In Okpanam town, Oshimili North Local Government Area of Delta State, peace had suddenly taken flight. In its place, tension has engulfed the agrar- ian community that has land for development as its major resource. Fear and mutual suspicion have taken over peaceful co-existence and harmonious relationship between natives and settlers, especially the Fulani herdsmen.
Trouble started when the head of operations of the local vigilance group, Nwandozie Emeka was gruesomely murdered by yet-to-be-identified gunmen. They also killed another member of the vigilance group. Their murder came in the wake of a reported kid- nap of a housewife and her 20-year-old daughter by suspected herdsmen in Obodogba quarters of Okpanam. Sources said Emeka led the vigilantes into the bush to search for the abductees when they were ambushed by gunmen.
Described as a dedicated young man and the central pivot of the local security network in the town, Emeka’s murder shook Okpanam community to its foundation. Aggrieved community youths, in a spontaneous reaction, protested, laying barricades on the Benin-Asaba-Onitsha expressway. They vowed to shut down the road until the killers of the henchman were fished out by security agencies.
But elders and leaders of the community appealed to the protesting youths who later dismantled the barricade, trusting that their leaders will get to the root of the matter. Meanwhile, an irate mob descended on the Fulani settlement located within the hinterland of Obodogba, and destroyed everything in sight, in apparent retaliation for the gruesome murder of Emeka and his colleague.
The scope of destruction
Several tents where the nomads used to lay their heads were set ablaze by the irate mob made up of angry youths. As at the time of the attack, the men among the settlers were out in the fields tending their cows. The furious mob met defenceless women most of whom alleged that they were abused after their children fled into the bush for refuge. They also alleged that some money was lost to the marauding mob.
The leader of the Fulani settlers in Obodogba, Abubakar Haruna, blamed youths from the town for the attack and razing of their hamlets. He said they were constantly being harassed by natives of Okpanam who labeled them as kidnappers and armed robbers. He insisted that they don’t have kidnappers in their midst, and added that they lawfully occupied the area after due negotiation with community leaders.
“They are just coming to disturb us every day because they claimed that somebody was killed, and somebody was kidnapped,” he said. “We don’t have kidnappers in our midst; they have never arrested anybody from here as a kidnapper. When we arrived here about three years ago, we sat down with the community to negotiate and settled before we were allowed to set up our camp. So we are now confused that they invaded our settlement to raze our buildings. They said they were people
from Obodogba. We can’t quantity the loss even in this house we are standing now. We lost N100,000. They burnt everything here including our clothes, mats, beds.” He said they are law-abiding citizens who will not take the laws into their hands, and appealed to security agencies to investigate the matter and fish out those who carried out the arson.
Elders deny Fulani culpability, praise Emeka’s gallantry
But leaders of Okpanam disagreed with Haruna, saying that those that carried out the mob action on the Fulani settlement did not come from their own side of the town. The leaders also dismissed insinuations that Emeka was killed by herdsmen.
The Ugoani (traditional ruler) of Okpanam, HRM Michael Mbanefo, said all ethnic nationalities, including Fulani settlers, have been co-habiting peacefully over the years. He insisted that youths from the town only protested Emeka’s death by blocking the road and nothing more. He added that the report that Emeka was killed by Fulani herdsmen was only a facade to hide the truth, urging security agencies to look inwards and dig deep into land racketeering and the get-rich-quick syndrome in the town.
“Emeka Nwandozie was a very dedicated young man who served the community selflessly, and I think they recognized him for that feat and because they want to weaken the security network in the town, they decided to cut him down,” he said. “There has been the theory to the effect that he was cut down by herdsmen. We are the owners of the town and we have gone to a very great extent to determine that he was in fact murdered.”
He then exonerated the Fulani herdsmen from the bloody deed. “And we have told the police that the idea of saying that he was murdered by herdsmen should be discountenanced. We should look inwards. I have told the police to dig into what job he was trying to help them unravel within the last few days before his life was cut short. They should beam their searchlight in that direction. To tell us that he was killed by herdsmen because killing by herdsmen has now become a national anthem, I disagree with that. They should look inwards,” he said.
Monarch, youth leader explain motive behind murder
The monarch said he was not aware of the razing of Fulani settlement in Obodogba quarters of his kingdom. He explained that “what happened was that, out of emotion, our boys blocked the expressway. Anybody could have done that. But when we appealed to them that the leadership will take action, they listened to us and dismantled the barricade. One important thing is that if the police had been alive to their responsibility of first line protection of lives and property in Okpanam, the incident would have been averted.
“The motive behind killings in Okpanam is the quest to illegally grab land by some undesirable, shameless elements; the craze to get-rich-quick without paying one’s dues. And I have always said it to those who cared to listen that success cannot come through cutting corners. You have to work for it.”
Supporting the monarch’s view, the youth chairman of Obodogba, Christopher Agali, explained that the manner Emeka was murdered suggests a case of deliberate targeting for assassination. He urged the authorities concerned to discountenance the story that he was shot by herdsmen. Agali stated that, from his sighting of the recovered corpse of the deceased, several bullets were pumped into him. As if that was not enough, the hired killers finished him off with several machete cuts.
He said: “When we received a call that Emeka was killed by some herdsmen, we went to the bush to recover the corpse. When you see the dead body, you will know that he was deliberately targeted. It is not something that you will say somebody shot somebody and he died; it was a planned killing. Despite the number of bullets shot into his body, they still cut him with cutlass. It did not show that it is something that a Fulani can do. In their own case, they will shoot and go.”
