Ogbunka, an agrarian community in Orumba South local government area of Anambra state became the latest community to be torn apart by either traditional ruler stool or town union leadership tussle in Anambra state, following the recent controversial emergence of two candidates for the vacant stool. Olisemeka Obeche and Lawrence Nwimo investigate the intriguing battle for Ogbunka royal crown between Dr. Forster Ezenwa Ihejiofor and Chief Johnmark Anyaoha.
When, in August 2008, the traditional ruler of Ogbunka, Igwe Charles Esiobu (Ezekwesili of Ogbunka) joined his ancestors, expectations were high that Esiobu’s successor would emerge through a peaceful and transparent selection process. The late monarch’s reign had seen the town, blessed with rich human and material resources including iron ore, granite and clay deposits, enjoy sustained peace and progress.
Although, the community had envisaged a quicker and seamless transfer of the crown going by Article 7, Section 2 of the Amended Constitution on Ogbunka Chieftaincy Matters, 1985 which stipulates that “in the event of transition of an incumbent Igwe of Ogbunka, the chairman of the Igwe’s cabinet shall hold office until the selection of a new Igwe and, in any case, will not hold the office for more than three months.” Incidentally, 12 years and six months after Esioba vacated the throne, the community is still enmeshed in internal strife over his successor.
Orient Daily investigation shows that, even as the community had, in line with its kingship rotational policy as enshrined in Article 2, subsection (ii) of the town’s constitution, mandated Awuka village to produce Esiobu’s successor, political brinkmanship and power-play culminated in the emergence of the two candidates from two factional cabinets.
The power play trailing the constitution of an Ogbunka traditional cabinet resulted in two such cabinets, each led by Chief Ernest Onyekarusi and Chief Mathew Ezeabikwa. This factionalisation eventually led to the selection of each of Dr. Forster Ezenwa Ihejiofor, and Chief Johnmark Anyaoha by the two sides as successors to the Igwe Oghunka throne.
Cabinet leadership battle
This paper gathered that Ezeabikwa’s status as the chairman of the Igwe’s cabinet and traditional prime minister of the community, was challenged in a court Suit No. AG/133/2014 by a former president general of the community, Obed Ilodigwe and four others – Christian Iheanacho, Ikechukwu Onwudigwe, Clement Okonkwo and Joseph Esiobu.
The plaintiffs prayed the court, among other things, to declare Ezeabikwa’s status as illegal, unlawful and unconstitutional and to allow former PG, Obed Ilodigwe, to control the activities of the Ogbunka town, especially with the town having no sitting Igwe or traditional prime minister.
Ezeabikwa, the defendant, insisted that his claim of cabinet chairmanship was legitimate and, as proof, presented this paper a September 16, 2019 letter signed by Dr. Samuel Okolimba, palace secretary of Ogbunka, which confirmed him (Chief Mathew Ezeabikwa) as the authentic chairman of the Igwe’s cabinet. He also tendered another letter jointly signed by the immediate past chairman of Igwe’s cabinet, Chief L. N Esiobu and secretary of Igwe’s cabinet, Chief G.C. Ozor, dated January 14, 2013 which confirmed his appointment as the traditional prime minister (Onowu) of Ogbunka.
Ezeabikwa, a former police chief, recalled how he became the Ogbunka cabinet chairman. “Engr. Ogujiuba was the traditional prime minister while Chief Esiobu was the chairman of Igwe’s cabinet. Both of them died in 2011 and 2013 respectively. Their demise made the positions fall on me with letters of authentication to back it up,” he said, brandishing the letter.
Ezeabikwa, who was dragged in and out of the court between 2014 and 2019, further claimed that the court ruling on the case declared that ‘no person has the right to challenge the continuation of any member of the cabinet’. “Part of the court ruling was that the Igwe’s cabinet had the mandate of selecting the traditional ruler in line with the Ogbunka chieftaincy constitution”, he claimed.
However, Orient Daily’s investigation revealed that, contrary to Ezeabikwa’s assertion and letter, the town’s constitution states that it is only a traditional ruler that has the power to appoint a traditional prime minister (Onowu) for the community and not Igwe’s cabinet or palace secretary. The constitution also gave only three months for processes for a replacement of a departed Igwe to commence after his death, a period the late Igwe’s cabinet allowed to elapse.
Again, Ezeabikwa’s claim of chairmanship of the cabinet appears not to have appealed much to the Ogbaru High Court judgment of July 16, 2019 presided over by Justice A.O. Okuma. The judgement did not appear to reckon with Ezeabikwa being the vice chairman of Igwe’s cabinet, on the basis of which the chairmanship could have fallen on him, under Ogbunka native law and custom, with the death of the then chairman in 2013.
