What could turn two neighbours against each other and push them to carry arms? What could have shattered a hitherto peaceful cohabitation that has spanned over 200 years? THISDAY correspondents, Bassey Inyang in Calabar and Benjamin Nworie in Ebonyi, examine the underlying causes of the conflict that has torn the Ukelle community in Cross Rivers State and the Izzi clan in Ebonyi State apart despite te peace pact signed by both state governments
For about 200 years, the Ukelle community in Cross Rivers State and the Izzi clan in Ebonyi State lived in peace. They cohabited and bore no grudges against the each other. However, things fell apart about 13 years ago, in 2005, when issues relating to land boundaries sprang up. And because it was not managed well, the issues exacerbated to clashes that have claimed hundreds of lives and recently displaced no fewer than 1,500 persons. There have been incessant clashes, but things seem to have spiked of recent.
In June, another deadly clash occurred, which claimed about 20 lives and left thousands displaced. The recent clash was said to have begun after an Ukelle indigene was shot by unknown persons, which gave rise to a reprisal attack that would have escalated save for the intervention of security agencies. Even with the intervention, many still lost their lives.
Ruins in Cross River
Bassey Inyang in Calabar writes that the protracted but avoidable communal clash over a land dispute between the two neighbouring communities of Ukelle in Cross Rivers and Izzi in Ebonyi State, has left the former in ruins
When Nfuma, Ntrigom, Ipollo, Ogba and Ijiraga communities, all in Ukelle, Yala Local Government Area of Cross River State, saw electricity for the very first time, it was in 2004 during the administration of former Governor Donald Duke. With the installation of the much needed electricity, the people thought the years of underdevelopment and stagnation in the communities were over.
The thinking of the then Cross River State Government was that the provision of such economic infrastructure would open the area to rapid development. They never imagined that the communities would become a theatre of lingering communal conflict that would stall development and prosperity. Today, communities that make up Southern Ukelle clans are in a worse state than they had ever found themselves due to what some call avoidable communal clashes between them and their Ibeagu, Izzi neighbours in Ebonyi State.
Presently, at the imaginary border lines between Cross River and Ebonyi states at Ipollo, THISDAY noticed the presence of soldiers sent to keep the peace in an area considered the buffer zone between the Ukelle and Izzi Communities.
Mfuma, Ntrigom, Ipollo, Ogba, Ijiraga, Benekaba, Ujiama, Okpokodou clans and the entirety of Ujegatom in Ukelle are now lying in ruins owing to a protracted communal conflict over possession of farmlands with their Izzi neighbours. The conflict resurfaced about two months ago, though the locals trace the genesis of the violent clashes to April 2005.
As with every war, both sides have suffered casualties in loss of human lives and properties, with the death toll put at over 500. The disagreement between the contending communities stems from the struggle for the possession of farmlands between the Southern Ukelle people who consider themselves landlords, and the Izzi who are believed to be latter day settlers in the area.
Ukelle community, which is seven hours drive from Calabar, the Cross River State capital, according to what THISDAY gathered, had peacefully cohabited with Izzi people in places like Ipollo, Mfuma, Ntrigom and a host of other towns for over 200 years, with the Izzi people allegedly acknowledging their status as latter day settlers. However, the return of democracy in 1999 and its attendant benefits to political office holders, seem to have altered the atmosphere of peace as stiff competition for political advantage by self-seeking politicians was said to have given vent to the crisis.
A community leader at Ukelle, Steven Odom, blamed the Federal Government for not moving fast to solve the problem. Odom said if government through the National Boundary Commission (NBC) had intervened when it was reported that authorities of Izzi Local Government Area in Ebonyi had sent in enumerators in the area, preparatory to the 2006 national census, the crisis situation would have been different. The community leader said it was in the course of protesting the arrival of enumerators from Ebonyi territory for the commencement process that sparked off the crisis as far back as 2005, which has remained a burning issue till date.
