Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
A war is brewing in Agudama-Epie community in Yenagoa Local Government Area, Bayelsa State, over moves by the Central Naval Command (CNC), Nigerian Navy, to demolish buildings around its headquarters, known as Camp Porbeni. Until 2013, Camp Porbeni was the cynosure of all eyes when entering Yenagoa because its alluring environment had been used by the Nigerian Army to accommodate its top officers and by Julius Berger as residential quarters for its management staff. However, at the creation of CNC by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration, it was the turn of the Navy to use the posh accommodation. Initially, the Navy had the place on lease but later proposed to buy it and the deal sailed through.
Having the Nigerian Navy in the neighbourhood was celebrated by residents of the area. The joy was, however, short-lived as some of them were locked in a struggle for their land, with threats of demolition hovering over their heads. What first started as friendly negotiations turned into a war of attrition between some landlords and the Nigerian Navy. The landlords, who insisted that they bought their various portions of land legitimately, were irked that the Navy wanted to forcefully take over their land.
Aseiye Ebikibina said: “I am a landlord. I bought this place known as Okira bush from Agudama community. We bought it in 2007, some bought in 2012. We have built our houses and lived peacefully without disturbance or challenge from anybody.
“In 2014, Nigerian Navy Central Naval Command first rented Camp Pobeni. Later they said they were interested in buying the land and it was sold to them. After that, the Navy approached us that they were interested in buying the land at the back of Camp Porbeni.
“In early 2014, they came from Abuja and took pictures. They explained that they were taking the pictures to Abuja for the Chief of Naval Staff to approve the necessary compensations. They said after paying compensation they would come and evacuate us.
“Signs of trouble first appeared when, one fateful day in 2014, some naval men invaded the area and sacked two of the landlords from their houses. This rang an alarm bell and we decided to take the actions of the navy to the public domain.
“We became afraid and decided to protest to AIT. Government intervened and after that government representatives and the Navy came to address us, apologised and said the situation would not repeat itself. They said there would not be any further demolition and that the issue would be resolved amicably.”
Investigations revealed that the landlords not wanting to leave anything to chances headed to court but the Navy refused to appear in court. The matter dragged until the Navy approached the landlords again appealing that the matter should be resolved amicably.
Ebikibina said again: “On March 9, 2019, the Navy invited all the landlords to a meeting at the CNC headquarters. They told us that they would value our buildings and compensate us amicably and accordingly. We were happy. They came and carried out the valuations. They left and promised to reach us.
“We waited until September 2019 when the Navy served us a quit notice of 25 working days to evacuate. That they were coming to make use of their land. We were surprised and asked why. They informed us that they are military men and would not pay any compensation. The Navy went to Bayelsa Physical Planning Board and the officials came to serve us quit notice. We told them we would not evacuate.”
Due to the political tension that gripped the state then, the matter died down. Ebikibina said the matter, however, resurfaced: “On March 4, 2020, the Navy invited us for another meeting. They told us they wanted to make use of the two-storey building behind Camp Porbeni. They wanted to construct an access road for their officers and that we should evacuate because they would commence demolition on Saturday, March 7.
“They offered us N100,000 each for our houses as compensation. They threatened that whether we took the money or not, they would demolish our buildings.
“As it is now, we are waiting for them to come and demolish. We have taken our protest to government. As landlords, we don’t believe in violence but Navy wants to come and take our land forcefully. The Navy should be ready to kill us all.”
Another landlord, Benjamin, said: “Navy people have been coming here to embarrass us. Initially, they came and took pictures and promised to pay us compensation. We told them that since they wanted to make use of the land, they should settle us and we would go. We are not going to leave this place, let the Navy do the right thing and pay us compensation. I am ready to die with my family, if Navy wants to take this land by force.”
Emmanuel is another landlord: “We were not blindfolded to have built on the land. We bought this land individually and we have been living peacefully until the Nigerian Navy came.
“The Navy said it had interest in our land since their portion of land was not enough. We did not object, if they were going to pay compensation. They assured us that they were military and were not ready to encroach on our land illegally. We were called for a meeting and we were assured that our lands would be valued and they would pay us compensation accordingly.
“Rather than stick to the agreed plan to pay compensation, suddenly, they were singing another tune. The Navy should protect the lives and property of citizens, not destroy them.
“This is very wrong. Since we don’t have arms and ammunition to stop them from taking our lands, we are crying out to government to help us.”
The landlords vehemently refused to collect the N100,000 compensation. They instead staged a protest to the House of Assembly and Government House, Yenagoa. A government representative, Mr. Lucky Youbogha, assured them that their concerns would be addressed by Governor Douye Diri.
A widow, Madam Okorie, in an emotion-laden voice, summarised the plight of the landlords: “The Navy wants to take my house. They have already destroyed the small farms, the plantain, cocoyam and sugarcane that I have been using to survive.
“I am a widow. My daughter who built the house for me is late. She had no child to leave behind for me to take care. I used the house to remember her. And this is the house the Navy wants to take and say it would give me N100,000.
“I asked them: What would I do with the money? They said I should write an undertaking that I have collected the money. But I told the naval officer that my daughter is late and that I won’t allow them to take my land.
“When I moved into this place, Navy was not even in Bayelsa. We begged them to compensate us and we would have no problem with them. Navy said they were the ones protecting our life and property and now they want to destroy them without giving us anything.
“I have six children and sent them to school with my little farm. They are all graduates and have no jobs. It is in this situation that the Navy wants to demolish my building. I have told them that, if they demolish the house, they must be ready to demolish me too.”
At the CNC, the spokesman declined comments when asked for reactions over the claims of the landlords. However, an officer who declined to mention his name because he was not authorised to talk denied all the allegations.
He said since government has waded into the problem, the naval authorities would wait for the government resolution mechanism before any further action.