Edo Govt, UNIBEN Bicker Over Property
IT all began as a “friendly gift” when the then government of Midwest State, 41 years ago, gave some buildings to the budding University of Benin. Things, however, went sour about two weeks ago. “Unannounced and without notice”, bulldozers, accompanied by armed policemen and suspected thugs swooped down on 16 bungalows along Edo Osagie Avenue and Omo-Osagie Avenue, Jallo Close. They pulled down the fences and parts of the main buildings on the orders of the state government and in line with a December 16, 2014 ruling of the state High Court ordering occupants of the said buildings to vacate them “forthwith”.
At the end of the operation, which started at about 4pm, many of the occupants who are staff of the University of Benin, had been rendered homeless, with some losing valuables.
While the occupants and the institution’s authority, its counsels and various union leaders, during the week, condemned the development; the state government insisted that its action was the result of a valid court ruling in its favour and that it was not aware of any stay of execution, as claimed by the university.
Investigation revealed that the issues involving the disputed properties have been the subjects of litigation for some time.
The former Vice Chancellor of the University of Benin, Professor Osayuki Oshodin, told journalists that the action of the state government has put the lives of occupants of the properties under threat. He alleged that police officers personally accompanied the state governor twice to identify houses to be demolished. “The governor himself was here two times, to show them the houses, and then he left. He came back again after the demolition, to ensure that the place was completely destroyed,” said Oshodin.
He noted that the university had approached the Court of Appeal against the judgement of the state High Court, alleging complicity in the process that led to the ruling, and adding that certificates and other valuables worth millions of naira were destroyed during the demolition. According to him, “no eviction notice was given to the university authority and occupants of the quarters before the dastardly act”.
Explaining how the property was acquired, he pointed out that the then governor of the Midwest, Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, a living witness in the case, testified in court that he gave the property to the University of Benin. “Ogbemudia gave us these houses and he testified that he gave us these houses. What else does the state governor need? Ogbemudia is still living. There are documentations to this effect,” he said.
Another occupant of one of the buildings, Anthony Imuokhuyen (Jr), who said his mother, a professor in the institution, occupied one of the affected houses, described the action of the state government as “unfair”. He said the governor, Adams Oshiomhole, should have adopted a more civil way to tackle the issue.
According to him, on the fateful day (Monday evening) and without notice, “we saw a type of convoy that was unusual; it was more of thugs. There were some policemen and mobile policemen. The number of thugs drew our suspicion. This was at about 5.45pm. My mother said she had been suspecting that they wanted to demolish these houses. But she didn’t know, because no notice has been given to them officially to come and demolish. An academician staying in a university-owned property will not drag with you; they are educated enough to know that they will take their things to a safe place till the university and the government resolve the issue, because nobody wants to be caught in a crossfire. But no notice was given.
“When we saw these people, we waited to see what they were going to do. And all of sudden, what we saw was bulldozers. I am surprised that the person that defended the rights of people before he became governor is the one now behaving in a way that can best be described as unfair. They used thugs to go round and they have been looting people’s properties. They almost seized my phone. I was trying to call my people, to know how they can help us. They thought I was recording them; they almost seized my phone. I looked at the whole situation; quite barbaric.”
The demolition sparked reactions the following day, particularly because of the case of Oshodin, whose rating as Vice Chancellor of the school is still quite high. Protesting staff of the university, joined by students, blocked the Benin-Lagos road for over two hours, condemning the action of the state government.
The chairman of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), UNBEN chapter, Dr Anthony Monye-Emina, who led the protest to the premises of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), regretted that despite the suit pending at the Court of Appeal, “the state government went ahead to destroy the university’s properties, making our staff and lecturers homeless”.
The protests continued the following day, as ASUU members and the counsel of the school described the demolition of the quarters as “despicable, illegal and an assault on the university by suspected thugs on the order of the Edo state government”.
Angry students of the university in the early hours of Wednesday set ablaze a commercial luxurious bus popular referred to as ‘Comrade Bus’ in front of the school gate, apparently in reaction to the eviction of the occupants, which included the institution’s immediate past Vice Chancellor, Professor Osayuki Oshodin.
Addressing reporters, Monye-Emina said the university had been under siege, with the state government bent on taking over properties transferred to it since inception.
Meanwhile, the university’s solicitor, in a petition to the Inspector General of Police (IGP), signed by Barrister Hannibal Uwaifo, called on the IGP to properly investigate the matter in order to bring to book those involved in the destruction of properties belonging to member of staff of the institution, and prevent avoidable escalation.
He said that in spite of filing of a notice of appeal and application of stay of execution of the judgment, government forcefully threw out the staff of the university, who occupied the two properties, which he alleged have been sold to the Crown Prince of Benin Kingdom.
But Edo State Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General, Henry Idahagbon, said Justice E.O. Ahamioge had on December 16, ruled in favour of the state government, saying: “I, accordingly direct the first claimant, and persons claiming by, or through her, to vacate the 16 properties stated in the schedule hereunder and give up possession forthwith to the defendants.”
