By Collins Ughalaa KSC
One of the dominant features of the discourse in Imo State for the eight years Okorocha was Governor was land acquisition by the Government and top officials of the Government. The matter was so serious that some people dubbed that government a land grabbing government, as there was a plethora of complaints that lands belonging to individuals and the Government itself were arbitrarily acquired by top government officials. Such lands included the old IBC Quarters in Orji, where a majestic private school now sits atop the land believed to belong to the State Government; the Orlu Road Secretariat, the Old Stadium along Tetlow Road, Owerri, and the New Government House at New Owerri, etcetera.
The issue of land grabbing by the Government even featured during a Government sponsored programme. On Saturday, May 6, 2017, the media reported that Okorocha marked the 2017 edition of the Imo Freedom Day at the Freedom Square, Owerri. The Governor reportedly said the event afforded the people the opportunity to talk freely to the Government and himself as the Governor. Rising to the occasion, one Dr. Chukwujindu Felix was reported to have accused the Government of forcibly appropriating his land in Ogboko without compensation and using same as part of the Eastern Palm University. Others who spoke also reportedly accused the government of taking their lands in Owerri and re-allocating same to top government officials.
Earlier in April 2012, the people of Umuoyima Community in Owerri practically shifted their homes to Area K, close to the World Bank Housing Estate, and the former Timber Market respectively. The indigenes claimed that the land housing the former Timber Market was returned to them by the Ikedi Ohakim administration, and that the Area K land belonging to them had also been appropriated by the government without due consultation with the original owners. In a report by a veteran journalist and Vanguard newspaper correspondent, Chief Chidi Nkwopara, and published on www.vanguardngr.com on April 24, 2012, the indigenes carried placards to express their anger. Their placards read: “We need our land not compensation”; “We have given so much to Imo State”; “Rochas: A Governor or land
speculator?”; “Owelle, nakwa echeki ihe ime ga Nde Owerri”, and “Area K is our property”.
Similarly, Chief Sam Anokam, in an interview published on www.vanguardngr.com on August 11, 2019, noted that “The approach of the Okorocha administration in land acquisition was not proper. Imo people condemned it. The Land Use Act stipulates at Section 28 (1) and (4) the grounds for Revocation or Acquisition of Private Interest in the land by the State Government notwithstanding that the whole land in the territory of the State is vested in the Governor.
“Unfortunately, the immediate past Government [Okorocha’s government] misunderstood the vesting rights of the land in the Governor and interpreted it to be that the Governor enjoys absolute ownership of all lands in the state. The Government did not stop at illegally acquiring private properties without compliance with due process, Federal Government properties were also acquired with impunity. At a point, it became obvious that professionals on land matters were not consulted. The Government did not give notice, fair hearing or paid compensation to those whose lands were taken…Instead of giving direct allocations to the people, the State Government preferred to use land speculators who will buy up the lands, hoard them and resell later at very high prices to the detriment of Imo people. This practice is against the intent and purposes of the Land Use Act”.
Resolving the issues of land acquisition or land administration during the Okorocha era became an agenda set by the people for the governorship aspirants in 2019. Okorocha’s successor should look into the plethora of complaints about land acquisition by the Okorocha Government. That was what the people wanted as they could not stomach the fact the land at New Owerri mapped out by the Ikedi Ohakim administration for the New Government House was mis-appropriated, and buildings belonging to individuals and sundry associations now sit on the land. It was impunity on graphic display.
The Ihedioha administration met this awkward situation and attempted to right the wrongs. Imo people, except the land grabbers, applauded the move. Setting up the Panel of Inquiry on Lands and other Related Matters, Ihedioha, on August 14, 2019, said he was not embarking on an illegal exercise as he was exercising the powers provided in Section 3 of the Commission of Inquiry (cap. 24), Laws of Eastern Nigeria, 1963. The Judicial panel, chaired by Justice Florence Duruoha Igwe, was assigned to recover all lands and properties taken by Okorocha, family and associates, revoke and recover all lands, examine and ascertain whether Government land or part of it have been converted to private use and identify the persons responsible and make recommendations for recovery and appropriate sanctions; ascertain the extent of land compulsorily acquired or forcefully wrested from the owners; and ascertain the extent of allocation and revocation of land in Imo State from June 2006 – May 2019 and determine the propriety of such allocations and revocations.
