Chijioke Agwu, Abakaliki
Effort by the Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State administration to build an international cargo airport may have created humanitarian crisis in the state that if not urgently addressed may place the government on the dark side of history.
Presently, many families on the corridors of the proposed airport are homeless, in pains and crying for help as a result of the demolition exercise carried out by agents of the government at Umuoghara, Umuezeoka, Okaleru-Umuezekoha and Oriuzor communities in Ezza North Local Government Area of the state.
Photographs and videos circulating on the social media from the area, showed babies and infants being exposed to harsh weather conditions following the demolition.
According to the natives, the over 200 buildings demolished in the process, have left over 1,000 people displaced, means of livelihood destroyed and heightened fears of imminent epidemic.
They accused the government of destruction of their property, including farmlands without prior notice or compensation to many of the affected families.
Mrs Janet Eze, a 75-year-old widow whose house was allegedly pulled down, said that fate has not been fair to her, having forcibly relocated from Ezillo in Ishielu Local Government Area of the state during the bloody Ezza/Ezillo war to Onuachi Umuezoka with her family to avoid being killed; only to again be displaced.
According to her, with the demolition of her house, she has no other option than to die because there was nobody to cater for her or put a roof over her head.
‘’We had been living in Ezillo until the war started and we were asked to relocate from there to Onuachi for safety. We came to Onuachi and erected the building, and we have been living there till the government came and demolished it.
“My husband is dead and I have nobody who can help me build another one. Now, I wander from one place to another looking for where to eat and sleep. What will happen to my corpse if I die; where will I be buried?” she lamented in tears.
The Federal Ministry of Aviation had in September 2019 granted Ebonyi State government’s request to construct a standard airport in the state.
The approval came after a technical team from the ministry inspected the proposed site of the airport at a boundary between Ezza South and Ezza North Local Government Areas of the state.
Letter of approval addressed to Governor Umahi by the ministry, had directed the state government to ensure it got the clearance of the Department of State Services (DSS) before embarking on the project, and also to remove all obstructions on the land, as well as involve the ministry at every stage of the construction.
Reacting to the approval, the highly elated governor said that he would complete the project in 18 months. He, therefore, directed those living within the affected land marked for the airport construction to vacate the site immediately to enable the government commence construction.
Umahi who spoke while receiving a delegation of Ezza people led by the Secretary to the State Government, Dr Kenneth Ugbala, who were at his Umunaga-Uburu country home to pay him Christmas homage last year, noted that the standard of the airport being constructed would ordinarily take between six to 10 years to complete in other places, but he would deliver the facility in 18 months.
He said that “the tarmac of the airport will be one-foot concrete pavement that is guaranteed to last for more than 50 years. The highest I know is eight inches concrete base, but this one will be one foot concrete pavement that is guaranteed to last for more than 50 years.”
And to ensure that the project is completed and delivered on record time, the government on February 6, 2020, stormed the project sites with bulldozers and other heavy-duty machines and demolished all the buildings, homes, houses, farms, economic trees and indeed, all property within the area marked for the project.
Some citizens and stakeholders of the state have been applauding the governor for his commitment to constructing an airport in the state, which they said would further accelerate the development of the state when completed.
Regardless, others, particularly those whose property were demolished in the process, have been lamenting their losses and the untold hardships brought upon them by the airport project.
Those in this category who spoke to Sunday Sun were categorical that they were not against the project, but primarily bothered that the government destroyed their property, took over their land and abandoned them without the necessary compensation.
With the support of a rights group; Human Rights Liberty Access and Peace Defenders Foundation (HURIDE), some of the victims on Monday, February 24, stormed Abakaliki, and protested their plights.
One of the victims, Mr Amaechi Nworu from Umuezeoka, who lost a six-bedroom bungalow to the demolition, said that his people have been dehumanized by the development.
He said: “I am not against the airport project, but we have been dehumanized by the government because of the airport. We are not comfortable with what they called compensation, which is less than two per cent of value of the property destroyed.
