Host communities of St. Gabriel’s Coconut Plantation and Refinery project in Mkpat Enin Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State are expressing dissatisfaction with the state government over illegal acquisition of their lands and non-payment of compensation by the State Government since 2016.
In this interview with newsmen in Uyo, Barrister Brown Udobang and Attorney to the host communities blamed Governor Udom Emmanuel for not doing enough to settle the issue and, expressed fears that this might work against his second term aspiration in 2019.
There has been much outcry by the people of Mkpat Enin Local Government Area over the coconut plantation and refinery project for some time now. Why are you leading a campaign for social justice for the 14 villages hosting the project?
I am Barrister Jacob Brown Udobang Esq, a private legal practitioner, Universal Peace Ambassador and the Attorney to the 14 villages of St. Gabriel’s Coconut Plantation/Refinery in Mkpat Enin Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State.
We Akwa Ibom people are all aware that one of the electioneering campaign promises of Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State was that, if elected he was going to industrialize Akwa Ibom State. So, we having been so marginalized, we received the news of the citing of this particular project in the area with so much excitement and happiness, because there is nowhere in the world that people would not be appreciative of development. However, in November 2015, the news was rife that, Ikot Abasi federal constituency will benefit from this particular project. About May 2016, the ground breaking was done. Now, before the said ground breaking, the owners of this communal land which is up to 11,000 hectares though, I may not be so sure of the size of land they have acquired because the contractors handling the project are still clearing the site and taking more lands as we speak, which was one of the contentions for restiveness by the youth in Ikot Ekpang in 2017.
Now, the issue is, before the ground breaking, the law makes and adequate provisions both national laws in Nigeria and even internationally that, for government to compulsorily acquire land, you must consult with the owners because government does not govern inanimate objects. So, government is government of the people and must consult and pay adequate compensation as provided for in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Land Use Act and other extant laws. In fact, before government goes ahead under Section 28 and 29 of the Land Use Act, there are other requirements; you must publish notice of revocation of the land, survey the land, the owners must be able to know definite demarcations. But in this case, even the Environmental Impact Assessment (E. I. A), which under the E. I A Act, is supposed to be done before commencement of the project were not done. All these and many others were not done as at the time the ground breaking took place.
So, as enlightened people and as Human Rights Crusaders, we took it upon ourselves to tell government that what it has done is not correct. On the day of the ground breaking, the owners of the land were so disenchanted with the supposed good project by placing a traditional injunction (palm fronds), to tell government that, it should not come into the land that there were unresolved issues.
Former Commissioner for Commerce/Industries, Mr Emmanuel Enoidem who is now the National Legal Adviser of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) personally came with a retinue of policemen and thugs to remove those palm fronds and went away with them in his Hilux Van. That was the genesis of this whole crisis, because the people felt assaulted because the African Charter which is domesticated in Nigeria recognizes the tradition and culture of the people.
Is that to say that Government had taken over the land without due consultation with the land owners?
Certainly, that is what I keep telling people so that, it will not look as if we are serving the people with propaganda. In fact, I will invite you to visit and interact with the villagers to know if what I am saying here is false. There was no consultation which is supposed to have been the first thing government must do. Government in a rather gestapo manner went to that place without valuation of the economic crops and trees, and cleared the place with their bulldozers without regards to the African Charter or cultural heritage of the people, which is a sacrilege.
But Lands and Housing Commissioner, Arc. Ime Ekpo once said the stakeholders of these lands had been consulted before occupation of the area by government. What does that portend?
It’s just like you have said, if government had indeed consulted it may have been those politicians and I will call that political consultation because, when it has to do with land, it has to go beyond them. In Africa, land is life and has to do with everything, if they had done so then it’s a misnomer. As far as land is concerned, precedence and conventions have to be followed, as was the case in Ex-Governor Akpabio’s time. You must go and discuss with the owners and get approval.
If they had done such consultation, why was the traditional injunction laid in the first place during the ground breaking? To me, that was a show of disdain on the part of Government. As we speak now, the Akwa Ibom State Government is yet to consult with the people.
After all these efforts, what has the communities done to draw government’s attention to their grievances?
The host communities had to organize themselves into a group and mandated me to serve as their Attorney. In one of the meetings, they had issued a 17 –point resolution signed by all the representatives of these villages. I recall that, one of the resolutions was that, they really thanked the Governor for this project in the area but that however, Government must follow the due process in terms of consultation and payment of compensation. Before this time, there was a kind of a kangaroo MoU Committee which the land owners had earlier rejected. The committee had told the people that government owns the land and as such, government would pay
N150 million as palliative to the 3 Local Government Areas of Mkpat Enin, Ikot Abasi and Eastern Obolo. So, the people said no! That was a misnomer and aside that fact, one of the problems which was part of the resolutions reached by the communities was that, in matters of this nature, there are statutorily empowered bodies that should be in charge and in this case, there is an ad-hoc committee on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), that came on board after the press conference at Ikot Ekpang Village in Mkpat Enin where youth were almost rioting and went to attack the contractors. After that, the next day, Ministry of Lands that is empowered by law came to say it was coming to see the communities.
That was mere hearsay but, what is important is that, the people have not been consulted by the government.
Is the project going on even as government has not consulted the land owners?
As we speak, there is a building project at Ikot Akpan Udo, where the coconut would be refined but, the supposed raw materials to feed the refinery is not there. If you go there now you will weep, some of the coconut seedlings planted there have become stunted and overgrown by weeds.
