Fears, anger over presence of Boko Haram prisoners stir sleepy Ekwulobia community, neighbours
Like nemesis, the Ekwulobia Federal Prison, the ‘weapon’ with which the detractors of former Vice President Alex Ekwueme in the run-up to the 1983 elections said was the only infrastructure his National Party of Nigeria (NPN) gave the old Anambra State and his community, is now ‘officially’ in the news. With the decision of President Muhammadu Buhari administration to move some 47 Boko Haram suspects to the Ekwulobia Prison, sited very close to Ekwueme’s Oko community, in Aguata Council of the state, the chickens may after all, be coming home to roost.
The insurgents’ incarceration in the area has raised anger, protests, fears, and subsequently closure of markets, several security meetings and sleepless nights. It has also raised salient questions.
From Awka to Ekwulobia and Ezinifite, the fears and questions are answered in rumours, speculations and hearsays, half-truths at eateries, offices motor parks and even palaces. Amidst calls for the Federal Government to relocate the prisoners, the questions persist: Why did they bring the people here? Is this part of the plot to kill us all? Are these not the people that are killing us and our kinsmen in the North? Why us? Is there no other prison elsewhere?
Then, there is the unlikely question of what the name of the prison is. Is it Federal Prisons? Aguata or Ekwulobia Prison or Ezinifite/Ekwulobia Prison? Linked to this is the quiet tussle between Ezinifite and Ekwulobia over who is the “landlord,” of the prison.
What no one contests though is that Dr. Alex Ekwueme, as Second Republic vice president arranged for Aguata to have a prison, while Oko, his hometown got a federal polytechnic.
A senior member of the cabinet of the Igwe of Ekwulobia, who doesn’t want to be named, recollected how Ekwueme ran and lost an election under the old Aguata division. “He ran against a relatively unknown politician then. It was the first time people voted along religious lines because Catholics voted against Ekwueme an Anglican. After then, the old Aguata Council was broken up and Oko and Ekwueme are now in Orumba North and South. In the Second Republic, he gave Aguata Council a prison and Orumba Council a polytechnic. I don’t know whether he did that in bad faith, but that is what we have today.”
Going to the Prison
The ‘unwanted’ Boko Haram prisoners transferred to the old Ekwulobia Prisons is raising the profile of the sleepy town remarkable only for its roundabout. The roundabout marks neither the end nor start of the journey to Ekwulobia; it leads to a lot of other places. At the Ekwulobia roundabout, two traffic wardens direct the sluggish traffic; vehicles are hampered by the wide potholes spread over a stretch of the road heading towards Imo State.
The ubiquitous commercial motorcycles, (okada) further snarls the traffic as they skirt between cars, while parking haphazardly, sandwiched between stalls, traders’ wares and good portion of the road.
The banks are on the busiest arm of the roundabout, the East, which leads to Uga, Imo and beyond; West of the roundabout heads towards Awka the Anambra State capital, North and South seek out the numerous hinterland and other towns, like Nnewi, Nnubi Nnaka, et c.
Nothing however, indicates the anxiety and attention Ekwulobia is getting. But the fears manifest in private conversations how a transit town, listed among the four urban towns in the state, is slipping into the folklore of famous towns.
“Famous?” asks the Igwe of Ekwulobia, Ezejiofor II of Ekwulobia, Engineer Emmanuel Chukwukadibia Onyeneke rather incredulously. “Are we going to be famous because Boko Haram insurgents are in a prison in the town? Or perhaps for agitating against the decision to keep such high risk prisoners in our community?”
In his modest palace, the University of Lagos-trained electrical engineer weighs the irony as he muses, “this is the only evidence of Federal Government presence here. Unless you include the DPO’s office down the road, which we built and handed over to the police.”
It is soon obvious that not many people in the town know the way to the prison. There is no signpost and those who know the direction merely tell you, “Take the road on your right just before the Council. That is the Aguata/Igboukwu road. It has been under construction but it is certainly abandoned now. Better look for a bike, if you will get one. People are not charitable going there these days. Don’t think of driving, the roads are bad. Erosion is damaging the road especially from where you will veer off the major road to the prison. You could miss it without a guide. It is actually less that two kilometres from the council.”
After missing the turn once, a stray bike led the way.
The prison used to be called Federal Prisons, Aguata. It later became Ekwulobia Prison, others called it Ezinifite/Ekwulobia Prison. No one is certain how it came to bear the name amidst claims that it is built on Ezinifite land.
No description prepares you for the experience as we rode through the bush. There is no easy access to the prison. The approach road is made nearly impassable by gullies and crevices created by erosion. The motorbike rider, a native, skirts his way quite easily. For assurance, he says: “This is my village. I pass through here daily.”
