Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State visited Ugwuneshi community in Awgu council of the state about a fortnight ago to identify with the people and appeal for calm, in an emotional moment following the controversial arrest of 76 native farmers by men dressed like soldiers for allegedly resisting the destruction of their farmlands by Fulani herdsmen. Christopher Isiguzo, in Enugu, writes
For the agrarian community of Ugwuneshi in Awgu Local Government Area of Enugu State, life may no longer be normal following the events of March 17. That was when 76 members of the community were whisked away by men believed to be soldiers in a commando style following a reported clash with Fulani herdsmen operating in their area. The victims, now popularly known as the “Awgu 76”, were taken to the Federal Prisons, Umuahia, the Abia State capital, where they were dumped as the Magistrates’ Court in the Abia city declined jurisdiction on the case.
The arrested men were released on April 1, after two weeks in detention.
Enugu State Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, aside making frantic moves to ensure the farmers regained freedom, tried to pacify the farmers whose farmlands and crops were destroyed by the rampaging herdsmen. In the first phase of the compensation, the governor literally relocated to the community Tuesday before the last and gave N8.5 million to the villagers.
It was gathered that the hapless farmers, including youths, were rounded up by “men in military uniform” and bundled into trucks that carried them to Umuahia, where they were divided into three groups and arraigned at magistrates’ courts.
After the brief court appearance, the farmers were whisked away to prison custody as none of the magistrates agreed to grant them bail.
Herders’ Menace/’Men in Military Uniform’
Confirming the arrest of his subjects the traditional ruler of Ugwuneshi, His Royal Highness Igwe Godwin Nwobi, said the incident was the high point of the menace of herdsmen in his community.
He said since the Fulani herdsmen settled in the community on their own they had been destroying crops with their cattle and over the years all entreaties for them to exercise caution had fallen on deaf ears. According to him, the people of Ugwunesi have been enduring the impunity of the herdsmen as they continued to ravage crops and render farmlands unproductive, adding that neither the security agencies nor government has done anything to call the herdsmen to order.
After several warnings and pleadings, the royal father said the youths of the community could no longer bear the excesses of the herdsmen and decided to protest the unending impunity. He said things came to a head when information filtered into the community that herdsmen had abducted two women who went to the farm.
“When we got such information, the youths and men were gathering in our village square to discuss the matter and plan for a rescue mission when suddenly they were surrounded by men in military uniform who arrested 76 of them and carried them away in trucks,” Nwobi said.
The traditional ruler lamented that with the arrest of his people, the herdsmen, who were the aggressors, were now being portrayed as victims, adding that the people of Ugwuneshi have done nothing wrong by protecting their means of livelihood.
Meanwhile, the circumstances surrounding the arraignment of the 76 persons in Umuahia courts after their arrest in Enugu State remains confusing, as it could not be established where the men in military uniform actually came from to make the arrest. The Nigerian Army has dismissed reports that those who rounded up the villagers were soldiers.
Spokesman of the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, Col. H. Gambo, told THISDAY that the division was not aware of the arrest by its men. He said information available to them showed that none of those involved in the illegal arrest was from the division.
Gambo expressed sadness over the development, stressing, “Every solder out there is properly kitted from head to toe and can easily be identified.
“They are not our men, they are not military men, we are not aware of that. Some people just appeared in uniform and they were branded military men, they are not our soldiers, nobody has formally reported to us though. Every of the soldiers in town is fully kitted from head to toe and fully armed. It’s very easy for them to be identified.
“It’s very sad that people just wake up and say soldiers arrested. Please, our men are not involved in that. Criminals adopt all manner of styles to deceive the people. These are people that have possibly collected money from one of the sides and decided to execute their nefarious act in such a manner.”
Ugwuanyi Appeals for Calm
While the identity of those behind the arrest remains unclear, Ugwuanyi has appealed for peaceful settlement of the fracas. He engaged the villagers and other stakeholders in a town meeting on March 29 at Ugwuleshi Primary School field. The governor promised to compensate the farmers and facilitate the release of those arrested and charged with arson and illegal possession of firearms in the wake of their clash with the herdsmen.
Commending the Ugwuneshi community for the peaceful way they conducted themselves since the problem started, Ugwuanyi described the crisis as a security matter, which had earlier occurred at Uzo Uwani and Nsukka council areas between the villagers and the pastoral Fulani herdsmen. He said the earlier crisis was resolved through the intervention of the state government.
Ugwuanyi emphasised that he was personally moved to visit the community to appeal for calm because his administration was keen on ensuring a peaceful environment in Enugu as a measure of attracting investors to the state. The governor, who was received by placard-carrying members of the community, said he shared in their pains and expressed the hope that the matter would be resolved amicably.
According to the governor, “As your governor, the arrest of these villagers and their detention in Umuahia means that part of me is in Umuahia. I cannot sleep because you people cannot sleep. You elected me and there is no way I would abandon you in this period of your pain and stress. Only God knows what happened.
“This is a temptation but since we have a living God, I believe we will solve this. It is a security matter. It has happened in Uzouwani, it has happened in Nsukka and we resolved all of it. So this one will also be resolved.
“I weep for you because what was destroyed was your source of livelihood. It has happened but I want to assure you that the government will not abandon you. The essence of a government is to alleviate the sufferings of the people and this government is truly and effectively committed towards it.”
He appealed to the people to continue to toe the line of peace and avoid anything that could escalate the situation.
Also speaking, the member representing Awgu/Oji River/Aninri federal constituency, Toby Okechukwu, called on the community to continue to maintain peace. He stated that, though the detained natives were charged with arson and illegal possession of firearms, investigations had shown that they never committed the act. He called on the federal government to find ways of to stop the incessant attacks on communities by herdsmen.
The Commissioner of Police, Mr. Nwodibo Ekechukwu, who accompanied Ugwuanyi on the visit, advised the community to avoid taking laws into their hands, but to report to the security agencies any time they find cattle rearers grazing on their farm crops. He assured the police would ensure such perpetrators were dealt with accordingly and prosecuted in the law court, to serve as a deterrent to others.
Other stakeholders who attended the meeting included the transitional chairman of Awgu council area, Hon. Stanley Okeke, the member representing Awgu South State Constituency, Hon. Nelson Uduji, and Barrister Damian Ajah. They spoke on the efforts they had made to secure bail for the detained community members and expressed appreciation to the governor for his intervention from the onset. They disclosed that Ugwuanyi had been in contact with his counterpart in Abia State, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu, on the matter.
Beyond the release of the “Awgu 76”, finding a solution to the problems created by the activities of the Fulani herdsmen remains a major challenge in the state. In many communities in the state, the herdsmen have been associated with several atrocities, from rape and killings to attacks and destruction of farmlands.
Not long ago, communities in Uzo-Uwani, Nsukka, Udi and Ezeagu came under attack by the herdsmen.
Different groups have also come out to condemn the activities of the herdsmen, while appealing to government to find a lasting solution to the problem. Some have called for the designation of grazing reserves for the herders, but the preponderance of opinion is for the establishment of ranches, where cattle will be reared and fed with hay.
National President of Igbo Women Assembly, Mrs. Maria Okwor, in a reaction to the menace of Fulani herdsmen, said urgent steps should be taken to call the herdsmen to order. She stressed that the pain inflicted on people, especially within the South-east, was getting to a boiling point. “We cannot continue to keep silent while we keep receiving tales of woes from our people in the hands of the herdsmen,” she said.
Okwor appealed to government at various levels to think out a lasting solution to the problem before it degenerates to an unmanageable level.