Delta SSG, Community In Warpath Over Ancestral Land

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At the moment, the people of Ajaji community in Illah, Oshimili north local government area of Delta State are wailing. They claim to be gradually losing their ancestral land of 533.97 hectares to an agro-allied company.

The locals claimed that with the land forcefully taken over by the private entity, they have been denied their main source of livelihood which is farming, alleging that the company has engaged soldiers to harass and intimidate them.

At the last count, the community alleged that 12 farmers were arrested at Ngegwu, one of the community’s farm settlements, for stepping their feet into the supposedly farmland. As a result, they said they were now living in perpetual fear.

In a Save Our Soul (SOS) letter to Governor Sheriff Oborevwori, the people decried the grave injustice allegedly being meted out on them “by the combined forces of the state government and the company aided and abetted by soldiers.”

The letter, which was signed by the Diokpa of the community, Francis Chukwurah, said while the trespassed land was still being disputed at the court, the immediate past administration of Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa issued a Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) to the company.

“We wonder how the state government could issue (C of O) to a private company in respect of ancestral land of a community when their trespass on that land is a subject of litigation still pending in court,” it stated.

It added that the government went ahead to gazette “this illegality” which officials of the company brandished at the state Criminal Investigation Department when both parties appeared before the police.

Meanwhile, investigation revealed that trouble started about five years ago when the community protested against the lease of the controversial land to the company by the state government.

It was learnt that several years ago when Delta was yet to be carved out of the defunct Midwest region, there was a land dispute between three neighbouring communities of Ajaji in Illah, Ogbe-Onihe in Akwukwu-Igbo and Ugbolu.

The dispute threatened peaceful co-existence with the potential of claiming lives. To resolve the brewing crisis, the then regional government declared the disputed area Forest Reserve, barring the communities from encroaching in whatever guise.

Decades later, the state government struck the lease deal with the company to boost the state economy and open up the rural enclave.

The land preparation followed a groundbreaking ceremony for the launch of the farm project at the forest reserve which was held in Akwukwu-Igbo, the headquarter of present day Oshimili North Local Government Area.

But Ajaji people had contended that the negotiation between the company and the state government was without their inputs, alleging that they were schemed out of the process.

Hence, as the company was preparing the land for palm plantation five years ago, Ajaji community staged a protest, forcing a meeting with the state government and the company.

As a follow up to that tripartite meeting, the community was invited to meet with the then Secretary to the State Government, Ovie Festus Agas, who advised on the need for a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

The community had demanded the suspension of further activities at the project site pending the resolution of the identified gray areas and that the 90% ownership of the land by Ajaji-Illah should reflect in the entire dominance of the equity accruals of all the ancillary advantages.

However, while the gray areas remained uncleared, a government survey plan confirming the lease of the land to the company soon surfaced, indicating that the outcome of a joint review exercise carried out was not in favour of the community.

The development incensed the community as they wrote a protest letter to the then governor, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, claiming that they were being dispossessed of their chief source of livelihood with the attendant adverse effect on the local economy due to what they insisted was the illegal acquisition of their land.

“Sir, our idea is that if the state government were to de-reserve the forest, the land area automatically reverts to the original owners. We are, however, pained to observe that the land in question has been leased to a private limited company contrary to the provisions of the Land Use Act,” the letter had read.

Their protest once again caught the attention of the state government in 2019 as they were invited to a meeting with the then chief economic adviser, Dr. Kingsley Emu, with a promise that there would be a follow up meeting which was never held until they were confronted with the present reality where they have been allegedly chased out of their farmlands.

In his latest Save Our Soul letter, Diokpa Chukwurah, appealed to Governor Oborevwori to urgently come to the aid of the community and save them from the claws of intimidation and harassment allegedly by soldiers executing the orders of the company.

Chukwurah pleaded with the governor to prevail on military authorities to stop deploying soldiers to the area and allow farmers continue their legitimate farming business without fear of arrest.

He regretted that none of the agreement as contained in the draft copies of MoU, Terms of Settlement and Deeds of Lease prepared by the then Attorney-General of the state was ever executed.

The letter urged the governor not to ignore their cry for justice by succumbing to any entreaty or advice by any of his officials no matter how highly placed.

Although effort to reach the company proved abortive but the facilitator and now Secretary to the State Government, Dr. Kingsley Emu, insisted that the company has not trespassed on any ancestral or community land in its operations.

He said: “I am aware that the community had been paid compensation, so I don’t know what they want now. We have an MoU fully executed to cover the parcel of land, both the reserved and the portion of Ajaji we took.

“They are signatories to it. They were paid compensation for economic crops and there was also something for the community. The company has been very peaceful and I don’t know what the community want again.”

Credit: Sun Newspaper except headline

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