Posted by Collins Ughalaa | 26 May 2017 | 2,977 times
The people of Imo State made history and shocked the world on Saturday, May 6, 2017. It was not because Governor Rochas Okorocha gathered them to a place he chose to call Freedom Square for the sixth edition of Imo Freedom Day, a programme he created to commemorate the day he won the supplementary election on May 6, 2011. Okorocha created this, but killed the popular and intelligent Ahiajoku Lecture, describing it as fetish. Some people have said that Okorocha does not like intellectual programmes because he would not catch up. Okorocha covered his disdain for intellectualism with the claim that the Ahiajoku Lecture series was fetish. It should be noted that the Friday celebration was not actually the sixth edition, because it was not held in 2015 and 2016.
The so-called sixth edition of so-called Imo Freedom Day will remain a day to remember, because it was the day Imo people defied all protocols and spoke truth to power. You may recall the Igbo adage, that when you fear a king, at some point, you would wear a locally weaved basket (nkata) and talk to him. That was what Imo people did on so-called Imo Freedom Day. They wore a “mask” and spoke to Governor Okorocha, and told him tales of how he had grabbed their land since 2011, landing them into captivity and anguish for six long years.
Nevertheless, some people have told me that those who stood up and spoke to the governor in his presence on what Imo people say is the governor’s land-grabbing attitude were arranged. But my answer is: whereas the state government is not deficient in such abracadabra, God has a way of turning the wisdom of the wise to foolishness. God is not a child, and he is not one to be mocked. But during that programme, those whose land had been illegally collected by the “state government” told the whole world how their governor and his government was neck-deep into land-grabbing deals, to the point that some said their lands were taken from them and re-allocated to a certain high-ranking government official. They did not name the government official, but those present murmured, as if they knew the said government official. One man even said to my hearing: “After grabbing people’s land and keeping them to himself, let us see how he will win the governorship election in 2019 and become our governor”. It was terrible what people said that day. But the governor was smiling, as if he had won a jackpot.
One particular land-grabbing victim stood out. His name is Dr. Chukwujindu Felix. He accused the governor of forcefully appropriating his land in Ogboko (the hometown of the governor) without compensation and using same as part of the controversial Eastern Palm University, Ogboko. Imo people and, indeed Nigerians, have not stopped asking questions on the ownership of the university, even though the state government says it’s a private/public partnership. The partners with the government in the university deal are yet to be disclosed. This heightens the suspicion among the people that the university belongs to the governor.
If you knew the history of the university, you would remember that the university was started as the permanent site for Imo State University (IMSU). The governor continued to erect structures on the land, despite outcries against it. But following the stiff opposition that greeted the move, the state governor backed down, but continued to erect buildings on the site with public funds. This really angered the people, but the government did not care. Later, it came out with the news that Imo State had got a brand new university, called Imo-European University. While the people were still asking questions on the need for the second university, the governor got registration for Eastern Palm University, changing the name for the second time. And while this drama was going on, there was no legislation on the said university.
Land-grabbing is the kind of freedom we now enjoy under Okorocha. This is the freedom of the bondmen. And nothing better illustrates this bondage other than the complaints of land-grabbing that dominated the so-called Imo Freedom Day celebration. Though few land-grabbing victims courageously came out to tell truth to power, there are still countless victims who have died with their lands grabbed by the state government that promised to rescue them, only to keep their hands and legs in fetters, while junketing around, shouting freedom on radio. Apart from those who told truth to power, there were still countless number of people who did not attend the charade. Yes, so many are not in the state, or even in the country. One of my friends, a pharmacist, had told me severally how his plots of land in the village were grabbed by the governor. In fact, I was told that the whole land housing the university in Ogboko were lands grabbed from their owners. I was told that what the governor does is to encroach on people’s lands in the name of development, only to abandon the project midway.
My sources disclosed that the Loyola Jesuit School built by a community in Ideato North was taken over by the missionaries. The large expanse of land housing the school was said to have attracted the attention of the governor who approached the community and said he wanted to build a nursing school on the land instead of the Loyola school. I was also informed that the Okorocha had also approached the community after sometime and informed them that he wanted to expand the nursing school and, therefore, wanted more land. But when the land was shown to him, it was discovered that part of the land belonged to the governor’s younger brother. That was the end of the expansion project. Sadly, instead of continuing to build the nursing school, the governor is said to have changed his mind and now wants to build a police college, despite that he has already started building a police college somewhere near the community. Sources said that it is the signpost of the police college that has taken over that of the initial nursing school. They said they understood very well that both the nursing school and the police college were ploys to grab their land.
But if you thought that the land-grabbing issue startedrecently, you goofed, and you don’t know Okorocha and his government very well. Land-grabbing has been a nagging issue with the Okorocha administration. It could be recalled that the people of Owerri had raised the alarm in 2011 and accused the governor of grabbing their land at the World Bank area of Owerri, without compensation. They resisted the governor's forced attempt to take possession of the land. And to further drive home their distaste for government acquisition of the land, they erected a platform on a small portion of the land and placed an empty coffin on it. Seeing this, the government beat a hasty retreat. The empty coffin is still there till this day, covered by over-grown grasses.
Having failed with Owerri people, the Okorocha was said to have negotiated with Nekede people in Owerri West Local Government Area, and moved to Port Harcourt road, near a yet-to-be-developed Alaoma Government Estate, for a hotel project. But today the land is covered with weed, as no work is going on there. Owerri people now jubilate, that they were lucky to have resisted the governor.
