On 10th July 2019 over 200 elderly mothers from the Oriuzor community in the Ezza North Local Government Area held a peaceful demonstration urging the governor of Ebonyi State Government, David Umahi, to change the location of a proposed site for a new airport, concerned that they would be displaced from their ancestral homes. They held up placards saying “Take Egundeze, Leave Our Ancestral Home”, “Governor Umahai Hear Us”, “Our Governor Come to Our Aid” and other slogans. Leaders of the group, Mrs. Ikekwu Christiana, Mrs. Azuonuoko Comfort and Nworie Regina appealed to the state government not to site the airport in the area where they have ancestral homes since they have no other place to go to. They suggested the airport project be moved to Egundeze, a more spacious village with fewer inhabitants.
At the palace of the Traditional Ruler of Oriuzor Community, His Royal Highness Ezeogo Gabriel Nwite Ngele, appealed to the protesters to be patient until the site is mapped out. He said that inspection of the site was still underway and that all land belongs to the government. He said: “I am not the one who chose the land for the Government but they came to us from Abuja that they are to build airport in our community and I sent one of my sons who joined them during their inspection.” He said that those inspecting the land had not yet given a clear boundary of the airport site and made assurances that affected people would receive compensation so they could get new homes. He said “I know many of you are widows and I feel your pain but we are not going to stop what is coming to us.”
Traditional rulers of the Ezza North and Ezza South local government areas paid a solidarity visit to Governor Umahi at the Government House. Led by Eze Charles Mkpuma from Ezza South they made an intimidating and threatening statement aimed at the protesters. An article in sunnewsonline.com stated that the traditional rulers “vowed that the protesters and their sponsors would be fished out and disciplined for daring to kick against the decision of the state government to site the airport in Ezza land.” The article quotes Eze Charles Mkpuma as follows: “Those protesting against the siting of an airport in Oruzor community are not from Ezza clan. This is because no reasonable person can object development no matter what. It is foolishness to do such.” In response, Governor Umahi assured the traditional rulers that there was no going back on construction on the airport .
Bulldozers clear land and destroy crops
On 1st August 2019 the DAILY POST reported that two people had been arrested for allegedly vandalizing machinery procured by the state government for the construction of the airport. The Senior Special Assistant to the state governor on the airport project, Hon. Joseph Nwobasi, said that the unknown persons had broken glass on some machinery with stones. The machines had been kept under the custody of some residents from the Amauzu community. Nwobasi spoke of land clearance to make way for the airport already being underway with bulldozers working on the site and a large land area being earmarked for the project. He said: “The airport project is realizable in the sense that they drawing and clearing is ongoing. As I’m talking, the bulldozers are in the site. It is not a paper work. It is a feasible project. The land for it is a vast one and the location is part of Ezza south and Ezza North local government areas. But the largest part of the airport land is in Ezza north.” Referring to the protest against the location of the airport site he said: “The traditional rulers disowned whoever was involved in that protest. So, for now, there is no problem. On daily basis I visit the site with surveyors and enumerators. So we have laid the issue of protest to rest.” He also stated that paying compensation to landowners was ongoing.
Some supporters of the state governor, especially the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) applauded the airport project whilst some members of opposition parties were dismissive. The All Progressives Congress (APC) said the airport project was a misplaced priority, drawing attention to basic people’s needs that taxpayers’ money should be spend on instead. Publicity Secretary of APC, Nwoba Chika Nwoba said: “I am not in support of it and the APC in Ebonyi State is not in support of it at all. The government should first tackle the needs of Ebonyi people. Going on to construct an airport now is just a decoy to siphon public funds.” He raised concerns over the risks of large projects becoming white elephants, saying: “Airports and stadiums are very gigantic projects. The two projects may not be followed up. They may, at the end be left as abandoned projects.” Nwoba also acknowledged the opposition to the airport: “Already, the people on whose land it is to be sited have rejected it. They even protested.”
Women face the loss of ancestral homes and farmlands
It was reported that a stretch of land on the boundary between Ezza North and Ezza South had been earmarked for the project, but the site was the subject of controversy. Landowners ‘roundly rejected’ location of the airport on their land insisting that it is used for farming from which they earn their livelihoods. Women who had protested said that in addition to their farmland the earmarked area also covers residential areas. They listed Nweze Ali, Mwiboke Umome, Uworu, and Uwaru as places where villagers might be displaced. One of the protesters, Mrs. Christina Ukegbu, said that ever since the government had made its plans for the airport known people had been suffering hardship and been unable to cultivate their food crops. She said: They chased us from our farmlands and want to still chase us from our dwelling place. We are suffering. We are not doing anything now. The government should leave our villages alone.” Another aggrieved villager, Jacinta Ucha, said the land in question is their ancestral land with about 50 people residing in each compound in the area. She said: “They said they want to construct airport in our place, but we said we don’t want it because we don’t have big landmass. It is our ancestral home left for us by our forefathers. If our children should grow up, they won’t have any land for themselves. So, if they chase us know, where do we go? We don’t have anywhere to go?”
