Magnus Eze, Enugu
Orie Oduma, a popular market jointly owned by Amaeke and Amagu autonomous communities in Oduma, Aninri Local Government Area of Enugu State, had for long been a beehive of commercial activities. But all that stopped on Tuesday, January 28, 2020, the day the market went up in flames.
By the following day, an Orie Market Day in the Igbo lunar calendar, when buyers and sellers of mainly agricultural produce were to come from far and near to the market, the whole place was in a shambles.
Aninri Local Government prides itself as the food basket of Enugu State, and Oduma is one key food-producing area renowned for its bumper production of okra, rice, yam, plantain, palm oil and other crops.
A bloody clash had ensued between people from Amaeke and those from Amagu, which led to the burning of the market. One person was killed in the incident. Since then, there has been heavy presence of fierce-looking soldiers and anti-riot policemen at the market section of the Nenwe-Oduma-Uburu road in the area.
Smoke was still billowing from the razed market, especially from one of the shops where bags of fertilizers were stored, when Daily Sun visited on January 30.
The whole market area and some compounds on both sides of the warring communities were deserted, apparently for fear of reprisals and arrest by security operatives. In order not to further aggravate tension there, the local government authorities also closed down the market.
Daily Sun gathered that the crisis was triggered by an age-long dispute between the two communities over a small piece of land that was not even big enough to build a hut in the market.
An indigene of Awgu, who has lived and done business in Oduma for over 20 years, told the reporter that the festering dispute had been in court for over a decade.
He said hostilities started when a member of Amaeke community, popularly known as Ezemmuo, who operated a commercial bus on the disputed portion, wanted to build a loading bay there, a move that was rejected by Amagu people.
“There is an existing park inside the market but Ezemmuo decided to load his bus. His bus plies the Onitsha route every day.
“The government has long told them not to do anything on the disputed land but Ezemmuo went ahead to now lay foundation for a loading bay and Amagu people refused and trouble started from there,” he said.
Other witnesses said the clash started around 10am on that fateful day like a harmless quarrel before it snowballed into a serious conflict that led to the burning of the market and the killing of an indigene of Amaeke. The deceased was known as Onwukwe.
A young man from Amagu, who owns a private nursery/primary school in the Amaeke axis, said teachers in his school alerted him around 11am that parents were withdrawing their children from school.
“It wasn’t easy at all for us that day. The confusion was too much; everybody was running helter-skelter. They called me from my school that parents were withdrawing their children. I didn’t know what was happening. But when I got here, I saw real war.
“The two sides used every available weapon on each other. Many people were hit by bullets, while others sustained machete cuts,” he said.
A commercial motorbike operator from Amokwe, another community in Oduma, said it took the intervention of the army to scare away the fighters, as initial intervention by the police was repelled. The fighters were said to have attacked the police with guns and stones.
An aluminium fabricator, who defied the presence of the security team to open his workshop, explained that he dared it because he was not an indigene of either of the two communities.
Narrating what happened, he said: “That day, the two communities faced each other on the disputed portion of the market. They used various weapons, including guns, machetes and clubs. They had enough stones too. The presence of the police detachment from Nenwe and Awgu could not deter them. It was only when the military team arrived there later that day that everybody scampered for safety.”
An attempt by firemen from Enugu to put out the fire was hampered, as there was tension everywhere. The chief fire officer, Enugu State Fire Service, Mr. Okwudili Oha, who corroborated the story, said it took the intervention of the combined team of policemen and soldiers for his men to quench the fire.
“You know the two sides were neck-deep in the clash and chased the police away. So, when our men arrived there, they were afraid that they would be attacked by the mob. But with the presence of the army, we pleaded with them to allow us to do our work, explaining to them that they needed to extinguish the fire because it might extend to other buildings there,” Oha said.
He, however, praised the effort of the local government transition chairman, Uche Ogbonna, who he said alerted the fire service that the market was on fire.
Daily Sun gathered that a similar fracas happened on December 27, 2017, but the magnitude was not up to the latest incident. During that crisis, some shops in Orie Oduma were burnt as a result of the land dispute but the devastation of the market this time was far more mind-boggling.
Government sources in Enugu confirmed that the hostilities between the two communities went beyond the disputed land in the market. It was gathered that the two autonomous communities do not even inter-marry, as they had been sworn enemies over other issues that dated more than 80 years.
The catechist at St. Anthony’s Catholic Parish, located directly opposite the market, told our reporter that the feud between his Amaeke people and their Amagu neighbours started even before he was born. The man is currently in his 70s.
Investigations revealed that, before the faceoff, the two communities had inter-married until a woman from Amaeke who was married to an Amagu man was allegedly killed in what looked like a public show. She was reportedly tied to a stake and brutally killed.
“In the past, they had killed one Chukwu Odi from Amaeke. I saw that one myself. Before then, an Amaeke daughter married to an Amagu man was killed in a public show. I was not born then; but we were told that Amagu people pierced sticks through her body and killed our daughter married in their place. That was why Amaeke people forbade marriage with their Amagu neighbours,” the church worker who did not give his name said.
Others from the two communities, who spoke with Daily Sun on the basis of anonymity, corroborated the age-long enmity but blamed the other side for the lingering crisis.
It was gathered that Onwukwe, the person killed in the January 30 fracas, lived near Union Secondary School, Amaeke, and his wife was a worker at the health centre in the community.
Efforts to speak with leaders of thought from the two communities failed as they were said to have fled the area.
Meanwhile, some arrests have been made. But the police were yet to confirm the exact number of those arrested at the time of this report.
Unofficial sources at Ndeaboh, the council headquarters, said the local government transition committee chairman has been on his toes handling the security challenge while also looking for ways of restoring permanent peace to the area.
Ogbonna was also said to have vowed to deploy every conflict resolution tool to make the people begin to intermarry again, even if it was the only thing he achieved within his brief tenure in office. Leaders of the communities and stakeholders who had in the heat of the crisis fled the communities were gradually coming out of hiding. So far, some of them have signed a peace accord.
One of the things done by the council boss to cushion the effect of the fight was to visit injured persons in hospitals in neighbouring Nenwe town and clear their medical bills.
Our second visit to the area on February 8 showed that the tension was yet to completely go down, even though life was gradually returning there. The military team had been withdrawn, leaving only a detachment of anti-riot policemen to keep peace.
However, members of the communities and commuters on the Nenwe-Oduma-Uburu road have continued to bear the brunt of the crisis in the hands of the security team. Motorists were meant to “drop” some money for them while commercial motorcyclists coughed out an unspecified amount of money before they could pass the area.
Members of the two communities and outsiders who had one business or the other there were still counting their losses. One of those badly affected by the devastation was a popular merchant from Amokwe, said to be a tenant in shops belonging to an Amaeke man in the market. He had allegedly lost goods worth millions of naira, including large amounts of cash, in the fire.
A popular auto electrician simply called Uche, from Amaeke, whose workshop was around the market, was yet to return for business because his younger brother, who was shot in the fracas, was still hospitalised at the Nenwe General Hospital.
For now, the popular Orie Oduma market is a ghost of its old self, a vestige of destruction that would take years to recover. And, as indicated by an official announcement by the local government, the market would remain closed indefinitely.