am that Tuesday (7 May), my DPO directed me to come to the state Police Headquarters where the Assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of operations told me that I was scheduled for a special duty, but failed to disclose the nature of the duty. He detailed me to go to A.A Rano Filling Station and take N1,000 fuel in my truck. There were five police trucks at the filling station and we were told to move to Mopol 38 Barracks at Akwanga, where we would be given more details about the assignment,” he said.

When they got to the barracks, he added, they were not told what the assignment was. The police authorities simply assigned policemen to each truck and they were told to return to Lafia.

There, they met other vehicles and personnel. They were also in the dark about the assignment. “Some of the personnel were from CID, SSS and SIB. The Assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of operations led the operation with 12 Toyota Hilux trucks full of security personnel. We drove through the governor’s residence and came out at Shamdam Road and headed to Akruba village. We took a diversion at a rough road that I had never travelled before and drove for roughly 15 kilometres,” he added.

It was on that road they encountered horror. “Instantly, bullets started hitting our vehicles from both sides of the narrow road. At first, I thought it was a ‘warm the air operation’ whereby security personnel would shoot into the air ahead of an operation, but I soon discovered that we were in danger,” he recalled.

His colleagues, he said, were being picked off one after the other by the assailants.

Attempts by the drivers to turn back were futile, as the road is a narrow and marshy one. He was able to reverse with the aid of the truck’s auxillary gear. But there would be no escape. “One man came rushing at me from the bush with a machete, which he brought down forcefully on me. I made to get away, but the engine stopped.

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“In the confusion and chaos, I saw that another driver had managed to reverse his truck too but her was shot on the shoulder. I managed to jump out of my truck and held onto the tail board and jumped into the moving truck,” he said.

When this magazine visited the Nasarawa Police Headquarters, some relatives of slain security personnel were seen trying to locate the corpses of their loved ones.

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A relative of Mr. Gideon Fadah, who went for the operation and whose corpse had not been found, said: “My brother was among those who went for the operation, but we have not seen him. His corpse is not at the mortuary at the specialist hospital. We need answers. If he is dead, what happened to his corpse? If not, where is he?” he asked dejectedly.

Mr. Mike Ada, spokesman of the command, who declined to speak with TheNEWS, reassured the confused relatives that recovery efforts were ongoing at the scene of the ambush. According to the National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, and Red Cross, over 50 corpses have so far been recovered from shallow graves in surrounding farmlands at the site of the ambush. More, however, remain missing.

Frank Mba, the spokesman of the Nigeria Police Force, told this magazine that records available to him indicate that the Police lost 46 men to the operation and that their corpses have been released to their respective families. On the munber of those still missing or unaccounted for, Mba said he had no information.

He further revealed that some of the recovered bodies are yet to be identified, but declined to comment on what the response of the police would be to the heavy loss suffered. “If I tell you what we intend to do, won’t that amount to notifying the sect members who carried out this heinous attack against policemen who were discharging their legitimate duty?” He asked.

Mba decried the silence of domestic and international human rights groups, which he accused of failing to condemn what happened. “The challenge before us is this: Do the media or human rights community have a selective and discriminatory definition of human rights? Why has there not been a mass protest against this mass murder of policemen? Apart from Mr. Femi Falana, Odumakin and the Nigerian Bar Association President, no other voice has been heard. Where is Amnesty International? Where is Human Rights Watch and other organisations that defend human rights? Is there a discrimination in the definition of human rights abuses? Are police officers not entitled to the protection of their human rights and right to work in a safe and secured environment?” A furious Mba asked.

The failed operation led to the sack of the state Commissioner of Police, Abayomi Akeremale, last Monday. He was instantly replaced by Mr. Umar U. Shehu. Intensive investigation has also commenced into the role of one Corporal Enugu, one of the drivers who was unscathed in the ambush.

