Idumeje-Ugboko, an otherwise serene community in Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State, has known no peace for about five years now.
The town descended into crisis in early 2015 after the community king and his chiefs granted a request by an indigene of the town, Ned Nwoko, for 90 hectares of land to build a golf course and another two miles by two miles for a sports university.
Mr Nwoko, a billionaire, was a member of the House of Representatives, who represented the Aniocha North-South and Oshimili North-South federal constituency between 1999 and 2003.
The parcels of land awarded to the former lawmaker were part of a vast field collectively owned by the community and set aside for development purposes.
But years after the allocation, some natives of the community, led by Chukwunonso Nwoko, the first son of the late king (Obi) of the town, have continued to battle Mr Nwoko, claiming that he acquired the land illegitimately.
Mr Nwoko, chiefs of the community, the local government and other authorities insist due process was followed in the allocation of the landed properties to the businessman.
Regardless, claims and counter-claims have remained and the community has remained divided over the matter.
Ninety-year-old Oghedo Osodi said she inherited four acres of farmland from her husband but that the land, which was her only means of sustenance, was among that given to Mr Nwoko.
Mrs Osodi said she watched with terror as a bulldozer, guarded by heavily armed policemen, uprooted and cleared palm trees, rubber trees and other cash and food crops on her land.
The nonagenarian said she fled for her life after the policemen started shooting sporadically to disperse an angry crowd from the village.
Like Mrs Osodi, 67 years old Sunday Kainebi, said she suffered a similar fate. On January 14, 2017, Mr Kainebi said some associates of Mr Nwoko took over his land.
“I was at home that afternoon and I was informed that a bulldozer was on my farmland. I met them. They were more than 50, including policemen. When I asked one of them, He said it was their oga that sent them. He said Ned Nwoko.”
Unlike Mr Kainebi and Mrs Osodi, Jude Isonye said he confronted Mr Nwoko for trespassing on his land and the former lawmaker promised to compensate him. Mr Isonye said he turned down the ex-lawmaker’s offer.
“They started creating a narrow way. They destroyed parts of my farm. It was at the boundary between Ugboko and Onicha-Ugbo. I met Ned himself… He said I should leave and that he would pay. I told him: see, you are taking us for a ride,” said Mr Isonye.
Benedict Dungu said associates of Mr Nwoko destroyed his ready-to-harvest cassava on his farm last August.
But the Iyase (prime minister) of the community, Christopher Ogwu, told PREMIUM TIMES the complainants were economical with the truth. He said the land in question belongs to the community and that no individual has any right over it. He said while the land was unused, natives were allowed to farm on it. He said all those with farmlands on the land were compensated by Mr Nwoko, who has since started building a university on the property.
According to the guideline of the National University Commission, promoters of universities must show that they have acquired enough land before they are granted the statutory approval of setting up the university.
A stillborn dairy farm
PREMIUM TIMES’s findings revealed that the former lawmaker was first given a portion of the community’s land in 2000.
While he was serving in the House of Representatives, Mr Nwoko requested 33 hectares of the community land for a dairy farm and factory. He convinced the community that the dairy farm would provide jobs for the youth and ultimately improve the economy of the agrarian community.
However, some members of the community, such as Uche Aligbe, the then president-general of the Idumuje Ugboko Development Union (IUDU), thought that Mr Nwoko’s proposed dairy farm was dead on arrival. They argued that the environment of the town was not conducive for rearing cattle.
One agriculturist who spoke to this newspaper echoed the view of Mr Nwoko’s kinsmen. Philips Aniagwu, an animal scientist, said a dairy farm can barely survive in a rainforest area such as that of the lawmaker’s hometown.
“Rainforest zones like Delta State breeds Tsetse fly more during the rainy season which is a pest of the Cattle, it causes sleeping illness in them and thereby reducing their productivity. They also contribute to deforestation by feeding on vegetation,” Mr Aniagwu said.
