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Aguleri / Umuleri: Still a long walk from peace

By Lawrence Njoku, Southeast Bureau Chief
05 August 2018   |   2:17 am
Will there ever be an end to the face-off rocking Umuleri and Aguleri communities, Anambra East Local Council over the Aguakor land? This is perhaps, the question currently begging for answer as both communities return to trenches over the rightful owner of the piece of land.

• As Anambra Communities Return To Trenches

Will there ever be an end to the face-off rocking Umuleri and Aguleri communities, Anambra East Local Council over the Aguakor land? This is perhaps, the question currently begging for answer as both communities return to trenches over the rightful owner of the piece of land.

The Guardian gathered that the quest for the contentions portion of land that spread from Otuocha Oye Agu road to the Fish market; up to the Otuocha township stadium had claimed lives, property as well as dislodged many residents. It has also defiled several agreements and court judgments.

Although the land was said to have been given to the Royal Niger Company Limited at a time to set up their factory, the contention bothers on whom among the two communities settled at the area first, and who should acquire the property with the exit of the firm from the area.

The communities have returned to trenches, as the Umuleri (Umueri) community has petitioned the Anambra State Commissioner of Police, alleging threat to peace by the activities of certain members of Aguleri community in the contentious piece of land, in defiance of the directive of the Commissioner.

In the first petition dated March 27 this year and signed by Chief Pius Okonkwo and Mr. Samuel Mbukwesili, President General and Secretary General respectively, the Umuleri community alleged ongoing erection of two permanent structures on the land by Aguleri people. They stated that the structures are being erected in the night “with heavily armed thugs in order to instigate and provoke inter-communal crises between the two communities.”

“Suffice it to bring to your notice that these illegal activities by the Aguleri people through Mr. Godwin Nwajekwu (Chairman Umuriabo Eziagulu Aguleri) and Mr. Chukwudi Nwakasi, with their armed thugs pose serious threat to the lives of Umueri indigenes and, if not stopped, may breach public peace and cause inter-communal crises between the two communities,” they wrote.

They therefore, demanded the removal of the two structures, assigning a police patrol team to the area for maintenance of law and order, return of their sign posts removed and seized from the area by Nwakasi and Nwajekwu; and for them to desist from further activities on the contentious land.

The petition provoked the Commissioner of police to institute a peace committee with equal representation from both communities to look into the dispute, make findings and proffer possible settlement procedures.

Although the committee in which the Police Commissioner is a member is still meeting, the Umuleri people again on July 4, sent another petition to the State Police boss, alleging that the construction at the contentious land by Aguleri people had not stopped. They stated that the development was in total disregard of the peace committee.

“Umuleri (Umueri) people are peace loving and law abiding, thus, our obedience to your directives and respect to the peace committee are practical proof. But if the aforementioned persons are not called to order, their conduct will trigger off or lead to inter-communal crises between the neighbouring towns of Umuleri (Umueri) and Aguleri.

“We therefore, urge you to use your good office to call the aforementioned persons to order and prevent the looming danger their conducts are likely to cause,” they told the Police Commissioner.But the Deputy President General of Aguleri community, Chief Emmanuel Ikem, dismissed as false the breach claim by Umuleri people. He stated that the area in question does not belong to Umuleri people, explaining that Umuriabo and other neighbouring communities that have boundaries with them have been asked to demarcate them.

He accused the Umuleri community of refusing peace overtures by withdrawing from peace committees over the vexed land, adding that the area in contention had not been farmed for several years.“The Umuleri people are crying wolf where there is none; no Aguleri man or woman has entered the disputed Aguakor Umuleri land; rather it is the people of Umuleri that violate the principle of the peace agreement,” he said. He stated that the grouse of Umuleri people was basically because “an Aguleri man is the governor of the state. They want to destabilize him and ensure that his government fails. But they have seen that he is working and receiving praises from the people of the state. Now, instead of supporting him, they are busy writing petitions to the Police daily. We are not ready for any war and will not engage them in battle. There is a peace committee set up by the Police; they should allow the committee to do their work.

