Given the camaraderie displayed by the large delegation from three autonomous communities on a thank-you visit to the Enugu State Government House that Wednesday afternoon, an observer may easily doubt these same individuals had for years been locked in a bitter feud that sometimes resulted in loss of lives and property. For decades, the Oruku-Umuode crisis effectively became a byword for kinsmen intolerance, defying numerous attempts at reconciliation including those initiated by “all the past military and civilian governments in Enugu State”, as HRH Igwe Cornelius Nomeh, the traditional ruler of Aguikpa Oruku Autonomous Community, had put it.
With a history so steeped in mutual suspicion, violent attacks and reprisals, the Oruku-Umuode crisis can indeed test the patience of even the most long-suffering peacemaker. It is possibly its intractable nature that frustrated past peace efforts, making the crisis seem like one that has to be lived with. So it is a testament to Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi’s resilience that members of those communities are embracing and openly committing to peaceful coexistence. The effusive eulogies showered on him since the peace deal between the once bickering neighbours further underscores that. “You are a man of peace; so what we are witnessing here today is not a surprise,” said Igwe Nomeh, whose Aguikpa Autonomous Community – carved out of the existing Oruku Autonomous Community – helped cement the peace accord.
HRH Igwe Moses Idenyi also amplified this during the visit. “My people were enemies before; but today we are here clapping hands and thanking God because you made it possible,” Igwe Idenyi, traditional ruler of Umuode Autonomous Community told Ugwuanyi to loud cheers from the people. “You are a wonderful and honest man,” he added, describing the governor as one who has shone a bright light over darkness in the three communities.
But even amid all the embrace, music and energetic dance, there was still room for some searing message. “We should strive to mend our ways because we have sinned against God. We have seen what we did to ourselves; many have died, some have become orphans and widows. This is something we should think about,” Igwe Idenyi said, his statement reflecting the violence prone atmosphere the people had lived in for decades.
A former chairman of Nkanu East Local Government Area, Ejike Ani, spoke on a similar note when he implored members of the three communities not to let the newfound peace end on a note similar to Hiroo Onoda’s, the Japanese soldier who refused to accept that the Second World War had ended and so hid in the Philippines and carried on “fighting” for 29 years until his surrender after formal relief from duty by his former commander who had to literally visit the jungle where he had been holding out. “Let us not have another Onoda amongst us; the war has ended,” he said, thanking the governor for the painstaking commitment demonstrated in brokering peace on terms acceptable to the different communities.
To many, the reference to Onoda who died in 2014 at 91 may have seemed like a lighthearted anecdote, but it is yet a subtle plea for members of those communities to strive to preserve the hard-won peace and not simply take it for granted. As chairman of a council hosting these communities, he will surely have seen several peace efforts scuttled by the stubbornness of a few hardliners. So his admonition was shaped by hindsight benefit. And it is, also, such knowledge gleaned from hindsight that lends so much credence to the current peace deal and which inspires confidence that it will endure.
Governor Ugwuanyi clearly understood that any peace deal not attained on the basis of a consensus is often an exercise in futility. Another vital lesson from those long years of elusive peace which guided his intervention in the crisis is that there is no single magic bullet that ends discord. It usually entails long, frustrating periods of negotiations. That insight – plus the kind of political will demonstrated by Ugwuanyi – helped in the negotiations as the leaders of the autonomous communities of Oruku and Umuode signed agreements on land ownership and boundary delineation two months ago. The signing was the outcome of many meetings called towards forging reconciliation to end the simmering inter-communal clashes. There’s a sense in which the Oruku-Umuode crisis mirrors the broader problem of social stratification that persists in many Igbo societies, because at the root of the crisis is the presumed entitlement of some families to traditional perks and outright exclusion of others on the basis of their birth. Nearly every speaker at the gathering alluded to that social ill; but never directly, given it is a subject that tends to be spoken of only euphemistically. So it is a big credit to Ugwuanyi that he neither pandered to any whim nor allowed himself to be inhibited by traditional norms that have enabled such divisive practice to flourish in Oruku-Umuode communities. The single most important motivation, for him, was social justice.
Of course, the Enugu State governor also understands the adverse effects which long years of disunity could have on communities’ development. The “One Community, One Project” initiative launched by his administration in his first term offers a useful context. Despite the widely acknowledged success of this programme which gives communities the freedom to nominate and implement projects they consider expedient, many communities have yet to access the five million naira initial grant due, in the main, to squabbling over who should emerge as traditional ruler and heads of town union – both stipulated pre-conditions for collection.
But it is not only with regard to government-inspired projects in communities that a lack of peaceful co-existence can prove an impediment to development. This much is apparent in Oruku-Umuode which, despite being home to some very accomplished figures with extensive social capital and clout, including at the global level, still has not quite experienced the kind of development that such social capital can attract. There is, however, strong optimism that this peace accord will usher in a new beginning, a sentiment echoed by Ugwuanyi during the thank-you visit. “Today is a day of celebration of peace in the communities. And we have every reason to rejoice because this peace will bring more development,” he declared….
Ani, former editor of ThisDay – The Saturday Newspaper, and Saturday Telegraph, writes from Enugu.