By Gabriel Enogholase, Benin City
FOR the Church of God Mission International Incorporated with its headquarters in Benin City, it appears that all is not well with the mission founded by the late erudite preacher and evangelist, Archbishop Benson Idahosa as the church is currently enmeshed in a land dispute with a senior Benin palace chief, Osarumwnse Ehondor, the Ehondor of Benin Kingdom and head of the Ehondor family as well the spiritual head of the Ovia deity in Benin Kingdom.
The land in dispute is situated at 13, Ehondor Street, Benin City and is measured about 20 to 30 meters in diameter. The land houses the building where the late Archbishop Idahosa was brought up. Before his passage, he made altercations with Chief Osarumwense Ehondor over the ownership of the land which, he claimed, he was prevailed upon to buy by some members of the Ehondor family from the previous buyers. But this claim was refuted by Chief Ehondor who told Sunday Vanguard in an interview in Benin that nobody has the right to sell the land to another person because it is hereditary and a stool property.
According to him: â€œIt is a fact the land we are talking about is a stool property. It is a property of my great grand fathers, from generation to generation and I, being the head of the family and the Ehondor of Benin Kingdom, that gives me the right to be in custody of the entire estate. The moment my father died, I took over the throne of the Ehondor and the title and that makes me the head of the family and the custodian of the stool property in question.
â€œI was surprised that the late Archbishop Benson Idahosa sent some of my family members, Chief David Ehondor, (the Obahiagbon of Benin), who is my father’s uncle and Major Paul Ajayi Ehondor (rtd) to meet me, telling me that the archbishop had intention to bulldoze the entire house and build a storey building because he also grew up in the compound and was brought up by my great-grand father. The proposal was to build a church that will occupy the top floor and I will be at the ground floor.
â€œI turned down the offer because I am a full traditional man and I donâ€™t believe in gimmicks. So, this thing died down, but about two or three years later and after they were driven from Ogiefa Lane where they had a problem, he wrote a letter to me through one of his pastors that I should allow members of his church to hold a crusade in my compound which I did as a brother. But I never knew that he had other intentions; until much later when the issue was came up again that a member of my family had sold the land to an Igbo man.
â€œI began to wonder who was the Igbo man? Who was the member of my family that sold the property to an Igbo man? But there was nobody to be found. It was later that I discovered that he had sent one of my uncles who is also a chief in Benin, Chief Reuben Ehondor (the Obamedo of Benin) that he had interest in the land which was different from what I was told that somebody had sold the property. There was nothing of that nature.â€
Explaining the circumstances of the land dispute further, Chief Ehondor said the late archbishop later bargained with some members of the family to claim that his great grand father gave him certain portion of the land to build their own house. But, he maintained that the claim was not true, because in consonance with the Benin culture and tradition, the archbishop’s great grand father who also inherited the title of the Ehondor of Benin and the stool property had no right whatsoever to split the land.
â€œThis is the stool property from generation to generation. It is like the Palace which nobody shares with any one except the heir apparent who is the eldest son, you come only with his brief case and leaves with it and the next person takes overâ€, he added.
As the dispute continued, Chief Ehondor wrote a petition to the Oba of Benin, saying that the presiding bishop of the Church of God Mission International Incorporated was contesting the ownership of a stool property, knowing that by Benin tradition and culture, nobody has any right to buy such property. He insisted that since he, who is currently holding the Ehondor title and his fore-fathers did not sell the land which is hereditary, none of his uncles or any one has the right to sell such property.
Upon receipt of the petition, the Oba set up a panel of palace chiefs to look into the matter. The panel was headed by the Inneh of Benin Kingdom who also headed the first panel and whose findings were rejected by the church. During his evidence before the panel, the chief said he relied on documentary evidence, as well as what his late father told him, as far as the ownership of the land was concerned and challenged those claiming its ownership to present their documents to prove their case.
During the testimony, he disclosed that most of his uncles who claimed to have sold the land to Archbishop Idahosa produced ordinary pieces of papers to back their claims. For instance, in one of the pieces of papers, one Mr. Enaruna claimed to have sold the land to Archbishop Idahosa for N10,000. There was nothing to suggest the dimension of the land and no document to back the transaction. It was the same thing with Mr. Felix Ehondor who also claimed to have sold to Archbishop Idahosa for N30,000 a land measuring 20 by 50 meters.
The presiding bishop of the Church of God Mission, Bishop Margaret Benson-Idahosa also testified before the panel, along with some of the Church Council members with documents to back their claim to the ownership of the land. After receiving both oral and documentary evidences from both contestants to the property, the panel presented its report and findings to the Oba for his verdict.
