Inside politically motivated bloodshed in Ebonyi where citizens are taxed to kill their neighbours

Ferdinand Udoh’s house in Abakaliki, the capital of Ebonyi State, is a camp of sorts for his displaced relatives. For nearly two years, Mr Udoh said, the communal war ravaging his native Effium community in the Ohakwu Local Government Area of the state in Nigeria’s southeast has uprooted his kin, who now occupy his home.

“As I speak to you, my grandmother, aunts and brothers and their children are living with me because they have nowhere else to go,” the humanitarian worker in Ebonyi told PREMIUM TIMES. “The ongoing war is really affecting my progress and I’m pained.”

Mr Udoh’s Effium community has for many years been a theatre of violent conflict between his own Ezza ethnic group and their Uffiom neighbours. Locals are invested in the conflict, organising themselves to contribute funds – ‘taxes’ – towards the prosecution of the fight.

When a fresh war broke out in the community last year, Mr Udoh said he travelled to his hometown in Effium to evacuate his family members after their houses were razed amid the violence.

During his visit, he had taken gory photos of dead bodies that littered the clay streets of the town. The photos, independently verified by PREMIUM TIMES, showed stripped women hacked to death, mutilated bodies of men said to have been killed while returning from the farm and lifeless children soaked in their own blood.

“It was a deadly unforgettable day,” Mr Udoh narrated to PREMIUM TIMES. “A lot of people were killed. The bus I hired to carry my people on that day was full of residents crying for help and looking for a way to move out of the town.”

Devastated by ethnic violence drawn out by land disputes and vested political interests, the Effium community has been deserted by the majority of its residents as the conflict consumes hundreds of lives and properties in the war-torn area.

“As I am talking to you, nobody dares go to Effium without strong military escorts,” he said. “Even soldiers had been attacked many times in the community since the war started again.”

‘When the might was right’

Over a century ago, natives of Uffiom, a non-Igbo people originally from the Orri tribe in Cross River, had settled in a barren landscape now known as the Effium community in Ebonyi. The Effium community would later come under the attacks of its neighbouring Izzo and Ngbo communities, according to historical records obtained and reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES.

Dwindled by the war, the Uffiom people invited the Ezza-Ezekuma, an Igbo sub-group in Ebonyi known for commercialising warfare. Effium, the stronghold of the Uffiom people, was dying, save for the intervention of the Ezza forces.

In our previous reporting on the violent communal conflicts in Ebonyi, PREMIUM TIMES revealed the ancient involvement of the Ezza fighters, who supported the Ezzilo community — by invitation — to win a war against their invading neighbours. The Ezza people would later feud with their Ezzilo neighbours, after decades of swearing to live together in peace, leading to a violent wave.

“The Ezza offered to protect them from annihilation in exchange for farming rights,” Captain Chapman, an assistant district officer of the Abakaliki Division of the then-Eastern Province, said in a 1930 British (colonial) intelligence report seen by PREMIUM TIMES. “Ezza has now absorbed all the land, and, as far as it can be done peacefully, is annihilating the Orri (also known as the Uffiom people).”

However, the Ezza and the Uffiom natives had lived peacefully for decades after both sides had a covenant to “never shed each others’ blood”. But in 2002, the covenant was broken when fights over who to occupy some councilorship positions in Effium stirred the age-long bitterness between the two ethnic groups, locals said.

“When the might was right, we helped them win a war against their enemies and now they turned us to their enemies,” said Monday James, an Ezza man and elder in the Effium community. “The major cause of this war is that the 1999 Nigerian constitution has never been in operation in that community.”

Taxed to kill their neighbours

For Mr Udoh, it is against the will of God to donate money to buy arms to kill his neighbours. But many of his Ezza kinsmen, who have more generous means, said even if they can not fight with guns, they can support the local warriors to achieve victory.

Mr Udoh said he had been taxed many times by elders in his community who asked him to pay up to a N100,000 ‘morale support’ fee but he had declined. He said as a Christian, his bible has taught him not to contribute to the shedding of blood.

But others have a different way.

Even as a journalist working for a radio station in Ebonyi, Christopher Gideon — his name changed to protect his identity for security reasons — cannot bury his bias on the violent conflict ruining lives in Effium.

Mr Gideon, an Ezza man, said he could spend his last dime to ensure victory and protect the interest of his people. Therefore, whenever he is approached for such money, he complies without any reservation, he said.

“It’s like Ukraine vs Rusia war,” Mr Gideon said. “Everybody must participate for victory. It’s actually not a one-man battle. It is our battle and we must fight it.”

PREMIUM TIMES’ on-the-ground reporting — based on interviews with stakeholders and displaced persons from Uffiom and the Ezza-Effium — established that the two warring groups are taxed to donate either money or foodstuff to support local warriors hiding in the forests of the Effium community to kill their neighbours and cause mayhems.

Stranded displaced IDPs in EBONYI
Stranded displaced IDPs in EBONYI

Our interactions with displaced persons from both sides revealed ordinary citizens in Effium villages are also taxed by community leaders fueling the war to push some political agenda. Several sources from the Ezza-Effium and Uffiom, who feared they could be killed if their identities were revealed, told PREMIUM TIMES they received donations from their bloodlines abroad to fight the war.

