Paul Osuyi, Asaba
The people of Ajaji community in Illah, Oshimili North Local Government Area of Delta State, are not happy with the state government. Right under their nose, the state government allegedly leased out a large chunk of their land to a private firm with interest in agriculture.
Trouble started several years ago when Delta was yet to be carved out of the defunct Mid-West Region. At the time, there was a land dispute between three communities, including Ajaji in Illah, Ogbe-Onihe in Akwukwu-Igbo and Ugbolu.
The dispute threatened peaceful co-existence with the potential of claiming lives. To resolve the brewing crisis, the then regional government declared the disputed area, a vast expanse of land, Forest Reserve, barring the communities from encroaching in whatever guise.
Decades later, a company, Northsworthy Investments, is preparing the land for a palm plantation, even though the area has not been de-reserved, according to the people of Ajaji who are laying claim to over 90 per cent of the hitherto disputed land.
The land preparation followed a ground breaking ceremony for the launch of the farm project at the Forest Reserve, which held two years ago at Akwukwu-Igbo, the headquarters of Oshimili North Local Government Area.
Northsworthy Investments, it was learnt, had negotiations with the Delta State government without the inputs of Ajaji, and probably the other two contending communities, before the area was leased out for the cultivation of oil palm.
According to the Odogwu of Ajaji community, Prince Ugo Chime, when it was noticed that Northsworthy was clearing the land, the people of Ajaji staged a peaceful protest, which led to a meeting between the community, the company and the state government.
“At that meeting, we made it abundantly clear that there should be no further activities at the site, pending the resolution of the unclear circumstances surrounding the presence of the company at the site and the conditions under which they would operate.
“As a follow-up to this meeting, our community was invited to a meeting at the office of the then Secretary to State Government, Ovie Agas.
“He (Agas) advised that we put up a draft memorandum of understanding (MoU) while he, on his part, would open a file for his office and the Office of the Governor since a new government would soon take over. This, he said, would ensure continuity with the next government.
“Without further engagement, we observed that the company had encroached into a vast area of our land outside the Reserve. This was confirmed by a government’s survey plan leasing the land to Northsworty.
“It is also pertinent to mention that ‘Iyi-Ocha’ River is the natural boundary between Ajaji-Illah and Ogbe-Onihe in Akwukwu-Igbo. This explains why the vast area of land belongs to us,” Chime claimed.
He threatened that, if the community is pushed to the wall by the alleged non-challance of government with regard to the involvement of Ajaji in the investment, they would have take legal action.
Chime further threatened that the community would go to war to reclaim what naturally and rightfully belonged to them, if all their legal steps failed to yield desired result, warning that their peaceful nature should not be taken for cowardice.
The alleged further encroachment re-awakened the agitation by the community that the state government had leased out their land without their consent, triggering another round of protests.
In a protest letter to Governor Ifeanyi Okowa obtained by our correspondent, the agrarian people said they were being dispossessed of their chief source of livelihood with the attendant adverse effect on the local economy following the persistent illegal acquisition of their land.
The letter, signed by the Diokpa of the community, Francis Chukwurah, also stated that they “are averse to the mention of Akwukwu-Igbo as the official address/location of the Forest Reserve, which is mainly in Ajaji-Illah land and the exclusion of Ajaji camp settlement in the survey plan.
“In the light of the foregoing, we directed our lawyer, Mr. Patrick Oganwa, Esq., to write a letter to the government to know our fate in the ongoing project.
“This culminated in an invitation of our community to a meeting by the Chief Economic Adviser to the Governor, Dr. Kingsley Emu, where we were privileged to see the survey plan.
“At the meeting, we were assured that a meeting would be convened within the next seven days, which was never convened until we received a letter dated 5th December, 2019, by the Chief Economic Adviser to the Governor. A cursory look at the surplus plan attached to the letter under reference reveals: ‘State Lease to Northsworthy Investment Limited’.
“Your Excellency Sir, our idea is that if the state government were to de-reserve the forest, the land area automatically reverts to the original owners. We are, however, pained to observe that the land in question has been leased to a private limited company, contrary to the provisions of the Land Use Act.”
The community demanded that the governor use his good office to do the needful by directing the company to steer clear of the land outside the Forest Reserve.
“That further activities at the project site should be suspended pending the resolution of the identified grey areas; and that the 90 per cent ownership of the land by Ajaji-Illah should reflect in the entire dominance of the equity accruals of all the ancillary advantages,” it added.
Reacting to the recent protest, Emu said the law was clear on the management of forest reserves. On allegations of encroachment into Ajaji by the company and the non-involvement of the community in the negotiation processes, Emu said there was a joint review of the exercise going on between the community and the state government.
On his part, the Delta State Commissioner for Information, Charles Aniagwu, appealed for patience in order to resolve the issue, saying the benefits of the investment by Northsworty would be enormous to the host community, and they should not lose the chance.
“We are aware of that. It is the issue of industrialization. You will recall that Northsworthy met the community. Obviously, there is a section of the community not happy with this initiative
“But if they realise that Northsworthy is bringing a lot of investment into the community which will get them gainfully employed, they will do everything to support this project.
“As a people, we should take steps to support industry and those that have come to industrialised our community, because, when we do this, we benefit. Northsworthy has made a huge investment in that community. I hope they are able to resolve this amicably,” Aniagwu said.