Almost two weeks after about 76 hapless farmers, including youths and aged men from Ugwuneshi, in Awgu Local Government Area of Enugu State were remanded at a federal prison in Afara, Umuahia, Abia State following a clash with Fulani herdsmen, the Nigerian Army has dismissed reports that those who rounded them up were soldiers.
Spokesman of the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, Col. H. Gambo, said the Division was not aware of the arrest by its men, noting that information available to them showed that none of their men was involved in such dastardly act.
This came as the chairman of Awgu council, Kingsley Okeke and the member representing Awgu South constituency in Enugu State House of Assembly, Nelson Uduji, gave strong indications that the detainees would be released after the Easter holiday, noting that Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi had already reached out to his Abia State counterpart, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu, with a view to ensuring that the hapless farmers enjoyed their freedom.
Gambo, who expressed sadness over the development, noted that “every solder out there is properly kitted from head to tow 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, its very easy for them to be identified.
“It is 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,” he noted.
On his part, the Awgu council chairman, Okek, said the state and council were disturbed at the constant faceoff between the Ugwuneshi farmers and Fulani herdsmen, noting however that what was paramount at the moment was to get the 76 persons clamped into prisons released.
“We have gone there already and we have also gone to the governor and alerted him on what is going on. The governor, I mean Governor Ugwuanyi has promised to take it up from there, he promised to speak with the governor of Abia State. I have met with the farmers and the herdsmen, the most important thing is for the detained people to be released,” he said.
Also speaking, the lawmaker representing the area, Uduji, expressed optimism that the 76 persons would be released before the end of this week.
“It looks like a syndicated thing, they were arrested on March 17 and taken to court very early the next day. Even without making any statement, they were charged with arson and illegal possession of firearms. From the records, we obtained from Umuahia, they were charged to court by military police, but the court declined jurisdiction and remanded them in prison custody.
“We have already filed a motion at the High Court and we are hoping that by today the case will come up and they will be granted bail. Our governor is aware of this and is already doing something on the issue,” the lawmaker noted.
Also adding his voice, the immediate past chairman of Awgu council, Mathanus Nze, expressed sadness at the resumption of hostilities between the farmers and Fulani herdsmen, explaining that while he held sway as chairman, efforts were made by his administration to resolve what had become an intractable crisis between the farmers and the herdsmen.
“That issue has been lingering even when I was there, I called several meeting between the Fulani herdsmen and the farmers, I kept calling them to meetings but I don’t know why the matter went out of hand this time around. We thought we could have an arrangement where they will even start paying rent but nothing tangible was achieved. The problem is really as a result of poor communication. I have intervened several times in a bid to maintain peace.
“We wanted to fashion a way they will as people who are occupying this land pay monthly of yearly rent, we even asked them to go home and think about a way out. Its not about people trying to out-run each other, they must agree to live together, and also agree to pay compensation when people’s crops are destroyed. They should find a way to make peace. We pleaded with them to establish trust with their host community but from all indications, its obvious we need to think deeper for the way out,” Nze said.
The traditional ruler of Ugwuneshi, Godwin Nwobi, had while confirming the arrest of his subjects said the incident, which happened last week Thursday 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 always fallen on deaf ears.
According to him, the people of Ugwunesi had been enduring the impunity of the herdsmen as they continued to ravage crops and rendering farmlands unproductive, adding that neither security agencies nor government had done anything to call them 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 further stated that things came to a head when information filtered into the community that herdsmen had abducted two women who went to farm.