On 4th May 2019 it was reported that the governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade, had written to the clan heads of three villages in the Obudu local government area - Atikpe, Ikwomikwu and Okambi - appealing for their cooperation with the commencement and speedy completion of a new airport. The letter stated that the state government wanted to acquire 9 square kilometres of land from the three communities for the project, to be known as Obudu International Passenger and Cargo Airport (OIA) and claimed that land acquisition and a compensation process, in line with the Nigerian Land Use Act (2004), would commence immediately along with site preparation works such as land clearing developing an access road. CrossRiverWatch reported that most of the affected villagers they talked with did not share the governor’s view of the urgency of a new airport but were afraid of speaking publicly for fear of reprisals. One of the village chiefs told the reporter that the targeted three villages, which are among the smallest in Obudu, may disappear if such a large land area was taken for the airport, also saying, with a trembling voice “We are not even given the space to discuss or negotiate to raise our concerns. We are just sent letters and orders and asked to obey. They have started harassing and arresting people already for attempting to resist. We don’t know what is coming. That is our greatest fear.”
Earth moving equipment was already on the land earmarked for the new airport, felling trees and destroying crops. Through their legal representatives, one of the three affected villages, Okambi, sent a letter to Governor Ayade threatening legal action against the state government if it failed to remove earth moving equipment from its land and pay fair compensation for destruction of farmland and crops. The letter, entitled “Unlawful Entry, Destruction Of Farm Crops And Encroachment Of Rural Agricultural Land Under The Ownership And Possession Of The People Of Okambi, Obudu” asserted that the leaders of the Okambi community are the legal owners of the farmland and residential land. The letter states that the community members are predominantly agrarian people for whom the land provides their food needs and livelihoods. It is the only arable land they possess. Okambi villagers said they had been awoken by earth moving operators who moved onto their land and began clearing topsoil, wantonly destroying farms and indiscriminately felling economic and other trees.
The Okambi community had not been informed that the state was embarking on a project of this magnitude. None of the families or individuals had been served with any notice revoking their land rights nor any notice of land acquisition. The only communication the villagers had received concerning construction of the airport had been the aforementioned letter to the three clan heads, which stated that the reason for not engaging stakeholders was the urgency for the project and necessity of its speedy completion. Okambi villagers countered this claim with the argument that government projects are carefully planned with people properly briefed and the procurement process is either publicized or undertaken directly by the government. The estimated monetary value of crops already destroyed by invading bulldozers was estimated at 500 million Naira (USD1,387,000). Persons purporting to be acting on behalf of the Ministry of Lands and Housing had been issuing very low amounts of compensation, ‘peanuts’, to people either as compensation or gratuity for relinquishing their land parcels.
The legal letter to the Governor also stated that people with no direct land holding within the proposed airport site had ‘entered into outrageous deals with your agents pretending to be representing the Community on the issue of appropriate compensation for the land taken’. The Pre-Action legal notice also said that the Clients ‘had made spirited attempts by mounting peaceful protest of the forceful takeover of their ancestral farmlands’ but that the agent of the government in charge of the airport project continued destruction of farmland ‘aided by men of the Nigeria Police Force who offer him security’.
The Okambi Development Association (ODA) said that while it agreed with the decision to construct an airport in Obudu ‘due process was not followed in the manner used by representatives of the State Government to force land owners within the speculated airport vicinity to give up their land’. The ODA established a committee to work on the issue and said that some chiefs and high ranking executives of the village council had turned their back on the ODA’s work in the interests of the community. CrossRiverWatch pointed out that, in line with State procurement laws, the ‘Expression Of Interest For The Conduct Of Feasibility Studies, Design And Construction Of Obudu Cargo International Airport’, had been published in the 15th May 2019 edition of the Nigerian Chronicle Newspaper, but the expiry date for Expression of Interest was 8th May, one week before the publication date.
A video published on 18th May 2019 shows women protesting against seizure of their land to build Obudu Airport. An article published on the same day, by Adie Adugba, a resident of Ukambi (Okambi) village, ‘Who Needs A Third Airport In Cross River State?’ makes a compelling case against the project. He writes that the three villages had been given ‘ridiculous’ compensation of just 6 million Naira (USD16,644) for 9 square kilometres of land. Individuals had been ‘arbitrarily disbursing’ paltry sums for destroyed trees and farms: just 1,500 Naira (USD4) for every palm tree felled and between 5,000 and 15,000 Naira (USD 13.9 – 41.6) for each cassava and yam farm that had been destroyed. Adugba writes ‘I have watched with consternation and disbelief the uncanny acts of intimidation and humiliation of the people of Atiekpe, Ikwumikwu and Ukambi communities and the violation of the sanctity of their ancestral lands under the guise of constructing what might be the third airport in Cross River State’. The article calls for immediate and unconditional release of all community members who have been arrested. Community members will be sending letters to the United Nations, UNICEF, the British High Commission and American consulate.
Adugba estimates that 90 per cent of the land belonging to the three villages will have been seized by the state and that those remaining in the communities after the displacement will not have any farmland. This raises concerns that lack of farmland along with unclear boundaries resulting from the land clearing exercise will lead to conflict between neighbouring villages. Parts of the land remaining in the possession of the villages will be inaccessible and people will be separated from the burial sites of the ancestors. Doubts expressed by many in the affected communities over whether the real intention of the land clearance is for an airport are given credence by lack of information about the project, including on how airport construction will be funded. Land clearance began even though there is still no plan to disclose the contractor handling construction, nor to publish the non-technical summary of the EIA. The need for and feasibility of a new airport is also called into question because an existing airport, Bebi Airstrip, is located only two kilometres away from Obudu township, maintained at State expense, recently renovated and fitted with an Instrument Landing System (ILS) .
