Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
Mr. Otse Attah is the National President of Agila Development Association (ADA). Agila, a district in Ado Local Government Area of Benue State, shares borders with the Ngbo community of Ebonyi State, but the age long interstate boundary dispute between both communities has cost many lives, led to massive destruction of properties, and stifled every form of development. In May this year, the Ngbo people accused the Agila people of killing and beheading four members of their community who were on a peace mission to Agila, an allegation the Agila people have already denied. Attah in this interview speaks on these issues.
What is the present situation of the boundary dispute between Agila and Ngbo?
At the moment, there are no hostilities between our people and our Ngbo neighhbours from Ohaukwu Local Government Area of Ebonyi State. We have been pursuing the peaceful resolution of the crisis, though I must admit, it hasn’t been easy. There are still several hurdles on the way to the final resolution.
How true is the allegation by the chairman of Ohaukwu LGC that Agila people recently ambushed and beheaded four members of Ngbo community?
That is untrue. Our people had no hand, whatsoever, in the alleged killing of their people. If there was any killing at all, they should find out the killers among themselves. That story, which they hoisted in some newspapers and online platforms, is totally false. In the first place, there was no peace meeting scheduled for Agila on the day the alleged killings took place. Neither the co-chairman of the joint committee and former chairman of Ado LGA, Chief Otse Otokpa nor any member of the peace committee from Agila was aware of any such meeting. Secondly, with no road linking Agila with the three Ngbo communities through the boundary, it is expected that any journey to Agila would involve going through Abakaliki-Enugu-Otukpo-Agila. However, we were told that the alleged killings took place in the bush, somewhere in Ebonyi State. The chairman of Ohaukwu LG has not told us the truth behind the alleged killing of the four people. He should tell us what the people were going to do in Agila, and why they were going through the bush that had no discernible footpath? He should also explain why members of the peace committee from Agila were not aware of their coming.
Why then did Governor Samuel Ortom order the arrest of the alleged killers of the Ngbo people from Agila?
His order then was based on the information at his disposal, which was a wrong one. The essence of the directive he gave was that investigations be made into the alleged incident, and those responsible fished out, if indeed such an incident occurred. Governor Ortom is committed to a speedy resolution of this crisis, and I was not surprised that he gave that order. But, as I told you, no such incident known to us took place.
What exactly is the problem between your people and the Ngbo people of Ebonyi?
It has to do with the attempt by the Ngbo people to forcefully take over our land and make us homeless. We have a boundary with them, which incidentally is also the boundary between the former Northern and Eastern region. Ordinarily, such a boundary, which is very properly documented and gazetted, should not have posed any problem to the two communities. However, for inexplicable reasons, the Ngbo people have refused to respect this boundary, which is clearly defined by Legal Notice 126 of 1954. They have resorted to attacking, killing, and sacking our people from our various settlements, destroying our properties and crops, all with the objective of driving us out and annexing our land.
What evidence do you have that they want to sack your people and annex your land?
The killings, massive destruction, and the sack of the numerous farm settlements, where our people have lived and farmed, and the series of coordinated pre-dawn attacks on Agila town itself, which have crippled all social economic activities in Agila. All these show that the aim goes beyond boundary squabbles. The objective is to sack us from our land. Some time in 2004, I think, they gave our people a two-week notice to vacate our land or “face dire consequences.” Again, when the Ngbo people paid a courtesy call on the then Senate President, Distinguished Senator David Mark on July 25, 2007 in Abuja, they told him that the entire Agila land belongs to them and that they have no boundary with us except with Igumale. During that visit, they said that they were our landlords and declared that we have no moral justification to claim any boundary with them. I still have a copy of their speech that day. So, it is clear that their objective is to take over our land.
What has been the outcome of the series of bilateral peace meetings brokered by the governments of Benue and Ebonyi States?
Unfortunately, very little has been achieved. In fact, there has been less progress made today than 33 years ago when Group Captain Jonah David Jang was the military governor of Benue State and Captain Samson Emeka Omeruah was the military governor of Anambra State. Let me explain this point: whereas at the joint Benue/Anambra Interstate Boundary dispute meeting held in Enugu on March 24, 1986, the two state governments resolved that “the existing buffer zone should be maintained and respected by all sides, and the police should ensure complete compliance” today, where the buffer zone is, has become a contentious issue, with the technical committee now assigned the task of looking for records for use to re-establish it. Secondly, whereas the two governors directed the “Surveyor-Generals of both states to cooperate with the Director of Federal Surveys to resume the actual demarcation exercise with the help of the Army and the Police by not later than Friday, April 11, 1986”, today, what the two state governments have done is to set up committees that will help facilitate the peaceful demarcation of the boundary. Thirdly, whereas the two state governments agreed that the “permanent solution to the recurring boundary clashes can only be achieved by giving practical effect to the provisions of the Legal Notice No 126 of 1954 which is acceptable to both sides” today, Ebonyi State which was part of the old Anambra State is saying a different thing. They are no longer comfortable with the legal notice and are doing everything practically possible to thwart the demarcation exercise. With their opposition to Legal Notice 126 of 1954, how can the National Boundary Commission (NBC) carry out the re-demarcation of the boundary without the necessary legal documents? Fourthly, for the past 40 years or more, the two state governments have agreed at each meeting to jointly construct a road linking the two communities or prevail on the federal government to do so, particularly, the Otukpo-Agila-Ekwassi Ngbo road, but nothing has ever been done.
What would you suggest as the way forward?
The permanent solution lies in the demarcation of the boundary, which, unfortunately, our neighbours are frustrating. The field retracing exercise was completed in 2001; what now remains is the physical re-beaconing of the boundary, an exercise which began but was thwarted by our neighbours in 2009 after having emplaced 15 pillars. That exercise should be completed with the help of the army and other security agencies. In the interim, the two state governments should commence the immediate construction of the Agila-Ekwassi Ngbo road to promote trans-border cooperation. In addition, the federal government should construct the Otukpo-Agila-Nkalagu road to open up the area to economic activities and help ease the bottled-up tension. Finally, I wish to appeal to our neighbours to let peace be.