NBC, resolve this boundary dispute

FILE PHOTO: Houses burnt during the Tiv-Jukun crisis in Taraba State.

Even before this country is through with the bloody conflict between Tiv and Jukun ethnic groups in Taraba State, another nasty inter-communal conflict is brewing, this time in the country’s south east corner. The boundary clash between Isu community in Arochukwu Council Area of Abia State and Utuma in Biase Council of Cross River State recently took a huge toll on the Isu clan as 3,500 indigenes are said to risk starvation. They are currently displaced and reside at an Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camp.

This fresh crisis began in the area following the discovery of limestone deposits in Isu community but which Utuma clan is laying claim to. President General of Isu Progressive Union, IPU, Felix Okoro, alleged that the people of Utuma attacked Iheosu village in Isu clan on April 18, 2018, burnt down their houses and rendered them homeless. However, the current controversy began on August 18, 2019, when the Utuma clan allegedly removed the signboard of Iheosu and Aba villages, burnt their houses and killed over 36 people. The IDPs who are lodged at Ohabuike primary school depend on relief materials from Abia State government and from a few villages that have not been attacked in Isu community. They live in squalid conditions and cannot farm or return to their homes.

While members of the Isu clan accuse Cross River State Deputy Governor Prof Ivara Esu of foot-dragging over an earlier resolution on the disputed area, the community commended the Abia State Deputy Governor, Ude Okechukwu, for his efforts at brokering peace. They said Prof Esu, who hails from Biase Council in Cross River State, was yet to show commitment towards ending the conflict. Okoro said the position of the deputy governor of Cross River State should not be the attitude of a government official who wants to end the crisis. Okoro also said the Cross River deputy governor’s attitude appears to be encouraging the Utuma people to continue to lay claim to Isu lands, especially because of the limestone deposits in the area.

So far, the account by Isu community regards Utuma people as settlers. According to Okoro, Utuma people migrated from Biakpa. “During the civil war, they crossed the river to stay with their kith and kin in Biakpa. At the end of the war, they returned and we accepted them because we value their fishing occupation”, he said. The Ukwa and Utuma people started laying claim to the land when it was confirmed that limestone deposits were found in commercial quantity in Isu area. This prompted their first attack on Isu in 1989 during which many people were killed. There was another attack in 1995. Okoro said the 1995 attack on Isu by the Utuma people was prompted by an announcement by the Abia State government that it would establish a cement factory in Isu community. When Ibeto Cement Company came to commence work on the project in 2018, the Utuma people allegedly attacked them and the company was forced to stop work.

We fault the federal government for its failure to properly delineate boundaries between the two states, which should have been done at the time of creating them. To resolve this resource conflict, we call on the National Boundary Commission (NBC) to immediately state where boundaries of the two states begin and end or delineate them if they do not exist. This should be done as quickly as possible so that IDPs could return to their farmlands which they abandoned for fear of attack. Meanwhile, we urge the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to intervene with relief materials including food, clothing and medications.

We encourage governors and their deputies in the two affected states to provide leadership by finding solutions to the crisis instead of fuelling it. Rather than attack neighbouring communities, aggrieved groups should approach courts of competent jurisdiction to seek proper interpretation over matters in which they disagree. The discovery of natural resources should not lead to bloodshed between neighbouring communities.

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