Wilson Okereke, Afikpo
At least 20 persons were allegedly inflicted with various degrees of injuries recently in a fracas between supporters of the caretaker chairman of Ano community, Emmanuel Okoro Orji, and some members of Ishiagu Stone Dealers Association, led by Augustine Ekeh, in Ivo Local Government Area of Ebonyi State.
Since July 20, when the bloody attack took place, Daily Sun learnt that tension has pervaded the area and residents now sleep with one eye open, as they do not know when a crisis could be triggered.
Trouble reportedly started between the warring parties after Orji, selected as the community’s caretaker chairman by his people and inaugurated by the state government, was allegedly denied his mandate and access to a Chinese mining industry in the area by Ekeh and his loyalists.
Reports also stated that the embattled community chairman complained to some government officials who, on their part, called for dialogue. Along the line, the invitation was turned down by the other group.
The development prompted the state government to dispatch some military personnel from Abakaliki to make Ekeh and his group report to the state capital for the issue to be looked into. Consequent upon the officers’ arrival at Ishiagu, and upon enquiry on how to see Ekeh, the team was allegedly treated with contempt by one of the boys working with the stone dealers’ chairman. As a result, the soldiers beat him up.
In a twist, shortly after the military men left, Orji and his supporters were allegedly attacked by Ekeh and his boys. They sustained serious injuries, with some of their property damaged.
A stakeholder at Ngwogwo village, Philip Anyaelu, gave Daily Sun a background to the situation. He said the community, comprising Amokwe, Ngwogwo and Okue villages, was unanimously formed over 20 years ago to enable the people have a collective agreement and transaction with Crushed Rock Industries, which was situated on their common pieces of land.
According to him, in June 2018, a separate agreement was made between Ngwogwo/Amaokwe (Ngwama) and a Chinese company, Pioneer Sino Chino Investment Ventures Ltd, excluding Okue people. He said where the company operates does not fall within the latter’s land. It was gathered, however, that, eight months later, Okue people engaged the two host villages of Ngwogwo and Amokwe in a battle and eventually forced themselves into the business.
“Ano community, comprising three component villages, was formed over our transaction with Crushed Rock Industries, simply because its establishment affected some pieces of land owned by every unit. But, presently, the land where Pioneer Company is sited does not concern Okue people.
“It is not Ano community affair but, surprisingly, in the eighth month of operation, Okue people engaged us in a fight, hoping that we would retaliate so that there would be bloodshed,” he said. Anyaelu further disclosed that a thorough investigation had been made into the matter by the Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of investigation, Ebonyi State Command, who came out with the findings indicating that Okue people dis not have any land in the area and thereby advised them to desist from causing trouble.
He said the police boss also instituted a committee comprising three persons from each of the villages, headed by the chairman, Ishiagu Town Development Union (ITDU). He noted that its report also showed that Okue land was not affected by the establishment of the Chinese firm, Pioneer Sino Chino Investment Ventures Ltd.
“It is the Akwukwo stream that lies between Ngwogwo/Amokwe and Okue villages but because of the selfish interest of some stakeholders of Ishiagu autonomous community and political officeholders both within and outside, Okue people were imposed on us as the co-host village,” he said.
He added that the collaborators, through Ekeh, rejected the mandate given to Orji and also replaced him with a certain Benjamin Madukwe.
He called on the state government to carry out findings or possibly defend its earlier stand on the matter by providing Orji with a platform to enjoy the mandate bestowed on him by Ano people.
On his part, the embattled caretaker chairman told Daily Sun that the Ano community chairmanship position was rotational among the three component villages. He said his people selected him when it was the turn of Ngwogwo village, adding that he was inaugurated by the Commissioner for Local Government, Chieftaincy Matters and Rural Development.
He said: “It was after we discovered that the immediate past caretaker committee headed by Innocent Offor had elapsed and added additional one year that we wrote to the government for a change of leadership.
“After our request was granted, along the line, I was selected and officially inaugurated in the presence of the following persons: Hon. Stanley Emegha, Commissioner for Internal Security, Border Peace and Conflict Resolution, the traditional ruler of Ishiagu Autonomous Community, Eze Moses Okafor Ngele, the lawmaker representing Ivo Constituency in Ebonyi State House of Assembly, Hon. Oliver Osi, Coordinator Echiele Development Centre, Hon. Fabian Chukwu and others.”
