From Chidi Nnadi, Enugu
Ordinarily, the vice chancellor of a university can address the press on issues without necessarily drawing the attention of the members of the Governing Council of the institution.
But that Thursday afternoon was different at the Federal University of Technology Owerri (FUTO) in Imo State as the Vice Chancellor, Prof Francis Eze had arrived at the Council/Senate Chamber with the Pro-Chancellor/Chairman of the Governing Council of the institution, Dr Emmanuel Enemuo, and other principal officers of the university to acquaint the press of a pertinent issue.
The university authorities were, indeed, upset over the encroachment on the 4,500 hectares of land of the university acquired by the Federal Government in 1982, and which compensation, they said, was duly paid to the host communities.
A sketch map released by the institution shows that it has boundaries with Obinze, Eziobodo, Okolochi, Amaorie Omanze, Ihiagwa, Nekede, and Avu, all in Owerri-West Local Government Area of Imo State with the portions of land mapped out for the university’s teaching hospital, senior staff housing units, and student hostels sports complex already badly encroached upon by the host communities.
Before going to the site for the proposed teaching hospital of the university where a youth from the Avu community was seen working with a bulldozer that has cleared almost the whole portion of the land, the vice chancellor and pro-chancellor had told the journalists their predicaments.
Stating the importance of the meeting, the Pro-Chancellor, Dr Enemuo said: “This briefing should have been essentially for the management, the council doesn’t have to be around, but when I was told about this, to underscore the importance of the topic I decided to be personality present to stand by the vice chancellor to show support for the problems that we are having and to help in whatever way that I can to proffer solutions.”
According to Enemuo, the Federal Government has paid full compensation to the owners of the land acquired for the university, saying that the demarcation of the parcel of land was unambiguous as it was clearly mapped out “and the record both the physical drawing and the survey plan are all recorded and exist in our archives.”
He disclosed that the first encounter he had with the communities was when they approached him to say that they would like the Council to cede part of the university land to them.
“But before then, encroachment on the university land had already gone to an advanced level which we witnessed; in fact, the first meeting we held as council, we went round to see for ourselves the extent of the encroachment even at that time, it was massive.
“When they came, all we told them was the truth. We don’t have the power, the council and management of the university have no powers to cede even a square foot of the university land because the university land belongs to the Federal Government, and this is Federal Government land. Our job here is to protect the integrity of the Federal Government property placed on our charge and that is all.
“The next we saw was that they wanted to start developing the land and we were invaded by the youths of the community who deployed such destruction and havoc on the university’s property; all we did was to call in the police. The police by the sheer number of the youths that engaged in the act were helpless; they went and destroyed all that was in the site until they got tired.”
Dr Enemuo disclosed that the university had written to the Federal Government through the then Minister for Education and Executive Secretary of the National University Commission, as well as the governor of Imo State, Owelle Rochas Okorocha as the custodian of all rights to land in the state.
“We didn’t stop there; despite everything we have done, despite the letters we have written to the communities, despite our approach to them, the encroachment has continued unabated. Recently, it got to a level where they now cleared a very large portion of university land, we don’t know who actually was involved in this, whether it is the host community, whether it is land speculators, we don’t know. But each time we go there, we find people just developing the university land; that was why the vice chancellor said we must cry out.”
He, therefore, called on the Federal Government to come and help them get back the encroached land, saying that they still remain custodians and protectors of the integrity of the Federal Government property.
Also speaking, the Vice Chancellor, Prof Eze said they decided to cry out over “the incessant and provocative acts of encroachment on the land duly and legally vested on the Federal University of Technology Owerri as a corporate and indissoluble body.”
He said that the “illegal incursion and constant threats of annexation of FUTO land by some isolated opinion leaders of the host communities and other persons have recently assumed intolerable dimension.
“We have been used to occasional demonstrations by some women and youths sponsored by the same elite of the host communities over purported loss of their land to FUTO. During such occasions, the authorities of FUTO had always made them to understand that the land was freely given and legally acquired by the Federal Government of Nigeria through the various official instruments of the Imo State government.
