On January 17, 1992 when the people of Umuelemai Autonomous Community, in Isiala Mbano Local Council of Imo State secured the judgment of the High Court in Owerri, which asked the Nigeria Postal Service (NIPOST) to rename its sub-postal agency located in the area in its favour because the land on which it was built belonged to them (Umuelemai), little did it know that the decision of the court was opening doors for further crises in the area.
The sub-postal agency had been known as “Umuduru Postal Agency” since it was established. Umuduru and Umuelemai are neighbouring autonomous communities and have settled in their present locations since time immemorial.
The sub-postal agency, located at the heart of Umuelemai, which is the Headquarters of Isiala-Mbano was moved from its location in Umuduru to Umuelemai, by colonial masters, who established it apparently for proximity and effective service delivery. But the name of the agency was retained as “Umuduru Postal Agency”.Around 1984, NIPOST decided to build a modern post office in place of the one built by the colonial masters in Umuelemai, and retained the name “Umuduru Postal Agency”. The development prompted a court action by Umuelemai Community, who asked the Owerri High Court, presided over by Justice Pats Acholonu to mandate NIPOST to rename the agency in their favour.
Justice Acholonu on January 17, 1992, granted their prayer. He went further to ask NIPOST to build another postal agency for the Umuduru Community in their native land. However, not satisfied with the ruling, Umuduru Community appealed the verdict, where it prayed the Court of Appeal in Port Harcourt to quash the ruling of the lower court.
The Court of Appeal in its judgment delivered by Justice A. I. Katsina- Alu, on June 6, 1998, set aside the ruling of the lower court. It held that the evidence before it did not prove that the parcel of land where the departmental post office was built belonged to Umuelemai, adding that, “renaming of institutions can only be done by administrative fiat, and not by a Court of law.”
Although, Umuelemai Community challenged the decision of the Court of Appeal at the Supreme Court, the apex court in its wisdom dismissed their appeal and upheld the ruling of the Court of Appeal on the matter.Smarting from the euphoria of the victory, the Umuduru Community was said to have started laying claims to the land on which the postal agency was situated, a development that was resisted by Umuelemai Community believing that the matter that was decided in court was not “ownership of the land, but the name, which the postal agency was bearing.”
Another round of litigations begun when Umuduru Community took the matter to the High Court of Mbano/Etiti Judicial Division of the state, where they prayed for, among others, a declaration that the land where the Isiala Mbano Local Council Headquarters is situated belongs to Umuduru Community; that it is the same land that the community gave to the British Colonial administration in 1902, and that the name of the said headquarters is Umuduru from time immemorial, and as decided by the Court of Appeal, and affirmed by the Supreme Court in suit No 87/1999.
They are asking for an order of court directing the third defendant and all other necessary officers, servants or privies of the government of Imo State of Nigeria to forthwith change the name of the aforesaid Isiala Mbano Local Government Headquarters to Umuduru and to do all things necessary to give effect thereto.
They also sought for “a declaration that the entire land occupied by the Umuelemai is Umuduru land and that they (Umuduru) are entitled to possession thereof as well as an order of forfeiture of the entire land so occupied by the Umuelemai by reason of their misconduct.”
Speaking on why they took up another matter in court, Secretary General of Umuduru, Uchechukwu Echereodo, explained that it was to enable the court “designate the entire area as Umuduru as it was formerly the Headquarters of Okigwe Division.”The Umuelemai Community challenged the jurisdiction of the High Court to hear the matter, which according to it was an abuse of court process having being concluded by the Supreme Court. Their appeal failed as the High Court insisted that it had powers to listen to the matter.
The Umuelemai Community appealed the matter at the Owerri Appeal Court, and on February 22, 2016, the court dismissed the claims sought by Umuduru Community as lacking in merit. Since then, no further appeals have been made on the matter.But now, a dangerous dimension that might result to a communal war between the two communities if left unchecked is quietly brewing, and this has to do with the rightful ownership of the land housing the Headquarters of Isiala-Mbano, occupied by Umuelemai indigenes, following an alleged determination by Umuduru Community to resort to self-help after failing to get the reliefs they prayed for from the court.
