■ Kogi youths sack Catholic priest, church members
■ Magistrate escapes death, police station, schools, court shut down
Peace has practically taken flight from Ette, a border community sandwiched in-between Umuopu Umueze in Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area of Enugu State and Ogugu community in Olamaboro Local Government Area, of Kogi State. Indigenes of the community are divided on which side of the divide they want to belong. While some want to be part of Enugu State, others want to go to Kogi State. And this has resulted into constant fracas and misunderstanding leading to destruction of property. Right now, there is tension and apprehension in the community while the Catholic Christians in the area are the worst hit.
What started as a small agitation for some years now by some youths in the community who want their town (Ette) to be excised from Enugu State and joined to Kogi State has assumed a frightening dimension in the past three years. At the last count, all government presence and establishments in the area have either been destroyed or closed down indefinitely.
Some prominent people of the community including five traditional rulers and political office holders in Ette who pledge allegiance to the Enugu State government have not only lost their household property to the activities of the militant wing of the pro Kogi youths but they have also fled home for their own safety.
The Catholic Christians in the area have been facing serious harassment and brutality allegedly in the hands of the pro Kogi youths but the worst happened when celebration of Masses on Sundays and week days were abruptly stopped while the Parish Priest of the church, St James the Apostle, Rev. Fr. Dr. Sabastine Onah was sacked from the Parish House while property of the church and the Parish Rectory were vandalized. For his safety, the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka Diocese, Most Rev. (Prof) Gregory Onah recalled Fr. Sabastine to the Catholic Secretariat in Nsukka and the priest has since become an itinerant preacher without a parish while also handling any other assignment given to him by the Bishop pending the resolution of the crisis.
Though efforts are being made presently to restore peace in the community, serious damage have been done already. Sunday Sun reporter who visited the community recently for an on the spot assessment also escaped danger by whiskers after he took pictures of the Church building and the sign post. Some red eyed youths who became suspicious instantly gave the reporter a hot chase and if not for the adept moves of the hired commercial motor cyclist that conveyed the reporter to the place, the story would have been different.
Origin of the crisis
Ette as a community speak three different languages. While about 70 per cent of the people speak Idoma language, 15 per cent speak Igala and the remaining 15 per cent speak Igbo. Going by the existing boundary demarcation and state creation law, Ette is in Igbo Eze Local Council Area of Enugu State. This has been the situation right from the old Anambra State before the creation of Enugu State in 1992. The community has also been in the Catholic Archdiocese of Nsukka as part of the Immaculate Heart Parish Aji, Enugu–Ezike until it was named a full fledged Parish with the name St. James the Apostle Parish, Ette on September 28,1998.
Though the ancestral home of the Ette people, according to reports, were traced to Nguru in Nsukka and Amaja in Enugu–Ezike, all in Enugu State, Nigeria’s independence on October 1, 1960 and the civil war of 1967-1970 altered many things in the people’s history. A source who prayed anonymity gave Sunday Sun the history.
“The problem was that after Nigeria’s independence and the civil war, Ette people were directed and persuaded for pecuniary reasons to claim the Northern Region, then Benue/ Plateau State as their place of origin. When many succumbed to that persuasion, the Orokam settlers who came later from the Northern Region started seeing themselves as indigenes and superior to the original settlers. There were some who benefitted from this new claim who were even given scholarships under the Benue/Plateau platform to study in London. It was those that followed the fraudulent path in the past that now want to rectify their situation by pushing the whole of Ette community to Kogi State,” the source stated.
Investigations by Sunday Sun revealed that as the years rolled by, some group of boys continued to mount agitations and wanting to belong to Kogi State and not Enugu because according to them, Enugu is an Igbo speaking State while they don’t speak Igbo and that their belonging to Enugu State was robbing them of certain benefits. However, there were still individuals who live in Ette that are direct beneficiaries from the Enugu State government who want to belong to Enugu State.
To actualize their agitation, the pro Kogi movement started in earnest and began a series of violent campaigns before they went a step higher in destroying government establishments.
In a Save our Soul (SOS) letter by the National Executive of Ette General Assembly, the five traditional rulers of the five Autonomous Communities and the Catholic faithful of Ette to Enugu State Governor, Sullivan Chime dated January 29, 2014 obtained by Sunday Sun, the people listed institutions shut down or destroyed by the agitators to include- Igbo- Eze North West Development Center Secretariat, a cottage hospital, health centres, magistrate court, customary court, primary and secondary schools, the borehole in Ette, Nsukka- Ette Road rehabilitation project, shutting down of the Catholic Mission /Parish house and sacking of the parish priest and his two assistants.
In the letter signed by Hon. Tony Ogidi , an Ette indigene and lawmaker representing Igbo-Eze North 11 Constituency in the House of Assembly, Chief Emmanuel Alachi, Administrator, Igbo- Eze North West Development Centre, Igwe Aloysius Akor of Efuoda Autonomous Community , Sir Aaron Alachi, President, Ette General Assembly and 11 others, they prayed the governor to ensure the restoration of peace in the area, punishment to the perpetrators of mayhem, restoration of the rights of the people and effective security in the area.
