Core Area Two Final Deadline: Twists And Turns To A Debacle

BY JOSHUA ERUBAMI
YESTERDAY marked the final deadline for all affected land and property owners in Core Area II to regularise their title documents. Ostensibly, the contentious Core Area II comprises the large expanse of land located in Okpanam, a suburb of Oshimili North Local Government Area of Delta State.
Deductively, if the aftermath of the deadline will be fully and strictly adhered to by the Delta State government, as it had consistently threatened, and then yesterday will definitely go down as important in the annals of the state. This conclusion is wholly predicated on the fact that from now on, several unfoldings are likely to emerge, just as many uncertainties will be laid bare to Deltans, particularly those affected by the myriad saga that have trailed the decision of the state government, led by Senator (Dr.) Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa, to reclaim all lands that had been unlawfully occupied by some individuals and groups.
The Decision
More than six months ago, the Delta State government raised an alarm that the portions of lands it had acquired sometime ago, precisely on October 8, 1990, had been illegally acquired, sold, developed and being developed by various interest groups. Irked by the alleged unjustified and unauthorised encroachment, the state government had resolved to reclaim all of the lands, which, it said was acquired by the Military Governor of the state, Group Captain Luke Ochulor on October 8, 1991.
To reclaim such portions of land, a former Commissioner of Environment in the state, Chief Frank Omare was tipped and subsequently appointed Director-General of Special Duties in the state. Omare, who has obviously earned more despise than accolades from those affected by his actions was easily handpicked for the job because of his previous unquestionable commitment to the full execution of government directives relating any of the offices he had held.
Sooner than it was expected, the Omare led taskforce sprang into action, taking stock of all the defaulters and mapping out strategies to recover government lands. The committee successfully issued demand notices to the over 2,000 alleged defaulters in the land encroachment saga. But two major findings floated on the waters of a press briefing held by Omare on Monday, October 17, 2016 at the Government House in Asaba, the state capital.
The Many Demand Notices And 95 Per Cent Non-Indigene Saga
The first was that, for a fairly long period running into years now, some individuals and groups had allegedly vended out the Delta State Government-owned land in the Okpanam axis to no fewer than 2,190 buyers, without the due consent and approval of the state government – the supposed lawful owner of the said pieces of land, while the second dazzling revelation was the rippling disclosure that 95 per cent of all these buyers, representing about 2,081 of the total land owners are not indigenes of the state.
On the first concern, Omare explained that all the land owners – 1,540 of which have landed properties – were issued demand notices requesting them to, as a matter of urgency, visit the State Ministry of Lands and Surveys, Asaba, to regularise all documents relating to the ownership and development of lands in the state and, particularly, in that area.
He said the state government is appealing to all the affected persons to do the needful since it is not in the interest of government to demolish structures, especially in light of the festering economic downturn prevalent in the country. Upon such timely visit to the ministry, all affected persons were expected to regularise such documents as Certificate of Occupancy (C of O), approved survey plan, as well as building plan. Omare, however, specifically warned that, at the expiration of the 90 days (ultimatum which had long started counting), “government must be government”.
The Concessional Arrangement and the claims and counter-claims
However, contrary to what may have been the general expectations of observers, the state government announced its intention and readiness to give a concessional grant to all the defaulters, if they agree to accept its terms and conditions.
Under the concessional agreement, a 50 per cent off cost was granted to all defaulters on a pro-rata basis. That is, occupants of 1-1000sq metres of land (residential buildings) are to pay N750,000 instead of N1,500,000; 1001-3000sq metres to pay N1,250,000, instead of N2,500,000, while occupants of 3001sq metres and above are to pay N1,750,000, instead of N3,500,000. For commercial buildings, occupants are to pay N1,000,000 for 1-1000sq metres; N1,500,000 for 1001-3000sq metres and N2,000,000 for 3001sq metres and above, instead of the old fees of N2,000,000, N3,000,000 and N4,000,000, respectively.
In spite of the above downward review of the cost, which came in several stages, occupants of the said portions of land claimed that government had no legal document to back its ownership, others called for further downward review of the cost of the exercise, while yet others argued that the “overriding public interest”- the clause under which the land was allegedly acquired – had been defeated, since government did not show any verifiable intention to develop the area for public good. Besides, some landlords had vehemently rejected the idea, claiming it is not legally sustainable, particularly as the state government could not provide the legal white paper with which it acquired the said the parcels of land about 25 years ago. A fall out of this discontentment was the writing of an open letter to Governor Okowa by some of the affected landlords on November 22, 2016.
In the full page letter published in the Vanguard Newspaper, the landlords urged the governor to discontinue the exercise and abandon whatever reason that motivated it, particularly in the light of the festering economic morass, which, they said, had made life quite unbearable for them. Unfortunately, government was not disposed to accepting their request. Rather, Omare and his boys intensified their efforts, the result of which was the discovery of the said missing document.
