By Amos Aar
A RURAL community in Benue State has alleged being under siege and harassment from men of the Nigerian Police Force mobilised from an Area Command under an alleged instigation and influence of a retired police officer from the same community over a land dispute.
The community, Ogene, in Amejo Council Ward of Okpokwu LGA has alleged that its youth leaders have for the past three weeks been unlawfully detained and subjected to relentless threats of detention, harassment, intimidation under brutal conditions by police personnel at the behest of two retired police officers quarrelling with their relations over a parcel of land.
The Police Area Command in Otukpa, National Record gathered, oversees a couple of Divisional Police Offices (DPOs) in Ogbadibo and Okpokwu LGAs of the state. Ogene Community whose inhabitants are alleging harassment and being put under police siege is over 30 kilometres from the Area Command, making their interest in the matter suspicious as the police division that has direct jurisdiction over the community is located less than 10 kilometres away in Odessasa, a suburban town under Ugbokolo Council Ward.
Five detained, released but under police monitoring
Findings by National Record indicate that five members of Ogene Community Youth Association, were arrested on July 3, 2023 and detained for five days without being charged to court on allegations ranging from resisting arrest to mobbing Fred Udoh and his senior brother, John Udoh.
Those arrested and detained for five days include Daniel Ameh, the incumbent president of the youth association, and Francis Ekoja, immediate past president of the association. Others are Felix Odumegu, speaker of the youth association, Benedict Ogwuche, the main victim whose alleged brutal beating caused protest by women and mob action by the youths and Mr Ejembi Abah, an elder of the community.
National Record gathered that apart from Benedict Ogwuche, the three others arrested were not even at the scene when the alleged mob action took place, but were arrested at the Ugbokolo Divisional Police Office where they accompanied the major victim to lodge a complaint before taking him to hospital for treatment of alleged injuries he sustained from beating in the hands of the police.
The arrest reportedly followed a protest by women of the community against perceived brutal manhandling of Mr Ogwuche by five armed policemen invited by Mr Frederick Udoh, a retired Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP rtd) and his senior brother, John, who is also a retired Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP rtd).
Mr Ogwuche and the Udohs are said to be first cousins, sharing the same grandparents.
National Record also gathered that both families have for some time now ben entangled in a land dispute that has defied the local arbitration system, as parties are alleged to have disagreed with the verdicts of both their immediate lineage and that of Ogene Community.
Following the disagreement, the Udohs had proceeded to sue their cousins at the Grade 1 Area Court, Odessasa, Ugbokolo, Benue State but hearing in the matter, which was slated to commence on June 14, 2023, was adjourned to August 31, 2023.
Immediate cause of current crisis, police involvement
An elder from Ogene Community, who pleaded anonymity, told our correspondent that while the remote cause was the land dispute, the immediate spark to the revolt by women of the community was the brutal manner in which the armed policemen invited by Mr Frederick Udoh were mercilessly beating Mr Ben Ogwuche whose crime was an allegation that he had gone to farm in the land in dispute.
The women, who were said to have gathered as the police were beating Ogwuche in his family compound reportedly began to wail, especially when the police knocked him to the ground as they also shot sporadically into the air, with retired DSP Udoh allegedly directing them to ‘waste him’.
Another eyewitness, who also pleaded anonymity, said when the police mauled down Ogwuche, kicking and manhandling him into stupor, with retired DSP Udoh continuously urging them to ‘waste him’, the women were said to have rushed at both retired police brothers (Frederick and John), and began to mob them, just as they also pelted the police, who on sensing danger withdrew and drove away, while Daniel Ameh, the Youth President and another young man said to be a prison officer, rescued and shielded Frederick and his brother from the grip of the women and herded them to safety in their family compound located close to their cousins, even as the women chased and pelted them.
Another eyewitness who corroborated the incident confided in National Record that most of the community’s youth and men were either in the farm or just returning home to meet the incident, and that if majority were at home, the situation would probably have been worse.
According to the source, the few available elders and young men only helped to calm the women after which they accompanied Ogwuche to Ugbokolo to lodge a complaint at the Divisional Police Office and thereafter take the traumatised Ogwuche to a hospital for treatment from the beating he received at the hands of the police.
“Unfortunately, when they arrived at the police station in Ugbokolo, the youths were arrested by the police who claimed that they had received call from the Udoh’s that they had attacked and grievously hurt police officers, Frederick and his brother, John.
“The boys, Benedict’s elder sister, Aladi, and an elder of the community, Ejembi Abah, were all bundled and taken to Otukpa Police Area Command and detained. While Aladi and Ejembi were released after two days, the young men, namely; Benedict Ogwuche, Daniel Ameh, the youth president, Felix Ali Odumegwu, youth speaker, and Francis Ekoja, ex-president of the youth, were held in detention for five days.
Although multiple sources told National Record that while in police custody, the young men were thoroughly beaten and tortured by policemen for daring to assault police officers on duty, a police officer who spoke with our reporter, under anonymity denied the allegation.
However, speaking on the allegation of torture, one of the detainees told National Record that only two of them, Benedict Ogwuche and Ali Odumegu, were beaten while in custody with Ali being the most tortured and beaten amongst them because the police allegedly claimed that “they saw his action” during the protest against their brutality in the community.
