|Gov. Willie Obiano|
Umuezeotutu village, bounded by Okija in the north, Azia in the east, Umumeri in the west and Mbarapkaka in the south, lies along the Onitsha-Owerri expressway. When the colonial masters came to the area, they found the location suitable for locating government offices and subsequently approached the elders of the community who willingly donated the land to them. But it could not be ascertained how much compensation the then government paid to the people.
Virtually all government institutions in the local government area, including the local government headquarters, Magistrate and High Courts, Police, Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC, Health Centre and Federal Road Maintenance Agency, FERMA, are located on the controversial land.
Following lack of land for their current farming activities, the villagers went into the area and started farming on the undeveloped portions. However, no sooner did this happen, than government bulldozers went in and uprooted the crops on the allegation that the people were encroaching on government land.
With many sons and daughters of the village now well educated, they looked into the books and found out that the colonial masters did not pay the community any compensation for acquiring the land.
After several deliberations, they began to mount pressure on government, complaining that the acquisition had denied their teeming youths available land spaces to build their own homes in their native community. Besides, they argued that despite the fact that they were denied making use of their land, their people were not given preferential treatment in employment in the institutions located in the area.
What particularly irked them was the Anambra State Judiciary’s claim that the large parcel of land belongs to it, asking, what will the judiciary be doing with over 1,000 plots of land in a village that is not close to the state capital? To them, some members of the state Judiciary want to forcefully acquire their land for their personal gains.
As part of efforts to mount pressure on the state government to rescind the decision, the aggrieved people of Umuezeotutu recently staged a protest at the site where Judges’ Quarters are currently being constructed and expressed disgust over the manner bulldozers were allegedly deployed to their farms by the contractor handling the construction of the Judges’ building project and destroyed their crops without prior notice to them.
Though the people said they were not opposed to government acquisition of any part of their land for development purposes, they, however, insisted that the cause of their anguish was that due process was not followed in the acquisition of their land.
“The state government neither consulted our elders on the matter, nor paid any compensation for our economic trees being destroyed. ”Besides, over 40 hectares of land totaling over 1,000 plots, just to accommodate Courts and Judges Quarters and other recreational facilities, are indeed too much,” they said.
A youth leader in the area, Mr. Offor Nnajiofor recalled that some time ago, a group of judiciary staff came to the village and said they were looking for their elders. “At the meeting, they showed our people a survey plan that was done in 1975 and said that our forefathers gave them this land in 1910. The local government is on our land, Achala health centre is on our land, Magistrate Courts 1, 2 and 3 are on our land, customary court is on our land,” he said.
Mr. Festus Okwundu, aged 89 said: “My father died in 1946. He was farming here. Our anger is that no compensation has been paid to us and nobody has ever called us to a meeting to tell us that government wants to take over our land.”
Mary Offodum, a widow aged 60 and Virginia Onyejemeni were among those whose crops were destroyed. Offodum said:”They came and destroyed our farmland and all our crops. I have four children but I am staying with only one now and I don’t know where I am going to get the money to pay her school fees because they have destroyed everything I have in my farm.”
On her part, Onyejemeni said: “I am very angry. My cassava farm has been destroyed by the government and up till now, no compensation has been paid to me. They should pay me because I suffered to plant the cassava. They said that it is the Judge that told them to do it, but I don’t believe that any Judge will have the mind to tell them to destroy our farmland like that.”
But contrary to the claims by the natives, the state Judiciary insisted that the land in question belongs to it. Deputy Chief Registrar in charge of Planning, Research, Statistics and Stores in the High Court of Anambra State, Mr. Michael Mbanefo said the entire land known as “Ana Court Oduga” was donated to the state Judiciary in 1910 by the then traditional ruler of Ihiala, Oluoha Odimegwu Igwegbe.
According to him, the land was donated to the then colonial administration through Captain Dermot O’Conner for establishment of a provincial court, other court complexes and government stations, adding that the entire land was later captured and delineated in a survey plan No. OAC (A015) in 1975.
He said that Oluoha, as the custodian of Ihiala customs, tradition and lands, reserved overriding powers over any other clan or person in Ihiala over land in the area.
Mbanefo, however, described the allegation by the villagers that they were not given notice before bulldozers were deployed to clear the land for the construction of the Judges’ Quarters as false, saying that before the commencement of clearing of the site, a delegation of the state Judiciary management met with the natives and informed them about the plan to commence the construction of the Judges Quarters in the area.
“As I speak, we have not received any list from any of the villagers and we took it that everybody harvested his crops and that nobody’s crops were destroyed,” Mbanefo stated. Besides, he expressed surprise that the natives were complaining against the sitting of the Judiciary in their area, saying that there are communities who even lobby for it to be located in their area because it brings development to their town.