Fifty-nine-year-old farmer in Ebonyi State, Mr Peter Okpali, sighed intermittently, recalling sights of his two houses pulled down by the government to make way for an airport.
He appeared sullied as he narrated his experience to Saturday PUNCH, describing it as the ugliest experience of his life.
Claiming that the demolition was done with little or no notice to affected residents by the government, Okpali said he lost money and other valuables in the two houses day the exercise was carried out.
He said, “I have no word to describe what they did to me. I have not seen such in my life. Two houses were demolished; one of eight rooms and another of three rooms. I have seven children. All of us sleep outside now under a tree. People said we were given N2m each as compensation. It’s a lie. I have not been given a kobo.”
The father of seven and an indigene of Umuezoka, who said the demolition of his houses took place on Thursday, February 6, 2020, said the state government in 2019, destroyed his farmlands without compensation.
Stressing that he had no problems with the project citing in his community, Okpali said he expected the government to provide palliative measures for the residents since they were mostly poor rural dwellers.
He added, “My farmlands have been destroyed by the government. It’s not that I hate the airport project but the right thing should be done by providing us where to live now. The land belonged to my father but I bought it from him. If you destroy people’s land, you ought to provide an alternative for them. Now, we can’t farm again and don’t have money to farm even if I want to go into farming. This is painful. The government should come to our aid by either providing a place for us or compensate us adequately. The two demolished houses, if I’m to sell them, I will rake in N10m on each.”
Okpali further lamented that he had become homeless sleeping outside with his family, saying, “We now sleep outside under the tree in cold weather. Cold is dealing with us. To drive away cold, every night, we light firewood to warm our bodies.’’
Commenting on their ordeal, Okpali’s wife, Martina, said the education of her children had been affected.
Martina stated, “We are really suffering with our children. We were managing and they came to destroy our houses. We have been looking for money to eat, yet the worst happened to us. This situation has affected my children’s school. Our pots, plates and other belongings now scattered everywhere.
“We now sleep in the open. Mosquitoes and cold deal with us mercilessly. It’s a lie that we have been compensated by the government. It’s not true.”
Ebonyi State Government in 2019 approached the Federal Government, seeking approval for the construction of a cargo airport.
Consequently, the Federal Government approved the state government’s request to construct the airport on September 6, 2019.
The aviation minister conveyed the approval in a letter to Governor David Umahi on Friday, September 6, last year.
In the letter signed on the minister’s behalf by the Director of Safety and Technical Policy, Capt T. A. Alkali, the minister said the approval followed the report of the technical team from the ministry which inspected the proposed site of the airport.
It read, “I am directed to convey the approval of the minister of aviation for the construction of a state-owned/financed international airport on the inspected site.”
However, the Federal Government said the approval was subject to the state government’s fulfilment of certain requirements.
Among them were compliance with the relevant environmental regulations, adherence to the provisions of the subsisting Civil Aviation Act 2006 and the Nigeria Civil Aviation Policy 2013.
It also directed the state to get clearance from the Department of State Services, remove all obstructions on the land and involve the ministry and its agencies at every stage of the construction. The project is being sited on the boundary between Ezza North and Ezza South council areas of the state.
Our correspondent who visited the project site observed that houses belonging to dwellers in Umuezoka, Umuezeokaoha, Umuoghara and Oriuzor communities in Ezza North and Amuzu in Ezza South, had collapsed to the biting blades of bulldozers.
Thus, residents whose houses were affected by the project have continued to rue their plights. It was also observed that work had commenced in earnest especially excavation work on the runway and tarmac areas.
More woes, more troubles
Another displaced indigene from Umuezoka, Okpali James, told our correspondent that his family had been made to face the challenges of cold and harsh weather.
He said, “They destroyed my house on February 6, 2020, and since then, we have no other option than to be sleeping outside.
This is painful because we expected the government to find somewhere, build houses there and relocate us there. But they have not done that and have not compensated us. We now sleep outside in this harmattan. The cold is harsh on me and my 10 children. Every night, we make firewood to keep ourselves warm.
“The government has not given me a dime after destroying my house. My demolished house is worth N15m. We were not even consulted or given any notice before the demolition. If they did, we would have found a way to pack our valuables. They came with policemen, army, men of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and some unformed persons to demolish what we knew as our home.
“We beg the Federal Government to come to our aid so that provision could be made for us to be compensated. We are in trouble as we appear to have been deserted. We don’t even have a traditional head in Umuezoka community. The state government should have mercy on me and my family.’’
For 41-year-old John Nworu, the government’s action of demolishing their houses without compensation was the height of wickedness and negligence.
The carpenter, whose wife is nursing a five-month-old baby, noted that he now sleeps in the open with his wife and little child, adding that the rumour that the government paid each of the house owners N4m each was falsehood.