An insider in the community gave Sunday Sun a graphic account of the destruction visited on the community allegedly by the pro Kogi movement group. He said: “In January 2011, they refused to allow the registration of voters in Ette. The pro Kogi group registered and voted at Ogugu (Kogi State) while those who could evade their roadblock went to register and eventually voted at Umuopu and Umuogbo-Agu (Enugu State). In June 2011, they expelled all the staff of the Local Government Development Centre at Ette and locked up the centre. They also expelled the staff of the magistrate court in the same location and locked up the facility after making an attempt on the life of the Chief Magistrate who was shot while in his official vehicle.
“Within the same year, 2011, they also rejected the treated mosquito nets as well as their share of fertilizer that were to be sent, free of charge through Igbo– Eze North Local Government Area and stopped the vaccination exercise there. In January 2012, they locked up the community medical centre while expelling all the staff. On February 6, 2012, with guns and machetes, they expelled all the teachers and staff of all the public primary and secondary schools in Ette, all in an effort to shut down all government facilities and erase everything connected to Enugu State in the community.
“Between 2011 and March 2012, they stopped the construction of the road that was to pass through Ette. The construction was stopped at the Umuopu /Ette boundary while other Enugu State road and educational projects for the community were also stalled. On May 21, 2012, all access to the primary school and church premises were blocked, while in between this period, they sent the Nigerian Police packing and destroyed household properties including a filling station belonging to our representatives in the government of Enugu State who now doesn’t return home again for fear of his life,” the source said.
Resort to attacking the church and its members
After succeeding in pulling down most government establishments in Ette, another source in the community told Sunday Sun that the group felt that getting the Catholic Church in their game plan will be the final push towards actualizing their Kogi dream.
“Their attack on the Catholic Church is based on their belief that Nsukka Diocese links them to Enugu State and the Igbo race from whom they want to disentangle. They see belonging to Nsukka Diocese as an obstacle in their struggle and now prefer to join Idah Diocese in the firm belief that wielding a letterhead in which Ette officially belongs to Idah Diocese is the only thing that is holding Kogi State from having full jurisdiction over Ette community.
The source also listed a timeline on the spate of attacks in the church this way: “The attacks started in 2010 but got ferocious in 2013 leading to the closure of the church in December 15, 2013 and forcing some of our church members into exile in April 2014. Between August 9 and 13 and in November 2010, the sign posts of the parish that were planted in May 2010 directly in front of the primary school and parish premises at the MCC junction were provocatively vandalized and uprooted. In 2011, it was the spread of negative propaganda that they used all through and threats until 2012 when on February 6, members of the pro Kogi movement upturned the altar in the Catholic Church and locked the entrance of the primary school close to the Eucharistic altar.
Parishioners petition police headquarters
Unable to bear the various forms of maltreatment in the hands of the Kogi agitators, parishioners of St. James Ette on December 2, 2013 petitioned the Inspector General of Police in Abuja to come to their rescue. In the petition obtained by Sunday Sun and signed by the Catechist, Richard Oshemi ; Chairman, Catholic Men Organization, Benedict Abula; President, Catholic Women Organization, Cordelia Ocheje and two others, they prayed the police boss to save them from the unabeting threats of a lawless group under the canopy of Kogi youths.
“We have no freedom of worship here, no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement as this group has never given us a breathing space. On several occasions, our priests have been ordered to pack out on account that they are from Nsukka Diocese. For the past two years, our Christian women were prevented from carrying out their August return-an annual event in all Catholic Churches all over the country. Our sign post was removed and after replacing it, they were all removed again for three consecutive times. The present one standing does not carry the name of any diocese or state.
“Apart from individual harassment, our choristers were beaten one after the other for attending choir competitions in Aji Deanery. Don’t we have the right of worship, movement and speech? On December 1, 2013, while we were receiving two of our newly ordained priests, the group came and destabilized the whole church threatening that if ever we worship in the Catholic Church in Ette again, anything we see, we should take. We have been threatened with acid and given severe beatings,” the petitioners lamented.
Pro Kogi leader clarifies its position
When the reporter spoke on phone to the leader of the pro Kogi movement, Aaron Akor, he didn’t deny or accept the responsibility for the actions of the group but instead gave some reasons for their grievances.
“The Bishop invaded our place with 17 lorry loads of policemen to quell crisis in our place based on a fictional account. When we explained the situation to the police, they were surprised because they realized that this place is very peaceful. Nobody wants to hear our own side of the story. Eighty years ago, the first Holy Mass was celebrated in Ette by an Irish priest but it was only on December 3, 2013 that we had a priest from our place ordained for Nsukka Diocese for the first time while we have so many other indigenous priests being ordained in Idah, Oturkpo and other dioceses in Nigeria.
