Magnus Eze, Enugu
The people of Ihe, an Enugu rural community in Awgu Local Government Area, where mass death of vultures occurred at their market called Eke recently, are still suffering the hangover of that unfortunate incident.
When our reporter visited the community during the next market day, last Wednesday, the popular market was a shadow of its old self as the whole place was virtually deserted by people who used to buy and sell there, especially from the neighbouring communities like Akegbe in Nkanu land.
Panic seized the community at about 6:00p.m on the Eke market day of Saturday, July 20, when suddenly vultures started dropping dead in the market. In fact, some of them were still clutched to and struggling with pieces of meat even as they died at different locations in the market, including on the rooftops of the market stalls.
The rumour that followed was that Fulani people had poisoned the cow meat that was sold by the butchers in the market on that day. The panic spread across the length and breadth of the community. And in a matter of time, it went viral when a young man from the area made a brief video and posted on the social media, capturing the scene with a narration that: “Hausa people have poisoned Nama (Cow) meat in Eke Ihe market, today, Saturday. It’s happening live now.”
With that, people from the community even those living abroad were in panic mode that once they saw the video; they made frantic efforts to find out the whereabouts of their relations, and also advised that whoever bought meat from the market that day poured away whatever meal that was made with it.
The confusion continued in the community the following day, when the Awgu council boss, Stanley Okeke (Atu Ogbaku) visited the scene. Not even a statement by the Public Relations Officer of the Enugu State Command, DSP Ebere Amaraizu, on Sunday evening, dispelling the rumour of meat poisoning could douse the tension.
Our reporter learnt that a man had been nabbed while hunting for vultures in the market some years ago.
But at the moment, the people of the area have vowed not to eat any form of meat until the issue was fully resolved.
When Sunday Sun visited the market on July 24, the entire meat section was totally abandoned. No single butcher or meat seller was there even as people carefully avoided the area.
During an interaction with some men who were having a drink at a ‘Burukutu joint’ within the market, they disclosed that they would not allow sale of meat again in the market until they got to the root of the whole thing.
Besides, they indicated that there may be some traditional appeasement of the gods at the end of the day, before normalcy would return. As the men savoured their burukutu drink and spoke in their local dialect, our reporter heard them repeatedly mentioning the names of one Rabiu, Chukwudi Akpaa (Boko), Dom Nwawgu and Ike.
Our investigation revealed that one of them, probably an apprentice butcher, was allegedly contracted by ritualists to supply them some unspecified number of vultures. He saw it as a good deal since vultures were usually in their large numbers there particularly on Eke market days. He waited till when the market was almost over before he dropped some substance believed to be rat killer, otherwise called ‘Otapiapia’ on small pieces of meat and threw it away.
The vultures, being very greedy birds, went for the bait and before long; they started dying in their numbers. A witness said that over 30 of them were counted littering the market that Saturday evening.
We gathered that apprentice butcher did not have the slightest inking that his action could have such far-reaching implications.
An Hausa man, simply identified as Rabiu, who has lived in the area for a very long time and served as errand person in the market, was the one that spilled the beans when all manners of stories started circulating.
In fact, a source said that Rabiu was particularly irked when the whole thing was being linked to Hausa-Fulani and he accosted the apprentice; asked him if he had seen the implication of his action. It was at the point that he reportedly opened up that he saw him with Otapiapia.
Sunday Sun learnt that some arrests were reportedly made including Rabiu, Ike, and one Dom Nwawgu, the butcher who slaughtered cow on that day. They have, however, been since released.
It was gathered that when the Chairman of the local government came to the scene, he assessed the situation and asked what actually happened. While some alleged that the meat sold that day in the market was from a dead or poisoned cow, some others attributed it to the handiwork of some ritualists.
Some people who bought the meat confirmed that they cooked and ate from it the previous day; whereas some said that when the news broke out they threw away their pots of soup cooked with the allegedly poisoned cow meat. It was some cheering news that nobody had complained of any complications after eating the meat.
At the end, the council boss tasked Ihe people to go and find out what went wrong and report back to him after reportedly donating the sum of N20,000 to them.
Eventually, a team of veterinary officers from the local government visited the market; assessed the situation and disposed the carcass. They buried the dead vultures at the forest near the Okuku Izu Ihe Town Hall and Event Centre, Enugu-Echi, Ihe and left with some specimen for further investigation.
After burying the dead birds, Sunday Sun was told that the next challenge was controlling the flies that besieged the market; a task the sanitary officers from the council also attended to with some fly spray.
A lady foodstuff seller who gave her name simply as Agnes described what happened as frightening, noting that the saving grace was that it happened when the market was almost closing for business.
“The pandemonium would have been something else. We thank God that the market was almost closing when it happened. In fact, it was about 6:00p.m; if not, we would have really suffered that day,” she said.
Rabiu, one of the persons originally suspected, said that when he saw how some form of ‘hate speech’ was going on that Hausa-Fulani people poisoned the meat, he had to open up.
He said: “When I saw what was happening, I said I will talk true even if they will kill me, but I know they won’t kill me. I told Ike that as a butcher he didn’t need to allow an outsider to come and spoil our business. He said he didn’t know it will be like this. The thing pained me well because I have been idle since that day. I don’t have anything doing now. It pained me.”
The Onowu (Traditional Prime Minister) of Enugu-Oke; one the three autonomous communities that make up Ihe; Cajetan Okoye told Sunday Sun that the incident has posed serious problem to his people, pointing out that they were still counting their losses.
“A lot of people threw away the food they cooked with the meat, meaning it brought serious economic loss to the community. Our people have said that henceforth, they would shun any form of meat until the matter is resolved – the implication is that people have been put out of job and their means of livelihood is suffering,” he lamented.
Aside the psychological trauma Ihe people have had to pass through, Okoye said that it has also given their people bad image at the global level, just as he added that so many calls were made to and from Ihe that day. In fact, he observed that there was network jam on the gateway because of the volume of connectivity to the area last weekend.
The Onowu who doubles as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Secretary of Awgu Local Government Area said that the challenge now was for his people to convince the people that they had nothing against the Hausa-Fulani and the butchers since they allegedly had no hand in what happened.
Meanwhile, the incident has raised concern about the healthy state or otherwise of meat sold especially in local markets around the state.
Our investigation, which was later confirmed by Okoye revealed that Ihe had been a “dumping ground” for dead meat. Meat sellers, we were told, would source for sick or dead cows from herders at giveaway prices and bring them to Ihe to sell.
“What actually frightened the people most was that they had before known Ihe as dumping site for dead meat; so, it is now a challenge to us and the authorities to start discouraging such unhealthy and harmful practice,” he said.
One of the elders, just like Okoye, said that the government and community leaders must ensure that henceforth; whatever meat that should be sold in Eke Ihe market was slaughtered at the market. “What we see is that the veterinary unit of the local government just wait to be settled by the butchers’ union; that’s all. They don’t even care about what kind of meat to sell to the people,” one of the natives alleged as he gulped hisburukutu.
Above all, Ihe people lamented that commercial activities were still at standstill in the community as at the last Eke market day.
On why vultures seem to be in large numbers in Ihe, Okoye explained that it was because their people have “frequent feasts and merriments,” so, vultures being gluttonous animal, they would always go to where there is food.
Nevertheless, there were indications that the market might still be scanty today being another Eke market day because of the scare associated with the poisoned meat rumour.