Don’t the soldiers harass you people? “No, they don’t. But you don’t make friends with a stranger with a gun. They are friendly, they sometimes ask us to take them to where they can eat.” Really?
What has changed for you people since the prisoners came? The warders don’t come out freely as before. There are soldiers everywhere. You will see some but you can’t see all of them. They will see you coming from any direction. My brother, a palm wine tapper sees them well.
But with all the security, don’t the villagers feel more secured? “We are afraid of course. We fear a jailbreak. If their friends hear about Ekwulobia, they might come here. We sleep with one eye open as we are now in the midst of people who kill without reason. Some non-indigenes living with us in the village have left. If this is not my ancestral home, I would have left. The peace we used to enjoy is gone. People live round the prison, it is not an isolated place.”
You see the soldiers and the barrel of the guns before you are aware you are already in the precincts of the prison. Located deep inside hectares of farmland in Umunagu village, the prison is ringed by homes of the villagers. The solitary road separates the official quarters of the prison staff from the prison.
The soldiers on both sides look intently at you, wave back a greeting, their eyes never leaving the bike as it swerves round potholes.
The armoured personnel carriers (APCs) are there. “They were not there before,” the biker blurted out in one word as he missed a pothole.
The place was literally crawling with soldiers and security men in mufti; some sitting in groups, under the trees in the afternoon sun. Up on the observation posts, the soldiers gaze down. “They will see you but you cannot see them.”
It was like passing through a minefield. “They won’t harass us but you will go out through another road.”
The prison looks rusty; the paint work is peeling and the surrounding bush and tall grass gives it an ominous aura. Ordinarily categorised as a medium security prison, it “has an operational housing capacity of 80 to 85 inmates.” Prison sources say that the prison was “redesigned, restructured and reinforced to house these particular terrorists and other high risk prisoners.”
Who owns the land?
An angry secondary school teacher from Ezinifite, who refused to be named, describes the prison as “the dividend of democracy Ekwueme got for us.”
Nze Anselem Oba Igwilo, a 52-year-old building consultant also from Ezinifite recollects, “I witnessed the construction of this building. We protested when we learnt that it was a prison they were building because we asked for a school but they gave us this prison during the Shagari era. We were told the community would benefit. There are no roads leading even to the prison, maybe they have water inside there, but the villagers don’t have pipe borne water or light. The prison has not brought any development, except Boko Haram and this reign of fear and anger.
“We in Ezinifite are angrier because this prison is built on our land but people call it Ekwulobia Prison. We are surprised to hear this on radio. It is Ezinifite/Ekwulobia prison because we have more land here. The problem is that we don’t have people to speak for us and things are the way they are because there is no peace in Ezinifite. Ekwulobia have more people than Ezinifite in government.”
As the arguments heat up and tempers rise, the President General of the Ezinifite Improvement Union, Nze Eloka Maduka, insisted that “I know what I am saying, doesn’t see how the land has been in contention especially as the land has an official survey plan. It was previously owned by Obinato and Umunagu families, both of Aku Village in Ezinifite. Anyone laying claim to anything should produce the relevant documents.
“These two families presented the land to the Federal Government through our late monarch, Igwe Stephen Offormata. Unfortunately, no compensation was paid.
“When the request for the land was made for an (unspecified) Federal Government project, we had in mind a tertiary school, referral hospital, or an industry. We painfully discovered it was a prison. We objected but were assured that through a prison the government could still provide employment for our children, electricity, roads, security and potable water.
“Unfortunately, nothing exists there for the people, not even the road to the prison. We maintain the road into the area because we live close to the prison yard. The erosion has destroyed all the access roads to the prison. Maybe it is their intention to keep it so, may be for security reasons.”
The traditional ruler of Ezinifite HRH Igwe Bob Orji flips through a sheaf of papers as if to reassure himself of something. He looks up and says with a nod of his head “the 11.0045 hectares of land on which the Federal Prisons Aguata stands belonged to the Agu-Oka Umuagu family of Aku village in Ezinifite.”
There is no controversy over that, he insists. Poised as if to clear all lingering doubts, he tenders more documents. One letter is from the two families to the community, officially handing over the land. Another letter is from the Ezinifite community presenting the land to the Aguata Council. A third letter titled “Construction of 80-bed prison at Aguata” with reference No AGD/3342/6 dated September 28, 1983 is signed by one C.I Anyaegbunam, the Secretary of the Council handing over the land to the then old Anambra government. A solitary fading blue paper is marked in fading ink the ‘official Certified True Copy of survey plan’ of the land area dated August 26, 1983.