“These dioceses started ordaining our people priests as far back as 1990. In Ette, we speak Igala and Idoma mainly but till today , 95 per cent of the church prayers and rites are done in Igbo language. You come to church and they begin to pray in Igbo which we don’t understand. They rely on interpretation, making us not to feel any spiritual impact after attending church but the Vatican 11 made it clear that evangelization should be done in the language the people understand. These are the root of our grievances. When Bishop Okobo was in office, I wrote to him about our grievances but he did not reply. When this new Bishop came on board, I wrote, there was no proper reply but on December 3, 2013, he insulted us when he spoke on the day they received the newly ordained priests.
“We have a simple request – just relocate us to Idah Diocese. I have great respect for the parish priest, Dr Sabastine Onah but he wrote that I’m instigating the youths to oppress people and that I now collect the church offering from the church. We have helped in building the church in Nsukka but our own church here is perpetually under construction. The church also fails to respect our culture and this has bred conflict too. We do not bury our wives in their husband’s place when they die, rather we take the corpse back to the father’s compound but the church refuses to accept that. I know how far I have tried in mediating in this issue so that it won’t cause another crisis,” he said
We shall always seek for peace in the midst of provocation –Catholic Church
Amid the confusion and agitation in the diocese, the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka said it would not resort to violent means in protecting its members. The Bishop, Prof. Godfrey Onah speaking through the Diocesan Secretary, Rev. Fr. Eugene Odoh, said he would also not join issues with Aaron Akoh even when he lied in several aspects of his statements.
Tracing the origin of the problem, the Bishop said the pro Kogi group has been agitating even before Kogi was carved out from Benue State.
“When the problem escalated in recent times and they said they want to join Idah Diocese, we wrote to the Bishop of Idah who sent a representative from their area as part of the team to look into their demands. When we sat with them, they said language problem is one of the reasons why they want to join Idah Diocese but the priest from Idah also made them to realize that Idah Diocese is multi lingual too while the diocesan boundaries do not follow state boundaries. One of the priests in the resolution committee from their place serving in Sokoto Diocese made it clear to them also that Sokoto Diocese cuts across three states and they are living in peace.
“When you talk to an average Ette person about this matter, they will tell you that all this disturbances are being caused by few minority for selfish purposes. This is the first time the minority is oppressing the majority but I know it won’t last forever. The consultation with all stakeholders is ongoing, all in a bid to achieve peace and we will not relent. There have been many provocative acts like chasing the priests away, breaking into the parish house to cart away valuables and even expelling father’s boys but we still exercise restraint at all times,” the Bishop said.
Youth groups in supremacy battle
The saying that nothing lasts forever is really true. Other youths in the community tired of watching helplessly as the pro- Kogi militants held sway decided to do something to regain whatever is remaining of their heritage in the land. The situation led to the formation of another group, the pro- Enugu youths who also mobilized and fortified themselves against the aggression of the pro -Kogi people.
The pro- Enugu group according to findings by Sunday Sun played prominent role in the recent voters registration exercise organized by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Knowing the implication of not mobilizing people for the continuous voters’ registration exercise and its effect on him during the next 2015 election, the legislator representing Igbo- Eze North 11 Constituency in the House of Assembly, Hon. Tony Ogidi devised a clever plan to beat the aggressors to their game. Though on self imposed exile from the Ette community owing to the activities of the pro- Kogi people, Ogidi who had already established his constituency office in Aji community because of security reasons, therefore made a swift arrangement to convey his Ette people to Imufu community at the Federal Low Cost Building so that they could revalidate their voters cards.
He mobilized his supporters secretly and paid many commercial cyclists who shuttled from Ette to the Imufu area conveying people to the registration centres .
When the pro Kogi militants got wind of the situation, they mobilized forces to Ette Centre to stop people from going to Imufu for the exercise. But to their greatest surprise, the pro Enugu youths countered them fire for fire leading to serious injury on the leader of the pro Kogi militants, Goddey Eko alias Warrior. Though casualties were recorded on both sides, the pro -Enugu youths overwhelmed the pro Kogi militants, chasing them into the interior part of the community. Sources told Sunday Sun that the registration exercise was a huge success for the Ette people who have been sensitized on their continued losses by the closure of schools and absence of dividends of democracy, bad things brought on them by the activities of the pro Kogi movement.
As at the time of filing this report, the pro–Enugu youths are gaining the upper hand as the militant leader of the pro- Kogi youths, Goddey Eko was overpowered recently during a fracas. Sources told Sunday Sun that he has been banished from Ette while his lieutenant, known as Sani was recently caught with a gun and is presently incarcerated in the prison. The attempt by the pro- Kogi youths to strike again last week met stiff resistance from the pro-Enugu youths who not only countered them but also allegedly set ablaze their stronghold.
The Enugu State Police Spokesman, Ebere Amarizu told Sunday Sun that security agents have been drafted to the community to maintain peace.