Land dispute pits FUTO against host communities

Governor Rochas Okorocha

Governor Rochas Okorocha

Along the Avu/Obinze axis on the Owerri-Port Harcourt Road in Imo State, bulldozers, grunting and humming are making inroads on a hitherto fallow land. While curious observers speculate on the intended development plan on the land, authorities of the Federal University of Technology (FUTO), are crying out that the heavy earthmoving equipment are the handiwork of land speculators, invading the university’s land.

Vice Chancellor of FUTO, Professor Francis Eze, is lamenting “the incessant and provocative acts of encroachment on the land, duly and legally vested on FUTO,” by some leaders of the host communities-Ihiagwa, Eziobodo, Obinze, Avu and recently, Emeabiam, Nekede, Obibiezena – who have also allegedly sponsored youths and women to demonstrate and protest the “purported loss of their land to FUTO.” The land saga, he noted, “has recently assumed an intolerable dimension.” 

He acknowledged the “long history of forced entry, disruption of university activities, molestation of staff, culpable invasion and even plotting and selling off parts of the university land by belligerent groups, masquerading under the veneer of host communities solidarity.” But, despite the agitations, the vice chancellor noted that the university cannot cede even a square meter of the land, which was “freely given and legally acquired by the Federal Government, through the various instruments of the Imo State Government.” 

In contention is the 4, 500 hectares of land ceded to the Federal Government for the establishment of FUTO as one of the premier universities of technology. No one is certain when the host communities started their agitation. But an indigene of Avu, and member of the negotiating team, Russell Maduike, noted: “It started shortly after the late governor, Chief Evans Enwerem allowed FUTO to acquire land to take off in the area. Today, the university is sitting on so much land, most of which is fallow. We can’t expand and the need to grow is putting immense pressure on available ancestral lands. Reclaiming part of the land is feasible only if FUTO and the Federal Ministry of Lands favorably reviews the agitations of the host communities.”

Piqued by the developments, the VC recounted how FUTO, after paying due compensation on the land, reserves special admission policy in favour of all qualified candidates in the nine host communities, and extended contract awards, employment opportunities to the communities. “The latest goodwill is the medical services rendered at no cost by the university for eye patients, spread across the communities. They also make periodic demands like seeking assistance for the maintenance of roads, and we have been responding to that.”

FUTO, he said has embarked on an extensive corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative to build a mutually beneficial relationship with the communities.Counsel to the host communities, Sam Anoka, faulted claims by FUTO saying: “It is FUTO that has rather invaded the host communities and has not fully paid compensation for everywhere so-called acquired. It has only paid compensation for the area it occupies now. Again, this acquisition far encroached into areas already settled by the host communities, which suggests that maybe it was carried out without due diligence by whoever did the acquisition, as they failed to observe the existing settlements within the area they purportedly acquired for FUTO then. The settlements are dynamic, they have to expand and it is in the course of resisting the limitation of their growth that FUTO sees as invasion.” 

He noted further: “The so-called encroachment by the host communities will continue except the Federal Government gives ear to the host communities, and looks at our proposal for peace. We don’t want to hamper the development of FUTO, we want to ensure that it is a win-win situation where the host communities will have land and expand and FUTO will have land to grow.

“One critical point is that FUTO came on a false hope that it has all that land, and its master plan is such that it didn’t give consideration that land within that environment is scarce; they have to review their land use plan. And when they do, they will see that they have surplus land. FUTO should not compare itself with some other universities as it sits on 3,300 hectares and deny the original land owners areas of expansion,” he stated.

The vice chancellor admits that, “Portions of the land are probably attracting incursion because the university has not developed same yet. A university grows, and we can’t put to use every space on the land at the same time. We have attracted projects and lost them because the youths will not let us put up structures even when such projects would also benefit the host communities. Other projects are coming, but if we don’t have the land when these projects materialise, we will lose them. FUTO has less land space than the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka or even the Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA).”