An annexure attached to the survey plan, signed by four traditional rulers –Igwe G.I. Onyebuchi, Igwe Job Ezemuokwe, Igwe E.I. Umeononankwume, Igwe J.A. Ekwueme III – summed up the process of the settlement between Ekwulobia and Ezinifite for the transfer of the land. The royal fathers, noted that the land “is donated free of charge without demand for compensation.”
Looking at the welter of documents he wondered, “Why media men keep referring to the prison wrongly as if it was located in Ekwulobia. I have restrained my people from making a serious issue out of this.”
Alternatively, the HRM explains that he visited the Comptroller General of Prisons, the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs and formally submitted copies of the documents. A set of the documents was given to Anambra Governor Willie Obiano, the Aguata Council chairman and the Aguata Council of traditional rulers.
Apparently satisfied, he noted, “I have nothing to contend with anyone over the ownership of the land, because all those talking have no documentary evidence. I have the necessary documents to buttress our claims.”
He bemoaned the absence of social amenities promised Ezinifite when the request for the land was made more than three decades ago. Till today, there is no potable water; no son or daughter of Ezinifite got any form of employment at the prisons, no roads, security or electricity.
HRH Orji disclosed that despite not making good earlier promises, the Federal Government never paid any form of compensation to the community or the families that provided their land.
Chief Moses Ekwuilo, from the Aku village, whose family owns the land on which the prison was built and lives adjacent to the prison walls looks back in anger “at how things were wrongly done from the beginning. The contractor who undertook the built the prison is from Ekwulobia. Even the electrical engineer is also from Ekwulobia. In the course of the building, the contractor removed the ancient landmark, which clearly showed the boundary demarcating Ezinifite and Ekwulobia. Maybe it was unintentional.
“But he sold part of the land mapped out in the survey plan from behind the prison walls. The beneficiaries erected buildings on the ancient landmarks behind the prison walls. If proper investigation is carried out, those buildings will be pulled down and the land recovered.
“To make up with what was sold, the contractor extended the prison premises in front thereby encroaching further into the land of other Ezinifite families, until he was stopped by the families.”
Despite the anxiety in Ezinifite, the Igwe Ekwulobia was “not aware that the land on which the prison was built is in dispute. If there was any dispute it must have been a very long time ago.
When he was enthroned, one of the things that agitated him was why the signpost read “Federal Prisons, Aguata,” and convinced that “the prison is actually built on the border line, but the entire land belongs to Ekwulobia, I had actually gone to see the former comptroller general of the prisons to make my case. Somewhere along the lines, we were referred to the archives to check the documents to know at which point the change came, from Ekwulobia to Aguata.
“I started hearing of this dispute about three months ago. Sometime ago, I was in Nnewi, when I got a call that two Igwes were visiting at the federal prisons and they would want me to join them. I was told that there were prison authorities from Abuja and Awka. When I got there I met the Igwe of Ezinifite and the Igwe of Igboukwu. They said that they were waiting for me as the landlord to break the kolanut; I thanked them and obliged them.
But recently, the Igwe found reasons to re-assess things. First was a remark by the state Chief Judge on routine tour of the prisons, thanking the people of Ezinifite for providing the land for the prison. A state FM radio aired the remarks. “That was about on May 20,” he said.
A second event was after at a meeting with fellow Igwes to discuss the Boko Haram matter. “The Igwe of Ezinifite stood up and started saying, ‘Oh, the place is not Ekwulobia, it is Ezinifite.’ I was surprised. I said to myself, is this not the same man who invited me to come and break kolanut at the prison as the landlord? And again, even if he felt that the land actually belongs to Ezinifite, was that the best time to bring it up; at a time when we were all crying about the transfer of Boko Haram prisoners to our land. He made the same remark at another forum.
“Why should I be flexing muscles over a land where a federal prison is built? No revenue comes from there. A prison is one of those things you pray nobody brings to your domain. I can no longer claim that land, I cannot cultivate there and I cannot build a shopping mall there. If the Igwe of Ezinifite is quarrelling about a place where some revenue can be earned, it will be understandable and I will follow it up immediately. I believe the land is useless to me or anyone else. It is given to the federal prison, it is lost, and it is lost. Should we leave our common problem to argue over what is not even there?
“I believe the Federal Government cannot site a project without acquiring the land properly. A trip to the Federal Ministry of Works or Internal Affairs will resolve the question of who owns the land if there is a dispute there. If the documents there show that it is Ezinifite, then so be it. If it is Ekwulobia, it will be there. If there is a dispute, it will end once anyone can say who gave the Federal Government the land.
“Since the question of who owns the land is an issue, and the Ezinifite people are talking about it, further investigations can be done independently to determine who owns the land.”