By Jonathan Ugbal
At first sight, what remains of the thick forest reserve that was the buffer zone to the Lugard wall; an ancient fence that divided the northern and southern protectorates of Nigeria gives the visitor a feel of a transition into an area where gods communicate with humans.
The wall has since collapsed with a beacon stone standing testament that something of such existed.
But, the tall trees and small piece of the reserve left provide a semi ethereal green and muddy brown tinge for the environment and are welcoming to both bordering communities; Alifokpa in Yache of Yala local government area of Cross River State and Konshisha local government area of Benue state.
“It was very thick. You could not see from here to the other side. They were monkeys, buffaloes and many animals,” said Joseph Odey, a native of Alifokpa.
He said those animals are no longer around because of the deforestation which he blamed on the lack of sensitization of the Benue state natives and despite efforts to stop the Tivs, they always find a way to cut down the trees.
But, despite the beauty, war looms ahead over boundary issues as what this reporter gathered used to be about a kilometer either side of the Lugard wall and dozens of kilometers running across the Obudu, Bekwarra, and Yala local government axis of the border has been cut down to just about 500 meters.
This, a community leader in Alifokpa, Mr. Leonard Anyogo says it is a recipe for crisis.
“This boundary is what presently separates Benue state from Cross River State and over the years it has been depleted by mankind activities,” Anyogo, a legal practitioner and notary public told CrossRiverWatch.
He added that: “If we have clear cut boundaries and know that this land belongs to this community, we are going to have peace. This is an ancient land mark for instance and you will not see communities from Benue crossing over to Cross River because if you do that, they will now know that you are crossing the boundary. Boundary demarcations have to be clear cut, visible and people will abide by it. That does not stop our intermarriages peace resolution meetings.”
Now, the natives of Alifokpa are accusing their neighbors of been the culprit. They claim that the Benue residents formed the habit of deforestation a bid to expand their arable and non-arable landmass.
The clan head of Ewor Alifokpa, Chief Omogor Innocent Okori told CrossRiverWatch that when the deforestation started, there was little done to stop it and when it got to the Cross River end of the reserve, some government officials charged with the preservation of the reserve called ‘forest officers’ had been selling land to the Tivs. (the Tivs are the predominant tribe in Konshisha local government area.
He described the acts of the Forest Officers as an “inordinate ambition,” and accused them of “employing Tiv elements to sell out farmlands within the forest reserve.”
The traditional ruler also claimed that: “Sometimes we meet them burning trees, doing logging and in the process of stopping them, they start making trouble.”
But, what are the Tivs saying?
One of the farmers whom CrossRiverWatch caught on site searching for wood said confirmed the allegations of Mr. Omogor that the forest officers posted to the Lugard wall by the Cross River State government are complicit as they sold of pieces of land to them.
“Sometimes we pay for the land before we start to farm,” said the Tiv farmer who did not mention his name. When asked whom he paid the money to, he said that: “It is not a chief, it is forest officer,” adding that: “the forest officer was posted from Calabar.”
He was asked how they pay these monies and he said: “We are here at the boundary with them. We have a relationship with them.”
Another farmer, Enyange Teka who had cassava cuttings on his head told CrossRiverWatch that: “My farm is in Cross River, I bought the land.”
Asked how his family got the wood on their heads, he said that: “As there is a forest, the dry woods fall. We cut the firewood and not the tree, it is the firewood.”
However, he said sometimes Cross Riverians complain of deforestation unlike his people in Benue.
“Sometimes these people complain; the Cross Riverians; they complain that we are cutting down the trees so much. We don’t complain, it is Cross Riverians and they say this part (of the Lugard wall) is their side so they are the ones complaining,” he said.
But, Mr. Akpama Mba, the forestry officer (FO) in charge of the Alifokpa charge in Yala said that no one had the right to sell government land and denied having a hand in the entire operations.
“Nobody has the right to sell government land. What the forestry commission does is called turnyard farming where they go in to plant, pay some stipends to government and when that is paid, they government pays some royalty to the community.
“It is just that for some time now, royalties have not been paid maybe because imprest has not been paid. Nobody sells government land, you can only hire,” Akpama said, adding that he has not given out any land on hire since his resumption at the Alifokpa charge.
He claimed it was a native of the community that was selling land.
“There are a lot of persons trying to connive with the Benue people claiming that the reserve belongs to Cross River and Benue states which I told them that it will never be. As long as I am here I know that this land belongs to the government and it is somebody from my Yala here and is a staff of forestry commission but he works in another local government.
