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Ebonyi: In the throes of boundary wars

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Ebonyi: In the throes of boundary wars

Ebonyi State is ‘Salt of the Nation’ because of its peaceful nature and abundance of natural resources. However, persistent killings in different parts of the state, arising from communal crises and boundary disputes, have raised concern on whether the salt has not lost its taste, UCHENNA INYA reports

 

 

Ebonyi State was created on October 1, 1996 by the then Federal Military Government of Nigeria under the late Gen. Sani Abacha. It is located on the south-eastern axis of the country. It occupies a landmass of approximately 5,935 kilometres with a population of just about two million people.

The state is physically bounded to the east by Cross River State, to the north by Benue State, to the west by Enugu State and to the south by Abia State. The state is also richly blessed with numerous solid mineral resources spread across all parts of the state.

The motto of Ebonyi State is “Salt of the Nation” derived from salt deposits in the area and its peaceful nature. Its vegetation is a mixture of eastern prototypes comprising of semi-savannah grassland with forests and swamps. Being in an agrarian area, the people of the state are predominantly farmers. The state is surrounded by many boundary disputes, both inter and intra.

These boundary disputes usually assume dangerous dimension during farming season with killings, maiming and destruction of properties. While some of the crises seem to have stopped, many of them are still ongoing with many killed and properties worth billions of naira destroyed.

New Telegraph highlights these boundary disputes; the origin, causes and several efforts by the state government to bring lasting peace to the troubled communities which have continued to fail. Ebonyi/Cross River crises The two closest neighbours have many things in common. They inter-marry, buy and sell goods together. And even live together as brothers and sisters.

But they have records of many crises in their boundaries including Izzi/Yala crisis, Azuofia-Edda/ Obubra crisis, Ikwo/Obubra crisis, Erei/Ekoli Edda crisis, Ochenyim/ Abi crisis and Izzi/Ukele crisis, which have threatened their peaceful co-existence. Of all the crises, Ochenyim/Abi and Izzi/Ukele crises which started in 2005, have become a major challenge facing the two states with killings, maiming and destruction of valuable properties still ongoing despite attempts by the governments to bring an end to the crises.

The National Boundary Commission (NBC) had stepped into the crises last year after over 50 persons were killed with over eight villages razed by warlords. The commission met with stakeholders of the two communities with security chiefs in attendance during the peace meeting presided over by the NBC Director-General (DG), Muhammad Ahmed.

At the end, the warring neighbours embraced each other to the admiration of all and agreed to live in peace.But the peace accord was short lived as the people returned to trenches, killing, maiming and burning houses. Schools, markets, hospitals and other vital institutions were shut following the outbreak of violence.

The Minister of Interior, Lt. Gen Abulrahman Dambazau (rtd), was forced to visit the two warring communities. He was shocked on the level of killings and destruction in the communities. The minister promised that the Federal Government would find a lasting peace to the lingering dispute.

Immediately he left, the crisis took another dimension with more killings and destruction, forcing the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt. Gen. Tukur Brutai, to donate 14 combat motorcycles to soldiers stationed in the dispute area for easy access to remote parts of communities where the killings and destruction occurred. More soldiers were deployed in the area to beef up security.

The deployment of soldiers and donation of the combat motorcycles, which were branded with Army colours, however, did not prevent the crisis as killings raged with some persons beheaded. Governor Dave Umahi and his Cross River State-counterpart, Ben Ayade, had to intensify efforts to end the disputes.

The governors met in Port Harcourt, Rivers State capital where major decisions on how to achieve lasting peace were taken. During the meeting, the two states agreed to embark on construction of bridges and roads to further cement the bond of brotherhood.While Ebonyi State government is to construct 600-metre bridge across Oferekpe River in Ikwo axis and 500-metre bridge at Ndibe Beach in Afikpo, Cross River State was to construct a 7.2km road to link up with the federal highway coming in from Ogada in Cross River State to Oferekpe in Ebonyi State as well as a 19km road linking Ndibe beach with Ugep or a 17km road linking Ndibe beach with Adim.

