July 22, 2024

How Akwa Ibom Ministry of Lands allegedly swallowed over N500m compensation fund

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*Ime Ekpo

Joseph Atainyang

The revelation that 167 hecters of land in Ibiaku Issiet and Obio Ndobo communities of Uruan local government area is lying waste, after 12 years of acquisition may be a mild news, as massive fraud is allegedly hanging on the Akwa Ibom State government, precisely the Ministry of Lands and Water Resources.

The ‘fraud’ border on alleged diversion of compensation funds meant for the two communities, amounting to over N500 million.

Recall that about 200 hecters of land was acquired in 2010, during the tenure of former Governor Godswill Obot Akpabio.

Amidst hunger and the need for robust agricultural activities to boost Nigeria’s food sufficiency, the land had since been lying unused till 2017 when Ashden Group of Company commenced land clearing.

The then Commissioner for Lands and Town Planning, now Ministry of Lands and Water Resources, Arc Ime Ekpo had in 2017 convinced the communities to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU), with a promise that full compensation was underway.

The land area was then reduced to 167 hecters with compensation reportedly pecked at N800 million.

Complete site clearing was however done by Virkom Global Limited in 2019, when the Ministry of Lands and Water Resources told the communities that compensation was ready.

Indices of alleged fraud

Sources have said the ministry has diverted over 84 percent of total compensation sum, paying just about 15 percent to Obio Ndobo community.

As stated, the land, lying along Airport Road by NNPC Filling Station, was said to have been valued at N800 million in 2017.

Ibiaku Issiet community was then represented by their chosen Estate Valuer, late ESV Ani Udoakagha who did the valuation.

The community was later represented by ESV Kufre Eshiet whom they contacted in replacement for Udoakagha.

The then commissioner reportedly attempted shortchanging the communities on the approved compensation sum, having told them that a little above N500 million was being approved.

But the former Councilor, Hon. Nsikak Okon argued against the late Arc Ime Ekpo, saying he was aware that the approved sum was N800 million.

Nsikak Okon was said to have interrupted the late commissioner, during a meeting to say that he was privy to a documented value sum of N800 million.

Leaders of the community said the sum was approved in full by Governor Udom Emmanuel and released to the Ministry by the Accountant-General, Pastor Uwem Andrew-Essien.

But the late commissioner reportedly visited the communities at another date, saying government had deducted taxes from the valued sum, leaving only N600 million for payment to both communities.

The amount is 75 percent of N800 million, meaning that government, as the Commissioner claimed, had deducted N200 million, being 25 percent of the sum.

While N190 million representing 31.66 percent was billed for payment to Obio Ndobo and N410 million representing 68.33 percent due for Ibiaku Issiet, the communities argued against charges of tax on land compensation.

It was oil on fire when the late commissioner, again, told the communities that due to paucity of funds, government could only pay 50 percent of the ‘purportedly taxed’ sum, and would complete the payment later.

Accordingly, the community had sought redress in court, to have their rights protected.

Meanwhile, some community persons were also sponsored to join the case and counter the claims being made against government.

The counterclaims had brought to the fore the issue of multiple beneficiaries, as government had dragged that they couldn’t pay any of the factional community leaders who were demanding compensation payment.

Smart to understand the intrigues of ‘fraudulent elements’ against community progress, the people convened a meeting where they resolved to pursue common goal.

It was then the community, through their Valuer, ESV Kufre Eshiet went to sign the payment form with the ministry.

Kufre Eshiet was asked to sign a document that he collected compensation due for the community, even when officials of the ministry only presented evidence of half payment.

Obviously, Ibiaku Issiet community would not love to take 50 percent, having known that the governor had approved the release of full payment.

The Valuer argued that it would be suicidal as he couldn’t put himself into such pressure of appearing to betray the community whose interest he was serving.

The late commissioner, together with his permanent secretary and directors were said to have insisted that he should sign the document the way it was, to get N205 million, instead of N410 million for the people.

Since the Valuer stood his grounds, the compensation due for payment to Ibiaku Issiet in December 2020 was denied.

Meanwhile, further checks have revealed that the Ministry of Lands and Town Planning now designated as Ministry of Lands and Water Resources, had N6.3 billion as approved capital expenditure in 2019, out of which only N918,195,000.00 was released.

According to the 2019 Audited Annual Report of the Accountant-General (as amended), made available to journalists in November 2020, six hundred and fifty million naira (N650 million) had been approved in the budget for the said compensation.

Curiously, it was six hundred and five million naira (N605 million) that was eventually released as captured on page 156 thus, “Payment for Site for State Housing Estate, Ibiaku Obio Ndobo-Uruan”.

However, the area of land has been fenced round to allow for apparent demarcation as a public property.

With direct labour, the fencing was done in 2020 by the Ministry of Lands and Water Resources, clearly under the supervision of both the then Commissioner, late Ime Ekpo and the Commissioner for Housing, Otuekong Raphael Bassey.

Currently, internal road marking is being handled by AMITEX Construction and Development Company, showing that government has taken full ownership of the property.

Members of the communities react

Contacted for reactions on the matter, the people stated that the situation has caused untold pain and hardship in the two communities.

During a private interaction with our reporter, the Village Council Chairman, Ibiaku Issiet, Mr Sylvester Ekpe expressed bitterness over the incident.

Sylvester Ekpe raised concerns on why government functionaries were always interested in oppressing the people whom they were elected to serve.

