By CHIMAMANDA ADICHIE
One night in July, the signboards disappeared. The people of Abba, my hometown in Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra state, woke up to see that the signboards were gone — the signboard that said ‘Welcome to Abba Town’ had vanished. The signboard mounted by the state government that said ‘Drive safely through Abba’ had vanished. Every signboard that announced Abba’s boundary had disappeared.
In a country where signboards exist to make communities visible, this was an act of erasure, a way of saying to a community: you no longer exist. An attack on a community’s autonomy. An aggression. But how could it have happened? There are laws, after all, and signboards set up by the state government cannot arbitrarily be torn down. It happened because the Nigerian police accompanied people at night to commit this illegal act. Witnesses saw them: the police vans, their flashing lights, their guns. And it happened because a Nigerian billionaire, Prince Arthur Eze, is financing a campaign of intimidation in order to win a land dispute.
Land disputes are depressingly common all over Nigeria – Awka-Amawbia, Umuleri-Aguleri, and Ife-Modakeke are some well-known examples – but perhaps what makes Abba-Ukpo different is the brazen meddling of a wealthy man. The land in question is called Agu Abba – a vast stretch of woods, farmland, and a market, Oye Abba, with roofed wooden stalls. All land cases are complex, but here is a simplified history of this case: In 1967, shortly after the Nigeria-Biafra war began, Abba sued a nearby town, Ukwulu, for trespassing on its land. A state high court ruled in Abba’s favour.
After the war, Ukwulu questioned the legitimacy of the ruling, as Biafra no longer existed. Abba then sued again in 1975. The case dragged on until 1985 when Ukpo, another nearby town, formerly a witness for Ukwulu, made a surprising volte face and joined the suit, claiming some of the land as theirs. The suits were subsequently consolidated and in 1999 a state high court ruled in Ukwulu/Ukpo’s favour. Abba got a stay of execution on the judgment. Then something strange happened: the record of proceedings in the case suddenly disappeared. The Anambra State government set up a panel of inquiry, which sat for three months and returned empty-handed to say they could not find the court records.
Abba filed an appeal but the appeal failed because the record of proceedings, which are indispensable materials for the determination of the appeal, could not be presented. Abba then appealed to the Supreme Court. In a lead judgment, Paul Adamu Galumje referred to the disappearance of the records and asked both parties to go back to the state high court and ‘sort out the mess.’
So Abba went back to file suit in state court, where the case is currently ongoing.
“Do court records just get up and walk away?” a spokesperson for Abba said. “We all know Prince Arthur Eze paid people to destroy the records. We don’t have money but we will fight him with the truth in court.”
But before the case could proceed in court, the siege of Abba began.
On June 19, 2019, Oye Abba market was full of people trading in vegetables and yams when police vans screeched in and policemen leapt out, shooting tear gas canisters, pushing and hitting traders and buyers, asking everyone to leave the market immediately. People ran. Children cried. Two weeks later, more policemen arrived at the market, destroying the wares of innocent people. And again a few days later. The terrorized traders then abandoned the market and set up on a busy intersection at the center of Abba, a less than ideal site, but the only option left to them.
While visiting my elderly parents in my hometown in August 2019, I saw the makeshift market at this intersection, some traders sitting on the bare earth, in the sun’s harsh glare. Something about that scene broke my heart – the smallness and sadness of it, villagers determined to keep on going, even though their market had been forcefully and illegally taken from them.
I began to ask questions and soon learned that it wasn’t just mass harassment of market traders, there was also a more targeted harassment of individuals who had spoken up for Abba in the land dispute.
On July 3, 2019 policemen from the Force Criminal Investigation Department, Area 10, Garki, Abuja, arrived early in the morning and arrested three people from Abba. A woman was about to unlock her shop on the main road in Abba when policemen jumped on her and arrested her. A man was about to leave home for his construction work site when policemen barged through his door, scaring his family, and bundled him away. They were detained first at the State CID for one week and then were moved to Abuja where they were detained for two weeks.
“On what charges?” I asked a young man, a member of the Abba Youth, who has witnessed the events from the beginning.
‘They had a long list of charges, including conspiracy and attempted murder,” he said.
“Attempted murder of whom?”
“It’s all nonsense. They fabricated charges, based on zero evidence, and took them to Abuja just to intimidate them and make them give up our land.”
The point of these illegal arrests is indeed intimidation. But many in Abba were not cowed. The Abba town union organized a peaceful protest along the Enugu-Onitsha expressway, on the spot where the signboards were torn down, to raise awareness about what was happening. They had no weapons, only their voices. Shortly after the protest began, the police arrived in large numbers. Some witnesses said there were at least 100 policemen, which in a small protest in a small town is akin to a hostile invasion by state machinery. The police fired tear gas to disperse the protest. The young man I spoke to was there, and told me how his eyes burned for days afterwards.
“There were so many tear gas canisters, up to 300, and they were brand new. We all know the police in this area don’t have that much. Who paid for the tear gas? Arthur Eze,” he said.
