SIMON EBEGBULEM, BENIN-CITY
For a long time, Gelegele, in Ovia North East Local Government Area of Edo State, has been known to have rich potentials for a sea port in that axis of the Niger Delta due to its closeness to the high seas. The area, though in Edo South where the Benin people live, is predominantly an Ijaw community. In fact, it is commonly said that travelling by boat, Gelegele to Lagos is about 30minutes.
Knowing the potentials in this community, the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare 11, in his coronation speech, hinted of his desire to get the attention of the Federal Government for an Export Processing Zone to boost the economy of not only the area of Edo but also the Niger Delta. And immediately Governor Godwin Obaseki was sworn-in, he commenced moves by traveling to China to get investors who will come and assess the area for the EPZ. As things are today, work has commenced in Gelegele after Obaseki said facility will generate employment for the teeming youths of the state and boost the economy. However, his efforts to ensure the project becomes a reality is threatened by the drums of war beaten by Benin youths and their Ijaw counterparts.
A meeting by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo with stakeholders from oil communities in the Niger Delta had almost been marred by violence when youths from Ijaw communities in Edo stormed the venue demanding that the Vice President should visit the oil communities rather than holding a stakeholders meeting in Benin-City. That action infuriated Benin youths who later on stormed the streets of the state capital, protesting alleged plans by the Ijaw to annex what they described as Benin land.The protesters, who dressed in red T-shirt and singing war songs, said they were reacting to a publication by the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) in which they alleged that the Gelegele land belongs to the Ijaw and not Benin. The protesters, under the aegis of the Benin Solidarity Movement, stormed the state Secretariat of the NUJ, the DSS and the House of Assembly. Led by their National President, Curtis Ugbo, and Secretary, Osarodion Osagie, the youths declared that they would no longer allow “non-natives to speak on behalf of any community under the Benin Kingdom”, adding: “It would be wrong for the Ijaw to say Gelegele belongs to them due to the fact that the Benins allowed them to settle in that area”. They urged oil companies operating in Benin land to give “all deserving youths and students in the oil producing communities in Benin Kingdom automatic free education, bursary, scholarship and employment”. Meanwhile, Ugbo was arrested and sent to Oko prisons over alleged felony and his supporters have been calling for his release.
Since after the protest, there have been skirmishes between Ijaw youths in Gelegele and Benin youths. The Itsekiri, who also live in that area, immediately disassociated themselves from the brewing war and any altercation with the Benin people through a statement by Chief Yahya Pessu, the Ojomo of Warri Kingdom and Chairman of Itsekiri community in Edo, his Vice, Dr (Mrs) Uku, and Femi Uwanah. According to the statement, “Itsekiri ethnic nationality is not laying claim to the ownership of Gelegele area as alleged by the protesters. “As a people, we are peace-loving, not territorially ambitious and believe absolutely in the rule of law. We maintain an enduring kindred relationship with the Benin people, with strong historical and cultural ties. We therefore urge protesters to get their facts right and desist from acts that could jeopardise the excellent relationship between and the Benin people and the Itsekiri people in Edo”. However, tension in the area continued to heighten when the Benin National Congress (BNC), a socio-cultural organization, vowed to go to war with the Ijaw if they tried to annex Gelegele which, according to them, belongs to the Oba of Benin. They wrote President Muhammadu Buhari to call the Ijaw to order, saying, they have no intention of ceding any Benin land to the Ijaw. The letter signed by Dr. David Ekomwenrenren, the BNC Director of Publicity and Intelligence,said”. As a pan-Benin intelligentsia with outstanding records of communities development initiatives and non-political agitations aiming at peaceful ethnic nationalities cooperation in over a decade, we respectfully seek your utmost watch on the persistent anachronistic tendencies of some Ijaw youths in violent encroachment, violent assaults and criminal intent to deprive the Benins of our natural heritage under the guise of ravaging militancy.
