The Sun News

Anambra communities lock horns over land

How Anglican Bishop, others averted bloodbath

By Romanus Okoye

In 2002, when Orient Petroleum sited its refinery at Umudora and Umuikwu Anam in Anambra West Local Government Area of Anambra State, there was jubilation in the two riverine communities.

The people collectively looked forward to enjoying other benefits that would accrue from locating the refinery in their land. Their joy knew no bounds when the administration of Mr. Peter Obi later paid them millions of naira in compensation for their equitable rights over the land.

But today, the story is different. The same land that brought them good luck has become a source of bad luck. Invariably, joy has taken flight from the two communities. A cacophony of war songs has replaced the rhapsody of joyful tunes that once reverberated across the communities. They are at daggers over the authentic owner of the land where they had lived and farmed all these years.

But for the timely intervention of the Anglican Bishop of Mbamili, Rt. Rev. Henry Okeke and others, the two communities would have by now witnessed a bloody communal clash that would have left in its trail tears, sorrows and blood. Witnesses to the build-up before the timely intervention told Daily Sun that the devil literally walked the streets, blocking all forms of decent reasoning. Charms and weapons of war were allegedly procured, and sophisticated guns were stockpiled in readiness for the battle.

In a letter addressed to the office of the Deputy Governor of Anambra State and copied to the Anambra State Police Command; Secretary, Anambra State Boundary Adjustment Committee and the Government House in Awka, residents of Umunta, a village in Umudora Anam, claimed that they are the authentic owners of the two lands known as Ani Isilo and Okpuno, where Umuikwu people are domiciled today. According to them, many years ago, their ancestors and those of Umubamadu, a family in Umuenwenta village in Umuikwu Anam, took an irrevocable native oath that the people of Umubamadu should settle, farm and rent the land. They said the oath entailed that Umubamadu would remain the caretakers of the land, forever; provided that they would never dispute that Umunta were the authentic owners of the lands and therefore their superior landlords.

The oath, they recalled, also stipulated that Umunta, as the owners of the land, could as well build houses, farm or use the land for any purpose without interruption by Umuikwu.

They added that apart from the earlier irrevocable native oath, the two families also reduced their agreement into writing in 1973. The agreement stated that any person who wishes to acquire any part of the lands must go through Umubamadu, the caretakers, and rents and tributes collected from the tenants shared between the caretakers and the landlords in an agreed equitable manner.

Umunta community, in the letter, wanted the authorities to urgently establish borders between them and Umuikwu despite the fact that a greater part of where Umuikwu presently live belongs to Umunta. But the petitioners wanted the boundary demarcation done urgently, noting that they wouldn’t want to go to war with or experience further intimidation from Umuikwu.

The written agreement made available to Daily Sun reads in parts: “This deed of agreement made on June 19, 1973 between the people of Umunta family of Umudora in Anam, East Central State of Nigeria (hereinafter called the “owners of parcels of Land called Okpuno and Ani Isilo lands) of the one part and the entire people of Umubamadu family of Umuikwu in Anam (hereinafter called the perpetual caretakers of the said Okpuno and Ani Isilo lands) of the other part.

“By an oral arrangement made between the ancestors of the said Umunta family at a time beyond human memory of the one part and the ancestors of Umubamadu family of the other part, the said Umunta family put the said people of Umubamadu on the said Okpuno and Ani Isilo lands to stay as their caretakers forever.

“It was agreed that the said people of Umubamadu should settle and live on the said Okpuno land and farm on the said Ani Isilo land and be caretakers to the said Umunta family in respect of the two parcels of land forever, provided that the said people of Umubamadu will never dispute Umunta people’s title to and ownership of the two parcels of land.

“It was agreed that the said people of Umubamadu should have the power to put tenants on the said Ani Isilo and collect rents and tributes from such tenants and tender same before the people of Umunta when such rents and tributes should be apportioned in an equitable manner between the two parties.

“The said people of Umunta reserved the right to farm portions of the said Ani Isilo land and also put tenants there at their will.

“The said people of Umubamadu were authorized to live and settle on the Okpuno land but not as to cause any irreparable damage to be done to the said Okpuno land or make use of any mineral found therein or claim any compensation in respect of such minerals found in the said Okpuno land except that in such cases the people of Umunta will make claims in respect thereof.

“The said people of Umubamadu were authorized to farm and put tenants on the said Ani Isilo land only but not as to cause any irreparable damage to be done to the land or allow such tenants as to do or make use of any minerals found therein or claim any compensation in respect of such minerals found in the said Ani Isilo land except that in such cases the people of Umunta will make claim in respect thereof.”

