■ Royal fathers flee, as youths fight over chieftaincy tussle
From ROSE EJEMBI, Makurdi
For several years, inhabitants of the sleepy Ijaha community, Edikwu Ward 1 of Apa Local Government Area in Benue State, had lived peacefully with their kinsmen in neighbouring Edikwu until 2014, when a chieftaincy tussle pitched them against one another.
Since then, the story has not been the same again. Both communities have been at daggers drawn, killing, maiming and destroying property without qualms. Intermarriages, joint cultural celebrations and other activities that bonded them together, became history since things fell apart.
Cracks emerged when the Ijaha opted to break loose from the apron strings of Edikwu, by having their own Clan Head. This development did not go down well with the people of Edikwu. Determined, the Ijaha people were said to have gone ahead with the plan and secured approval to have their own traditional head from the state Bureau for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs three years ago.
The cheering news was communicated to the Ijaha by the paramount Ruler of the Idoma nation, the Och’Idoma, Elias Ikoyi Obekpa, through the District Head of Edikwu, Chief Stephen Ochekwu, in August, 2014. However, trouble started on the day of the coronation of the newly selected Clan Head of Ijaha, Chief Achem Oyih on August 19, when heavily armed youths suspected to be from Edikwu community suddenly stormed the venue and allegedly shot sporadically while also setting houses and property ablaze.
It was further alleged that a series of attacks followed, until Ijaha, a community of almost 4000 inhabitants was brought down in ruins, while villagers who survived the attack have been in exile in other parts of the state since then.
Speaking with Daily Sun in Otukpo, headquarters of Otukpo Local Government, self-exiled clan head of the community, Oyih, disclosed that his entire property including buildings, vehicles and farmlands were reduced to rubbles by the rampaging youths.
He recalled that on January 13, 2014, the four families comprising Ijaha community formally notified the District Head of Edikwu, Chief Stephen Ochekwu, on moves for their own clan head. After several consultations with elders of the community and stakeholders, the Ijaha people were granted their desire:
“We went through the lawfully laid down procedure and was granted independence by the Idoma Area Traditional Council. But the Edikwu people did not want that and have tormented us since then. There was a time in 2015 when some of my people were traveling on the highway along Edikwu community, five of them were abducted with their commercial motorcycles and till date, we have not found them dead or alive.”
He alleged that between 2014 and now, no fewer than 15 members of his community had been abducted and killed, with their bodies cut into pieces and thrown into river. He said when his daughter who had just completed her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was traveling along Adoka in Otukpo Local Local Government to her mother’s home in Kogi State, she was almost killed by the Edikwu people who, he alleged, stopped the vehicle in which she was traveling and asked her to disembark:
“It took the intervention of people in that area who shielded her and insisted there would be trouble if anything happened to her. That was how my daughter was saved. If not I would have lost her.”
Oyih, who lamented the alleged intimidation, harassment and murder of his people by youths of the Edikwu, said he is helpless: “I can no longer feed my children, I cannot send them to school. I had to give three of them out as house helps to people who can take care of them.”
Reacting, Ochekwu told Daily Sun at the Och’Idoma’s Palace, said the crisis, which predated his ascension as the 15th traditional head of Edikwu in 1995, has defied solution. He is himself, facing the wrath of his subjects who have turned against him for acting against their wish. Consequently, his properties including houses, as well as those of his relations and supporters were destroyed. Reports to the police, the Och’ Idoma and the state government, yielded no result:
“They are against me because they said I gave chieftaincy title to Ijaha. I told them I was working on directives given by the Och’Idoma. They came and destroyed my house and my farm and chased me and my family away from Edikwu. They continue to haunt me and my people. I am now residing at Ugbokpo, headquarters of Apa local council.”
He said only recently, the person deputizing for him since he was chased out from his domain by rampaging youths, was almost killed because someone showed recognition by hailing him with his traditional title, Alegwu:
“They chased him away, attempting to kill him but he escaped. They burnt over 100 houses belonging to my relations and supporters. Edikwu comprised of 13 villages. They also vandalized all their properties and farm produce.
“Up till yesterday (penultimate week), they were still burning houses. They chased away all the males related to me. They were shooting with many injured; I have come to make a formal report to the Area Commander, Otukpo. I have also written to the police commissioner, special adviser on security and others. My prayer is that peace is restored to my domain.”
Special Adviser to the Governor on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Titus Zam, noted that chieftaincy tussles are common in Idoma communities, just as land disputes are common in Tiv land. He, however, assured the people that government would wade into the crises with a view to finding a lasting solution, so that those currently taking refuge in other communities could return to their ancestral homes.
Spokesman for the state police command, ASP Moses Yamu, described the crisis as a chieftaincy tussle. He said those alleged to have perpetrated the attacks were at large:
“Some houses were burnt in Ukpoho village by some youths on April 4, 2017, due to a lingering chieftaincy tussle at Edikwu clan in Apa Local Government Area. The perpetrators have been identified and efforts are on to arrest them. Normalcy has been restored to the area.”