Then we move to Mbieri in Mbaitoli Local Government Area of the state, where the governor’s private estate, called Spibat, is majestically sitting. That land sits on two local governments and four communities: Akwakuma, Amakohia and Orji communities in Owerri North and Mbieri in Mbaitoli local government. It was in the news that most part of the land was grabbed from their owners. Till today, the belief that Spibat sits majestically on other people’s land has not left the people. The Spibat Estate, which has now changed to Rochas Foundation College, Africa, houses more than 30 duplexes and alleged underground buildings. The estate is so huge that even the President was said to have queried whether the Estate was Imo State Government House. At Orji in Owerri North Local Government Area, the news is the same. The people fear that projects are smokescreens for land-grabbing by Okorocha. And despite that several people had advised the governor to see the need to divest himself of this land-grabbing mentality, the perception has glued on the governor, and has gained currency in the state with the open challenge by victims at the Imo Freedom Day celebration.
There are cases of land-grabbing at Melinda Estate and Area C in World Bank Area of Owerri, by another top official from Mbaitoli. The grabbed lands have been walled round without any compensation. In Area C, lands with C of O have been appropriated by the top official. This is a dangerous scandal rocking the state government. Do you think that admission by the governor to claims of land-grabbing would solve the problem?
Contrast this scenario with the four-year-reign of former governor Ikedi Ohakim. Throughout his tenure, nobody from the state complained that his land was grabbed by the governor or the government. Even allegations that Ohakim owned half of Owerri have been proved to be false and mere political propaganda. Today, the only land belonging to Ohakim in Owerri is a small bungalow. Interestingly, he did not acquire the land while he was governor; neither did he build the house while he was governor. Also, former governor, Chief Achike Udenwa, was not enmeshed in land-grabbing issues. The only land he has in Owerri, for the eight years he was in government, is the house at Civic Venue Estate, on Concorde Boulevard.
Though Okorocha, while responding to the accusations from complainants, admitted that he had taken their lands without any compensation and promised to allocate new land to them in the capital city of Owerri, that was not the solution. What the governor did, to my mind, was to admit a crime. And instead of smiling home, the governor should resign for “convicting” himself of land-grabbing offence. Come to think of it, how many victims does the governor intend to compensate with new allocations? In the first place, how many people are victims of land-grabbing by the state government and its officials? How do we now determine the true number of those who are victims of land-grabbing? What of those who have died, how do we get to know them? Would the government or the governor give new allocations to their families?
Accepting to give fresh allocations to only those who confronted the governor with the accusation of land-grabbing on the Freedom Daycelebration is not enough. It is a white-wash targeted, perhaps, at washing the image of the government and to give the false impression that the government has compensated all those whose lands were taken or grabbed. And before you woke up, it was on NTA, AIT and Channels. For a good start, I recommend that the governor sets up a judicial panel of inquiry into the claims of land-grabbing and also have the courage to implement its recommendations. I also recommend that anyone found guilty of land-grabbing should be prosecuted according to the laws of the land. Because it is worrisome that a highly-placed government official would appropriate people’s land to himself, and nothing happens to him. It is more worrisome that the governor elected by the people could turn around to grab their lands. Something should happen, unless this government is one that protects criminals or a den of land-grabbers.
The enslavement Imo people have suffered for the period of six years of Okorocha’s administration is unbearable. When he came on board in 2011, he boasted he would visit the kidnappers and other criminals in the state and stop their activities. But years after, no week passes without bank robbery in Owerri, leading to killing of security operatives in the process. The governor claims to have built countless roads in the state, but outside Owerri Mucipial, which is one local government out of the 27 LGAs, the roads are impassable. Then, came the sacking of 10,000 Imo youths employed by Ohakim’s government. What of the sacked LGA-elected officials? What of the sacked statutory appointees? Then enters the governor’s CGC that gulped billions of naira. Today, where is the CGC? Instead, we now have SDC. What of the cruel refusal of the government to conduct local government election for six years, and the scrapping of development centres? Who is managing the resources of the 27 local governments in the state for the period of six years?
It is also very instructive to note that while other state governors in the South-east are declaring promotions and paying accordingly, such as Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State, Okorocha has not announced any promotion of civil servants for six years. Instead, thousands of civil servants and government statutory appointees have been shown the way out. What greater enslavement can there be?
Can we really say that Imo State is free, when we have a governor who behaves like this and threatens to banish a top traditional ruler from the state? And despite the countless court victories against him, the governor has behaved as if he is above the law and that no one else matters in Imo State. Are Imo people not in bondage when the government destroys their property and businesses, in the name of road expansion and urban renewal, without any form of compensation? What sort of freedom do Imo people have when the civil servants are forced to sign that they collected 100 per cent salaries, whereas what they got was 70 per cent? Who can say that Imo is free today, when pensioners are forced to sign off their years of labour and never turn back? You would shudder when you see how the governor rubs poverty on the bread of Imolites, like butter, when he had promised in 2011 that he would create wealth and banish poverty. Today, poverty bestrides Imo State like a colossus. Workers are sacked. Salaries are slashed. Pensions are slashed and most pensioners keep crying because they cannot sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
You would also weep for Imo State when you recall that in 2011, Okorocha who was the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), had condemned then governor Ohakim for demolishing shanties that defaced highways in the state. Today, Okorocha has destroyed people’s property in all parts of the state and sent many to their untimely graves. What a way to enslave people!
This is not freedom. It is called onyinye mammy water. While we thank our stars that the truth of the land-grabbing issue is coming to light, it behooves the governor to do the needful, as done elsewhere. After all, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom because he lost a referendum. Which of the two is an offence: a governor admitting publicly to land-grabbing accusations and promised to give fresh allocation, and a prime minister that lost a referendum and resigned? To my mind, a governor that admits accusations of mindless land-grabbing has lost the confidence of the people that voted him. The most honourable thing for him to do is to apologise and resign, immediately.
•Colinns Ughalaa writes from Owerri. He can be reached via email@example.com
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