At the dead of the night, on Sunday, May 24, people living in Ekpri Nsukara and the adjourning communities, in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, were woken up from their sleep by the sound from heavy gunshots.
Ekpri Nsukara, like every part of Akwa Ibom, has been under curfew imposed by the state government during the lockdown put in place in the wake of the novel coronavirus.
Residents of the community, gripped by fear, could not step out of their houses that night, while the gunshots continued for hours.
It was raining heavily, too.
At dawn, when the morning sun began to rise, the truth revealed itself – some people had invaded the community under the cover of darkness and pulled down several buildings.
All the demolished buildings were newly built, with some of them already roofed.
Some other newly constructed buildings were, however, left untouched by those who carried out the demolition. Nobody knew why the demolition was selective.
“I thought they were armed robbers.”
“It was around 2 a.m. when I heard the gunshots. I was in my house. I thought they were armed robbers,” the Village head of Ekpri Nsukara, Linus Essien, told PREMIUM TIMES, Tuesday. “I was so scared.”
Mr Essien, 74, said the University of Uyo (Uniuyo) was responsible for the invasion and the demolition.
Uniuyo, a federal university, has been involved in a perennial boundary dispute with its host communities.
The communities – 10 of them, including Ekpri Nsukara – donated an expanse of land some 30 years ago to a college of education which is now defunct. The college was converted to a state-owned university before it was eventually taken over in 1991 and renamed University of Uyo by the federal government.
The land, about 1,443 hectares, including its disputed boundary, is where Uniuyo is building its permanent campus, about 10 minutes’ drive from its town campus in Uyo.
Compensation was said to have been paid only for a part of the land. The dispute is now a subject of litigation in several civil suits filed by the communities against Uniuyo.
There have been failed attempts to peacefully resolve the dispute, with the most recent one being a meeting at the palace of the paramount ruler of Uyo, brokered by the lawmaker representing the Uyo State Constituency, Anietie Eka, about two months ago.
In a recent tripartite meeting between Uniuyo, the host communities, and the state government, all the parties involved in the dispute reportedly agreed to maintain the status quo until a peaceful resolution is achieved.
10 buildings demolished
The youth leader of Ekpri Nsukara, Emem Denis, accompanied by a handful of young men, was among the first set of people who rushed to the scene of the demolished buildings by Monday morning. The rain had subsided now. It was still drizzling.
“Is this not wickedness?” Mr Denis said, to nobody in particular, as he and others walked through the rubbles to assess the extent of damage. “This is a terrible thing to do to a people who have done nothing wrong.”
The young men who walked behind Mr Denis cursed loudly as they moved from one demolished building to another. Mr Denis appealed to them and other youth in the communities to remain calm and not take laws into their hands.
At the end of the count, about 10 buildings were demolished.
The tyre impressions of the heavy-duty equipment used in demolishing the buildings could be seen all over the muddy soil.
The youth leader, Mr Denis showed a PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter around the area of land he said belonged to the community. He narrated how the dispute has caused distrust between Uniuyo and the communities.
Mr Denis showed the reporter an untarred road which he said serves as a boundary.
He also showed the reporter some abandoned heaps of sands and blocks across the boundary, within the side he said belong to Uniuyo. “You see the sands and the blocks over there,” he said, while pointing his finger, “we stopped people from building on that land because that side belongs to Uniuyo.”
At a distance, construction work was going on in a massive building complex said to be the university’s faculty of law building.
“I have called the chief security officer of Uniuyo on this, he told me he travelled to Calabar, Cross River State,” the youth leader, Mr Denis, told PREMIUM TIMES. “The security officer said he has heard what happened (the demolition). He said Uniuyo gave him money to execute the demolition, but he refused to do it.”
The man Mr Denis is referring to here is Nkana Efik, a retired colonel in the Nigerian army, who has just been replaced as the chief security officer of the university.
Mr Denis said Mr Efik told him that the demolition was done by a new chief security officer of the university.
But, the new Uniuyo security chief, Asuquo Inyang, denied having a hand in the demolition. He told PREMIUM TIMES, May 25, that he was yet to start work at the university.
The former chief security officer of Uniuyo, Mr Efik told PREMIUM TIMES he never spoke with the Ekpri Nsukara youth leader, let alone mentioned his successor as being responsible for the demolition.
“Why would Uniuyo ask me to do anything when I am no longer in the service of Uniuyo? Does it make sense? I don’t even know who the youth leader of the community is,” Mr Efik said.
Mr Efik said he had demolished several buildings in the communities in the past, during his time as the university’s security chief, and that he would not have any reason to deny this particular demolition if he had a hand in it.
“In December 2015, I did (demolished) more than 100 houses, the state government intervened and said I should stay action, that they were going to look into it.
“I was invited to the House of Assembly; I was invited to Ikot Akpan Abia (police headquarters in the state) and I stood my ground. I did it in broad daylight, I didn’t deny it. Why would I deny this one (if I were the one who did it)?”
The village head of Ekpri Nsukara, Mr Essien, reported the matter to the police. Some officers who came to interview him in his palace assured him they would investigate his complaint.
“The buildings they destroyed are not part of the land we gave to Uniuyo,” the village head said. “I want the police to fish out the people who did this in my community.”
The lawyer to Ekpri Nsukara community, Ekere Ebong, said the demolition of the building is “condemnable”. He vowed to bring up the issue before a judge when next they appear in court for the case between Uniuyo and the community.
“When a matter is in court, parties are not supposed to take any action that would jeopardise the outcome of the case,” Mr Ebong said. “By what they are doing now, they have already determined that they are the owners of the disputed land.”
The Akwa Ibom lawmaker, Mr Eka, visited the scene of the demolished buildings.
Mr Eka said the peace meeting he called two months ago at the palace of the paramount ruler of Uyo did not take place because the Uniuyo Vice Chancellor, Enefiok Essien did not turn up for it.
“I have called Prof Eniefiok Essien who told me he was not aware of the demolition.”
The lawmaker said he has reported the incident to the Secretary to the Akwa Ibom State Government, Emmanuel Ekuwem, whom he said was shocked about what happened.
Imo Udoima, a newspaper publisher and the owner of one of the demolished buildings, said he would hold the former chief security officer of Uniuyo, Mr Efik, responsible for the destruction of his property.
“My property has never ever been marked by any authority as an illegal property and I started building the house since January. Why demolish my house all of a sudden in the middle of the night without any notice? My house is built on community land and not Uniuyo’s land.”
Uniuyo declined comment
When PREMIUM TIMES contacted Uniuyo spokesperson, Blossom Okorie, she referred the paper to the office of the university registrar.
The registrar, Aniedi-Abasi Udofia, however, declined commenting on the matter.
Uniuyo vice chancellor, Mr Essien, in January 2018, had appealed to the Akwa Ibom governor, Udom Emmanuel, to save the university from people whom he said were taking away portions of its land.
“Let me use this opportunity to draw your attention to the persistent and aggressive inclusion and encroachment on the university land. The problem is of such magnitude that, if not urgently addressed, it will deprive the university of land for physical, recreational and developmental purposes,” The Punch newspaper quoted the vice chancellor as saying to Mr Emmanuel.
“The trespassers use bulldozers to recklessly create roads and, thereafter, parcel out the land and sell it. Their sole and daily occupation is how to sell the university land; they appear to have no other work.
“The surveyor-general of the state, who is re-establishing the university boundary, will not only confirm this, but he will also reveal the molestation and the sad experiences that he faced while carrying out the task,” he said.