From JEFF AMECHI AGBODO, Onitsha
The 104-year land/boundary dispute between Osile Ogbunike and Ezi Nkwelle both in Oyi local government area of Anambra State took a turn for the worst recently when the meat market otherwise popularly known as Ugo-Gbuzue Ochakee Slaughter Market and, at the centre of the land dispute, was attacked and ransacked by gunmen whose identities have now become a subject of debate.
Story has it that the land known as Ataojiri/Nkisi Onuogba land has, over the years, been the cause of recurring clashes between the two communities since 1917. This has led to several litigations that allegedly ended at the Supreme Court. But the two communities involved have, for reasons best known to them, are accusing each other of refusing to obey court orders.
As things stand now, truth is the first casuality as rightness or otherwise wrongness of action on the matter no longer depends on court judgments but on the interpretations thereof from the either side of the two communities involved in the century-old land dispute.
Cause of the latest clash
The people of Osile Ogbunike community insist that they obtained Supreme Court judgements in their favour on the land in 1927, 1931 and 2012 which the people of Nkwelle refused to obey. Instead, they have continued to encroach on their land till date, regardless. Nkwelle people, on the other hand, claim that they obtained Supreme Court judgements in their favour in 1917 and another judgement at State High court which her opponent refused to obey. They also insist that the land belongs to them not only through court judgement but also through the adjudication of state boundary committee which ceded the portion of land under dispute to them. Hence, they had continued to lay claim to it.
So far, so bad! And, so sad! The recent crisis that led to a bloody clash between the two communities happened on February 3, 2021. That was the day it was alleged that the people of Nkwelle came to take possession of the land after obtaining a court order affirming their ownership of that portion of the disputed piece of land where the meat market is located. The clash, as would be expected, led to injuries, destruction of property, carting away of goods, and cash put at N30 million. Worse still, as you read this one person, a cow dealer, is said to be missing and is yet to be found.
The people of Ogbunike alleged that the suspected marauders who came from a neighbouring village, Ezi Nkwelle, and numbering about 50, stormed the market as early as 7am on the ill-fated day with different weapons. They created a huge panic as they shot sporadically into the air and at people and, in the process, chased away butchers, meat sellers and buyers and other traders. They did this, it was said, on the basis of a court order said to affirm their owernship of that portion of land.
Eyewitness account of the attack
Speaking with Saturday Sun, the chairman of the slaughter market, Mr. Ejike James Ikechukwu informed that the boys who stormed the market on that fateful day, injured some people, destroyed property and carted away cash. He also noted that after dust raised by the attack has settled, a headcount conducted by survivors showed that one person was missing as reported by his brother, Yahaya Musa. For now nobody knows whether he is alive or dead.
Ikechukwu’s angle to the story of the latest attack: “We were in the market as early as 7am when we saw some police patrol vehicles numbering about 12. They drove in and parked in front of our market. When I saw them I called the president-general of the community on phone and told him what I saw: of police taking over the entire market.
“All of a sudden, some boys came and started shooting and saying that everybody should leave the market, adding that the land belonged to Ezi Nkwelle. The butchers and other traders started running helter-shelter. The boys continued to shoot, to loot and to destroy stalls. Some unfortunate people received bottle and machete cuts on their bodies while others got injured while running into the bush.
“We lost many things. After making a rough estimate, we lost like over N30 million in both cash and property destroyed. One surprising thing in the attack is that the armed policemen sat in their vehicles and watched while the boys carried out the attacks. Personally, I lost two cows that I killed that morning because I ran away. But when I came back, I didn’t see them again.
“The boys entered into my office and used machete to destroy the house before carting away my property. They carried away my fridge, TV set and other things in my office. They injured my son; they used machete to cut his hand. They took away N4.5 million cash that I was suppose to use to go to market. They injured more than 10 persons. We have over 100 people doing meat business here including other traders.
“We don’t know why they should come and tell us to leave when we have been doing business for over five years on this piece of land given to us by Osile Ogbunike. We pay to Ogbunike people for the use of the land. I want to use your medium to call on the government to come and settle the land matter to avoid bloodshed and destruction of our business. We thank God that nobody died in the attack.”
Traders count their losses
All the same, some butchers and traders are still counting their losses during the attack which they said left them with nothing to continue with the business unless financial intervention will come their way. A Fulani cow dealer Yahaya Musa from Plateau State said he lost N10.6 million his brother sent to be him to buy cows.
“The boys came and scattered everywhere,” he said. “They were shooting at our cows and we ran away. That’s how they collected N10.6 million that we were planning to go to market with, to buy cows. The money was given to us by our brothers. They burnt our stall where we do business in the market. We have been looking for one of our brothers since that day of attack. His name is Shagari Adam. All of us ran into the bush. But since after the attack he has not returned to the market. I don’t know whether he alive or dead.”
A butcher, Azubuike Nwafor, noted that the incident happened immediately after they finished killing some cows for sale that morning. “As they were shooting, we ran away. That was when they carted away my portion of meat worth N680, 000. Sunday Okoro, another butcher said that he lost cow meat worth N237, 000, and, appealed to government for financial help. “We are calling on government to come to our aid because some of us don’t have money to start business since it is when we buy, sell that we go back to market and buy again,” he said. “We don’t have money to continue again because they stole our cow meat.”
