Ette: Neglected border community’s despair in covid-19 era

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The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a lock down as the government battled to check the spread of the virus. Government would later provide money and foodstuffs as palliatives to cushion effects of lockdown. Sadly, the Ette people, an Idoma/Igala speaking border community located between Kogi and Enugu states alleged they were deprived of these palliatives. ENE OSHABA in this investigative report journeyed into this border community, fishing for the truth.

Market women narrate ordeal
Margaret Ujah lives in Akpankpa in Ette, an Idoma and Igala speaking border community located between Kogi and Enugu states. The mother of four sells foodstuffs in the market which comes every four days alongside subsistence farming she does to feed her family. Her aged husband is a goldsmith; sharpens knives, cutlasses and makes local guns for hunters in the village, a job that only generates small money.

When the news of Covid19 followed by a lockdown order broke out she was worried just like many others in the community, her business being the main source of the family’s income. She fretted on how they would feed. She also couldn’t do much farming work because age is already telling on her strength.

Ujah narrated how difficult it was to feed her children during the lockdown. She had to defy the lockdown order and went to sell at the market in spite of people falling and dying around her because she didn’t want her children to die of hunger.

She has a grown up daughter who had just gained admission into the university, she works hard to pay the bills for her, including her other children’s education which is the only hope for a better future and way out of poverty for her family as she said, especially due to the fact that there are not much opportunities in the community from the government except for personal farming and petty trading.

When Ujah heard that government officials were coming to the community with palliatives, she and other members of the community danced for joy. At least hunger wouldn’t kill them and they were sure the money would cushion some challenges. But Ujah was crushed when these goodies didn’t get her. People didn’t receive the foodstuffs and even the money.

However, it’s not only Ujah who has a story of disappointment to tell. Teachers also have their own ordeal to narrate.

Teachers also cry…
Teachers in the village had their own share of the hardship, especially those working with private schools depending on salaries from their proprietors whose hopes for feeding was dashed with the coming of the coronavirus, schools were on lockdown and it was a ‘no work no pay’ situation since the schools only generates money when in session.

Narrating his ordeal, an English Language teacher with Good Luck secondary school Ayishi, Ette, Comrade Nelson Philip, said it was really difficult for him and his family, adding that most teachers lost their jobs and were only managing to feed.

The palliatives from the government meant to cushion the effects of the coronavirus were brought to the community, unfortunately only a few people benefitted.

He said: “The palliative came and some of the teachers benefitted, but I was not fortunate because my account was not verified. The Federal government demanded a list of 10 teachers but only six teachers were verified. Everyone was restricted because of the fear of contacting the virus.

“Some palliative came from Enugu through political stakeholders. But the one that came from The Federal government is Survival fund but I didn’t get that too, only a few people got. It was not funny for me and my family and till now, I find it difficult to feed my family and I don’t have any other means of making money apart from teaching jobs,” he said.

“The Covid19 experience was a tug of war especially, on the side of private teachers. During the lockdown, most of the private teachers were not paid. Again, some teachers lost their jobs as most private schools couldn’t pay salaries. It was not funny on the side of the teachers’ especially private school teachers,” he explained.

Another Teacher with the community primary school in Ijekpe, Ette, Felicia Ochigbo, also shared her experience. The mother of five lamented the hardship the coronavirus brought on teachers, especially on private school teachers. Ochigbo said that most of them lost their jobs coupled with the scary death of many of the villagers from an unknown disease later confirmed to be yellow fever after many had died.

“My salary as a teacher was really helpful alongside the farming we do but that stopped because of the lockdown of schools, there was no money, no food and we didn’t know what else to do but hope and pray to God to change the situation.

“With the small salary I earn taken away, it was a really tough period for my family, there was no help from anywhere, we didn’t get the palliatives here and we suffered from hunger in that period,” she said.

Border issue affecting palliatives sharing
The people of the Ette community had been fighting and struggling with identity problems, which they feel is part of the reasons the government often neglected and deprived them of their rights. The Idoma/Igala speaking community according to the National Boundary Commission is in Igboeze North local government of Enugu state, but they have been agitating to be merged with their kits and kin in Kogi state.

Geographically located between Kogi and Enugu states, this situation has placed the community in a disadvantaged position for many years back, and just like many other border communities in Nigeria they suffer a sense of belonging and attention from government, intimidation and marginalisation from dominant tribes in their domain with poor access to healthcare facilities, schools, good roads from both federal and local government even when they are bonafide citizens of Nigeria.