“Our brothers from diaspora also help us with funds to fight the war,” one youth leader said — his claim was supported by other sources interviewed for this story. “We can’t win the war without their support.”

Playing politics with lives

On a Sunday evening in March, Mr Udoh sat at the bar of a hotel in Abakaliki, sipping his beer. The father of three was reluctant to return home after a long busy day at work. He would stay at the hotel until late at night before going back home — to avoid “unnecessary billings from these my people”.

Chatting at the bar with this reporter, he recalled his cordial relationship with Clement Odah, an Uffiom man and the Chairman of the Ohakwu Local Government Area. Just before the ethnic violence broke out again in 2021, he was part of the team promoting Mr Odah for another political office in 2023 but things have now gone sour between them.

Clement Odah, Chairman of the Ohaukwu Local Council accused of playing politics with life
Clement Odah, Chairman of the Ohaukwu Local Council accused of playing politics with life

“You know when there is war, the relationship is no more cordial,” he said, his eyes became bloodied as the PREMIUM TIMES reporter probed further. “You know he is from Uffioum and I am from Ezza so we can no longer work together because of this war.”

On several occasions, Mr Odah, the Ohakwu local government chairman, and Chinedu Awo, an Ezza man and lawmaker representing Ohakwu north constituency in the state house of assembly, have been probed by the state government for fuelling the communal war to promote their individual political ambitions.

In January 2021, members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) in Ohakwu loyal to Mr Odah clashed with Mr Awo’s loyalists in the union, killing and injuring scores, PREMIUM TIMES gathered from eyewitnesses. The violence degenerated, the following month, into a full-blown war between the Ezza-Effium and Uffiom natives, leading to the loss of more than 50 lives, according to accounts from locals.

During our visit to Ebonyi in March this year, we attempted to interview Mr Odah and Mr Awo. However, we understand they were still detained by the state government over the matter and were not allowed to speak to journalists from detention.

Governor Umahi rains curse on warmongers

In February 2021, after announcing the death of 25 persons killed during another clash in the community, David Umahi, the governor of Ebonyi, blamed Mr Odah and Mr Awo for the crisis, totally exonerating himself.

The Ebonyi state governor
The Ebonyi state governor

The governor claimed the crisis would have ended had the two politicians listened to his instructions.

“Let us not forget that this problem was started by the Council Chairman, Clement Odah and Hon. Chinedu Awo, the House of Assembly member,” Mr Umahi said in a meeting with stakeholders of Effium over the carnage in the community. “When the problem started between them, I called them severally one-on-one, three of us. We sat and I pleaded with them. In fact, at a time, one of them walked out on me.”

Although concerned citizens and critics in Ebonyi blamed Mr Umahi for his consistent self-exoneration from the ongoing crisis in the state, the governor ordered the suspension of payment of all civil servants from the Effium community on accounts that they were donating funds to fuel the lingering crisis.

“There is no way the Ezzas will say that they don’t know what is happening at Effium and there is no way that the Uffiom will say that they don’t know what is happening at Effium,” Mr Umahi said. “If they ask you to contribute money whether you know what the money is for or you don’t know what the money is for, the moment you contribute to the spilling of blood, it means that you and your generation to the 5th generation will be cursed.”

“If you are here or know anybody contributing money to buy arms to spill innocent blood, you have to go home and begin prayers because come rain come sunshine, the word of God must come to pass, whether you like it or not,” he also said.

Ambition truncates possible solution

During our visit to the state in March, the Ebonyi government moved to find “a lasting solution” to the lingering crisis. After granting amnesty to the local militants fighting the war, the government asked them to drop weapons voluntarily for peace to reign and pledged to release persons detained over the crisis.

“After an extensive interaction in respect of finding a lasting solution to the Effium / Ezza Effium crisis, the warring parties have agreed to a ceasefire,” Monday Uzor, the chief press secretary to the deputy governor of the state, Eric Igwe, said in a statement seen by PREMIUM TIMES. “All warring factions in the community are hereby requested to embrace this olive branch of His Excellency the Governor and embrace the amnesty beginning from Wednesday 2nd of March 2022.”

On March 8, the day the state pledged to restore peace in Effium, Mr Umahi, who was supposed to lead the peace movement, fought for his seat as the governor in court over defection. The governor had left the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), stirring anger and lawsuits from his former party.

When Mr Igwe, his deputy, was on his way to end the crisis in Effium on behalf of the governor, he received the news that he and his principal had been sacked by the Federal High Court in Abuja on the basis that they lack substantial reasons to defect from PDP, the party that took them to power, to the ruling APC party.

Unfortunately, the Ezza-Effium and the Uffioum local militants took advantage of the situation to spill each other’s blood again, frustrating the peace deal. The deputy governor, PREMIUM TIMES gathered, had to turn back after the community forces went berserk, killing and burning houses.

“They killed more than ten of our people on that day,” said Philip Agena, a local chief in the Effium community, showing the reporter some pictures of persons allegedly murdered on that day. “The government made a move to end the crisis but it was not successful.”

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