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Abba, Ukpo communities trade words over disputed land

By Lawrence Njoku, Southeast Bureau Chief
20 September 2019   |   3:36 am
Abba and Ukpo communities in Anambra State were, until the last local government creation exercise, in the same local government council. That exercise changed things; while Abba was allocated to Njikoka council...

Part of the Girls Secondary School fence pulled down

Abba and Ukpo communities in Anambra State were, until the last local government creation exercise, in the same local government council. That exercise changed things; while Abba was allocated to Njikoka council, the neighbouring Ukpo went to Dunukofia, with Ukpo as the headquarters of the council.

This classification aside, both communities had lived in peace for long. They speak the same language. Over the years, friendship and blood ties have been extended across the border, as sons and daughters of both communities have also inter-married.

In fact, some of the actors at the centre of the present crisis threatening to tear the communities apart have their lineage firmly rooted across the two communities. There is also the story being told that one of the communities had, in the past, accommodated the other during war in a rear show of brotherhood.

However, as things stand, the relationship between the two communities has gone frosty. This is as a result of a dispute over ownership of a large expanse of land, known as ‘Agu Abba.’ 

‘Agu Abba,’ which Abba community believes is their inheritance, has been awarded to Ukpo community by the court. And hell may soon be let loose.

The contentious expanse of land is located on what was known as Abba junction on the Enugu-Onitsha expressway. The popular junction is now wearing a new name, “Ukpo junction,” boldly inscribed on a flex banner and mounted by the grace of the court judgment, which awarded the title to the community.

It was gathered that the change in name of the junction was part of the process of taking possession of the disputed area by the Ukpo community. They did not stop there. Acting on the court order, said to have been obtained from the Supreme Court in February this year, the Ukpo people had on September 6, descended on the contentious Agu Abba land, housing the “Oye Abba market” and reduced it to rubbles, while at the same time pulling down the fence of the Girls Secondary School, Abba.

These actions were said to have been carried out under the watch of gun-wielding police officers, allegedly recruited to ensure that there were no barriers in giving effect to the court orders.

President-General of Ukpo Town Development, Chief Onyiliagu Vincent, said the demolition followed an execution order obtained in April this year from the Anambra High Court, after the Supreme Court judgment on the matter on February 15.

The Guardian gathered that the forceful take-over became inevitable, after efforts to reach a compromise, based on the apex court ruling, failed. Several meetings were said to have been held to avert what could possibly derail the relationship the two communities had enjoyed before the litigations and court pronouncement.

Onyiliagu explained that the case started from the High Court in Awka, where Justice Obiora Nwazota ruled in favour of his community, adding that the people of Abba had appealed the judgment at the Court of Appeal, Enugu division.

He stated that the three Justices of the Court of Appeal on June 27, 2016, on the appeal No CA/E/30/ 2009, dismissed the appeal for want of prosecution as the applicants failed to compile and transmit the record of appeal to the court in line with Order 8 rule 18 of the Court of Appeal rules 2011.

Onyiliagu added that, not satisfied with the position of the Appeal court, the Abba Community headed to the Supreme Court, where on February 15, this year, the matter was “dismissed.” He said the Court resolved all the four issues formulated for determination of the appeal against the appellants and ordered that they pay N5000, 000 as cost to the respondents for prosecuting the appeal.

Onyiliagu said the Oye Abba market, which the Abba community had laid claims to, was “a make shift arrangement” that came up in the course of the matter, stressing that, “we were discussing about how to site the local government headquarters there, when we woke up one morning to discover some makeshift structures on it, which the Abba people named ‘Oye Abba.’ We laughed because we knew that Oye Abba is a small market inside Abba community. They just did that one because they want to occupy a land that does not belong to them. We kept quiet because the matter was still in court.”

But Abba community insists that there is no court judgment to enforce. They stated that the Supreme Court ruling, which the Ukpo community had relied upon, was being misinterpreted basically because “an influential son of the community has pocketed the law enforcement agencies.”

President-General of Abba Town Union, Bennett Anaekwe, an Engineer, stated that the apex court clearly stated that the matter should go back to the trial court, based on the missing proceedings of the trial court, upon which their appeal over the judgment of the High Court in Anambra state was struck out.

It was gathered that proceedings at the lower court upon where the judgment was drawn got missing, encumbering efforts of Abba community to escalate the matter at appeal. Efforts made to recover the documents were unsuccessful.

Anaekwe disclosed that the apex court, in dealing with the situation in their ruling, had stated that “any judgment whose proceedings are missing from the trial court cannot be enforced,” hence the need to return to the trial court.