This border issue has affected all areas of their lives and the outbreak of coronavirus didn’t make any difference rather worsened their situation. While other communities enjoyed government’s interventions such as foodstuffs palliatives, tradermoni, marketmoni, farmermoni they only heard the stories and never benefitted, also didn’t have a functional healthcare facility in a period of global health pandemic.

This issue had led some leaders of the Community to court severally, they had dragged the federal government to the ECOWAS human rights court where they filed a suit lamenting that a particular community from Enugu is encroaching their land . The court directed the National Boundary Commission (NBC) to amicably settle but still remains as it were.

However, the Managing Associate F. S Onifade & Associates, Festus Onifade, Esq while interpreting the ECOWAS judgement between the community and the NBC explained that the matter does not amount to violation under Article 20 and 22 of the African Charter adding that it is purely an internal or domestic matter.

“The court holds that the case inadmissible for not being within the human rights mandate of the Court as it hinges on boundary dispute, therefore decline jurisdiction and stated that the crux of the main claim is boundary dispute, merely claiming self-determination cannot bring the matter within the human rights mandate of the Court.

“In view of the foregoing, the Court holds that the Plaintiffs’, having failed to present any legal documents as evidence of authorization on behalf of the Ette Community Olamaboro L.G.A of Kogi State lack the requisite standing to bring this action for and on behalf of Ette Community. Consequently, the matter is dismissed in its entirety as being inadmissible,” he explained.

We didn’t get foodstuff palliatives
Government committed to cushioning the hardship and hunger that the pandemic brought on the people, the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development distributed palliatives across the country, with reports indicating over 50billion spent including the CACOVID foodstuffs interventions.

As contained in a palliatives distribution chat from the ministry of humanitarian affairs, a total of 128 trucks of rice containing 600 bags of 50kg bags per truck was shared among states, including 33 trucks of vegetable oil each containing 700 kegs, 17 trucks of tomato paste consisting 2500 cartons each, 100 trucks of beans containing 100kg bags, 400 relief packs from PET, 150 metric tonns of assorted grains from ECOWAS amongst other items was received from customs and other donors and shared to states.

The chat showed that Enugu state got three trucks of rice containing 600 of 50kg bags each making a total of 1800 bags of rice. One truck of vegetable oil containing 700 kegs, one truck of tomato paste containing 2,500 cartons, relief packs and assorted grains.

Ette people alleged they didn’t get a share in the palliatives due to the marginalisation and intimidation they face in Enugu state, and because they are yet to be merged with Kogi state there are no representatives in the government to fight for what belongs to the people as at when due.

According to the indigenes, it took a very long while before the foodstuffs palliatives got to the community from Enugu state, and when it finally arrived, the items were spoilt. The people were disappointed. Many of them like Ujah didn’t bother to take any share of it.

Apart from that, the quantity for each family is small; the sharing formula also was discouraging. The foodstuffs palliatives were shared to the different clans in the community, then further shared to families within a clan, and again shared within households in the family.

“I heard that the government brought palliatives for Ette but it was shared according to clans and then within the families in the clan and then as a woman I have to go to my husband’s family to get my share. We live in Akpankpa and my husband’s family is in Ayishi and I heard that the portion was small so I didn’t see any need to trek a far distance to go get a little portion of food items,” Ujah explained.

“It was a really difficult period, there were not many sales but I couldn’t stay at home because some items I sell are perishable and hunger will kill my children if I stayed back at home,” she added.

Corroborating this, the Pastor of Deeper Life Bible Church Ette, Mr. Augustine Ugbama, affirmed that Palliatives was brought to the community, he however expressed disappointment that the items were spoilt and it also came rather too late, after neighbouring communities had received theirs a long time.

“The palliatives didn’t get to us on time and when it came they were spoilt items. The beans, maize, and garri were all spoilt. We still shared it but nobody used it because they were spoilt.

“Another problem is that Ette was under the then Anambra state, when Enugu state was created it still came under Enugu. The people want to be affiliated to Kogi but this affiliation has never been confirmed and because they have been marginalised for so long, the people don’t want anything from Enugu state,” he explained.

Enugu Assembly member counter allegations
The Member Representing Igboeze North Constituency 2, Enugu state House of Assembly Hon. Innocent Ugwu, countered claims by the community that palliatives didn’t get to them, assuring that the foodstuffs meant for the constituency was shared equally to every community under it.

Ugwu did not give exact details in terms of the quantity and sharing formula, he said food items came from both federal and state government, including donations from well-meaning individuals in the state to buy food that was distributed to all. He said the Enugu state government had never marginalised the community rather they are marginalising themselves.

