Mayhem in Imo State Communities
Cancellations of election results, killing and kidnapping of winners and aspirants characterise Ezeship tussles in many Imo State communities
Gerry Okoli, Imo State commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, is battling hard to explain his role in the crises that engulfed many autonomous communities following his unilateral decision to cancel the election of ezes in those communities.
Early this year, Rochas Okorocha, governor of Imo State, had directed all the autonomous communities without traditional rulers to elect them so as to head the executive arm of his proposed fourth-tier government and aimed at fostering grassroots development. In February, the government inaugurated five arbitration panels to fill the 114 vacant traditional stools. But Okoli stirred the hornet’s nest recently when he announced the cancellation of the exercise in some communities via a local radio station. He claimed that the action became necessary in view of the unfavourable security report from those areas. He told Newswatch that his ministry had earlier postponed the election, but that the people went ahead to hold them. He, therefore, declared the results null and void.
But it was gathered that Okoli’s action did not go down well with Okorocha, who was said to have queried the commissioner. It is believed in government quarters that Okoli’s action was responsible for the escalation of hostilities in those communities. For instance, in Akabor communmity in Oguta local government area, there has been an orgy of violence since the cancellation of the ezeship election held on May 16, at the Orlu Township Stadium. In that election, Nkemjika Uba was declared winner having polled 907 votes to beat Joseph Nwoke who scored 715 votes. Michael Chima, the third aspirant stepped down a few minutes to the commencement of the plebiscite. The state government, through the office of the secretary to the state government, SSG, was represented at the exercise. More than 30 armed policemen were stationed at strategic positions to maintain peace and order.
M.C. Duruigbo, the traditional ruler of Umuowa in Orlu local government area and also a member of the arbitration panel, said the election was peaceful, free, fair and credible because of the state government’s effort to ensure transparency in all its dealings. “The people should be allowed to select their rulers. If an individual is imposed on a community, it creates disharmony and restiveness among members of the community. With this election, I hope peace will return to Akabor community,” he said. But Durigbo was proved wrong. Not long after, violence erupted as a result of the cancellation of the election. Since the death of Abdul Jafaru Emetuma, the late traditional ruler, Akabor community has not known peace. All efforts by the people to select a successor to the throne resulted in bloody clashes. In the past six years, no fewer than 10 people have lost their lives in the ezeship tussle that ravaged the community.
At a point, the community agreed to select the eze on rotational basis starting from Umuemem and Ndiokwu that make up Zone A of the community. With this arrangement, three candidates emerged: Kingsley Ahumaraezeama, a businessman, Joseph Nwoke, a Catholic Knight and Michael Chima, a retiree of Shell Petroleum Development Company. They were asked to pay a non-refundable fee of N150,000 each. Instead of a harmonious and peaceful selection of the traditional ruler, violence was introduced into the contest. The climax of the supremacy battle was the killing of Ahumaraezeama in his Umunwocha village on July 17, 2008. He was allegedly strangled to death by hired assassins who later threw his lifeless body out from his one-storey building.
The death of the aspirant escalated the crisis leading to more deaths. On February 10, 2009, Joseph Amakonze was also killed under controversial circumstances. Many indigenes were arrested but later released. The indigenes of the area had on several occasions petitioned Okorocha over the spate of insecurity, armed robbery, shop looting and kidnapping in the community.
In Ozuzu community in Ngor/Okpala local government area, the story is the same. Okoli said the election that produced Anselm Nkwocha as eze-elect of the community on May 17, was null and void, because it did not follow due process. The community has been enmeshed in serious crises since the death of Thomas Eke after 17 years on the throne. All attempts by various factions to elect a replacement ended in fiasco. On May 11, hoodlums numbering about 20, stormed the venue of the ezeship election at Umuneke Ngor. They wounded people and destroyed property worth thousands of Naira.
It was alleged that the attackers were hired by one of the aspirants to make sure the exercise did not hold. A member of the panel who would not want his name mentioned accused Okoli of interfering in the committee’s job. “We should be given a free hand to conduct the elections. How can you constitute a panel and still want a particular candidate returned? These cancellations are creating disaffection in our communities. The people should be allowed to choose their traditional rulers,” he said.
But Fredrick Nwachukwu, Ogboro1 of Ngor community and chairman of Traditional Rulers Council in the local government, said efforts were being made to restore peace in the area. He expressed surprise at the attitude of some aspirants who ought to have respected the zoning arrangement that favoured Obokwe which produced Nkwocha.
In Awo Mbieri in Mbaitoli local government area, the ezeship tussle has taken a dangerous dimension. The battle in this community started 11 years ago before the immediate past administration recognised Emmanuel Eronini, a medical doctor, as the ruler. He died shortly after. His death orchestrated a dispute between C.O.C. Eronini and Oliver Nwaozuzu. Nwozuzu was elected on May 4, but Eronini rejected the result and peace in the community took a flight.
The height of the mayhem was the abduction of Nwaozuzu, the eze-elect on May 7, in a church. The hoodlums later demanded N100 million ransom. Nwaozuzu allegedly paid N55 million before he was released. He told journalists that his kidnappers revealed to him that they were paid N15 million to eliminate him. He was lucky. But Stanley Akuneto, eze-elect of Ogwa, did not live to tell his story. He was shot dead by unknown gunmen for winning the ezeship election in his area. The community has not known peace since his death.
In Okuku in Owerri West, there are fears that the ezeship tussle might turn violent if nothing is done and quickly too. Recently, thugs disrupted the election scheduled to produce a replacement to Longinus Ukwenga, the late traditional ruler.
Other communities that are still in crisis since 2005 include Awa, Eziorsu, Aboshi Izombe, Ejemekwuru, Agwa and Mgbele. Several lives have been lost and properties worth N1.6 billion destroyed. Most families in the affected areas are yet to return to their ancestral homes when Newswatch visited three week ago.