“I am deeply bitter about the situation. I can’t understand why people who were sworn into office to serve the masses can become chief oppressors of the people.

“For 12 years now, the area of land has not been cultivated. We have not received our compensation, despite all our efforts on getting the government to pay the money.

“We are careful not to take laws into our hands. There are available traditional options that could be pursued. We are also conversant with legal alternatives. But we’re just being calm and watching them”, he said.

Similarly, another native of Ibiaku Issiet, Etubom Asuquo Eduok said it was “unfortunate that personnel of government were deep in corruption.”

Saying it was possible that Governor Udom Emmanuel may not be aware of the whole thing, Etubom Eduok who wondered what saboteurs of government stood to gain, appealed to the governor to investigate those involved in the fraud.

He pleaded that Governor Emmanuel should use his good offices to ensure that the communities are paid full compensations for their land.

On his part, the Community Liaison Officer (CLO), Ibiaku Obio Ndobo, Udomkpoyo Edem stated that his village has been thrown to a state of chaos, since the failure by government to pay full compensation.

Udomkpoyo lamented that since the payment was not completed, their village head, Etidung Tom Effiong was gruesomely murdered by unknown men.

“Since first quarter of 2020 when our village head was killed, we have not known peace. There is so much trouble as people are calling on government to do the needful.

“Mrs Abah was in charge of the payment. She is the Consultant and Valuer for the ministry. She did so in December 2019 and part of January 2020. But she said she was having a similar matter to handle elsewhere. Since then, she didn’t return here”, the CLO said.

In their separate reactions, the Secretary, Ibiaku Issiet village council, Mr James Udo and the Youth President of Ibiaku Issiet, Engr Dennis Etim pointed out that the two communities had a meeting with Governor Udom Emmanuel in 2016, where the state’s chief executive promised to release full payments for the compensation.

The secretary cited Governor Emmanuel as saying during the meeting, “Just like you can enter an aircraft, where you don’t even know the pilot, yet you have confidence that he’ll take you to your destination, may be Lagos or Abuja, I want you to believe me.”

The meeting, they said, was attended by the late commissioner, Arc Ime Ekpo; the current Speaker of Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, then in his capacity as the Member, Uruan State Constituency; the slain village head of Obio Ndobo, Late Etidung Tom Effiong and that of Ibiaku Issiet, Etidung William Obot.

They explained that the meeting was attended through nomination, where seven people were selected from each of the communities, in addition to the House Member, making a total of 15 delegates.

They insisted that government could not have released half payment when the governor had given them assurances of making full payments.

Experts’ position on best practices

In a conversation with our reporter, a professional Surveyor and Estate Valuer, ESV John Isangedighi said there was no known practice of taxation on compensation.

John Isangedighi stated that “the law regulating compensation assessment and payment does not make provisions for any form of taxes.”

He said, “Compensation is not income that it should be taxable. It is paid because someone’s property has been acquired for public use. It is a form of replacement from what government has taken from you.

“The method of assessment is clearly stated that it is on the basis of depreciated replacement cost (DRC). It is not an income generated from any business transaction”, he explained.

On whether compensation could be paid in parts, John Isangedighi submitted that “the acquiring authority can negotiate with the claimant on part payment.” He further explained that such must be on a clear case of negotiation and understanding.

Addressing the issue of delay in compensation, ESV Isangedighi pointed out that such can result in payment of interest to beneficiaries.

“If you say the acquisition and valuation were done since 2010, then the community has a right to seek redress in court for their interest, having been deprived access to their land.

“The interest”, he said, “is to be computed with the interest rate approved by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).”

Another Estate Valuer, Hon. Uwem Okodi-yah, affirmed that there was no law in favour of taxation against compensation.

He emphasized that adequate compensation is supposed to be paid before any land is acquired for public interest.

“There is no law that makes compensation for an asset acquired for public purposes taxable.

“Before any land is acquired for overriding public interest, it is expected by law that adequate compensation be paid to carter for the relocation of the owners to a new settlement, because amount of N1 today is not the same tomorrow”, he stated.

Government’s reaction

Although some government’s personnel and agents did not respond to us, some have however spoken in reaction to the matter.

Calls and text messages sent to the Information Commissioner, Comrade Ini Ememobong gained no feedback.

We could not also reach the current Commissioner for Lands and Water Resources, Pastor Umo Eno before press time.

In a phone interaction with our reporter, Speaker of the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Aniekan Bassey recalled how he arranged for the communities to meet with Governor Udom Emmanuel on the issue.

He said the governor had promised to release funds for the communities to be paid, but that he was not involved in the process.

“I actually arranged for the community to meet with the governor. That was a long time ago. As a Member, Uruan State Constituency in the State House of Assembly, it was my approach to finding a smooth way of resolving the matter.

“I understand Obio Ndobo was paid some part of their money. But since I’ve not been involved, I don’t know how much was paid”, the Speaker said.

Also speaking, the Consultant and Valuer for the Ministry of Lands and Water Resources, ESV (Mrs) Nsewo Abah noted that government did not release funds for full compensation and that there was arrangements on ground for them to be paid.

Mrs Abah said, “Am I government? I am not government. If government releases money, they will be paid. I know they had a meeting with government about two months ago, as was presided over by the new commissioner who promised them to exercise patience.

“The money will be released. Government only paid half. It’s not a new thing. They all know it.”

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