After 50 years, Agatu communities fish for peace | Dailytrust

After 50 years, Agatu communities fish for peace

  Funseekers catching a glimpse of the festival on the FADAMA area surrounding the pond
Funseekers catching a glimpse of the festival on the FADAMA area surrounding the pond

For 50 years, Ologba and Egba communities in Agatu Local Government Area of Benue State knew no peace following disagreement over the ownership of a fishing pond. The age-long dispute over the Ochulo fish pond had led to the loss of many lives and destruction of property as it defied solutions. However, Daily Trust on Sunday reports that a fortnight ago, the communities in the eye of the storm decided to put the dark days behind them as they celebrated a fishing festival at the once troublesome pond to mark a new beginning.

To bring peace to the warring communities in Agatu Local Government Area, the Benue State Government, in collaboration with some non-governmental organisations and the new Och’Idoma, had set up a peace committee. But looking at other peace initiatives in the past that failed to yield the desired results, many are wondering if this move would stand the test of time.   

Speaking on the newly found peace between the communities, the vice chairman of Agatu Local Government Area and secretary of the peace committee, John Ikwulono, expressed optimism that the long-lost love would be recovered, and it would no longer elude them. 

Ikwulono said, “It is sustainable because anyone at the festival could clearly decode that the peace was genuine, unlike what happened in the past when the pact would not take two days to collapse. This our (local government) administration too has brought about peace. Those causing trouble before now were arrested by security agents, and as we speak, they have not yet returned to their homes. With that development, who will now be making trouble?”  

He traced the restoration of peace between the two rural communities to the activities of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which he said worked tirelessly alongside the state government’s peace committee and other bodies to achieve the target. 

“The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, headed by a Kenyan, led the peace process after gaining approval from the state government to wade into the crisis. Before now, the state government made a series of efforts, which did not yield the desired results. The peace committee was chaired by the deputy governor, Benson Abounu. 

“It was a long walk to this final reconciliation, which took place at the Government House in Makurdi, with both parties, Ologba and Egba in attendance. 

“Egba eventually apologised to the Ologba people and asked for their forgiveness as they admitted that they were not the owners of the pond. 

“At the meeting, the deputy governor was angry with Egba people for obtaining forged court document. A day was then set aside and they came to Ologba and made formal apology. It was after that was done that the deputy governor directed a day to be set aside for the fishing festival. That was how March 30, 2021 was chosen for the fishing festival,” he said. 

 

Ikwulono continued, “The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue had been on the peace process since 2020. And the peace committee of the state government had been on ground. The whole peace thing started in this our administration and has successfully come to an end too.

“The Och’Idoma has also given instructions/warnings to Agatu sons and daughters to stay out of trouble. He also flagged off the exercise using a fishing spear before all the fishermen from both sides entered the pond and commenced the fishing exercise. The two communities and people from other villagers in their large number were present to witness the occasion. 

“Since then, they have all been going there to fish without any bitterness. They carried on the fishing festival for five days; and they have continued. I can tell you authoritatively that this one (peace) is sustainable.” 

In the same vein, Amos Odoba Clark, a representative of Ologba in the peace committee, said that real peace had returned to Ologba and other communities affected by the crisis.  

He said over 60 persons lost their lives to the crisis in Ologba and many injured, while almost all the houses in the community were destroyed.  

Clark added that as part of the peace process, an agreement was reached that both communities would fish in the pond for at least two years before it would be finally handed over to Ologba people as its true owners.  

“Yes, peace has come to stay. The fishing festival marks the end of the crisis. We have been having meetings and an update on initiatives that failed in the past. We thank God for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, especially for their approach to the crisis, which will make the peace sustainable. This time, peace will grow and become greater.  

“Usually, they call us for feedback monthly. I believe their way of mediation so far would mark an end to the crisis.  

“Two weeks to the festival, people had fears that there would be crisis, but when they got there, there was joy and smiles on people’s faces, so much that anyone there would be convinced that the exercise indeed marked an end to the crisis. And after the festival, people have been going there to carry our social activities like drinking together. Before now, they didn’t even go there for fishing. 

“Before now, there was lawlessness in Agatu. Our politicians politicised the issues. Even when they saw bad eggs going about with guns, they praised them; but after the peace initiative they have ceased fire and there’s no crisis anywhere. They have maintained peace,” he said.  

“Even harassment on the road that had been the order of the day no longer exists. You can confirm from anybody, even in Egba, Aila, Omokwudi, Ijigba, down to Okokolo. They now patronise the pond. As I speak to you, I went to the farm today and just came back to take my people to go and plant my yam seedlings, and there was no gunshot anywhere. People are going about their businesses and farming with joy. They have also been sending messages to me after the fishing festival.  