He had put the cost of damages suffered by his people at over N1Billion. He said that items lost during the invasion included various sizes of rods used for building, which he alleged were taken away and sold, woods and zincs used in erecting structures in the market as well as the school perimeter walls. He said the community invested the N20 million it received from the state government for community development into erecting the walls as a way of securing the school premises.

Anaekwe said that the community petitioned the Commissioner of Police to report against the malicious damage of property belonging to Abba community by Ukpo people.

The petition, signed by Anaekwe, reads in part, “Constrained by the recent steps by Ukpo community to provoke and promote disaffection as well as inter-communal conflict between the Ukpo and Abba communities, I write to, on behalf of Abba community of Njikoka Local Government Area, bring a formal report and complaint for your records and expected necessary action.

“Presently, the relationship between Abba and Ukpo communities is at its lowest because of avoidable disputation of the ownership of a large expanse of land generally known as and called “Agu Abba” from time immemorial”

“Arising from the disputation and impossibility imposed on Abba community to test the judgment of the High Court, the Supreme Court, in a judgment delivered on the 15th of February, 2019, in a suit no. 589/2016, held that whatever judgment obtained at the trial Court was not enforceable because the records of proceedings were missing. Ever since then, there have been sustained attacks on Abba community and its property by its Ukpo counterpart.

“These attacks are evidenced by the following acts; mounting of offending gigantic billboards bearing the name of Ukpo Community, among others

“In the night of Saturday, 20th July, 2019, all signposts bearing the name “Abba” at and around Abba junction were pulled down, destroyed and taken away.”

Anaekwe further described the demolition as impunity and rascality. “The Supreme Court ordered we should start the matter afresh. We have already filed our papers in court and served them. They responded. So, why take laws into your hands and what are they enforcing? Where is the map? If the judgment has been given in their favour, they should mark the area. It is not the entire Abba where we are living but the Agu Abba. The map they have is not obtained from the court. The court is expected to verge the areas but there is nothing like that.”
How trouble started
The Guardian learned that the court matter began over the land began about 45 years ago. Abba was said to have taken the matter to court over what it called incessant incursions on the land by members of other communities.

Anaekwe stated that the matter, at first, was between Abba and Ukwulu, a neighbouring community. He said Ukpo was earlier drafted into the matter as a witness.

“Late Walter Eze, the Igwe of Ukpo and Okunna were the persons that were given as witnesses to Ukwulu. Ukpo entered into this matter after 35 years when we had gotten the first judgment in this matter against Ukwulu. That judgment was given during the Nigeria-Biafra war in 1967. They said because it was during Biafra, that it is not acceptable. Then after the Civil war, Ukwulu continued incursions into the land. It was in 1987 that Ukpo applied to be joined as party to the case and Justice Nwazota, who was then the Chief Judge, allowed them to be joined against our protest that in a case where they have been testifying as a witness, it is after 35 years that they now realized that they are party to that land. In any case, when they joined, they took the upper hand.”

Anaekwe continued: “Then, there was a judgment given by Justice Nwazota in 1999 in favour of Ukpo and Ukwulu communities. We got stay of execution on that judgment and we wanted to appeal that judgment. The proceedings from that judgment went missing from the court up till today. There was a panel set up by the Anambra state judiciary then, headed by Justice Obidigbo, who said that the proceedings could not be found. This incapacitated Abba because that was the only thing we could use to appeal the judgment. Because of that, our appeal was thrown out and we went to Supreme Court. They purposely removed the proceedings in order to handicap us in appealing but fortunately for us, when we got to the Supreme Court, the apex court said, “Where the proceedings of the judgment cannot be found, it was enough to invalidate that judgment.” That was in the lead judgment by Paul Adamu Galumje.

“We returned here to face the destruction our sign posts, including the one erected by the state government. This was done in the presence of men of the Nigeria Police Force. After that, all the stores where people were selling wares were broken and things carted away. Our women going to the farms were dispossessed of their farms crops. The climax was on September 6; they invaded our market with policemen, demolished the market and went to Community Secondary School and demolished the fence, which is one of the N20million project for the community by the state government.”

But a native of Ukpo community, Kingsley Agu stated that Abba was not among the early settlers in the area. He said the community was actually accommodated by Ukpo during the war, adding that the land in contention had served as farmland for the people. He said structures had never existed on the land until the people of Abba, woke up one morning to erect shops on it and called it Oye Abba against advice and attempts to dissuade them from doing so.

He added that the history of Abba was recently captured by the traditional ruler of the community, His Majesty L.C. Ezenwata in an address he presented at his Ofala festival.

“Go and read that document and understand that what they are trying to do was to twist history. Their Monarch said the truth above their origin. They are not the original settlers in the area. They continued to hang onto the court to buy time and cause more damage. That is the aspect we decided to trash once and for all.”