“In my community, they didn’t record the economic trees before pulling them down. My economic trees were pulled down, my farmland with crops; my house and my mother’s house were also destroyed. My house is a six-bedroom bungalow, while my mum’s was four-bedroom.”
Nworu, who put total value of what his family lost at over N30 million, regretted that painfully, the government paid him a paltry compensation of N126, 250 only. He valued his house at over N12 million, pointing out that his mother’s house was not captured; hence, no compensation was paid to her.
The distraught young man expressed hopelessness because the amount given to him would not be able to buy a land for him in any place, especially as the whole community has been dispossessed of its land.
Nworu said: “My demand is that we don’t have any other place to go to. So, since they promised to resettle us, let them do that urgently.
“The situation in my community is very pathetic. Nursing mothers, children, everybody sleeps in the open under very harsh weather and there’s no day that we don’t have one or two persons rushed to the hospital and the money is not there. And the rains would soon set in.
“Unfortunately, truth be told, we are yet to feel the presence of the government that inflicted these pains on us since the incident occurred.”
Another victim, Mrs Ngozi Nwali, a widow and mother of seven, who hails from Onuachi Umuezokoha, said that the whole thing started on December 3, 2019.
“I was returning from the market when I saw bulldozers destroying my house and my farms, including crops; guava, pears, banana, oranges and others. I approached the man in charge of the people driving the bulldozer, and he said ‘you this mad woman, stay here and I will take you to the governor, he will tell you why’. I waited for weeks nobody took me to the governor. Later, they came again with the bulldozers; this time to my cassava farm; I ran to the coordinator of my Development Centre and told him what happened. He promised to come and see what happened, but since then till now; I have never set my eyes on him.
“My husband is dead and I have no one to help me and my seven children. They have stopped going to school because the farm where I used to get what I used to train them has been demolished. Everything I had, including my clothes and those of my children, were also destroyed. We don’t even have what to eat let alone think of paying their school fees. Now, it is under a mango tree in the nearest community that I stay with my children. Every night, mosquito will be biting us and we can’t imagine what will happen when the rainy season starts. We now resort to begging to eat, even the clothes we wear; we have to beg people.”
Mr Jacob Ugbala; a father of four, who said that he lost his four-bedroom bungalow and other property worth over N4million in the demolition said: “They said they will relocate us to another place, build another house for us and pay us compensation, but till now nothing has been done. At this my age, where will I take my wife and my four children to? Should I tell them that their permanent house is now under the tree? No; no, no, I can’t bear this.”
Another victim, a widow and mother of seven, Mrs Angela Nwugo, said that three of her children were supposed to enter the secondary school this year, but the development has put a stop to that since the yams and cassava she planted, hoping to sell them for that purpose were destroyed during the demolition.
Also, another widow and mother of six, Mrs Martina Obaji, who claimed that her building was the first to be demolished by the government, said that she has resorted to selling firewood to cater for her six young children.
She said that her major fear now was that she is in danger of losing the children to sickness since they now sleep outside since the demolition of their home. She appealed to the government to quickly come to their aid.
Another pathetic case is that of an 87-year-old blind and deaf man that has also been rendered homeless. His daughter, Mrs Ngozi Usulor, said that the octogenarian, like several indigenes of her community, has been forced to be sleeping under a tree since the demolition of their house.
She also appealed to the government to have mercy on them and relocate them to another place so that his aged father would not die before his time.
Head of HURIDE’s legal unit in Ebonyi State, Nnamdi Okigbo, who spoke for the displaced persons during the march to the Government House, said that it was wrong and unjust for the government to have embarked on demolition of people’s homes, farms and property without first relocating and adequately compensating those whose lands, homes and property were affected by the project.
He stated that the protest was not against the airport, but to draw the attention of the government to their responsibility to the victims.
Prior to the protest, the victims had written to the governor through their counsel, Gerald Abonyi. In the letter, they drew the attention of the state government to a pending suit at the Federal High Court Abakaliki in respect of the matter where judgment was being expected on March 12.
Abonyi said it was unfortunate and disheartening that the government commenced the demolition of their houses, and other valuable property, despite the pending suit challenging the project.
