Since the Governor Godwin Obaseki administration commenced the plan to build a multi-billion naira Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in Gelegele in Ovia North East Local Government Area of Edo State, there have been clashes between the Ijaw and the Bini people in the area. The people of the area suddenly forgot that development had eluded them over the years and, rather than embrace the government plan which will create thousands of jobs and open up the economy of the place to the world, they engaged in battle over ownership of the land earmarked for the project.
The Ijaw claimed the site belongs to them having resided there for years but the Binis are reminding them they are settlers in the land and that all land in Edo South is theirs. Worried by the tension in the area, the state government, last Thursday, invited the warring communities of Ughoton and Gelegele for a meeting with a view to resolving the issues.
The Odionwere of Gelegele, Chief Amos Osakwe
The meeting, presided over by the Secretary to the State Government, Osarodion Ogie, commenced at 11am but it was not an easy one. The Ijaw representatives, led by Rev. (Dr) Godwin Soroghaye, observed that they were not given invitation for the meeting, adding that the invitation for the meeting was sent through Chief Amos Osakwe, the Odiowere of Gelegele, who, according to them, is not their leader.
He, therefore, posited that future invitations should be given to their traditional ruler, the Amago Ama Okesuwei of Gelegele, and not Osakwe who, according to him, is not recognized by the Ijaw. And this of course may have pitched the Ijaw against Oba Ewuare 11, Oba of Benin, whose representatives in that domain include the Odionwere. The Ijaw are saying Gelegele land is their territory and not part of Benin Kingdom and, therefore, would not recognize any representative of the Oba.
However, for over 40 minutes, SSG Ogie reminded them that the meeting was called on how to ensure that investors were protected in the area and not who owns the land, advising the Ijaw to remain calm and allow the meeting to go on. While the Binis from Ughoton remained calm, the Ijaw insisted that the meeting was not properly convened. But Ogie kept reminding them that they should embrace peace and development which, according to him, is for their own good, adding, however, that government will not fold its arm and allow anybody jeopardise the project. But Soroghaye said the Ijaw were ready for the worst as they could not be cajoled to accept a meeting that was not properly called.
While this was on, the Binis from Ughoton lost their temper, querying the seeming respect being given to the Ijaw. They said they were ready to protect the territory of the Oba of Benin. Sensing the tension in the room, one of the Ijaw leaders, Comrade Don Ben, reminded that the Ijaw of Gelegele and their neighours from Ughoton had no problem and, therefore, admonished they should forget the issue of chieftaincy and focus on the issue of development. But some of the Ijaw elders did not listen to him and insisted they would leave the meeting. And they walked out.
‘We are not deterred’
Meanwhile, the state government continued the meeting with Ughoton leaders. Addressing them, Ogie said: “This government is focused on the development of all parts of Edo including Ughoton and Gelegele and we will do everything it takes to get our people to keep the peace so that investors can come and empower our people. In doing that, we will respect the right of everybody. In doing that, we will not be oblivious to the laws and the power of government.
In line with that, we invited you for this meeting because we believe that we should interact with you and carry you along on our plan for that area. We have taken note of the behaviour of some of the people we invited for this meeting but we are not going to allow that to deter us from going ahead to do what we need to do.
Subsequent meetings, they will still be invited; if they come, we will talk to them; if we have cause to go to the communities, we will meet them there. But this government has resolved that the under-development of that part of Edo will be history at the end of this administration. Like I told them, even while we are talking, that does not mean that we are weak and I reminded them about the power of government.
“Anybody who wants to constitute himself as a clog in the wheel of progress will face the wrath of the law. I will brief the governor and I will also give a report of this meeting and, very soon, you will be invited again”.
‘The Oba owns the land’
Addressing the meeting, a leader from Ughoton, Mr Austin Omoregie, reminded the state government that this is not the first time their neighbours were disagreeing with them. Omoregie went on: “I want to thank you on behalf of our community and from our behaviour you will see that the Benin people in that area want peace.
This is the only way we can bring development there. If we had a seaport in Edo in the time of Gowon, there would have been more development in the state than it is now. When we saw our Oba initiating this move and the governor supported it, our hearts were full of joy. During the administration of Lucky Igbinedion, he called for similar meeting thrice but the Ijaw refused to come.
“Again the Commissioner of Police then called us, they refused to come. If they are saying that without their Ama Okesuwei, nothing will happen there, what about our Oba who owns the land? We the Ughoton people are holding the land on behalf of the entire people of Edo. For somebody to come all the way from Bayelsa to say he owns our land, it is funny. This matter went to the Supreme Court and the court declared that they were tenants.
But we still did not call them tenants, we accepted them as Nigerians. But unfortunately for us now, the people we accepted are claiming ownership of our land. “The case is in court again after the Supreme Court ruled on it in August 1983 and gave them some areas, again they have trespassed. They are undermining the authority of the Oba of Benin.
“There was a time the Oba of Benin sent people to Gelegele to go and do a work, they drove the people away. And the Oba called us and appointed Chief Amos as the Odionwere of Gelegele. We have two representatives of the Oba there and yet these people will not allow what the Oba said to come to fruition. We cannot be happy with them. Recently, they beat up our people, including an old man and burnt their car. Our Odionwere now sent people to go and investigate what happened. On getting there, they beat up the Oba’s representative in Ughoton. They burnt our cars, beat up our people and yet claiming our land. We reported the matter to the AIG and we are glad that the government called this meeting”.
Speaking also, the Odionwere of Gelegele, Osakwe, lamented that the Ijaw were saying the Oba has no right to appoint any traditional ruler in Gelegele for the reason that Gelegele does not belong to the Oba of Benin and that it is under the Egbema clan. “But Gelegele is under Ovia North East in Edo South and that is under the Kingdom of the Oba”, he said.
“The Ijaw are claiming that the Oba has no right in Gelegele, Ikoro, Nikoragha, Siluko, Eboro, Ekenwa, they are claiming that these are Ijaw areas, so the Oba does not own them. So since Oba appointed me, I have visited there twice, they injured me. The governor, then Lucky Igbinedion, invited us but they refused to come. During the time of Adams Oshiomhole, his deputy, Pius Odubu, invited us, they refused to attend the meeting.
Today, again, the state government invited us, they came here to make trouble again. I want to remind the Ijaw people that the Supreme Court judgment said they were hostile settlers on Benin land, that the Oba of Benin owns the entire land in Benin and he has the authority to appoint anybody to represent him in any part of the land. In Benin, we have the Hausa community, the Igbo community, Yoruba community, Urhobo but none of them has come to claim ownership of the land here apart from the Ijaw.
“The Oba has the right to appoint Enogie, Odionwere or Oka. So Gelegele does not belong to the Ijaw, it is called Gelegele (meaning a thing that truly became a reality). The Oba recently warned the Ijaw in Gelegele to maintain the peace. He did not ask them to leave but asked them to maintain the peace as he wants to develop that area with the state government”.
Also at the meeting, one of the Oba’s representatives, the Edeiye Edaiken of Ughoton, Osaimwose Okumoye, who was allegedly beaten up lamented his predicament in the hands of the Ijaw. “ My people called me from our community that they burnt a bus in an area they wanted to build a house. So I rushed there and saw about 50 boys who started fighting us. They broke two cartons of beer on my head and used the bottle to design my body (showing the wounds). I managed to escape because they wanted to kill me. I was beaten to a pulp. They claimed that the Oba wanted to drive them out of the place but I told them that the Oba did not say so. I pleaded with them that government is bringing a sea port there and that everybody should unite so we can benefit from the project. They have no respect for our royal father the Oba and that is unacceptable to us”.