In Kwara and Ondo states, the OPC has become deeply involved in often violent conflicts over the control of traditional leadership titles.75
In Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State, considered by some Yoruba to be one of their historical towns, the OPC has intervened on the side of local groups who have wanted to oust the current Fulani traditional ruler (or emir) and replace him with a Yoruba ruler (or oba). The two sides in this dispute are broadly aligned with the pro-northern and the pro-Yoruba/southern factions of Ilorin politics, with the OPC naturally siding with the latter. Battles over this traditional leadership position in Ilorin have been fierce and sometimes violent. On October 14, 2000, there was a serious shoot-out between the police and the OPC, as the police intercepted a large OPC convoy of about thirty vehicles traveling with their lights and sirens on; some likened the OPC's arrival in Ilorin on that day to "a kind of invasion." The OPC were apparently planning a meeting or rally, but panic spread after it was rumored that they were intending to install a Yoruba ruler by force. The OPC were armed but were caught unawares. Several OPC members were killed and many arrested by the police; a number of policemen were also injured. In a newspaper interview a few days after the clash, Abdulkareem Olola Kasumu, leader of the Kwara State chapter of the OPC, stated: "The struggle is justified. It is long overdue and would not stop until its aims and objectives are achieved. [...] Ilorin is a Yoruba town by all historical and sociological standards."76 Gani Adams, while claiming that it was members of the Fasehun faction who had clashed with the police in Ilorin, stated: "On my side, we are just waiting for the appropriate time, Ilorin belongs to Yorubaland. They must have an Oba there."77
In the town of Owo, in Ondo State, the OPC has been used as a tool in a longstanding local dispute between supporters and opponents of the traditional leader, known as the Olowo. Since 1999, controversy has surrounded the appointment of the current Olowo of Owo, and the dispute has taken on a political dimension as the Ondo State governor has explicitly taken sides. The Olowo's opponents, who include the state governor Adebayo Adefarati and the OPC, claim that he was not elected according to the correct procedure and therefore refuse to recognize him as the rightful holder of that office. Various attempts have been made to dislodge him from the position, including by violent means. In turn the Olowo's supporters have fought back, in some cases reportedly assisted by the police. The dispute reached a bloody climax in January 2002, when dozens of OPC members were killed in a clash between the OPC and a combination of police and supporters of the Olowo, known as the palace boys. All the main protagonists in the dispute, as well as most of the victims of the violence, are Yoruba.
This particular conflict in Owo began in 1999. In February 1999, Victor Folagbade Olagbegi III was installed as the Olowo of Owo. Later that year, the Ondo State governor and his supporters claimed that he had not been properly appointed and should vacate his position. The Olowo took the case to court on the basis that he had been threatened. The dispute escalated and in 2000, the OPC became involved in several violent incidents connected with the disputed leadership.
On April 24, 2000, thugs believed to include OPC members attacked a delegation of religious leaders who were visiting the Olowo's palace. They threw stones and missiles at the delegation, but no one was killed. Three days later, the Ondo State governor invited the religious leaders to his office and rebuked them; he asked them why they had gone to offer their homage to the Olowo since he (the governor) did not recognize him as the rightful owner of that title. Some of those present in the meeting said that the governor warned them to keep away from the palace and threatened to flush out the Olowo.78
On May 15, 2000, supporters of the Olowo, including Prince Ganiyu Omoloja, who was representing the Olowo, and Chief Alajawo Asobe, secretary of the council of senior Olowos, were attacked by the OPC in Akure, the state capital, in front of the High Court near the state government office. One of the victims said: "About fifty of them attacked us with cutlasses and guns. We were injured and rushed to hospital where I spent two weeks. They came in two mass transit buses which belong to the state. `OPC' was written on their vehicles and banner and `Gani Adams' was written on their T-shirts. They were shouting: `Kill him! Kill him!'"79
On June 5, 2000, a group of armed men who included OPC members entered Owo and attacked three different locations. An eye-witness said: "I saw the OPC myself attacking that day. They had OPC written on their heads. They came in three eighteen-seater buses, one luxury bus and one station wagon, all full. They had sophisticated weapons." They attacked the Olowo's palace and shot dead three people there: a woman, a Hausa security guard, Musa Kafanchan, and another member of the palace. They also killed a female cleaner with a knife; it was reported that they used her blood to write "OPC" on the floor of one of the rooms. They then moved to a house opposite the palace, killed two people including an Igbo man, and burned down the house. Finally, they went to Ijebu, to the house of Chief Michael Fadare, a retired civil servant who was perceived to be close to the Olowo, and killed him, his wife, their two adult children and the daughter of a security guard. They shot them dead in their house then burned their bodies. It appeared that these three attacks, all carried out on the same day, had been carefully coordinated. Several people were arrested and charged in connection with these killings. They were later released following a reported intervention by the governor asking for the charges to be withdrawn.80
Following these events, the supporters of the Olowo reinforced their own security. The number of "palace boys," who had previously just been a small number of bodyguards based at the Olowo's palace, was increased; sources among the Olowo's supporters claimed they were increased to about twenty or thirty, although other sources have alleged that they were more numerous and that they began acting like thugs themselves. The Olowo's supporters claimed that the palace boys were not armed; however, the police and other sources have disputed this.
Between 1999 and 2001 there were also several attacks by the OPC on the police station in Owo. As the controversy over the Olowo's appointment continued, some government supporters reportedly tried to put pressure on the police to intervene to assist them to oust the Olowo, but when they failed to do so, accused the police of taking sides and obstructing them.