“In the face of the crisis, more than 60 persons lost their lives in Ologba. In just one day, 29 people died and many others were injured. And almost all the buildings were destroyed. Property worth N300 million were also destroyed,” Clark added.  

On his part, Tani Aliyu, an imam who represents Egba people and the Muslim community, assured that the current peace would be sustained, saying that both parties were committed to harmonious coexistence.

Aliyu said, “This newly found peace will last as we have witnessed with the maiden fish festival. Next year’s event will be big because there will be enough time to prepare for it, and participants will catch bigger fishes.

“Egba and Ologba have come together as brothers and sisters. We have accepted to live in peace. It was because of the pond that the trouble started in the first place, so within the next two years, as part of the peace pact, we urge the government to take a closer look at the issues to enable us bond better. 

“The pond is at the boundary between us and had triggered crisis in the past, but now we can sit down and talk to ourselves. Although the matter is still in court, as at now, both parties are fishing in the pond. We will also co-host the festival next year; after that, we can sit down for further discussion.

“Many lives have been lost to the crisis from both divides. I can remember vividly that on one occasion when hired mercenaries were used to attack us, in one day they killed 97 people in Egba. That happened in 2015. The crisis had lingered for a long time. It can only be imagined how many others were killed at other times.” 

 

How the crisis started

The crisis dates as far back as 1972, but killings became rampart in the past 16 years, Clark said. He explained that while the misunderstanding between both communities persisted, legal action continued in court before killings started.

His counterpart from Egba community, Imam Aliyu, said it was very painful to see nearly a 100 people killed in just one day in 2015.

 A former lawmaker who represented Agatu at the state House of Assembly during the peak of the crisis, Alhaji Sule Audu, in a previous interview with our correspondent in Makurdi, said the age-long crisis had dragged other communities within the area into partaking in the feud over the ownership of the Ochulo fishing pond sited in the FADAMA area, on the coastline of River Benue.  

Consequently, the affected communities fought over the FADAMA farmland and struggled over traditional stool following the amendment of the chieftaincy law of the state in 2016. However, the issues surrounding the stool have been resolved. 

Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that the disagreement revolved around Egba/Ologba and Abugbe/Agbaduma, under which several communities, such as Aila, Agbugbe, Adagbo, Okokolo, Akwu and Odugbeho, amongst others, belong as part of the two major clans – Abugbe and Agbaduma. At some point, aggression was transferred to communities based on either the ownership of farmlands or fishing ponds, amongst others factors. 

Audu disclosed that part of the crisis started because of a court judgement in 1973, which was wrongly interpreted. 

Some residents of the affected communities who spoke on condition of anonymity claimed that the crisis was complex because it was sandwiched with traditional politics and engagement of external forces. 

A respondent, Tony Audu, who is not from both warring communities, said Egba and Abugbe were always in alliance against Ologba and other aggrieved communities over the control of the fish pond.

“The crisis over the fish pond has been on for quite an age between Aila and Egba. What we learned is that the pond was given to a family in Aila by another family in Egba. But the same people from Egba insisted on controlling the pond. Both Aila and Egba people have been farming on the land around the disputed pond,” Audu said.

Another respondent, Uloko Isaac Adi, who hails from Ailla, had claimed that the love lost between the warring communities began a long time ago but the actual violence starting in 2000, adding that the litigation concerning the pond had been there from the 1970s.

“The crisis has led to the destruction of the entire Ologba community. If you go to Ologba now, you will not see houses. Another community close to it, called Ekada, was destroyed by Egba. It has also led to the destruction of Aila.

Why past peace initiatives failed

Severally, the deputy governor of the state, Abounu, who heads the peace committee, had initiated talks amongst the aggrieved communities, but after a while, the people would renege on their promise to end the dispute.

Expectedly, the crisis impacted negatively on the socio-economic life of inhabitants. Many times, barely two days after both parties signed a peace accord, they would return to bloodletting and destruction of property. 

Audu the ex-lawmaker said, “Our people refused to forgive each other and allow the past to go. There have been strong reactions to any slight provocation. And that’s where we think religious leaders should come in.”

The deputy governor of the state, Abounu, who spoke on behalf of his principal, Governor Samuel Ortom, at the Ochulo fish pond during the maiden edition of the Agatu Fishing Festival said, “In the last five years, I have visited Agatu eight times because of the crisis between the two communities. My worry is that many people have been killed over the years because of a fish pond. The dispute is unnecessary and avoidable.

“It is very shameful, to say the least, that a fellow brother kills another because of ownership of a pond.”

