ABIA STATE GOVERNOR, DR. OKEZIE IKPEAZU at the Public Policy Lecture series of Business Hallmark Newspapers

By OBINNA EZUGWU

Abia state is in the news again, but for something most Nigerians thought was dead and forgotten – the controversial Ruga grazing programmes – which plans to acquire land in different parts of the country for Fulani herdsmen’s settlements. Abia state seems to be assuming special position in the unfolding controversy.

It had started with Okwu-Olokoro autonomous community in Umuahia South Local Government where a report came to the effect that the traditional ruler of the community, Eze Boniface Izuogu had sold hectares of community land to the Fulani herdsmen for Ruga; and that the state government had provided 263 hectares of land at Arungwa in Osisioma Local Government for the same project.

The report caused uproar so intense that the state government and the traditional ruler in question had to address press conferences to deny the allegations, describing them as “unfortunate, wicked and malicious insinuations.”

The Attorney General particularly explained that the federal government originally made a request for land for the purpose of establishing Trailer Park at Umunneochi, Umuahia and Osisioma. The request he said, was made through the federal ministry of works to ease the reconstruction of the Enugu-Port Harcourt dual carriage way during the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. But the project at Arungwa was aborted because the available land measured 20 hectares whereas the federal government wanted 50 hectares of land.

Months down the road, another Ruga controversy is brewing, this time at Obehie Community in Ukwa West Local Government of the state where hectares of land has indeed been acquired for “Cattle Market” by the state government through the Ministry of Trade and Industry in a manner the people say is highly suspicious.

Ukwa with its vast area of lush land and water bodies has over the years, attracted interest from successive governments of Abia State; interests that have only resulted in large expanses of lands being acquired for developmental projects that never saw the light of the day. But now, this land appears to have also attracted interest of Fulani herders.

It had come as a shock to the Obehie community when, a few days ago, the said ministry of trade and investment placed a signpost on hectares of their land announcing that it had been acquired for Cattle Market and Allied Matters, and therefore that there should be no trespassing on it. This, the community widely suspected was Ruga through the backdoor, especially given that there had been speculations that the Abia government had sold the land to one Agropllo Dairy Ranch for Ruga settlement.

Angered by the development, women of the community last month, took to the streets in their hundreds in a protest match reminiscent of the Aba Women’s riot of 1929, to the traditional ruler of the community, HRH Eze Samuel C. Nwachi, chanting war songs, vowing to resist any attempt to use their land for Ruga or cattle ranch.

The traditional ruler received the protesters, appealed to them to remain calm, while assuring them that members of his cabinet, opinion leaders and stakeholders in the community would ensure that their demands are tabled before the government of Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, governor of the State. Subsequently, the sons of the community in government, namely the deputy chief of staff Mr. Don Ubani started asking questions but were allegedly told that the community sold the land to Fulani cattle owners some two years ago.

However, this raised another question about the business of the state government in the said land if it was indeed sold to private cattle owners. This curiosity was yet heightened by the discovery, upon investigation, that the state government had revoked the land in 2017, and thus, there was no way the community could have sold it.

“The issue at stake is the take-over of Ukwa West land by government, but couched as if the community there, the Umuokpara Community in Obehe sold the land to Fulani herdsmen,” an Ukwa community leader who preferred anonymity for fear of victimisation told our Correspondent.

“Based on the Land Use Act of 1978, all land belongs to the government, and rests with the governors. So, in this extant case, there are documents showing that the government revoked that Umuokpara land way back in 2017, and had it gazetted by 2018. But the impression is that the community was approached by the herdsmen and they sold a parcel of land to them and collected money and cows. A lot of their people didn’t know what was going on, particularly those in government. The thing was some form of under the table deal.

“But when it came to light with the putting up of a signpost to the effect that the land is for cattle market and that there should be no trespass, people started wondering. The sign board was not from the Hausa-Fulani but from the government, from the ministry of trade and investment Abia State. People then started asking questions.

