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INVESTIGATION: How massive land grab by ex-lawmaker Ned Nwoko ignited fatal violence in Delta community

By Esezobor Ohimai, Benin City

This second part details how Ned Nwoko’s land grab led to violence, kingship tussle and rights violations in Idumuje-Ugboko village in Delta State.

In 2015, Nnamdi Ochei relocated to his village, Idumuje-Ugboko, in Delta State from Abuja, where he was working as a petrol attendant. The 29-year-old quit his job so he could help his elder sister who was building a house supervise the project.

But two years after he returned to the village, Mr Ochei was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. He was remanded in prison for three years while standing trial.

He was recently discharged and acquitted by a high court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) alongside his co-accused, Ofinye Ufoh, 55.

Ochei leaving the premises of the court on the day he was released

Messrs Ochei and Ufoh were among the several persons arrested in connection with the breakdown of law and order in Idumuje-Ugboko in 2017. The violence was ignited by the actions of Ned Nwoko, a former lawmaker, who grabbed the community’s land and those of some individuals.

“I know where my mates are now. I was in the prison wasting away,” Mr Ochei said.

Genesis

In the first part of this investigation, THE NATIONS EXPRESS revealed how Mr Nwoko, a billionaire former lawmaker, grabbed massive pieces of land in Idumuje-Ugboko, his hometown, to build a private university, destroying the sources of livelihood of many poor farmers in the process.

Uncompleted STARS university building

The ex-lawmaker, who the community had given 33 hectares to build a dairy farm, which he failed to set up, used the land for a tourist resort that houses his personal lodge, a commercial poultry and fish farm. He then applied for another 90 hectares to build an international standard golf course, and a two mile-by-two mile land for building a university.

Ned’s poultry farm

Some members of the community, led by his kin from the royal family, kicked against these fresh demands.

While there are pending lawsuits surrounding the approval of the 90 hectares of land by the late monarch, Mr Nwoko has commenced the building of the STARS University on the 90 hectares.

New sheriff

His land grab pitted him against the crowned prince of the community, Chukwunonso Nwoko.

After he succeeded his father as the traditional ruler of the community, Mr Chukwunonso broke ranks with some of the chiefs in his late father’s cabinet who had sided with Mr Nwoko.

Those chiefs are Chris Ogwu, the Iyase or prime minister and Sunday Edemodu, the Odogwu – the chairman land allocation committee.

At first, Mr Chukwunonso summoned a meeting of the family members to address the lingering controversies surrounding the approval of the 90 hectares of land.

At the family meeting, PREMIUM TIMES learnt that several allegations of transgressions perpetrated by the former lawmaker were discussed. Mr Nwoko claimed that a plan to ostracise him from the community was discussed at the meeting.

“I was in South Africa then when I heard about plans to banish me from the village. I was surprised,” he said.

However, Mr Chukwunonso said such a proposal was never discussed at the meeting.

“We intended to call him to order. To banish him is not constitutional. The whole idea is that he has to be a member of the family for us to call him to order,” he said.

Meanwhile, some of the family members, who were in support of the ex-lawmaker, insisted that only the Izu Ani, which is the assembly of Idumuje Ugboko adults and the highest decision-making organ, has the powers to take such actions, hence a date for the meeting was fixed.

Mayhem

On May 18, 2017, the day of the Izu Ani meeting, a fight erupted between youth loyal to Mr Nwoko and some loyal to the newly crowned king which forced the meeting to be rescheduled.

On May 23, 2017, the new date of the meeting, a bus conveying about 30 hoodlums arrived at the scene, disrupted the Izu Ani and the thugs unleashed mayhem on the community but the youths of the community successfully repelled the attackers.

Subsequently, houses belonging to Mr Nwoko’s loyalists were attacked by youth loyal to the newly installed king.

Amongst those whose houses were attacked included Kennedy Iloh, the then Secretary of the village’s land allocation committee; and those of Messrs Ogwu and Edemodu. Pictorial evidence obtained showed that some people broke into Mr Iloh’s house and destroyed some of his properties.

Kennedy Iloh’s house attacked

Several people were injured and Cyprian Koumaru, a motorcyclist from Benue State, reportedly died during the attack though his body has not been found.

Also, a year after attack, Mr Iloh died at the Federal Medical Centre (FMC), Asaba.

Although his death certificate obtained by PREMIUM TIMES states that he died of cardiac arrest and sepsis, his family claimed he died of the internal injuries he sustained from the beating from the youth of the community who attacked him.

Both sides blame one another for sponsoring the attack on May 23.

