Arson, destruction and deaths are vestiges of the recent attack on Ilaje community in Ajah, a suburb of Lagos.
Despite the presence of mobile policemen stationed in the troubled Ajah-Ilaje, in Eti-Osa East local council development area of Lagos State, palpable fear hangs tenaciously on the community’s horizon. The horror of penultimate Wednesday’s attack has cast a spooky shadow on the people, who appeared uncertain and helpless about the future. Gloomy faces and charred houses paint signpost the war-ravaged territory. The community, populated largely by fishermen of Ilaje stock, came under attack from its Ajah-Ijebu neighbours, leaving deaths and massive destruction of property in its wake.
A victim, Gabriel Ukata, from Cross Rivers State, still is deep in sorrow. His house was torched, but he suffered a more emotional loss. His cousin, Martin Ejah, 28, was allegedly shot dead by the rampaging Ajah-Ijebu youths, who overran Ilaje where he was working as a labourer at a sand mining site. Ejah, whom Ukata described as “dutiful, hardworking and breadwinner of the family,” was busy on the site when the hoodlums arrived and started shooting. Everyone ran in different directions. “When calm returned to the place, we found out that Martin had been shot dead,” Ukata cried. The deceased had a three-year-old son, a pregnant wife and aged parents.
Another victim, Michael Adejimi, 51, bemoaned the burning of his house, which he inherited from his father. “I and about 150 tenants occupying the building have been rendered homeless. Some of our belongings were carted away, while some were burnt. The people stayed back to ensure that the houses were properly burnt”, Adejimi said.
Pastor Elisha Peace, founder and general overseer of The Christ Plaza, lost his church. Peace says that they had retired to bed when pandemonium broke out around 10p.m.: “I am Igbo and have always supported whatever they are doing in Ajah. I came out of my house to discover that my church had been razed. We could not fellowship last Sunday and have had to suspend other activities, because we do not have a place anymore”, he lamented.
Other churches burnt included the Episcopal Church of Zion and Cherubim and Seraphim Church of Zion.
While the people loitered around the decrepit buildings, the reporters caught a pathetic glimpse of an aged woman, Shilorah Oronla, whose husband, Festus Oronla was killed in a similar attack last year. The wailing woman said the latest incident sadly reminded her of how her husband was gruesomely murdered by the same Ajah-Ijebu youths.
Kehinde Omoboye, a resident, shared the same piteous fate with Ukata, Adejime and Elisha. His house, which bordered the two warring communities, also went up in flames. He blamed the hideous act on certain persons, names withheld.
“They carried guns and other dangerous weapons which they used in the attack. They were supplied petrol by a man who owns a filling station, which they used in burning our houses,” he stated. He added that policemen at Ajiwe Police station, which jurisdiction the area belongs, failed to respond to their distress calls. But help reportedly came when they contacted the operational control room of the Nigerian Police, after which a detachment of mobile policemen from Mopol 49 were drafted to the scene. Two persons were arrested, allegedly with guns, and promptly handed to the police, who have transferred them to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. Both men, alongside four others, are presently detained at the State Criminal Investigation Department, Panti, where they are being interrogated by the police for their various roles in the mayhem.
Among the suspects is the coronet head of the Odugbese Abereoje Chieftaincy Family, Chief Murisiku Oseni Ojupon, who was alleged to have backed the actions of the invaders. Last week, the public relations officer of the Lagos State Police Command, Ngozi Braide, confirmed the arrests, while stating that police was on the trail of “a seventh suspect who is in the habit of masterminding criminal activities in the area”.
Many residents argued that the arson could have been checked if the police and the state government had handled many complaints made to them.
“In fact, the Divisional Police Officer once said that he was tired of our incessant complaints. But if we do not report to the police, who else do we turn to?” George, a resident, wonders.
A property owner in the area, who simply identified himself as Ojaokomo, said the state government appeared unbothered about the recurring crisis. He wondered why the series of petitions sent to the government have not been acted on.
“I was born and raised here. I passed out from a primary school in this neighbourhood in 1958, which is still standing. So why would anyone want to deny me of my right to live peacefully in this place I have always known as home? How could some people who claim to be landowners just wake up and burn down over 30 houses, kill people and displace several others from their houses and government is not saying anything?” he wondered.
Some of the residents said they have not found their relatives since the incident and they could not be reached on their mobile phones, either. They commended the pragmatic interventions of the Chairman of the LCDA, Owolabi Yisa, anytime tension rose between them and the Ajah-Ijebu people. “He (Yisa) has tried many times to maintain peace by calling us to meetings anytime there was problem,” a resident, who pleaded anonymity, said.
The state government, through the Commissioner for Information Lateef Aderemi Ibirogba, said that it was not true that the government abandoned the Ilaje people.
“The state government would want to call for calm. In a state of about 22 million people, there is bound to be disagreements which would always be settled mutually. We should all realise that we are our brothers keepers. We must endeavour to live in peace and respect other peoples’ rights to peaceful coexistence,” Ibirogba said.
Reverend Oduwole Olusegun, public relations officer, Ilaje Community Development Association, spoke on their migration to their present settlement. “By our nature, everyone knows that the Ilajes are predominantly fishermen and that was what brought our forefathers to this waterside over 100 years ago”, he said. Olusegun explained that Ogunkeye, one of the families that make up the Ajah-Ilaje community, has been living on the land, which they bought from the Odugbese family over 100 years ago. He said the demolition of Muba and Maroko, hitherto inhabited by the Ilaje in 1984 and 1990 respectively, made them relocate to join their kinsmen on the land. But to ensure their expansion, they decided to buy more parcel of land from the Abereoje family, while their kinsmen displaced at Maroko joined them later.
He traced the recent carnage to a letter written to them by the Odugbese Abereoje chieftaincy family in which the latter stated its intention to rename the Ilaje community as Odugbese Abereoje community. But Yisa, the LCDA Chairman, prevented the renaming. Then, the issue of whose right it was to collect levies from sand trucks came up. Olusegun said though the Odugbese Abereoje family wanted to take over the collection of tolls from them, the underlying motive was to take over the land. He presented a letter written by the Odugbese Abereoje family to them, calling on the LCDA to stop the Ilaje people from collecting levies, “But we (Odugbese Abereoje) took drastic steps.” The letter, titled “Notification on Unsettled Matter Between Us and the Ilaje Community Development Association” was dated 31 October and signed by its traditional head, Murisiku Abereoje.
A press conference, addressed by the National President, Egbe Omo Ilaje, an apex socio-cultural body of the Ilaje people, Comrade Segun Jatuwase, decried the incident. He stated that “five people were killed with over 50 houses completely burnt and several others partially destroyed” by the aggressors. Jatuwase alleged a “systematic attack on Ilaje people with the sole aim to dislodge them and take over their land in Lagos State. Jatuwase called on “Governor Babatunde Fashola and security agencies, particularly the police to provide adequate security for the Ilaje Ajah people.”
Over the years, Ajah has assumed notoriety as a hotbed of fatal clashes between rival traditional family houses. One of the most publicised of the clashes is the contention between the Olumegbon and Odugbese Abereoje chieftaincy families, led by Olori Idejo (head of the kingmakers), Fatai Olumegbon and Murisiku Ojupon over who owns the expansive Ajah land.