The vice chancellor described the level of incursion on the school land as unparalleled and peculiar saying: “It is so massive; I have not seen anything like this elsewhere. They are taking over everywhere. They have made it impossible for us to even erect a second gate in FUTO. We do not want to create a stage for reprisals as they keep parcelling out potions of the land everywhere to speculators.”

Added the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the university’s Governing Council, Dr Emma Enemou: “A university never stops growing and expanding. We are where we are now, because this is just the extent we can go today. Despite the fact that the university has 3, 500 hectares of land, but for easy administration. It is better to have all the facilities in one space, while expansion goes on.”

Mr. Ifeanyi Oparaku, an Avu indigene who was supervising the bulldozers, told the vice chancellor, pro-chancellor, registrar, and others at the site that he has a deal with the state government to reclaim portions of the land ceded to FUTO, but belonging to Obinze and Avu communities on a 60/40 sharing formula.He said: “FUTO has had our land since 1984, but we have not got anything good from that. Nobody gave us any compensation. And whatever agreement that existed before is over. Moreover, where we are living now is over crowded and we need space to build residential houses.”

But a source in the state Ministry of Lands, described his claims as “unfounded.” Such reports are common, but if the state wants land for any project, it dies so appropriately.” Anoka, the host communities’ counsel begs to differ with the likes of Oparaku, describing them as agent provocateurs. While offering another perspective to the incursion, he claimed: “Those invading the FUTO land on the Avu/Obinze axis are not part of the host communities. They are some elements within and around us who see themselves as All Progressives Congress (APC) stalwarts, believing that the best way to resolve this conflict is to deploy such action. We have condemned it because we believe that it is better to bring all parties to the table, to negotiate in the belief that superior argument will prevail. To that effect, I have gone to court and secured an order against those carrying out such incursions on the land until we have settled this matter with FUTO.”
 
He accused FUTO of not “making itself available for any meaningful discussion or agreement with the host communities, while the agitation rages,” despite assertions of several meetings by FUTO with he communities. He claimed that in the bid by the host communities to ensure an amicable resolution of the conflict, they presented “a position paper to the Federal Ministry of Education, Federal Ministry of Works, Power and Housing, the National Universities Commission (NUC) and FUTO.”

Blaming FUTO for raising hurdles on the way to an amicable resolution, he said, “FUTO is only relying on the fact that since the land was acquired by the government, it has no powers to go into any discussion with us. We understand that, and this is why we are taking the matter to other authorities like the NUC to see that they negotiate with us and agree on it.

“When we recognised FUTO’s difficulties in going into full negotiations with us, we went to the state governor, Rochas Okorocha, and he looked at our case and saw its relevance. He excised 3, 000 hectares of land given to FUTO so as to settle this issue and left the university with 1, 300 hectares. FUTO went to court, and an out of court settlement was reached and the governor rescinded his order. But that has not solved the problem.”

In their points of negotiations the communities demanded that, “areas within the so-called acquired land, areas that have already existing public facilities should be excised from the land acquired for FUTO. Secondly, there should be ample land space for future expansion of the communities, otherwise the conflict will continue because the communities are growing.

“This reality can not be wished away by FUTO saying that the government has acquired it and having done so, it must be so. Otherwise, we are leaving a very serious problem that may cost the Federal Government a lot of money and pose a serious challenge both socially and economically. There is a need to demarcate boundaries, discuss, and see how much land FUTO really needs that will be on its masterplan.”

Making light the allegation of violent nature of protests by the host communities, Anoka said: “There is a conflict, but I am not aware of any violence. We have had occasions of women carrying placards and youths obstructing FUTO officials from erecting structures on any area that our people see as further encroachment into our areas of settlement.”

He summed up that FUTO has always ignored that there were already communities within the so-called FUTO lands, and the question of relocating them has never been considered. “These are the things we should sit down and discuss, but FUTO is not responding to that. And we are thinking that the Federal Government should come to our rescue on this matter and take immediate action.  



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