“The guys from the government who are from the place, particularly the deputy chief of staff to Governor Ikpeazu, Mr. Don Ubani started asking questions. He called the Caretaker Chairman chairman of Ukwa West who confirmed that the community sold that land two years ago. But he was not satisfied and called the commissioner for Trade and Investment, Mr. Cosmos Ndukwe who repeated what the chairman said, that the community sold the land.

“The guy was like, if the community sold the land, how come it is the government that will put a signpost there to ask people not to trespass and all that? It was in the midst of all these issues that the gazetted takeover of that land became public knowledge. They now found out that it was the government that took that land in collaboration with the Hausa-Fulani leaders.

“People in the community started raising their voices to say, No, this is unacceptable to us. There have been many land grabs in Ukwa West over the years. Almost every government that comes in will do its own. And about five projects for which large expanses of lands were taken by the government, none has been implemented. First was the Obuaku city which was taken under the military rule for an estate. But the project never saw the light of the day. The land is lying fallow, very huge expanse of land between Abia and Rivers.

“Then you have the Ogwe Golden chicken, which was one that Sam Mbakwe put in place. But it’s been run aground by subsequent governments of Abia State. There are many like that. These are the issues that got the people agitated. There is even the current Enyimba Economic City that Ikpeazu put in place, then this cattle market. All these things are what Ukwa West people considered and said No, we can’t sit back and watch all our lands taken over, without even any compensation.

“The state government is very complicit in that deal. Before that deal went ahead, the state government revoked that land. And the revocation was gazetted. The suspicion is that the state government, through the commissioner for trade and industry was the person that mid-wifed that deal, and that’s the reason he is putting the signpost there. It was the government that handled the deal but they made it appear as if it was the people.

“As you know, it’s the government that owns the lands. It’s just as they did with the Enyimba Economic city. They took the land forcefully, they haven’t paid any compensation. The communities there have gone to court, even my own immediate community of Ukwa East was affected, so you can imagine the expanse of land involved, cutting across five LGAs. That’s what Ikpeazu acquired saying he is building Enyimba economic city when he has not constructed one good kilometer of road in Aba in five years.”

In an effort to find resolution to the issues, stakeholders of the community last week, met with the state’s deputy governor, Sir Ude Oko Chukwu, but the meeting was said to have ended without any agreements reached.

A day after, the Commissioner for Trade and Investment, Dr. Ndukwe issued a statement clarifying that the government only intends to relocate the cattle market at Aba waterside along Ikot Ekpene road to Obehie to ensure that motorists and pedestrians are saved from struggling with congestions daily at the Aba waterside area.

Ndukwe described as false, the allegation that the land is meant for Ruga, insisting that cattle market is not the same as Ruga.

“The relocation of Cattle Market from Aba Waterside to Obehie will beyond anything else ensure that motorists and pedestrians are saved from struggling with cattle every morning, afternoon and evening at Aba Waterside,” he said.

“The Governor deserves commendation for mustering sufficient political will to recover Aba Waterside from years of menace. The most acceptable thing to do is to support this germane effort that seeks to save lives, improve our hygiene and make trading less hazardous.”

Still, his clarification has done little to assuage the community leaders who insist that their land will not be used for the cattle market.

“Everybody in Ukwa has vehemently said No to Ruga. We say we have given enough land to the government for projects that have not been seen. We have given them the Obu Aku City, the Ogwe Golden Chicken, Umudiobia International Market, Omuma Asa Abattoir, Enyimba Economic, and if you look at the master plan of that area as done by the government, starting from the Imo Gate, you can see even now, there is no space to put any other thing,” Hon. Uzoma Nkem Abonta, Member Representing Ukwa East & West at the Federal House of Reps, told BusinessHallmark.