“Despite their antagonist stand, the governor has continued to build infrastructure in their place to make them happy. Most of their roads have been built much more than you have in Aguleri, yet they are not happy and are busy fueling problems. They should leave us alone and support the committee so that there will be peace in the area.”

Asked how peace could return to the area, he said that the immediate communities that own land around the area should be allowed to demarcate their boundaries, adding that certain agreements reached after the 1999 crisis should be upheld by both parties.But Sam Umeadi, a lawyer, who leads the Umuleri (Umueri) group in the peace talks, said the problem has nothing to do with an Aguleri man occupying government house, stressing, “all that they (Aguleri) people are doing is to show us that they have power and arms and ammunitions and doing everything possible to provoke our people; but we will not fall into their traps.”

Derailment To Peace
INVESTIGATIONS revealed that the communities had engaged in conflicts over the land in 1933, 1964, 1995 and 1999. While those of 1933 and 1964 lasted for few hours, that of 1995 lasted for ten days, between September 30 and October 10 of that year. It was gathered that the fight that year claimed 160 lives on the side of Umuleri and 60 on the side of Aguleri. Property worth millions of naira were either razed by fire or destroyed. Affected were the Umuleri town hall, Our Lady of Victory, St Gabriel’s Anglican Church, Aguleri Community Bank, Post Office and other public and private buildings. Many had also fled the communities while the ‘war’ raged.

The source added that four years after the fight of 1995, another war broke out in 1999. Explaining that it was a “massacre,” he said it lasted for three months and claimed with it so much lives and property that attracted the attention of the Federal Government. He estimated the human casualties to over 350, stressing that it excluded those who sustained injuries or were unaccounted for and those who may have died from residual effects of the crisis.

A native of the Umuleri community, Jonas Ude had attributed the frequent clashes to the collapse of agreements reached by the parties, adding that the matter of rightful ownership of the property had been argued at the Anambra High court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Nigeria.The decision of the Court of Appeal in 1981, granting a declaration of title to the Aguleri community elicited an appeal at the Supreme Court in 1984 by the Umuleri community. Although the Aguleri community had objected to the appeal, the apex court in its wisdom allowed it. The apex court had gone further to set aside the judgment and restored the order of High Court against re-instituting an action against Umuleri people over the land without the leave of court.

The apex court however added: “If, as the evidence shows, the Aguleris and Umuleris lived side by side together, farmed side by side together and built and lived on the land in peace and harmony before divisive force entered their midst, there is no reason why they should not recapture the peace and harmony that has been lost to them over the years of litigation now that the neither Aguleris nor the Umuleris have been able to establish that they are exclusive owners.”

Indeed, any visitor to Umuleri and Aguleri would need to do a lot of research to distinguish the two communities as they share a great deal of affinity and consanguinity. They are related both in linguistics and shared boundary, intermarriage and even friendship; among others.

Ude explained that the various interpretations to the court orders, especially the Supreme Court judgment of 1984, which did not make a declarative order as to the original owners of the contentious land gave birth to the war that erupted in 1999. He said it succeeded in introducing more confusion to the entire saga. He said after the ruling, members of the two communities started invading the land, selling off portions of it and amassing others. He said the development got to a level that people who bought plots in the area could not develop it, while those who tried were resisted by youths from either community.

He added that an attempt by a certain individual to build a fuel station fueled the war, alleging that, “thugs he brought to guard those working for him killed some youths who came to stop work”

Then President Olusegun Obasanjo visited the troubled communities and invited their leaders to Abuja, where agreement was struck for a ceasefire and a peace committee constituted to look into the matter and pronounce permanent peace. The committee gave birth to the peace accord of year 2000.