Daily Trust on Sunday recalls that in a peace meeting the deputy governor held with Agatu stakeholders on March 13, 2020, it was agreed that, among other things, the state government would hold a rally in Agatu, where displaced persons from Ologba, Aila and Abugbe would be brought home on that year’s Easter Monday. Unfortunately, after a short while, the truce failed.

Also, in July 2019, the frosty relationship between Abugbe and Okokolo took another frightening dimension, which led to the death of many villagers, just 48 hours after a peace pact.

 

A new dawn

Daily Trust on Sunday reports that there are indications that a new chapter has been opened for the warring communities if the joy exhibited by the people during the fishing festival on March 30 is anything to go by.

People from all walks of life, as well as those from both warring divides, including women, children, traditional rulers and the government, were present at the epoch-making event.

At the event, the elated locals believed that whatever had resulted to retrogression in their communities, such that villages were deserted and there were no business activities, no school, no sports, would belong to the past.

Everyone at the occasion appeared happy as the paramount traditional ruler of Idoma kingdom, Och’Idoma V, Dr. Elaigwu John Odogbo, who is also an Agatu native, flagged off the fishing festival.

In his address, the Och’Idoma charged the people of Egba and Ologba to go ahead and intermarry so as to strengthen the bond between them. He also charged them to sustain the peace they embraced during the event.

He warned that anyone found causing trouble would incur the wrath of the law.

“If I didn’t bribe anyone to be made the Och’Idoma, everything I said here today will come to pass.

“Let people from the two communities intermarry. Now that we have peace, everything can follow.

“Whoever will instigate crisis between these communities will know no peace,” the royal father warned.

He added, “Our people have been known for peace, celebration and hard work. Hostility is not known among our common traits. Though we are a warrior tribe, our warring has been re-channeled against lack, poverty and backwardness.

“I appreciate everyone who has been part of the peace process leading to this fishing festival. A commitment to peace is a commitment to a better world in all ramifications.

“My appreciation goes to the Benue State Government for allowing and supporting the Agatu peace process, the Agatu peace committee for committing time and resources to these unfolding events, and mostly, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue for anchoring the whole process.

“I congratulate us all, especially the immediate communities of Egba and Ologba, for ending a clash that has been on for almost five decades. You are the champions today.”

Earlier, Governor Ortom, who was represented by his deputy, appealed to the people of the two communities to sustain the peace so far recorded and live harmoniously.

The governor told the people of the two communities to embrace peace and fish together in the pond as brothers.

“We thank God that with the help of the Community Initiative to Promote Peace (CIPP), Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and other stakeholders we are enjoying peace today,” he said.

Ortom added that the peace being enjoyed in the communities should be extended to the entire Agatu Local Government Area, Benue State and Nigeria in general.

Also, the CIPP and other development partners who mediated the peace process encouraged the warring parties not to renege.

The senior programme officer of the Pastoral Resolve under the CIPP, Israel Okpe, expressed joy for the return of peace to the two communities.

Clan heads of Egba and Ologba communities, James Obiabo and Paul Ochoche, appreciated the CIPP for intervening in the age-long conflict, and appealed to the non-governmental organisation to assist in rebuilding their communities and providing basic amenities.

A woman leader in Ologba, Mrs Deborah Otene and a former council chairman of Agatu, Danjuma Sule, decried the setback the conflict had brought to the communities.

They, however, expressed hope that with support from the state government and the development partners, a lot would be achieved in the future.

Also, a lead peace facilitator for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Dr Ahmed Yassin, urged Agatu people to jealously guard the hitherto elusive peace, adding that peace is a major key to a prosperous society and the socio-economic development of any state or country.

“It is worth noting that through the years of facilitating mediation and dialogue processes in Nigeria, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue has not encountered a peace process where implementation of key resolutions commenced before the signing of a formal peace agreement.

“This is a unique and unprecedented feature that has been observed in the Agatu natural resource peace process,” he said.

It would be recalled that in February this year, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue was patted on the back for restoring peace through its mediation among warring factions of some communities in Benue State.

Governor Ortom had acknowledged the critical role played by the organisation in resolving the fish pond crisis in Agatu, as well as land disputes in other parts of the state when he received the delegation from the Centre led by Mr Ibrahim Hassan, who briefed him on the progress made so far in mediating between warring communities.

Ortom said that due to effective mediation by the organisation to bring warring communities together, relative peace had been restored in the areas, thereby making the people to go about their normal businesses.

To this end, the leader of the delegation, Ibrahim Saleh, explained that following the mediation process over the fish pond issue, there was ceasefire from both communities, while people who were displaced because of the crisis returned to their homes.

Saleh further posited that the installation of a new Och’Idoma, who is from Agatu, had helped in no small measure to resolve some of the crises in various communities.

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