Orient Daily gathered that the process of selecting Esiobi’s successor took a controversial turn January 27, 2020 when a factional group, Ogbunka Igwe-in-Council, wrote the Anambra state government notifying it of its readiness to conduct a traditional ruler election on February 15, 2020 at the Igwe’s palace. The letter was signed by Chief Mathew Ezeabikwa.
The following day, January 28, another faction, which recognised Chief Ernest Onyekarusi as chairman, Chief Ephraim Emebo as secretary and Chief Godson Obi as Owelle also wrote the same government, declaring their intention to conduct traditional ruler election on February 22, 2020 at Ogbunka Civic Centre.
This paper gathered that, in response to both letters, the state government, through its ministry of local government and chieftaincy matters, wrote the president general of the town union, [copied to the two factions] and cancelled both elections, as proposed for February 15 and 22.
The letter, dated February 7, 2020 and signed by Mr. Henry Nwasike, on behalf of the commissioner, Mr. Greg Obi, explained that the decision to cancel both exercises was to avoid escalation of the crisis.
“In view of the two different dates from the two groups, the state government, in order to maintain peace and order has cancelled the election for the new traditional ruler of Ogbunka community. The state government will invite the affected stakeholders of Ogbunka to a meeting on a date to be communicated later on a way forward as well as agree on unanimous date and mode of the election,” the letter read in part.
Ogbunka indigenes were still waiting for the new date promised by the government (for the traditional rulership selection) when the news broke, on December 2, 2020 that Chief Johnmark Anyaoha had emerged the new traditional ruler of the community. This paper gathered that Anyaoha’s declaration as the new monarch by the Ezeabikwa group did not go down well with the Chief Christian Iheanacho faction. Although Anyaoha’s emergence was reported to have been witnessed by top officials of the Anambra ministry of local government, town union and chieftaincy affairs and security personnel, among other stakeholders, the exercise was largely viewed by a section of the community as a betrayal by the state government.
Many who spoke to this paper, on condition of anonymity, said the ministry acted unjustly, having effectively suspended the selection process as hitherto planned by both sides. “It’s a sham and ploy to impose an unpopular person on the community. Obviously, the letter was a decoy by some interests in the state government who are bent on foisting him on the community,” the source said.
Hours after the controversial selection of Anyaoha, hundreds of aggrieved villagers from the Ogbunka community stormed the Anambra state seat of power, Government House, Awka, to protest what they alleged to be self-installation of someone as the traditional ruler of the community. The peaceful protesters, who also visited the Anambra State House of Assembly Complex, described the act as unacceptable and a misrepresentation of the overall will of the people. The commissioner for local government, town union and chieftaincy affairs, Chief Greg Obi, who spoke through Mr. Chris Mmadu, assured the protesters that government would look into their grievances and take proactive measures to ensure peaceful resolution of the impasse.
The crisis, however, took a dramatic twist two days later (December 4, 2020) when the members of Amala Ogbunka, title holders, red cap and cabinet chiefs, selected Chief Forster Ihejiofor as their new traditional ruler. His installation followed the very next day (December 5, 2020) amidst pomp and ceremony.
Ihejiofor, whose emergence was well attended by the villagers, told this paper that he was confident that Governor Willie Obiano would respect the wishes of the Ogbunka people who chose him as their new traditional ruler.
“I know that the ascendance of Igweship of a town isthe prerogative of the people and that since my people had chosen me, the government will respect their wishes. As far as I’m concerned, there is no crisis in Ogbunka; only that some over-ambitious persons want to plunge the community into crisis; but God will not allow that.
“I’m happy that God has used me to touch lives in this town. Having contributed in both human capital and infrastructural development, as well as made some financial donations towards socio-economic ventures of the town, I believe that my installation as the traditional ruler of the town will provide me the opportunity to do more for my people. All we are asking for is that government respects the wish of my people to be their monarch”, he said.
Efforts to get Chief Anyaoha’s view on this crisis did not yield desired fruits as at press time. After visiting his private residence at Awuka village, in Ogbunka on January 13, 2021 without meeting him, calls and text message sent to his mobile phone number did not elicit any response, although he later called back and told this reporter that he had travelled to Abuja. He added, unfortunately, that he was not inclined to speak to the press on any matter at the time, adding, however, that he would invite our reporter once he returned from his Abuja trip. He still has not reverted to our reporter.
