On Friday, February 5, 2021, two related communities of Ibilla and Ukpa in Oju Local Government Area of Benue State threw caution to the wind when they engaged in a renewed land dispute which has left behind tales of anguish.
The massive destruction of property, which trailed that moment of ‘madness’ has only succeeded in setting the rural town at least 20 years backward, in the thinking of some indigenes of both communities.
- SGF: Nigeria Will Receive 4 Million Doses Of COVID-19 Vaccines On Tuesday
- Zero Discrimination Day: Lessons for Nigeria
Luckily, no lives were lost.
But suspects arrested in separate operations over the crisis by men of the Operation Whirl Stroke (OPWS) and the Police from both communities are presently facing the law.
While the OPWS at the time of this report was said to have arrested 10 people, the police confirmed to have four persons in its custody at the end of the communal unrest.
The troops were also said to have recovered several weapons from the warring parties, whose brawl had occurred over delineation exercise embarked upon by the National Population Commission (NPC) in the area.
Trouble started when a team from the NPC arrived the border communities to do their duty but the locals, known to be nursing an age-long land dispute, out of suspicion about the exercise, took up arms against each other. At the end of the day, many were injured, a popular market was razed and so many houses burnt.
Locals said following the violence, soldiers of OPWS and 72 Battalion in Makurdi were drafted to the vicinity to restore calm during which 10 people were arrested over the crisis.
The locals admitted that sanity returned to Ibilla and Ukpa communities following the presence of security operatives who immediately cordoned the area.
Godwin Owulo, a former Oju LGA chairman, who hails from Ukpa, one of the crisis ridden communities, told our correspondent that it was simply the lack of understanding or perception that snowballed into violence.
He explained that the NPC officials had barely arrived to commence the exercise at the disputed land borders when they were chased out by the opposing community who alleged that the land was not meant for Ibilla, perhaps, with the mindset that the commission was carrying out demarcation exercise.
“But it wasn’t boundary demarcation rather an enumeration exercise,” he said.
Owulo added that from what he gathered, there were allegations that the present council chairman, Clement Onaa, was privy to the tension building between the two communities prior to the arrival of the NPC’s team but failed to do anything about it.
“That little misunderstanding further led to the colossal waste of property in the area. I learnt it was due to the inaction on the part of the chairman. Now, the damage done to the people was massive. They can’t repair that market in 20 years to come. But this is not time to apportion blames,” Owulo added.
Similarly, a stakeholder in the area, Engr. Ben Obega, narrated that both communities had an age-long dispute over a portion of land in between them such that they had a mild clash during the 1991 census and a reoccurrence which was amicably handled during the 2006 Census.
Obega, who is also a Senior Special Assistant to the Benue State Governor on Energy, said that pre-exercise meetings were held on Thursday and Friday to educate the people about the coming of the NPC officials, stressing that on the same Friday morning, tension arose in the communities as the people started with a protest, then burning of tyres which further degenerated to the setting ablaze of personal properties.
He said, “I was one of the stakeholders who visited the destroyed areas on Saturday barely 24-hour after the incident to review the level of damages. I can tell you that the destruction caused in the area was massive.
“But security agencies were quick to rescue. There is relative peace in the area now, though no activities (social or commercial) are taking place yet.
The crux of the matter as further findings by our correspondent showed, was that the Ukpa people had allegedly believed that the NPC exercise in the area was an opportunity for their Ibilla sister community to conspire and annex their (Ukpa) land because one of their (Ibilla) daughters was part of the team from Abuja.
Of course, the Ibilla people have denied any such intention. But the disputed land hosts a major market in the area which the Ibilla christened ‘Onyike’ while the Ukpa called it ‘Ihiejwo.’ The tussle therefore hinged on the ownership of the land on which the market is located.
Therefore, when the violence broke out, the arsonists from both divides torched the market – property of perceived opponents, from where it trickled to destroying private houses.
However, some youths from both communities have taken their grievances to social media, with accusations and counter accusations against each other.
While one Douglas Achala insisted on Facebook that the Ibilla community had a sinister motive in taking the piece of land belonging to Ukpa, with a future intention to change the names of such places, one Emmanuel Agamah wrote in response;
“Douglas, you are a sure hater of Ibilla clan. If the mention of Ibilla scared you, what about clans that violence and looting is in their blood. Even if there is any change of land name as you claim, dialogue can correct it, but how can damages brought about by so called land owners be restored. Facts that Ukpa started the violence is what you find difficult to admit.”
Another person, Odey James, wrote; “For their mind, they thought is only Ibilla people that will suffer for burning the market, let see who is going to affect most in Igede. In fact, I don’t think it was only Ukpa people that burnt the market, there must be external forces from other communities.”
Meanwhile, at an emergency stakeholders meeting convened over the matter by the state’s deputy governor, Engr. Benson Abounu, for stakeholders from Oju LGA comprising traditional rulers, political and community leaders, it was resolved by the warring communities should halt every form of hostility and allow the area demarcation exercise of the NPC proceed as planned.
The resolution, according to the state government, was to ensure that Igede land isn’t short-changed in the actual enumeration that will follow the area demarcation exercise.
Reading the resolutions at the end of a 4-hour meeting, Abounu called on the stakeholders to take the message to the grassroots and ensure that peace is maintained as he stressed that enumeration area demarcation has nothing to do with boundary demarcation or ownership of land, rather it is for preparing grounds for knowing the actual population.
The stakeholders who agreed that the crisis emanated from land ownership tussle, accepted that there are areas where there are disputes as to which community owns which land.
It was therefore resolved that in areas where there are disputes, that the Benue State Boundary Committee be directed to swing into action, using the map of Oju to aid government into arriving at the decision as to who owns which land.
The meeting further resolved that in order not to disenfranchise Igede land in the time-bound enumeration exercise, the exercise should continue in the disputed areas under the council wards the people currently vote.
Contacted over the matter, the OPWS Force Commander, Major General, Adeyemi Yekini, declined comment as he urged our correspondent to seek any clarification from the media office of the Defence Headquarters in Abuja.
Meanwhile, the Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), DSP Catherine Anene, said she was not yet aware of the arrests made by the soldiers but confirmed that the police arrested four persons in the area even as investigation is still in progress.