Rochas Okorocha

Imo State is no longer the land of the learned, composed and the genteel. Successive governments of the state have histrionically shunned the people-centered ideological core Dee Sam Mbakwe entrenched in political governance, rolling back the decades of progress made in social, economic and human development. Governor Rochas can turn this situation around by giving succour instead of spreading grief; by putting an end to the unceasing rancorous engagement with the state’s labour leaders; by taking bold steps to reverse systemic anomalies that he met on ground, rather than exacerbating them.

After thirty-five years of meritorious service as lecturers, professors and administrators of Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education (AICE) Owerri, Imo State Governor Rochas Okorocha is “rewarding” them with intimidation, land-grabbing, eviction threats and a scheduled demolition of their homes. Like the proverbial church rat, AICE retirees are pathetically broke, depressed and wearied by the floodgate of litigation and uncertainties attending the payment of their gratuities and residential accommodations.

If not for the retirees’ resilience and collective resistance on Saturday January 23, 2016, the plan to evict them and hand over the much-coveted land (known as Shell Camp, Alvan Staff Quarters) to political cronies and greedy property speculators that pervade the state would have been accomplished. After that botched demolition attempt, demolition officials accompanied by heavily-armed security operatives threatened to return by February 15, 2016 to flatten the entire estate.

Shell Camp, Alvan Staff Quarters is a very quiet, serene and academic environment, flanking the highbrow Works Layout on the right, the Federal Medical Centre on the left, and also bordering the Imo Shoe Industry, AICE tertiary institution and the Imo State Government House. Shell Camp, Owerri was formerly home to expatriates of Shell Petroleum Development Company in the early sixties. Attached to every apartment/building is a two-room boys-quarters, a small backyard garden and a somewhat large frontage, where most occupants planted either flowers or maintained vegetable gardens. The estate has an equipped playground, a well-run nursery school and crèche facilities, plus a host of facilities that guarantee a life of simplicity and comfort. When the expatriates vacated the estate, the then East Central State government ceded the land to AICE and the Industrial Development Centre. Senior Staff of the institution have lived there for decades, paying rent to the institution and keeping the entire estate in habitable condition. So, it is easy to understand the desperation to forcefully grab the land from the expendable retirees, re-partition and re-allocate this choicest piece of real estate to more powerful private actors.

Ignoring the subsisting injunction and ongoing court action aimed at determining the occupational status of the retirees, Governor Okorocha resorted to self-help, taking the law into his hands by setting up a committee to harass the occupants out of Shell Camp. The committee, without resolving the issue of unpaid gratuities and entitlements…ruled that occupants should move out of the estate by February 2016.

SHELL CAMP
When the Federal Government took over the institution, the issue of AICE staff’s continued occupation of the estate was not fully resolved. In an action filed at the State High Court in SUIT NO: HOW/533/2006, the retirees asked the court to grant them owner/occupier status. Gratuities and other entitlements of many remain unpaid, making it economically difficult – and impossible – for the pensioners to make alternative housing arrangements. There is currently a subsisting injunction restraining the state or federal authorities from evicting the retiree-lecturers from the estate pending the final determination of the substantive suit. In an effort to resolve this matter, the Federal Government through its circular No: SGF.19/F/47/C1/2 2 /371 dated June 27, 2007, titled “Monetisation of Fringe Benefits,” notified the AICE authorities to sell the houses to those occupying them in line with the government’s monetisation policy.

The Industrial Development Centre implemented this circular and sold their houses to the occupants, but AICE did not comply. Instead, AICE’s provost, Dr. B.C. Ijioma, sued the retirees individually at the magistrate court in Imo State, seeking to eject them from the quarters. While the various matters were yet to be determined, she deducted N2,000 per night or N60,000 per month from the pensioners’ stipends for 15 months. Pursuant to the 2007 circular, the retirees petitioned the Federal Ministry of Education regarding the deductions. The ministry directed the provost to refund the retirees’ monies and comply with the circular directive. She neither returned the money nor complied with the directive.