Chief Chris Iheanacho, one of the plaintiffs in the court case against Ezeabikwa also gave his perspective into the Ogbunka chieftaincy crisis.
According to him, the Ogbunka constitution on chieftaincy matters (1985) stated that the eldest family in the eldest village was to install the community’s new traditional ruler. “In line with the dictates of the constitution, the Isiokpu village has the staff of authority (Ofor) of Ogbunka and that was where Dr. Forster Ezenwa Ihejiofor emerged and installed to the knowledge of all elders and stakeholders. The eldest family in Ogbunka, Umudiala, represented by Chief Felix Ike performed the installation ceremony.
When asked about the emergence of Chief Johnmark Anyaoha, Iheanacho said: “We just heard that few individuals gathered in his house and made him Igwe. It came as a surprise to us. I don’t even know where he was installed and how he was installed. There was no invitation to any person. We just woke up to hear that Johnmark was the Igwe Ogbunka. However, the Igwe Ogbunka we know, for now, is Igwe Dr. Forster Ihejiofor. For peace to reign in Ogbunka, we are begging Governor Willie Obiano to issue a certificate of recognition to him.”
When this paper sought the opinion of the former PG of the town, Mr. Ilodigwe Obed, he rather accused, Ezeabikwa of instigating crisis in the town. “He is the one instigating this crisis. He claimed to be traditional prime minister (Onowu) despite having served out his term which is a maximum of 12 years. The Ogbaru court lent credence to this too. He always wants to be in control.
In 2013, Ogbunka unanimously agreed that Chief Mathew Ezeabikwa won’t hold any elective or appointive position in Ogbunka through a no-confidence vote because of his divisive tendencies and misdemeanour. We crowned Igwe Forster because of the good things he has attracted for our community.”
This paper sought to probe the vote of no-confidence on Ezeabikwa and discovered that Ogbunka chairmen of villages, on January 30, 2013, indeed, passed such a vote on him over allegations of trouble making and sundry accusations as instigating crisis in the town.
The letter which was addressed to the president general and signed by Hon. Emma Okeke (Isiokpu village), Emma Okolo (Awuka), Onyema Jonathan (Umunobe), Gabriel Nwokedi (Agbala) and John Anyachor (Akwuoba) reads in part: “…We have unanimously resolved and vowed that he (Chief Mathew Ezeabikwa) will no longer represent the interest of the good people of Ogbunka community in any capacity, be it political or otherwise because he defiles our land. He dragged his village leadership under Chief Patrick Okpara to police and locked them in the cell at the police quarters (sic), Awka.”
Ezeabikwa, when asked for his view, dismissed claims that he was sacked by the community. He equally insisted that Anyaoha was selected as new monarch according to the chieftaincy constitution of Ogbunka and the Anambra State Traditional Rulers Law.
He claimed: “Those people saying that (I was sacked) are bunch of lawless people. Those also saying that Igwe Johnmark was selected wrongly are trouble makers. You can find out the truth from the commissioner for local government, town union and chieftaincy matters or the special adviser to the governor on town union matters. They are all aware of what we did. We followed the Anambra state law and the constitution of Ogbunka before declaring Chief Johnmark Anyaoha, the traditional ruler of Ogbunka. He further refuted the no-confidence vote by Ogbunka village chairmen, describing it as “a fabrication by the then PG, Chief Obed Ilodigwe, to malign my personality in court.”
“He presented the purported no confident (sic) vote in court but nobody regarded it for lack of merit,” he adds.
He insisted that he had been appointed the traditional prime minister of the community since 2013, before the Igweship tussle. “I was the vice chairman of the cabinet since 2007. I don’t say lies because I am a titled chief. I’m surprised some elders are sowing this seed of discord, trying to upturn the truth. They know that Igwe Johnmark was just declared and yet to be installed by Njiofor, as provided in the constitution. They claimed that cabinet members crowned Dr. Forster which is a big lie as no community has two cabinet members. Everybody cannot be Igwe at the same time. Let them respect the constitution,” he emphasised.
He further claimed that they wrote the village (Awuka) that was supposed to produce the next Igwe at the start of the whole selection process and that the village sent two names – Dr Forster Ihejiofor and Chief Johnmark Anyaoha – and that both completed forms before the Igwe’s cabinet/screening committee, with him as traditional prime minister and chairman Igwe-in-Council. They paid N250,000 each. They appeared on 22nd and 25th January, 2020 respectively. Dr Forster appeared first and Johnmark appeared second. They were screened before selection process because our constitution did not say election but selection. In the selection, we followed traditional guidelines and their various presentations. Part of the problem of the person the president general and his cohorts crowned (Dr. Forster) was that he failed to make his presentation in Igbo language. How can Igwe break kola nut in English language? The day his purported installation took place, it was one Mr. Casidi that broke kola nut for him? He doesn’t have the basic orientation to be the Igwe. It is not about money; it is about traditional leadership of a community.”