“The Imo State government was misinformed in excising 75 per cent of FUTO land in 2013. The University Governing Council and Management in conjunction with Federal authorities rose up to the occasion and met with the Governor of Imo State, His Excellency, Owelle Rochas Okorocha with enough evidence/documentation supporting our ownership of the title to land. This led to the governor’s withdrawal of his revocation order. This was duly gazetted by the Imo State government.
“In this regard, therefore, neither the Governing Council nor the university management has any authority to cede even the smallest portion of the land belonging to FUTO to any individual or group of individuals. We have had a long history of forced entry, disruption of university activities, destruction of FUTO property, molestation of staff of the university, culpable invasion and even plotting and selling off parts of the university land by the same belligerent group masquerading under the veneer of host communities solidarity. As a law abiding corporate citizen, the leadership of the university usually adopts the path of peace, discussion and convincing argument to press home the fact that the land acquired by FUTO is in perpetuity.”
He also disclosed that in their bid to maintain cordial and mutually benefitting relationship, the university has cultivated over the years a closely knit network of corporate social responsibility with virtually all the nine host communities.
“The university reserves special admission policy in favour of all qualified candidates from the host communities. Award of contracts, employment of mostly junior staff, security personnel and qualified high calibre staff are often extended to members of the host communities. Other forms of CSR like organization and hosting of seminars/workshops for youths and women in the field of agriculture and entrepreneurship have been undertaken by the university to foster peace and concord with the host community. The latest goodwill initiative is the medical services rendered at no cost by the university for eye patients, spread across the host communities. More are still coming as the university’s IGR improves,” he promised.
Against this backdrop, Prof Eze said that the “university condemns in the strongest possible terms the activities of land speculators who have invaded a large portion of land belonging to the university along the Avu axis of the Owerri/Port Harcourt road, using heavy equipment to annex and parcel out the land.”
After the talk in the Council/Senate Chamber, it was then time to visit the sites that were said to have been encroached upon by the university authorities and the journalists.
At the proposed site for the university’s teaching hospital, a middle-aged man, Mr Ifeanyi Oparaku, who claimed to be the Chief Security Officer for the Avu community was seen working with a bulldozer.
Oparaku said that his community had cried to the Imo State government to help them get back their land from FUTO, a claim the university authorities punctured, saying that Governor Okorocha had returned to the institution the one he had earlier revoked.
But Oparaku insisted that the large portion he has already cleared, almost all the portion for the proposed teaching hospital, has been returned to his community.
“FUTO has taken our land for a long time since 1984, when I was small. We ran to the government to come and help us to retrieve our land. In 2006 when they were doing the survey of this place I met with Survey Njoku and nothing was given to me. I collected the survey plan and they were chasing me with the police. Major General and our Eze called me to release the paper to them that they would compensate me, but they didn’t give me anything. One security man in my community came and deceived me and I gave them the paper and since that time till now I have not even received a call from them.”
He said that they have taken over their land and would start building on it, saying that their ancestral home was no longer conducive for habitation.
“As you see me now, if I have been receiving some thing as people that they took their land I would have been somebody by now. Nobody gave us compensation and whatever compensation you gave in the past I’m not aware and it’s gone. The people you had agreement with, you can collect their own land here, but my dad’s name wasn’t in that agreement. My dad’s name was not in the gazette.
“Now, we want to develop this place, make it a home for all of us. Me I have my money to develop so that the FUTO staff can come and live here and be paying me rent. I am the CSO of this community for security and direction, my boys have left.”
When contacted, the Chief of Staff to Governor Okorocha, Chief Uche Nwosu, said that the state government has not authorized anybody to encourage on any part of the FUTO.
Meanwhile the FUTO authorities have warned those who may go to purchase those portions of land taken away by force by the host communities to beware as they would stand to lose in the long run.