According to the ruling of the Oba, in a letter conveyed to both Chief Osarumwense Ehondor and the presiding bishop of the Church of God Mission Intâ€™l Inc. and signed byÂ Mr. O. Oronsaye-Guobadia (Secretary to the Oba of Benin), said: â€œI am directed by the Omo Nâ€™ Oba Nâ€™ Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba of Benin to refer to your request for a copy of Palace Ruling in respect of the mis-understanding between Chief Osarumwense Ehondor and the Church of God Mission and to say that the chiefs (headed by Chief Aronba) nominated by Omo Nâ€™ Oba to look into the complaint of dispute by Chief Ehondor against the Church of God Mission, submitted their report which contain the following: 1. That after obtaining statements from Chief Osarumwense Ehondor, the complainant and representative of Church of God Mission with some members of the Ehondor family, also examined the documents presented by both parties, they found out that the property in dispute which formed part of Chief Ehondor estate is a traditional ground.
2. The documents presented by Church of God Mission were nullified for the fact that some of the signatures on the documents were forged.
3. That those who transferred the property to Church of God Mission (retired Major Paul Ajayi Ehondor and Mr. Felix Sunday Ehondor) were unable to produce the survey plan/document covering the part transferred to them from the document covering the entire estate presented by Chief Osarumwense Ehondor.
4. That those who transferred to Church of God Mission (Paul Ehondor and Sunday Ehondor) failed to substantiate their claims with authentic documents
After careful deliberation on the findings by the Omo Nâ€™ Oba and Chiefs present, the Omo Nâ€™ Oba ruled that the entire Chief Ehondor estate at 13 Ehondor Street, Benin City belongs to Chief Osarumwense Ehondor being the heir to Ehondor stool. He, however, added that Chief Osarumwense Ehondor should allow the church to make use of the place, but should not negotiate monetary terms with them.
Omo Nâ€™ Oba then instructed members of the church to surrender the rooms in the main building, which they were using as classrooms. Parties involved accepted the decision and thanked Omo N’ Oba for the amicable settlement. And in another letter to the presiding bishop of the Church of God Mission by Mr.O. Oronsaye-Guobadia in a reply to her earlier letter to the Benin monarch and dated April 9, 2008 and to say that the issue was looked into, the Palace maintained that, â€œour earlier decision on the matter still standsâ€, adding that it was unfortunate that Rev. Onaghino who came to represent the church on May 30, 2008 denied having knowledge of the Palace ruling.
However, a copy of the Palace ruling on the matter was reproduced to the presiding bishop with a further instruction which read: “I am further directed by the Omo Nâ€™ Oba to inform you that there is Ovia deity in that compound which prohibits non-initiates from participating and to request you to advise your church members to stay clear from the area when the ceremony is been performed. Chief Ehondor will give the sign when there is preparation for the ceremony.â€
Reacting to the issue, Director of Administration, Church of God Mission, Pastor Emmanuel Onaghino told Sunday Vanguard about the churchâ€™s position on the issue.
According to him, â€œthe much I know about the Ehondor land is what I got to know from our founding Archbishop Idahosa and from most of the documents he left behind. The information we heard is that before he assumed the throne of his fathers, that land was sold over and over again to some buyers and that the most senior daughter of that family prevailed on the archbishop, seeing him as a member of the family, invited him to, at least, save the face of the family and implored him to buy up that property from the buyers.
â€œWe have documents to show all these transactions. Eventually, the chief came up with the fact that he owned the land, that we are illegal occupiers and he needed to recover his land.Â Well, we were invited to the Palace because he reported to the Oba of Benin who is the custodian of all customary laws and rites in Benin Kingdom. We were there and the presiding bishop gave evidence clearly on the matter; how that before now, a portion of the main house that was directly owned by reason of the re-purchase borne by the archbishop, that she ceded back to the chief. But that the church has its own space there, that the church should be left to conduct its own business.
â€œWell, we went to the Palace and the Obaâ€™s decision was that the chief should maintain the portion of the property that belongs to him and even the one that was ceded to him by the presiding bishop, and that the church should remain there. He talked about the shrine on the other side which should also maintain its position. Eventually, he raised up further issues which sent us back to the palace and the Omo Nâ€™Oba still affirmed the ruling which he earlier gave on the matter. And we thought that, that should put paid to that matter until recently when we got a letter from his lawyer telling us that the chief was withdrawing the licence he gave for the use of that place and that we should vacate the place.
â€œFirst, we saw it as contrary to the decision given by the Omo Nâ€™ Oba. We didnâ€™t want to join issues with him since the Oba gave the ruling; but with the pressure from his lawyer, we have decided, perhaps we would go back to the Palace to let the Omo Nâ€™Oba know that this man is working against his decision on that land. This is the position of things for now. But what I am telling you now; you can verify from the Palace if you have access, that the church should maintain the status quo,â€ he stated.
Asked if the church would resort to a legal action, he said, â€œNo. We are not taking any legal action. It is he who is initiating actions. Well, if he chooses to fight the Obaâ€™s decision, it is left for him. We are strained because the Omo Nâ€™Oba has given his ruling and if he wants to go the court, we would meet him there. But, we are not taking any action against him out of our respect for our Omo Nâ€™ Obaâ€.