By Cajetan Mmuta
On Saturday, September 10, 2022, the socio-economic atmosphere that prevails in Awka-South, the host local government area, and the capital town of Anambra State was disrupted. In place of peace, order, and joy that pervade the area, the people were visited with anger, chaos, blood, tears, and anxiety.
Hordes of heavily armed soldiers and anti-riot policemen had stormed the popular Umukwa community, and unfortunately, what was supposed to be a merry-making annual Otite Awka (new yam) festival for the year 2022 was turned into a seeming theatre of war and confusion.
Residents of the area scampered to safety and businesses came to a halt. The week-long annual traditional new yam festival, a period considered a holy period to thank and appease the gods and ancestors of the land for a rich harvest, in addition to the rich and deep rituals and rites that usually herald the ceremony packaged to take place at the palace of Ozo Augustine Ndigwe, a self-acclaimed traditional ruler of Awka Kingdom, turned awry.
There was pandemonium as security agencies descended on the people including guests, cultural troupes, event planners, support groups, and bewildered passers-by. The guests and residents were on hand to pay homage to the influential self-acclaimed monarch with the loud title of ‘Imperial Majesty’.
But low and behold boom of gunshots and teargas sent everyone on toes. The agents of government had quickly dispersed every breathing human on two legs including traditional rulers, politicians, captains of industry, residents, friends, and well-wishers who came from far and near the South-East zone and beyond.
The dating soldiers and anti-riot policemen took quick steps to seal off the entrance gate leading into the bowel of the imposing palatial building of the monarch to prevent people from entering the complex. By the time the dust died down, several persons were injured as security agents reportedly fired live bullets at anyone on sight.
Shops, business centres, and roads leading to the area were deserted and shut. Trouble was war everywhere. No doubt, the people of Umukwa in Awka South local government area in Anambra state, which forms part of the town that plays host to the state capital, like every other part of the Igbo nation made up of five states in the South-East geo-political zone of Nigeria, are peace-loving.
They are reputed for local fabrications and blacksmiths before, during, and after the Nigerian civil war. They are also accommodating, rich farmers and versed in economic activities. This explains why the people are well travelled and have depth knowledge of business and other trading activities. Besides, the area parades men and women of great influence and wealth in almost all spheres of life.
However, over five persons were said to have allegedly sustained injuries as a result of the pandemonium that followed the invasion of the palace of the embattled monarch by the security personnel. The high-profile event had suddenly turned soured as artistes and loud music in the air stopped abruptly.
Roads were blocked to motorists and passers-by by security operatives who turned back vehicles entering the troubled area. Our reporter who visited the tense area noted that many residents and shop owners were seen in groups discussing the ugly drama in hushed tunes at about 7.45am.
Eyewitnesses disclosed that some guests were tear gassed when they refused to leave the venue for the New Yam Festival which stirred stamped at the entrance gate of the palace.
However, an elderly man in the village who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “They woke me up this morning telling me that police wants to seal off the palace and I told them that there were Traditional Rulers from the South East and beyond that are already inside the palace and the one that is more disturbing is that the security operatives were firing live bullets at the people mostly youths who came to find out what is happening.”
According to him, “I am not sure if anybody died but there were casualties of those who got injured and I think about five persons were injured during the stampede.”
He explained that he made contacts at the Police Command and that the order came from the government house Awka and it was also confirmed at the zonal command.
One of the deployed policemen when approached on the development said that he was “carrying out an order from their superiors. He stated however that he is not in the position to provide details.”
An unconfirmed report had it that the order to stop the festival was from the State Governor Prof. Charles Chukwuma Soludo. A highly placed source in Government House Awka had earlier stated that he “is not aware of any order from the governor.”
When contacted, the Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters, Mr Tony Collins Nwabunwanne, said he did not issue any release or directive to that effect. He pointed out that the security operatives are carrying out their duties of maintaining law and order.
The Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) of the state command, DSP Tochukwu Ikenga when contacted said that he was not aware of the presence of security operatives at the palace of Ozo Austin Ndigwe.
He also promised to make a statement as soon as possible.
Recall that there has been a royal rumble spanning some years over who becomes the substantive Eze Uzu of the Awka kingdom. The development has pitched cabinet Chiefs and support groups as well as individuals against each other.
This followed the emergence of Imperial Majesty Augustine Ndigwe as Eze Uzu the 11 1 of Awka Kingdom. This claim lingers even as His Royal Highness Igwe Obi Gibson Nwosu, the Eze Uzu 11, is still seated on his throne and is duly recognized by the Anambra state government since the military era till date.
Reacting to the incident, HRH Igwe Gibson Nwosu said that he is not aware of the presence of security operatives at the palace of the factional Eze Uzu. He stated that there is nothing like Eze Uzu the 111.
Findings revealed that HRH Igwe Nwosu had since last year petitioned the state Police Command over the claim by Ozo Ndigwe that he is the monarch of Awka town.
A former Commissioner of Police in the state was said to have washed his hands off the royal tussle, stressing that traditional Chieftaincy tussle is not part of his duties.
When contacted, Ozo Austin Ndigwe and factional Traditional Ruler said that he was “in a meeting and cannot talk at the moment” attempts on Saturday night to speak with the embattled factional monarch when some journalists visited his palace in Umukwa were rebuffed.
Already, Governor Soludo had made a deft move to sink a death nail into the coffin of the controversies rocking the traditional stool as he vowed to deal decisively with troublemakers out to usurp the peace and traditional seat of Awka kingdom presently under HRH Igwe Nwosu.
Soludo, in a statement, affirmed that His Royal Highness Igwe Obi Gibson Nwosu, Eze Uzu 11 of Awka, is the authentic and duly elected traditional ruler of the Awka kingdom as recognised by the traditional rulers’ council law of Anambra State.
Soludo clarified a statement issued on Saturday by the Commissioner for Information, Sir Paul Nwosu, and made available to newsmen in Awka the state capital.
He faulted the action taken by Ozo Augustine Chukwuezugo Ndigwe (aka Uzu Awka) whom he noted: “Is still parading himself as the authentic tradition of Awka and also taking steps to perform one of the major harvest season’s traditional rites of New Yam festival or Iwa Ji of Awka people.”
The governor pointed out that by the action of Ndigwe, he is threatening the peace and tranquillity of the town, stressing that the State Government would not tolerate it.
He said, “For the avoidance of doubt, the State Government wishes to state emphatically that the only recognized Traditional Ruler of Awka is His Royal Highness, Igwe Obi Gibson Nwosu, Eze Uzu II of Awka whose recognition by the State Government has not been withdrawn and he is the only one empowered by section 15 of the Traditional Rulers Law of Anambra State 2007 to preside over such festivals or carry out any of the functions of a traditional ruler in Awka.”
According to the state government, “It is a criminal offence for any other person to do so under section 20 of the Traditional Rulers Law of Anambra State 2007.”
Members of Awka Community Union Nigeria (ADUN) had commended Soludo for taking positive action to stop what they termed as an illegal new yam festival by one Austin Ndigwe, alias Uzu Awka, for reportedly parading himself as the monarch of the community.
The community in a letter to the governor lauded him for ensuring that rule of law was entrenched in the state, particularly, in the Awka community.
The Commendation letter was signed by the traditional ruler of the community, Obi Gibson Nwosu, traditional prime minister of the community, Chief Ben Okoye, among others.
Specifically, ADUN thanked Soludo for saving the customs and traditions of the people from the ugly situation and for restoring peace in the area.