He said, “It is an excruciating experience. My brothers, sisters, children and wife now sleep outside in this bad weather. We are in pains. The cold has been dealing with us for over a week now. I don’t know where to take my aged sick mother to. Our farmlands have been destroyed from Umuezoka to Onueke. We can’t farm again and no money to start business.
“We wrote to the government that some houses were not marked for demolition yet destroyed. We have been abandoned by our council chairman and the development centre coordinator. They were supposed to make a case for us, but we can’t find them.
“As far as Umuezoka community is concerned, many houses were demolished. The communities affected are Umuoghara, Umuezeoka, Umuezeokaoha, Oriuzor and Amuzu. It’s only Amuzu that is in Ezza South LGA because the land size was not much. Those worst affected are in Ezza North LGA whose expanse land was taken for the project.
“If I am to sell the demolished house, it’s worth N11m. I have evidence. This is because everything was done from foundation, roofing to tiling. Even if the government gives me N1m, I won’t take it because it can’t take me anywhere to build a new house.
“The Federal Government should intervene in our situation. They should map out a land and build houses for us to live first then they can begin to talk about other things. We wouldn’t even mind to rent houses the government builds for us. If rain starts now, how are we going to cope? There are babies and aged people among us who sleep outside in cold weather. Where do we take them to?’’
Another indigene, Francis Ukpabi, from Umuezoka, who is a trader in Onitsha, Anambra State, said he rushed to the village when someone called him on the phone that his house had been demolished.
He added that when he arrived, he shed tears seeing the rubble of his building and belongings outside.
“I don’t know what I did. If it’s about the airport, we like it. But I don’t think this is the way to go about it. The land was given to me by my great grandfather and I have lived in the place for many years. Why should it be an airport project that will make the government to destroy my house?
“Since this incident took place, I have been in the town and now sleep under a tree with my children despite the cold weather,” he stated.
The trader said there had been no compensation for any of the affected residents, wondering the level of compensation that would heal their emotional and psychological pains.
He added, “We can’t even farm again and it’s farming season. All what we planted last year had been destroyed. Nobody hates development. As the government wants to take over the area for airport project, it’s good. But they should show us where to stay or give us money to build new houses.”
One of the affected residents, 50-year-old Nwogwu Monday, said he constructed a tent under the tree to live temporarily as there was nowhere to stay since the demolition took place.
Saying over 30 children currently sleep outside in the cold, Monday said they feared they wouldn’t have pneumonia because of the current weather.
Monday who described the exercise as anti-people, added that he was also in Onitsha when he received a call that his house had been demolished by the government.
He said, “My property was scattered everywhere. I now sleep under a tree with my children. There has been no compensation. We heard some persons got between N1m and N2m compensation from the government. It is a lie. There is nothing like that. No one has got anything from the government. It has not been easy sleeping under trees every night.”
Monday’s wife, Amaka, said mosquitoes and other insects bit them every night as they had yet to find a suitable place since the demolition took place.
She noted, “My little child has diarrhoea. She hardly sleeps at night. The government should find a place for us to stay and give us some money to feed. The airport they said they are building has affected our farmlands. We don’t have food to eat again. We are suffering. My cassava farm was destroyed. We need help.”
In Umuezeokaoha community, our correspondent saw scenes that were heart-rending. Over 28 houses were pulled down in the community for the project.
A younger farmer, Ebere Omoha, 35, told Saturday PUNCH that his two houses were destroyed.
Omoha said, “I am from Okaleru village, Umuezeokaoha community, in the Ezza North LGA of Ebonyi State. I am a farmer. The government demolished my two houses and each contained five rooms. My farmlands were also destroyed. I can’t farm again.
“I am sad because the situation has rendered me and my family including neighbours homeless. We now live like animals in bushes. There was no notice prior to the exercise. I was in Onueke when some people called me that my two houses were being pulled down. I ran to the place and saw that it was true.”
Also lamenting her plight, a native of Umuezokaoha community, Felicia Igwe, said the situation made them to sleep in bushes or hut made of palm fronds.
She added that they sleep every night fearing that mosquitoes or snakes could bite them.
Igwe said, “I am from Okaleru village, Umuezeokaoha, Ezza North LGA. My husband and I are farmers and we have 10 children. We have nowhere to sleep and no food to eat. The demolition has increased our suffering as it affected our house and farmland. Government should have pity on us as we are helpless at the moment.”
Also, a resident, Sunday Augustine, 39, noted that the demolition had heightened the anguish of the rural dwellers.
He said, “I am from Okaleru village in Umuezeokaoha community, Ezza North LGA of Ebonyi State. I saw some policemen and other security agents storm the community on February 6, 2020, at about 11am. They started demolishing houses and some of them who answered our inquiry said they were sent by the state government to pull down houses close to the proposed airport site. Since last year, everybody knows what we went through when farmlands on the track road of the airport project were destroyed. I was in tears as I watched them destroy all I laboured for.”
