Magnus Eze, Enugu
There is palpable tension in Obiagu Lekwesi Ekeinyi community of Umunneochi Local Government Area of Abia State and their neighbouring community of Amata Ishiagu in Ivo Local Council of Ebonyi State following renewed hostilities over ownership of farmland.
No life was lost this time around though at least six persons sustained various degrees of injury, while two others had bullets wounds. A 50-year-old man from Lekwesi, Okorie Nwafor, whose house was reportedly destroyed, was said to be still missing when our reporter visited the community on June 8.
The two communities had been locked in inter-communal conflict over ownership of a vast farmland, which had at different periods claimed lives on both sides with property destroyed.
Both parties have continued to trade blames over who was the aggressor in the latest clash, which took place on May 30. Lekwesi community alleged that Amata Ishiagu people launched violent attack on them for two days, May 30 and June 1, 2020, destroyed farmlands, economic trees and houses. They also claimed that a motorcycle belonging to a member of the community was still missing.
Ninety-four-year-old traditional ruler of Obiagu Lekwesi Ekeinyi, Eze Tim Nwokoro, told Daily Sun that he and his people had been devastated since the unfortunate attack.
A member of the Eze-in-Council, Chief Kele Sunday, insisted that the Amata Ishiagu people came as far as 15km into the Lekwesi territory to attack them. He said one Onyekachi Onwasanya, a man in his early 30s, was attacked in the farm where he worked with members of his family. Chief Sunday said it was not the first time that the Amata Ishiagu people would attack them, disclosing that an incident in 2015 was very devastating, as according to him, “they even mounted a signpost by our health centre at Ekeinyi and up to the expressway claiming that was their boundary.”
He stated that the National Boundary Commission (NBC) intervened in 2015, promising to release permanent demarcation of the boundary between Abia and Ebonyi in their area.
“We are not ready for war but our prayer is that the NBC should come and delineate the boundary,” Sunday said.
Woman leader of the community, Princess Ijeoma Nwokoro also appealed to the government at all levels to, as a matter of urgency, come to their rescue as their people can no longer go to farms. She said that no fewer than 50 households were displaced as they abandoned their homes at the Asaba and Ofemmiri areas for fear of possible reprisal by their neighbours.
Princess Nwokoro also said that many of the displaced persons especially women and children were taking refuge in various churches in the community. According to her, the women of the community had cried to the palace pleading for help so that they could return to their homes.
In a Save Our Souls letter to the caretaker chairman of Umunneochi LGA by the Lekwesi traditional ruler, dated June 2, 2020, and copied to the Commissioner of Police, Abia State, Eze Nwokoro stated: “As you may be aware, the Amata Ishiagu youths who invaded our community unprovoked were shooting sporadically and unleashed mayhem on our people leading to destruction of property and violent physical attacks which left several people wounded. Some members of our community were also taken hostage by the rampaging youths.
“The invasion was most surprising to us as you would recall that the Boundary Adjustment Commission had previously sued for peace and enjoined the concerned communities to maintain the status quo pending the formal release of the boundary adjustment report.
“Our communities have been greatly impacted by this invasion and the safety of our people is still not guaranteed.”
However, Amata Ishiagu people countered the claim that they were the aggressors, saying, instead, it was the other way round.
Chairman, Amata Community Advisory Council, Hon. Louis Okochi, accused their Lekwesi neighbours of being in the habit of launching unprovoked attack on them every farming season while laying claim to the ownership of the farmlands.
He said: “The invaders came shooting sporadically and chasing the farmers with various types of dangerous weapons, two people sustained gunshot wounds in the process.”
Okochi recalled that there was a similar attack on the Amata community in 2015 over Charbel Quarry Company Ltd operating in the area where one Chukwuma Akwa was allegedly killed by people of Lokpanta/Lekwesi.
He added that the following year, a staff of the Federal College of Agriculture, Ishiagu, Daniel Onu, who went to harvest his cucumber, hi was allegedly murdered in his farm by Lekwesi people.
To buttress that their people were peace-loving, Okochi said that a young man from Lekwesi who was captured by Amata youths was later handed over to the Divisional Police Officer of Ivo LGA for onward release to his people.
Okochi, in a letter to Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State, dated June 2, 2020, therefore, appealed to him to ensure the protection of Amata Ishiagu people, whom he said were desirous to return to their farms and continue farming activities.
