By Arinze Chijioke
WHEN a group of armed men walked pass *Chidera Okoro on her way back from New Years’ service on January 1, 2023, she did not have a sense of foreboding. Unknown to her, they were on a mission, to burn houses and destroy properties.
The time was exactly 1: 45pm. As she got to her house in Oruku, one of the communities in Nkanu East local government in Enugu State, she met the young men setting fire to it and as she tried to intervene, they threatened to kill her.
“I was the only one at home; I was helpless and watched my house go up in flames, Okoro said. “They destroyed every property I had, both the ones that were outside the compound”.
Okoro’s house is only one out of an estimated 70 houses that were burnt in the new year’s day attack. While some residents like Okoro watched their property rise in flames, others ran.
Now, Okoro manages the only room left after the attack.
Since 2020, Oruku has been engulfed by communal crisis that has claimed at least 10 lives and resulted in the wanton destruction of houses and property worth millions of naira.
Now, the community has been deserted. Residents are finding refuge in neighbouring communities and towns, including Idodo, Akpoga, Onuogba and Emene. Only a few houses are still standing.
In one of the series of attacks, an elder in the community, Boniface Okafor claimed that his house and property were burnt. Now, he lives at the boundary between Oruku and Umode, another community, with his wife and children in an uncompleted building that exposes them to rain and sunshine. His children have fallen sick severally as a result.
“I have lost a family member to the crisis; we are tired of the killings and want the government to step in, “he said. “I cannot go back to my community; I am not even sure of my life because I have been threatened severally”.
How renewed conflict started
The lingering crisis in Oruku began in the 1990s as indigene-settler-driven conflict between Oruku and Umuode, another community, documents and oral testimonies suggest.
From the testimonies it was gathered that before the conflict broke out, there was only one community known as Oruku with Umuode as one of the kindreds which made up the original community. Considering themselves as natives/indigenes, Oruku excluded Umuode, which they considered as “strangers” from access to certain environmental resources and political patronages.
This created a major crisis which erupted into fatal confrontations between the two communities. For over two decades, the communities engaged each other in battle – burning houses on several occasions, killing themselves with economic and other activities coming to a standstill.
Government moves to restore peace
The age-long communal crisis defied measures by previous administrations to resolve it. But at the instance of the incumbent governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi on June 15, 2019, (April 8, 2019) leaders of the two communities signed the first of two memoranda of understanding, (MOU) on land ownership and boundary delineation, at the meeting held at the government house, Enugu, each community was represented by a seven-man delegation.
A copy of the MOU reads, “whereas Oruku and Umuode communities have been engaged in bitter communal hostilities for over three decades, the aforementioned communities have now agreed to find a lasting solution to the communal dispute by demarcating their boundaries.”
“The Surveyor-General of Enugu State and other professional staff of his office shall carry out the fieldwork to determine the perimeter boundary of the old Oruku from which the land will be shared according (to) their ratio of 70 per cent for Oruku and 30 per cent for Umuode,” the MOU read.
The two communities were asked to engage a surveyor of their choice to act as observers while the government provided the sum of N2.5 million to each community, out of which the surveyors hired will be paid. They both undertook to cease all forms of hostilities to enhance the smooth ascertainment of the boundary of Oruku community.
But on June 14, 2019, when the final ratification of the agreement was slated, the leader of the Oruku team reportedly announced that he was withdrawing support from the agreement.
The state government proceeded with the peace process and created another community, Agu-Ikpa, out of Oruku. It dissolved Oruku town union executives and appointed a five-man caretaker committee to be chaired by Emmanuel Mbah, who was subsequently made the traditional ruler of the community in a bid to restore peace and reduce tension.
“But the cabals were not still happy,” a member of the community who prefers not to be mentioned said. “They wanted the fight between Oruku and Omuode to continue because they were benefitting from the sale of lands,”.
A new era of crisis
While the establishment of a caretaker committee finally laid to rest the decades of conflict between Oruku and Umuode, another era of conflict soon emerged, this time, within Oruku community.
Sources in the community who spoke to this reporter said that Mbah’s emergence as caretaker chairman and later traditional ruler did not go down well with the cabals, who felt betrayed and left out in the scheme of things.
On Saturday, December 26, 2020, officers from the Police Force Headquarters, Abuja, stormed the venue of a meeting between Mbah and his cabinet members as well as the leadership of the Town Union in the company of some of the cabals.
“Part of the agenda of the meeting was how we will return peace to the community and compensate those whose houses were affected during the land delineation, “said *Joseph Chidi, a member of the community.