As the controversy over the airport project raged the Ebonyi state government offered some explanations for selecting the airport site. Special Assistant to the Governor on Media/Project Documentation Mr. Francis Nwaze said the boundary between Ezza North and Ezza South was chosen because it is considered accessible and strategically located. Governor Umahi told the traditional monarchs who had visited him that he was determined to embark on the project and that work would commence soon, simultaneous with the enumeration of properties and persons likely to be displaced. Again he assured payment of adequate compensation to people who would be displaced for the airport. He said: “Very soon, work will commence on the project. While we will be clearing, enumeration would be going on to compile the list of those to be compensated.”
3,000 houses marked for demolition
Protest against displacement for the proposed airport erupted again on 16th September 2019. Residents of Aguogboriga, Umuoghara community in Ezza North vowed to resist state government attempts to demolish over 3,000 houses in the community and were concerned that they would not be compensated. They said that over 3,000 houses had been marked for demolition as a result of the airport project. People of Aguogboriga protested en masse against the extension of the airport project site to their community, accusing some stakeholders in the project of masterminding the extension to enable them to build hotels and other facilities in the area. Some of the protesters, including a number of elders, told journalists they were not against the construction of the airport but that their community, where they have ancestral homes, should not be included in the project site. They said their crops had been destroyed by bulldozers, with land clearance proceeding without records of the crops or landowners being made. They raised the alarm that hunger was imminent in their community. Journalists visited the site and saw bulldozers clearing lands in the Aguogboriga community, also witnessing hundreds of residents protesting against it, including elderly women, men, children, and youths. Residents carried household properties to the site to protest the acquisition of their lands .
The following day, while briefing newspapers on progress at the project site Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information/Orientation, Barr. Uchena Orji, condemned the protest in strong terms. He berated the protesters and their supporters for rejecting the location of the airport in their community. He said: “Nothing will stop the state government from constructing the airport on the approved site. All land belongs to the government, the protesters must vacate the marked areas… Such protests is a distraction to this government, I call upon the general public to disregard such protest. It is the handiwork of the opposition.” The commissioner refuted allegations that the government refused to pay compensation to people whose houses were marked for demolition and maintained that stakeholders of both Amuogboriga and Umuogara had been consulted and their approval secured. He said: “Government considered the issue of centrality in choosing the location of the proposed Cargo Airport and the two communities were favoured.” He also said that Governor Umahi had met with stakeholders and landowners on several occasions, settling issues of compensation for buildings and economic trees.
Citizens’ Advocate Newspaper reported that, in the wake of the two protests against the airport site, Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information/Orientation, Barr. Uchena Orji, made assurances that the state government would not embark on the demolition of properties on the proposed airport site without compensating people. Referring to the project as Ebonyi International Cargo Airport’ he said the site cuts across five communities including Amuzu in Ezza South Local Government Area, and Umuoghara, Umuezeoka, Umuezekoha, and another community all in Ezza North Local Government Area. He repeated assurances that people who may be displaced would be compensated .
The Organisation of Ebonyi State Indigenes in Disapora (OESID) has rejected the plans for an airport in the state. A statement by spokesman Mr. Paschal Ogbonna described the planned construction of the airport as a “white elephant project” that might be difficult to achieve, referring to the large sums of funding required to build an international airport. Speculating that the money would have to be borrowed he said: “But even if these funds is available, the Ebonyi state government should not spend it to build an international airport because it is a gross misappropriation of resources.” Ogbonna said the airport project would only serve vested interests. He called on the governor to shelve the project and prioritise projects that would have direct impacts on people saying: “Umahi should sustain major strides in human development, poverty eradication, and efficient healthcare delivery systems rather than sinking gigantic amounts of money into building an international airport in the state. The majority of people are struggling to cope with basic human needs such as food to eat, water to drink, schools to attend, and healthcare facilities to visit.” He referred to land acquisition causing displacement saying: “Building an international airport will lead to a forceful takeover of community lands currently being used by smallholder farmers in rural areas.”