He noted that Ukpo, who are the original owners of the land, was almost being swallowed to the extent that several portions belonging to it was being erroneously addressed as “Abba property.”

Ikenna Odogwu, however, said the contention arose from what he called the “expansionist agenda” by Ukpo Community, stressing that “they (Ukpo) people want to expand but feeling they don’t have enough land, are fighting their neighbours.”

Odogwu said: “That was how they dealt with Abagana. It is now the turn of Abba and we don’t know the next town they will fight. Arthur Eze’s intervention is like when you are dining with a devil. I was in one of the meetings in May this year. He is asking for us to come and share the land into three and his people (Ukpo) will take one, Ukwulu will take one and Abba will take one. And we asked him on what basis? How can he talk of sharing what does not belong to him? He decided to use police to attack us and collect the land by force.”
Police deny taking sides
Meanwhile, the Police have denied any complicity in the raging controversy. They stated that their role in the entire matter was to ensure security and forestall breakdown of law and order.

Police Public Relations Officer in Anambra state, Haruna Mohammed, told The Guardian that the police only complied with an order of the Supreme Court in ensuring that a bailiff, who was executing the order, was protected to perform his duties.

Mohammed said, “It is not connivance and we did what was supposed to be our duty in the said circumstance. Our duty was to give the Court bailiff protection to do his duties. The police did not participate in the demolition of the structures.”

Asked why the Police engaged in the indiscriminate arrest and detention of natives of Abba community, including those who had nothing to do with the matter, he said: “We never embarked on indiscriminate arrest. We only arrested those who tried to obstruct the course of justice and our duty. We have also released them and none was charged to court. So, we were never wasting in our responsibilities in anyway. We called the two parties to meeting severally to find amicable resolution of the matter. It is not a case of anybody being in anybody’s pocket but doing what the law says.”

‘Arthur Eze not culpable’
Efforts made to reach the billionaire businessman, Prince Arthur Eze for his comments over the allegations that he was funding the crisis in the community proved abortive as he was said to have travelled out of the country.

However, his elder brother, who is the traditional ruler of Ukpo Community, Igwe Robert Eze, said his younger brother’s name was being dropped to give him a bad name.

He stated that Arthur had called several meetings to settle amicably the land issue to no avail, adding that in one of the meetings, after the Supreme Court verdict, he suggested that the land be shared into three so that each of the communities will have something to go with.

He said the matter started over 45 years ago, adding that in all the courts it had passed through, up to the Supreme Court, each of the rulings had favoured the Ukpo community.

Eze said, “They should be kind enough to accept that they started losing from the first day and that was when they decided to bite the fingers that fed them. They kept running from one court to another. We asked why they were going to court, though we agreed to go with them. The first judgment we got was through Justice Nwazota. They went on appeal in Enugu and lost, and lost again at the Supreme Court. What else do they want?”

Enter Anambra State govt
Mr. C. Don Adinuba, Anambra state Commissioner for Information and Strategy told The Guardian that government had intervened in the matter of boundary disputes in the state, including that of Abba and Ukpo, by setting up a committee. He said the committee, headed by retired Justice Kalajine Anigbogu, had submitted its report. The committee also looked at the crisis between Ukpo-Abagana, Enugwu-Ukwu, Enugwu-Agidi and Nawfia.

Justice Anigbogu had, while submitting the report last week, explained that the committee went through rigorous and diplomatic processes to ascertain the remote causes of the crisis, as well as finding lasting solutions to the situations.

He listed some of the measures adopted by the committee to include oral and public presentations, reference to previous court decisions, and meeting with prominent and public office holders like the Deputy Governor, Dr. Nkem Okeke.

The retired Judge recommended that the state government should, through the state’s Attorney General, organise a press conference to state in clear terms the position of the Supreme Court in a case involving Ukpo and Abba.

The panel also recommended that the Surveyor-General of the state be properly mobilised and funded to adequately demarcate the boundaries of all local government areas and their communities.

Adinuba noted that government had done what was necessary, adding that, “we will study the report and issue a white paper that will bring lasting peace to the communities affected.”

Road to peace
Anaekwe said they had complained to the police and written to the governor over the incident. He said that the state government had gone through the judgment and “they know the truth.”

“We should go back to the court and let it interpret this judgment. You cannot enforce judgment by yourself. Court knows how to enforce whatever order they have given. If court has given any order, they will serve us. But in this case, we don’t have the execution order they are parading. And that tells you they are taking laws into their hands. We are waiting for the government to make its pronouncement,” he said.

Igwe Eze, however, said that the ruling of the Supreme Court and the execution of the order had put a seal on the matter. “What else is anybody going to resolve? We have taken that which rightly belongs to us and that is final.”