Enugu state gov’t, former officials in land-grabbing scandal

Some officials that served in the immediate past administration of Enugu state may go to jail if the land grabbing scandal before a High Court in Enugu is fully investigated. EMMA NWEZE writes.

Umuenwene Iji Nike in Enugu East local government area of Enugu state is locking horns with the state government over the controversial acquisition of Ekulu River Community Layout Extension Phase 1.

The controversy surrounding this layout is about to create unhealthy development that could strain the existing relationship between the community and the state government, development capable of bringing the image of the government to disrepute.

How it started

The land in dispute, Blueprint learnt, was approved for the community through a Real Estate firm, Messrs J C Ugwu and Associates Ltd.

It was gathered that the community had given the irrevocable power of attorney to the firm to manage the layout and the interests of the community.

Investigations revealed that the community followed all due processes and obtained the approval of the layout in 2002 from the state government in accordance with the Town and Country Plaining Law (CAP 126) and was also published in the state official gazette.

A letter with ref no: ENTPA/006/6 dated May 6, 2003 which our correspondent obtained captioned ‘Approval of the Ekulu River Community Layout Extension phase 1 Planning Scheme Nike Enugu’ was issued to the community through the aforementioned company.

According to the letter signed by Mr J D Ngwu, secretary/chief executive of Enugu North Town Planning Authority, whose jurisdiction the layout situates reads,  “I am directed to convey to you the Hon commissioner’s approval of your application on Ekulu River Community Layout Extension 1 Planning Scheme.

“The terms and conditions in the planning scheme schedule should be meticulously observed by you.”

After then, it was published in the state official gazette dated June 25, 2004 with ISSN 1116-2031 number 3, volume 13 as ‘E.S.L.N. No. 6 – Ekulu River Community Layout Planning Scheme, Enugu Approval Order, 2002 – B30′.

When the trespass started

However, recent cases of trespass by unauthorised persons to the dissatisfaction of both the community and the law firm started to emerge. One Boniface Chinwansi alias Ogbuebule who was alleged to have trespassed into the layout was jailed five years for alleged forgery. He was said to have forged documents to lay claims to the layout of which he was subsequently arraigned in court and convicted.

Meanwhile, while the forgery case was ongoing, Chinwansi withdrew his claims in the suits nos. E/313/2014 and E/252/2016 filed at the state high court where he had sued both the state government and the alter ego of Ugwu & Associates.

Mr Solomon Onah, then commissioner for lands and Mr Chidi Aroh, former commissioner for capital territory, as the 4th and 5th defendants respectively, were joined in the suit.

In a separate suit no. E/663/2016, bbetwee Ugwu Associates as plaintiff versus Igwe Julius Nnaji and 13 others on the same land, Justice E. M. Egumgbe, the presiding judge, granted both interim and interlocutory injunction sought by the plaintiff.

Court ruled in favour of community

The court, in its ruling on May 8, 2019, ordered that an order of Interlocutory Injunction restraining the respondents or their agents, privies, assigns, representatives or anybody, persons or any person working for them or whosoever described from entering, invading, interfering, trespassing, selling, alienating, and transferring ownership of Ekulu River Community Estate Extension Layout Phase 1 Enugu, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive summons.

Contempt of court

Despite the order, the officials of the state government had thrown caution to the winds and brazenly invaded the layout. Armed with policemen, the Ministry of Lands with the state Housing Development Authority went into the layout to carve out plots. With a fire-brigade approach, they started excavating foundations and erecting fence walls in the layout, in spite of the pendency of the matter in court.

At the moment, Ugwu & Associates has filed contempt of court proceedings against the duo of Onah and Aroh and form 48 had been served on them.

In several petitions to Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi by Ugwu & Associates, a copy obtained by Blueprint, it said,  “The land ministry has illegally re-plotted, re-designed and re-baptised Ekulu River Community Layout Extension 1 Enugu.”

The firm claimed further that the place is now called ‘River Line Pocket Layout Enugu’ in place of the original name.

The firm further alleged that the layout has also been shared among privileged government officials and security personnel, including some members of the judiciary to secure their backing in the court.                

Mr Jerry Ugwu, whose firm the community had entrusted the property, had in some of the letters to the governor requested him to cause the said layout to be left for the community who are the legitimate owners.

“This contemptible act of gross injustice being inflicted on law-abiding citizens and communities by Enugu state government officials and agents, even defying legitimate court orders and pending court actions, clearly shows that they are lawless, high-handed and capricious.

“That they have absolutely no regards whatsoever for the legitimate rights of citizens and absolutely no respect for the rule of law”.

Ugwu, however, said their brother, Cornelius Nnaji, was also involved in the matter. “As we speak, court bailiff is looking for him to serve contempt of court charge.”

The officials react

Reacting to the alleged forceful acquisition of the  Layout Extension by the state government, Mr Aroh said the last time he worked on the land was three years ago when there was an illegal structure being built by one Chief Ogbuebule.

He said, “When the authority sought for the building approval, Chief Ogbuebule could not provide the document which resulted in the stoppage of work at the sight and the subsequent demolition of already- built structure. That is part of what I know. I know this layout as River Lane Community layout behind the Golf Estate.

“I wouldn’t even know what the name of any layout is because my office doesn’t deal with approval of layouts. Approval of layouts are strictly a function of the Ministry of Lands. I am not a party to any suit in any court of law concerning that layout either as a commissioner as I was then or as an individual today.”

He said he has no property on the layout. “I challenge anybody to show that I have one property anywhere in that golf or in the said layout.

“I got to know about that land in question when my ministry destroyed the unapproved structure in the layout. The owner (Ogbuebule) wrote a petition against us to the Independent Corrupt, Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC).

“After the ICPC investigated his petition I was set me free, but then we discovered a document with which the then military administrator in 1979 acquired that land and gave it to Anambra State Housing Development Corporation by extension Enugu State Housing Development Corporation. This was because at the time the state was split you know that Enugu state took over affairs of Anambra State Housing Development Corporation that were located in Enugu.

“People are very wicked and without any fear of God. I wonder why anybody will accuse the governor of acquiring land using us as his kinsmen.  I do not in my official capacity as commissioner till May 29, attended any meeting regarding the land. I have never received any instruction from the governor as regards that land.

“I have never had any discussion as regard that land with the governor except in the full meeting of executive council of Enugu state.”

Aroh admitted that he once discussed the property in the presence of the governor during council meeting where he briefed the council about the experience he had in the place.

“If somebody feels I forcefully took his land or anybody forcefully took his land there are courts of law. It is something very civil that you can ask the person to sue me to court and produce the documents showing that I acquired it”.

On his part, Mr Onah dismissed all the allegations as untrue, adding that those who were agitating that government took their land or property were economical with the truth.

Concerning the Ekulu River Community Layout Extension 1, Onah said, As far as I am concerned, that land is a government land. That land was given to former military administrator and if there is any further information you need, meet the permanent secretary in the ministry of lands or the director in charge of lands.

“If anybody is telling you that I have property there, you can still verify it from the ministry.”

But Ugwu has denied that the community allocated the said land to any military administrator. He said since the matter is already before the court, government should allow the court to adjudicate on the matter either way.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General of the state has filed a motion seeking to be joined as defendant in the Suit E/663/2016.

As things unfold in the imbroglio, it appears that Onah, the former lands commissioner may be in for a fierce legal battle to escape being convicted by the Enugu High Court for contempt.

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