From Jeff Amechi Agbodo, Onitsha
Call them Prof. Chinua Achebe’s kinsmen and nobody will take you to court for saying so, as they come from the same Idemili politico-cultural division of Igbo land. In fact, one of the two warring parties, Uruorji village, comes from the same Ogidi clan as the late literary icon.
They and the people of Ezinimo village in Eziowelle community both in Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra, today, are at daggers drawn with each other over land dispute said to have lasted for over 50 years, in a way that looks like a scene torn out of the pages of Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe’s most ambitious and ingenious literary work. The two communities are laying claim to the boundary land in question otherwise called ‘Nneagu,’ in a way that serves as an interesting reminder of the Umuaro-Okperi land dispute in the book, later resolved in his own way by Captain T.K. Winterbottom, the white colonial administrator.
The people of Ezinimo recently raised the alarm over the wanton destruction by their neigbouring community, Uruorji village. Houses, ongoing building structures, crops and other property were allegedly destroyed by invading boys suspected to have come from the village.
Our case, by Ezinimo community
The Chairman of Ezinimo village, Chief Mike Nwoba, who, in the company of other village executive members, recently addressed newsmen on the alleged destruction and invasion of their land accused Uruorji people of wanting to force them into war and bloodbath.
His account: “The people of Uruorji invaded our land at ‘Nneagu’ land. They started destroying our property on the land since August 2018. They used bulldozer to pull down houses and economic trees, crops etc. They destroyed our village hall built in 1972 and pulled down our signpost and replaced it with their own signpost. We reported the matter to our traditional ruler, Igwe Mike Okonkwo who contacted Igwe Ogidi on the phone. The two traditional rulers met at the palace of Igwe Eziowelle where we were told to step aside to enable the two monarchs handle the matter but they could not resolve it.
“But as the traditional rulers were trying to handle the matter, they (Uruorji) continued to destroy our property on the land. So we said that the matter has superseded the traditional rulers. We went to State Boundary Committee headed by the State Deputy Governor, Dr. Nkem Okeke. We submitted petition to the committee and they invited us for peace resolution. We appeared at the committee. The Committee visited the scene where they saw the level of destruction done to our property.
“We are surprised that the people of Uruorji village left boundary communities like Adazi Ogidi village, Umunnachi village, Ajarija village and encroached into our land. The land is located along Umunachi Road to Eziowelle town. Before now, we have not been having any problem with our neighbouring villages. We are peace-loving village. I was a very small boy when I followed my father the day the boundary was demarcated between us and Adazi Ogidi not even Uruorji Ogidi.
“In 2016, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on that land with Adazi Ogidi village to authenticate what our fathers did on the land, years ago, and since then there has been peace until in 2018 when a different village, Uruorji, who are not closer to us invaded the land and started destroying our property.
“Our problem with the State Boundary Committee was that after visiting the land under contention, the committee collected phone numbers of our neighbours whom they invited for clarification at the panel. But a day to the sitting of the panel they called us to postpone the visit and the committee never communicated with us again until last October when they invited us and told us to go and settle the boundary dispute with Uruorji village. I asked the committee: how can we settle land dispute with village we don’t have boundary with jumping other villages we have boundary with.
“We were disappointed with the decision of the state boundary committee who told us to go and settle with Uruorji village we don’t have any boundary dispute with, at all. We had no option than to go to court to seek for justice. So, on November 19,2020 our lawyer served them writ of summon. But on December 19, 2020, exactly one month after the people of Uruorji village stormed our land with dangerous weapons and boys suspected to be thugs, armed with bulldozer started another round of destruction on the land.
“We held in place our boys who wanted to retaliate because we don’t want to shed blood. Neither did we want our own children’s blood spilt on the land. So, we submitted petition to Zone 13 Police Zonal Command, Ukpo, Anambra State where we met with the AIG (Assistant Inspector General) in charge. He promised to provide security at the place and invited both villages at a later date. We went but people of Uruorji refused to attend.
“They sacked everybody on that land our forefathers left for us. We have been living and farming on that land for the past 500 years without any issue. They wanted violence but we don’t want violence and that is why we are crying to the whole world for intervention because there is a limit you can push a man to the wall and he will react.”
Ibe’s take on the matter
Mr. Anoliefo Ibe, one of those whose property was destroyed, accused the peace arbitrators of negligence and complicity. “There are two principal actors from Uruorji Ogidi who were anxious to acquire the land and the strategy they are using is primitive and cruel. They crossed two other villages to invade our village.
“We are committed in following the rule of law. They are very violent; you can visit that site and make your own judgment. It’s complete invasion and wanton destruction of our property without any challenge. My own family house was affected. Let me make it clear, nobody has monopoly of violence. We keep quiet because we are civilized and believed in rule of law.