An independent source told National Record that it was due to the phobia and trauma from the torture he received in custody that Ali Odumegwu vehemently declined to report back to the Area Command even after strong assurances that he would no more be touched. Efforts by our correspondent to reach Odumegwu failed as he could neither meet him nor get his mobile number.
Background to women’s anger: Killing of a youth over land dispute
National Record gathered that although the patriarchs of the now warring families – Udoh Okoh and his younger brother, Ogwuche Okoh, both now deceased – had lived together in peace without any squabble throughout their lives, it has however been a cat and mouse life for their children in the last three to four years, especially since the two police brothers retired and settled at home.
Our correspondent gathered that since the retirement of especially Mr Frederick Udoh and partial relocation to the village, he had developed a penchant for quarrels over land with especially his cousins and neighbouring communities.
Our findings indicate that in one of such squabbles over land at a boundary between his community and another community, Ogwudoja, there was a fatal fracas in which a young man, one Godwin Ejeh Adokwu, was killed.
A source told National Record in confidence that the fatal incident, which happened on November 18, 2021, almost led to a bloody inter-communal clash between Ogene and Ogwudoja villages but was averted by the quick intervention of traditional and community leaders of Amejo Ward who prevailed on angry elders, men and youth of Ogene from launching a reprisal attack.
According to our source, it was on account of the tragic death of young Godwin Ejeh Adokwu that the women and some of the youths were provoked when they heard Mr Udoh loudly directing the armed policemen to ‘waste him’ as they beat Benedict Ogwuche and firing into the air.
However, Benue State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Superintendent of Police (SP) Sewuese Anene, in her response to our enquiries via WhatsApp message said the command was not aware of the alleged killing of Godwin Ejeh in the circumstance.
Multiple sources revealed that though normalcy may have returned to Ogene Community, there still remains tension and therefore a huge possibility of a violent eruption against the backdrop of information that the Udohs are plotting to hire what a source called “bad boys” to deal with their supposed enemies, especially women and youth assumed to have participated in the mobbing incident as well as others perceived to be aiding or supporting the Ogwuches.
Demand for huge compensation
When contacted, the detainees corroborated our source further revealing that even though they have been released, they were still asked to be appearing at the Otukpa Area Command until fulfilment of an alleged agreement to pay the sum of one million, six hundred thousand (N1,600,000) to Mr Frederick Udoh for alleged damages to his car and house in the course of the incident in the village.
National Record gathered that a community leader, Elder Ejembi Abah, who stood as guarantor before the boys were released after five days in detention, and the chairman of the Ogene Community went with three of the boys on July 17, 2023, the boys, along with Elder Abah, were held and detained on the ground that they came with a mere twenty thousand naira (N20,000) out of a total of N1.6 million.
A second excuse for the second detention was that some of the boys failed to appear, although Elder Abah told our correspondent that there was a prior agreement that due to high cost of transport from the village to the Area Command, some of the boys should be excused from the long trip to Otukpa since the matter was being resolved amicably.
Our correspondent also gathered that while the Udohs are insisting that the boys pay them N1.6 million for alleged damages, Ogene Community has however come out to intervene to bear the cost of whatever perceived damage done for the sake of peace especially against the backdrop of the fact that the incident was a mob action that cannot really be placed on anybody.
While the Udohs are said to be insisting that the detainees or the community must pay them N1.6 million through the Police Area Command, the aggrieved detainees and the community are however arguing that the conventional approach to such matter is to bring in specialists to assess the damage and the cost restoration. This approach, they say was said to have been informally agreed with the Udohs by their mediating close relations.
Discussion on the process is said to be ongoing as there were indications as at press time that while the Udoh’s are insisting on payment of money, the detainees and the community may opt for the matter being taken to court rather than making the payment.
A meeting reportedly fixed by the Otukpa Area Commander for Wednesday, July 26, 2023 at Otukpa for parties to report back on the mediatory meeting was inconclusive as retired DSP Udoh was said to have travelled to Abuja.
Area Command claims he acted on a petition
Asked why a civil land matter is being handled by the police, more curiously by the Police Area Command in Otukpa rather than the Divisional Police Office in Ugbokolo which has direct jurisdiction over the affairs of the community, a police officer at the Otukpa Area Command told National Record that retired DSP Udoh wrote a petition against the Ogwuches to the Area Command, hence they intervened, stating that it was permissible by law.
The officer, who did not want his name mentioned as he is not officially permitted to do so, however turned down this reporter’s request for a copy of the petition, stating that he could not do so exceptwithout the express directive of the Area Commander.
Unfortunately, however, both the Area Commander and his Second-in-Command were not on seat as at the time of our visit on July 18, 2023. The police officer also declined to give out the mobile numbers for a phone interaction with either the commander or his second-in-command for further enquiries on whether the detainees would be charged to court should the matter linger.
When retired DSP Udoh was contacted via phone and briefed on the reason for the call, he said he was in Abuja and declined to comment. He instead asked the reporter to come to his village againwhen he returned from Abuja.