In the letter addressed to the Attorney General of Ebonyi State and Commissioner for Justice, Cletus Ofoke, the victims expressed surprise and regret that the state authorities went ahead to arbitrarily destroy their property.
Part of the letter stated: “We are legal practitioners representing Mr Nwantiti Christopher Eze and five others and some other members of Umuoghara, Okaleru, and Umuezeoka communities in the above mentioned suit pending at the Federal High Court, Abakaliki; and on whose instruction we write your office.
“It is disheartening and regrettable that despite the pending suit against the government of Ebonyi State waiting the decision of the court, the state authorities went ahead to arbitrarily destroy the property belonging to these peasant communities.
“This ugly development is tantamount to fostering fait accompli on the court because the effect is to render the judgment nugatory and of no effect; where the judgment of the court is in favour of our clients.”
A development expert, Dr Laz Eze decried the government’s action, stating that it was absolutely unacceptable for anyone to be rendered homeless and apparently helpless by government under any guise.
According to Eze, before the demolitions, appropriate compensation should have been paid and adequate time allowed for the relocation of the inhabitants; urging that good policies of the Ebonyi State government should be implemented with a human face.
However, he said since the damage had been done, those who might have misled the government into pulling down people’s homes without notice or adequate compensation should have apologised and resigned their positions.
Regardless, Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Airport Project, Mr Joseph Nwobashi, said that the government conducted a comprehensive enumeration of the affected houses and farmlands and provided compensation for the people affected.
Nwobashi who is also from the area, however, did not give details of the compensation, but said that about N80 million was provided for compensations, adding that some victims had collected while others were yet to collect.
“They have been called to come and take the money, some collected while some have not. They are being deceived by those who took government to court. Our people have told them to withdraw the case and stop fighting the government. Our people with the traditional rulers have mapped out lands for their relocation and they have been asked to come and take their money and pack into this land.
“The houses being demolished are the ones that fall in the runway and the tarmac because that is the major work we are doing now”, he said
But some of the victims told Sunday Sun that they were offered paltry sum of money ranging from N40,000 to N200,000, stressing that what the government offered were far below the losses they incurred from the demolition.
Meanwhile, stakeholders from the Ezza clan, mainly political officeholders, have declared their support for the airport project and promised to support the government to finish the project.
In a communiqué published in national dailies, the stakeholders termed those in court with the government over the project as enemies of Ezza nation and Ezza development.
Similarly, one of the prominent sons of Ezza land and former senator for Ebonyi Central, Chief Paulinus Igwe Nwagu, has described the airport project as a welcome development in Ezza land, adding that the entire people of Ezza were in agreement with the government on the project.
He said: “Let it be clear to the members of the public and indeed Ezza nation that the entire Ezza nation was in total agreement with the state government for the construction of the Ebonyi State International Airport. That’s the reason the following actions are put in place.
“Property were enumerated and valued with the consent of our stakeholders and compensations are paid and are still being paid and I am a member of the committee responsible for screening those affected to ensure the right persons get their compensations.
“Lands had been given to affected persons for immediate relocation/settlement monitored by the committee in collaboration with the community traditional rulers and elders.
“Unfortunately, few individuals who have not contributed to the development of Ezza Ezekuna want to stop government from developing Ezza nation and Ebonyi State in general, because they are claiming that the area is their ancestral home. Then whose ancestral home do they want to be used? For those who don’t know, all the development all over the world started in persons’ ancestral homes, including Aso Rock, which belongs to Gbagi people and down home, Ebonyi Government House was built on the ancestral home of Izzi people etc.
“Let me also inform those who want to know that I was directly and indirectly affected, but I don’t need anything from the government because it’s part of my sacrifice to the development of Ebonyi State. For those who are ignorant of the law that compensations are not exhaustive, government pay compensations based on valuations. Therefore, to me, those who refused to collect their compensations and insisted that the airport should not be constructed are declared enemies of Ezza Ezekuna in particular and Ebonyi State in general.”