By Jude Atupulazi
Some 20 years ago, Anambra State witnessed what to date has perhaps been the worst inter-communal war in her history. It was between the Aguleri and Umuleri Communities in Anambra North Zone. The governor of the state then was Dr Chinwoke Mbadinuju. That war accounted for the loss of many lives and destruction of property across the two divides. It was believed that some of the weapons used at that time were donated by wealthy individuals from both sides to aid victory. Sadly, however, the end of that war gave birth to a new terror which was the upsurge in criminal activities by some youths of the area using the weapons they got from that war.
Recently, another war broke out between the Umumbo and Anam Communities, also in the North, but on a lesser scale. It is still being managed by the state government which is also investigating the usual remote and immediate causes.
Today, another war is looming in the state, this time in Anambra Central Zone between Abba and Ukpo Communities. While Abba is in Njikoka, Ukpo is in Dunukofia LGA. Though they are from different local governments, they share the same boundary, part of which is being hotly disputed at the moment.
Already, the feud has witnessed damage to property and many arrests, chief of which was the arrest of business mogul from Abba, Chief Pius Nweke, by the police on allegations of possessing an unregistered firearm. However, the Abba people are not sold on that explanation as they alleged it was tied to the feud.
Shortly after, the Abba Community stormed both the Government House and State Assembly to protest what they alleged as wanton harassment, intimidation and forceful collection of their land by their Ukpo neighbours.
At this stage, there was little doubt left that if the matter was not quickly dealt with, it might escalate into a full blown war like the two previous ones.
While the state government is being awaited to wade into the altercation, I have elected to approach the two sides with a view to understanding the cause of the face-off, with my first port of call being the Ukpo Community.
I met with a lawyer from there, by name, Barrister Chijioke Ozumba, Legal Adviser, Ukpo Improvement Union, and he took me through a journey of the history of the disputed land which I will publish in two parts.
According to Ozumba, the Ukpo Community is dazed, perplexed and bewildered on how Abba Community has assiduously and unremittingly beavered/laboured so hard to misinform her unsuspecting sympathizers with regard to the erstwhile land dispute between Ukpo and Ukwulu (both are communities in Dunukofia LGA) against Abba Community (A community in Njikoka LGA).
He wondered how Abba could dare to turn facts on their head in an attempt to undermine and sabotage what he described as the immutability of truth, the forthrightness of history and the inviolable/revered place of facts in the matter of the present discuss!
He alleged that Abba, apart from being noisy, was the aggressive side in the conflict and were not telling the truth of the matter.
His words, ‘It is germane however, to note that recently through the 15th February, 2019 judgment of the Supreme Court and the latest Judgment of the High Court, Neni, delivered on the 19th May, 2020, the erstwhile land dispute herein discussed, has been put to final rest and accorded a befitting burial. But instead of abiding by the orders of the highest court in the land, some unscrupulous and Machiavellian leaders of Abba have taken recourse to brigandage, propaganda and deception with a view to stirring further conflict and possible bloodshed. God forbid!’
He continues, ‘The existence of Abba as a community is a consequence of ancient inter-communal wars, when its progenitor, Ichinambubor, a mercenary from far away Ichida Town in today’s Anaocha Local Government Area, fought on the side of enemies of Ukpo and his brother, Ifite. Ichinambubor was captured as a war prisoner. But instead of putting a sword through his heart as was the norm in those days, his life was spared. An expert in wine tapping, Ichinambubor was, again contrary to what obtained in those ancient times, settled in Ukpo and Ifite-Dunu lands, where he was engaged in palm-wine tapping.
‘Being a virtual slave, Ukpo and Ifite-Dunu refused to grant Ichinambubor a wife, so he ventured afar to Abagana to take a wife. His first son was named Abamulu, meaning that Abagana made it possible. The present-day Abba is thus descendant from Ichinambubor and his son, Abamulu. That Abba community is now rising up to challenge Ukpo, the original settlers and their benefactor, to a land dispute, is testament to Ukpo’s magnanimity. It is also a testament to Abba’s perfidy.’
According to him, as was customary, Abba took oath never to take or annex any portion of Ukpo land beyond the area allowed them, only to breach the oath and encroach into Ukpo land in what he termed as utter disregard to their initial understanding. This, he said, led to the current land dispute
Ozumba alleged that in the last 45 years, Abba had set out to make the lands permanently theirs, hence they sued Ukwulu for trespass.
‘After initially serving as witness for Ukwulu, and startled that Abba was also claiming a big parcel of Ukpo land, Ukpo joined the suit which was consolidated as Suit Nos. AA/53/75 & AA/ 11/77. Hence Abba became the Plaintiff while Ukwulu and Ukpo were the 1st and 2nd sets of the Defendants respectively.
‘On the 12th day of November, 1999, the Anambra State High Court presided over by his Lordship, Rtd. Hon. Justice Obiora Nwazota (then Chief Justice of the State), in consolidated suit No’s. AA/53/75 and AA/11/77, granted declaration of title to the disputed land in favour of the 1st and 2nd sets of Defendants. The learned Chief Judge dismissed all the claims of the plaintiffs (Abba) with respect to the disputed land.
Quoting Chief Anayo Ejem on how Abba Community allegedly subverted and undermined the above mentioned judgment, he said thus:
‘ “In less than 2 weeks, Abba filed a notice of appeal, with which they secured a stay of execution from the then Chief Justice of Anambra State, His Lordship, Hon. Justice G. C. Ononiba, who hailed from Nimo, a town that claims kinship with Abba and bore them witness in the court. From that point going forward, Abba departed any pretences to righteousness”.’
He said it was glaringly clear that from evidentiary standpoint, Abba had no chance of overturning Justice Nwazota’s judgement in a fair appeal process, unless they employed an extra legal strategy.