“I have not received any complaint concerning palliative distribution and I was there on ground to share the items from both the federal and state government to the people. The house members and other business men also contributed money to buy more foodstuffs and they were all good.

“We bought a full truck of yams from Zaki-Biam in Benue state including other foodstuffs like Indomie, Spaghetti, rice, etc. The people are not marginalised, they are marginalising themselves because some people said they wanted Kogi state and not Enugu state so they stopped contractors from completing the road construction which the state government had already paid for.

“The Ette community had an Assembly member Mr. Anthony Ogidi who served at the state House of Assembly for two tenures. They have been benefiting from Enugu, schools and development centers were built for them but one time they stopped people from entering the market and closed it down. Palliatives got to them,” he assured.

Former Igboeze North Representative at the Enugu state House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Anthony Ogidi, who is an indigene of Ette community in similar vein, said that palliatives got to the community, adding that if any got spoiled it may have been as a result of the long journey from where the palliatives came from to the community.

We didn’t get Covid-19 credit loans too
Considering the unprecedented disruptions the coronavirus pandemic brought to many businesses with severe consequences on households’ livelihoods and business activities, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) introduced the N50 billion Targeted Credit Facility (TCF) as a stimulus package to support households and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The federal government also rolled out more palliative measures such as the Tradermoni, Marketmoni, and Farmermoni loans issued by the Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture, and the Nigeria Export and Import Bank, including the bi-monthly N10, 000.00 conditional cash transfer coordinated by the National Cash Transfer Office (NCTO) to poor households.

President Buhari had also ordered an expansion of the National Social Register to capture from 2.6 million to 3.6million most vulnerable households, yet the Ette people didn’t benefit from the cash interventions even though they have been captured in the register of Poor and Vulnerable Households (PVHHs) totalling over 30million Nigerians.
According to NASCO official Joseph Abuku, the distribution chart by 36state and the FCT as at March 31st 2021 shows a total number of 7,653, 684 households consisting of 32, 682, 171 individuals. A further breakdown shows 60,903 households, 217, 706 individuals from Enugu state where Ette is currently under.

Further breakdown by the Management Information Specialist (MIS 1) Enugu SOCU Engr. Chris Nnam, explained that Igboeze North under which Ette community fall under has 3,425 households consisting of Ette 1- 377, Ette 2 – 75, Ette 3 – 549, making a total number of 1,001 households captured in the register from Ette.

Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development Alhaji Bashir Alkali had disclosed that the National Cash Transfer Office (NCTO), has currently enrolled 1, 632,535 benefiting poor and vulnerable households in 45, 744 communities from 5, 483 Wards of 557 Local government areas in 35 states and FCT.

Of this number, only one person is a beneficiary of the Conditional Cash Transfer for poor citizens usually received through a representative of the household called ‘Caregiver or Alternate Caregiver’ in which a sum of N10, 000 is paid bi-monthly. More worrisome is the fact that most of the Ette people said they were not captured in the register nor received any conditional cash, marketmoni, tradermoni, farmermoni disbursements.
“We got no palliatives. We heard that palliatives were being distributed across states and communities. I have no idea if palliatives were shared here because we in the Ette community are disadvantaged and do not feel government presence. Even when we complain nothing is done. So, we rather not complain and we no longer,” said Elder Emmanuel Alachi.

“We are Nigerians and so, are supposed to enjoy whatever interventions every other Nigerian enjoys but we don’t get any government interventions and we don’t have a choice because we are tired of complaining,” he lamented.

No functional healthcare center
At the peak of the coronavirus in 2020; youths, especially males were dying in different parts of the community and that sent chilling fear to the hearts of the community members who thought the virus had entered and spread in the community.

The Traditional Ruler Onu-Oda Adogo V of Ette, Dr. Aaron Usman Akor explained that the fear was worsened by the lack of a functional healthcare facility especially with the news of how contagious the coronavirus is, community members went to neighbouring villages such as Okpo, Ogugu in Kogi state for medical attention yet the deaths continued.

Akor said though, lockdown order was not very effective in the community, the people due to deaths were forced to maintain physical distance for fear of contracting the “unknown” disease until health workers were brought to ascertain what was killing the youths and found out that it was yellow fever.

“There was an outbreak of a disease and we were all scared and didn’t know exactly what type of disease was killing the youths. Whether it was yellow fever or any other disease it killed lots of our youths and very quickly too so we didn’t know what to do.

“Some Journalists were brought here from Kogi state alongside the health workers and they counted 87 graves and more people still died in the O’lete clan alone where it started. We have no hospital here and when the deaths continued to increase villagers were going to hospital outside this community for medical care but still came back and died.