Mr Nwoko’s request was, however, granted and the land allotted to him. But the dairy farm project soon failed but a huge chunk of the land is still being used for agricultural purposes. On the property now are a commercial-sized fishpond, one commercial-sized poultry farm for birds and a zoo with two ostriches, one monkey, a donkey, a few lambs and two Arabian hens.
These facilities are behind the former lawmaker’s country home called Mount Ned, which is one of the notable tourist sites in the community.
There are allegations that Mount Ned was built on a part of the 33 hectares the community gave Mr Nwoko for a dairy farm. The businessman rejected that suggestion, saying Mount Ned was erected on separate family land.
Posing as a tourist, this reporter visited the facility located on the outskirts of the village last September. Mount Ned has a 9-hole golf course within its premises. Behind the green area of the golf course, is the lodge, where the former lawmaker stays and receives guests when in the village.
Chukwugo, the tour guide, told this reporter that there was a dairy farm on the property but when asked to take this reporter to the site of the farm, Chukwugo said the cattle had been herded out to eat.
Chukwugo’s claim that the animals were being herded in the bush contradicted the explanation given to this reporter by Mr Nwoko and his ally, Walters Eziashi, a former president-general of the IUDU. Both said the about 500 cattle bought for the dairy farm have all died.
“Unfortunately, he (Ned) was ill-advised. A dairy farm could not survive with the Idumuje-Ugboko climate. They brought in over 500 cows. Every Ugboko people, including myself, saw it,” Mr Eziashi said on a Channels TV programme in August.
“There is no dairy farm there but a commercial fish pond and poultry is there. Part of that land is part of what we use for the University project,” Mr Nwoko told PREMIUM TIMES when asked about the dairy farm in September.
Idumuje Ugboko has a structured process for land acquisition that discourages land grabbing.
According to the tradition, all requests for land are made to the monarch of the community. The king will then consult the Obi-in council, a group of chiefs for approval.
If the request sails through this stage, it is passed to the Izu Ani, a group of representatives of Idumuje Ugboko adults and the highest decision-making organ of the community. The Izu-Ani is chaired by the king.
After the approval of the assembly, the king instructs the land allocation committee chaired by one of the palace chiefs, the Odogwu, to take over the process.
For arbitration on land matters, the Onotu, headed by the Iyase, the prime minister of the kingdom, wades in. He is also assisted by the Odogwu.
According to the tradition, any community land awarded but not used for the purpose for which it was awarded will be withdrawn after three years, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
It was through the process that Mr Nwoko secured the original 33 hectares, which he claimed was meant to set up a dairy farm. Mr Chukwunonso and his camp are now contending that since the land is no longer being used for a dairy farm, it should be returned to the community. But Mr Nwoko said even though the dairy project had failed, the land is still substantially being used for agricultural purposes.
Ned Nwoko and a request for more land
On March 16, 2015, through his company, Linas International Limited, Mr Nwoko requested another 90 hectares of land for an international-standard golf course from the now late traditional ruler of the community, Albert Nwoko.
An international standard golf course has at least 18 holes and can occupy up to 60 hectares of land.
A week later, the ex-lawmaker sent out another letter requesting a two-miles-by-two miles land for the construction of STARS University.
Some members of the community, led by his kin from the royal family, kicked against these fresh demands. They argued that Mr Nwoko did not use the original 33 hectares he was allotted for what he requested it for. They argued that he should first exhaust the land before requesting additional land.
However, Mr Nwoko argued that he has a rightful claim to the land. He claimed he secured the approval of the additional 90 hectares from the late monarch, who he claimed also directed the land allocation committee to map out the land while another conducted a feasibility assessment for his golf course project.
To back his claim, he presented a letter dated April 10, 2015, signed by the monarch, Albert Nwoko, who died in 2017.
In the letter, the monarch indicated that the village was going into a partnership with the politician and he set up a committee led by the Iyase, Christopher Ogwu, to determine the investment ratio and the feasibility of the project.
“The town will go into partnership with your company by investing the capitalized value of the land at the appropriate rate in the Golf Course. The land for the University will be donated by the village,” the letter read.