Abba Women also organized a protest to appeal to the governor for help. Hundreds of women gathered at the government house, all dressed in somber black, carrying signs, and singing mournful songs. Watching the video, one cannot help but be moved by these women, by their determination, their orderliness, their commitment to peaceful means of protest. They wanted the governor to step in and stop the police harassment of Abba indigenes. One of the cardboard signs they carried read: Stop police harassment of Abba. Another, to my surprise, read: Arthur Eze, emulate Alhaji Aliko Dangote. He does not use his money to intimidate people. He uses his money to invest wisely.
The Abba town union wrote detailed letters of complaint to the DSS, the state governor and the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. An excerpt from the letter to the President reads: “It is no secret that the I. G. P. Adamu Mohammed is being used by a known moneybags in Ukpo, Prince Arthur Eze, to intimidate and silence Abba people like he did to their neighbouring Abagana community.”
As a child I was often skeptical of historical stories in which the homeland of the storyteller was always in the right. And so my natural skepticism made me ask why Prince Arthur Eze would engage in this violent campaign of intimidation, and whether perhaps he was being unfairly maligned. Where was the evidence? How could we be sure that Prince Arthur Eze was indeed responsible?
“Arthur Eze wants to build a university named after him, and Ukpo doesn’t have any land big enough and so he wants to take our land,” the young man said.
Prince Arthur Eze has a documented history of muscling his way into contested land – in the past few years he has used the police to terrorize another nearby town, Abagana, after which he annexed their land. But perhaps the clearest evidence that Prince Arthur Eze is the mastermind of the harassment in the Abba-Ukpo case comes from his own words. After the Supreme Court judgment, Prince Arthur Eze called the traditional ruler of Abba, Igwe LN Ezeh, and asked for a meeting on May 21, 2019, at the Geneva Hotel in Okpuno, a town near Awka. There, Prince Eze made a proposal: if Abba agreed to abandon the court case and share the land with Ukpo, he would call off the police. Igwe LN Ezeh told him that Abba people wanted to conclude the case in court. There are witnesses to this meeting. It was after this meeting that the police harassment of Abba indigenes went into full force.
Today in Abba people live in fear. Rumours swirl every day. Somebody says there is a list of Abba people to be arrested. Another says the police are coming from Abuja to arrest the town union members. Another says the community school, partly located on the disputed land, will be completely demolished. Some fearful parents keep their children home from school. When a big car with tinted windows drives through Abba, the people worry. Some men skulk away. Who will be arrested today? Who will be harassed? Who will sleep in a cell tonight?
My 87-year-old father, a retired university professor, is bewildered. He is from a passing generation of principled Nigerians who do not understand how a single individual can buy and control the Nigerian police force. After my father heard of an Abba man abducted while driving through Ukpo, his empty car left abandoned by the roadside, he asked my brother to take a longer route to a Pharmacy rather than drive through Ukpo. He feared for my brother’s safety. I fear for my parents’ safety. I fear for my hometown now unfairly living in distress.
Most recently, on September 6, 2019, Abba people woke up to see a Caterpillar demolishing the structures of Oye Abba market, while armed policemen and mobile policemen stood guard. Abba people watched, helpless and hapless, as the economic center of their small community was destroyed. The Caterpillar also demolished the walls of the nearby community secondary school, only days before students are supposed to return to school. Now the school walls and the market stalls are
a jumble of broken wood and cement, and a symbol of a brokenness in our system. Abba-Ukpo might well be a provincial land dispute, but it speaks to larger issues in Nigeria. A wealthy individual has turned the Nigerian police into his private terror group. Those deemed protectors of the people have become their attackers. Those supposed to uphold the law are now the practitioners of a particular kind of lawlessness lubricated by crass wealth.
Not all members of the police seem to be so shamefully on sale — the Anambra State Commissioner of Police, and the Divisional Police Officers of Ukpo and Abagana refused to harass Abba because they believed it to be illegal. But the consequences for them were swift: they were unceremoniously transferred to other states.
I don’t know who has a legitimate claim to the land – it has for decades been known as Agu Abba and farmed by Abba people in the often-unwritten rules that govern customary land ownership. But that is what the courts should determine, in a process free from meddling. Court records should not disappear. No community in Nigeria should be terrorized by state machinery. No private citizen should have the power to turn the police on an entire community. Injustice is stalking Anambra state and the rights of every citizen should be protected. It is in protecting the rights of others that we protect our own rights, because we create a system of rights from which all can potentially benefit.
As I ended my conversation with the young man, he said, “Please don’t use my name. The police will come and abduct me and take me to Abuja. My family is poor. I don’t have anybody to bring me food in Abuja, not to talk of bailing me out.”
I was struck by his use of the word ‘abduct.’ Some members of the Nigerian police have soiled its name and its legitimacy. The Nigerian police has been used to cause great harm in Abba. The Nigerian police must now refuse to be used any longer. The Nigerian police must show that it is not for sale. The Nigerian police must stand up for justice and fair play. Stop the harassment of innocent Abba citizens, and let the courts decide.
*Adichie is the author of Purple Hibiscus, The Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah and others.