By Samson R. Osagie, Esq
Who says that government and traditional institutions cannot collaborate on issues of governance and development?
In recent times Edo State, christened the Heartbeat of the Nation has in a unique way set the pace for others to emulate.
With an unusual coincidence of the Coronation of a new Monarch, Oba Ewuare 11 and the inauguration of a new Governor, Mr. Godwin N. Obaseki, on October 20th and November 12th, 2016 respectively, the State is witnessing an unprecedented synergy between government and the Traditional Institution.
By Law Oba Ewuare 11, The Oba of Benin is the Permanent Chairman of the Edo State Council of Traditional Rulers and so the most Paramount of all the Traditional Rulers in Edo State.
Worried by the unwholesome dimension which the activities of Community Development Associations (hereinafter called CDAs) were assuming in the State particularly in his domain, Edo South Senatorial District, the Omo N’Oba did not waste any time to pronounce their actions a social menace that must be curbed.
And quite rightly he got it perfectly correct and promised that His palace will collaborate with government to criminalize the activities of CDAs in the State.
However, the original idea of CDA wasn’t a bad one altogether as it was contemplated as a catalyst for community development through self-help projects and efforts by indigenes of every community.
To be recognized, intending persons will have to apply to the appropriate government department for registration with clear aims and objectives to attract development to their communities through self-help. Their membership and method of financing were to be clearly spelt out in their constitution. It was never acceptable to the state that CDAs will have power to dispose, transfer, assign and/sell the properties belonging to their communities including land for the personal enrichment or aggrandizement of the promoters.
However, in the past sixteen years or so CDAS in Edo State gradually became notorious for carrying out sale of community lands against their original Purpose of establishment. Their members became land speculators who could encroach on individual and communal lands, dispose of them and even ask the original owners to go to hell.
Their activities to say the least was most illegal and intolerable. Apart from that they could disrupt ongoing construction of buildings by hapless citizens and forced them to part with whooping sums of money called either development levy, or building levy etc. They constituted themselves into an illegal community government ruling with iron fist and with utter disregard for community norms and traditions.
In some cases, they will remove the traditional heads of communities and banished them. At different fora, their leaders called Chairmen were variously hailed by their followers whom they have either empowered with a car or a motorcycle and who could do anything to please their masters.
In other cases, rival groups emerged leading to friction and crisis that sometimes take the lives of some of their indigenes. It was like the Hobbesian state of nature “where life was short, nasty and brutish”
In 2003, I recall sponsoring a Bill to regulate the activities of Land Speculators in Edo State in the Edo State House of Assembly but perhaps the mischief sought to be cured then was not sufficiently understood and appreciated couple with lack of political will to deal with the menace. As a result, the bill did not see the light of the day.
From 2007, the activities of CDAS had become so pervasive that they were given recognition as a veritable platform for political advantage by the political class in the State and so they became a force to be reckoned with. Their leaders had amassed so much wealth at the expense of their communities just from the sale of community and individual plots of land particularly with the expansion in development necessitated by huge population growth.
Unfortunately, no meaningful investment in those communities took place from the sale of those lands except perhaps the renovation of some school blocks. Over 95% of funds realized went into private pockets of leaders of CDAs so much so that they became emperors in their domains.
The Land Use Act had prescribed that Lands in Urban areas be vested in State Governors who has the power to grant Statutory Rights of Occupancy while Local Government Area Councils were to hold lands in their areas except those designated as State lands and grant Customary Rights of Occupancy.
The CDAs in Edo State practically took over this Statutory function of government. But that is not to say that educated and enlightened indigenes did not apply for Rights of Occupancy.
For all intents and purposes, the activities of CDAS was the most bizarre, illegal and oppressive in land Administration in Edo State. It was not uncommon to find out that against the Law they formed themselves into Land Allotment Committees and will sometimes engaged in fabrication of Oba Akenzua’s signature on plot allotment papers and back date such to pre- 1978 before the introduction of the Land Use Decree
Land developers were taken through unsavory and torturous experiences as they are made to pay many times for the same land while some lose their land altogether.
As the Bible says in Ecclesiastes Chapter 1 verse 1 ” To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven”, hence at his Coronation thanksgiving at Holy Aruosa Cathedral Benin City on the 23rd of October, 2017, the Omo N’Oba Nedo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare 11, declared the activities of CDAs within Benin communities illegal and expressed his disgust about the notoriety they had assumed warning that he will not tolerate their activities particularly the sale and acquisition of community properties(land).
This was highly welcomed by all and sundry and it brought a huge relief for everyone across the state.
By this singular action, the Oba demonstrated that many of the ills of our society could be corrected by courageous leadership and commitment to defending the Law and customs of the people. With this step and many others, he left no one in doubt that he has ascended the throne of his ancestors not only to restore the dignity of his subjects and the tradition of his people, but to assist government cure indiscipline and Lawlessness among the citizenry and guarantee an orderly society.
The State Governor wasted no time by proposing an Executive bill to give effect to the Oba’s pronouncement. The bill which was promptly passed by the Edo State House of Assembly contains among other things, provisions such as;
“. No youth organization or other body by whatever name called shall demand or collect any fee or levy in whatever guise in respect of construction or development activities in any property in Edo State”.
Violators of the Law will be liable to 10 years’ imprisonment or a fine of two million naira. According to the Speaker, Dr Justin Okonoboh, the law will end bloodshed in communities and encourage investment.
On his part the Governor of the State Mr. Godwin Obaseki who immediately assented to the bill, set up a Task force under the Chairmanship of a former Inspector General of Police, Dr Solomon Arase to assist security agencies to enforce the Law and presented same to the Oba Ewuare 11.The governor also reasoned that the government was taking the activities of CDAs seriously in order to restore order to land administration system in the state and to ensure that his government meets and surpass the vision of creating 200,000 job for people the state.
Across the length and breadth of the State and beyond, the Edo state government has been commended for this collaborative approach to combating what had become a menace in the State.
This is a trail blazing synergy between government and the traditional institutions and is a pointer to how governance can be enhanced in a society that has become complex with its people almost ungovernable. Suffice to say that, the position taken by the very revered Oba of Benin on critical issues not only of tradition but on governance is a veritable impetus that will assist this government to achieve considerable milestones in advancing the frontiers of democratic governance.
It is therefore fitting to recommend further that the example set by Oba Ewuare 11, gives fillip to the longstanding call for the National Assembly to amend the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in order to assign advisory roles to traditional rulers in the country as repository of communal authority.
And I think there is no better time than now.
Samson Raphael Osagie, Esq is a former Minority Whip of the House of Representatives and writes from Abuja.