In a petition to the Inspector General of Police signed by their Counsel, L. I. Elekwachi, the Umuelemai Community alleged threat to breakdown of law and order by the people of Umuduru Community over the contentious property.The petition dated June 6, 2018 further alleged among others, “wanton acts of lawlessness by the Umuduru people in their homes,” adding that “these acts range from destroying houses and foundations, to extortion of money from tenants of Umuelemai.”
They also alleged that these acts have been consistently accompanied by violence and brigandage, appealing for measures to prevent a blood-bath.“Sir, you will agree with us that all that is needed to make the situation combustible is for our clients to take up arms and defend their homes. So far, our clients have exercised maximum restraint, but that is not guaranteed to continue ad infinitum.“Umuduru people should be advised to note that the time when might was considered right is gone and gone forever. Their penchant for violence and self-help is unhelpful and they should be warned to desist from that, he wrote.
President General of Umuelemai Community, Mr. Kelechi Mbachu, who gave further insight into the alleged threat stated that Umuduru Community was doing all in its power to provoke a fight that “could be disastrous and bloody.”He said: “We woke up one morning to discover that their youths have invaded the motor park in Umuelemai being managed by the National Union of Road Transport Workers and sacked the manager who is an indigene of our town and took over control. They now collect fees from the park. They drove away our natives, who have shops around the park and occupied the shops. The ones they could not drive away they harass into paying rents.
“During the sanitation exercise in June this year, they left their village and came down to Umuelemai to observe the clean up. While they were doing this, they cleaned up signboards bearing Umuelemai and were stopped by the Police.“On 14th of July, their women dressed in uniform and marched through Umuelemai Headquarters in the guise of trying to cleanse their environment. These are threats to peace and we are watching. But my worry is that I do not know for how long, we will keep quite. Our own youths might be tempted to react one of these days.
“This matter has severally being brought to the Police at Isiala Mbano. At a point they started laying claims to the land, which serves as police station in our area and were stopped by the police who produced documents to show that the land was given to them by Umuelemai Community”.Traditional ruler of the community, Eze Romanus Obiechefu said “We have occupied this area for over 400 years. Umuelemai has been in the official gazette of Imo State government as the headquarters of Isiala Mbano. We are an autonomous community and before you are granted autonomy, government must certify your boundaries and you show documents of your demarcations. Umuelemai is an autonomous community with 14 villages, while Umuduru, which is also an autonomous community has 11 villages. At no time have we been known as Umuduru. So, the mere fact that a postal agency was brought to our community with its name retained should not mean that our community is owed by another.
“There are several documents to prove this fact. We have taken this matter to the police severally at Okigwe. I have called the traditional ruler of Umuduru over this and at each point, he would deny that he had no knowledge of the invasion. I have continued to restrain our youths but the people making noise lack any sense of history. That is why it is like this,” he said.
Investigations by The Guardian revealed that the two communities have over the years lived in peace, made friends, have blood relations by virtue of marriage and even drank from the same stream (before boreholes were dug). It was gathered that the Nwezeala stream in Umuduru land being fetched by both communities suddenly dried up in 1993 when members of the two communities started quarrelling over ownership of the stream. The place is now a farmland. But Echereodo, Umuduru’s secretary general insists that even though the entire land belongs to Umuduru: “We have not asked Umuelemai people to pack out; we are not asking them to quit. What we have told them is that they should stop encroaching on an area that does not belong to them.”
“They went to court and lost. They should continue to live where they are living but they should stop further development. We are asserting our rights over the area.They have built and even gone further to sell some portions to strangers. We are not asking them to pay compensation even when they are not the owners of the land.”On the motor park, he said that Umuduru people moved in and acquired it after the Supreme Court judgment, which ended in their favour,
stressing that, they never did so while the matter was in court.
He continued: “If they said what we did was a threat to peace, why have they not returned to court? We have not bordered about clean up exercise until the court awarded the land to us. One of their sons,Theodore has been feeding with proceeds from that motor park and using it to fight us. So, when the Supreme Court gave its ruling, we moved in
and recovered the place. We cannot close our eyes while they take away what belongs to us. When the union people came, we showed them documents as well as the ruling of the court. They affirmed that indeed we are the true owners of the place. They appealed to us to allow the Umuelemai manager serve out his tenure in 2019 and we refused.
Presently our man is occupying the park, and we have started collecting tolls from the market because the land on which the shops were built belongs to us. We have a right over the land and we have been asking them to go to court and seek further interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment.”