Chijioke Agwu, Abakaliki
At the moment, there is some tension between the people of Akaeze autonomous community in Ivo Local Government Area of Ebonyi State and the Assemblies of God Church, Nigeria.
The people of the community are worried over the undue delay by the authorities of the church in developing the land donated to them by the community for the construction of the permanent site of the church’s university, Evangel University Akaeze. The donation was made in 2010, it was gathered.
The community lamented that more than a decade after relinquishing their farmlands to the Assemblies of God Church and the Evangel University, nothing had been done on the land.
Ezeogo Joseph Ubani Onu, the Ezeoke Oyiri I of Akaeze, told the reporter in his palace that families and individuals who surrendered their hectares of land that make up the entire space given to the church have been angling to take their land back for farming purposes since the school appeared not to be coming on stream.
Ezeogo Onu, who stated that the church had told them in 2010 that the Akaeze permanent site of the school would be ready in a matter of two or three years, appealed to the authorities of the Assemblies of God Church to start work at the site as a matter of urgency or relinquish the land to the community to enable their people return to the farm in preparation against the imminent post-COVID-19 hunger.
He said: “The people of Akaeze donated that land to the Assemblies of God Church to build Evangel University about 10 or 11 years ago. It was the time Rev. Charles Osueke was in charge of the church as General Superintendent. But after Osueke retired from the church, we started hearing that the new leadership of the church was having problems, so we don’t know if it is because of the internal problem or lack of financial willpower that stopped them from coming to start work in the school.
“At the time we were about giving them the land, they said that they would take off at a temporary site at Okpoto in Ishielu Local Government Area and gradually relocate permanently to Akaeze in a matter of two or three years. But you can see that, 10 years after, nothing has been done.
“However, the current VC of the school, Prof. Kalu, was here in April and he told us that after the coronavirus pandemic, the school authorities might come and start working on the site.”
On the alleged misunderstanding the community had with the church leaders over a purported memorandum of understanding, the traditional ruler explained that the matter had long been resolved.
“Our people wanted them to put in writing what they would do for the community for giving the land to them. They refused to write anything but promised that they would do our people well. We accepted their promise in good faith and asked them to go ahead in developing the site for the permanent takeoff of the school.
“What we are saying now is that, if they are not ready to use the land, they should release it to us so that the owners can farm on them because our people are farmers, and given the situation in the country and in the world today, every community is returning to farm. When you hear about Evangel University, Akaeze, you would think that there is something there. That is bad. We can no longer continue like that because the individual owners of the land have been disturbing us to release their lands to them since the school is no longer holding there but we have been begging them to be more patient.”
A stakeholder in the community and member of the Eze’s Council of Chiefs, Chief Paul Agwu, alleged that there was more to the delay by the church to commence work at the permanent site in Akaeze than mere lack of money.
Agwu, who said he was a member of the Assemblies of God Church in Akaeze, stated that the church had money to start and complete any standard and quality structure it wanted at the permanent site within a year, if it was truly committed to retaining Akaeze as its permanent site.
“I am a member of the Assemblies of God Church in Akaeze. The Assemblies of God I know does not usually waste time in anything it wants to do. It has been a source of worry to us that for about 10 years now that we gave the church that land nothing has been done to start the school. It is not that they don’t have money because I know how many districts we have in Assemblies of God Church of Nigeria. If the church mandates every district in Nigeria to build one department, faculty or hostel to enable the school commence, I can assure you that, within one year, the school would be ready as all districts will be in a kind of competition to be the first to complete their own. So, what is the problem?
“The Akaeze community has also, with the help of the Ezeogo, resolved all disputes and areas of misunderstanding between the church and the people of Akaeze. So, there is nothing stopping them from developing the site. We are appealing to them to come and start the school because our people are losing; our huge land has been wasting for years while the school is not forthcoming,” he lamented.
One of the farmers who donated their farmlands for the construction of the school, Mr. Chibueze Okoro, from Akaezeukwu area of the community, said his family lost about 250 hectares of land at the site released to the church for the university project.
He said his family would be happy to get back the land, since it appeared the school was no more realisable.
“My family donated about 250 hectares of land that formed the site given to them to build the university. We accepted to relinquish such huge land for the purpose of constructing the school because we understand the benefits Akaeze community and other generations of Akaeze coming after us will derive from having the school on our soil.
“Regrettably, more than 10 years after donating the land, the school has not started. We are beginning to wonder if the temporary site in Okpoto in Ishielu Local Government has become the permanent site. A school cannot be in a place for more than 10 years and you still call it temporary site. What we are saying is that if they are not using the land again they should come and tell us so that we can use the land for other purpose,” the youth leader stated.
Another farmer, who also donated land for the school, Chief Emmanuel Ekwesi, stated that the community never lobbied to have the school sited in their area and wondered why the church would be treating them as if they had done any wrong by providing their land for the institution.
“When the church people came for the school, we welcomed them because we know the benefits such as employment for our people, development and business opportunities. So, we gladly welcomed them and gave them that big land; we did not lobby for the school to come here, they came on their own and said it must be in Akaeze and in a place where there was space. But after giving them the land, they ran away and abandoned the place. They said they wanted a land that would accommodate the university, secondary school, hospital, church, police station and many more, and we donated a big land that will accommodate all that. They told our people that they would kick off in Okpoto and within few years return permanently to Akaeze. But it’s over 10 years now, and there is nothing to indicate that they are serious,” Chief Ekwesi said with disappointment.
All manner of reasons have been adduced as why the authorities of the church were yet to start developing the permanent site except for a few coaches of blockwall erected as perimeter fence.
Aside from the leadership crisis bedevilling the church, where two factions had over time emerged, the reporter gathered that some influential members of the church, including a ranking senator from Ebonyi State, had prevailed on the church to discard the development of the Akaeze permanent site.
Although no explanation was given, it was learnt that the senator’s push might not be unconnected with the fact that the current site of the university at Okpoto is in the senator’s cultural zone.
When contacted, vice chancellor of the university, Professor Charles Umechuruba Kalu, told the reporter that the management of the institution had been at loggerheads with the original landowners from the community over compensation for donating their land.
He, however, confirmed that the misunderstanding has been resolved, adding that work would soon commence at the permanent site once the COVID-19 pandemic was over.
Kalu said: “We are working towards relocating to the permanent site. We had little issues with some families who are the original landowners there; they needed certain understanding with us and that matter is almost over. We are going to sign an MOU with the community as soon as the coronavirus is over and work will commence there immediately.”