No group has monopoly of violence, we will go to war if that place is annexed, it belongs to Oba of Benin. We are confident that the Seaport and Power Plant exploration Committee, being pioneered by Governor Godwin Obaseki, with the blessing by His Royal Majesty – Oba Ewuare 11-will achieve the desired objectives of rescuing Benin youths, Niger Delta and Nigerian youths from chronic unemployment and under-empowerment which are the twin foundations of crime in the region. We are not unaware that some of our Ijaw brethren who have hitherto made Gelegele their home, where fishing, farming and other forms of sales and services continue to thrive, hence there is this tendency to claim ownership, which of course has resulted to altercations between the Benin and Ijaw. The BNC is out to fraternize with government and the palace in protecting our territorial integrity and, as a people, we are not willing to cede any part of our territories and land to anyone. Our ideal, as a people, is to encourage trade, investment and growth amongst ourselves and neighbours towards building a peaceful society where every man can succeed through commerce and other legitimate interests. We are aware of the arrest and subsequent arraignment of some of our brothers, especially Curtis Eghosa Ugbo and Chief Odion Olaye, over the last demonstration they spearheaded against some Ijaw elements allegedly laying claim to the ownership of Gelegele; and the NPDC, and calling on resident oil companies to rise up to their corporate social responsibility. We respectfully appeal to Governor Godwin Obasek: to wade into the ongoing legal battle between the Edo State Commissioner of Police, Haliru Gwandu, and Curtis Ugbo towards a peaceful resolution of the matter, and restoring sense of harmony to aggrieved youths”.
But in a reaction, Ijaw youths, through the Ijaw Youth (IYC) Council, declared that the letter by the BNC was provocative and warned against war in the area. A statement by the IYC President, Eric Omare, warned that if urgent steps were not taken, the issue may generate into ethnic war which will not do the Niger Delta any good. “We condemn that statement, it is unnecessary, it is uncalled for and unacceptable to our people. I believe that there are more civil means of expressing grievances rather than threaten war. Furthermore such threat of war is not in tandem with the recent efforts of leaders of the Niger Delta under the auspices of PANDEF to bring all ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta under one umbrella,” Omare said. “ The Boni in group statement is inciting, it is capable of inciting Benin youths against Ijaw youths and which can snowball into inter-ethnic crisis between the Ijaw and Benin people. We therefore call on leaders of the Benin ethnic nationality and the government of Edo to call leaders of the BNC to order in order to avoid unnecessary inter- ethnic crisis in the Niger Delta. On gelegele he added: “What is needed is for all stakeholders to work together towards the actualization of the Gelegele sea port project and not comments that will drive away investors. We are calling for immediate intervention so as to avoid crisis in the region between the Ijaw and the Benin people.
We are calling on President Buhari and Governor Godwin Obaseki to take urgent steps to nip in the bud the brewing ethnic crisis being sponsored by overzealous conduct of some Benin youths. On Tuesday April 11, 2017, some armed Benin youths invaded Gelegele community and it took the timely intervention of Ijaw youths of Gelegele community to resist the invasion. If not for the intervention of the elders of Gelegele community, the situation would have degenerated into a full blown crisis. There is high tension in Gelegele and other neighbouring Ijaw communities in Edo State. The IYC condemns this invasion in the strongest terms as it is a confirmation of the Benin National Congress threat of war against the Ijaw people of Edo State. We wish to strongly warn that, while the Ijaw people would always promote peaceful co-existence with other ethnic nationalities of the Niger Delta region; we shall resist any attempt at further invasion of any Ijaw community in Edo or anywhere in Nigeria. We therefore call on the federal and state governments and relevant security agencies to intervene before the situation degenerates to a full blown war. The IYC strongly holds the view that an ethnic crisis in Edo between the Ijaw and Bini is totally unnecessary and must be avoided”.
But the BNC fired back, accusing the Ijaw of maiming Benin youths in Gelegele and threating more harm. “Benin land does not belong to them and they must allow our governor, Obaseki, to conclude the sea port project so that our youths will gain employment. You cannot be threatening the Benins in their own land, that is impossible”, the group said.. Sunday Vanguard learnt however that efforts are being made by the Obaseki government to intervene in the matter.