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We’re under siege by Presco, Delta communities cry out

Edo, Delta profiting from our operations—Presco’s Relations Supervisor
Delta govt warns firm to stop activities in disputed areas, bullying villagers
Lawmaker, Ivwurie accuses Boundary Commission of playing politics

By Emma Amaize & Perez Brisibe

EKU—RESIDENTS of Eku, Ovre-Eku  and Ovre-Igun, both Urhobo-speaking communities on River Ethiope axis, Ethiope-East Local Government Area, Delta State, have cried out to the Delta State Governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, that they have been under ceaseless assaults and intimidation, for two years, by law enforcement agents allegedly conscripted by Presco Plc, an Edo State-based company, to annex their ancestral lands.

While Edo and Delta State governments are quarreling over the ownership of the lands, NDV findings showed that the Edo State-based Presco Plc in the course of expanding its operations,   moved into parts of Delta State without the consent of the state government.

Pathway in the community reportedly graded by Presco.

However, it entered into an arrangement with some families and community leaders, and paid compensation, which did not go down well with other indigenes, necessitating the fight-back by the aggrieved communities, spearheaded by the lawmaker representing Ethiope East constituency in the state House of Assembly, Hon. Evance Ivwurie.

Gestapo-like invasion

In a petition to Governor Okowa, the affected communities said: “Men of Nigeria Army from 4th Brigade Benin, have since January 28, 2016, in a commando style placed most Urhobo- speaking communities along the River Ethiope axis under military siege, subjecting our people to unbearable hardship, due to incessant attacks, torture, intimidation and a total ban on farming activities. This has a strong economic effect on the people and Delta State in general, as over 6,000 farmers from that area sell in Delta markets.”

The communities in the letter by the President General of Eku community, Chief Joseph Ukueku, leader of Ovre Eku, Chief Sunday Afavwigho, Otota of Ovre Eku, Chief James Eyaefe; and eldest man of Ovre-Eku, Chief Uvo Eyinofe, stated: “Presco Plc entered Ovre Eku sometime in August, 2015 unannounced, bulldozing farmlands and destroying cash crops belonging to the people, which made  it unbearable for the people of the community. As a consequence, an SOS was sent to you, the Director General,  National Boundary Commission, the state House of Assembly and the National Assembly.

Northern herdsmen spill the beans: “About January 5, some famers ran to the President General of Eku community Chief Joseph Ukueku JP, saying that some herdsmen,  who are northerners staying in Ovre-Eku, said a northern security man attached to Presco had asked them to leave the area. They informed that Presco has concluded plans with some top military personnel to carry out  a total invasion to sack every inhabitant in all Urhobo communities in the area, this was posted on Facebook, but much attention was not given to it.”

The leaders further asserted: “On January 28, 2016,  farmers were seen running back from their farms, saying Presco soldiers were chasing people. The president general of the community sent two persons to the area to see to what was happening, but when they introduced themselves as emissaries from the community, and that they were on a peace mission, one of the soldiers ordered the bike-boy that brought them to carry his bike on his head.

Another soldier saved us by his intervention, because he asked that we should be given that day as a day of grace. They also asked the community emissaries to tell their people not to come close to the farmlands. Farmers going to the farms are constantly tortured, both men and women are asked to jump like frog, sometimes asked to carry a heavy object like their bicycles while kneeling down for going to their farms.

Women allegedly humiliated: “On Wednesday, March 2, at about 10:35a.m., women numbering about 500 embarked on a peaceful protest, and marched to the former platform used in early oil exploration by Elf, which Presco has carved out for themselves as base. When the protesting women got to the first military post, about a 100 metres to the platform, the soldiers, who were dancing to the tune of their songs, started pushing them, while the women insisted on having audience with a Presco staff.

“It was at this point the commander walked quickly from the inside to the post, cocked his gun, bent to one side and picked a stick, and ordered his boys and they started flogging these old women, who are in the range of 60 to  80 years. The soldiers at about 12.00 pm, mobilized themselves in a Hilux van, driven by a staff of Presco, moved to the community where they destroyed no fewer than nine motorcycles and 13 bicycles belonging to farmers and residents of the communities.”

“No farming, no hunting …”

According to them, “Days after, Presco and soldiers advanced their operations to more areas, digging trenches around the communities with heavy earth moving equipment, thereby cutting off access roads, destroying farm lands and posting notices, ‘No Farming, No Hunting, This Land belongs to Presco’ all around the community farmlands. Soldiers patrol the farmlands on Presco Hilux vans with the company drivers taking them around.

“On April 6, 2016 when our people were yearning for relief, as both states were now on the boundary issue, soldiers attached to Presco Plc in Presco van and some plainclothes policemen entered into Eku main town at about 3:30 am, breaking into the houses of youths, who are either from Ovre Eku or farming in the area.

“Three persons were whisked away, including one Collins Atori, a street leader in Eku community, and his son, David Atori, 20-month old baby, was reportedly kicked by the soldiers and later died after his father had been taken away by the armed men, this strange arrest has led to youth protest in the community,” they told Okowa.

Illegal activities

They added: “It was later said that the three persons were being detained at the Edo State Police Command headquarters in Benin City and alleged to have bunt a caterpillar belonging to Presco Plc. Sir, if you know the activities of Presco and the soldiers, you will know that no civilian can go 200 metres close to Presco equipment, much less burning down its caterpillar, the end result is to send these persons out of circulation, demoralize the youths in the community, while they continue with their illegal activities in our land.