On 31st October 2019 it was reported that farmers from Umuezeoka, Umuoghara, and Okaleru communities in Ezza North Local Government Area had sued the Ebonyi State Government for taking over their land for an airport project, allegedly in a manner inconsistent with relevant national laws. The plaintiffs filed the suit on behalf of themselves and other members of the communities, seeking declaration that “current and persistent destructions, demolitions and uprooting of dwelling houses, farmlands” without palliatives or compensation was contrary to the law. The sought compensation of N2 billion (USD5,525,000) in damages against the respondents for the hardship allegedly caused. Neither the respondents nor a lawyer representing them were present when the matter came up for hearing; the presiding judge adjourned the matter to 11th November and argued that the hearing be served on the respondents.
Homes demolished, farmland destroyed
In February 2020 Human Rights Defenders of Nigeria (HURIDE) criticised the demolition of peasant farmers’ homes for Ebonyi Airport. The group stated that, on the instructions of the Ebonyi State Government, some security personnel led bulldozers to demolish people’s ancestral homes. Chairman of HURIDE, Sampson Oko Nweke, made a statement maintaining that bulldozing of communities in Ezza north took place without consultation and compensation. He said: “How can the government just rise in utter disrespect to court proceedings, invade people’s ancestral homes with heavily armed security men and start destroying and demolishing their houses, farmlands, economic trees, churches and shrines without due consolations, fair compensation or alternative settlements.”
A long article in The Punch newspaper included testimony from 12 people impacted by the demolition of houses and destruction of farmland. Houses in Umuezoka, Umuezeokaoha, Umuoghara and Oriuzor communities in Ezza North and Amuzu in Ezza Southhad been bulldozed. People’s belongings had been left in the rubble and they were sleeping outside in the cold, under trees and in bushes. Several of them were without food and they had either not been compensated or had been offered amounts they said were a mere fraction of the value of what they had lost and would be required to establish new homes and livelihoods.
The demolitions took place with little or no notice for affected residents. Peter Okpali, a 59-year-old farmer and a father of seven, said: “I have no word to describe what they did to me. I have not seen such in my life. Two houses were demolished; one of eight rooms and another of three rooms. I have seven children. All of us sleep outside now under a tree. People said we were given N2m each as compensation. It’s a lie. I have not been given a kobo.” His farmland was also destroyed and he had no money to start farming again. He was sleeping outside in the cold with his family. His wife Martina said: “We are really suffering with our children. We were managing and they came to destroy our houses. We have been looking for money to eat, yet the worst happened to us. This situation has affected my children’s school. Our pots, plates and other belongings now scattered everywhere. We now sleep in the open. Mosquitoes and cold deal with us mercilessly. It’s a lie that we have been compensated by the government. It’s not true.” Okpali James, from Umuezoka, said his house was destroyed on 6th February and was sleeping outside every night with his 10 children. He said: “The government has not given me a dime after destroying my house. My demolished house is worth N15m. We were not even consulted or given any notice before the demolition. If they did, we would have found a way to pack our valuables. They came with policemen, army, men of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and some unformed persons to demolish what we knew as our home.” John Nwora, a carpenter, was sleeping in the open with his wife who was nursing their five-month-old baby. He said: “It is an excruciating experience. My brothers, sisters, children and wife now sleep outside in this bad weather. We are in pains. The cold has been dealing with us for over a week now. I don’t know where to take my aged sick mother to. Our farmlands have been destroyed from Umuezoka to Onueke. We can’t farm again and no money to start business.” Francis Ukpabi’s house was bulldozed and he was sleeping under a tree in the cold with his children. He said there was no compensation for any of the affected residents and that he was unable to farm and all the crops planted the previous year had been destroyed. Nwogwu Monday constructed a tend under a tree after demolition of his house. He said: “My property was scattered everywhere. I now sleep under a tree with my children. There has been no compensation. We heard some persons got between N1m and N2m compensation from the government. It is a lie. There is nothing like that. No one has got anything from the government. It has not been easy sleeping under trees every night.” His wife Amaka said: “My little child has diarrhoea. She hardly sleeps at night. The government should find a place for us to stay and give us some money to feed. The airport they said they are building has affected our farmlands. We don’t have food to eat again. We are suffering. My cassava farm was destroyed. We need help.” In the Umuezeokaoha community over 28 houses were pulled down for the project. Felicia Igwe, of Okaleru village said: “My husband and I are farmers and we have 10 children. We have nowhere to sleep and no food to eat. The demolition has increased our suffering as it affected our house and farmland. Government should have pity on us as we are helpless at the moment.” Ebere Omoha, a farmer from Okaleru village, said the government demolished how two houses and his farmland. He said: “I am sad because the situation has rendered me and my family including neighbours homeless. We now live like animals in bushes. There was no notice prior to the exercise.” Oluchi Akochi, a nursing mother, was worried her four-month old baby who had become ill might die. There was no hospital in the village. The family’s house had been demolished and they had been left hungry. Their cassava farm destroyed and they had no other land to farm and had not been compensated by the government. Ngozi Nwankwo, from Umuoru village, was alone in her house when agents invaded her community and destroyed her house. She said: “Since the demolition, life has not been easy. We now sleep outside in the cold under the trees and some nights, inside a makeshift house made of palm fronds. The worse thing is that they didn’t give us notice that they were coming to demolish our houses. We would have prepared by moving our belongings. Most of them were trapped in the rubble.”