Similarly, the Deeper Life Church Pastor said there was an outbreak of yellow fever that killed about 87 persons, adding that this scared everyone as they thought that they were dying of Covid19, until the (Enugu state) government dispatched medical personnel and some relief drugs to the community.

Explaining also, a healthcare worker with the Ayishi clinic, Margaret Adejoh, said yellow fever killed lots of people in that period of lockdown, noting however that nobody knew it was yellow fever until much later.

“The news got round and the government brought some health workers from Kogi state to give people injections. At first, people were reluctant about the disease but when many died, a lot of people started receiving the injections,” she said.

“We the health workers in this village were asked to resume work due to the deaths from yellow fever but there was nothing much to do because people weren’t visiting the hospital, there were also no pregnant women to attend because most women in the village don’t get pregnant often like before due to the harsh economic condition in the village,” she added.

“All of these are what we suffer from being a border community. If you look around us and consider how Ette is faring in relation to our neighbours both on the Enugu side and on the Kogi side, you will see that we are the most backward in terms of basic communal development and amenities. We lost Federal jobs at interviews because of this Enugu controversy, ” said Hezekiah Adejoh, another member of the community.

Boundary Commission blamed for plights
The Traditional Ruler while lamenting the neglect and lack of development as well as denial of various government’s interventions to the community blamed the situation on the National Boundary Commission’s refusal to consider it’s agitating for a merger with Kogi state, adding that if this issue had been resolved the community would be benefitting from development just like other communities around them.

He expressed worry that the community is being left in this dilemma for this long a time, accusing the boundary commission of constantly taking their money to do the needful and bring the government closer to them.
“The National Boundary Commission are only eating bribes; they have done everything but just for them to make the declaration. We have met them several times and hoped this issue will be finalized but till today we are still hoping,” he said.

“As the Chief I am on the payroll of the Kogi state government and that shows we are in Kogi state. Even last time the Kogi state government brought some health workers to come check the people when there was an outbreak killing people.

“We don’t have a primary health care facility and my people go to neighbouring villages in Okpo and Ogugu when they need healthcare services. When we heard of a second wave of the coronavirus we were more worried of having another lockdown because if that had happened the people would have no choice but to go for traditional medicine since there is no functional healthcare facility.

“We are a minority community and we keep begging and hoping to feel the impact of the government, though some of our children have gotten educational scholarships in Kogi state but we do not have a functional school from the government except a few private schools built by indigenes themselves,” he explained.

“Our major challenge is the boundary but it is difficult because our agitations has become a means of making money for the Commission so they keep dragging their foot. If the Commission mount the pillars to show that we genuinely belong to a particular place then we can confidently make demands on our government especially in this Covid-19 period that we were not captured,” the Chief added.

“Ette was under Anambra state before Enugu state was created and it came under Enugu, though the people want to be affiliated to Kogi but the affiliation has not been confirmed. We have been with them from then Anambra state to now Enugu state and we suffer marginalisation and no development from there and that is why the people are angry, “said the Deeper Life Pastor.

The pastor who is a recently retired Assistant Director of the Community Secondary School further disclosed that due to the crises by the youths, the secondary school in the community is not functioning.

“It is out of personal determination that our children pass WAEC, in fact, my daughter wrote recently and got seven credits and three passes even when government teachers have been banned by communities from teaching.

“Ogado, Olete, Adokpe, Ileje, are all refusing any teachers from Enugu state because they want to be affiliated to Kogi state however the Enugu state. We are being marginalised and don’t feel government presence as we should, look at our roads are very bad for a very long time and that is why when they finally decided to do the road the youths stopped them because we have suffered too long and want to be affiliated to Kogi state.

“We don’t even have anybody representing us in Enugu state unlike before when we had a representative by name Tony Ogidi, now the people are agitating, we don’t have a representative and we suffer neglect,” he narrated.

Boundary Commission responds
Responding to the allegations of bribery leveled against the Commission, the Director General (DG) Surveyor Adamu Adaji, described the allegation as a misconception by the people adding that boundary can only be adjusted according to the provisions of legal notice 126 of the 1954 constitution.

According to Adaji, the boundary between Enugu and Kogi is defined by the legal notice 126 of 1954, adding that several attempts have been made to go on ground and interpret that section of that legal notice in order to state exactly where the Ette Community is but that can further split them into two states.

