FROM the tone of his voice, former Secretary General of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers NUPENG, Chief Frank Ovie Kokori, an Urhobo from Delta State, was clearly perturbed by the happening when he called Saturday Vanguard on phone, Thursday.
The purpose of his call was the rising tension between Ijaw and Urhobo ethnic nationalities in the state over the 14-day ultimatum issued Ijaw indigenes in Udu local government area of the state by the Ighele-Urhobo, Urhobo Progress Union, UPU, Youth Wing, Udu chapter, to vacate the Urhobo enclave over alleged kidnap of Urhobo natives and burning of villages.
He said: “I did not know that the matter is as serious as that, what you need to resolve the matter is truth, there should be no fighting because it will not help anybody. Are there no leaders of integrity in the affected Ijaw and Urhobo communities that government can contact to calm the situation. All the parties should calm down and let common sense prevail.”
Kokori is not alone in his apprehension, many Deltans are aghast as to drumbeats of war between Isaba, an Ijaw community and Aladja, an Urhobo town, on one side and Aladja versus Ogbe-Ijoh, another Ijaw kingdom on the other hand, which have put the state on tenterhooks in the past one week.
Chairman of Ighele-Urhobo in Udu, Comrade Sunday Subi, who handed down the ultimatum to the Ijaw on behalf of Urhobo youths at Aladja, November 17, when the President General Of Urhobo Progress Union, UPU, Chief Joseph Omene, stormed Aladja community, said it was based on recent attacks by Ogbe-Ijoh and Isaba communities on Urhobo communities of Ayama and Epame, where houses were razed, villagers allegedly killed and taken hostage.
He warned that within the 14-day ultimatum, the Ijaw should release all kidnapped Urhobo indigenes just as he called on Urhobo sons and daughters in Ijaw land to return home.
His words, “Urhobo and Udu are ready to fight for Aladja, pass this message to Aladja people. Okowa act now or Udu shall act. We give all Ijaw within Udu land 14 days to leave our land. The youths will go round announcing that soon. Ijaw must release those kidnapped and Urhobo in Ijaw land should come back home.”
How troubled started
Saturday Vanguard gathered that trouble started between Ijaw and Urhobo youths when Ayama villagers insisted that suspected oil thieves from Isaba community should stop using their area as a conduit to transport their bunkering products.
The suspected Ijaw bunkerers sank the boat with which Ayama people blocked the waterway to prevent movement of stolen oil and in the ensuing commotion, an indigene, Sunday Obruche, was shot on the chest. He died on the spot.
Ayama youth leader, Aaron Dama, and secretary, Epame youths, Baye Peter, said: “They came, burnt and destroyed every structure on ground. Even the primary school at Epame was not spared. They held some of our people hostage and occupied the communities. We have been taking refuge at Aladja and other places since then.”
An Urhobo youth leader said: “Missing are Mr. Austine Oduara and his wife who hails from Ovwian, Mrs. Baby College and her son, Ediri, natives of Okwagbe in Ughelli South council area and five Aladja indigenes being held by the Ijaw in their communities.”
According to him: “The call on Ijaw to leave Udu has become necessary over the unending killing and kidnapping of Urhobo people by the Ijaw, we strongly demand immediate release of Mr. and Mrs. Austine Oduara and the other five Aladja indigenes held hostage in Ijaw communities as well as Mrs. Baby College and her son, Ediri.”
“We have tried forgetting the past, but history keeps repeating itself. In 1976, a prominent Udu son from Ukpiovwin, Mr. Indian was brutally murdered at Ozobo, Burutu council area.
Many Urhobo lost their lives then. In 2003, another prominent Udu son, Velvet Oyibode from Oghior was also murdered in cold blood by Ijaws of Ogodobri and Ayakoromo, Bomadi and Burutu council areas respectively,” he added.
Tension, however, escalated as several Ijaw groups, including ex-militant leaders, alleging that over seven Ijaw persons had also been kidnapped and some killed, demanded the withdrawal of the 14-day ultimatum.
Isaba youth leader refutes allegations
Youth president of Isaba, Moses Ogugu, denied the allegation by Udu communities that his people attacked Ayama, saying: “Isaba did not go to attack Ayama, we cannot attack our people. It was Aladja people, who came to attack an Ayama person, which is why that fracas happened on November 17. The seven people that they said were held hostage were people passing through the river route. They were held hostage because of the fracas that happened.”
“We have no problem with anybody; the leaders went there and told them that they should not kill anybody. They were told to keep them until we released them to the Delta State Waterways and Lands Security Chairman (Boro Opudu) who came with the Navy to receive them,” he said.
The refusal of UPU, youth wing, Udu chapter, to withdraw the ultimatum and the fact that Ijaw residents from Delta, Bayelsa, Edo and Ondo states, started relocating from Udu to avoid hostile response infuriated many Ijaw groups, including ex-militant leaders, who threatened to fight back.
Delta State Police Commissioner, Secretary to the State Government, SSG, Hon Ovie Agas, chairman of Udu council, Hon Solomon Kpomah and other government officials were said to have visited the place and on the orders of the governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, the SSG and others were expected to have visited again, yesterday, for another on the spot assessment.