The 2000 Peace Accord And Efforts To Restore Peace
SOURCES said the inability of the government to implement the White Paper agreement reached in 1995 was the cause of conflict of 1999. It was further held that different billboards belonging one side were pulled down along Otuocha market road, and that there were moves to bury heads of people of one of the communities along with a deceased former council chairman.Thus, after the 1999 conflict, some respectable and like-minded leaders from the two communities were constituted to draft an agreement known as “Peace accord 2000” for the communities.

The copy of the peace accord obtained by The Guardian had ten persons drawn from each of the communities. It called for in summary the “creation of Aguleri local government area with headquarters in Aguleri Uno; creation of new Anambra east local government with headquarters in Umuleri; recognition of the boundary delineated by major tarred road running from Anambra river uplands towards the junction created by Onitsha-Adani highway and Abagana – Otuocha road.
“Recognition and respect for the ‘Peace accord’ between Aguleri and Umuleri communities; appreciation and recognition of the cultural affinity, peaceful co-existence and consensus envisaged under the ‘Peace Accord’ and the creation of the two new local government areas, as well as granting and implementation of requests in the memorandum.”

The Peace Accord was copied to then governor, Chinwoke Mbadinuju, his deputy and late Senator Chuba Okadigbo, among others. It was however learnt that the government did not implement resolutions in the accord. The development, it was gathered led to another peace committee on boundary demarcation and settlement of the land dispute between the two communities in 2004. The committee which came up with some resolutions in 2006 was said to be the product of a peace proposal made by some prominent sons of both communities, allegedly led by Senator Obi Emma Anosike from Umueri and Chief Raphael Obidimna of Aguleri.

The committee was made up of 22 persons from each of the two communities, with the task to determine acceptable boundaries between the two communities; as well as explore areas of mutual co-operation that will enhance the sustenance of genuine and durable peace, as well as harmonious co-existence between the two communities.

They had resolved that; “properties sold by Aguleri indigenes to non-Aguleri indigenes at Udabor area of Otuocha and those sold by Umuleri people to non-indigenes of Umuleri at the Amaeze area of Otuocha, as at the time of this agreement shall be seen and known as properties in the community in which they are situated; that Aguleri and Umuleri persons owning property in Udabor Umueri and Amaeze Aguleri areas of Otuocha should be allowed to continue to retain the right of ownership of their property; that Aguleri people should concede to Umuleri the land opposite Police Sation in Otuocha; that Otuocha market is jointly owned by Aguleri and Umueri communities and shall also be regarded as a public institution,” among several others.

Chief John Okoye said the problem would have been solved if certain members of both communities could resist encroachment into the said land, stressing that, “relying on court pronouncements or documents cannot solve the matter. It is something that we need to sit down and make sacrifices in the interest of peace.”

Interventions By Government
IN 2016, the Willie Obiano administration moved to solve the crises when it indicated interest to acquire part of the land for construction of Mini Sport Centre. Government also agreed to pay the sum of seventy three million, five hundred and twenty one thousand, two hundred naira (N73, 521,200) to the communities. The acquisition was done through a private Estate Surveyors and Valuers, Victoria Chidi-Akim based in Awka.

The firm received compensation for the two communities and confirmed in a letter dated August 15, 2017 that while the Aguleri community received their share, Umueri representatives only received the “facilitators’ fee” but rejected the amount due to the community.

It was gathered that the Umuleri people rejected the offer on the ground that the land was not jointly owned, adding that, they were never involved in the negotiations leading to the acquisition.“It is the position of the community that whosoever pays/releases this purported compensation to any person or group from Umuleri under any guise does so at his or her own peril. The Umuleri community has not and will not authorize any person or group to receive this fund on its behalf,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, the state Commissioner for Information, Mr. C. Don Adinuba, said the state government was not resting in ensuring that no further hostilities erupted in the area.He said that a meeting of representatives of the two communities had held since the petitions emanated, adding that further negotiations were going on to bring lasting peace to the area.

Adinuba disclosed that the peace committee set up by the police was also working to proffer perennial solution to the crises and called on all concerned to support the government and abide by peace terms.He said he was sure that with the level of development being introduced into the area by the state government, the matter would soon end.