Other reasons given by Ezeabikwa for disqualifying Dr. Forster Ihejiofor included: trying to secure the position of Igwe for one Prof. Promise Nwachukwu Okpala and not for himself, inability to speak Igbo fluently, unable to kill cow for his father as custom demands, refusal to be initiated into masquerade deity of the town and his role in destruction of the town’s charms and deities during one of the Christian crusades he sponsored in the town.
Our reporter who investigated these allegations found that none of those claims was contained in the Ogbunka chieftaincy constitution, which they claimed to have relied on, as condition precedent to selection as Igwe. On the issue of somebody breaking kola nut for him on his installation date, this paper reliably gathered that Ihejiofor personally performed all the traditional rites expected of him. The video recording of the installation activities, obtained by our reporter, bears this out.
Also speaking, another elder, Chief Donatus Okoro, expressed surprise that Ihejiofor, who submitted himself for screening before Ezeabikwa and other screening committee members, is claiming that he (Ezeabikwa) is not the chairman of Igwe’s cabinet and our traditional prime minister. “He filled the nomination form and submitted himself to the Igwe-in-council/screening committee. He also paid the non-refundable sum of N250,000, yet, he claims that Chief Ezeabikwa is not (the) Onowu.”
The above assertion was also verified and this paper sighted the call for nomination, nomination by Awuka village and signed nomination forms of both Anyaoha and Ihejiofor, all indicators that the two aspirants apparently recognised the Igwe-in-Council that formed the screening committee.
Youths take position
Meanwhile, the Ogbunka Youth Association has warned those behind the Igweship crisis in the community to backpedal or face their wrath even as they declared Ihejiofor as the authentic traditional ruler-elect of Ogbunka.
In a communique issued at the end of their emergency meeting held at Ogbunka Civic Centre on January 15, 2021, the group declared that Ihejiofor’s selection was in accordance with the constitution of the town.
The communique jointly signed by youth leaders from the five villages in Ogbunka – Chinedu Okoli (Awuka), Nnaemeka Umeh (Isiokpu), Micheal Anula (Agbala), Ignatius Anyacho (Umunobe) and Chidozie Ezeabikwa (Akwuoba) confirmed that traditional leaders of the entire five villages of Ogbunka, the Amala, titled chiefs, red cap chiefs and kingmakers of Ogbunka as well as members of Ogbunka Development Union witnessed Ihejiofor’s declaration and decoration as new monarch of Ogbunka.
“We declare HRH Igwe Dr Forster Ihejiofor, as the duly elected and constitutionally recognized Igwe of Ogbunka kingdom,” the youths said.
“Our problem is that Mr JohnMark Anyaoha crowned himself king. That is never done in Igboland! It is an abomination, a travesty, “Nso ala. He has continued to sow seeds of discord and foment trouble amongst our people with blatant lies, intimidation, blackmail, manipulation and other vices,” the communiqué read.
Govt assures of peaceful resolution
Meanwhile, a staff member of the Anambra state ministry of local government, town union and chieftaincy matters, Mr. Henry Nwasike, who denied any involvement in the matter, said the ministry was only invited to observe the declaration of Anyaoha. Nwasike who disclosed that the other camp failed to invite the ministry, however, noted that government would not issue certificate of recognition to either of them until the issue is amicably resolved.
From Orient Daily observations, the state government, through Commissioner Greg Obi, has reassured Ogbunka people that the government was committed to resolving the crisis. He acknowledged that government’s role in the traditional rulership selection process was that of impartial observer and umpire. “It is communities that select their traditional ruler after which there is a procedure for recognition of who becomes the traditional ruler. From your complaints, it looked as if the government went to Ogbunka and enthroned one person to become the traditional ruler. It is not true and we don’t do such things. Government has not recognised anybody as the traditional ruler of the community,” the commissioner had told protesters who stormed Government House to protest Anyaoha’s purported emergence.
“We will take time to study everything that came from Ogbunka after which we decide who to recognise as the rightful traditional ruler of Ogbunka. We have received your letter and will put it among the files that will be sent to the governor for further study. I plead with people of the community to remain calm and wait on the government,” he added.