“We have attempted severally to say this is Enugu and this is Kogi but if we do that , that community is likely to be split into two, part of it to be Enugu while the other Kogi state but how much of it will be in each of the state is yet to be ascertained till the field work is completed.

“Now several attempt to carry out this work was obstructed by people who think at some point they think Kogi is ready or some point they are not ready, but the fact is that the field trip has not been completed and the boundary between eastern and northern Nigeria is supposed to be defined by legal notice 126 of 1954 because some of this pillars are on ground, some defaced while others have been removed,” he explained.
The Surveyor further explained that to be able to re-establish the boundaries a physical trip to the location must be done.

“For us to re-establish these boundaries as per the provisions of legal notice 126 of 1954 we have to physically go there and try to interpret the discrimination of the boundary as contained in that legal notice where it says it commences we commence from that point and as it moves from that point, the directions indicated and the distances indicated, you take those measurements and see how we can re-establish the boundary and if that is done we can see how it affects that communities lying along the boundary,” he noted.

He however assured that the Commission will organise a field trip to re-establish the boundaries for better clarification by the people, especially due to emerging issues such as covid-19, so that every citizen can feel the presence of government and have a sense of belonging.
“We have attempted severally to revisit but the states have not been forthcoming in terms of readiness but now that it is becoming more of an issue we will take it up again to see how they can cooperate for us to carry out this field exercise to re-establish the boundaries in accordance with relevant provisions.

“Covid-19 is something that is being handled by the federal and state government so the succor that should go to the people are being handled by the federal and state government but our advice to boundary communities is to continue to be patient, be law abiding and perhaps accept fate as where the law said they belong to and try to integrate and exercise patience to be put where they desire to be.

Former House members’ position
Though the Commission is yet to formally declare Ette Community under Kogi state, the people has no representatives at both federal and state house of Assembly/ Representatives in Enugu due to the lingering border challenge and agitations by the people for their desired state, its indigenes hope that the boundary commission would revisit the issue soon to enable them have their pride of place in the polity.

This reporter visited the office of the House of Representatives member representing Ankpa/Omala/Olamaboro federal constituency where the people are affiliated but was denied access at the National Assembly, the honourable member Ibrahim Halims also didn’t pick up the phone calls.

However, the immediate past representative of the constituency Hon. Hassan A. Omale, said as at the time he was at the National Assembly, the Ette Community was yet to be merged with Kogi state.

Omale said while at the National Assembly he ensured the provision of healthcare facilities in Ogugu, which is only a few kilometers from the Ette Community.

He maintained that the life of the people of Ette is the responsibility of the Kogi state government, assuring that he would personally remind the Olamaboro Local government area Chairman to move the matter to the state government for immediate attention.

“When the people are well it means your government policies are doing well and if they don’t achieve this it is our responsibility to remind them these people are our people and we need to take good care of them especially health wise.

“Boundary communities’ issue is a very serious matter that we as representatives of the people are supposed to take up with the National Boundary Commission. Though Kogi state is saying they don’t believe in coronavirus but with all the happenings everyone should be concerned about the health of its people and now that vaccination is ongoing border communities should be considered because if you said you are free and those around you are not free you are not safe,” he maintained.

What law entails
Onifade explained that the dispute in the Ette vs Federal government case is predicated upon an unresolved interstate land dispute between two ethnic groups under the Defendant’s State wherein the Supreme Court of Nigeria in its decision ordered that the matter be revisited by the National Boundary Commission of the Defendant with a view to finding an amicable settlement to the boundary dispute.

He noted further that the Court resolved NOT to be drawn into matters not consider as internal bearing in mind Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter, which recognizes matters of this nature as being within the “reserved domain” which international law has no competence to deal with. This Court’s jurisdiction interlia covers violation of human rights within ECOWAS Member State and not to determine the boundaries of component entries, communities and ethnic groups residing within the territorial boundaries of Member States.

However, the Ette people are hopeful the matter be resolved soon to enable them have their pride of place in government just as majority believes that Kogi people will easily recognise and accept them far better than Enugu people.

“We are bonafide, first class citizens not a people that is being managed. Ette is in Enugu State today and her Monetary and Political allocations is paid to State and Local govt organs in Enugu State and so is obligated to developing Ette, whether Ette people prefer to be associated with Kogi or not. This is our constitutional rights,” Adejoh stressed.

“Associating with Kogi State is our best chance for the sake of equity and sense of belonging, every Nigerian citizen has a right to where he wants to belong. If it does not matter which part of Nigeria you belong because we are one, else, why does one need to fill State of Origin in all documents necessary for any government endeavour,” he queried.

This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under it’s Free to share project.

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