We Asked For Social Amenities, We Got Insurgents -Royal Father
The traditional ruler of Ekwulobia town in Aguata Council of Anambra State, the Ezejiofor II of Ekwulobia, Engineer Emmanuel Chukwukadibia Onyeneke, said: “I couldn’t sleep the night Boko Haram prisoners were brought to Ekwulobia.” Noting how difficult it would be to come to terms with his “unwanted guests,” he said, “My people are living in fear.” A devout Catholic and Knight of St. Mulumba (KSM), the royal father pleads with the Federal Government to have a rethink over its decision. He spoke to KODILINYE OBIAGWU, South East Bureau Chief, and CHUKS COLLINS in his palace.
What was your reaction when you learnt that Boko Haram prisoners were to be incarcerated in Ekwulobia?
I couldn’t sleep that night; it was one of my longest nights. I was in a hotel room in Lagos when I was told that people were protesting everywhere in Anambra and that all shops were locked in Ekwulobia and Onitsha. I was told people were afraid because there was this rumour that Boko Haram prisoners were to be transferred to Ekwulobia. That was on June 27. About midnight, someone called to say that some vehicles were coming into the prison premises. It was as if the insurgents were invading Ekwulobia.
On Sunday morning, it was further confirmed that they actually were brought to the prison. When I returned, I was confused. Do I go to the prison or join the protests? The okada riders (commercial motorcyclists) who used to carry prison wardens to work reported that the soldiers were very stern and would not let them come close. I didn’t want to take a risk. I didn’t go. Instead I met the protesters. While meeting with my colleagues, the traditional rulers in Aguata Council, on that Tuesday, we analysed the situation in a bid to understand what had happened. We concluded, among other things, that the Ekwulobia Prison is not a maximum security prison, at best it is a detention camp. But when they were building, they called it a medium security prison. What makes a prison a maximum security facility is not just the security outside, it is the fortifications inside. So, keeping 10 armoured vehicles there doesn’t make the place a maximum security prison. The place is also congested. We wanted to know why Ekwulobia was chosen despite the other prisons they passed before they got here. We didn’t think there is any particular feature that recommended the place. If the prison wasn’t congested, we will say that it is because of the space. If it was a maximum security prison, we will say it suits the nature of the prisoners. But these two aspects are absent in the scenario before us. Did a lucky dip settle the matter?
We had a communiqué and we impressed on the governor to make the case for these people to be transferred. The presence of the prisoners has destroyed the psyche of our people. Some tenants, especially non-indigenes living close to the prison are vacating their homes. A few days ago, the principal of one of the best private schools in the town, said parents have been calling him to withdraw their children since the arrival of the prisoners was confirmed. To most of these people, it is as if the insurgents were already operating in Ekwulobia.
And what is your major fear?
The fears abound. We fear a jailbreak. We have heard of jailbreaks and these are people who kill for fun. We fear they could even indoctrinate the minor criminals they meet inside and when these people are released, they might never be the same again.
If not Ekwulobia, where else, considering also that the prison is owned by the government that can use the facilities in the way it likes?
There are better fortified places, like the maximum security prison in Kirikiri. They could take them to an island. The prison is the property of the government but they should use it in the way it was designed. There are rules and processes and these rules should be followed. For instance, we don’t expect that a hardened criminal or a terrorist should not be kept in a medium security prison. The American government for example keeps terrorists in specially designed facilities, like what we see at the Guantanamo Bay. Ekwulobia prison is right inside the town, in a residential area. How can people cope with that reality?
If things remain this way, what do you think will happen?
We cannot fight the government or the prison authorities, if things remain this way. But this will be unfair. We have declared fasting and prayer for three weeks. We will fast till the end of this month, after which we will gather again and reassess the situation. We are up against something bigger than us, so we are only begging the government to reconsider its stand and relocate these prisoners.
This is supposed to be the only evidence of the federal government’s presence in Ekwulobia, unless we count the DPOs office. In Oko, our next-door neighbour has a polytechnic. The prison cannot be uprooted and placed somewhere else but we would prefer friendlier facilities. We need hospitals, pipe-borne water, schools and access roads. Incidentally, the roads leading to the prison are among the worst in the state and erosion is on rampage there.
Are you liaising with your representatives in the National Assembly on this matter?
Yes, and they have all made public statements. The state traditional rulers’ council also spoke on it. The message is the same: take these prisoners away.
If the prison authorities impress on you that they have done their best in the interest of the people, and that they have followed the best protocols on this, will you still be afraid?
There will always be cause for alarm. Terrorists are terrorists. No one takes chances with them. How can they convince me that with Ekwulobia in the news, the other members of the sect are not working on how to come over here? They will be making efforts to come and release them. How can they convince us that this cannot happen? How can they convince us that a medium security prison has just be upgraded to a maximum security prison because there are soldiers guarding the place with some armoured cars? The only thing they can say is that, “my friend, whether you like it or not, they are remaining here.” And there is nothing I can do besides what I am doing now, begging them and praying.
There are emerging questions regarding who owns the land on which the Ekwulobia Prison is built. The Ezinifite people say the prison was built on their land and should not be called Ekwulobia Prison but rather Ezinifite/Ekwulobia Prison. Is this a current dispute or one that has been ongoing?
I am not aware that the land on which the prison was built is in dispute. The prison was built long before I mounted the throne as traditional ruler of Ekwulobia on December 31, 2008. If there was any dispute, it must have been a very long time ago.
But one of the things that bothered me when I came on the throne was the signpost that named the place Federal Prison Aguata. I was worried because almost all the establishments that come to Ekwulobia bear the name Aguata. The divisional police office here is called Aguata, and with the Aguata high school here, there is no Ekwulobia on it. There are many others.
It was then that I sought to see the documents with which the land was acquired. They were shown to me. The prison is actually built on the borderline. But the entire land belongs to Ekwulobia, and there was no dispute. I had actually gone to see the former Comptroller General of the Prisons to make the case for the proper naming of the prison. Somewhere along the line, we were referred to the archives, to know at which point the change came, from Ekwulobia to Aguata.
I am really not completely inclined to discussing this matter, now, because I started hearing about this dispute about three or two months ago. Let me tell you this story. About three years ago, I went to visit a friend at Nnewi. I was with him when I got a call that two traditional rulers were visiting the Federal Prison and they wanted me to join them. I was told that there were prison authorities from Abuja and Awka with them. I didn’t understand it but I drove to the place. When I got there, I met the Igwe of Ezinifite and the Igwe of Igboukwu. They said that they were waiting for me to break the kolanut, as the landlord; I thanked them and obliged them. I requested them to follow me to my palace because I didn’t know the source of the kolanut, and traditional courtesy demanded that I should show my hospitality. They all followed me to my palace and we had good talks.
Since then, I had never thought of the fact that the land was in dispute. My initial and only worry was that it should be recognised as Federal Prisons, Ekwulobia, and not Aguata. I was never in the know that another community is claiming part of the land.
I was abroad in May and when I came back, it was reported to me that the Chief Judge of Anambra went on a routine tour of the prison in company of the council chairman, his officials and officials of the state Ministry of Justice. After the visit, it was aired on Purity FM that the CJ was thanking the people of Ezinifite for providing the land for the prison. That was about May 20. When this was brought to my notice, I said it could be a mistake. I was thinking I should visit the CJ to confirm whether what I was told was true or a mistake before the Boko Haram issue came on the scene.
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