However, some Umuikwu indigenes who spoke to Daily Sun alleged that the agreement was forged.

They said the land was occupied by Olu people and that Umuikwu used diabolical powers to infest the land with soldier ants and termites. They said when the Olu people could no longer stand the invasion of the insects, they ran away, and that it was while running away that they stopped at Umudora and handed the land over to Umudora, who then appointed Umubamadu to be caretakers of the land. They noted that Umuikwu did not approve the caretaker status of Umubamadu but because he was a powerful man at the time and no one could counter him, Umuikwu had to follow the arrangement he had with Umudora. Part of this version was corroborated by the eldest man in Umuikwu, Ogbuevi Okonkwo Nzekwe.

Most of the people from Umuikwu, who spoke to Daily Sun, did not doubt the possibility of Umudora owning the land. But they did not see the rationality of paying rent for land they had occupied for many years.

It was gathered that Umunta people still have fishing ponds, deities and economic trees on the disputed land, which they claim as reasonable proof of ownership.

The disputed lands, which serve as farm lands as well as residential areas, are adjacent to each other, bounded on the North by Ekpe and Aregbe streams, on the South by Ogene Oze stream, on the East by Okpo Ochi and Anyalamu lakes, and on the West by Owalli-Ukwu lake and Nwaowali stream.

Revenge of the gods

Daily Sun was told that strange deaths started occurring in Umubamadu family, and that after due consultations with different mediums or oracles, the cause of the deaths were attributed to the disobedience of the terms of agreement. This was acknowledged by the Umubamadu family, in a letter written to the entire Umuikwu people in 2014.

The letter partly reads: “Our good people of Umuikwu-Anam, How can our family Ubamadu Royal Oriental family stay, look patiently and expect the people of Umuikwu Anam to embrace peace and dialogue, yet till now you could not summon our family for the way forward on the issue of the Umunta-Umudora land matters.

“You all know that the said land was given to our great forefathers by Umunta-Umudora to look after and was done under the deeds of both Ancestral Application and Written Agreement simultaneously for smooth running of the land affairs. The land belongs to Umunta-Umudora-Anam. The deeds were first, the act of Ancient applications for adopting and authenticating the terms of agreement by swearing oaths and written agreement for proof and satisfaction of the agreement terms.

“The oath later turned against our family for not adhering and maintaining the terms of the oaths any longer. This has resulted in our family members dying one after the other till now. The agreement was that you are to come to us for anything about the land, just as it was done many years ago.

“Please hurry; come to our family for discussions on the land, for you all know that it is a serious matter that requires to be urgently addressed. We shall no longer sit down and see our family members die. The land deeds applications till now is avenging and inflicting death on our family. The curse is great for our family.”

A member of the Umuikwu community dismissed the allegation of deaths. He asserted that people also die in other families. “It was wrong for Umubamadu to attribute deaths in their family to the oath they took. After all, people also die in other places. And their family does not have the youngest person as the eldest in the entire Umuikwu,” he said.

It was learnt that the two communities have co-existed peacefully for many years. In fact, they are so close that strangers could stroll into one from the other without observing any demarcation or boundaries. Before 1958, the two communities were originally separate communities, but they were joined as one autonomous community known as Ezi Anam for reasons of political and economic expediencies, which many Umudora indigenes now consider the worst political marriage.

They recounted that an administrative officer, Mr. H.C. Perkins was mandated to make inquiry for some communities in the old Anambra group to form separate distinct councils in the administration of the defunct Eastern Region. The reporter was told that after presentations were made, Anam people requested to have nine autonomous communities which was granted and Umudora was seventh in the letter of recommendation.

Unfortunately, due to difficulties in obtaining detailed information regarding sub-units of Umudora as required at the time, the administrative officer, Mr. Perkins suggested that Umudora be excluded from the implementation of his recommendations pending when he would obtain the required details. The details were not supplied and out of frustration, Umudora was joined to Umuikwu, being the closest among other Anam communities, as one autonomous community. Since then, government has related with both communities as Ezi Anam Autonomous community, ruled by one traditional ruler from Umuikwu and President General from Umudora. This arrangement persisted despite several representations made to different administrations in Anambra State by Umudora to separate the two and rename their town Umudora Anam autonomous community.

Findings revealed that trouble started when the landlord/caretaker agreement was jettisoned. It was alleged that the new generation of Umuikwu people relegated the agreement Umunta had with Umubamadu and started apportioning and selling the land to themselves without going through the caretaker family or paying rents to the landlord. It was also alleged that they stopped Umudora people from doing anything on the land. There were allegations that demarcations at a church building owned by Pastor Lawrence Uduaka, an Umudora indigene, were destroyed. Also, a cassava farm owned by an elderly woman from Umudora was allegedly destroyed while a house was built on the spot by someone from Umuikwu.