On January 12, 2002, a large convoy of OPC members, led by Gani Adams, arrived in Owo on their way back from the burial ceremony for former Minister of Justice and Attorney General Bola Ige. The OPC claimed they were stopping to buy fuel when they were attacked by the police. Supporters of the Olowo claimed that the OPC were planning to attack the Olowo's palace. There are credible accounts which claim that the shoot-out occurred at the palace, rather than on the road beyond the palace, as the OPC had claimed. Whatever the truth, the OPC convoy was ambushed and between thirty and forty-five OPC members were killed by the police, probably assisted by the palace boys. There were no fatalities on the side of the police or the palace boys, although some palace boys were injured. An Igbo man in a nearby shop was also killed by a stray bullet.
A close supporter of the Olowo gave his account of the story:81
Gani Adams issued his own detailed version of these events, denying any intention on the part of the OPC to attack the palace:82
The statement then lists the names of twenty-six OPC members who were either missing, killed or unaccounted for, according to the OPC's investigations at the time; the final death toll is thought to be even higher. The statement then goes on to describe the role of the police in the incident: "The complicity of the mobile police needed be mentioned and with the light-speed they emerged from the opposite direction, I am convinced the attack was premeditated. Investigation revealed that we were billed to be attacked even whether we went through express or the main town [...]" In the same statement, Gani Adams claims: "The OPC does not dabble into matters related to the selection or election of traditional rulers."
Since then, and throughout 2002, the situation in Owo has become further complicated as the palace boys themselves have split into two factions and become increasingly violent. A breakaway faction, known as the Ehinogbe boys, has joined forces with the OPC and is believed to include some OPC members, as well as other opponents of the Olowo. A police source told Human Rights Watch: "The Ehinogbe boys' behavior is reminiscent of the OPC. We believe they're working with the OPC. The OPC was sent away from the town, but they came back. They are based in Ehinogbe now. They are not operating as OPC per se, but are working in concert with the Ehinogbe boys."83 There have been repeated clashes between these different groups, as recently as September 2002.
On July 17, 2002, S.O.Yussuf Elegberenban, the chairman of the caretaker local government council in Owo, was arrested by the police. Caretaker committees were set up in local government areas in Nigeria in 2002 to ensure a transition between the expiry of the tenure of local government chairmen under the 1999 constitution and new elections which had not yet been scheduled. Most of their chairmen were selected by the state governors. S.O Yussuf, who, according to local residents, was hand-picked for the position by the state governor, had reportedly been supporting OPC members, the Ehinogbe boys, and other armed elements opposed to the Olowo; some of his critics alleged that he was doing so on the instructions of the state governor. The police stated that when they arrested him, they found a range of weapons and ammunition in his house, as well as military and mobile police uniforms. He and about ten other men believed to include both Ehinogbe boys and OPC members were arrested and transferred to Abuja, where they were still detained in September 2002.
In December 2002, further clashes between the OPC and the police were reported in Owo. Several OPC members and policemen were injured, and around forty OPC members from the Gani Adams faction were arrested.84 Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm whether or how these clashes were related to the earlier disputes over the chieftaincy in Owo.
When Human Rights Watch met the Secretary to the Ondo State government in September 2002, he denied any knowledge of OPC killings in Owo in 2000, despite the fact that much of this information had been in the public domain for a long time. He described allegations that the state government may have been behind some of the violence in Owo as propaganda by government opponents, or supporters of the Olowo. Regarding the January 2002 clash between the OPC and the police, he gave a vague account of the incident which more or less replicated the OPC's version of events. He said: "We didn't know the OPC were passing through Ondo State. We received a report that they were attacked at a fuel station." Concerning the dispute over the current Olowo's right to the chieftaincy title, he repeated the OPC position. "The chiefs who support the Olowo cause trouble here. As far as the government is concerned, there is no Olowo as he was not properly installed [...] The chieftaincy is a state affair, not a federal affair, but the federal government has taken an unusual interest in the matter, sending the police to impose the Olowo on the people. They have been sending in the police to occupy. They have made it impossible for peace to reign here."85
Human Rights Watch takes no position on the matter of the chieftaincy in Owo and acknowledges that the conflict over the appointment of the Olowo has been characterized by propaganda and heated statements by both sides. However, the state government has a responsibility to ensure security in the area and should avoid taking sides in the dispute in any manner likely to increase tension or lead to further violence. Government authorities, in conjunction with the police and the judiciary, should take steps to identify and prosecute those individuals responsible for orchestrating and carrying out the violence in Owo, regardless of whether they support or oppose the current Olowo.
75 Many ethnic groups and communities in Nigeria have traditional leaders or chiefs, who are chosen according to different traditions in different parts of the country. They have various responsibilities, including settling local disputes and representing their community in different fora. Traditional leaders are recognized by the Nigerian government (as they were by the British colonial authorities) and operate in parallel with elected local, state and federal government structures. Traditional leaders can have considerable influence, especially at the local level.
85 Human Rights Watch interview with Chief Wunmi Adegbonmire, Secretary to the Ondo State government, Akure, Ondo State, September 5, 2002. The Nigerian police is a federal institution, answerable to federal, not state level authorities. This comment by the secretary to the state government is therefore accusing the federal government of taking sides in the dispute, in favor of the Olowo.