On seeing that she could not successfully evict the occupants through legitimate means, she sought the intervention of serving governors of the state at various times. For years, different governors of Imo State have sought ways to wrest the property off its current occupants. Former Governor Ohakim attempted to, but eventually backed out. Rochas tried in his first term, but also retreated after a visit from the Chairman Senate Committee on Education, late Uche Chukwumerije, and also because he wanted a second term. With his second term ambition now fully realised, there seems to be no stopping him.

Can a state-inaugurated committee vacate a subsisting injunction granted by a court of competent jurisdiction? Can a committee’s quasi-judicial obligations usurp the court’s adjudicatory responsibilities? Is this sort of kangaroo judicial process tolerable under a democratic dispensation?

Ignoring the subsisting injunction and ongoing court action aimed at determining the occupational status of the retirees, Governor Okorocha resorted to self-help, taking the law into his hands by setting up a committee to harass the occupants out of Shell Camp. The committee, without resolving the issue of unpaid gratuities and entitlements, without adequate consultation with the affected lecturers, and without provision of alternative accommodation for the senior citizens who have dutifully served their father land for 35 years, ruled that occupants should move out of the estate by February 2016. Three questions begging for answers are: Can a state-inaugurated committee vacate a subsisting injunction granted by a court of competent jurisdiction? Can a committee’s quasi-judicial obligations usurp the court’s adjudicatory responsibilities? Is this sort of kangaroo judicial process tolerable under a democratic dispensation?

Eye witnesses say Governor Rochas has been spotted several times in recent weeks driving around the estate. When demolition officials visited on Saturday January 23, 2016 between 9.45.a.m and 11.45.a.m., without any notice or advance warning, they invaded Professor Paul Iheakaram’s residence, destroying all the crops in the family backyard garden comprising palm, banana, and plantain trees, and vegetables. The destruction of the palm trees exposed a substantial part of the house, leaving the occupants prone to external threats. Demolition officials boasted that they were acting on orders from the Government House, Owerri. If the demolition succeeds, hundreds of the pensioners, their tenants, dependents and families will be displaced, broken and humiliated, after long years of selfless service and contributions to national development. Majority of the retirees are old, sick, and have nowhere else they call home. Where they live now is the only tangible evidence of their 35 year-long service to their fatherland.

Many accuse the governor of continually taking spectacularly fickle steps towards infamy, unleashing on the people an unrivalled reign of political terror, social distress and economic hardship never witnessed since the state’s creation in 1976. Others insist that inhumanity and wickedness have been elevated as state policy.

SHELL CAMP.2
It needs to be emphasised that Imo’s steady descent into anarchy and executive recklessness is traumatising. No week passes without Imo being in the news for the wrong reasons. Just days ago, Governor Okorocha sacked scores of workers in 19 parastatals, agencies and departments after a so-called productivity audit, and stopped their salaries since Monday, January 4, 2016. Protests across the state are a daily phenomenon. It gets worse and there is no rescue in sight. More disturbingly, credible allegations chronicling the excesses of the current Imo leadership are too difficult to ignore. Many accuse the governor of continually taking spectacularly fickle steps towards infamy, unleashing on the people an unrivalled reign of political terror, social distress and economic hardship never witnessed since the state’s creation in 1976. Others insist that inhumanity and wickedness have been elevated as state policy. From one corner to the other, Imo citizens drown in tears, grief and despair theatrically imposed and enforced by the very leaders they elected to transform their lives.

Imo State is no longer the land of the learned, composed and the genteel. Successive governments of the state have histrionically shunned the people-centered ideological core Dee Sam Mbakwe entrenched in political governance, rolling back the decades of progress made in social, economic and human development. Governor Rochas can turn this situation around by giving succour instead of spreading grief; by putting an end to the unceasing rancorous engagement with the state’s labour leaders; by taking bold steps to reverse systemic anomalies that he met on ground, rather than exacerbating them. If he is not thinking in this direction already, one can only wonder how long the festival of errors in Imo State will last. Only time will tell.

Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri is the executive director of Spaces for Change (www.spacesforchange.org), a policy advocacy organization based in Lagos, Nigeria. She can be reached on victoria@spacesforchange.org.