But as Mbah addressed the assembly, the officers emerged from their vehicles, and one of the individuals, identified as Emmanuel Nwobodo pointed at him, and he was seized by the officers who reportedly shot sporadically in the air, dispersing the assembly, Chidi narrates.
They also shot Mbah who later bled to death and was pronounced dead on arrival at the National Orthopedics Hospital in Enugu. Some members of the community believe that Mba was killed because of his plan to review land transactions.
Chidi, who held a leadership position under the late Mbah and was in the meeting when the officers stormed the venue claimed that he and Ejike Ani, a former Chairman of Nkanu East Local Government were also targets of the attack.
“Ani did not attend the meeting, I escaped with other attendees, “he said. I lost my house and that of my father, and a shop to the crisis in December 2022,”.
In the aftermath of the new year’s day attack, Chukwukadibia Nnaji, convener of Ije Udo Oruku Forum created in 2020 to find lasting solutions to the crisis, also lost his house.
“Our parents cannot go to their farms or do business anymore; our children cannot go to school, “he said. “I cannot go into my community any longer for fear of being attacked and killed”.
He said that vulnerable members of the community, especially women, have had their rights trampled upon.
In December last year, for instance, he claimed that a woman identified as Ngozi Ogbunaeke was tied to a tree and beaten mercilessly.
Death trails the community
On Wednesday, February 24, 2021, the vice chairman of Oruku Town Union, Samuel Ani was murdered, two days before he will appear before the judicial commission. Following his gruesome murder, the state government imposed a 12-hour curfew.
In August 2022, the President-General of the Town Union, Linus Nwatu, a retired police officer, was killed by gunmen who broke into his house in the community. Nwatu had, before a Judicial Commission of Inquiry investigating Mba’s killing, alleged that ‘23 collaborators and sponsors were fueling cult activities in Oruku’ to destroy lives and property.
Three weeks after Nwatu was killed, another native of Ameke village in the crisis-torn Oruku community, identified as Chikodili Ngwu was murdered within the Oruku market square.
So far, those who have been killed in the crisis include, Igwe Emmanuel Mbah, a honourable, Linus Nwatu, Samuel Ani, Okechukwu Ogbodo, Calistus Amushi, Dennis Ike, Zik Mba and Okenwa Mbah, The ICIR gathered from speaking to relevant community stakeholders.
The Panel of inquiry
After the murder of Mbah, Uguwanyi, the state governor inaugurated a five-member Judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate and ascertain the remote and immediate causes of the internal crisis.
The terms of reference of the panel constituted, pursuant to Section 4(1) of the Commission of Inquiry Law, Cap. 24, Revised Laws of Enugu State 2004, include to ascertain the number of persons killed or injured, identify persons, group or institutions who either by acts or omissions were directly or indirectly involved in, or sponsored the crisis, and investigate any other matter(s) that may come to the knowledge of the Panel in the course of the inquiry, not covered in these terms of reference.
Others are to make recommendations regarding persons whom the Panel finds culpable and/or blameworthy in connection with the crisis, and generally make recommendations, in the light of its findings, on how to prevent similar crisis in future and make other recommendations which the panel may consider appropriate in view of its findings.
In April, 2021, a Justice, Harold Eya-led Judicial Commission of Inquiry submitted its report to governor Uguwanyi. During the submission, Eya said that the findings and recommendations of the commission would go a long way to bring lasting peace and security in Oruku.
Eya was also quoted as saying, “the Oruku crisis was a matter of ego tussle among the elites that brought the youth and tore them apart.
Receiving the report, Ugwuanyi said that his administration would expeditiously and diligently study, accept and implement it as appropriate, with the hope that the findings and recommendations of the commission, as well as the consequential government action, will restore peace and order to the community.
Panel report delayed
More than a year after the Harold Eya-led Judicial Commission of Inquiry submitted its report to the state government, it is yet to be implemented and members of the community say they are worried that the crisis may persist.
When this reporter reached out to the government to confirm the reasons for the delay, Special Adviser to the governor on media, Samson Eze said that he was busy with the campaign and could not respond to the question concerning the delay. The ICIR also contacted the Chief Press Secretary to the governor, Chucks Uguwoke, who also said he was busy with campaigns.
For Nnaji, what is most worrying is that there is no presence of security operatives in the community; hence the attackers walk freely in search of those they consider enemies to kill.
“The government needs to take necessary steps to forestall further destruction of lives and property, and this begins with the implementation of the recommendations, “he said. “We have lost several lives to the crisis already; we cannot afford to lose more”.
*Names with asterisks were changed.