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•Property owners, widows send SOS to Gov Obiano
From Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
These are certainly not the best of times for some indigenes and residents of Okpuno Ezinkwele, Nkwele Ezunaka in Oyi Local Government Area of Anambra State.
The peace and tranquillity of the area was shattered recently when agents of the state government, led by Managing Director/ Chief Superintendent of Operation Clean and Healthy Anambra, (OCHA Brigade), stormed the area in the wee hours of the morning with bulldozers, turning many buildings into mere rubble.
Accompanied by fully armed policemen and other security personnel drawn from the Nigeria Army, Nigerian Navy and the National Security and Civil Defence Corps, the officers said they were enforcing a state government directive to recover government lands Illegally possessed by some individuals.
Property owners in the area are, however, accusing the Ocha Brigade Commander, Chief Kenneth Okonkwo of acting out a personal script while dropping the name of the governor.
They also accused Okonkwo of demanding and collecting bribes over the job. He was alleged to have demolished the structures of those who failed to pay the bribe while saving the structures belonging to those who already appeased him with huge sums of money. Oknonkwo denied the allegation.
There is palpable apprehension among the residents now, as no one knows whose home would be the next victim of the rampaging bulldozers. Unconfirmed reports claim that three landlords in the area might have died out of shock following the demolition of their homes.
Since the commencement of the demolition exercise, residents have held three public demonstrations within one week. They have also sent emissaries to Governor Obiano to look into their plight and rescind the demolition order if actually the order came from him.
In the first protest held by indigenes of Nkwele Ezunaka, the protesters displayed several placards, noting that the government had not only taken over their land without compensation but had also acquired the spot where their progenitor, the father of Nkwele, was buried.
Some of the inscriptions on the placards read: Stop the demolition please; Ezi Nkwele youths are angry; SOS to Governor Obiano, this house demolition is illegal, and many others.
The youths marched through the estate before proceeding to the Nkwele Ezunaka junction leading to the Onitsha–Awka-Enugu expressway. President General of Nkwele Ezunaka Town Union, Ikechukwu Nnalue was absent during the protest, and he also declined comments when contacted by the reporter. But a leader of the youths, identified as Tobias, noted that the community gave the government the land on lease in 1937
“It was during the colonial regime and our fathers signed an agreement with them for agricultural purposes while they were supposed to pay us royalty every year to the tune of N5million. They also gave us 23 hectares as compensation after measuring out the agric portion. They abided by the agreement until they stopped paying since the past 77 years. Also, there was a divider separating the agric area and our own land. The purpose of taking over our land has been defeated because government has taken the farm to Igbariam community. For the present government to come in now and decide to demolish structures that people have duly paid for, with houses built and occupied for about 20 years is what I cannot understand. We are getting information from the grapevine that the present administration wants to give the land to the church, but that will never happen.
“A serving governor cannot put his people in distress this way. I don’t believe Obiano is aware of this situation here because you cannot force your people to leave their property and destroy them. This type of tragedy has never happened anywhere in the South East,” he said.
Believing that the demolition squad was done with the exercise, the residents were jolted when they learnt that another demolition exercise had commenced. This time, other buildings very far from the agric settlement were affected. Residents said buildings and property worth over N500 million were destroyed.
Chairman of United Okpuno-Ezi-Nkwelle Landlords Association, Mr Okechukwu Udechukwu told reporters that he was on his way from the market that Thursday evening when he got a phone call that bulldozers and military men were all over the estate. He said he was shocked, on getting to his house, that the bulldozers had already pulled down his house and were destroying other nearby houses. Upon enquiry, he was told that the buildings were on government land. But Udechukwu wondered why no one had ever come to complain to the residents that the land was owned by the government more than ten years after the victims had been living in the estate.
He recalled that two weeks earlier, he had got some information that the government was demanding N200, 000 from each building in the area. When he inquired what the money was for, he was not given any answer. He said he had decided to summon all his members for a meeting during which the government officials would explain to them what the N200, 000 was for. He said a few days later, some men came in search of him and when he was nowhere to be found, his wife was handcuffed and arrested by the DSS and held for two days, alongside other executive members, while the estate security personnel were all disarmed. He said that it was two days after the arrest that the team came for the operation.
“It took the intervention of the President-General of the community who assured the group that we would comply with the payment of the N200,000 levy for the demolition to cease and we were given 60 hours to comply, failing which the bulldozers would return,” he said.
The chairman explained that all the landlords bought their lands from the Nkwele people and were all undergoing the process of getting approval from the Anambra State Urban Development Board (ASUDEB), even as some had already secured their Certificates of Occupancy.
