By Tony Nwankwo
THE story making the rounds in newsrooms across the country is that Governor Theodore Ahamefule Orji of Abia State has allegedly sold the expansive Eastern Region acquired Rubber Estate at Ameke Abam, Arochukwu Local Government Area, to Madam Eunice Uzor Kalu, mother of former governor of the state, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu.
The estate itself was acquired by then Premier of the Eastern Region, Dr. Michael Okpara, specifically for the development of rubber and rubber allied-products.Â According to elders at Ameke Abam, the Premier had promised to develop the estate, develop infrastructure as well as provide gainful employment to the people, particularly, the women, at the time.
And the people say they never bargained for the permanency resulting from government acquisition of their land.
The estate and its plantation was bubbling before, during and after the civil war, but its fortunes began to fluctuate as governments changed hands.Â However, the Ameke people were to discover to their chagrin that by giving their fertile and expansive land to government they stripped themselves of a major economic index in production.
The population being localised and subsistence farming-based have had to contend with hunger ever since.Â All their complaints to governments to re-direct the way the estate is managed to accommodate them had fallen on deaf ears.Â And their hope that government could put the vast land into good use or eventually discuss the issue bordering on the land as it affects them has come to nought.
This thinking came up because contrary to agreements the Dr. Okpara government reached with the stakeholders, the estate was not attracting any economic or developmental gain, either to the acquired land or to the people, nor has there been any governmental programme for the people as a result of government presence in the area.
With poverty arising from the absence of non-availability of cultivatable arable land, came encroachment to other peopleâ€™s land resulting in bloody confrontations with their neighbours. Analysts also believe the subsequent invasion of Ndi Nmola, a tiny neighbouring community, by Ameke people, arose from their inability to find land to farm and earn a living.
Although the invasion still subsists, the Abam people are putting heads together to reverse the trend and retrieve the land for the descendants of Ndi Nmola who are presently scattered across Abam, particularly, Idima and other neighbouring communities.
If this sale is confirmed, the government of Abia State, would have done irreparable damage to the memory and vision of Dr. Okpara who had high hopes for the people before the acquisition.Â The Ameke, nay Abam, people now seem to be having the short end of the stick if the vast estate has been leased or sold out to an individual.
As legal minds from Abam, particularly those resident in Lagos, put heads together to question government sincerity on the transaction, some basic questions come to mind: Was it not necessary for this rural people to know who their new neighbours would be assuming government was no longer interested in retaining the estate?
Does it not matter, statutorily?Â Could this sale be legitimate as members of the State House of Assembly say they were not consulted?Â Were the Ameke or Abam people, given the benefit of right of first refusal before outsiders were given the option to bid or buy as should be envisaged?Â Was there an open tender as provided for in the statutes for this type of transaction? What informed the capacity of the negotiators that this arrangement can stand considering the plight of the landowners?
Those who have spoken in Abam believe it is undemocratic and even unthinkable for an elected government to sell off or temporarily lease out land, unguardedly as if it were furniture or factory. Others say that ifÂ government found itself unable to run the estate economically, it could advertise in newspapers for interested parties rather than give out Abam land on party patronage.
Or if it were for management, who can manage the land better than those whose ancestors founded and farmed the land?Â Does this Ameke Abam land qualify for a free lease for settlement?Â As you may have noticed, there are so many questions that may follow this sale by the state government.
Since the land borders Idima Abam, those who sell and those who buy must be very wary of this transaction. An area where governments had refused to show its presence in terms of developments and provision of infrastructure, cannot be good for land acquisition for private agricultural purposes.
The Abia State Government cannot point to any infrastructural development provided the Abam people in the over 10 years of this democracy – there are no roads linking the Abam communities, no hospitals, no pipe-borne water, in fact the electricity that points the people to civilisation was single-handedly provided by the late Chief Smart Ndem Okpi of Ndi Oji Abam.
There is nothing whatsoever that the governments can point to, to warrant the disrespect that this sale brings on Abam.
Abam elders are saying that it is unthinkable for the governor to even find a buyer of this expanse ofÂ Abam land in the mother of his predecessor in office.
They say, governments, just like individuals, must reflect on how the people view its actions or inactions in conducting businesses of this nature. It is difficult they say, to predict how long this transaction can endure.Â As an Abam elder Chief Okeke Mong, put it, â€œThe future of Abam children cannot be sacrificed to powers that have no regard for the people ofÂ Abamâ€.
According to him: â€œThey develop their lands with government resources and now want to acquire our own to add to their immovable assets, it will not happenâ€, the elder lamented.
Another elder, Ezekiel Omamgbe was bitter that while governments across the federation are battling to provide social amenities for their people, political leaders in Abia State are sharing state assets among themselves. â€œIt is a shameâ€, he argued.
If government has no further use for the land they acquired decades ago, the owners are still alive and willing to put their land to better use.Â The land should be posted in the public domain and not sold off under the table as seems the case here.
A caring government like T.A. Orjiâ€™s must first seek the well being of the Ameke people in this regard, and should the government decide it must sell, based on whatever criteria known to it, the landowners should be given the option of first right of refusal, anything less, they say, is unacceptable.
Like they say in Abam, you donâ€™t knock a child on the head and use his name again for a sing-song.Â That will be asking for too much from Abam Onyerubi.