Clark meets Ijaw, Urhobo leaders, groups
National leader of the Ijaw ethnic nationality, Chief Edwin Clark, returned from Abuja to Warri on Thursday to intervene in the matter. He told Saturday Vanguard on phone: “We are handling the matter, I have spoken to both sides, they promised to simmer down. I have also discussed with the government on the need to meet with both sides, visit the villages burnt and show that it cares.”
Clark asserted that UPU, Udu youth wing, which issued the 14-day ultimatum met with him and told him how the incident happened. “They said that Isaba boys engaged in bunkering burnt Ayama and kidnapped some of the villagers because Ayama people challenged them.”
“They expected government to react, it did not react and that was what infuriated them to give the ultimatum. They came to see me and explain what is happening. Thereafter, I also met with leaders from Alaja, I have also spoken to Ijaw leaders from Isaba and Ogbe-Ijoh, they are all ready to let peace reign,” he added.
The Ijaw leader said he was going to meet with other Urhobo leaders at a larger forum on Friday to explore ways of finally laying the matter to rest. While condemning the attack on Urhobo communities and reported kidnaps on both sides, he said it was wrong for the UPU president general, Chief Omene, to have supported the 14-day ultimatum by the youth wing, adding that such unguarded statement worsened the already bad situation.
Fleeing residents to return home
Contrary to the position that the state government was indifferent to the situation, Saturday Vanguard gathered that the governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, his deputy, Barrister Kingsley Otuaro, SSG, Barrister Agas and others worked behind the scene to calm down nerves
Leaders of Aladja and Isaba communities met at the instance of the state government on Thursday and agreed to maintain peace, while residents of Ayama and Epame are to return to their homes.
An Urhobo leader, who confirmed government’s arbitration, said: “The next level is a wider meeting of Ijaw and Urhobo leaders, which is underway. Some of the leaders are expected in town today (yesterday). That meeting would finally resolve the issues of ultimatum.
He asserted: “Prominent Ijaw leaders, including Chief Edwin Clark, Alaowei Broderick Bozimo and their Urhobo counterparts are among the leaders expected to attend the larger elders’ and stakeholders’ meeting.”
It was also gathered that Chief Wiliki and other leaders from Aladja, Chief Dan Ekperu, the Prime Minister of Isaba, youth leaders from Isaba and Aladja, chairman of Warri South-West and Udu local government areas would attend the meeting.
Ultimatum causing needless apprehension – Omare
Senior Special Assistant to Governor Ifeanyi Okowa on Community and Youths Development, Mr. Eric Omare, told our reporter: “In my view, since Aladja and Isaba have committed to peace, the general Udu kingdom should withdraw their ultimatum and allow normalcy return to Ijaw residents in Udu kingdom.”
“However stakeholders’ meetings at different levels are on, especially to douse tension and rumuor making the round.”
“The ultimatum is causing unnecessary tension and criminals are already taking advantage of it. The Udu leaders must act fast to avoid escalation of the issue as many Ijaw are returning to Ijaw land, which is not a good omen,” Omare said.
Sheath your swords – Dr. Ekiyor
Reacting to the crisis, former president of the Ijaw Youth Council, IYC, and Convener, Integration Summit Group, Nigeria, Dr. Chris Ekiyor, called for dialogue and caution by all parties involved, adding: “They should sheath their swords in the interest of peace and harmonious co-existence between the Ijaws and Urhobos which according to him, has existed for decades.
He lamented that if not properly handled, the crisis might create unnecessary tension among Ijaw and Urhobo, who have been living peacefully in different parts of the country and called on the people to remain calm and law abiding, as plans were in top gear to resolve the impasse.
“While I commend the Government of Delta State and the leadership of both ethnic nationalities for their efforts in resolving the crises, I call on our Ijaw and Urhobo brothers to give peace a chance and pursue actions that will create way for the return of calm in the kingdom as there is no known ethnic rivalry between the Ijaw and the Urhobo at the moment,” he said.
“Wars have never produced the desired solutions to issues, but rather disintegration and anarchy have trailed such moves. Let us live together as one and build a better society for our children and the nation at large. This is a clarion call for all Nigerians to integrate with one another irrespective our our tribe, religion or political inclinations,” he admonished.
He noted: “The ultimatum given by Udu youths is sequel to alleged kidnap of some Urhobo indigenes by Ijaw at Aladja, which is an Urhobo community in the kingdom, though sources say that the affected persons held at Isaba community have since been handed over to the relevant authority.”
Again, Ijaw youth kidnapped
Meanwhile, there was a report at weekend that another Ijaw native, Peremo Ekpese, was kidnapped, Tuesday night.
Ekpese, who hails from Gbekebo community in Burutu local government area, lives in Udu. His whereabouts have remained unknown since his abduction.
A source said the family was worried whether he was still alive or dead, adding that his disappearance had been reported to the police.
His brother, Seiyefa Gbozimo, who confirmed that the family made entry at the police station, said: “He left the house in the night with his car, and since then, we have not seen him. We have made several efforts to locate him but to no avail.”
Another of his relation, Vincent Oweizide , said: “ I want my brother Peremo to be released.”