“I hereby instruct the land allocation committee and the committee established by the Izu Ani that held last month to determine the current value of the land and capitalize it for the purpose of the investment at the appropriate rate for the course,” the letter added.
Mr Nwoko also claimed that the monarch’s directive was approved by the Izu-Ani on April 25, 2015.
However, the then crowned prince of the community, Chukwunonso Nwoko, countered the politician’s claim, stating that the king did not approve of the request.
He told PREMIUM TIMES that he had questioned the rationale behind Mr Nwoko’s request for additional land even before it became public knowledge.
He said he first sighted a copy of the approval letter in possession of the ex-lawmaker on April 11, 2015, a day after it was written. He said the letter had been pre-written and did not have the signature of his father at the time.
“Akaba Nwoko, the special assistant to my Dad, was holding a paper. It was a document. It turned out to be an approval based on his application. That document was on the letterhead of the Obi. All that was needed was my father’s signature.”
He said he threw out the letter and summoned a family meeting the following day when it was decided to sack the secretary and expel him from the palace.
The next day, a Monday, at a meeting of the elders, the same document resurfaced, and he said he objected to it again.
“I showed up at the meeting with Ned. The same letter I threw out was the main thing that they used for the deliberation. I was surprised.
“The elders did not counter it. At that point, I raised my hand to ask a question. For me, this man was given over thirty hectares. What did he do with the land? None of them could answer.
“Since as the heir to the throne, I was not in support, the elders could not proceed with the request.”
PREMIUM TIMES could not reach Akaba for comment. He could not be reached via his phone number and he did not respond to a text message sent to him requesting comment.
The controversy surrounding the approval of the 90 hectares deepened when Chukwunonso and his brothers presented letters they claimed were signed by their deceased father debunking the approval letter, presented by Mr Nwoko, starting from May 2015.
The three different letters were signed by the monarch.
According to copies of the letters obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, the king stated that Mr Nwoko’s activities should be restricted to the 33 hectares allocated in 2000, restating that he has not approved of the additional land requested.
“With reference to the umu-omorhusi (royal family) meeting held on the 21 of May 2015 in the royal palace Idumuje – Ugboko in respect of the above subject matter. The following decisions were taken:
1. I, His Royal Majesty hereby order that all activities on the said land should cease with immediate effect.
2. I, His Royal – Majesty also hereby order that you should restrict your activities to the parcel of land already allocated to you in the past by the town. Please be informed that the Izu – Ani held 25 April 2015 was not authorized by I, His Royal Majesty and therefore all decisions taken at the said meeting are null and void. Please note that failure to comply with the above directives will attract very severe sanctions from the palace,” the letter dated May 21, 2015, addressed to Mr Nwoko stated.
Another letter dated August 12, 2015, which was addressed to the community, read:
“On the Linas International Ltd, application for additional 90 hectares of land in addition to the allocated 33 hectares, for an International Standard Golf course Idumuje-Ugboko, I, His Royal Majesty wish to state as follows:
“NO additional land has been approved or signed for by me. I have NOT ordered or delegated any of my Chiefs or Agents to allocate or (ii) sign for any additional land. (iii) Any document purported to have been signed by me approving additional land for the said company is fraudulent and therefore illegal.”
“I am aware of recent happenings and disruption in Idumuje Ugboko caused by some confusionists concerning land allocation. I want to state that we have always supported development in Idumuje Ugboko but we have to be sure that the development is genuine before giving out our people’s precious land.
“As regards the recent Prince Ned Nwoko’s (and his company, Linas International Ltd) request for additional land for the golf course and university, I, his majesty wish to state categorically as follows;
“That no additional land has been approved or signed by me, I have not delegated any of my Chiefs or agents to allocate or sign for additional land,” the third letter dated January 18, 2016, which was addressed to leaders of different groups, read.
Petition against Ned Nwoko
But Mr Eziashi, Mr Nwoko’s ally, later petitioned the police to investigate the veracity of the signatures on the letters arguing that the signature of the late monarch was forged on the letters.