“It is act of wickedness; they are using hired thugs to perpetrate the cruel act. With due respect, if the traditional rulers have done something reasonable we won’t be complaining. If not for any other thing, they would have called the boys to order but they could not do it and one may as: why are they traditional rulers if their interest is not on that land?
“They said they want peace but violence and destruction were ongoing. If they want peace, there must be basis for peace, what are we going to discuss: is it boundary? We are not in boundary dispute with them, so what are we going to discuss? We are going to submit another letter to the boundary committee as a follow-up to the petition we had earlier written. I believed they have done what they supposed to do because if you are talking of peace, you supposed to mediate between the two villages but the committee pushed us to go and settle.
“We’ve written to the police over this matter, written to House of Assembly. We have also written to SSG just to let these institutions know what is going on. We are not opposed to any peace talk but what we are saying is that we can’t come to Ogidi community. Rather, they should choose neutral place. But they refused the offer.”
Igwe Okonkwo weighs in
The traditional ruler of Eziowelle, Igwe Mike Okonkwo, speaking on the matter said Igwe Ogidi and himself made efforts to resolve the land matter. But this was aborted by his people owing to fear of possible attack by the people of Ogidi. He called on his people to remain peaceful despite provocative attacks and destruction by Ogidi people. “The people of Uruorji Ogidi invaded the land of Ezinimo village where they destroyed cash crops, buildings and other property,” he said. “I am the person that has been holding my people back from retaliating. For now, there is no peace talk pending. In the past, we had fixed peace talks on two or three occasions but they failed to hold owing to fear of attacks despite assurance of adequate security for my people, during the meeting by Igwe Ogidi. They refused. In my own opinion, before any peace talk can be held again, Igwe Ogidi should appeal to his people to withdraw from the disputed land which they are still mapping out for building.
“The land in question is owned by Ezinimo village. Uruorji village had land dispute with another community, Umunachi, which was later resolved before they left them to encroach into our land. If care is not taken, this dispute may lead to bloodbath, if Ogidi people insist on building on that land. We may initiate another peace talk but not now until they leave the land.”
Uruorji village disputes claims
When contacted for their reaction, the spokesman of Uruorji village, Deacon Henry Okaro, flanked by the Chairman of the village, Mr. Paul Ibegbu, and Secretary, Mr. Patrick Okafor, denied the allegations about his people being the provocateur. He insists that his village never engaged in any deliberate wanton destruction of buildings and property as people of Ezinimo village are trying to claim. Their bulldozer, he explained, only destroyed some fences during road demarcation. He added that the land belongs to Uruorji Ogidi village who share a common boundary with Umuikwele village in Eziowelle. He noted that since January 1, 2021, the two villages have resolved their boundary dispute amicably.
Giving reason they moved into the land, Deacon Henry Okaro said that it was because the people of Ezinimo village went there and started farming and erecting houses while the case was pending before the State Boundary Committee. This move, he said, was against their agreement that everybody should leave the site pending the resolution of the committee.
His words and explanations: “We have issue with Ezinimo village because they moved into our land illegally. We had a protracted land case with Mgbuke Umunachi village from 1942. The matter went all the way to the Supreme Court and after the matter was decided, there was still no peace. Prominent people in the villages came together and decided to discuss like men who want peace in their villages. The discussion took some time but at the end they arrived at inviting the state boundary committee to come and demarcate the land in 2018.
“Afterwards Mgbuke Umunachi put up monumental beacons to show the boundary for the area ceded to Umunachi while the remaining land was ceded to Uruorji community as a way of peacefully settling the land dispute. Immediately after that, our village moved in to also begin to put infrastructural development on their own land, only for us to be confronted by Ezinimo village claiming that it is their land. They reported us to police station that we were intruding into their land. And, we followed them to the police to explain.
“But afterward, we were taken to court, again, for intruding. The matter is still pending at customary court. After some time, they wrote petition to the state boundary committee at Awka. They invited both villages and we went. The committee later visited the two traditional rulers of Ogidi and Eziowelle before visiting the site of the land.
“In our next visit to the committee with the Deputy Governor present, the two villages were asked: “do you want to make peace?” And we all said yes and the deputy governor instructed the office of the Attorney General of the state to raise an arbitration panel to look into the matter. That was on November 5, 2020. But on November 24, 2020, we were sent an invitation to report at the State Boundary Committee’s boardroom. After our presentations, they asked us: “do you want peace?” We said “yes.”
“We called them as we were stepping out of the boardroom, since we accepted to make peace and asked: when shall we meet to discuss to make it easier? But they told us that they would communicate to us, which they never did. On November 26, 2020, we came to the committee but Ezinimo people did not come. Rather, they sent a message that something happened in their place and asked the committee to give them a week. They rescheduled the meeting on December 3, 2020. So we were preparing to go back. But on December 1, 2020, we were served with a court summon from the people of Ezinimo village that we have been sued to court for intruding into their land. All the same, on that December 3, we reported, as previously agreed, at the committee’s office. But Ezinimo people did not come. So we came back and decided to move into our land because there was nothing else to hold us from doing so.