‘ ”They eventually settled for a reprehensible legal engineering. As late as year 2000, it was practicable to retrieve lost court cases by forcing a retrial (trial de novo). And the most common method of forcing a retrial was simply making the judges’ record of court proceedings to disappear permanently. In that scenario, the losing party (appellant) could competently argue for a retrial, since an appeal cannot be heard without the trial court’s record of proceedings. The dubious practice was notoriously popular in the South Western Nigeria, where land cases were a matter of life and death”,’ he said, accusing Abba people of embracing that method.
He said Abba, hiring prominent lawyers from South Western Nigeria, went to work but that, unfortunately, their mission was unwittingly aided by the defunct Court of Appeal Practice Direction and Order 3 (13.2) which stipulated that “all original documents delivered to the court below under this rule shall remain in the custody of the court below until the record of Appeal has been prepared, and shall then be forwarded with the record to the Registrar (of the Appeal Court) and shall remain in the custody of the Court until the determination of the appeal.”
This provision, he said, put the responsibility of compiling and transmitting the lower court’s records exclusively on the High Court registry, meaning that if records were not compiled and transmitted, the High Court registrar would be blamed; as well as if records disappeared.
He said this made the task for Abba relatively easy to take delivery of the Record Book at Oye Abba Market, believing that their plan worked to perfection.
Ozumba said that Abba Community felt satisfied with how things panned out and that despite being the real perpetrators of what he called the dastardly scheme, Abba and their lawyers were in the clear and well positioned to, according to him, shed a bucket of crocodile tears to appear justified in demanding a fresh trial.
He said that in the four years following their filing of notice of appeal, Abba did nothing to further the appeal but rather spent time and fortunes in recruiting those he referred to as insidious agents.
He said that surprisingly, on 19th September 2003, the record book of the land dispute between Abba vs Ukpo/Ukwulu disappeared forever and, in his words, it was the completion of the coup.
He expressed surprise that in early October 2003, Abba, who for four years took no steps whatsoever to prosecute their appeal, and who neither asked for, nor obtained enlargement of time to appeal, suddenly went on the offense and accused Ukpo of stealing the Records to frustrate their appeal.
‘They expectedly cried for a fresh trial which essentially was the culmination of the plot,’ Ozumba stated.
‘He said by the time Abba got to the Appeal Court, the table had turned. Zainab Adamu Bulkachuwa, the former President of the Court of Appeal, had ushered in a new Practice Direction, which took effect on 1st May 2013. For all intent and purpose, the order took a retrospective effect, because the Appeal Court decided it had had enough of the ‘evil-geniuses in the legal profession, who exploited the orchestrated disappearance of judges’ record books to further their own sinister designs’.
Ozumba said the new Court of Appeal Order 8, Rules 1 & 4 state as follows: The Registrar of the Court below shall within 60 days after filing of a notice of appeal, compile and transmit the Record of Appeal to the Court”, and “Where at the expiration of 60 days after filing of the notice of appeal the Registrar has failed and or neglected to compile and transmit the Records of Appeal in accordance with the preceding provision of this Rule, it shall become mandatory for the appellant to compile the Records of all documents and exhibits necessary for his appeal and transmit to the Court within 30 days after the registrar’s failure or neglect.
‘What does this profound change mean? It means that the new Court of Appeal Practice Direction has made it impossible for anyone to blame the Registrar, or blame Ukpo or blame anybody else for the disappearance of the Records. This new provision made it mandatory for Abba to compile the trial Records themselves within 30 days and forward to the Appeal Court. This was an impossibility since Abba had since destroyed the stolen Records. Because Abba failed to transmit the Records, the Respondents (our lawyers) were entitled by law to move a motion to dismiss Abba’s appeal. The motion was so moved, and ABBA’s appeal was so dismissed,’ Ozumba said.
He further alleged that in line with their original plot, Abba approached the Appeal Court at Enugu, armed with the plea that the High Court Record Book was missing, and asked the Court (via motion No. CA/E/30/2009) to direct the Anambra State High Court to start the case afresh (de novo).
Ozumba said the Appeal Court, on the 11th day of July, 2017 resolved all issues formulated by Abba Community in favour of Ukwulu & Ukpo Communities, meaning that the appeal – CA/E/86/2012- filed by Abba Community was dismissed, with the court also vacating the order of stay of execution granted to Abba against the judgment of the High Court delivered on 12/11/1999 and further granted warrant of possession over the disputed land to Ukwulu and Ukpo Communities.
‘Abba proceeded to the Supreme Court where they formulated 4 grounds of Appeal. Again there was no solace. On 15th February 2019, the Apex Court, in a unanimous judgment delivered by Hon. Justice Adamu Galumje, ruled in favour of the 1st and 2nd defendants: Ukpo and Ukwulu; in all four grounds of Appeal formulated. The Honorable Judge also awarded N1, 000, 000 cost against the plaintiffs, Abba,’ Ozumba further stated.
He believed it was germane to say that neither the Plaintiffs/Appellants (Abba Community) nor the 1st sets and 2nd sets of the Defendants/Respondents (Ukwulu, Ukpo Communities respectively) conversed the issue of Trial De Novo at the Apex Court as such that was not part of the issues for determination before the Supreme Court.
‘It follows therefore, that any statement relating to Trial De Novo made by the Court is statement made by the way and which has no legal consequences or precedent value and of no binding effect. It is the ratio decidendi which has the binding effect. Abba community ought to know that the Supreme Court is not a Father Christmas or a philanthropist whose nature is to dole out gifts even when not solicited for. It is elementary in law that reliefs not sort by litigants cannot be granted by any court,’ averred Ozumba