Not only is the incidence of land disputes increasing, they are becoming increasingly serious too. Many lives have already been lost while property with a value running into hundreds of millions has been destroyed. The stress, bereavement impoverishment, disruption of social life and insecurity caused by these conflicts is enormous and is inimical to the development of the communities concerned. This article presents a critical analysis of one such conflict - the ongoing dispute between the Aguleri and Umuleri. It aims to show how these conflicts can be explained with reference to the pre-colonial era, to describe their nature and intensity, to present an account of the intervention strategies that have been tried, and to make recommendations. The Aguleri and Umuleri are of the same Igbo ethnic extraction and are predominantly Christians. The Aguleri and Umuleri towns are located in the southeastern part of Nigeria in Anambra State, close to the large town of Onitsha, which lies on the Niger River. In the southeastern part of Nigeria, they are considered to be among the most highly educated as a result of their early contact with the missionaries. The question 'who owns the land?' is at the root of communal clashes in several theatres across the country today. The same question also explains the bloody fights between Umuleri and Aguleri communities. The crisis goes back to the beginnings of each community's recorded history as it centres on the question of which community first settled its current territory and which community has the prior claim to the area known as Otuocha. To understand the source of the conflict however, an historical overview of the changing dynamics of the land dispute between the Aguleri and Umuleri is necessary.
Pre-colonial boundary conflicts
The central importance of land to the peoples of pre-colonial Nigeria, especially those occupying the equatorial rain forests, cannot be doubted. They were essentially farmers and aside from its direct economic importance, land also served variously for the payment of dowries, reparation for murder and other serious crimes and as a means of exchange. Consequently, land came to be the symbol of wealth and social standing in these societies. Land was also the principal cause of war. A class of warlords emerged and became consolidated in most parts of pre-colonial Igboland. This materialist perspective seems to us a more plausible explanation than the usual reference to the absence of clearly demarcated boundaries between pre-colonial communities. Boundaries were mostly settled on a balance of coercive forces. Thus, it is less a question of whether boundaries exist than it is a question of the ability to enforce their demarcation. This ability depends to a large extent on the development of a warrior class which is able to defend the land already in its possession and to capture more land. This was clearly the case during pre-colonial times.
The colonial era
The colonial state exacerbated the contradictions already existing in these societies by supporting some communities over and against others. Records show that captain O'Connor, the district officer of the area in the 1930s partly engineered the problem by encouraging the Umeleri to make claims to the whole of the Otuocha land, and promised to support them in this war (Chinwuba 1981:1). This, apparently increased the bitterness in the region and bottled it up for the future. Partisan policies of this type led to a substantial loss of faith in the colonial legal system. It is this lack of faith, partly carried over from the colonial state, that accounts for the inability of the post-colonial state to resolve the problem. The acquisition of land by European traders, and the colonial government for various purposes provided the land necessary for trading and residential purposes, missionaries, churches, schools and farms, government residential quarters and...