BY Emma Ujah, Abuja Bureau Chief
Senate President David Mark’s quest for a vast land where he is said to be planning a university in his native Otukpo, Benue State, has pitted him against peasant farmers in Asa III, who claim that the retired military officer-turned- politician wants to deprive them of their farm land, their only means of livelihood.
The move was said to have started in the first quarter of the year when a delegation of the nation’s number three citizen, led by one Chief Obogo Alapa, met some Asa III elders to inform them of the proposed university which, it stressed, would bring development to the area.
It was learnt that the villagers told the delegation that they welcomed the development, but that they needed to know the exact size of land and in which area of the village before they could give their terms.
Consequently, it was agreed that the delegation should take representatives of the villagers to the area and show them the location and size.
This was later undertaken, with a bulldozer setting out what represented the area of interest for the proposed institution. The said land, according Mr. Sam Obochi, measures about “4 x 4” km, covering the farmlands of many families. The area demarcated alegedly extended from Asa III to their boundary with Akpegede village on the one hand, and their boundary with Otobi on the other.
However, trouble started when the villagers discovered that bulldozers were sent in to clear the vast farmland without any further discussions with them. “The Alapa delegation that went to show the villagers the area to be taken by the university project did not return to give the villagers any feedback”, the villagers claimed.
Some of the villagers went to their farms and asked the bulldozer operators to stop work on the grounds that the said land belonged to their families and that at no time did they hand over the land to anybody for any project.
As learnt, the workers ignored the villagers which led to protests during which the villagers blocked the main road that passes through Asa III in their efforts to attract public attention to their plight.
If the villagers expected any form of sympathy, what they allegedly got was a rude shock as, rather than coming for negotiations, those taking their land were said to have mobilized persons from Igbanomaje, Otukpo, to attack them. The assailants were said to have invaded Asa III and shot six of the villagers, burnt down houses of those considered as the arrowheads of the alleged land-grab opposition, and looted every store in sight.
The villagers ran into the bush and kept away from their homes for four days. Those who ventured into the village were said to have been arrested by gun- wielding vigilante and policemen brought in from Otukpo. 18 persons were allegedly arrested including three minors. 15 were detained in Makurdi Police Station while the minors were detained in the Juvenile Detention Center, Gboko.
As learnt, six men were shot by the attackers and had to be rushed to the General Hospital Otukpo. But even at the hospital, the police went after them and attempted to arrest them. It took the resistance of the hospital staff to stop further action against the villagers who then sneaked out of the hospital that night to secret locations outside Otukpo to seek medical help.
Two weeks after the attack, leaders of the village, it was learnt, sent an emissary to Alapa, the alleged leader of Mark’s representatives, to express their disappointment over the attack on Asa III.
A peace meeting was reportedly held with the Alapa group on June 21. The Chairman of Otukpo Local Government Council, Dr. Innocent Onuh, was one of the leaders that attended the meeting. That meeting was held at the palace of the Ad’ Alekwu of Asa III, Mr. Inalegwu Onche, where the villagers claimed to have told Mark’s representatives that due process should be followed if the Senate President wanted to acquire land for his university project.
The following day, the villagers said policemen from Otukpo Divisional Police Headquarters invaded the village at about 5.30 am to arrest some youths.
Those who noticed the arrival of the policemen were said to have alerted others by phone. Those who could not get the information on time were arrested while those who escaped arrest had their Okadas (motorcycles) taken away. The villagers then mobilized and insisted that every villager must be taken to the police station. Overwhelmed, Sunday Vanguard was told, the police started firing into the air to disperse the crowd. In the process, one of the police constables was shot due to accidental discharge by a fellow police man.
This was said to have infuriated the policemen the more as they insisted on arresting as many of the villagers as they could. But the policeman behind the shooting allegedly reported himself to the police authorities in Otukpo. He was said to have declared that he could not bring himself to accuse the villagers of a crime they did not commit.
The policeman was arrested and detained, then transferred to the Benue State Police Command headquarters in Makurdi where he was detained, pending his orderly room trial. In spite of truth about who shot the deceased policeman, the team that left the village only reinforced with more officers, soldiers and armed vigilante, and stormed the village later that day. The raid was unprecedented, according to the villagers, as they could not resist the large armed team that stormed their little village. Several villagers were arrested with others running into the forests. At the end of the day, many houses were allegedly burnt down and shops looted, creating a scenario of a village at war.
After the raid, Mr. Obochi, a senior civil servant in Makurdi, but whose family land is part of the parcel in dispute, decided to meet the Senate President’s representatives in Otukpo. He was arrested and detained for one week, in Makurdi, along with those earlier arrested.
Obochi told Sunday Vanguard, in an interview in Makurdi, that what was happening in Asa III since the beginning of the year was a clear case of intimidation of the peasant farmers.
He said he was arrested in the process of trying to resolve the issue between the Mark group and his brothers and sisters in his village. According to him, “my offence was that I bailed those who were arrested by a combined team of policemen, soldiers and vigilante”.
Narrating the situation, Obochi said, “The Mark group claims that the villagers are strangers and as such will not receive any compensation for the land and their crops. Rather, they said that compensation will be paid to Otukpo indigenous people. Their informants misled them. They told them that those farming on the land in question are ‘Aalala’”.
Those referred to as ‘Aalala’ are those from south of Idomaland, especially Ogbadibo and Okpokwu Local Government Areas.
Obochi insisted that those who own the land and even currently own farms on the land in question are aboriginal Otukpo people.
He added that most of the houses destroyed and the looted shops belonged to indigenes of Asa III and not strangers which made it difficult for any reasonable member of the society to comprehend.
Obochi said the villagers had no intention of fighting Mark but that they won’t allow anyone to forcefully take away the land which they inherited from their ancestors.
Effort to see Mark
Asked if the aggrieved villagers made any effort to meet the Senate President in person, he said, “I met Adakole Elijah ( an aide of the Senate President) and requested to see Sen. Mark. He promised to facilitate my meeting him. That was before the arrest and that was the last time I saw the man. I also had a chance meeting with one Onyilokwu Ekwo (said to be very close to the Senate President) and I told him that we don’t want bloodshed in our village and that he should arrange a meeting for us to meet Mark. There was no response and I cannot just walk to Senator David Mark’s house”.
According to Obochi, the demand of the owners of the farm land is, “the Senate President should follow due process by coming to the owners of the land. If a dirty man has something which you need, the person cannot look dirty to you.
“He should come to us and make a request, then we will decide whether to give him the land or not; or give him part of the land; but certainly not the whole land as demarcated. We don’t have any personal problem with Mark He chose the wrong process. Those he is working with are not representatives of the farmers who own the land. He should stop further work on the land in question until the issue is resolved”.
Neither the Senate President’s media team nor his family members responded to inquiries by Sunday Vanguard, in spite of repeated calls and text messages.