By Emmanuel Una
BETWEEN 1961 and ‘62, Chief Michael Okpara, then Premier of the Eastern Region,embarked on the cultivation of large hectares of agricultural estates which he called “Farm Settlements.” These farm settlements included cocoa, oil palm and rubber estates and the projects had the main objective of serving as an economic source for the government of the region while providing jobs for the teeming agrarian population.
Incidentally, most of the plantations were cultivated in present day Cross River State as it boasts of large expanse of arable land since places like Rivers is landlocked,while predominantly Igbo areas like Onitsha, Enugu, Nnewi, Aba, Owerri, Umuahia, had virtually all land occupied as residential plots with little or nothing to spare for the cultivation of plantations.
With the splitting of the region into several states and the advent of oil as the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, the plantations still served as veritable sources of income for the people and government of the state. In 1999 with the birth of another democratic era, Mr. Donald Duke, the governor of the state set up boards and shared the estates into plots to his political acolytes whom he could not accommodate in his executive and other ministries and agencies.
This practice was inherited by Senator Liyel Imoke, his successor who made some efforts to privatise some like Ibiae, Akamkpa, Oban and Calaro. The inability to complete the privitisation of all the estates is now the source of a bitter squabble among some political office holders in the Senator Ben Ayade government who are jostling for control of one of the estates, the Boki Oil Palm Estate, Borum.
The battle for the estate, which is one of the biggest, has pitched the Secretary to State Government, Mrs Tina Banku Agbor with the Special Adviser on Infrastructure to the Governor, Mctoumy Agam on one side, against the Special Adviser Administration, Mark Obi on the other.
The struggle over the control of the estate has left a 37-year-old woman, Bukie Etta, dead and several others with bullets and machete wounds, while property worth millions of naira have been destroyed in the raging battle. Trucks laden with several tones of oil palm fruits, wheel barrows and oil mill straddle the village of Oku where several houses have been vandalised by foot soldiers of the feuding parties.
Mr. Anthony Obi, a community leader and the Secretary of the Accredited Landlord of the Boki Oil Palm Estate, while speaking with VM, traced the genesis of the conflict to when in July 2016, Mrs. Agbor, the Secretary to the Cross River State Government, approached the community during a meeting in one of the villages, Kakwagom to express her desire to take over the estate which is owned by four communities Osokom, Iruan and Oku.
According to him, Mrs. Agbor said it is government policy to take over the estate and hand it to another set of small holder beneficiaries since the lease of the old has expired. She added that the small holder scheme is no more beneficial to the people, so a complete privatisation for the palm estate will ensure that it is rejuvenated like the ones in Ibiae and Calaro so that our youths and women can get jobs and be empowered.
He said Mrs. Agbor also insisted on small holder scheme and began moves for a complete takeover of the estate through the Special Adviser to the Governor on Infrastructure, Mc Toumy Agan, whom she sent to print and sell allocation forms for fresh small holder beneficiaries to take over ownership of plots held by the present beneficiaries.
“They printed 2000 forms which they sold at N3,000 each and there are just 400 plots in the estate. So, the question arose: how would they allocate 400 plots to 2000 people who have bought the forms and of what benefit would that be since this scheme has been in existence over time without yielding much benefits for the people, more so now that the palms are very old?”
He said the tenancy period was shortened to six months by the Privitisation Council which is managing the estate in preparation for the privatisation so that no one would hold on to the plots unnecessarily should an investor show up to take over the estate since there are already plans on ground.
“We have written several letters to the government and made several trips to Calabar to meet with Mrs. Agbor and she had on two instances taken us to the Deputy Governor, Professor Ivara Esu, who assured us that an investor has been found who would take over the estate and that negotiatios were in progress. But Mrs. Agbor’s sudden turn around to take over the estate surprised us because her actions bespeak of a hidden agenda,” Obi said.
He also informed that in December 2016, the government sent a circular to them that those who have plots should renew them. The allottees, he said, all rushed and paid, with the required fees and the lease supposed to expire in July 2017. Suddenly, however, the SSG abrogated the law by the state assembly which set up the Council on Privatisation and in its place set up a committee with herself as the chairman to reallocate the plots.
“We started wondering how the same government would collect money from one set of people and want to hand over the same plots to another set of people; that is why we rejected it,” Obi said.
He said the insistence by the people that due process should be followed in taking over the estate angered the SSG and Agam which led to a wave of arrests and detention of leaders and chiefs of the area beginning with the Chairman of the Landlord Association, Pius Bisong, himself, some chiefs as well as the carting away of oil mills, cars and other items in the landlord communities.
Arrests and detention of leaders
The arrest started with Mr. Pius Bisong, Chairman of the Landlord Association, myself, chiefs of Osokom villages and our matter was detailed to the Anti Robbery Squad at the State Criminal Investigation Bureau on trumped up charges of buying gun to arm the youths in Boki,” he told VM.
Mr. Agam on his part said the Governor gave him charge of the estate in September 2016 but efforts to discharge his functions were being resisted by some persons who are arming the youths to attack him and his staff. “The governor gave me the mandate to take over the management of the Boki Oil Palm Estate from the then Privatisation Council headed by Mr David Amiye. When we came in, we notified the plot owners but they resisted us, saying that they won’t give me and my staff attention,” he said.
He pointed accusing fingers on Mr. Peter Ogar, the manager of the estate whom he said instigated the plots owners not to allow them access into the estate. ‘He employed thugs to prevent us entrance into the estate, blocked roads, and started attacking me and my staff leading to serious unrest,” he alleged.
He said the tenancy of the present allottees has expired and that the allocation was done in September last year against the claim by the secretary of the landlords association that the allocation was in December 2016 to expire in July 2017.
“The last quarter of payment on lease was done in September 2016 and expired on January 6, 2017, and that was six months duration and after that government would come with a new policy which it has come up with at the moment”.
He said each form costs N1000 and not N3000 as was being claimed and that the money for sale of forms is paid into government coffers. The governor has not made any pronouncement on the conflict and as more issues crop up in the estate the confusion continues.