By SIMON EBEGBULEM, BENIN CITY
Oghede is a serene community in Ovia North East Local Government Council of Edo State. The predominantly farming community has been at peace since 1964 when their great-grand fathers, in their hospitality gave the Nigerian Army a large piece of land measuring 408.04 acres to
build their barrack. The land was secured for the soldiers with the assistance of the then Oba of Benin following a request by the Federal Government to build a barrack in that community. That was the birth of the Nigerian Army 322 Artillery Regiment, Ekenwa Barrack, Benin City. After the people sacrificed their farm by acceding to the request of the Federal Government, little did they know that their benevolence would some day become a pain to them.
The problem between the community and soldiers in the barrack started in 2006 when the soldiers forcefully encroached into their land. The houses in their lands were destroyed while most of their youths who resisted the invasion were locked up on several occasions after being maltreated. Their women were not left out in the humiliation. Several of them have been allegedly raped and chased away from their farmlands on several occasions. Worried by the situation, then Governor of Edo State, Chief Lucky Igbinedion set up a committee to investigate the military invasion of the community in 2007 with a view to ascertain whether the soldiers acquired more land aside the one that was given to them by the community in 1964 which was gazetted in 1965 in the then Bendel State as it is being claimed. In the report of the committee, the representative of the military authorities refused to sign due to the fact that he could not receive the express permission of the Defense Headquarters.
In his submission to the panel, the then Commanding Officer of the 322 Field Artillery Brigade, Lt. Col. Gomina, who described himself as “just a custodian of the Brigade on behalf of the Nigerian Army” posited that the Ekenwa Barrack was not his personal property, therefore he has no personal quarrel with either the Enogie of Oghede or the elders of the community. He was not able to provide any evidence that the Army acquired further land from the community aside the earlier one where the barrack was built. However, the five-man committee led by the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor, Col.Victor Obaseki (rtd) discovered that there was a document where the Army in 1974 requisitioned the adjourning land to the originally acquired land area of 408.04 acres covered by survey plan No.BE.C.52 of 1966. The land area was covered by survey plan number LBE.C 98, surveyed and demarcated by a private licensed surveyor. But the survey plan number LBE C 98 of an area of 2424 acres bears no government participation by way of issuance of Government beacon numbers and inscription of government plan number. But the State Ministry of Lands, Survey and Housing has said it does not have any record of the acquisition of the 2424 acres of land as reflected in the private survey plan. And the Enogie of Oghede (Duke) and elders of Oghede community denied knowledge and participation in the transaction, which led to the acquisition of the land which the Army claimed it acquired in 1974. The Enogie, Osadebamwen Aghahowa, who lamented over the continuous destruction of their ancestral shrines and buildings by the army, narrated the incident to Vanguard Metro: “Our problem started when a compulsory acquisition was done in 1964. Though I was not born then but according to the documents we have, the acquisition was done during the Midwest Region when the Federal Government told our Oba then, Oba Akenzua 11 that they needed land to site the Barrack. It was through our Oba that we knew that the Federal Government needed the land for the Barrack. When our people inquired about the size of land they wanted, they said 400 acres which was eventually documented and given to them. This was the only acquisition we in Oghede community knew about. But suddenly, in 2002, the Army massively invaded our community with sophisticated weapons and started chasing our people out of their farm lands and their building sites in our community. Our ancestral shrines were destroyed. We asked them why they are doing this to our people, they said they have acquired more of our land. We told them we don’t know about that because if they are acquiring more land, as the Enogie of this land I must be aware of it. We reported the matter to the state government during the administration of Governor Lucky Igbinedion. The government set up a panel headed by Col. Obaseki (rtd).
The committee was able to find out from the Ministry of Lands and Survey that the only land that was legally acquired by the Federal Government was the one acquired in 1964. The Ministry confirmed to the committee that they are not aware of any other acquisition by the Army. The committee even asked them to bring forward any document showing that they acquired more land from the community. This they could not, rather they just said that the Army has its way of doing things. Since the problem started, we have written to the Governor, the President, National Assembly, Chief of Army Staff but all to no avail. Instead, the Nigerian Army 32 Regiment Ekenwa Barrack, kept coming to our community, destroying our houses, raping our women irrespective of their marital status. They have also engaged in beating our youths and arresting them for resisting them. We are predominantly farmers in this community; so what will be our fate if they decide to take all our lands? This is wickedness and it is sad that all our petitions to the Presidency, Army headquarters, have not been treated. As it is now, we don’t want to take laws into our hands because we cannot fight the military. This is oppression but if they push us to the wall, we will resist them with our last blood. They can afford to only kill our body but they cannot kill our spirit. That is why we are appealing to our Comrade Governor, Adams Oshiomhole and our royal father, to call this Army people to order for the interest of peace in our community. The land belongs to us, they should take the one my fathers gave them and stop encroaching in our land”.
When Vanguard Metro visited the community last Sunday, it was indeed a pitiable sight. It was observed that about eight buildings were destroyed by the soldiers. Vanguard Metro was told that they always invade the community once or twice every month to cause havoc in the community. One of the military officers whom Vanguard Metro met in the community, spoke on condition of anonymity. He condemned the action of the military authorities and appealed to this reporter to assist the community regain their land. According to him: “Though I am a soldier in this barrack but I am not happy with what is happening. It is very sad because you are forcefully taking what does not belong to you. This was not what they taught us in the Army but I am surprised our officers are condoning this illegality. People like us are helpless on issues like this because we can do nothing about it. But journalists can help them cry out so that the world will know what is happening here”.