The Ebonyi State Government denied the claimed that people had not been compensated, stating that compensation was ongoing. Commissioner for Information and State Orientation and acting Commissioner for Human Capital Development and Monitoring, Mr Uchenna Orji, said: “Don’t forget that land in any state is at the pleasure of the governor empowered by law to take it over and appropriate it for the overall good of the state.” Special Assistant to Governor Umahi on the airport, Joseph Nwobashi, said that prior to the demolition, the state’s ministry of lands had visited the communities and enumerated buildings and economic trees, adding that the state had earmarked N80m (USD210,000) to compensate the affected homeowners .
At the beginning of March 2020 Chijioke Agwu, began an article, published in The Sun Nigeria, with the following sentence: ‘Effort by the Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State administration to build an international cargo airport may have created humanitarian crisis in the state that if not urgently addressed may place the government on the dark side of history’. Photographs and videos, showing babies and children exposed to harsh weather after homes had been destroyed for the airport, were circulating on social media. People from affected communities said over 200 buildings had been destroyed, leaving over 1,000 people displaced with their means of livelihood destroyed. Some of the victims, supported by rights group: Human Rights Defenders of Nigeria (HURIDE) protested in Abakaliki, the capital city on Ebonyi State. The head of HURIDE’s legal unit in Ebonyi state, Nnamdi Okigbo, speaking in support of the displaced people during the march to Government House, said it was unjust for the government to demolish people’s homes and farms without first relocating and adequately compensating them. Prior to the protest, the victims had written to Governor Umahi through their counsel, drawing attention to the pending suit at the Federal High Court Adakaliki upon which judgement was expected on 12th March .
Displaced people left without shelter An article by Kelechukwu Iruoma, published in The Cable on 29th October 2020, includes testimony from people displaced for the airport project who were still living without shelter and were suffering from hunger. Most of the people in the affected communities were smallholder farmers and had lost their means of livelihood. Sixty-year-old Nwankwo Alo was in a state of depression, saying “I have not been myself. I have lost so much weight and hunger is the most important part of it coupled with homelessness”. John Onyemaechi, one of the people calling on the state government to compensate people and provide temporary accommodation, had been shocked when an excavator pointed towards his newly built bungalow and refused to accept an inadequate compensation offer. He said: “Our people are suffering. Those of them that are above the poverty level have taken their children out of the state. Some have taken their people to Benue, Cross River, Lagos, among other states. The people who are here are people that are stranded and do not know where to go.” One of the women affected was Ngozi Alo. She gave birth on 31st January 2020 then on 6th February the government sent excavators and bulldozers to tear down her house. She was forced to leave her house with her one-week old baby. The money the government gave her for demolition of her house was insufficient for her to get alternative accommodation. She said: “I cried because I did not have where to sleep. Rain has been falling on my baby and I… During the rainy season, I passed through a lot. I know I do not have the power to fight the government but I am appealing to them or any authority that can come to my aid. I need a comfortable place sleeping with my baby. I don’t have anything else to do. Both my residential house and farmlands have been collected and destroyed by the government.” Sam Nweke, chairman of HURIDE, described the demolition of houses without providing alternative accommodation as a violation of human rights, saying, “Some of the victims of the incident are now roaming the streets without homes. We are not actually against the airport construction. Our interest is the governor to do the right thing by compensating the people in the villages well”. When he was contacted, Joseph Nwobasi, special adviser to Governor Umahi on the airport project, said affected people had been compensated and that the level of compensation depended on the structure of the affected building. He added that the state government had mapped out land for people to move to, saying: “The state government has mobilized builders into the site and it has been cleared. The ministry for lands and survey is now on the land making sure they are divided plot by plot and whoever wants to start to build his or her own can start. They only need to meet the committee in charge.” He also said the state government was making provision for people without a place to sleep. Sam Nweke refuted his claims, saying that up til this tiem not even a hut had been provided for people to shelter in. “I see the provision of the land to deceive the people. No work is going on at the site. You destroyed their means of livelihood, they are supposed to give them markets and lands to farm in compensation,” he said .