Enugu, of Eggon descent, was arrested on his return from the operation. He aroused suspicion because his vehicle had no bullet hole unlike others, which were pock-marked. He was also said to have sustained no injury. Enugu reportedly returned from Alakio, parked the Hilux truck at the station and sneaked away. A closer inspection of the truck revealed a red sticker bearing the picture of a sub-machine gun pasted close to the registration number of the Hilux truck. The sticker is said to be that of the Ombatse sect.

The corporal was later arrested at an undisclosed location and brought to the command headquarters, where he is currently being detained alongside another surviving policeman of Eggon descent.

Corporal Enugu, the police officer after his arrest
Corporal Enugu, the police officer after his arrest

Enugu is suspected to have leaked to Ombatse members the plan to arrest their spiritual head, giving the sect ample opportunity to plan the ambush.

Investigators have concluded that Enugu fixed the sticker to his truck so that Ombatse members could notice and spare him. “This is just the beginning. It is like the beginning of a river, which is usually small. It will lead us to track down all members of the sect,” one of the investigators said.

Akeremale, the now removed Commissioner of Police, reportedly stated that 65 security officials, mostly police officers, were killed in the ambush.

Nasarawa State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Hamza Elayo Mohammed, told this magazine that the Ombatse sect had been proscribed by the state government following its activities, which have been threatening peace in the state.

“On four different occasions, the sect members had blocked the Lafia-Akwanga Road, disrupting free movement of vehicular and human traffic. Activities of the sect started with the attack of Assakio where the chief’s palace was burnt, with many people killed and properties destroyed. They also recently attacked the governor’s hometown of Kwandare, where they also burnt the chief’s palace. It has become their signature to burn the chief’s palace whenever they attack any community,” he said.

The commissioner said the claim that Ombatse seeks to purify the Eggon is a facade for a devilish agenda. Explaining the rather large number deployed for the botched operation, Mohammed observed that the claims made by the National President of the Eggon Cultural and Development Association that the use of such a large number of security personnel was to reduce the Eggon population and weaken the Eggon nation is laughable in view of what happened.

He pointed out that the recent Boston Marathon bomb attack in the United States of America witnessed the deployment of a high number of both state and federal law enforcement personnel to track one of the bombers. “No number of security personnel is too big to be deployed in the protection of public safety and general well being of our citizens,” he reasoned.

A political dimension was, however, added to the crisis last Tuesday. At a press briefing by Mamman and Comrade Daniel Y. Anyuabaga, National President of Eggon Youth Movement, both men criticised the claim by the state government that Ombatse was formed to achieve the objective of installing a governor of Eggon extraction in 2015. Senator Solomon Ewuga, an Eggon who represents Nasarawa North Senatorial District, is accused of casting covetous glances at Al-Makura’s governorship seat. Those close to the senator accuse the governor of a decision to breach an agreement to serve only one term, which made Ewuga convince his Eggon kinsmen to support him in 2011.

But the Information Commissioner denied that there is a rift between the governor and the Eggon people, whom he said are adequately represented in government by three commissioners, the state security adviser, General Hassan Umar (retd.), and Head of Service, Mr. Dominic Bako.

The commissioners are Mr. Emos Akawu (Planning), Mrs. Eunice Kigbu (Women Affairs) and Adamu Muazu (Youths and Culture). He decried the attempt to divert attention from the heinous crime committed in the murder of security personnel legitimately deployed to arrest a man alleged to be forcefully initiating people into an association.

Sources told this magazine of how some members of Evangelical Church of West Africa and the Evangelical Reform Church of God at Alakio were compelled by Ombatse members under the directives of Agu, to take the Ombatse oath. This, however, was denied by Mamman. He said Ombatse members do not compel others to pray to their god, Aghili, which he said heals and dispenses justice.

The slain policemen also need justice. The arrest of Agu, Ombatse’s spiritual leader, will be a big step in that direction. For now, his whereabouts are unknown to others outside of his lethal group.

—Nnamdi Felix/Lafia

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