He also urged the state and federal governments to urgently intervene to save a looming inter-communal war between the two communities.
When Daily Sun visited a hospital at Lokpanta where the injured Lekwesi people were receiving treatment, one of the victims; Onwasanya said that they could not explain why he was attacked that fateful afternoon.
He said that his attackers lacerated his body with machete, adding that “I didn’t even know that I will survive.”
Also, at Ishiagu, Dr. Obinna Joseph Ani of Ishiagu Medical Centre, Indiuze Ihie, told Daily Sun that two persons (Chika Pius and George Onyeneke) with gunshot wounds were admitted at the hospital after police report was obtained. Ani, who said that he was able to extract some bullets from their bodies, further disclosed that the victims were also sent for x-ray examination in Enugu.
Interventions of security agencies
Daily Sun gathered that a combined team of security agencies from Abia and Ebonyi states swiftly intervened when the incident occurred.
In fact, Eze Nwokoro said they could not thank the Abia State Commissioner for Homeland Security and the Commissioner of Police enough for their prompt response to the community’s distress call, which saw the DPOs of Nkwoagu and Mbala police formations coming to their rescue timeously.
Meanwhile, spokesperson of Ebonyi State Police Command, Loveth Odah, who confirmed the incident, said the two state commands were working to ensure return of full normalcy in the affected area.
She said that both commands had sent detachments of tactical units to patrol the area to prevent unauthorized movement of people from the two communities into the disputed area.
Odah said: “Our men are in control of the situation; they arrived the scene of crisis and rescued those abducted from the two sides and also aborted a bloodbath; though two persons were confirmed injured from gun shots.
“It was a very unfortunate situation and we are appealing to both communities to sheet their sword and allow dialogue.
“The two police commands will collaborate to ensure that security is maintained in the affected area to prevent the incessant clashes between the two communities”.
History of dispute
According to Lekwesi Umuchieze people, their clan was in the then Okigwe Division of the old Owerri Province, presently in Umunneochi Local Government Area of Abia state, while Amata Ishiagu clan was formerly in Afikpo Divison of the Ogoja Province, in the present Ivo LGA of Ebonyi State. The two communities have had inter-community boundary disputes, characterised by inter-communal wars, which inflicted various casualties on both sides as far back as 1910.
In 1943, the people of Lekwesi Ekeinyi went to court in suit No. 1/0.16/43 at the Umuchieze Native Court, against Amata Ishiagu community to demand the defendants to quit “Ekeinyi” land and to pay the sum of twenty pounds to Lekwesi community for trespass.
The same year (1943), the two communities clashed on the land for several days running which attracted the attention of the District Officers of Okigwe and Afikpo divisions.
On 10th April, 1943, the two District Officers for Okigwe and Afikpo divisions, respectively, appeared in court and suspended the court action on the directives of the residents of Owerri and Ogoja provinces. Both parties were enjoined to keep the peace.
Lekwesi people claim that, in 1949, residents of the Owerri and Ogoja provinces jointly instituted an inquiry to formally determine the boundary between their two provinces and particularly as it affected Lekwesi Ekeinyi and Amata Ishiagu.
They were said to have jointly appointed SWC Holland, the then acting District Officer of Abakaliki as the inter-state boundary inquiry officer under the inter-tribal boundary settlement ordinance 49 of 1933.
The Lekwesi people further claimed that the inquiry which took off on May 10, 1949 at the Umuchieze Native court with Mr. TC. Mbanefor, a senior interpreter Grade 1 as the interpreter came out with its findings dated May 21, 1949. According to them, the decision was in favour of Lekwesi, based on facts and evidence before the inquiry officer.
In a document presented to the National Boundary Commission by the Abia community on August 10, 2004, the community said that “The inquiry officer made thorough investigations and several personal visits to the land area in dispute, before his ‘decision,’ which demarcated the boundary with cement pillars as contained in the decision of SWC Holland Esq on 21st May, 1949.”
They said that the Amata Ishiagu people went to court in 1950 and challenged SWC Holland’s decision in suit 0/12/50 in the High Court of Onitsha Judicial Division holden at Okigwe, before Justice W.H. Hurley.
They further said that on August 16, 1954, the court ordered that the above case and other three suits in which Lekwesi people were defendants be consolidated and such other orders followed as contained.