Arrests

After the fracas of May 23, 2017, the police arrested persons associated with the violence including the monarch of the community, his uncles and supporters.

Among those first arrested were Messrs Ochei and Ufoh. Chukwuma Nonso, an ally of Mr Nwoko, alleged that he saw “Mr Ochei shoot Mr Koumaru while Mr Ufoh helped to carry the corpse in a wheelbarrow.”

The duo were charged and remanded at the Agbor Prison for three years before they were discharged and acquitted.

Mr Ochei has an alibi. He told THE NATIONS EXPRESS he was at the Onitsha market to sell corn on the same day of the violence.

“My mum had told me not to come back that day. When I came back the following day, the junction to the palace was blocked. Everywhere has changed. I saw broken bottles everywhere,” he said.

In March 2019, the President of the Idumuje Ugboko Development Union (IUDU), Okey Ifejoku, alongside nine others were tried on a two-count charge of terrorism at the Federal High Court in Abuja. They were accused of destroying houses belonging to loyalists of Mr Nwoko.

While they have been granted bail, not all of them have been able to meet the bail conditions of N50 million bond and property in Abuja with an up-to-date tax record. Some of those charged are still being held in prison.

Meanwhile, counsel to the accused, Mbanefo Nwoko, wondered why the case was filed in a federal court in Abuja when there is a federal court in Asaba, which is closer to the jurisdiction where the alleged criminal acts were committed.

“If not because of certain elements who want to punish these innocent people, the case should be handled in Asaba,” he said.

Palace raid

But more trouble was to come. At about 1.00 a.m. on July 18, 2020, armed policemen stormed the palace, breaking all the doors and windows in search of the traditional ruler. He was later whisked away in Gestapo-like manner to Asaba.

On July 19, not more than 12 hours after he was arrested, a special police squad from Asaba raided the palace in the company of one of the ex-lawmaker’s allies, Kachido Nwoko, to exhume dead bodies allegedly buried in the palace.

Police operatives supervising the exhumation process

Mr Kachido, who once lived in the palace, had told the police that he knew where the remains of Mr Koumaru were buried. Although nothing was found after digging some places, the monarch, alongside five others, were charged with the murder of Messrs Iloh and Koumaru.

“That you Obi Chukwunonso Nwoko ‘m’, Chetachukwu Okolo ‘m’ Onyeisi Isuzor , Ifejoku Okey, Prince Ejimafor Nwoko, Prince Obiajulu Richard and others now at large on the same date and place in the aforementioned Magisterial District Murdered one Iloh Kennedy by hitting him with sticks and other dangerous weapons and thereby committed.

“That you, Obi Chukwunonso Nwoko, Chetachukwu Okolo, Onyeisi Isuror ‘m’, Prince Ejimofor Nwoko, Prince Obiajulu Richard and others now at large on the same date and place in the aforementioned Magisterial District did Murder one Cyprian Koumaru m’ by shooting him with gun and thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 31 of the Criminal Code Law Cap 21 Vol 1 Law of Delta State of Nigeria, 2006,” the charge sheet read in parts.

The charges were later dropped by the state’s Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) for lack of evidence.

This did not go down well with the ex-legislator, who alleged that the Attorney-General of the state, Peter Mrapkor, was compromised.

Rights violations, extortions

Some of those arrested alleged that their rights were breached by the police.

They said the police harassed the monarch of the town, and people were detained for more than the statutory allowed 48 hours before being charged to a court, which is a violation of Section 35 the Nigerian Constitution and Section 30 Administration of Criminal Justice Act of 2015.

Mr Ochei alleged that the police planned to kill him but later extorted money from him.

“I was at Onicha-Ugbo to repair my motorcycle when the police, like seven of them, came around. I did not run because I’ve never been to the station before in my life. I never involve in any bad thing before.”

He claimed the police officer who arrested him stole over N100,000 found in his bag.

“They would have killed me that night. They initially dropped me beside one bush and asked what was in my bag. I told them it was the money for my sister’s building project. They collected all the money before dropping me at Issele-uku police station.

“The Divisional Police Officer in Issele-uku, after questioning, promised that I would be released the following day.”

Rather than release him, he was transferred to the Zonal headquarters in Benin-City, where he spent more than a week in police detention before he was eventually arraigned.

Kingship tussle

In the heat of the security crisis, two members of the royal family, Solomon Nwabuokei and Uche Nwoko, contested the legitimacy of Chukwunonso to the royal stool.

The duo approached a court for a restraining order preventing the king from getting the staff of office from the state government.

While Mr Nwabuokei hinged his application on the fact that his grandfather was entitled to the throne, Uche, 19, laid claim to the stool on the basis that Chukwunonso, the eldest surviving son of the late King, “was born of a mother who is not a native of Idumuje Ugboko.”

