Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
WHY I LEFT NIGERIA
Dele Igbinedion, Solicitor
In Nigeria, it is a curse if your land is rich in oil or is fertile for agricultural use. The government will forcibly dispossess you and hand the land over with title deeds to the foreign company that offers it the fattest envelope. Two laws in Nigeria governing the compulsory acquisition of land and compensation empower these practices.
First, under the Petroleum Act 1969, the entire ownership and control of all oil and gas on any land in Nigeria or under its territorial waters and continental shelf is vested in the state. Second, the Land Use Act 1978 permits a State Governor, if he is of the opinion that land is required for a "public purpose", to acquire it compulsorily, and makes it a criminal offence to obstruct such acquisition. Although these two Acts provide for payment of compensation, it is usually for "unexhausted improvements" made on the land, not for the land itself. The expression refers to the value of farm crops, trees and house, calculated according to a government rate fixed in 1969 or 1978 (depending on which Act is being applied), less depreciation from use. In practice, however, compensation is rarely paid.
Both laws are evil, but General Olusegun Obasanjo decreed the more evil of the two on the eve of his hand over of government to a civilian regime in 1978, and for good measure, the General ensured that the Act could only be amended by the agreement of two-thirds of all the Local Councils, State Houses of Parliament and the two Chambers of the National Assembly.
ABUSE OF THE LAWS
Foreign companies understand these laws well and the inherently militarised system that accompanies land acquisition in the country. Consequently, they use and abuse the system by bribing government officials to implement the laws, albeit illegally or inappropriately.
Human rights groups have established that foreign companies have direct links to some of the worst human rights violations in Nigeria. For example, in May 1994, an internal Nigerian military memo stated that:
"Shell [oil company] operations are still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence."
This document suggested that 400 soldiers should begin "wasting operations against Ogoni leaders who are especially vocal individuals." http://archive.greenpeace.org/comms/ken/opay001.html
Twelve days later, Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested; he and eight other activists were executed on 10th November 1995. Could the Nigerian army have done this if someone didn't pay the bill?
The consequence of the above was that before and after Saro-Wiwa's death, countless Ogonis and other Nigerians fled the country into exile, leaving their rich land. They are still living in Europe and other western countries.
I practice law in the UK as a Solicitor from a City law firm. It is a beautiful vocation and I enjoy vocation tremendously. But some years ago, I used to have another life as a lawyer in Nigeria. I had a thriving law practice in Benin City in the midwestern part of the Country. I was also a politician and a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party under whose platform General Olusegun Obasanjo had been elected as President of the Nigeria. In 2000, the State Governor appointed me as chairman of the Board of Directors of the State Government owned Radio and Television Company called the Edo Broadcasting Service in Benin City. I also doubled as the legal adviser and consultant of the Edo State House of Assembly, Secretary to the State Law Review Committee and solicitor to many other organisations. As a hobby, I also hosted two weekly television programmes on the Independent Television Channel and then State owned Edo Broadcasting Service.
Prior to these events and appointments, a village of peasant farmers called the Obagie-Nokenkporo Community had instructed my law firm in 1999 to sue a company called Presco Industries Plc, a Belgian agro-industrial subsidiary of Siat NV, a European company registered in Brussels, Belgium. My brief was that Presco had been occupying a small area of land in the farmers' community. Without prior notice, it suddenly embarked on a massive land-fencing project covering about 15,000 hectares. People’s homes, land that has been in families through generations suddenly went “awol”, ancestral land, etc were lost to the company. I was also made to understand that no compensation was paid to them and upon being challenged; the company claimed that the government had given it a right of occupancy over the entire land.
Dissatisfied, the villagers went peacefully to the company premises in Benin City to protest, but armed policemen guarding the premises set upon them. They were beaten, whipped and shot at. Driven in Presco vans, Nigerian policemen went to the village, raping women and looting. A particular lady was gang-raped and let go. The next day, the same policemen went to get her again from her house for a repeat and when the husband challenged them, he was shot at point blank range with a pistol. I later wrote to the police with enough proof to identify the policemen and requested that they should be produced, but they were surreptitiously transferred away.
Other villagers were arrested indiscriminately, charged with armed robbery before the Magistrate’s Courts and remanded in prison custody. I represented many of them before the High Courts in bail applications, where we fought against a judicial system heavily weighted in favour of a corrupt police system. Many of the villagers who managed to escape arrest then fled Nigeria in fear. Most now in Europe.
During my pre-trial research, I discovered that the government certificate that gave Presco the right of occupancy over the Obagie land had been irregularly issued against the advice of the State Commissioner for lands who had advised the government not to grant the application at the time it was done. His reason was simply that government could only acquire land from its original owners for “public purpose”, and by legal definition, “public purpose” excluded the profit pursuits of a private company. This document convinced me that my clients had an iron clad case.
I therefore wrote to Presco giving the company an ultimatum to quit the land and pay adequate compensation to the villagers and owners of the land. At the expiration of the notice period, I filed a multi-billon Naira lawsuit in the High Court seeking to revoke the certificate of occupancy and get a compensatory damages award.
After I filed the case in May 2000, instead of a direct response from the company, the Deputy Governor of Edo State, Mr. Mike Ogiadonmhe, immediately suspended me from my position as the Chairman of the Board of the state radio and television company. The sole reason given in the suspension letter was “for conduct capable of causing confusion in Edo State”. Then, I received an ominous visit in my office in Benin City from one Samson Obaseki, a very dangerous man who headed a paramilitary group at that time in Benin City. He accused me of working against government interests and, despite my protests, adjudged me not to be a supporter of the administration.
On 5th June 2000, I received a letter in my office asking for a meeting between me, Lucky Igbinedion the State Governor (no relation of mine), and my clients on the Presco issue. On our arrival, however, we were directed to see the Deputy Governor Mike Ogiadonmhe. While in the lobby of the Deputy Governor’s office, we saw the General Manager of Presco exit the office and leave the premises. When the Deputy Governor later met us, he waved a document that he said had been prepared by the Nigerian State Security Service which contained evidence that my clients had been endangering state security. He threatened to deploy the might of the Government against the villagers unless we withdrew the lawsuit against Presco. I was understandably incensed and told him in no uncertain words that perhaps h ought to seek the advice of his Attorney General before speaking on legal issues.
Despite the threat, we proceeded with our lawsuit and appeared in Court in June 2000, although the matter was adjourned procedurally for an exchange of pleadings.
Surprisingly, the government appointed someone else to replace me as chairman of the Board of Radio and Television Company without bothering to remove me first, and the government security men around my house withdrawn. Two nights later, armed men stormed into my house. One held a gun to my head while another grabbed my 3-year-old daughter, put a pistol to her head and threatened to shoot her. My mother, who was visiting, begged for our lives. Miraculously, they let us live. I tidied my legal and professional affairs and left Nigeria on 22nd October 2000.
I have not returned there since.
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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.