Recounting their pains and humiliation, an Umunta indigene said: “How could Umuikwu people usurp our lands and also give us sleepless nights. They are occupying the greater part of our lands against our agreements and yet they threaten to deal with us every time. These provocations and intimidations have become unbearable and no matter what it would take, we would protect our lives and lands.”

However, it was at this breaking point, that the Bishop of Mbamili, in collaboration with few well meaning indigenes of Umudora and Umuikwu, invited security agents to intervene in the matter. The presence of the law enforcement officers restored temporary peace to the area, pending permanent solution.

According to Mrs. Mogboye, a 70 year old woman, that was not the first time the Anglican Bishop would be intervening at critical moments. She told Daily Sun: “In 2012, he was the loudest voice that attracted relief materials to our people during that year’s flood disaster. The coming of Bishop Henry Okeke to our area is more than a blessing. He is God-sent.

“Before he was posted to us, Anambra State governments hardly remembered us. But now, the governors visit the area regularly. Even if they do not do anything, they at least see where we live. The bishop has attracted developmental projects, including setting up standard primary and secondary schools in the villages and farmlands that are virtually attended free by our children. All these while, he has provided good leadership and intervened in some local matters that would have been destructive if not for somebody like him.”

Also, Nnamdi Onyeaka, son of the traditional ruler of Ezi Anam Autonomous community, Igwe Ben Onyeaka corroborated the second version of the history of the land. However, he said that no one could categorically state that the lands belong to or does not belong to Umudora.

“Amicable settlement devoid of any form of violence must be used to resolve any misunderstanding. The use of shrines in settling the dispute does not get my approval. Anyone who destroyed a church building or farm crops should be arrested personally and punished, instead of attributing it to the whole community that could lead to a clash, although majority of Umuikwu people are getting to know the truth,» he said.

In the words of Bishop Okeke, the position of the Igwes will help in resolving the dispute.

“A 16-man committee has been set up, with eight each from both villages to authenticate the history of the land. And where it is difficult for them, the Anam Elders Forum and Ndi Igwe would do the settlement. Actually, the Igwes may have the history of the land as custodians; others who are not indigenes may not have all the facts. The version I heard, which I think is correct, is that the land belongs to Umudora. But the issue is that this is an age-long matter. Umuikwu has occupied the entire place. And Umudora is now saying that Umuikwu is sharing and selling the land to themselves while Umudora no longer has land to farm or build residential houses. That is the reason they are striving to have their own place.

“Truly some of them do not even know the details but I think the elders should be able to tell the younger generation the history of the land. If it is concluded that the land belongs to Umudora, there must be a way of pacifying them. If not by compensation, there must be a way for them to continue to co-exist.

“If Umudora actually owns the land; which part of the land? Is it all the land? At the moment we have not concluded that the land belongs to Umudora or Umuikwu. The committee will see to that. But from what I have heard, even from Umuikwu people, the greater part of the land may possibly belong to Umudora. It is just that it is too late to talk of Umuikwu relocating or relinquishing, so the two communities must peacefully resolve what to do. If it is compensation, so be it. It could also be, ‘I know this is your land, please allow me since we have been here for donkey years.’ No fighting will solve the problem. Yes, going to court may solve it, but it is best when the two communities on their own resolve it so that they can co-exist peacefully ever after.

“No doubt, pressure appears to be on both communities due to shortage of lands for farming and building residential houses. They must shun all forms of violence, especially now that all eyes are on them. They already have sympathizers like the Traditional Rulers Council of Anambra West, Anam Elders Forum and Anambra State government. I particularly sympathize with them and will always remain a go-between to ensure peace.”

At a reconciliatory meeting attended by Igwe Sylverster Nnose, Igwe George of Umuoba, Igwe Okeke Obale, Igwe Ben Onyeaka and prominent indigenes like Professor Augustine Eboatu, Chief Emma Nnachor, a 16-man committee, eight each from both communities was set up. Their mandate was to get detailed history of the disputed lands and devise amicable means of arriving at an agreeable compromise. The traditional rulers are of the opinion that if the true ownership is confirmed, appropriate steps should be taken to compensate the owner without being unfair to the occupants. They also suggested that borders be created to forestall further hostilities like the ugly experience of the neighbouring communities like Aguleri, Umueri and Umuoba Anam.

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