Government Finds Missing Document
Following a long period of diligent search for legal backing to its land reclamation operations, the state government finally found the official gazette detailing its acquisition of parcels of land located on the Agbor/Asaba and Asaba/Illah roads, including the ones in the contentious Core Area II. According to the gazette published by Authority on October, 10, 1991, the then Military Administrator of the State, Group Captain Luke Ochulor, had on October 8, 1991, perfected all issues relating to the revocation of Rights of Occupancy and compensation of hitherto owners in pursuance of Section 28 of the Land Use Decree 1978.
Captioned “Land Requirement for the Service of the Military Government of Delta State of Nigeria,” the two page gazette indicated that the then military government had called on members of the public with interest(s) in that area to present evidence of such interest(s) to the director-general of the State Directorate of Lands and Surveys, within six weeks from the said publication.
Specifically, the gazette stated inter alia that a “notice is hereby given that the right of occupancy in respect of the following parcels of land at Asaba/Okpanam in Oshimili Local Government Area, Delta State of Nigeria, which is required by the Delta State Government for the over-riding interest to wit: for public purposes within the Delta State of Nigeria and, in particular, for the establishment of projects incidental to the establishment of the capital city of Asaba is hereby revoked.”
Besides, the gazette, a copy of which was exclusively obtained by The Pointer, affirmed that “any person who shall hinder or obstruct the government or any person employed by the government or acting on government’s behalf, from taking possession of the said land or any part thereof, is liable, on conviction, under the provision of the decree above mentioned to a fine of N5, 000 or to imprisonment for twelve months.”
Briefing newsmen in Asaba, the state capital, Omare explained that with the discovery of the 25-year-old gazette, there is now proof of a legal credence to the land regularisation exercise which had been consistently faulted for lacking the white paper authenticating government’s ownership of the parcels of land comprising the core areas in the state.
“Some people have accused the government of oppressing them, claiming that the land is a community land and that government has no document to show for its ownership. We have been searching for this document since the past eight years and some persons in government practically told us the gazette was lost.
“For over one month, I could not sleep well because of the issue. The Commissioner for Lands and Surveys, Chief Dan Okenyi, joined forces with me in the search for the document. It was as if the document had hands, legs and wings with which it kept moving from one place to the other. But today, we have been able to shoot it down. We didn’t forge the gazette; it is real and authentic,” Omare said. At that exclusive interview with The Pointer, Omare gave a new deadline of December 31, 2016, after which he threatened that government may be compelled to do needful.
But that was not to be the last about the issue.
On Wednesday, December 14, 2016, the Ministry of Lands and Surveys initiated a town hall meeting between all stakeholders entangled in the core area yarn. Although the meeting could simply be described as an avenue to show superiority of rhetorics, the affected land/property owners, many of whom are civil servants, pensioners, traders and clerics, told officials of the ministry to further extend the deadline and reduce the cost of the exercise.
No Going Back on Regularisation Cost
Nonetheless, Commissioner Dan Okenyi doused the hopes of the landlords and insisted that the stated prices remained unchanged. At a press briefing held on Thursday, December 22, 2016, Okenyi said the ministry considered all the reasons advanced by the landlords but found no valid ground upon which to predicate an approval for such request of a further slash in the cost of the regularisation exercise.
“In the circumstances, I wish to inform all landlords and stakeholders that, after all due consultations on the request for further discount and extension of the regularisation deadline, the ministry has found no merit in the request and is sticking to the N750,000 minimum price. However, as a further sign of goodwill, we are extending the deadline from December 31 to January 31, 2017. But I want to warn that, after January 31, whoever fails or refuses to regularise his title documents will have himself to blame as full implementation of sanctions will commence, thereafter,” he warned.
The Big question
Although Okenyi was not specific on the state government’s next line of action at the expiration of the new deadline, he appealed to all affected persons to do the needful by completing the regularization of their title documents, noting that the state government might have no choice than to deal decisively with offenders.
As of today, information filtering in indicates that some of the affected landlords are yet to cooperate with the exercise. And if for any reason the state government decides to wholly come down hard on defaulters the action now and beyond may be historic in the administration of Governor Okowa
Evidently, one of two things is expected to happen, as the government deadline/ultimatum runs full cycle: Either the government (which many have said had been magananimous enough in shifting the goal post after the expiry of its earlier ultimatums/deadlines) decides to do so again, or, in the face of the apparent incomplete compliance by the landlords, may resort, quite reluctantly, to the earth moving equipment, to put into effect, the threat inherent in its earlier deadlines.
In the case of the earlier option of further extension, there may, quite understandably, be a great relief to the landlords, most of whom, in the light of the recession-induced prostrate state of the economy, have been unable to meet the conditions inherent in the regularisation process.
Where, however, the administration opts – some pray and hope that this is the less likely option – for the other option, there would be costs – great costs, not just in material terms, but also in socio-psychology, and perhaps, much more.
So, while the great waiting game continues, the big question is: which option will the government choose?