A forensic examination carried out by the Forensic and Crime division of the police in Lagos, established that none of the signatures on the letters were forged and that they were signed by the king.
This was communicated via a forensic report dated November 25.
But the police later charged Mr Chukwunonso and some of his brothers to court for allegedly using their intimate relationship with the king to ‘procure their father’s signature’ for the rebuttal.
“That you, Nwoko Justin Oreze Nonso “m”, Prince Ejimofor Nwoko, Prince Richard Obiajulo Nwoko sometime in the month of August 2015 at Idumuje-Ugboko in the Issele-Uku Magisterial district did conspire amongst yourselves to commit felony to wit: procuring the execution of documents by false pretences and thereby committed an offence punishable Section Criminal code law. Cap C21. Vol.I Laws of Delta State of Nigeria 2006,” the charge sheet read.
Chukwunonso and his brothers denied the allegations. The case is still subsisting in court.
Nwoko and farmlands
However, even before his request was approved, Mr Nwoko became enmeshed in controversy over the destruction of farmlands on the property, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
But the Iyase told PREMIUM TIMES Mr Nwoko had no hand in the destruction of the farmlands. He said it was a committee charged by the king to mark out the land that went in with a caterpillar to undertake the task. He said, unfortunately, some farmlands were trampled upon in the process.
The Iyase said after some farmers complained, the committee saddled with the feasibility assessment of the golf course project met and issued a report requesting Mr Nwoko to compensate those affected.
According to the report dated June 4, 2015, some of the affected farmlands belong to farmers in Owu, one of the federating units in the village.
The committee said it looked into Owu farmers’ complaints and assessed the damages done to various crops during the grading of the land and recommended adequate compensation to each individual farmer for damaged crops.
Mr Nwoko told PREMIUM TIMES that he complied with the recommendation of the committee and compensated 17 families whose farmlands were affected.
He promised to send this reporter receipts of payment but he failed to do so despite being reminded multiple times.
Critics and Inconsistencies
Mr Nwoko’s critics say the land documents and approval letter in the possession of the businessman contain contradictory and inconsistent information.
For instance, they say, the two pages of the approval letter carry different dates, April 10 and June 2, 2015.
When presented with these claims by his traducers, Mr Nwoko said the approval letter was signed by the king days after it was prepared, and that that accounted for the two dates on the document.
Chris Ogwu, the Iyase, the prime minister and the head of the Onotu, said he was sure his committee carried out its duties as expected but kept mum when posed with the questions.
“What is the contradiction?” Mr Nwoko replied to PREMIUM TIMES’s enquiries. He then told the reporter to focus on the security crisis that erupted after the demise of the king.
Also, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Linas International Limited and some members of the community indicated that the 90 hectares requested was for the golf course project and not STAR University
As part of its recommendations, the feasibility committee suggested that the golf course should be incorporated and some stakeholders in the village should be appointed as directors.
“It was on this basis of this agreement, other documents and approvals that we are moving ahead for the request for the size of land (90 hectares) for the Golf Course to be managed by Linas International Ltd and Idumuje-Ugboko community. The proposed name for the Golf Course subject to availability at Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) is Royal Golf Club Idumuje-Ugboko,” the report of the committee read.
Chukwunonso, however, said there is a subsisting case in court challenging the action of the local government for the issuance of the R of O.
“The MoU had a lot of errors. My father cannot give out 90 hectares of land without signing on the MoU. In fact, the MoU was signed by some members of the community who had been compromised by Ned,” he alleged.
What Union wants Ned Nwoko to do
Okey Ifejoku, the incumbent IUDU President, sued for a peaceful settlement and Mr Nwoko’s compliance with the due process, rather than using force on the people.
He noted that the community is not against the university or any similar development projects proposed by Mr Nwoko.
Sympathising with those who had lost their crops, he demanded that adequate compensation be paid to the farmers and a settlement be reached.
“The community is not against the university. Before this crisis reached this stage, I volunteered that one of my houses be used for the Vice-Chancellor’s lodge. All we want is peace and due process,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: After we received additional information and clarifications, this article was reviewed and updated.
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