Orji also claimed that, on the fateful day, after the soldiers had gone, Ekeh and his boys invaded his shop, destroyed his goods worth thousands of naira and set his brand new motorcycle ablaze.
He disclosed that the aggressors further inflicted serious injuries on Victor Orji, Ezekiel Ajah, Chidi Okafor, Augustine Ajah, Emmanuel Ajah and others. He said following the development, some of his executive members and other loyalists fled the community for safety.
It was also alleged that suspects arrested by the police in connection with the attack were released unconditionally a few days later at the prompting of a highly connected son of Ishiagu community. A source said the people even returned home and held a boisterous celebration of their release while taunting the community.
Orji further claimed that the stone dealers’ chairman and his loyalists were against his leadership because of the contention over land between Ngwogwo and Okue villages.
Ngwogwo village head, Chukwuma Aroh, frowned on the attitude of some persons whom he accused of being in the habit of fuelling a crisis whenever Ano community wanted to conduct elections. He advised that the merger of the three villages should not be a source of worry and discord to indigenes.
“My prayer is that none of the units should engage another in a fight because of external influence and sponsorship from outsiders.
“Therefore, since Emmanuel Orji and his executive members were instituted by the state government, I appeal that they should be allowed to perform their functions accordingly.
“Let us not allow the mineral deposit found in our land to become a curse upon us instead of blessing,” the village head cautioned.
This newspaper obtained a document signed by the Commissioner for Internal Security, Border Peace and Conflict Resolution, Stanley Okoro Emegha, and his Ministry of Local Government, Chieftaincy Matters and Rural Development, counterpart, Chief Samuel Okoronkwo, with the title: “Notice to recognise the new caretaker committee of Ano, led by Mr. Orji Emmanuel.” It was dated 28th August, 2020.
In the document, the leadership positions in the community were distributed as follows: Emmanuel Orji, Chairman (Ngwogwo); Sunday Unoke, Vice Chairman (Amokwe); Albert Umeh, Secretary (Okue); Okoro Okechukwu, Financial Secretary (Okue); Augustine Orji, Treasurer (Amokwe), and Makwe Emmanuel, PRO/Provost (Ngwogwo); while Donatus Umeh, liaison officer between government and the company, hails from Okue.
According to the document, Ano people were enjoined to give the above named persons all the necessary recognition and release forthwith all accruable entitlements, including royalties, toll fees and other privileges to the body.
They were also urged to give them the needed support, protection and encouragement to enable the leaders perform their duties without hindrances.
Reacting, chairman of the stone dealers accused of stoking the crisis, Ekeh, in a telephone conversation, denied the allegations levelled against him. Rather, he advised the embattled chairman to meet Ano people, including the youths, and find out why his purported right was not given to him as he claimed.
Ekeh said: “Let the man find out in Ano community’s constitution if there is provision for appointment of chairmanship position or election. For me, I am heading a trade union, which is registered with the Trade Union Congress.
“Therefore, I don’t know about those things and I am not aware whether he is the chairman of Ano community. Besides, there is an existing dispute that borders on land between my village, Okue, and Ngwogwo people. It is until the conflict is resolved before we will know the next thing to be done.”
Concerning the alleged attack, Ekeh declared that he was neither the sponsor nor part of the attackers. He said his principal role had been restricted to the affairs of his union.
The factional chairman of the community, Benjamin Madukwe, said the allegations of inflicting machete cuts on some persons, destruction of goods and burning of motorcycle made against him and some others were meant to tarnish their image. He declared that there was no crisis of any kind in Ano community.
Madukwe said: “In Ano community, there is no fight. No one is being chased away from his home. Whoever that wishes can come to our area and verify. My place is peaceful and I can tell you plainly that we are not experiencing any crisis.”
On the document made available to Daily Sun indicating government’s endorsement of the Orji-led caretaker committee, Madukwe dismissed it, arguing that his people had never conducted their election in Abakaliki or sent someone to be announced in the state capital as Ano chairman.
When asked about the circumstances that surrounded his emergence as the chairman, he declined to comment. But he said he had been working in tandem with the community’s constitution as earlier advised by the Ebonyi State Commissioner of Police.
Spokesperson of the state police command, Loveth Odah, said she was not aware of the issue. The reporter gathered that the Orji-led leadership recently petitioned the Commissioner of Police, Philip Maku, seeking prosecution of their alleged assailants. But the State Criminal Investigation Department, as gathered, has yet to commence investigation into the matter.