On assumption of office, Governor Hope Uzodinma in February adopted the judicial panels set up by his predecessor, Emeka Ihedioha, including the Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Lands. The Governor said he acknowledged that government is a continuum, assuring that his administration will not go into witch-hunting, but continue from where the previous administration stopped, “particularly in areas that will impact positively on the living standard of Imo people.”
The Panel went to work and submitted their report to the Governor on Monday, June 1, 2020. Speaking during the event, the Chairman of the Commission noted the need “to completely restore the Owerri Master plan and the lost glory of our beautiful city”. She said that “The visual evidence shows that the distortion of Owerri Master plan was colossal and mind-boggling. It requires a man/government with a lion’s heart to restore same, bearing in mind that you cannot make an omelet without breaking an egg”.
Imo people waited until on Wednesday, November 25, when the State Government disclosed their readiness to implement the Panel’s recommendations. Addressing the press after the weekly Executive Council meeting, the State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Chief Mbadiwe Emelumba, hinted that the State Government would revoke all lands illegally acquired in the state and return them to their original owners. The Commissioner said that the Council adopted the Whitepaper on the Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Lands and other related matters which covered the years June 2006 to May 2019. He added that the Council agreed with the Whitepaper recommendation of the Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Lands and Other Related Matters on the revocation of the Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) issued on the lands forcefully and illegally acquired and for the restoration of such lands to the original owners, even as he disclosed that Council also adopted other recommendations by the Panel such as the restoration of the Owerri Master Plan.
He said: “The Exco decided that all public lands wrongly allocated to Individuals will be revoked by Government and returned to the original owners. All layouts whose nomenclature were wrongly changed will be returned to their original names. The permanent site of Government House which was mapped out and designated as such but was balkanized by previous administrations will be recovered and restored fully, and any structure or building erected in the permanent site will be revoked and removed to restore the permanent site to its original design. All other illegal structures erected anywhere within Owerri Municipal and its environment that distorted the original Master Plan will be regarded as an illegal structure and will be demolished to restore the old Owerri Master Plan. This applies to Arugo-Layout, Ekwema-Layout and other such Government layout anywhere in Imo State.”
Many people in Imo State have applauded the Government’s decision to resolve the issue of land grabbing, describing it as genuine service rendered to the people. They said that the Governor has by his decision fulfilled the wishes of the people. More importantly, they said it was cheery news that the Government did not appropriate the lands to themselves but returned them to their original owners. Acknowledging Government decision, Dr. Sam Amadi, former Chairman/CEO of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), human rights activist, law lecturer and former governorship aspirant (2019), said he supported the Governor on the decision to revoke the illegally acquired lands in the state.
He said: “I support Imo Governor reviewing illegal acquisition of public land and buildings by previous Governors or public officers. Any property acquired without due process or acquired maliciously against the interest of any Imo citizen or community should be revoked. Property acquired with very low payment to the government should be reassessed according to market value and the acquirer should pay additional fees to Government or forfeit the property. Enough of criminality in the guise of governance”.
It is doubtful if any other governor, except Uche Nwosu, would not revisit the vexed issue of land grabbing during the Okorocha era. Therefore, we should realise that political leaders are elected primarily to solve problems. The faulty land administration during the Okorocha administration was one of the problems the State faced. Governor Hope Uzodimma has lived up to the expectations of the people by looking into that menace and correcting it. What we owe him is huge commendation. We should not always dance to political tunes and condemn what ordinarily we could have done anyway. What is good would be good, no matter who does it. The move to revoke the illegally acquired lands in the State is a move in the right direction. We cannot acquiesce to illegality.