Sometime ago, it was alleged that Ministry of Agriculture imported those seedlings from Cote d’Ivoire in conjunction with NIFOR at $5 US Dollars per seedling times over 24,000 seedlings. In fact, it is said that the purchase of those seedlings was about N3.5 billion and that some of them have died.
Well! From a report by one Prof. Ndon who was Special Adviser to the Governor on Agriculture, the land cannot sustain these seedlings. Maybe that is why these seedlings cannot grow there successfully. We understand the Professor was sacked for giving the Governor a direct advice because, he was not in support of importing those seedlings and keeping them in one place when the land for planting was not ready.
Why did the government import those seedlings from abroad when they can be procured from either NIFOR, Badagary in Lagos or IITA in Ibadan?
Well! You have made the statement yourself otherwise, that would be a question to be addressed to the Government of Akwa Ibom State. So, if you are seeing it as a conduit you have said so yourself.
But do you think the project would be realizable when the tenure of the present administration is running out, while the coconut seedlings are still at nursery level?
I am not a professional in that field but, based on reports I have read, this particular breed of seedlings is supposed to take 3-5 years to bear fruits.
Secondly, information reaching me is that, Dr. Sydney Udofot and Chairman of the defunct MoU drafting Committee, Mr. Francis Uduyork, Mr Otobong Ndem among other politicians from Ikot Abasi Federal Constituency have concluded plans in connivance with the State Government to divert the money meant for the payment of compensation into the campaign funds of Governor Emmanuel in 2019. Dr. Udofot is conniving to mortgage the fortunes of the communities to serve his political interest; we are aware he has been promised an appointment by the governor and so, he is doing that to service his desire.
How many years now since the seedlings were planted?
Well! I am not a good mathematician but I think it is close to 3 years and my worry is that, government has not have abandonment plan of the project should in case it folds up. To me, I think the project is more of a white elephant project.
As an Attorney expected to bring government to the negotiation table with the communities, do you have the hope that this impasse would be resolved?
I want to believe that Deacon Udom as a person has a good heart or listening ear unless he has not heard all that we have been saying over the radio and television. I know as a Deacon of a Church who reads the Bible I am hopeful that, based on his appropriation in 2018 budget that our communities have been captured for compensation.
Last week we were on radio and we understand that after the programme the Commissioner for Agriculture came up to say that government is going to pay the compensation in four days but, meanwhile, notice of revocation has not been published nor any meeting held between the Lands Commissioner, Agriculture and the owners of the land.
But is it also true that the youth were warming up to protest government’s attitude towards the communities’ demands?
Yes! The youth were warming up for protest but I am not aware they have gone to uproot the coconut seedlings at the plantation in order to convert the land for farming.
Our youth cannot be that unreasonable though, they had wanted to carry out a peaceful protest. We have already informed the Police Inspector-General, Akwa Ibom CP would be notified and in the course of letting people know what we are going through, the Presidency is fully aware. A letter was sent to the Governor last year and even the National Security Adviser was informed of the security implications of the attitude of Awka Ibom State Government towards the host communities since it is viewed as a subtle way of instigating crisis and blame it on youth.
So, we want to use this medium to let Governor Udom know that, we are not only talking about payment of compensation, which is constitutionally guaranteed but, the treatment of the people from those communities as human begins. Let him do the right thing and that is the message we are sending to him. You don’t commandeer peoples land illegally for development and then announce it to the world without proper consultation.
Can you shed more light on the disagreement between certain communities in Ikpa Ibom over the transmission line project?
Yes! About 4 villages; Ikot Ekong, Ikot Oyoro, Ndon and Ibotio villages in Mkpat Enin are supposed to be beneficiaries of the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) project. You know the power project initially belonged to Mobil/NNPC joint Venture before the Qua Iboe Power Plant (QIPP) Limited took over the ownership and then currently, Dangote Group, Black Ryno and others are involved in the project. Weeks ago, Akwa Ibom Government had signed MoU with Black Ryno. The project spans from Ibeno to Onna, Mkpat Enin and terminates at Ikot Abasi.
So, these 4 villages actually engaged us that, one Ferdinand Ekwueme came to their communities in 2012 to inform them of the TCN project, and to also delineate and value crops and lands because the World Bank is interested in the resettlement plan so that there would not be any crisis.
So, from their brief I was told that the consultant to TCN, Ekwueme, because of the money coming to these communities as resettlement plan, has come to tell them that they would not be among the beneficiaries of the resettlement plan as the land now belongs to Akwa Ibom State University.
Now, what they have told me is that, Ikot Akpaden Village is also a beneficiary who will be paid based on the resettlement plan, while these other 4 communities will not be beneficiaries since the land belongs to the University.
So, are these communities not playing host to the University?
They are. But, I am wondering what their intentions are because all these things are what can bring problem. We have written the owners of the project about it and the TCN, for this issue to be addressed.
We have also written to the affiliates and the VC of AKSU but up till now they are still silent. In the meeting I attended with the 4 villages, the people so much expressed anger that anytime they see the consultant they will not allow him to do anything there until the 4 villages are carried along.
Having written to these affiliates, what has been their response?
As we speak, there is no response and even recently, we have written another letter as a pro-action notice. We are interested in development and let it not be misconstrued that Mkpat Enin people don’t like development.
All we saying is that, whatever you are doing you should follow the due process by carrying the people along so that there would be peace.