To achieve this, both governors directed the representatives of the disputed communities in attendance to return to their communities and sensitise them to the way forward with a view to proffering solutions to the challenges in the disputed areas.

They also resolved that both states should submit a position paper on their boundary claims, annexing relevant legal documents, maps and communiqués of previous meetings within 30 days while arbitrators, including NBC, as third arbitrator, would be appointed.

As part of the communiqué, both states must carry out a disarmament of the combatants and thereafter grant amnesty to those who willingly handover the dangerous weapons in their possession within a period of 90 days from August 7, 2018. But that decision, like every other one taken, did not yield positive result. Since the beginning of this year, there have been serious killings and destruction of properties in the communities.

On March 22, 2019, two persons were killed at Okwata and Opherekpe villages in Igbeagu community, Izzi Local Government Area of Ebonyi State. Also, last month, five persons from Igbeagu community were killed with some of the victims beheaded by warlords.

The villagers accused Ukele people of conniving with herdsmen who went to Ochafu borehole, a common water generating point of the entire villages and pretended as if they were looking for their missing cow. It was learnt that some elderly women approached them to enquire what they were looking for, as herdsmen were, earlier during the recent attacks on Igbeagu people, banned from rearing their cows in the area prior to the time government would settle their differences.

The Ochafu village head, Chief Daniel Enyi, alleged that at a point, some vigilantes set up by the village after they ceased fire late November last year, were informed that houses were on fire. According to him, when they with their neighbouring Okwata people, they engaged the arsonists in a shootout.

Enyi said during the intervention of the two villages who were trying to save their people, houses and other property, it was learnt that two men, Chinweike Jeremiah (32) and Thomas Ogbonna, a father of 15, were killed. He accused Ukele people of razing down three houses at Obegu area and 19 houses in the heart of the village.

The traditional ruler of Igbeagu community, His Royal Highness, Eze Ogbonnaya Michael Ukwa, regretted that the Federal Government, having visited the community, left them to their fate as his people were being killed almost on a weekly basis. Enyi called on Federal Government to order the proper demarcation of the boundary for the two sister states who he said had been at peace until the land issue arose. One of the major stakeholders in Igbeagu community Chief John Nnaji Nwenyi, spoke on the primary cause of the crisis and best way to put an end to it. He said: “It is no longer story that a palace called Ebonyi State and Ogoja were in Ogoja Province. Ogoja Province has five divisions – Ogoja, Obubra, Obudu, Abakaliki and Afikpo divisions – Igbeagu has boundary with Ogoja.

“Then, during the colonial masters’ time when the divisions were created Anyim River was our boundary. Both the Cross River people and our people recognised it right from the tripartite of Benue, Cross River and Ebonyi states. “According to history passed to us, the Ukele people were be killed by their neighbourhood Akajok but our people, being liberal, accepted them on oath that there would be no bloodshed and for the mutual understanding that exists within them; they crossed down the river and were staying with us while they engaged in their fishing occupation. “These people have been addressing us as brothers.

The only people we had issues with are the Awkum and that was how Ukele people grew in kith and kin and think that they have amassed wealth and weapons of war, hence, overnight asked us to go, but to where?” The elder statesman narrated that the boundary issue prompted the 1994 meeting held in Calabar, Cross River State capital, where both communities were directed by NBC to trace their supposed boundary map with back up report which he said Igbeagu people, having known their terrain with undisputable physical features, because in the olden days physical features were used to determine disputed area, they used one week to submit their report whereas it took their Ukele neighbours three months before coming up with what he termed “glaring report”. He said: “The decision reached after the meeting with National Boundary Commission was for us to report back with evidence-based documents proving true map of the boundary.

