As hours of fracas between residents of Old Army Barracks, Suleja in Niger State and security forces turns bloody leaving four dead, several injured including the Police. Peace in the commercial town was disrupted again. AGBO-PAUL AUGUSTINE (Abuja) reports.
With four dead and several people injured including two policemen in a failed demolition attempt by the Suleja local government area of Niger State, barely 48 hours to the end of Ramadan, uneasy calm erupted in the city of Suleja, headquarters of the LGA disrupting the peace that has endured for a while.
Residents woke up to an enforcement order by the local council to occupants of a long disputed land that the ownership cut across hoodlums, retirees of the Nigerian Army, ministry of Defence, Niger State government, Suleja LGA and the new owners (some businessmen who want to develop the land)
The dispute over time has pitched the government against a ferocious residents that are willing to kill, maim and be killed in defence of the land seen as ‘premium’ to most parties involved.
According to eye witness accounts, pandemonium broke out in the morning of Friday after attempts by the Council Chairman, Abdullahi Shuaibu Maje, accompanied by a team of enforcement officers and security personnel who arrived the area to enforce a quit notice order issued to occupants of the land.
The presence of an earth moving machine angered the youths in the community who resisted the move by the enforcement team. In the argument that ensued, missiles in stones and other dangerous items were thrown at the team.
The situation degenerated to the setting ablaze, the equipment brought in for the demolition exercise. The Police reacted first with tear gas which later turned to firing of live bullets, first into the air before it spiralled out of control.
Hoodlums in the area took the matter beyond the control of the police, the Army from the 102 Guards Brigade stationed at Zuma Barracks on the Abuja-Kaduna expressway had to be called in to control the situation.
Gunshots could be heard from several kilometres from the scene, creating a frenzy and confusion as residents and motorists scamper for safety into the bushes and farmlands. Frantic efforts by parents and guardians to secure their love ones who were already in school when the incident started worsen the situation.
Shops, schools and other business premises were hurriedly closed even as shells of fired bullets could be seen in the surrounding areas.
“I was really scared after a bullet flew over me where I was working on a building site”, Suleiman Abu, a labourer told LEADERSHIP Sunday.
When LEADERSHIP Sunday got to the scene, a few shell of fired bullets could be seen on the ground as security men had taken position in the area. Residents who narrated the incident said, the local government had arrived the area with the intention of enforcing the quit notice order given them but for the protest by some irate youths and the burning of the equipment, the demolition exercise couldn’t take place.
Consequently, the Police started shooting while the youths threw stones at them. Residents also told LEADERSHIP Sunday that several people were injured including women and children caught in the line of fire.
Mrs Fatima Ahmed, who claimed the tricycle she was traveling in was hit by an Amoured Personnel Carrier of the Police while escaping being set ablaze by the rampaging youths, said: “The situation is scaring, the APC hit us and we crashed into the gutter”.
Findings by LEADERSHIP Sunday revealed that the disputed land around the Old Army Barracks has been a long standing issue that has out lived several administrations both at the federal, state and local government levels.
Sources told our correspondent that the land in question was first occupied by a detachment of the Nigerian Army personnel on their way to the present day Kontagora Army Barracks in Niger State.
Not all the personnel made it to Kontagora as some of them got to their retirement time in service while in Suleja and about 54 retirees later occupied the land initially owned by the federal ministry of Defence.
As time went on, the source said, during the time of Lieutenant General Abdulrahman Dambazau (rtd) as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) between 2008 and 2010 who is now the present minister of Interior, the ministry of Defence decided to withdraw its ownership of the land as it does not host core personnel of the Army.
Therefore, the land was sold to the Niger State government at the sum of N56million which was later handed over to Suleja local government area by the state government for control.
To avoid hardship for the 54 earlier occupants, the government allocated spaces for them at the former Army Engineering section of the land.
From the original 54 occupants, the area became a town of its own with people of all works of life living in the community. Some of the new entrants were said to have acquired portions of the land from the families of some deceased retirees and also went on to resell to others.
The matter was said to have become complicated as the population grew large that it became home for all manner of anti social, criminal activities including drug peddlers, armed robbers, prostitution, alcoholism and others.
After the government banned open sale of alcohol, the area was cleared of liquor shops and prostitutes sent packing, some decency returned leaving makeshift shops, small businesses and homes.
LEADERSHIP Sunday investigation further revealed that, the local council sold the land to top business organizations who are now pressuring the council for a takeover. Sources say some of the firms include oil marketing companies, financial institutions and other businessmen eager to mark their presence in the commercial city.
When contacted for comment, the spokesman for the Nigeria Police in Niger State, DSP Bala Elkana told our correspondent that the Police were invited by the enforcement team to provide cover.
Elkana stated that his men were pelted with stones and other dangerous weapons but had to apply minimum force in dealing with the hoodlums. “Two policemen were injured, some persons picked up and no death recorded”, he said.
But the director, Social Development, Suleja local government area, Haruna Garba, confirmed to our correspondent Friday evening that “officially four lives were lost”.
Garba further stated that the land matter has been a long standing and complicated issue in the city. He collaborated the version given to LEADERSHIP Sunday by sources that the land was acquired by the Niger State government and later handed over to the local council.
That 54 original inhabitant of the area have been legally allocated another plot of lands closed by and that, the unwholesome sale and reselling of the land grew the residents to an uncontrollable number.
He said trouble started when the council went to clear the land in the morning of Friday leading to the fracas after they were attacked.
Meanwhile, when our correspondent left the city at about 2:30 pm, gunshots sound could still be heard in the area. LEADERSHIP Sunday had to leave for safety after one of the hoodlums, wielding a dangerous weapon, threatened to behead this reporter if does not leave the area.