For several years, peace has eluded two communities sharing affinity in both Cross River and Ebonyi States, but government in both states and the NBC have failed to unite the people, reports CLEMENT JAMES
The intractable, age-long and never-ending clashes between the Ukelle people in Yala Local Government Area of Cross River State and their neighbours at Igbeagu in Izzi Local Government Area of Ebonyi State seem to have defied realistic solution.
Since 2005 when the first crisis erupted, government, at both the federal and state levels, has not only lost control of the situation; it has found no suitable idea to help resolve the crisis. Even the National Boundary Commission (NBC), which is saddled with the responsibility of demarcating inter-state boundaries, has not been able to step in to end the crisis.
Also untenable is the excuse given by the Acting Director General of the NBC, Adaji Adamu, that lack of funds was responsible for the continued boundary crisis across the country. For a conflict situation which has taken so long, one would have thought that pragmatic solution would have long been found, given the ethnic sentiments that the conflict has generated over the years.
There are, as usual, various versions with regard to the genesis of the crisis. One version has it that the Izzi people had pleaded with the then Ogoja City Council (as it was then known), for a land to settle down after the devastating effects of the Civil War. In their magnanimity, the people of Ogoja, which included Ukelle in today’s Yala, offered some portions of land to them while the Izzi people paid royalty.
According to 75-year-old Etene Mbana, who narrated how he was almost killed during the recent crisis, the two communities have had a longstanding relationship over the years, even sharing the same land and inter-marrying.
He said: “Izzi villages, which include Ndiakpararta, Igbeagu, Okumenyi and Ndiagwu, are on Ukelle land. All the primary and secondary schools and health centres in those areas are being take care of and their teachers paid by the Cross River State government. But problem began in 2005 over boundary lines with each side accusing the other of encroaching into their side.”
Mbana added that in 2005, a woman who was coming back from her farm was shot by the people of Izzi while the people of Ukelle, mainly their youths, mobilised and retaliated.
He said: “That is how the crisis began, way back in 2005. In March 2017, yam, which were sprouting in the farm of a chief in the area, Chief Stephen Odom, were destroyed by youths of Izzi and nothing was done about it by the security agents stationed there.
“In January 2018, some farmlands were destroyed in Okpodon Ntrigom along with the house of one James Obo and another building belonging to Malachy Odom was riddled with bullets fired by Izzi youths. Again, security agencies did nothing.”
A former Secretary of Yala Local Government Area, Mr. Isaac Ikpokpo, who is from the area, explained that Ukelle people had cautioned the Izzi people several times “but the Ebonyi warlords would never listen”.
He said: “The Izzi people were living on our land and we took them as brothers until they decided to start grabbing our land and trying to lord it over us and when we tried to correct them, they engaged us in war in 2005.
“After that incident when peace returned, they went back to their area but they kept making incursions into our land. We never took their acts of provocations seriously and even then, they resorted to attacking our people and destroying our houses. Yet, we still refused to be provoked until it became too much for us to bear.”
In June, 2018 an Army officer and 12 persons were allegedly killed in the crisis between the two communities.
Last year, the crisis claimed not less than 20 lives when Izzi community reportedly attacked Ukelle community, an attack which made the Community Relations Officer to the Cross River State governor, Mr. Vincent Egbe, to raise alarm of an attempt by the Izzi warlords to eliminate Ukelle.
Egbe, who said he was giving an update on the crisis, had blamed the crisis on Izzi community which, he said, attacked the Ukelle people in Yala Local Government Area of Cross River State.
Egbe said a peace meeting had been called by both the Divisional Police Officer in Izzi, Ebonyi and that of Yala in Cross River State. According to him, while they were waiting for the arrival of the two DPOs, the Izzi youths invaded the venue of the meeting, shot and wounded many people.
He said: “We were already in the meeting venue waiting for the arrival of the DPOs from Yala and Izzi local government areas when some youths invaded the venue of the meeting and shot into the crowd and wounded many people.
“They are the aggressors and all our people have been trying to do is to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict: yet they keep launching attacks on us.”
Egbe said the crisis had defied every human solution “because of the recalcitrance of the Ebonyi people,” claiming that all efforts to broker peace by security agents have proved abortive.
Patrick Ejelo, who resides in the area, pointed out that in 2018 alone, not less than 40 people from Ukelle died as a result of the crisis.
He said: “I can tell you that many people have died and properties worth billions of naira were destroyed in the crisis between Izzi and our people, Ukelle. We have lost so much. In 2017, we lost many people but it was not as many as in 2018 when we lost more than 40 people to Izzi people.”
In an apparent reference to the incident that occurred last year,Ejelo said: “I remember when the villagers were returning from a meeting and Izzi people waylaid them in the evening, leaving many people with gunshot wounds.
“There was a serious attack on my village, Ijibolo, when the Izzi people waylaid villagers who were returning from a meeting and many people sustained gunshot wounds.”
The member representing Ogoja/Yala Federal Constituency, Hon Jarigbe Agom, claimed that he and other well-meaning people from Cross River State had made efforts to end the crisis, but regretted that their efforts have not yielded any positive results. He appealed to the Federal Government to increase security presence in the area to avert further bloodshed.
The immediate past Commissioner of Police, Mr. Mohammed Inuwa Hafiz, also regretted that the crisis between the two neighbours had taken a different dimension.
Hafiz also spoke on what security operatives were doing to nip the situation in the bud.
He said: “As far as I am concerned, I will only talk of what my men on ground told me.
“First of all, this problem started when a woman from Cross River was shot on the leg by suspected Izzi people. That was what infuriated the Cross Riverians to go for reprisal.