We prepared our document within that week but it took our neighbouring people three months before coming up with glaring report. If you go to Onunwakpu where military men are currently camping, that is the place they claimed to be their part. “When they felt that the area they had earlier claimed was not enough; they launched attack on our people in 2005, killing us in hundreds and we all ran away, leaving our homes in Nfuma. Eight villages were vacated till date.

They are turning us to refugees in our own land.” Nwenyi added that since the 2005 incident, Ukele people had made it an annual ritual of attacking Igbeagu people during every farming season. He said: “The recent was their frequent serial attacks which have claimed lives of many; sacked eight villages and razed down houses, destroyed property and livestock worth millions of naira while carrying sophisticated weapons, but our people confronted them with mere sticks. “However, with the intervention of past administrations of Dr. Sam Egwu, Chief Martin Elechi, and present government; they have shown trust but I must say that NBC is behind our plight because proper boundary demarcation is the only solution to end the continued crisis.

On his own part, Chief Nweze Peter, the zonal leader, Ndubia zone sub-division of Igbeagu community alleged that his village and other nearby villages had lost about 12 people in three months this year. He appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari to issue an order through NBC for the proper demarcation of boundary of the two states. Peter, who claimed that the area in dispute originally belonged to his forefathers, added that the leasing of the land by Ukele people was what sparked off the fresh crisis.

He added: “They were living with our people in a place called Nfuma, the place we gave to them to settle which they are now claiming belongs to them. “When they said so, we objected to it because we had been living together until they started leasing the land to us.

Their presence in Nfuma with us started when Chief Idike was the chairman of Izzi Local Government Area. “The people of Cross River State came over to our side to catch fish, and after that our people asked them to go, Idike resisted saying they were our guests and that we are expected to be friendly to our guests and allow them to continue catching fish. “Along the line, they grew in number. Their relatives from elsewhere started joining them and they continued to increase and began to claim ownership of the land. We tried to remind them that Enyim River is the boundary we had with them. And in 2005 they succeeded in chasing our people away and killed most of them”. Peter explained that the people of Igbeagu community in the past two weeks had suffered several attacks from Ukele people.

He said: “For the past two weeks, we have suffered seven attacks from them. Just last week, they attacked Nkaliki and injured one of our relatives. “They also killed four persons at Ochafu. At Achacha, one person was killed, at Oferekpe one person was killed, at Igwedeloha, one person was killed, and at Nduozoke two persons were killed. “Also in Okwerike, half of the village was sacked and houses destroyed. The same thing happened at another village known as Nwankwu. “At Nkaliki, the same thing; there is nobody residing there again.

“Last week, they set barns ablaze and destroyed tubers of yam in it, so we are living in fear, nobody is safe here including visitors like you. “What we are saying is that the Enyim River is the natural boundary, but they are saying our own side of the river should be the boundary.”

A youth leader in Igbeagu, Pascal Nwenyi, explained that the old Abakiliki Division was in Ogoja Province which covered both Igbeagu community and Ukele. He added that since those days, Enyim River remains the authentic physical feature which demarcates the boundary between the people of Ogoja Province and Igbeagu in then Abakiliki Division. Nwenyi, who noted that the people of Igbeagu community had obeyed the designated Enyim River as the border, said Mbasara River, which is located in Cross River State, was supposed to be the actual boundary line.

He added: “But in the real sense of it, the place they called Cross River now is not supposed to be so, the place that is called Cross River now was the Mbasara River; that is the river called Cross River. That river is connected to one other bigger river that led to the Atlantic Ocean.

“The place they have links, is where they call Ofoma. Ofoma River had three units coming together in a conference of three rivers. And Okorofuna has seven conference rivers. “So the question now is what makes them the owners of the land? Another is; is the land owned by Cross River or the people residing there that are Cross River people? “If it is the people, let them quietly cross over to the other side where they have Cross River. Even the people they call their brothers are not related to them because they don’t share the same culture neither do they share the same tradition. “And since the existence of Izzi people, we have not gone to court with them over land.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED

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