“Despite agreements reached by both state on April 6, 2016, that Presco should limit its operations to undisputed areas and maintain the peace pending the final determination of the boundary, Presco is still digging more trenches, cutting off access road, maybe to cut the National Boundary Commission from proper assessment of the area during fieldwork,” they remarked.

Delta govt talks tough

Secretary to the State Government, SSG, Hon. Festus Agas, in a blistering letter with reference number, SGD.21/18/T Vol II/252, addressed to the Managing Director, Presco, entitled: “Complaints against Presco Plc by Ovre Eku community, Delta State, on attempts to seize their land, annex the community for the Edo State Government, using the instrumentality of security agencies,” warned the company to be mindful of its activities.

“Arising from the numerous disturbing complaints from our communities with respect to your company’s activities above, the Joint Meeting of officials on the  Delta/Edo Interstate Boundary Committee held on April 6, 2016 at Asaba, resolved amongst others to as follows:

Status quo: “That the two States’ Governments are enjoined to press upon Presco Plc (or any other firm) operating near the boundary areas to limit their operations to the undisputed areas and maintain the peace pending the final determination of the boundary. That the two state governments (Delta/Edo) by the same communique resolved to maintain the status quo pending the final determination of the boundary, we believe that the foregoing injunction is unambiguous enough and should not pose any problem of comprehension.

“However, the complaints from Ovre Eku community show clearly that the behaviour of your company is not in tandem with the intent of the agreement set out above. The purpose of this letter is to request the following: Presco should immediately vacate any part of Ovre Eku community land that it has illegally occupied and; Discontinue the use of security operatives to harass and /or intimidate the citizens of Delta state as  is being alleged.

“Finally, Delta State government demands that Presco should immediately stop all its activities in Ovre Eku community to prevent a breakdown of law and order to enable the community to be at peace.”

We never appropriated Ovre-Eku land—Presco

Relations Supervisor, Presco, Charles Onwuasoanya, who denied all the allegations by both the communities and Delta State government, told NDV: “The allegation that structures were pulled down in Ovre Eku with the protection of men of the Nigerian military is absolutely untrue and unfair to Presco Plc. For us in Presco and in the entire Siat group the people around our project areas, without regard for ethnicity or nationality, constitute an integral part of our development plan.

“And Ovre Eku community, which happens to fall within the concession, will remain and be developed along that line, as development is more about the people than about states. There is no reason whatsoever why Presco will conceive the seizure and annexation of Ovre Eku land ‘for the benefit of Edo state.”

On the charge that the firm was dabbling into the politics of two states, Onwuasoanya said: “Presco Plc does not, has never and will not dabble into the realm of state politics. Our corporate motive goes beyond making profit as our overriding group management principles consist of transparency, environmental and corporate social responsibility; within which we sustain a friendly operating environment in our effort to ensure that our presence impacts positively on the lives and social well-being of our host communities.”

Why we involved security agents

He shed light on why security agents were invited by the company, saying: “The presence of state security agents was necessitated by the frequent raids and attacks on our unarmed workers right from the moment that we started skeletal operations during the last quarter of 2015. On one occasion, precisely on November 25, 2015, one of our workers was abducted and taken to a Police station in Eku. On another occasion, on December 3, 2015, people from Eku invaded the place and burnt our generator, destroyed our porter cabins and inflicted machete wounds on our workers.

“A brand new excavator was burnt down on March 15, 2016 by people from Eku, who took advantage of the interval between the times of change of guard by security agents. All these were reported to the police both in Edo and Delta states.  Our request for security agents was, therefore, strictly necessitated by the need to protect our workers and facilities at the site and not for any other reason whatsoever.”

We didn’t know land was in dispute

Before the purchase of the land from the Oba of Benin and procurement of Certificate of Occupancy from the Edo State Government, was Presco aware that the land was being disputed by the two state governments? NDV asked.

He replied: “That the land was in contention between the two state governments only got to the knowledge of Presco through a newspaper publication, sometime in April 2016, at which time we had commenced operations and made quite substantial investments on the land.”

4,000 direct jobs for Deltans, Edolites

What is the company really doing on the vast land acquired and the benefit(s) of the project to the protesting Deltans? Onwuasoanya intoned: “Presco acquired the land for the cultivation of oil palm and rubber, with a future installation of processing facilities as the project progresses. In addition to the CSR which will apply to all the neighbouring communities, the project will create 4,000 direct job opportunities, with the multiplier impact on other service providers, which will benefit people from both Edo and Delta states.

“Presently, not less than 2,000 workers have been directly employed, out of which about 60 per cent are Delta State indigenes. Contracts being executed there currently also benefit people from both states,” he said.

Giving Caesar what is Caesar’s

What happens if the NBC determines the land in favour of Edo or Delta as the case may be? He asserted: “Presco remains a law abiding corporate organization and upon resolution by the NBC, Presco will render what is due to the state(s) concerned accordingly.”

NBC incompetent —Hon Ivwurie

Hon Ivwurie, who had earlier petitioned the Director General, National Boundary Commission, NBC, calling for urgent attention, as the problem was near a war situation, told NDV: “My constituency as well as myself, we are very frustrated and I am going to draw the attention of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to this issue. We are not happy with the incompetence of the NBC because they are playing politics with the entire issue to the extent that the NBC is not willing to say anything, otherwise how will this issue still be hanging since the military era and no decision has been taken?

“I do not know why the NBC would enmesh itself in such politics that has deprived communities of their expanse of land”.

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