On 23rd May 2019 CrossRiverWatch reported that destruction of farmland for the proposed airport had claimed the life of Mr. Raphael A. Ushie, who had invested in a palm plantation in Ukambi. A community elder said: “On hearing that farmlands in neighbouring Atiekpe and Ikwomikwu had been demolished and same was going to commence in Ukambi, he rushed home to confront the bulldozer that was encroaching into his palm plantation. He arrived last Wednesday morning and went straight to the farm in his uniform and met the bulldozer nearing his plantation. He faced the operator and tried to prevent him from encroaching into his land before other community members joined him in the farm. He participated fully in the day’s protest and the demolition and collapsed after then. He was rushed to a hospital in Obudu. The matter couldn’t be handled there and he was moved to UCTH in Calabar where he passed on this morning.” CrossRiverWatch also reported that a second person, Mr. Andepibekong Atsua, had also collapsed after his farm was demolished and was critically ill in hospital.
Two political parties criticized flouting of procedures in land acquisition for the airport. Cross River State chair of the All Progressives Congress (APC) political party, Mr. Etim John, described the situation in Obudu as “A very pitiable development”, urged Obudu elites to come together to resolve the ongoing crisis to prevent further loss of lives and called for due process on the part of the government in acquiring the land and paying compensation, and also from community members protesting against land acquisition. Agba Jalingo, Cross River State chair of African National Congress (AAC) described the death of Raphael A. Ushie as “a blinker on the Governor’s conscience”. Regarding the airport he said: “As a Party we are opposed to the airport project because we do not see the need for it…Secondly there is no urgency about this project that should warrant the invasion of these community farmlands with such alacrity, when initial things like the EIA have not been done. It’s true that the government has a right to acquire land for public good. But there is also a due process of doing that and I don’t think it is too difficult for the Governor to follow.”
Chair of the Nigerian Bar Association, Dr. Emmanuel Idaka, called for dialogue between the two feuding parties, saying: “The facts of that airport matter are still very scanty and not clear. But the long and short is that if the governor wants to acquire the land, he should follow due process and pay adequate compensation to owners of the affected lands to avoid any confrontation that will lead to further loss of lives.”
The Nigerian Meteorological Agency (MiMet) wrote to the Cross River State Government regarding the proposed Obudu Airport. The letter sought a meeting to discuss standards for the facility, pledged “its unalloyed and total support and commitment for the success of this proposed project regarding provision of meteorological services” and stated that that one of three sites that had been visited by experts from the ministry of aviation, including NiMet staff, had been found to be more suitable for siting an airport. The letter was dated 14th May 2019, a day before the State government published the invitation for Expression Of Interest, indicating that Governor Ayade may have proceeded with seeking approvals for the airport project without consultation.
A video published on 26th May 2019 shows a teenager sending a message opposing the airport to Governor Ayade:
“Take the video with my face inside.
Tell him we say no.
Tell Ben that say non ooo.”
On 28th May CrossRiverWatch reported that it had received information that a truck load of soldiers had invaded the Ukambi community. Soldiers had harassed, beaten and arrested some of the youths spearheading resistance against acquisition of their community land for the proposed airport. Women rushed to protest harassment and arrest of two people, John Izaye and Emmanuel Undie, who had been forcibly taken away by soldiers without explanation. A video obtained by CrossRiverWatch shows a group of women playing a traditional gong, saying they are willing to also be arrested and that some of their chiefs had been bribed by Governor Ayade. The women vowed to continue to resist attempts to take over their farmland.
On 29th May villagers informed CrossRiverWatch that more soldiers had arrived in Ukambi: five trucks filled with soldiers and a sixth with operatives of the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS). Villagers said the soldiers told them they came for peace and went straight to where women and youths were attempting to prevent bulldozers from demolishing their farmland. The person who had died had not yet been buried. A case of knife crime violence was also reported but CrossRiverWatch could not independently verify either the victim or the motive. The Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), a branch of the Nigerian Police tasked with confronting violent crimes such as armed robbery and kidnapping and communal clashes. A 2016 report by Amnesty International accused SARS of regularly detaining young adults unlawfully and uncovered detention facilities across the country where people were tortured and forced to confess to crimes they did not commit.
On 4th June 2019 people of Obudu protesting against the airport, under the aegis of Cross River Coalition Against Land Grabbing, issued a press release signed by the Coordinator and Secretary of the group, stating in part:
“Well, we are not against development per say, but would not fold our hands and see our heritage being forcefully taken away from us. The mass hectares of land being proposed for the airport is our farm lands and our means of livelihood. What are the alternatives? Nobody has told us.
“Ordinarily this would have been a welcome development as it would not only bring succour and facilitated development to Northern parts of the state. But considering the way and manner this administration of Ayade has been handling projects and making caricature of Cross Riverians, it has become imperative for us to ask questions concerning the rationale behind building another airport when we have Calabar Airport that is almost near comatose as only two flights maximum fly the route now…
“We are entering into another circus show of constructing a Cargo Airport in Obudu. On whose land and whose expense is the airport? Is Ayade is really interested in developing the North, please we advice him to first complete the roads he started; renovate the RANCH Resorts to the standard former Gov Duke left it and then renovate the Bebi Airstrip to be functional and efficient.
“In view of the above stated facts we demand the immediate stoppage of the illegal acquisition of the people’s land in guise of building an airport, we also demand the immediate rehabilitation of the Ranch Resorts, Bebi Airstrip and completion of all roads in the North started by Gov Ayade”.