Odom said, “The people of Izzi, in spite of the presence of security agents, who are supposedly guarding the place to forestall further conflict, are encroaching on the Ukelle land. My father was a clan head in Ipollo in Cross River, but if you go there now, his grave has been cultivated into a farm by the Izzi people right under the nose of the soldiers.”
Stressing that deploying soldiers was not a viable solution to the crisis, Odom alleged that there had been several instances of provocation against the Ukelle people by the Izzi, but the Ukelle people chose to remain calm, just to maintain the peace.
At Benekaba communit,y one of the youth leaders, Mr. Ocheke Okpako, lamented that the Ukelle people had not known peace since the crisis started over a decade ago. Okpako blamed the law enforcement agents sent to restore peace and order of not doing enough, as he accused them of turning blind eyes whenever there was an attempt to attack the Ukelle community.
Director-General of Cross River Primary Healthcare Development Agency, Dr. Betta Edu, who has been to the scene of conflict, in attempting to capture the sorry state of the deserted communities of Southern Ukelle, stated, “How do you console a woman whose child and husband were killed during the communal clash? Was I supposed to say all will be well? Can all really be well again? There are some things that happen to you as a mother and it’s honestly better for you to just die at the spot than live with the unending unbearable pain!
“I have been to Southern Ukelle twice; they are peace loving people and have always welcomed me with smiles and jubilation. Yet when I went there on July 11, this year, the villages were deserted. I went through them like I was in a ghost town. Of course the men warned me not to go there, but I had lost appetite for caution, my soul was broken, and I can only imagine the pain they are going through.
“Why have we as Nigerians lost our love for communal life. When did we stop being our brother’s keeper, why have we become vampires seeking blood? Why do we strive to take people’s land by force? Why won’t we give peace a chance! I saw women, children and men in their thousands who need help! Some are still in the bush, unsure of what tomorrow holds…. why really have we kept peace at the back burner?”
As the protracted crisis lingered, the state governments were busy working out measures to restore peace. At the end, the Deputy Governor of Cross Rivers State, Professor Ivara Esu, visited Southern Ukelle on a trouble-shooting mission where he and his Ebonyi State counterpart, Mr. Kelechi Igwe, signed a peace agreement to maintain the peace between the warring communities in both states. Esu told the people of Ukelle that the state government and the federal government were very much aware of the boundary conflict between the people of Ukelle and their Izzi neighbours.
But, Esu who expressed displeasure over the conflict, said it was unfortunate that the conflict was still ragging despite the meeting with representatives of both communities, and the government of both states. Esu said in attendance at the meeting, were service chiefs, traditional rulers, assembly members, the director general of the NBC, and representatives of the communities.
While stating that the people of Cross River State are peace-loving, and cannot be the aggressors against their Ebonyi neighbours, he appealed to the Federal Government and the NBC, to do all within their powers to resolve the crisis permanently.
Already, the Federal Government has announced that it has stepped in to resolve the conflict between the communities in both states. The Minister of Interior, Lt Gen Abdulrahman Dambazzau (rtd), who made the disclosure when he visited Cross River after the signing of the peace deal by both states, said the federal government stepped into the matter to ensure that the conflict was resolved to stop the wanton destruction of lives and property within the warring communities.
Dambazzau said beside the need to secure lives and property, it was expedient to resolve the conflict in order to ensure food security in the country. The minister added that the police and the military have been deployed to the conflict zone to put an end to the violent clashes in the boundary areas of both states. Dambazzau, who said he was in the state in his dual capacity as Minister of Interior and member of the national food security committee, noted, “As a member of the committee I am mandated to look into this particular case of Cross River and Ebonyi States, which to a large extent affects farming communities. This conflict is about land which the people depend on for survival because most of the people are farmers. It is important to look at how these conflicts impact on food security in the country.”
The minister said beyond food security, the conflicts have devastating effects on the lives of the people, so the Federal Government would do everything possible to end the conflict, adding that the government was concerned about the loss of lives, destruction of property, and displacing of people from their homes and communities. The minister said all hands must be on deck to solve this conflict and other conflicts in the state and the country.