Secretary of the landlord association, Prince Oswald Iheadiforonye lamented that most of the house owners in the area were victims of insurgency in the North who had run home for safety. He appealed to the governor to save them from their present ordeal.
Among the victims of the demolition were three widows who all had pathetic stories to tell. Mrs. Ann Ajah told the reporter that her husband died while on his way out of the estate one evening last year while the construction of the bungalow was ongoing. She said after mourning her husband, she had to struggle to complete the house. She said she was still indebted to some people who helped her complete the project.
“Whoever did this to me should come and repair this house,” she cried. She bore a placard with the inscription: “I am a widow, my husband died while building this house, leaving me with six children. I have no money to pay for our present apartment and I decided to park into this house, now it’s been demolished. Where do I go from here?”
Another widow, Mrs Amaka Ndubuisi who also lost her husband three years ago, said she could not withstand the sight when she was called on the phone to rush down and see her property reduced to rubble.
“This is the only surviving thing for the children since they lost their father, and I got a Certificate of Occupancy this January for the building located on John Mayor Street. What I’m seeing here is unbearable for me,” she lamented.
Mrs Blessing Obi, another widow who relocated from the North, said she had lost her voice after crying all day since her only hope was destroyed. She called on Governor Obiano to save her life and those of her children.
Even now, there are allegations of bribery against the government agency purportedly carrying out the demolition. Residents are said to be paying between N200, 000 and N1 million for those who want their buildings to be spared. Some landlords were seen paying the N200,000 at the town hall, and those that paid were given receipts. They are mandated to make photocopies of the receipts and paste the copies on their gates, with an “S” boldly written on the wall. The “S” stands for “Settled”, and exonerates the building from future demolition, it was gathered.
Initially Chief Kenneth Okonkwo, Managing Director, Operation Clean and Healthy Anambra declined comments, insisting that only the state Commissioner for Information, Ogbuefi Tony Nnacheta was in a position to speak. But all efforts to speak with Nnacheta proved abortive. Repeated visits to his office yielded no fruits, while calls and text messages sent to his phone were ignored.
Eventually, Chief Okonkwo told the reporter that he indeed led the Joint Land Recovery Task Force on the demolition exercise. He showed the reporter an authorization letter signed by the Anambra State Commissioner for Lands, Sir Okey Morka, dated April 5, 2017 and acting on behalf of the governor. The letter directed Okonkwo to recover government lands annexed by individuals at Nkwelle and Oba.
Okonkwo said that the operation was lawful, noting that the affected landlords were even supposed to pay for the demolition of their homes.
Okonkwo said the land where the demolished buildings were erected belongs to the state government and was acquired in 1934 for agricultural purposes, with all compensation paid to Nkwelle people. He said the youths of the present generation started selling the land at cheap rates to interested individuals.
“The Ministry of Lands, Survey and Physical Planning went on air to warn people not to buy the land, that it was government land, but they ignored our warnings,” he said.
He claimed that government sent some officials from the Ministry of Agriculture to stop the illegal development in 2015, but said the landlords mobilized gun-brandishing youths who beat up the government officials and chased them out of the place. He said surveyors from the Surveyor-General’s office went there and showed them the boundaries of the land but that the surveyors were stripped naked, beaten up and chased away, with a warning that they must never come back.
He said the people had continued developing the land, disregarding series of warnings in the mass media. They threatened to deny the governor votes in the forthcoming gubernatorial, Okonkwo said.
“What kind of threat is that? Is our governor a weak governor? He is not. He is doing the right thing,” he retorted.
He made references to Enugu, Calabar and Abuja where similar demolitions had occurred in the past after the people involved had ignored government warnings.
On the allegation of N200, 000 that the landlords said they were being mandated to pay, Okonkwo said he was not aware of such and was not interested.
“Maybe the President General and the people affected are taxing themselves to follow up their cases in court or whatever,” he noted.
He said ordinarily, all the landlords were supposed to be arrested and made to pay for the cost of the demolition. He said since it was more than 10 years that the individuals acquired the land, it was obvious that for them not to have acquired the Certificates of Occupancy showed that the land was stolen.
He noted, however, that he was trying to talk to the governor to see if those that had already completed their buildings would be regularized and made to pay development levy to the state, so that their buildings would be spared from the demolition.
On what would be the fate of those whose buildings had been demolished if the government eventually stopped the exercise, Okonkwo said in every incident, some people would be victims, adding that there was nothing that could be done about such situations.