The misfiring governor of Edo State, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, had downplayed the revocation order of about 13,750 hectares of ancestral high forest lands, belonging to unfortunate Edo rural communities and folks, who voted him into power. Instead, he has forever handed the land on a platter to Okomu Oil Palm Company Plc., a foreign-based plantation firm, masterminded by a delinquent Dr. Graham Hefer, its Managing Director and South African immigrant.
Obaseki, by so doing, aptly lives up to his nickname of ‘Wake and See Governor’ and a manipulator of the very poor; as he unilaterally traded off the vast lands from the Owan Forest Reserve of Owan forest zone and the Okomu Forest Reserve, respectively. This is notwithstanding that it is from the same multinational Okomu Plc the lands were originally revoked, by the decision-making Executive Council of the immediate past administration of ex-Governor Adams Oshiomhole, of which Obaseki himself, was an integral officer.
In response to public outcries, government then explained the reason the said revocation order was needed. It was stated in “The Edo State Government of Nigeria Gazette, No.16 Vol.19 (page 48 – 50, published on 05th November, 2015- that the Forestry (as amended) Law of 2002 had revoked the “…Illegal sale and transfer of land approved for Iyayi Groups of Companies, for regeneration in Government Forest Reserves, to second and third parties; and “Commercialization of the Areas de-reserved….”.
Affirming the revocation order, Edo State Government also wrote a letter, dated April 18, 2016 (Ref: GH/COS.58/156) to the headstrong Okomu Plc.’s boss, warning the firm to vacate the land and stop planting on the land it has bulldozed. Hefer and Okomu Plc. also ignored the directives for it to conduct a mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study on the entire lands, following a letter to its Managing Director by the Environment Minister, dated 22nd September, 2015 (Ref: No. FMEnv/EA/123:271?Vol. 1/28). It had started bulldozing about two years earlier than on January, 2014, when the letter was written.
Flouting the revocation order and mandatory directive from the Minister for Environment, Hefer goaded his company to grab the over 36,000 ha from the rarest two lowland rainforest reserves, from which a mere 13,750 ha of the diverse and rich biodiversity was bulldozed down to replace a mono-crop oil palm plantation.
Imperatively, the critical stakeholders and the mass of concerned citizens of the state needed to ‘gird their loins’ and rebuff the arrogance and impunity with which Governor Obaseki, continues to grab from poor Edo villagers their God-given inheritances and give to the few rich land grabbers, particularly through his exploitative Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), without the due process of involving the local communities, the original owners of the lands, upon which the projects are premised.
If not checked, the abnormality could degenerate into avoidable and calamitous crisis like unmitigated food shortages, environmental destabilization, acute livelihood losses, crimes escalation and protracted inter-communal battles. More so, where the lands have commonly been used by the various local communities, the depletion by Obaseki, is beginning to result in scarcity of farmlands and attendant crises, in the face of increasing population growth of the locals and external land users.
The over 30 affected forest communities of the Owan forest zone, encompassing the three-in-one forest reserves of Owan, Ehor and Iueleha/Ora/Ozalla, respectively, were shocked to their bone marrow, when in January, 2014, Hefer brought the bulldozers, clearing down standing forest and crops belonging to the locals at the Oke-Irhue, Odighi, and Odiguete villages’ fringes of the forest zone.
The bulldozers had decimated the locals, with acute poverty, hunger, desperation and failure to carry on with their usual lifestyles. The loss of the forest covers also exposes them to tougher environmental conditions, with the extermination of their traditional places of worship and sources of water. The impacted communities spread across three local government areas of Ovia North East, Owan West and Uhunmwode include: Odighi, Odeguetue, Uhiere, Owan, Agbanikaka, Oke-Irhue, Orhua, Ekpan, Umokpe, Agudezi, Ozalla and Igbira Camp. Others include: Uhonmora, Eme-Ora, Atoruru, Ogbetuo, Ugubezi, Sabogida-Ora, Oke-Ora, Avbiosi, Uzebba, Agoshodin and Sobe, etc.
The Owan forest zone has about 400,000 inhabitants and over 75,000 able bodied users and over 10,000 other able bodied external users, who depend on it for farming, logging, woodwork, hunting, medicine, collection of non-timber products and sources of water, etc. The land is rare and of high biodiversity concentration, part of which had long been earmarked as an extension of the globally-acclaimed Okomu National Park.