“When they went for reprisal, we quickly moved in because the people from Ebonyi too were ready for a show down and for war, but our prompt intervention that day saved the situation. Otherwise by now, you would have been hearing of so many casualties.”
Inuwa explained that since then, the area Commander in charge of Ogoja, the DPO of Yala and other law enforcement agencies sent to the area have been involved in talking to the traditional rulers and youths for them to leave the bushes where firing was going on, so that peace moves would start.
He added: “Only one mutilated corpse was found: no other casualty had been recorded.”
The commissioner, however, confirmed that some houses were razed down.
He said: “I learnt that some houses were burnt but as for casualties, apart from the one mutilated corpse, which the youth took to the Paramount Ruler, Eze of Izzi, he was not told of any recorded casualty.
“When the DPO and others from the military here went to meet Eze of Izzi in Ebonyi State to kick start the peace process, some of the youth brought a mutilated corpse which the DPO of Ebolo in Ebonyi as well as DPO of Yala went and took to the mortuary there.
“Anybody that went to the bush may be caught by the bullet but for the highway, we have been able to secure it. If Ebonyi State people did not secure their own, we in Cross River State have been able to secure our own side.”
Perhaps, the security threat the crisis posed to national unity was the reason why the Minister of Interior, Lt. Gen. Abdulhaman Dambazau (rtd), flew into the state last year to attempt to calm frayed nerves and see to the end of the crisis.
The minister said without both states sitting together to look for solutions, there could hardly be an end to the crisis.
He, however, assured them of the readiness of the Federal Government to put an end to the crisis.
Dambazau said the Federal Government was not happy with a situation where some citizens were denied their freedom to live in accordance with the law, promising that government at the centre would assist in resettling the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
Dambazau said the condition of the people who were victims of the crisis was giving the Federal Government some concerns, and appealed to them not to go on reprisal as security agencies had been detailed to ensure their protection.
He said: “Every problem has a solution but we cannot get that solution unless we sit down and work for it. This is not your problem; your problem is to ensure that you remain at peace with your neighbours. But finding solution to this is our own problem – the leaders. We will sit down and
look at it. So, it is our responsibility to ensure that your security is guaranteed.
“I am not happy to see children displaced; they are not going to school. To see you outside here; you are not going to your farms when you depend on that farm to sustain your lives. So, everything we can do, we will do. If it is a matter on boundary, we will work on that day and night to make sure that we find solution to it. The solution is there but we must sit down and look for it.
“On your part, I want to urge you to leave this matter in the hands of God. Don’t revenge. Don’t do anything; obey the law. Leave the matter in the hands of security agencies; we will handle it perfectly. We will do everything possible to ensure that you return to your homes. I want
to urge you to be patient.”
However, that promise seems to have faded with time as the same communities in the two states took to the trenches again last month, spilling blood, mowing down people, destroying houses and, exchanging blames.
As at the last count, more than 40 people were killed, 1,500 houses razed, 11,000 displaced and livestock and farmlands destroyed.
Apparently this did not go down well with the deputy governors of Ebonyi, Dr. Kelechi Igwe and that of Cross River, Prof. Ivara Esu, who held a panic meeting recently, just to douse tension, but without a firm modality to put a complete end to the simmering crisis.
It is also difficult to understand what security agents, who include the Army and Police stationed around the Abakaliki-Ogoja axis, have been doing to ensure that the frequency and intensity of the crisis are curtailed.
At the meeting, Esu said: “In all circumstances, it has been established that the Ukelle man has no problem having an Izzi man living side by side with him and they have lived in peace but what I have seen in various reports is that the boundary between the two states is in dispute and the National Boundaries Commission has not done the needful by establishing the boundaries between these two communities, especially now that we have a lot of educated people who want to take advantage of the situation and cause trouble.
“Not that it matters much, but it will give clear lines of demarcation between the two states and anyone who crosses from one state to the other to live will know he is to pay taxes to the host state while the government has the responsibility of providing amenities for such a person and other benefits that accrue to people in the host state.”
Esu decried the fact that many villages were sacked during the crisis and lives lost, but said he had always cautioned his people against retaliation.
His Ebonyi State counterpart, Igwe, maintained that dialogue was the way to go instead of resorting to violence.
He said: “War is not initiated by God but by men and women who are influenced negatively; and some people who are deeply aggrieved take laws into their hands. But it takes men with courage to make peace and there is need for peace between these two communities for the sake of development in both states.
“While war prevails, no government will have the capacity and opportunity to invest in the expansion and extension of infrastructure. Therefore, we call on both sides to lay down their arms.”
But the NBC Chairman, Dr. Mohamed Ahmad, who read the resolutions at the meeting said the boundary lines established by the colonial master, has not changed.
“The two communities have given their commitment to lay down their arms, re-open markets and schools in the disputed areas, set up a joint peace committee while governments of the two states will work on providing security and other amenities needed in the area.”
Whether the truce currently being observed will last or not is left to time. But if history is anything to go by, merely signing a peace pact is not enough assurance for peace. Over the years, the various peace pact signed by the warring communities have always expired at some point, leaving them with no option that to return to the bush.
Unfortunately, the NBC, which should think out a solution to every interstate boundary crisis, has abdicated its responsibility, placing its inability to resolve boundary disputes at the doorpost of paucity of funds and “colonial boundaries”.
If most inter-state boundary disputes or indeed any boundary dispute is left to fester on the excuse that the colonial masters should be blamed, then the existence of NBC is an institutional burden on the country.
But it is important for all sane human beings to heed the advice of Mahatma Gandi, who appealed for restraint in the face of provocation. The late charismatic leader of India aptly observed that if everybody has to revenge evil done to him, the whole world would be in turmoil.
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