However, on 24th October, 1957, the court presided over by V.A. Savage, acting judge, struck out the cases, as the plaintiffs failed to comply with its earlier order for the consolidation of the cases.
Daily Sun was told that there were heavy fighting between the two communities in 1952, 1953 and 1955, and in all these, police from both Divisions helped in restoring order and peace.
Lekwesi people also said that Amata Ishiagu people again, in 1965, filed suit NO. AB/25/65 against them, but it was struck out, “following the noted absence of the plaintiff community in court at different adjournment dates”.
They insisted that till date, no other judgement, ruling and or order, has succeeded the Holland’s inter-tribal boundaries settlement decision of 1949 between the two communities.
The memo was signed by Eze Tim O. Nwokoro, Ikemba of Obiagu, Eze E. N. Okoli, Enyi I of Ekeinyi, and Eze I. O. Ude as well as Secretary General, Obiagu Lekwesi Ekeinyi Progressive Union, Innocent Arukwe.
But Ishiagu people debunked the position canvassed by their rival community, insisting that they had no form of boundary with Lekwesi people. They stated that their original neighbours were Lokpanta and Lokpaukwu, explaining that Lekwesi people were settlers whom their forefathers gave land merely for farming around 1912.
They then accused the Abia community of paying back good with evil by laying claim to the Ekeinyi Lekwesi land.
Former chairman of Amata Ishiagu, Chief John Chukwuemeka Okoro, narrated: “Where the Lekwesi people are settled today was donated to them by our forefathers led by Chukwu Ori, who was in charge of Ishiagu politically and traditionally at the time. Lekwesi hailed from their ancestral home that is in between Ndi Awa and Leru and they begged our people to give them where to farm and nothing else. The men that came on their behalf were Okafor Mgborie and Uzoigwe Ogbu. Our people accepted before the whole eleven communities of Ishagu then at Ajali Eke; the ancestral and great shrine at Eke market then. The chief priest was Aja Eze from Ogwogwo, the first community in Ishiagu. We agreed that they would be paying royalty then and they were paying; consisting of only 400 tubers of yam, one he goat and eight pots of palm wine to be presented during every Orie Ikeji New Yam festival. They were doing that till 1912 when the Lekwesi people revolted and by 1913 when Lokpaukwu people took them to court that they were farming in their land without paying royalty. That suit was dated June 18, 1913 where Lokpaukwu people won.
“Then they came asking that we allow them to crossover and farm. The place we gave them was the boundary point between Amata, Lokpaukwu, Lokpanta and Umuelem; it is called Ekeinyi. So, there hasn’t been any time that this particular people of Lekwesi that are disturbing us, had boundary with us. They’re settlers and were just there for the purpose of farming.”
Okoro said that at this period, all of them including Ishiagu were still within the Okigwe District under the then Owerri Province. According to him, it was because of the Lekwesi people usually attacked Ishiagu people while attending the case they instituted against the former at Okigwe, that made his grandfather, Chukwu Ori, to insist on removal of Ishiagu from Owerri Province to Afikpo Division in Ogoja Province.
He added that the issue lingered to 1933 when the District Officers called all the four communities with common boundary-Amata, Lokpaukwu, Lokpanta and Umuelem to a meeting. At the meeting, the whole communities testified that Lekwesi people had no boundary with Amata Ishiagu people because there were settlers.
“So, jointly, these four communities sued Lekwesi people; my grandfather Chukwu Ori represented Amata; Moses Chukwu represented Lokpaukwu, Festus Umeh was for Lokpanta and Money Hard represented Umuelem versus Lekwesi who were represented by one Ike Nwozo,” Okoro stated.
He disclosed that it was during the period that it was agreed and the four communities jointly hired a surveyor who demarcated their common boundary. He said that the survey and demarcation process carried out by Matthias N. Chukwurah from Onitsha started in 1933, through 1948 and was concluded on November 22, 1954. It was then countersigned by the Director of Survey and deposited at the Surveyor’s office in Enugu on August 18, 1955.
He noted that the document, which is still at the National Archives in Enugu, was never challenged by anybody until about 1961 when somebody from Lokpanta went to court over it. According to him, the surveyor, Chukwurah was invited and another surveyor too, and the court decided that the 1954 survey plan was binding on all the communities since the Lokpanta people also contributed money in paying for the services of the surveyor.