From Okomu forest zone, Okomu Plc. had also grabbed most of the park’s buffers, thus endangering an already fragile ecosystem. The company refuses to relinquish the revoked land and thousands of more ha it has forcibly acquired, without authentic EIA study. The Okomu villagers are also at the mercy of the almighty Okomu Plc. and receive their share of the bulldozer treatment, as they face ejection from the land.
Hefer’s intent is to introduce on Edo-Nigerian soil the oppression, thought to have been outlawed in his Apartheid country. A Hefer gone-gaga had severally mocked the aggrieved villagers to go to hell and that there was nothing they could do to get their land back, because he has the governor and government in his pocket. This is, indeed, a disdain for Nigerians as they dare not try that in Hefer’s South Africa, where Xenophobic attacks against defenceless Nigerians and other Africans have become a common expression in the Nelson Madela’s country.
An environment and people-friendly government under Oshiomhole, made it public knowledge that it was an aberration for the vast land areas to be sold to A & Hatman Company Ltd (a firm belonging to notable politician, Chief Anthony Anenih), who as a middleman, bought it from the Iyayi Group of Companies, belonging to Mr. Iyayi Efionayi, an Edo-based magnate. Chief Anenih and Mr. Iyayi, the men at the centre of the dubious land deal, died at the same period, not too long ago.
Whereas, the vast lands were given, free of charge, by the Edo State government, under former Chief Lucky Igbinedion, to Iyayi, solely for regeneration, dubious Certificates of Occupancies (C of O) were procured through the backdoor, under Igbinedion, which aided the illegal sales between the three organizations, with several billions of Naira changing hands. That was after over 40 years of excessive and gainful logging of the same forest lands by Iyayi.
Hefer and his company were cunning enough to wait till the expiration of the tenure of ‘an uncompromising Oshiomhole’s government’ to get a compromising Governor Obaseki to undermine the revocation order and give the rampaging Okomu Plc. and its South African boss the elasticity to carry out grave impunity and heinous crime, unknown in the history of the heartbeat state.
This, Obaseki worsened by going to carry out official opening ceremony of the Okomu Plc. Extension II Oil Palm Plantation, premised on the community’s land, which he had helped to revoke few years back. A tactless and exploitative Obaseki, on the occasion, had promised to cede more land areas to the land-grabbing company, to the detriment of the locals, the original owners of the lands, who he holds the land for, as a trustee.
This was before he had avoided all the petitions written to him to prevail on Okomu Plc., on the matters, directly by the aggrieved communities, particularly by the civil society’s Coalition Against Landgrabbing and Deforestation (CALD). While Obaseki refused to honour his promises to invite the impacted communities and CALD for a meeting, as the Oshiomhole’s government had honourably done, Obaseki had had frequent meetings in his office, with Okomu Plc. and its South African boss. During a huge street protest taken to Governor Obaseki, in his office, by CALD, supported by the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Obaseki refused to address the protesters.
For about two decades, when Dr. Hefer became the company’s boss, he has let hell loose upon the host communities and locals of the Okomu forest enclave, in Ovia South Local Government Area of the state. Here, in the bowel of the once largest but now most depleted rainforest reserves in Nigeria, with Okomu Plc. as the greatest plunderer, the company has its, headquarters, a giant processing industry and vast oil palm and rubber plantations.
Hefer is a tempestuous slave-driver who has notoriety for being nicknamed “Hell Fire” by his workers. The bulling South African, in 2010, once ordered Nigerian soldiers, who beat up and detained top Edo government officers, for ‘daring’ to carry out simple official duties in his company’s headquarters. With his slipshod and dehumanizing operations in Edo State, he unduly militarizes the host communities of Okomu and Owan forest enclaves, with a platoon of men in soldier and mobile police uniforms, who are at his beck and call. While he uses them to enforce his seizure of the land, they also carry out deadly duties, like forcing the Okomu indigenes to carry body passes and restrictions of movement, by a 6:00 pm to 6:00 curfew.
Whereas, there are numerous ‘Obasekis’ who mean well for the people, the Edo people must be wary by another premonition to a ‘second slavery’, where an Agho Obaseki has apparently ‘reincarnated’ a ‘Godwin Obaseki’, who is making to forfeit the Edos to some South African, as it was done for the British adventurists. A people re-sold into slavery may be lost, forever!
· Tony Erha, a journalist and environmentalist, writes from Benin City, Edo State