Pain in Izzi
Benjamin Nworie in Ebonyi on the other hand reports that the boundary dispute between Izzi people and the people of Ukele in Cross River may be far from a peaceful resolution, given that the 13-year land dispute has turned bloody
Since 2005, the people of Igbeagu community in Izzi Local Government Area of Ebonyi State and their neighbours in Ukelle, Yala Local Government Area of Cross River State have mutually unleashed terror attacks on each other over a boundary dispute. The boundary dispute has claimed hundreds of lives and property worth millions destroyed. The war has made many indigenes of Igbeagu community fugitives and wanderers in their land.
The two neighbouring states have records of crisis at their boundaries. The crises are found in Izzi/Yala axis, Abakaliki/Obubra axis, Ikwo / Obubra area, Ikwo/Abi area and Izzi/Ukele. On June 26, 2018, the two communities of Izzi/Ukelle axis renewed its crisis; many including pregnant women, children and the elderly, were killed and houses, burnt forcing residents of the two communities to relocate to nearby communities to seek refuge.
Knocks for National Boundary Commission
The situation has elicited criticism against the National Boundary Commission (NBC). According to the Izzi community, the blame should be solely placed at the doorstep of the NBC, which they said failed to respond to boundary issues in the country. They noted that if a permanent demarcation had been created since the dispute began in 2005, the land disputes between Ebonyi and Cross River could have been a thing of the past.
When the crisis resurfaced on June 26, there was no human and vehicular movement on the popular Tran- Sahara Highway in the area which connects Cameroon and neighbouring countries, as travellers were afraid of being caught in the hail of fire, which were fired intermittently by the warlords. Gory video and pictures also flooded the social media, which forced travellers heading to Taraba, Cross River and Cameroon through the highway, including trucks ferrying petroleum products and kerosene to Cross River State, to turn back.
The situation had also necessitated the state Deputy Governor, Dr. Kelechi Igwe, to visit the area where he addressed the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and urged them to remain calm. But while he was addressing the IDPs in their camp at Ndiakparata, heavy shootings were heard at the Cross River State axis of the scene, forcing the deputy governor to end his speech abruptly. He ordered troops and other security agents accompanying him to the area to contain the shootings.
The shootings forced many displaced Izzi people out of their camps as many of them were seen on the West African Tran-Sahara Highway, trekking with their belongings to Abakaliki to seek refuge. There was also fresh burning of houses in the area during the deputy governor’s visit to the IDPs. Also, a young man, who was shot in the face, was found lying helpless at the Igbeagu axis of the war zone. He was taken to the hospital by some policemen in a Hilux van.
Chairman of the Izzi Local Government Area, Hon. Paul Nweceogha, alleged that over 1,500 houses at Igbeagu were burnt while about 10,000 people were displaced. He said, “It is difficult to quote exactly the figures but I can tell you that seven villages have already been evacuated, not even a single goat can you see.
“No animal was spared, not even human life; it is a worrisome figure. I am sure that 7,000 persons have been displaced and I am also sure that 1,500 houses have been burnt by the invaders. It is so difficult to quote the number of casualties because we are still picking bodies. If you move into the villages, you will pick one or two corpses before you enter a compound. This place is very populous and we are yet to even respond to this attack. Our people are peaceful.”
A youth group in Izzi clan, Izzi Nnodo Youth Forum, comprising youths from Ebonyi, Izzi and Abakaliki local government areas of the state, have blamed the lingering inter-communal clashes between the Igbeagu and Ukele on alleged lackadaisical attitude of Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State and the NBC. President of Izzi Nnodo Youth Forum, Hon. Ben Nwovu, expressed regret that the crisis degenerated to present the level.
While condemning the killing of Izzi people in the crisis, Nwovu said displaced persons were suffering because the intervention by the state government to cushion the effect of the crisis was not enough. He called on the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), to come to the aid of the displaced persons in the state.