“He has been conniving with the Benue people doing a lot of things all in the name of planting and anti-deforestation and all those kind of… extorting money from people,” the FO said.
He accused one Mr. Agaji, a level 6 officer of the forestry commission of masterminding the entire operation. He claimed the said Mr. Agaji had even threatened his life which forced him to report to his zonal director and the police area command in Ogoja.
How exactly does this pose a challenge?
Anyogo, who said the two colonies “were carefully separated to guide against conflict,” argued that the historical site was, “well thought out by the colonial masters back then.”
Anyogo who said the Lugard wall could have easily become an international boundary and wondered why the site has not been declared a national heritage despite its affiliation with Lord Frederick Lugard, maintained that: “Government needs to be proactive all over in terms of security. If Benue state is under attack by herdsmen who are committing what is akin to genocide; whatever affects Benue state will affect Cross River because we share a common boundary.
“There is interlink of business, intermarriages and all that and to me there is no distinction between the man that leaves in Benue or the man that leaves in Cross River State because there is cultural affinity. If Benue state is overrun today, Cross River State is in grave danger. So we need to be proactive. The Lugard wall can help and so the trees have to be replanted.”
But, Alifokpa natives say they have tried to get the government, as well as charge themselves to carry out afforestation; all to no avail.
A youth leader in the community, Mr. Samuel Ogar told CrossRiverWatch that they have written twice to relevant authorities to aid them in regenerating the wall but are yet to get any response while they have attempted to stop the Benue natives several times which led to face offs.
“They came here to farm and we told to go away and they refuse. They beat our people mercilessly and when we returned, we informed the chiefs since they have a bimonthly meeting the Benue chiefs. They discussed and agreed that they will direct their people to steer clear,” Ogar said.
Lamenting the futility of their efforts, Ogar said that: “It is not the community that will come and regenerate the forest. It is the government. But, if they tell us to regenerate it, we will. We had begun regenerating and planting some trees but they removed it. As we were coming here, we saw them setting fires on some trees.”
He said he was unaware if the Konshisha natives had any idea about forest conservation but quickly added that: “I will go home and meet my fellow youths; I will sit with them and discuss the way forward. We have to find a way and replant all these trees by ourselves.”
Lending credence to Mr. Ogar’s story, Odey said that: “We have tried so many things to stop them and even formed vigilante but they will come back in the middle of the night. This is what they have doing and so we are trying to talk with the government so that they can help us.”
“Last time we came here with our youth President with some chiefs and we met with Benue people. We got to the village, came back and held another meeting where after discussions, the youth leader and some others who went to Konshisha for another meeting where they were assured that no native of Konshisha will invade the Lugard wall to cut down trees which failed,” said Mr. Odey.
He said another failed effort was the charge given to them by a forest committee member to plant teaks which due to no mobilisation of the locals did not yield expected results.
This reporter could not visit Konshisha and Vandeikya local government areas to gather more information due to funding challenges and security advise from federal security agencies.
However, both communities have developed a bi monthly meeting to iron out issues to prevent them from degenerating into full blown communal wars.
“There is one association they formed, BENCROSS; that is Benue Cross River State and it is made up of chiefs from Benue state within this axis and that of Yala and when the problem erupted the last time which was before my resumption here, it was that association they used in settling that crisis,” said Mr. Akpama the FO.
Explaining further, this decision, Chief Omogor said that it is “in order to prevent any serious trouble that may lead to serious personal or community clashes. We formed that meeting to curtail excesses.”
Despite this, there are still reports of small fights which Anyogo also pinned on the lack of the presence of law enforcement personnel.
“Take a look at the nearest police post we have in Alifokpa here, we don’t even have personnel. Being proactive does not mean allowing things to happen first. This wall has to be properly manned,” he said
Mr. Akpama who also posited that the afforestation of the reserve was vital to peace, disclosed that he has also devised means to maintain the nursery and blamed the Aliforkpa natives for not participating in the “turnyard farming” system where the farmers are allocated a piece of land in the reserve and charged with the protection of the trees within that allotted plot.
“I am always very mad with them because I keep asking why they don’t farm there (at the reserve) but the Benue people do. They told me that when they farm there, the Benue people steal all their crops. So, I want to just do my job and get out of here,” he said.
There are currently a minimum of seven active communal wars between communities in Cross River and neighboring Akwa Ibom, Benue and Ebonyi states.
Amongst these, the only spot with very little reported activities is that between Alifokpa and Konshisha. It is hoped that similar strategies employed so far in this area will work across the other flash points.
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