Meanwhile, the two orders have been dismissed in court.

Both were dismissed because the installation of the king has been done. “What is sought to be prevented has in fact happened,” Justice C. O Ogisi of the magistrate court in Issele-Uku ruled.

Mr Chukwunonso alleged that his brothers were being sponsored by Mr Nwoko to frustrate him.

“Solomon says his great grandfather was supposed to be the Obi. None of his grandfathers was an Obi. Uche is my younger half-brother. The cases have been struck out as you know.

“I’m not going to sacrifice any Ugboko land for a staff of office. If they cannot separate the staff of office from the land in question, I’ll reject it. I have been without it for three years now and I can still survive.”

The staff of office, which gives him access to obtaining monthly salaries and allowances from the state government, is yet to be given to him owing to the crisis.

Meanwhile, Mr Nwoko denied being aggrieved because of the land dispute.

“All I want is justice,” he repeatedly told this reporter, referring to the victims of the 2017 mayhem.

Failed peace efforts

Attempts by traditional rulers in the state to wade into the crisis and settle amicably have yielded no positive results.

At the meeting of some traditional rulers in Delta North, which approved a resolution committee under the chairmanship of Emmanuel O. Efeizomor II, the Obi of Owa Kingdom, on January 26, 2020, certain resolutions were reached.

It was agreed that all cases in courts relating to the dispute in Idumuje-Ugboko be withdrawn with immediate effect and that no case or petition should be accommodated.

According to the communique of the meeting, Mr Chukwunonso and Mr Nwoko agreed to “close ranks before the mediators and should resume cooperation with a view to advancing the peace process.”

It was also stated that all chiefs of Idumuje-Ugboko should resume their respective duties in the kingdom immediately while all cases of banishment, fines and pronouncements are to be struck out.

However, not all cases have been withdrawn.

As of February 2020, there were 15 cases including three criminal cases against the king, six human rights suits challenging police arrest and detention, and six civil cases about the contentious approval.

Out of the six civil suits, only two were filed from Mr Nwoko’s camp, while the other four were filed by Mr Chukwunonso’s camp.

Peace meeting ongoing at the local government secretariat with vehicles parked outside. (Photo Credits: Alfred Olufemi)

Meanwhile, only four cases were withdrawn from court — three human rights violation suits from Mr Chukwunonso’s camp and a civil suit filed by Mr Nwoko’s camp.

This was contained in a document signed by both parties’ lawyers made available to THE NATIONS EXPRESS.

Also, on September 4, 2020, another meeting was held at the local government secretariat in Issele-uku. Both gladiators were invited by the council of traditional rulers in the local government.

While there was no concrete resolution, the council inaugurated a committee to investigate and give reports after two weeks.

The report of the investigation is yet to be released as of the time of conducting this investigation.

Police, Delta government keep mum

When contacted by THE NATIONS EXPRESS, the Delta State Police Command and the secretary to the state government declined comments.

The spokesperson of the police in the state, Onome Umukuro, said she does not have enough details to respond to enquiries sent by THE NATIONS EXPRESS.

Abandoned police station in Idumuje-Ugboko

On the other hand, the Secretary to the State Government, Chiedu Ebie, refused comments on the basis that “the government is making attempts to wade into the crisis”.

“Like you said the traditional rulers’ council is investigating. We are also making attempts to settle the crisis,” he said.

Multiple telephone calls and text messages on the subject matter were also not responded to by Frank Mba, the spokesperson of the police headquarters in Abuja.

Cry for justice

While all efforts to amicably settle the dispute have failed, families of late Messrs Koumaru and Iloh on September 7, petitioned the Inspector General of Police and the Attorney-General of the Federation on the delay of justice.

“It is the instruction of our Clients that they are no longer confident in the way the matter is being handled, as it appears that the matter has been compromised by the culprits including Prince Obi Chukwunonso Nwoko who is about to be given the staff of office in Idumuje Ugboko Community of Delta State, who is using his position to frustrate the ends of justice in this matter and to influence their release from custody.

“We, therefore, urge you to use your office to take over the investigation of this matter so that justice will be done,” the petition written by their legal counsel, C. Y. Agbowu, read.

When contacted, the eldest son of Mr Iloh, Nelson Iloh, also demanded that justice be served.

“We demand justice. They try to frustrate every effort I have made. I don’t know how best to… The house was destroyed. This thing… They want to assume that they are above the law. It is so sad. I’m tired of the whole thing,” he told THE NATIONS EXPRESS

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