From Chijioke Agwu, Abakaliki
The relationship between the Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu Alike Ikwo, Ebonyi State (AE-FUNAI), and its host communities of Ikwo Local Government Area of the state has gone sour as a result of the reluctance or alleged inability of the institution and other concerned authorities to adequately compensate and resettle families whose ancestral homes and farmlands were annexed when siting the university.
So, many of them still live with the students on the campus and their headache is that the dangers of living with students has started manifesting. The affected families said they could no longer keep quiet.
The latest is the alleged threat by indigenous landowners, known as Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu Alike Ikwo Indigenous Landowners, to disrupt academic activities in the school, if the issue of their compensation was not handled soon.
AE-FUNAI started with the name Federal University, Ndufu Alike Ikwo (FUNAI), Ebonyi State, but was renamed AE-FUNAI after Second Republic Vice-President of Nigeria, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, to immortalize upon his death in 2017.
The school was among the nine federal universities established by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 to grant more access to higher education to states without federal universities.
Upon the establishment of the school, the then Governor of Ebonyi State, Chief Martin Elechi, influenced its location to Ikwo, his own LGA.
The governor, it was gathered, in agreement with other stakeholders of the community, donated a tract of the community’s land, about 438 hectares, to the Federal Ministry of Education for the institution. It was further gathered that the area donated by the community was almost double what is statutorily required by law for the establishment of a university in Nigeria.
Daily Sun also learnt that the then administration of Governor Elechi had promised adequate compensation and resettlement of the families and persons whose farmlands and ancestral homes were affected.
However, about 10 years after the establishment of the university, the affected families and persons are yet to be compensated.
Our correspondent, who visited the campus of the university, saw that some of the affected families were still living inside the campus.
President of the indigenous landowners association, Hezekiah Odum, told Daily Sun that over 150 families were trapped on the school campus, and although it was a difficult experience, they had put up with it because they had nowhere else to go.
Odum lamented that all efforts to get the school management and the government of Ebonyi State to compensate and resettle them had failed. He called on the authorities to look into their plights and address them in order to avoid a situation where youths of the community could resort to self-help.
“There are over 150 family units affected. For instance, in our own family, the family of the late Philip Odum, we are seven sons, and the sons are married with children. Some of us have eight children, some five children, yet we are referred to as one family. So, when you talk about the Odum family, you are invariably referring to seven distinct family units. This place was well populated before FUNAI came. There are sides you will enter inside the campus you will not believe the number of villagers you will see there. We are still living inside the campus because we have nowhere else to go because all our ancestral lands were affected,” he said.
Odum declared that their innocence as a traditional Igbo community with undiluted serenity has been violated as he harped on the negative implications of rearing children in the midst of undergraduates from all manner of backgrounds consisting of the good, the bad and the ugly.
He said: “The challenge is that the university community has its own mixture of characters and it is not good to raise your children in such an environment. Some of the students are good, while some of them are bad. And it is not even good for the school and the students because they may not clearly differentiate who is their neighbour or a total stranger. A stranger may enter the students’ hostel, they may mistake him or her as one of the people living inside the school and before you know it, the person may commit serious crime. That is the danger. We are in serious trouble here.”
Addressing the presidential visitation panel to the university during a town hall meeting at the institution on April 28, Odum warned that youths of the area may soon resort to violence by disrupting academic activities and management meetings of the institutions, if the concerned authorities failed to address the issue urgently.
He said: “It is our appeal and demand that the concerned authorities should take urgent measures to compensate and resettle us because, one day, our youths may begin to carry guns and machetes to disrupt academic activities and management meetings.”
Mrs. Florence Elom, a mother of five children, told our correspondent in her hut within the campus that the expanding infrastructural development in the campus has occasioned severe hardship on them as their farmlands were being taken over for construction of classrooms, hostels and other facilities.
She appealed to the school authorities and the Ebonyi State government to come to their aid by ensuring the needful was done urgently.
“My family and many others, as you can see, were living here peacefully until one day in 2011 when we saw some people measuring these areas. We asked what the matter was and we were told that all these areas had been ceded to the Federal Government by the Ebonyi State government for the establishment of a university. We wanted to protest but they told us not to worry that we shall be relocated and compensated shortly.
“Since that time till now, nobody has even called us for a meeting let alone compensation. The major challenge now is hardship because the land we hitherto used for farming has been taken over for infrastructural development in the school,” Elom said.
A stakeholder in the community and chairman of Amagu Echara Community, Chief Nwudele Alobu, stated that the community and four other villages affected had, out of frustration, dragged the Ebonyi State government to court, asking the court to compel it to compensate them.
The community leader explained: “We waited from 2011 till 2020 and there was no compensation. Then we decided to join in the suit already instituted by another village at the state High Court. As of today, judgment has not been delivered on the matter. Although the presiding judge had always advised the government lawyer and the lawyer representing AE-FUNAI to go and settle with us outside the court, but nothing has been done in that regard.”
Secretary of Amagu Achara village, Aloysius Nnabo, said the worst of it was that the school management does not give them any sense of belonging as the host community in terms of employment and admission opportunities.
“Even in spite of the takeover of our ancestral lands and farmlands, the school does not even give us a sense of belonging in terms of admission, employment, et cetera. We did not commit any crime in ceding our inherited property for the construction of this university. We are calling on the school to stop maltreating us.
“Even when they are doing functions, they don’t normally invite us. They claimed that the university will bring jobs and development to us but we can’t see the development. Instead, what we are seeing is suffering and marginalization. To say the fact, their promises of compensation remain a mirage till date,” Nnabo said.
Like the host community, vice-chancellor of the university, Prof. Sunday Elom, also appealed to Ebonyi State government to make efforts and keep to its words by compensating and resettling the affected families, in the interest of peace, stressing that the issue of compensation of the landowners was beginning to affect the good relationship that existed between the institution and the host community.
Speaking during the visit of the presidential panel, Elom noted that the management of the school had maintained a robust relationship with the host community since the establishment of the school a decade ago.
According to him, the university has consistently engaged the community by giving them employment and admission opportunities as a way of cushioning the painful effects of the loss of their lands.
He, therefore, appealed to the Government of Ebonyi State whom he said surveyed and handed over the land to the institution to compensate and relocate the original land owners in the interest of peace and progress of the university.
He said: “I want to use this opportunity to once again appeal to the Ebonyi State government to intervene in the compensation and relocation of the indigenes of the host community who are still residing and farming on the university land to forestall breakdown of law and order within the campus, and to ensure that the infrastructural expansion going on in the university is not stopped.”
In his remarks, chairman of the visitation panel, Usman Sarki, said his team was merely on a fact-finding mission and not on investigation, but promised to report the matter and other issues raised at the meeting to President Muhammadu Buhari for actions.