“Are they now altering the master plan? They also gazetted Ogwe as Urban area, including Akwete and Azumini, yet we have not seen any form of urbanization as a result of conscious efforts of government. All we see is government wanting to grab this or that land. Now, we are told it’s a cattle market and allied matters – that was what we heard from the Commissioner for Trade and Investment. And I wonder if they think they are speaking to illiterates or people who don’t understand English. By the special grace of God, the Ukwa people met the white man first, so we became lettered in English before them.

“Cattle market and allied matters: what could be allied to cattle? But we are saying that we can’t donate more lands now because we have donated a lot. Let them even develop the ones they have grabbed. And like I said, if you look at the master plan for this place, it contains even dry port and all what not.

Now, we are also suffering from pollution as a result of oil companies prospecting there. It has left us devastated. This oil exploration also contributes to the federation account and that of Abia government. So, why add to our suffering? Abonta wondered.

“And it’s even insulting that they said the reason is to decongest somewhere to congest us. But that’s not all. They said the target is also to get Port Harcourt people to buy cows at ease. And we are also told in another breath that some big persons in the Hausa-Fulani community have pushed them to give them alternative land for cattle business. So, it’s not even cattle market, they are trying to satisfy the need for their private business at our own expense. And I want to ask the Commissioner for Trade, we eat pig, goats, chicken have you created any special market for those?

“It is a private business; you shouldn’t revoke our land to give to private individuals. And if they say the move is to target Rivers people, are they saying that Abia people will not buy the cow? So, anyone coming from Ohafia or Bende or Uturu will now pass all the way to Obehie. No, they should put it in a central place that will be accessible to all Abians. If cows are now a necessity, they should put the market in a central area, not at the extreme. They should save us. We are not ready to give anybody land there. And if they say it’s not for Ruga, what are the allied matters?

“Allied means related matters. The allied matters is that you provide settlement for those who are going to manage the cows, and grazing ground for those that are yet to be sold. They are not talking to illiterates. They want to provide land for Ruga indirectly. But we are saying we don’t want Ruga, they should leave us alone,” he declared.

Hon. Abonta had last week, issued an official statement in response to Mr. Ndukwe’s position in which he lamented the continued humiliation of Ukwa people in the state, declaring that enough was enough.

“It has come to my notice on the plans and subsequent move to implement same by Trade and Investment ministry of Abia State Government to convert Obehie – one of the gazetted, alongside Akwete and Azumini ( but yet to be implemented Urban Cities of Ukwa Area) into a cattle market otherwise known as “RUGA” as seen on the sign-board above which was nationally rejected by Nigerians due to its destructive and hazardous benefits to the people,” he wrote in the statement.

“I have also listened, read contribution of various views of people online and received telephone calls. This is not the time to apportion blames but to stay together and say “NO” to CATTLE and RUGA business in Ukwa-land. We all know the consequences of Cattle market ranging from security, social and environmental cases.

“Apart from the criminal tendencies and implications attached to it, there are lots of damage meted to the people; which includes the destruction of the agrarian system, rampant broad-daylight killings of the farmers and land-owners, raping of the young women and the aged while in the farms, incessant quest and penchant for land seizures and dominance, environmental degradation and kidnappings.

“The activities of the “herdsmen” within the country have become daily occurrences which obviously have been a security threat to the entire nation for years now. It’s good to understand the metamorphosis of these vices which of course cannot be separated from citing Cattle markets and ranches. Ukwa land cannot accept it by every ramification applicable.

“We want to put it on record. For decades now, Ukwa have turned into a dumping and degraded community, highly marginalized in infrastructural and economic investment of State affairs.

“Ukwa have been socially humiliated, politically alienated, infrastructure-isolated and economically dominated and delisted from the system. Ukwa is only remembered when land is to be grabbed for private businesses with little or no State involvement on her advantage.

“Ukwa is suffering from Government imposed economic and infrastructural “ISOLATION and DISTANCING”.

