Oil bearing community of Izombe in Oguta Local Government Area of Imo State has been turned into a theatre of war between soldiers and youths of the area over illegal oil mining activities.
On November 9, a clash between soldiers attached to the 34 Field Artillery Brigade Obinze and youth of Izombe erupted leaving in its trail destruction, death and agony. This is not the first incident as clashes between security agents and youths of the oil-bearing community have become a recurring decimal.
A similar clash took place on October 8, 2021, leaving in its wake loss of lives and destruction of property. Clashes of this nature in Izombe, Egbema, Ohaji and adjoining communities have in the past years become a problem in the state. Clashes between locals and security agencies over illegal oil mining activities, especially illegal refineries, have become the order of the day. Attempts by the security agencies to checkmate oil bunkering in the areas often lead to confrontation with the youths.
According to investigations, what led to the October 8, 2021 incident is similar to what happened on November 9. In the previous incident, two soldiers were killed, with one being an indigene of the state.
In the latest incident, it was gathered that youths of the area had intercepted a truck allegedly used in oil bunkering and demanded for the usual fees. The drivers resisted and this angered the youth. An argument between them led to the death of the two truck drivers and burning of the truck.
According to the spokesperson of the Brigade, Captain Joseph Akubo, a contingent of soldiers sent to restore peace in the area, was attacked by the rampaging youths, who shot at them. However, the soldiers were said to have retaliated and the youths ran to take cover in neighbouring houses, allegedly stocked with crude and illegally refined petroleum products.
Akubo said that from their hideouts, they were firing at the soldiers, thereby igniting heavy flames, which engulfed residential houses, property, farms, schools and other public institutions in the area.
However, a community leader in the area, Pastor Chinedu Nnadi, denied these. He said that the truck was actually loaded with illegally extracted petroleum products and was being escorted by the soldiers.
According to him, “We have been having these problems since the clashes first erupted in 2021. The soldiers and the youths were heavily involved in these activities and often clashed over rights to illegal mining sites. The truck in question was actually used in transporting illegal petroleum products and when they were accosted by the youths, they started shooting. This has been the practice for a long time and the government seems to be helpless in curbing the situation.”
Nnadi recalled that after the October 8 incident, the Imo State government set up a panel of inquiry to ascertain the remote and immediate causes of the problem, adding that till the renewed hostilities, the report of that panel was yet to see the light of the day.
Akubo, who refuted the allegation that soldiers were involved in oil bunkering in the area, said the truck in question never carried any petroleum products. According to him, the army responded to a distress message over the burning of the truck and a patrol sent to the area was attacked by the youths.
He said, “It was a lie. No personnel was involved in illegal mining. There are refineries right inside their backyards and it was in attempts to check them that they attacked our men.”
Imo Govt sets up another probe panel
Meanwhile, the state government, just like in the previous incident, has set up a probe panel into the latest incident.
Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba, said in a statement in Owerri, that the state government was saddened by the development in the community.
Emelumba, who agreed that the intractable problem in the area was as a result of oil theft in the community, said the security agents went on a reprisal attack after one of them was killed in the community.
The statement said in part, “The Imo State government is saddened by the unfortunate events that occurred in Izombe, Oguta Local Government Area of the state recently, which led to the loss of lives and destruction of property.
“It is regrettable that the fracas between oil thieves and security agencies was allowed to snowball into fatal violence, despite government advice on the need for restraint from untoward acts, even in the face of provocation.
“The government also understands that the security agencies went on a reprisal attack after losing one of their own. But since two wrongs cannot make a right, the matter, instead of abating, escalated. The government insists that no matter the situation, the rules of engagement must always apply.
“The state government sympathises with the families of those who lost either their loved ones or property in that ill-advised violence.
“The Executive Governor of Imo State, His Excellency, Senator Hope Uzodimma, has already ordered a holistic investigation into the remote and immediate causes of the crisis.
“While the government awaits the report of the investigation, both parties to the conflict are advised to maintain the peace.
“While the security agencies are urged to always ensure the maintenance of rules of engagement, the civilian populace is encouraged to refrain from provoking the men in uniform, no matter the temptation.
“The government will continue to do all within its powers to ensure a harmonious relationship among all segments of the Imo populace.”
Peace of graveyard as locals return
Findings by our correspondent revealed that the villagers had started returning home after they fled during the invasion.
Nnadi bemoaned the apparent lack of political will by the state government to take the bull by the horn and stop the incessant clashes in the community.
He said, “We fault the government in their inability to implement the report of the former panel, which has been submitted to it. If the government had released the report of the October 8, 2021 clash, it would have at least prevented this present one.”
Nnadi described Izombe as a disaster waiting to happen, as according to him, the people have virtually lost all means of livelihood. “If nothing is done, I am afraid what we are witnessing now may be a child’s play. Panel has submitted a report on the invasion of October 8, 2021 yet no white paper. After one year, a lot of people are still homeless, now we are resorting to another panel. Izombe people do not need relief material, what we urgently need is a solution to these attacks.”
He added that though the people have started a gradual return to their homesteads, the situation is still very dicey.