He said: “First of all, there was no stay of execution and, clearly, we did not engage in any demolition of property. What we did was take possession of government property after judgement was validly given by a competent court of jurisdiction. It is a 65-page judgement delivered on December 16, 2014 wherein the Judge asked UNIBEN to deliver forthwith possession to the Edo state government.
“UNIBEN took government to court. They canvassed five issues and they lost each and every issue they canvassed. They said the government of Midwestern Nigeria gave them the documents. But no documents whatsoever show that the land was transferred to them. They have appealed. There was no copy of stay of execution. An appeal does not act as stay of execution. They are just making noise.”
He said in 1981, UNIBEN had gone to court on the same matter where late Justice Ugbobine also gave judgment that the property does not belong to the University of Benin.
Addressing reporters, Oshiomhole gave reasons for his administration’s steps to take over the bungalows, saying the state government served authorities of the University of Benin a notice, three years ago, to vacate eighteen properties but rather than do so, they took the government to court.
He said the government waited for the courts to deliver ruling on the matter December 16, last year, ordering the institution’s authorities to vacate the said properties “forthwith” and that the 18 properties belonged to the state government.
He said: “As the governor of this state, I have responsibility and duty to protect the interest and asset of Edo state, and those properties are not in the names of any individual. They are in the names of Edo state government and we cannot fold our hands and allow individuals to continue to occupy properties belonging to Edo state government and paying rents to the wrong authority. I remain firm that if the interest of Edo state is involved, I must stand firm and execute it without fear or favour, and that is exactly what we have done. They have occupied these properties without paying any rent to Edo state government.”
He said because of the federal government’s monetisation policy, few years back, the properties were to be put on sale, but his predecessor, Professor Oserheimen Osunbor, placed a caveat emptor on the properties, saying they belonged to the state government and advised intending buyers not to venture into buying them.
He said shortly after assuming office, counsel of the University of Benin approached him, asking him to sign some documents transferring the properties to the institution, a move, which according to him, he declined.
Oshiomhole said: “I also reminded him that I am aware and it is the truth that salaries of lecturers, academic and non-academic staff have been monetized and even the salary of the VC is now over N1.5 million monthly because the provision for official quarters, car and driver have been monetized and added to their pay.
“Thereafter, the Attorney General informed me that UNIBEN had decided to go to court. Meanwhile, I did not take any further steps. I had directed that a letter be written to the management of the University of Benin advising their officials to vacate those quarters because the university authority was now collecting rent on properties belonging to Edo state government. And this, in my view, was unacceptable, and they were advised to vacate. Once we dropped the letter, we didn’t take any further steps.
“On their own, they chose to go to court to challenge our claims that these properties belonged to the Edo state government. Of course, we were obliged to enter appearance and we contracted a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) to represent us in the suit.”
He said the court ruled in favour of the state government and also granted its prayers, that having served them notice over three years ago, they should vacate the properties.
He claimed that there are many of the lecturers that have retired but are still occupying some of the properties.
“Clearly, people are being mobilized, believing that they can twist the facts and create all kinds of distractions. But as far as I am concerned, I am clear. My duties, here, sometimes, can be very pleasant; some other times, they require a level of courage: the courage to protect the public interest. And governance requires that sometimes, you step on the toes of people you respect,” he said.
On the issue of the case being in the Court of Appeal, the governor said: “Now, if they claim they have a court order to stay, it is not with their mouth; they have to show it to you exactly the same way we have shown you in black and white the judgment of the court. Let them show you the court order that granted them stay. If the court granted stay, we cannot proceed. But also, it is an elementary principle in law that the fact that you verbalized your intention to appeal doesn’t mean you have filed an appeal.”
Edo State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Henry Idahiagbon, has debunked claims by the authorities of the University of Benin that the state government recovered 18 properties belonging to it despite the service of an application for a stay of execution of a court judgement in the government’s favour.
A copy of the judgement delivered by E.O. Ahamioge reads in part: “On the whole, I hold that the claimants have failed woefully to prove their claim on the preponderance of evidence as required by law. Accordingly, the claimant’s claim is hereby dismissed in its entirety as devoid of merit.
“I hold that the defendants/counter claimants have successfully proved their counter-claim as required by law. Accordingly, judgement is hereby entered in favour of the defendants/claimants who have successfully proved their counter-claim in the following terms: Declaration that the 16 properties stated in the schedule attached hereunder and numbered 1-16 forms part of the state land belonging to the 1st defendant.
“I accordingly direct the 1st claimant and person claiming by or through her to vacate the 16 properties stated in the schedule hereunder and give up possession forthwith to the defendants.
“I hereby declare that the sale and transfer of Plot D24A Edaiken Avenue GRA, Benin City (i.e. No 1 and 2 Edaiken Avenue) to His Royal Higness Ehenden Erediauwa (Crown Prince) by the 2nd defendant is valid and subsisting. I hereby award costs of N20,000 in favour of the defendants against the claimants.”