Apart from butchers, other traders are also counting their losses. They include Mrs. Nkiruka Onyekwere a food seller, Mrs Ifeyinwa John who operates a beer parlour business and Ukamaka Ikwunze who operates a provisions store. They all claimed to have lost various sums of money. “They took my N24, 000 I wanted to use to go to market,”Mrs. Onyekwere informed. “They also destroyed many of my plastic chairs, tables, zinc and as well as took away my 10kg gas cylinder”
Mrs. John said she lost over N150, 000 in the attack. “In addition, they destroyed my show glass, bottles, phone and other valuables.” Mrs. Ikwunze whose goods were reportedly looted said she lost about N350, 000. “I need help from good-spirited individuals and government to start business again,” she said.
Osile Ogbunike spokesman states their case
Speaking to Saturday Sun on the incident, the President General of Osile Ogbunike community, Sir. Donatus Mbanefo, flanked by his executive members condemned the action of the police who he alleged watched while the thugs went on rampage, shooting, looting and destroying stalls, shops and property of innocent traders.
He insisted that the land belonged to Osile Ogbunike going by three Supreme Court judgements on the land in 1927, 1931 and 2012 which said so after studying the survey plan. He then wondered aloud why the people of Nkwelle came back to the land with a counter court order as they claimed. In 2012, he said, Supreme Court judgement mentioned and incorporated the whole portion of land that the community has there. “And, I have all the survey plan,” he said. “We have been farming in that land since 1927 until recently when Nkwelle people started encroaching on it.
“They claimed that they had a court order and they came to reclaim our land already decided by Supreme Court. Where will they get another order in land case already ruled by Supreme Court? Even if there is any court order or judgement, won’t they serve us first before taking possession? Why should police lead the thugs and watch them maim and destroy butcher’s stalls and businesses?
“The land belongs to us and we cannot be intimidated by thugs or police because we have our Supreme Court judgements on the land in our favour. This land matter started as far back as 1917 but we got first Supreme Court Judgement on the land in 1927. They went back to the court and we got another judgement in 1931 and later in 2012 we got another Supreme Court judgement on the land. We want the police authority to investigate the invasion, destruction of property and looting allegedly supervised by policemen who allegedly came from Awka and Abuja.
“The major problem is corruption in the state office in charge of boundary matters. They know the truth but they don’t want to do the right thing but want to protect certain interest on the land. The state boundary office tried to settle the matter but because of some interests they could not do any meaningful thing on the matter. Government should come and demarcate the boundary using the Supreme Court survey plan for peace to reign.”
Ezi Nkwelle spokesperson presents counter-claims
But in an interview with Saturday Sun, the Chairman of Ezi Nkwelle Community, Chief Wilfred Okafor, while affirming their ownership of the land, denied all allegations that have something to do with wrong and forceful acquisition without following proper judicial process or court orders. He wondered why his community would be accused of bringing thugs to destroy property and maim traders when they followed due process of inviting police to witness the exercise. He stressed that they were there to take possession of the land over which they have subsisting court order. Nothing more. Nothing less.
His account: “We came in peace with policemen to inform the traders on the disputed land (slaughter market) that the land belongs to us and that we are ready to take possession of it. But as were addressing the traders we started hearing gunshots inside the bush of Ogbunike.
“Contrary to what anybody may claim, we have court judgements on that land in our favour. We have 1917 judgement of Supreme Court which the High Court, at Otuocha Anambra State, presided over by Justice Nweze, described as judgement that cannot be touched. The judge told both communities to get their survey plans so that he would be able to give judgement on the land but the Ogbunike people refused and went to Court of Appeal at Enugu but their appeal was struck out in 2017.
“They went to Supreme Court in 2018 and it was struck out. We have these judgements intact. While we were in Appeal Court Enugu, they went to State Boundary Committee headed by the Deputy Governor, Dr. Nkem Okeke. We decided to honour the boundary committee irrespective of the fact that we have our judgements on the land.
“In 2020 the boundary committee gave their ruling and divided the land, the deputy governor signed it before everybody. Even part of the land was given to Ogbunike people. The committee invited us later with Umunya community because Ogbunike also had land dispute with them too. We were told to pay for expenses for monuments. They gave us a bill of N1.85 million which we paid into the purse of state government but Osile Ogbunike refused to pay and the committee could not put the monument up till now.
“One day I was called and told that Ogbunike people had entered into the land with a bulldozer. It turned out to be a parcel of the land on their own part of the land. I said, okay and called the committee that they had entered into their own land. I said that the committee should come and put the monuments to enable us enter into our own land. But the committee told me that Ogbunike refused to pay the bill for the monuments.
“So, we wrote to the deputy governor and state police command to inform them. I later got information that they wanted to sell part of our own land. So, with that information we wrote to police that we want to take possession of our own land. But on the day we went there, they started shooting. They came out with thugs they camped inside bush.
“On the Supreme Court judgements they are parading about, those judgements were not against us. It may be for other surrounding towns. We first had Supreme Court judgement in our favour in 1917 and got another one in High court.”
Police explain involvement
When contacted, the police spokesman in the state, Haruna Mohammed (Chief Superintendent of Police, CSP) said that the police came to execute a court order on the land when the incident happened.
“There was a court judgement on that land which the court bailiff came to execute. They needed police cover for security and some policemen accompanied them to execute the order. But in the process of doing that unknown persons started shooting with locally made gun from the bush and bullets hit two persons. They were rushed to the hospital and were treated and discharged. Nobody died in the incident.”
Expressing his view on the alleged missing person, Mohammed said: “we are not aware of any missing person after the incident and no case of missing person has been reported to the police as at now. So, if anybody is missing, they did not report it to the police.”