“As we moved into the land, we started creating roads for infrastructure. Any property that fell within our road demarcation, we removed it. It was in the course of that, that we removed a fence not a house as it is being rumoured. We did not destroy any building or house but a fence. In any case, the houses they are talking about are in our land and the occupants are doing so illegally. Some of them have realized the truth and had come to our people to pay tenancy. We are ready for peace talk anywhere including in their own village, if they sincerely want peace as they claim. But we don’t have boundary dispute with Ezinimo village. I don’t know what they want from us by encroaching into our land.”
Igwe Onyido deplores development
The traditional ruler of Ogidi, Igwe Alex Onyido, condemned the destruction of the property on the disputed land, noting that he was not aware of recent destruction. He admitted that the two traditional rulers made concerted efforts to resolve the matter before it escalated. But he noted that at the peak of it, the state boundary committee took over the matter. This development was made them to hands off since the government committee had waded into it.
His take: “For a long time now, even before I was born actually, the land boundary has been in dispute. I approached the traditional ruler of Eziowelle who is an elder statesman and we agreed to settle the matter amicably. But suddenly the state government committee said they wanted to settle the matter. This made us to hands off. The committee visited my palace and both villages agreed to settle the matter and I was happy.
“The matter has been going in Awka, the state capital but recently I was told that the people of Ezinimo village absconded when the matter was about to be concluded by the committee at Awka. They pulled out of the peace talk saying that they were not part of what the committee was doing to settle the matter. They preferred going to court. They went to court and brought writ of summon.
“The deputy governor and other members of the committee were surprised with the way they boycotted the committee’s sitting. The people of Uruorji village who spoke to me said that they decided to go back to the land because the people of Ezinimo village do not want peace. The case of the invasion of the land was done at my back, without informing me first and I was very angry with them. They blamed them for going back to the place since the matter was still on, without my knowledge or that of President-General of Ogidi. I had to go back to Igwe Eziowelle again to tell him that I was not aware of people of Uruorji going to the land. We have been living for many years without any problem because we are close neighbours and we inter- marry and we have many friends from each village.
“I told Igwe Eziowelle that we should settle the matter, that I don’t swant bloodshed or violence between the two villages. I told him to select five persons from his own side and I will select from my own side to resolve the matter. I met a peace-broker from my place Chief Samuel Anyamutaku who had brokered peace across the state. He agreed to mediate over the matter to broker peace. So, we fixed appointment with the people of Ezinimo village on January 2, 2021, but they kept on giving excuses. We fixed another date on January 6. I made arrangements and waited for them at my palace when their Igwe called me and told me that they were coming.
“After I waited till evening and didn’t see them while others from my side were waiting, I called Igwe Eziowelle. He now told me that he was ashamed to call to tell me that they said they were not coming after two to three times of fixing the date. He said they needed to sort themselves out first before any peace parley can take place. I was also ashamed to tell the peace broker and my people who had gathered waiting for them what he told me.
“The people of Ezinimo are not sincere to their traditional ruler; they are not sincere to me, to the state committee and Uruorji village. The government committee took pain to resolve the matter. But they were not forthcoming. We had gone to the extent of visiting the scene and had sat with them several times before they pulled out of the settlement.
“I have done all I could do. I have gone there with cap in hand to appeal for peace and settlement but the people of Ezinimo refused. It seems they have a hidden agenda which I don’t know. They refused to dialogue with Uruorji people but preferred to go court. The two traditional rulers, myself and Igwe Eziowelle have tried our best to resolve the matter but they refused.
“As far I’m concerned, this is not the first time there was destruction on that land. I remembered when I was a little boy in secondary school when the people of Ogidi went there to claim that it is their land. If you go there, you will see old burnt houses. It happened over 56 years ago. When the people of Uruorji village had a problem with an adjoining land with Umunachi community, the people of Ezinimo village were busy fighting with Umunnachi community when Uruorji people were also busy reclaiming the land destroyed over the years. It was those lands they destroyed in those days that they went back to reclaim.
“The state government had demarcated the land between Umunachi and Ogidi and the land in dispute was ceded to the Uruorji village of Ogidi. It’s in the state map. What we are saying now is for them to come together to dialogue. I know that Ogidi people will not take the whole land if they should dialogue. The invasion of the land by Ogidi people was due to the fact that Ezinimo went back to the land and started building on it after it was reclaimed by Uruorji Ogidi. I have not been to the disputed land because I wanted to be neutral on the matter.”