… As hope rises over 109-year-old boundary dispute
From Emmanuel Uzor, Abakaliki
For 109 years, some communities in Ebonyi State and their neighbours in Benue State have been at loggerheads.
The feud was occasioned by a dispute arising from the boundary between both states. The incident led to inter-communal wars in which lives and property were lost in the past. However, recently, the two states, alongside a federal agency, have commenced moves to end the hostilities.
After identifying the major cause of the crises between the Ngbo, Effium and Ezza-Effium communities in Ebonyi and the Agila and Igumale communities in Benue, the two state governments, in collaboration with the National Boundary Commission (NBC), have initiated moves to end the crisis.
In the beginning
Since 1907, the people of Ngbo in Ohaukwu Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, Ndienyim Ishieke in Ebonyi Local Government Area and Agila and Jigban communities in Ado Local Government area of Benue State have been tangled in a dispute over boundaries, which has led in loss of many lives, even as belongings worth billions of naira have been destroyed.
Several efforts to reconcile the neighbours in the two states hit the rocks, as killing, maiming and destruction of property continued unabated. Many stories have been told of the disputed boundaries but both states have always laid claim to the land, which is vast and very fertile.
While the people of Ngbo and Ndienyim Ishieke have maintained that the boundary from Ngbo, Effium and Agila remains their land, the people of Agila and Jigbon have insisted that their ancestors, the progenitors of Idoma and Agila, farmed on the land.
Since the land dispute dates as far back as 1907, it has been very difficult for any credible witness to give evidence on the true ownership of the expanse of land. That was why the federal government intervened through the NBC.
Part of the resolutions reached by the antagonists included that all the affected communities must accept the decision of the NBC to demarcate the disputed land, and that the parties must accept peace and cease all hostilities.
Interestingly, the two states have made several efforts to end the disputes between both sides. In the recent past, there were been peace moves initiated by the Deputy Governor of Ebonyi State, Dr. Kelechi Igwe, and his Benue State counterpart, Benson Abounu.
To achieve the much-needed peace in the affected communities, the Director-General of the NBC, Dr. Mohammed Ahmed, recently led a delegation from the federal government and top officials of both Ebonyi and Benue states to put an end to the lingering crisis.
Dr. Ahmed, while speaking during peace campaigns in the two neighbouring states, expressed worry over the deliberate killings and destruction of property along the border communities since the outbreak of the crisis. He explained that the sensitisation effort was at the instance of the federal government after a meeting with officials of the two states.
According to the DG, the NBC was putting in place modalities to ensure proper demarcation of the land, even as he blamed the boundary clashes between the two states on unlawful acquisition of land by some people from the affected communities.
He also noted that the boundary dispute started during the colonial period, and some from the communities went about amassing tracts of land without recourse to constituted laws and authorities, thereby causing the crisis to linger.
Ahmed stated that the Ebonyi/Benue inter-state boundary was set up for administrative convenience, but, over the years, there have been crises between the two states.
He noted that a meeting was held on May 17, 2016, in Abuja with the governors of both states and their deputies, where it was decided that three major steps would be taken to bring to an end the lingering boundary crises.
The steps included local sensitisation, a joint sensitisation involving the two states and NBC and the constitution of a peace committee by the affected local governments before the proper demarcation of the boundaries. He appealed to those in government to always uphold the sanctity of human life and implore their people to live in peace.
“When we fight over land, we kill people, and we are not protecting the land, but we’re letting it to consume us,” he said.
Ebonyi State Deputy Governor, Igwe, who was represented by the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Chief Augustine Nwankwegu, stated that the peace meeting was a measure that has shown the state’s unrelenting efforts towards a road map for the peaceful co-existence of border communities along the Ebonyi/Benue inter-state boundary and would transcend into a peaceful demarcation of boundaries.
He maintained that both states have witnessed hostilities in the border communities of Ohaukwu/Ado among the Ngbo people of the state and their Agila neighbours in Benue State, which has caused colossal damage and loss of innocent lives.
“An Ngbo man should regard an Agila man as a member of the same family called Nigeria. Let us all join hands and guard the security and sovereignty of our great nation, Nigeria, by ensuring that we all co-exist peacefully and even cooperate with one another across the borders,” he said.
The deputy governor further urged the chairmen of Ohaukwu and Ebonyi Local Government Areas, Clement Odah and Anslem Enigwe, respectively, to constitute a joint peace committee in the Ngbo/Agila and Ebonyi/Oju sections with membership as agreed in the joint meeting of May 17 in Abuja.
Benue State Deputy Governor, Abounu, an engineer, was represented by the Special Adviser to Governor Samuel Ortom on Land, Prof. Jonathan Ake. He commended the people for their large turnout. He insisted that conflicts were inevitable, even as he advised the women to engage their husbands in constant dialogue on the dangers of war.
He expressed optimism that with the new step taken by the NBC, the peace that had eluded the states would be achieved without further bloodshed.
Tortuous path to peace
While hope rises for the return of peace to the troubled communities, ravaged by war and hatred, the journey to the hinterland, where the peace accord was struck, was dotted with dangerous ‘landmines.’
The stakeholders from both states in search of peace were trapped by the deplorable Effium-Izziogo-Nwezenyi road on their way to the disputed areas to enlighten the people on the need to embrace peace. The virtually impassable road trapped the NBC officials, security agents as well as the Ebonyi and Benue state officials.
This reporter observed that some men of the Department of State Service, Nigeria Police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and government officials in the delegation were also trapped and their vehicles half-submerged in mud.
The deplorable road nearly marred the journey even as a downpour worsened the already bad situation. It took the intervention of the Ogadu Ezza-Effium villagers and a lorry to haul the vehicles out of the mud.
Residents’ cry for help
Mr. Ikechukwu Nkwuda, a resident of the community, decried the deplorable state of the roads in the border areas. He explained that the ring road was built during the regime of the former Governor Jim Nwobodo of old Anambra State, with regrets that it has not been maintained by successive administrations in the state.
He lamented that the villagers could not transport their farm produce to markets as a result of the bad road, which was very important to the state since it links Ohaukwu, Ebonyi and Izzi local government areas.
Another resident, Mrs. Rebecca Nwegbe, called on Governor David Umahi to come to the aid of the people, noting that the farm produce from the villages would boost the economy of the state where most of the residents were farmers.
She said since money from oil was no longer able to sustain the country’s economy, it was important for the state government to support farmers with an access road so that they could transport their farm produce to the markets.