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Fulani herdsmen

“It has become an incessant occurrence that every government in power would convert Ukwa land as a dumping ground for every rejected and detested activity capable of inflicting pain and possibly affecting the social stratification of the people.
“For clearer understanding of our claims, there are outstanding cases that comes to mind;
– OBUAKU CITY
-OGWE GOLDEN CHICKEN
-UMUDIOBIA INTERNATIONAL MARKET
-OMUMA UZOR ASA MODERN ABATTOIR
-ENYINMBA ECONOMIC CITY
-NOW CATTLE MARKET
“Firstly, the case of citing Obuaku city in Ukwa land have rather denied our people their right of ownership of those properties for years now. We need more of viable investments that would uplift the economy of Ukwa land.

“Secondly, the abandoned Ogwe chicken project proposed to be used for RUGA by some persons (except for our proactive action ) have really not only denied our people access to their properties but have continuously being a den for kidnappers and armed robbers. There were various agricultural opportunities and funds from the World Bank to sponsor same but it was not used in revamping the abandoned project but prefered to site a new one at the detriment of the other.

“Again, presence of herdsmen and cattle rearers at Owaza ranging over a thousand of them with their families have not only caused some of our people their lives but have invariably been a threat to our local communities and farmers who can no longer visit their farms without being raped.

“Thirdly, Ukwa west has lost one of her illustrious son who was a youth leader of Ugwati Asa in an attempt to resist the forceful usurpation of authority over their lands which of course was also an attempt by the Enyimba Economic City to claim the lands belonging to our people. The resultant effect was the abandoning of the poor widow to suffer without appeasing the land or the people. We reject such obnoxious actions that have left our people devastated.

Fourthly, Omuma-Uzor Asa Ukwa west was deceived into accepting to host an Abattoir business Company under “PPP” arrangement which of course succeeded in receiving a huge sparce of land covering over hundreds of plots for years now but till date nothing has happened thereby denying the people the opportunity to embrace commercial agriculture as being campaigned by the Federal Government. The resultant effect is absolute degradation of the land and obvious poverty meted to the people.

“Another case that comes to mind was an establishment of an ultra modern market at Umudiobia Ukwa west where large acres of arable land were donated for its implementation but till date nothing has happened. The fact is that, Ukwa is tired donating lands for developmental proposals without implementation.

“It is high-time Ukwa is engaged with proper negotiations and consultations. In this present age of technological advancements and industrialisation, what Ukwa need is Infrastructural development and structural advancement.

“Finally, I tendered a proposal and bill for a Federal Polytechnic in Abia State using an existing federal Government Science and Skill acquisition centre built project at Owaza as a take-off place but it was vehemently thwarted and opposed by the forces from the State against Ukwa. Does it mean that Ukwa has been delisted as an area capable of developing or what?

“In all, large portions of land had been grabbed without any visible development but later allocated to private persons. We therefore, ask the commissioner for Trade and Investment to let us have the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the proposed market.

“We will not accept anything short of round table deliberations and negotiations for a way forward. After all Ukwa is still the “goose that lays the golden egg”. We please, urge the government to STAY ACTION until proper discussions are held. “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!” he declared.

Indeed, there is already growing apprehension over a Fulani settlement in Owaza, Asa land in the same local area, and although Abonta said he doesn’t have knowledge of the settlement yet, another opinion leader in the area told our Correspondent that the community exists and is causing unease among the people.

“There is a Fulani settlement of over one thousand people living there in Owaza community Asa Land with their families,” he said. “And they have been there for quite a while. And you know the way those people operate. Before you know it, they will take over that land. People are worried about the development. Unfortunately, the state government is not doing anything. In fact, they seem to be complicit.”

BusinessHallmark reached out to the state commissioner for information, Chief John Okiyi Kalu who argued that the fear of Ruga was misplaced as according to him, the government would not allow for any land in the state to be used for Ruga settlement.

“We are awake to our responsibility,” he said. “You can’t even sell land of certain size in Abia unless you obtain approval from the state government. If you do, we will revoke it. We know the issues involved and we cannot put our people in harm’s way. We are on top of the situation.”