Posted by Victoria Ibezim Ohaeri | 16 February 2016 | 4,125 times
Alvan Ikoku College of Education (AICE) pensioners are deeply concerned about the continuing intimidation, land-grabbing, eviction threats and more particularly, the February 15, 2016 scheduled demolition of Shell Camp, Alvan Staff Quarters, Owerri, ordered by Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha. Alvan Staff Quarters is home to the retired lecturers, professors and administrators of Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education (AICE) Owerri, Imo State. After thirty-five years of meritorious public service, what these pensioners get in return are eviction threats, back-log of pension arrears, non-payment of gratuity and other entitlements due to them.
Located at the heart of Imo State capital, Owerri, Shell Camp (Alvan Staff Quarters) is a very quiet, serene and academic environment where the seniors have lived for 35 years and above, paying rent to AICE and keeping the entire estate in habitable condition. Attached to every apartment/building is a two-room boys-quarters, a small backyard garden and a somewhat large frontage where most occupants maintained either flower or vegetable gardens. The estate boasts of large recreational spaces, a well-run nursery school and crèche facilities, plus a host of facilities that guarantee a life of simplicity and comfort. Bordered by highbrow residential estates and landmark public sector projects, Alvan Staff Quarters sits on a prime real estate coveted by land speculators and powerful private actors. This probably explains Imo State governor’s desperation to forcefully grab the land from the expendable retirees, repartition and reallocate this choicest piece of real estate to powerful private interests and political cronies.
On Saturday 23 January 2016, demolition officials accompanied by heavily-armed security operatives invaded the residential estate with a bulldozer between 9.45.a. and 11.45.a.m. Their first port of call was Professor Paul Iheakaram’s residence, where they destroyed all the farm crops in the backyard garden consisting of palm trees, banana, plantain, cassava, cocoyam and vegetables. The destruction of the palm trees exposed a substantial part of the house, leaving the occupants prone to external threats. The officials boasted that they were acting on orders from the State Governor, Rochas Okorocha.
If not for the retirees’ resilience and collective resistance on Saturday, 23 January, 2016, the plan to evict them without any notice or advance warning, and take over their homes would have been accomplished. After that botched eviction attempt, demolition officials threatened to return by February 15, 2016 to flatten the entire estate.
AICE was originally a state-owned, foremost educational institution in Imo State. When the Federal Government took over the institution, the issue of AICE staff’s continued occupancy of the estate was not fully resolved. In an action filed at the State High Court in Suit No: HOW/533/2006, the retirees asked the court to grant them owner/occupier status. The court granted a subsisting injunction restraining the state authorities from evicting the retired lecturers from the estate pending the final determination of the substantive suit. In an effort to finally resolve this matter, the Nigeria federal government through its circular No: SGF.19/F/47/C1/2 2 /371 dated 27 June 2007, titled “Monetization of Fringe Benefits,” notified the AICE authorities to sell the houses to those occupying them in line with the government’s monetization policy.
Other educational institutions in the state such as the Industrial Development Center implemented the circular directive and sold staff residential quarters to the occupants, but AICE did not comply. Instead, AICE’s provost, Dr. BC Ijioma, sued the retirees individually at the magistrate court in Imo State, seeking to eject them from the quarters. While the various matters have yet to be determined, she ordered illegal rental deductions from their pensions for 15 months. In response to a petition from the pensioners regarding the deductions, the Federal Ministry of Education directed the provost to refund the retirees’ monies and comply with the circular directive. She neither returned the money nor complied with the directive.
On seeing that she could not successfully evict the occupants using legitimate means, she sought the intervention of serving governors of the state at various times. For years, different governors of Imo State have sought ways to wrest the property off its current occupants. Although past governors retreated, the current governor seems determined to evict the senior citizens and take over their homes.
Ignoring the subsisting injunction and ongoing court action aimed at determining the occupancy status of the retirees, Governor Okorocha resorted to self-help, by setting up a committee to harass the occupants out of Alva Staff Quarters. The committee, without resolving the issue of unpaid gratuities and entitlements, without adequate consultation with the affected lecturers, and without provision of alternative accommodation for the senior citizens’ 35 years of service, ruled that occupants should move out of the estate by February 2016.
Three questions begging for answers are: Can a state-inaugurated committee vacate a subsisting injunction granted by a court of competent jurisdiction? Can a committee’s quasi-judicial obligations usurp the court’s adjudicatory responsibilities? Is this sort of kangaroo judicial process tolerable under a democratic dispensation?
If the demolition succeeds, hundreds of the pensioners, their tenants, dependents and families will be displaced, broken and humiliated after 35 long years of selfless service and contributions to national development. Majority of the retirees are old, sick, and have nowhere else they call home. Because their pension is irregular and gratuities remain unpaid, AICE retirees are pathetically broke, depressed and wearied by the floodgate of litigation and uncertainties attending the payment of their gratuities and residential accommodations.
The Imo State Governor’s continuing intimidation, invasion, and threats to evict helpless and vulnerable pensioners constitute gross violations of internationally-recognised human rights, especially the rights to fair hearing, privacy, dignity and property also entrenched in the Nigerian 1999 Constitution. Likewise, flouting court orders restraining federal and state agencies from evicting and demolishing buildings in Alvan Quarters represents a flagrant disregard for democratic principles and the rule of law. Any development agenda purporting to derive its legitimacy and authority from the people must benefit the very poor, the aged and the vulnerable and most importantly, seek to reduce extreme poverty.
Spaces for Change, the children and friends of AICE pensioners recommend the following to the Imo State Government and the Federal Government of Nigeria:
A suspension on the planned eviction and demolition of Alvan Staff Quarters, until a full assessment of the human rights and social impacts may be conducted and mitigation plans may be established; An independent and impartial investigation into the harassment of the occupants of Alva Staff Quarters by Governor Okorocha, as well as AICE’s provost, Dr. BC Ijioma, Guarantee adequate compensation for pensioners who suffered damages or losses to their property during the invasion of January 23, 2016; Undertake, via all necessary measures, to comply with international and national legal standards relating to the right to adequate housing and prohibitions on forced evictions, and strive to ensure that any project promoted in the name of “development” benefit the very poor, the aged and the vulnerable and contribute to the ability of people to live free from poverty and in conditions of dignity.
•Victoria Ohaeri is Executive Director of a Lagos-based rights group, Spaces for Change. Photo shows Governor Okorocha.
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