Asked why the youths protested, he said: “We were angry because of the nature of the killing. We felt that it was coming from somewhere. The Fulani story is not real. There is an insider who planned the killing. We decided to pro- test and tell the world what we are facing in the town.”
Agali who insisted that the razing of the Fulani settlement was not done by youths from his community, explained that enemies within must have hijacked the protest situation to inflict more pain and to divert the attention of the security agencies.
“People try to take advantage of situ- ations like this to cause pain,” he said. “I can sincerely tell you that our youths were not part of the destruction of Fulani settlement. It could have come from our enemies so that government can use that as an excuse to start chasing our youths. So we are not aware of the burning of the settlement. We only saw and read about it in the media that Okpanam people killed ten Fulani. It is not true. We are very peaceful and law-abiding citizens, no matter the level of provocation. We are very innocent. Our cry is that we lost our brother, a gallant man. I think he was the best security man we have in Okpanam. We are at pains, and we are calling on the relevant authorities to come to our aid. There is insecurity.
Relationship between the Fulani and natives
He maintained that the bushes around the town are no longer safe, noting that there is, at the moment, mass exodus of Okpanam tenants as a result of the murder. He called on the Federal government to provide security for the community.
Asked about the kind of relationship that exists between the Fulani and the natives, he affirmed that they have a very good and cordial relationship with the Fulani settlers, noting that “we exchange pleasantries, and their women sell kunu to us, and we enjoy the drink. We are one Nigeria; we are brothers, and we never had any bad intention by keeping them. We are aware that the community gave them acres of land for their settlement; they are our friends and brothers.”
Lawyer to the Fulani vows to pursue justice to the end
Meanwhile, inhabitants of the razed Fulani settlement have vowed to legally pursue their case to a logical conclusion, adding that the arson has further exposed them to insecurity and inclement weather.
Speaking through their legal counsel, Mohammed Elunor, they described the mob action as unfortunate, noting that in criminal matters, there is no vicarious liability. He insisted that it was a bogus allegation that Fulani herdsmen were responsible for killings and kidnappings.
“Mr. A will not commit an offence and you punish Mr. B,” he argued. “If there was a kidnapping incident within Okpanam community, it is not sufficient for them to now identify the Fulani settlement and destroy their property; it is not good at all.”
He explained further: “The allegation that the kidnappers are from the settlement and that the people are shielding them is too bogus. It is not correct. Relating kidnapping to the Fulani tribe is not peculiar to Okpanam; it is some- thing that is happening in most rural areas in Nigeria.”
Elunor who was instrumental to the negotiations that led to the Fulani acquisition of the settlement, said: “I participated in the negotiation that gave birth to this place as Fulani settlement. They paid money to the owners of this land before they were given the place. They have been here for about three years. I know them very well. They are not criminals. Some of them were born here.
“That some youths who are Fulani involved themselves in kidnappings does not mean that every Fulani you see now is a criminal. If somebody commits an offence, it will be better for us to look for that person and arrest him and punish him. If not, all these things will go round in cycles. By the time there is kidnapping, they would pounce on the Fulani settlers who are rent-paying tenants and set their houses ablaze.”
He warned: “We should know the probable consequence, what it may result into. And it is not good for this country. You destroy somebody’s property; the person is not happy. It is likely that the person may want to revenge. If he revenges, you will come back again, and there will be disorderliness; it is not too good. So being their lawyer, I have taken time to talk to them that they should not take the laws into their hands. We have written a petition to the Commissioner of Police in the state to fish out those who came here to set the place ablaze.”
Police promise full investigation
Reacting to the development, Commissioner of Police in the state, Mr. Hafiz Inuwa, promised that investigation was ongoing. He added that operatives were looking at the issues from different perspectives rather from a narrow angle. Although he said no arrest has been made as at the time he was contacted, he noted that his men have broadened the horizon of their investigation, expressing the hope that very soon, anyone involved in any crime within the troubled community would be tracked down.
Spouse provides a disturbing angle to the story
In the meantime, the kidnapped housewife and her 20-year-daughter have since regained their freedom. This followed payment of undis- closed ransom after about 24 hours in captivity. Husband and father of the victims, Monday Enegesele, a retiree, confirmed their release to our correspondent in Asaba. He said although the victims were not tortured by their hostage-takers, he sustained head injury when he resisted abduction on that fateful night.
His story: “I was at home when I put on my generator set. After some minutes, the it went off. My daughter went to check and saw some people with gun. Before then, she had informed me that the water had suddenly stopped running. When I opened the front door to check what was happening, they pointed a gun at me and threatened to kill me if I made a noise. I grabbed the first one but the second one used his gun to hit me on the head. I pushed away the one I was holding and ran and start shouting for help. But before help could come they marched my wife and daughter away.”
Enegesele said that the hoodlums later established contact with him and demanded for a ransom. This was paid after some negotiation, before his wife and daughter could breathe an air of freedom.
Asked what tribe he thinks the kidnappers comes from since he had confrontation with them, he said they spoke Hausa/Fulani during the operation “When I confronted them, they spoke like Fulani people,” he said. “I did not understand their language. They were speaking the language among themselves but they used English to communicate with me,” he added.