Augustine said the most frustrating aspect was the rumoured compensation which he said had worsened the situation as many believed it.
“Last week, a man in Oriuzor was called by the government to collect N150, 000 as compensation for his demolished house. He later told us that he didn’t receive any money from anybody.
“We now sleep outside because the nearest town is Onueke but it’s far from us. What we do now is wherever we see space and it’s a bit plain, we spread mats and sleep. We also light firewood to keep warm. There is nothing bad if the government builds blocks of houses for us to live in,” Augustine added.
Same story, same pain
Mrs Oluchi Akochi, a 26-year-old nursing mother, said their two houses were pulled down by security agents, lamenting that her four-month-old baby could die if there was no help as she had taken ill.
Akochi stated that she was bothered by the demolition of their house, adding that the development was compounded by hunger which her family was currently experiencing.
She said amid tears, “My husband’s name is Patrick Akochi. I’m from Umuoru village in Oriuzor community in Ezza North council area. Our house was also demolished for the construction of the airport project.
“I am breastfeeding a four-month old baby. We now sleep under a tree. My husband was at the home of a traditional bone setter when some security agents came to destroy our house.
He had to hurriedly return even though he was not yet fit. I have five children. My last baby, Chiamaka, is sick. No money for drugs and there is no hospital in our village. Our cassava farm has been destroyed and no other land to farm on. We have not been compensated by the government. The government should do something quickly about our situation.
The situation of 60-year-old widow, Mrs Ngozi Nwankwo, from Umuoru village, Oriuzor community, was touching.
Nwankwo told our correspondent that security agents invaded her community and destroyed the house which her late husband left for her, step-wife and their children.
“I couldn’t do anything because I’m powerless. My children, about eight of them, were not at home then. I asked those who carried out the exercise to tell me my offence. But they couldn’t say anything. Why did they do this to us?
“Since the demolition, life has not been easy. We now sleep outside in the cold under the trees and some nights, inside a makeshift house made of palm fronds. The worse thing is that they didn’t give us notice that they were coming to demolish our houses. We would have prepared by moving our belongings. Most of them were trapped in the rubble,” she stated.
To Awo Chukwudi, a 35-year-old man from Umuoru village in Oriuzor community, Ezza North LGA, the homelessness which the development had thrown them to was bad.
He lamented that executing the exercise without notices to them worsened their plight as he was unable to salvage any of his belongings.
Chukwudi said, “The government has not paid compensation to any of us. We currently sleep under trees despite the cold weather.
“The state and federal governments should join hands to help us. We aren’t against the airport project. If the government is not ready to compensate us, they should look for a land and build houses for us to live. We are not greedy. We will gladly accept any type of house they build for us. The suffering is too much.”
Compensation ongoing, says government
But the state government, on Friday, said the claims that the affected house owners had not been compensated was untrue and should not be taken seriously.
The Commissioner for Information and State Orientation, who is also the acting Commissioner for Human Capital Development and Monitoring, Mr Uchenna Orji, in a WhatsApp message to our correspondent, said compensation was ongoing.
He stated that the law empowered the governor to take over land and appropriate same for the overall interest of the public.
Orji said, “Compensation is ongoing. Comprehensive enumeration process has been concluded. Compensation is the outcome of a fair assessment of the value of economic trees and developed property on the land sought to be used for the overriding public interest.
“Don’t forget that land in any state is at the pleasure of the governor empowered by law to take it over and appropriate it for the overall good of the state. The airport when completed shall be one of the greatest assets for economic development in Ebonyi State.”
Also, the Special Assistant to Governor Umahi on Airport, Mr Joseph Nwobashi, said the state had earmarked N80m to compensate the homeowners, adding that prior to the demolition, the state’s ministry of lands, visited the communities and enumerated buildings and economic trees.
He said, “In the communities in Ezza North council area where the airport is being sited, before we started clearing the location, the ministry of lands went to the communities and did enumeration of the houses there. After that, the governor approved the enumeration and said it would be done batch by batch.
“From Amuzu community in Ezza South LGA, which is the entrance to the airport, there are people whose houses fell within the tarmac and runway area. These are the people the governor said should be taken care of for us to continue work.’’
He noted that the affected persons were asked to come for compensation, noting that most of them had complied.
Nwobashi stated, “Even before the state government made the money available, the traditional rulers of the affected communities were asked to invite their people from the five communities. They were asked to provide lands for their resettlement. But nothing has been done on the lands.
“The quality of a house depends on the amount its owner would get as compensation. Government has plans to resettle them appropriately.’’
He further said they held several meetings with the people and solicited their support, noting that during one of the meetings, one of them said they would hire a bus to come in group for the compensation.