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Wanted militia leader, Gana still terrorising Benue three years after

Aviashima Toom, Makurdi

Terwase Agwaza, aka Gana, Benue State’s most wanted criminal, is still on the run three years after he was declared wanted by the state government and security agencies, with a N50 million bounty on his head.

Precisely in August 2016, he was declared wanted with an initial N5 million ransom placed on his head for any useful information that could lead to his arrest. This was further increased to N10 million and now N50 million. Gana is wanted for myriad of offences, such as kidnapping, armed robbery, culpable homicide, mischief by fire and criminal conspiracy.

There is palpable tension in the state, as to why the notorious criminal has not been apprehended. Concerns are being raised as to whether the ransom placed on him was not enough for anyone to stake his or her neck out with useful information or the efforts are being jeopardised by some elements believed to be sympathising with the militia leader.

Investigation by The Nigerian Xpress revealed that Agwaza is likely being shielded by top politicians from the Sankera axis as well as a powerful network links with security operatives from both the military and the police.

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It would be recalled that Akwaza, in a television interview, gave shocking revelations, as to who paid and bought weapons for him. He made the disclosures in an interview aired on Channels TV. In that interview, he allegedly claimed that he was supplied with arms by the former Special Adviser to the Benue State governor on security, Col. Edwin Jando (rtd.), to carry out nefarious activities.

Gana also claimed that he was approached by some Fulani elders in a bid to destabilise Taraba State, being part of a grand plan to cause instability in Plateau, Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa states.

He claimed that he was offered N50 million to invade Taraba, an amount, he said he rejected and asked for N1 billion instead. Thereafter, the offer was increased to N350 million, which he again turned down, saying that N750 million would be ideal since he had to settle security agents for a smooth operation.

Terwase Agwaza is a household name in Benue State. The militia 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, rumours had it that his words were law in that part of the state. He was feared by the locals and politicians alike because of his reach and his large followership.

In fact, the locals at Gbishe regarded him, as a lord whose words must be obeyed. Words had it 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 cattle rustlings and other criminal activities that almost became a daily occurrence in that area with the most recent crisis that left many dead and properties worth millions of naira destroyed in Katsina-Ala Local Government Area and other parts of Sankera.

Bothered by the level of crimes in the state, Governor Samuel Ortom, on assumption of office in 2015, 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. 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 government by their owners and among those who took advantage of the novel programme was 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, renowned for massive production of food crops.

The decision by 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.

However, the relationship between the government and Mr. Agwaza went sour, following the murder of Mr. Denen Igbana, who was the Senior Special Assistant, SSA, to the Governor on Special Security. Igbana was at the time in charge of the amnesty programme.

A retired police officer, the late SSA was killed by a gang, who waylaid him in front of his house along Naka Road, Makurdi.

The governor then charged security operatives to apprehend the masterminds of the killing, saying, “I will ensure that anyone responsible for this dastardly killing, even if it is Gana, would be made to face justice.”

Shortly after the death of Mr. Igbana, the police apprehended another aide to the governor, Mr. Joe Kyagba, then, Special Adviser on Special Duties, for alleged complicity in the matter and was subsequently arraigned for murder before a Makurdi High Court.

The police also moved to arrest Mr. Agwaza in connection with the murder, but he claimed that he was not at the scene of the killing.

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 him to submit himself to the law to prove his innocence, which he turned down.

Ortom said: “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 he (Gana) is coming from a criminal background.

“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.

“I told him that if you have not committed any crime, you have no reason to be afraid of the police, which 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 won’t 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 to do anything harmful to you, that I can assure you.”

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 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. Buratai was 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.”

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Corroborating the development, the state government in a statement by former acting 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.

Security reports also linked Agwaza with the assassination of five Civilian Joint Task Force members in Ukum Local Government Area and several killings as well as the kidnap of some Indian workers of the Dangote Cement Company.

The Nigerian Air Force launched a seven-day air surveillance and bombardment operation code-named “Operation Smoke Out,” as parts of efforts to capture the militant leader.

The operation, according to the then Air Officer Commanding, Tactical Air Command, Air Vice Marshal, Nurudeen Balogun, targeted all known criminal elements involved in the Zaki Biam killings, including Agatu, Katsina-Ala and Zaki-Biam in Benue State as well as Wukari in Taraba State.

The acting Commanding Officer of the 101 Air Defense Group, Mohammed Baba-Ari, in a briefing with pilots and mission commanders had said: “The major restive areas include Agatu, Zaki Biam, Katsina Ala and Logo Local Government Areas among others. Also a forest stretching between Benue and Taraba states is the suspected enclave for the vandals perpetrating these acts.”

Commanding Officer of Operation Whirl Stroke, OPWS, Major General Adeyimi Yekini, has, however, assured that they would not rest until Gana is apprehended along with his dreaded gang.

“I can assure you that we have crippled Gana and his armed militia group and they should be afraid because the group is virtually ineffective as far as I’m concerned. But we will continue to trail them until we apprehend him and the remnant,” Yekini said.

For now, the notorious militia is still terrorising innocent citizens along the Sankera axis and the people of the area may not know peace until he is apprehended.