UZOMA NZEAGWU writes on how two communities in Anambra and Kogi states are threatening each other, over a disputed oilfield
DEEP controversy has continued to trail the ownership of an oil field situated between the Aguleri-Otu and Echonwa/Ideke communities in Anambra and Kogi states respectively, following the commissioning of a petroleum refinery by President Goodluck Jonathan at Aguleri-Otu two years ago.
Both communities are claiming ownership of the field, believed to have substantial the oil and gas deposits, as well as the refinery at Aguleri Otu in Anambra state. Events are also unfolding rapidly, with combatants on both sides preparing for a possible long drawn battle.
There are indeed fears that the conflagration, if not immediately checked, could extend beyond the two communities and involve other interest groups, willing to show sympathy and solidarity for their kit and kin.
However, the Anambra people blame the indigenes of Ibaji local government area of Kogi state for "disobeying the order of the Anambra and Kogi state governors," who had appealed for calm in the area. They alleged that Kogi youths constantly attack and inflict harm on Anambra communities.
The crux of the matter is that Anambra people are insisting that the oilfield in question "is not in Kogi but Anambra territory." They further argued that if the Kogi people feel there is oil in their section, they would do well to get an oil prospecting company to explore for it and build a refinery for them.
In the interim, various eminent Anambra citizens have cautioned youths not to take the law into their hands and avoid situations that could further endanger lives and property in the area.
For example, the immediate past council Chairman of Anambra East, Comrade Chiedu Obidigwe has warned that the unfolding events were beginning to take a dangerous shape. He also lamented that the intensity of the fighting was being under reported.
He however suggested that the traditional approach to settling land disputes should be adopted, in order to avoid the destruction of lives and property. He said the crises in the area had created problems, displacing over 400 families in Anambra.
A community leader in Aguleri-Otu, while narrating the community's ordeals in the past two years since the hostilities began said, "over 250 persons are now rendered homeless and are living as refugees in neighboring villages. Death rate is over 100, several homes have been devastated. Several farmlands have been abandoned, while properties worth millions of naira have also been lost. Many houses have been burnt or destroyed beyond repairs during raids by the Kogi militants. The worst victims are women and children, and the children are exposed to danger."
Commenting on the crisis, the Commander, Anambra Security Pontu Zone, Ejike Alaguwa said but for numerous pleas to the Aguleri youths not to carry out reprisal attacks on Kogi's domain, the position would have been worse.
He said: "We are interested in finding an amicable solution to the crisis, even though our people have been sent packing and are in concentration camps against their wish. We are praying that the calmness continues because we don't want war. Orient Oil is for the good of our people and therefore we don't want war.
"We call on the federal government to intervene in the crisis between the two communities of Aguleri in Anambra East local government area of Anambra state and Echonwa people in Ibaji local government area of Kogi state and ensure that peace reigns in the area."
Meanwhile, there have been interventions from federal and state governments, following the drafting of security patrols in the area. A joint Police /Army Patrol is now in place to ensure peace.
Already, work at Orient Petroleum Resources (OPR) has been suspended. It would be recalled that a disastrous flood had sacked workers at Orient Petroleum Resources (OPR) last year and the current communal clashes have also disrupted the oil flow station.
Meanwhile, clashes erupted again between the two communities recently, leaving four people dead and several others injured. Kogi indigenes were alleged to have stormed the disputed area where oil deposits were found and had allegedly waged a sporadic battle against the Aguleri people found there.
It was gathered that the fresh fighting, involving the armed men from Kogi and the Aguleri people began when the restive Kogi fighters who got wind of the Aguleri people's presence in the area, rushed there in groups, sparking up a fierce battle.
The Anambra State Police Command's spokesman, Emeka Chukwuemeka, a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), confirmed the incident and assured that the matter was being investigated at the highest level. He refused to give further details.
Aguleri, a predominantly Catholic community, is made up of the Ivite, Igboezunu, Enugu, Eziagulu, Umuekete, Ivite-otu, Igboezunu-otu, Eziagulu-out and Aguleri-out villages, located on the banks of river Omambala-Igala.
Presently, Aguleri is subdivided into four main quarters: Ivite, Igboezunu, Enugu and Eziagulu, with component families replicated both in Aguleri Uno and Aguleri Otu.
In an interview with a national newspaper in April 2013,the Chairman of the Anambra East Local Government, Mr Chinedu Obidigwe gave his own account of how the crisis started this way: "Initially, it started as a quarrel when people from Kogi communities crossed the boundary and entered into Aguleri-Otu land. After several warnings, they persisted. There was a day some security agents and I went to see the people of these Kogi communities and pleaded with them not to enter our land again. But they were adamant and said I should go and talk with the chairman of their local government.
"During the visit, we saw some of the men from Echonwa in Kogi in army uniforms. I have the video clips. Whenever they want to threaten Aguleri-Otu people, they will wear the uniform and when those villagers see them, there will be commotion everywhere.
"During my visit to the area, one of the soldiers with me grabbed one of them and forcibly removed his uniform. We pleaded with them again to leave the area but they refused. We asked them to allow the National Boundary Commission to trace the boundary and determine the ownership of the land in dispute. There is nothing to show that the Kogi State government has been talking to its people concerning the dispute.
"But at our end, we address our people from time to time to eschew violence. We even told our people not to disturb them if they want to fish on our waterway. Sometime in February (2013), I received a phone call that Echoma people had invaded Aguleri-Otu. I learnt that they invaded the community around 3am and burnt down houses. I have a video and photographs to show the level of devastation they carried out when they raided our village.
However, a Special Assistant to Kogi State Governor, Jacob Edi, has vehemently denied allegations of aggression against the Aguleri people, insisting that no attack against the Anambra communities had taken place.
In an interview with News Express, Edi however restated Kogi's claim to the oil discovered in Aguleri, the host community of Orient Petroleum, being promoted by the Anambra State government and private investors.
Edi said: "It's unheard of that we can recruit or arm people to go and fight Aguleri people. Communal clash is not associated with Kogi State.
"That oil belongs to Kogi State. OPL 915, which has oil in commercial quantities, is in Odeke in Ibaji Local Government of Kogi State. But in spite of this, the Government of Kogi said that we prefer to use due process to reclaim the oil. The matter is being handled at the highest level and the three state governors - Kogi, Enugu and Anambra - have made presentations on the issue before President Goodluck Jonathan. We want to allow the National Boundaries Commission to do its work.
"There is no community in Kogi State fighting the people of Aguleri. Kogi State is not known for shedding blood; it is the people of Aguleri and Umuleri who are known for fighting and shedding blood. I suspect that what the people of Aguleri want to do is to create an alibi so as to frustrate our efforts to reclaim our oil through due process."