Okoro stated that the matter was decided in favour of Amata Ishiagu people and the Lokpanta people were asked to pay them 75 Guineas for damages and cost of litigation.
Resolutions with NBC
In its efforts to address the violent incident on a sector of the Abia/Ebonyi interstate boundary, the National Boundary Commission had convened a joint meeting of officials on the interstate boundary at the Aguiyi Ironsi Conference Centre, Umuahia, Abia state on Thursday, 6th August, 2015.
The meeting aimed at addressing the accomplishment of the outstanding activities on the boundary was chaired by the Director General of NBC, Dr. M. B. Ahmad. Deputy Governors of Abia and Ebonyi states; Chief Udo Oko-Chukwu and Dr. Kelechi Igwe, respectively, led their delegations while the Deputy Director, Interstate Boundaries, E. C. Nnamani represented the Surveyor-General of the Federation.
Aside other things, the meeting noted that the delineation instruments had been submitted and screened in 2014 for use by the joint field team adding that both states had additional documents for consideration with respect to the boundary.
Highlights of the deliberation were that the major stakeholders shall continue to encourage good neighbourliness through proper information dissemination; that the relative peace on the boundary be sustained through the joint utilisation of the border resources of both states by the border communities; that four copies of any additional delineation documents may be submitted to the National Boundary Commission on or before 30th August, 2015 for consideration and use for fieldwork as appropriate and that three technical experts of both states made up of the Surveyors-General and two other persons shall come to Abuja for the delineation of the boundary in accordance with already screened and accepted document from 1st -4th September, 2015.
It was also resolved that the joint field team shall be inaugurated on November 17, 2015 at Nkwoagu of Umunneochi LGA of Abia state and the filed work commenced at Uru-Lokpanta axis and shall be completed on or before December 18, 2015. Above all, it was expressly stated that the status quo shall be maintained until the boundary was properly defined.
Search for peace
Unfortunately, since after the programme of activity slated for the last quarter of 2015, no word had come from the NBC again to the anxious communities.
Traditional ruler of Ishiagu, Eze Moses Ngele (The Agu III of Ishiagu) confirmed the foregoing and lamented that both communities were left in a quandary.
He said: “This has been happening and I can tell you now that the National Boundary Commission had been here twice and the Ebonyi State Ministry of Border Peace and Conflict Resolutions has also come here and looked at the situation and said the two communities should stay and wait till final demarcation is done.
“The governor represented by his deputy was here a couple of days ago. They came to my palace before they were taken to the disputed area and he saw everything himself. So, the government of Abia State can tell their people to stop taking laws into their hands.”
His counterpart of Obiagu Lekwesi, Eze Tim Nwokoro expressed similar frustration. The monarch stated as much in his letter to the council boss of Umunneochi: “In the circumstance, I most passionately urge your good offices to kindly bring this unfortunate incident to the attention of His Excellency, the Executive Governor of our dear state, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, to enable him liaise with his Ebonyi state counterpart to straighten this lingering boundary adjustment issue before it assumes a more dangerous dimension.”
The nonagenarian reiterated that his people were not inclined to war or bloodshed but appealed that the report of the boundary delineation be released soonest.
However, there appeared to be a silver lining as the traditional institutions of the two communities have opened up channel of communication. Daily Sun gathered that the Umuchieze council of Ndi Eze has met with their Ishaigu counterparts.
Both sides agreed that the meeting which took place at the palace of the Agu III of Ishiagu was exploratory and a prelude to the main one.
The Agu III of Ishaigu and Princess Nwokoro both confirmed that the meeting held to our reporter on telephone, and were eager that the next meeting would actually set the stage for the return of peace in the troubled area.
Prior to the meeting, Eze Ngele in an interview said: “Honestly, I have been longing to meet with the traditional ruler of that community to see how we can reason together and help to resolve the matter. When we meet, definitely we can go from there.”
Regrettably, our reporter gathered that the frosty relationship between the two communities had degenerated to the point that they stopped intermarriage. While the people of Lekwesi said they may allow marriage between their sons and daughters with Amata Ishiagu; sound bites from Ishaigu indicated that it was not possible.
As Eze Ngele put it, “When gun is involved, there is no peace and there is no trust again; so, no family or community will allow their daughter or son marry from people that carry gun to kill their neigbours. Honestly, it has affected our relationship.”