CRIMINAL ENCROACHMENT ON OGBA ZOO LAND: A RESPONSE TO THE REQUEST BY THE COMMISSIONER OF POLICE, EDO STATE COMMAND, FOR PARTIES TO MAKE FRESH REPRESENTATION ON THEIR POSITIONS.

The Ogba Zoo was inaugurated in 1971 under the Administration of Brig, Gen Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, to serve as a field laboratory in the biological sciences, along with pilot schemes in sustainable development, recreation and tourism. It was carved out of the Ogba Forest Reserve where a Botanical Garden and Arboretum had existed; with the zoo being an expansion of its scope into a Biological Garden. It had thrived as a State heritage under Government before its management was transferred via a leasehold franchise to Everal Services Limited, an ecotourism outfit, under Public-Private Sector Partnership (PPP). Its boundaries, consisting of an estimated 320 hectares, are covered by a forestry survey map and master plan drawn to international specifications.
2. It was during a series of de-reservation exercises of outlying forest reserves that an encroachment occurred on the zoo in the year 2004 and all de-reservation actions in the area were immediately suspended. Illegal structures were soon observed on the zoo land and they were promptly marked for demolition, while the Committee on Protection of Government Property was deployed to evict the illegal developers. Curiously, it was long after the transition of Government in 2007 that a gazette surfaced granting Utagban Community some 29 hectares of land in the Reserve, out of which about 17 hectares encroached on the Ogba Zoo land. This anomaly was questioned by the Ministry of Environment, which superintends both the Forest Reserves and Government’s interest in the Zoo. Their observation was not only on account of there being no official process in its records that gave any effect to such a gazette, but that the land was clearly in the vicinity of a known lion enclosure within the perimeters of the zoo.
3. The Community in question was summoned and ordered to suspend any development on the zoo land, which they flouted in desperation to sell off the land to unsuspecting buyers. After several preliminary enquiries on the veracity of this gazette that was procured by Utagban Community, the Governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, constituted an inter-Ministerial Committee in 2010 headed by then Surveyor General of Edo State, to look into the issue. Following series of hearings by this Committee, in which all stakeholders were represented, it was its final decision that the gazette in question cannot take effect and that the encroachment on Ogba Zoo land should be dislodged. Based on the findings of this Committee, which was approved by Government, a formal process of demolition survey and its subsequent approval, led to the demolition of all the illegal structures on the Zoo land in 2011. 
4. The Community then took matters to the State House of Assembly, holding on to the so-called Gazette, which Government had repudiated. Within a few weeks, the Committee on Lands in the State House of Assembly held several sessions and took evidence from all parties, before arriving at its conclusions in a 20 page document, which were in accord with Government’s actions on the matter. However, the then Speaker, Hon. Uyi Igbe, promised to help seek succour for the Community by exploring a recommendation that an alternative 17 Hectares of land be sought for them by Government, if available elsewhere. Since 2011 till date, the House has not come up with any further resolution on this matter.
UNLEASHING OF UNRESTRAINED CRIMINAL ATROCITIES
5. It was only 17 hectares of land at the north end of the zoo that Utagban Community sought to claim from the zoo land with a gazette that is now redundant. It should be noted that de-reservation exercise is used strictly for free areas in a forest Reserve, not over sections that have been assigned for overriding public interest as in a nature park like Ogba Zoo. As the zoo was no longer in the free areas of the Reserve, it is thus a fallacy for a gazette to purport to cede any part thereof for private or community development.
 6. In spite of Government’s demolition of the illegal structures and while matters were still pending before the House of Assembly, the community agents went back to continue further development and sale of the land. However, it was in June of last year (2015) that bulldozers invaded most of the remaining sections of the zoo land amounting to more than 200 hectares, thereby destroying vast sections of its pristine forestry of high international scientific significance. This onslaught with bulldozers was orchestrated by FridayOdigie of Utagban CDA in collaboration with Victor Iredia of Ogbaneki community. 
7. The State Executive Council responded with stern resolve to deal with this latest wave of encroachment and requested the then Commissioner of Police (Mr. Adegbuyi) to provide security escorts for the delineation of the zoo land, while entries were made for the prosecution of the offenders. It is scandalous that on two separate occasions where elaborate attempts were made by Government officials to carry out this delineation with police escorts provided by then Commissioner of Police, they were chased away by community agents without any consequence. It is disheartening that  the police authorities have made no further attempts or found any way of fulfilling this critical assignment ever since, which is both confounding and a huge embarrassment to Government.
8. In spite of all evidence of breaches of the State Forestry Laws and the identification of the known culprits from Utagban and Ogbaneki Communities, no progress has been recorded by way of preventive custody and prosecution of the offenders. Rather, the possession of this redundant gazette, which purports to convey only 17 hectares of land, has become a license for criminal take-over of more than 200 hectares of Ogba zoo land. Moreover, in a matter of controversy over land consisting of a prime forestry heritage owned by Government, whereby its destruction is not only criminal, but would clearly wreak irreversible havoc, it was expected that the police  authorities would speedily restrain parties to such violation until matters are resolved; but in this case, the police authorities appear to have condoned these devastating illegalities by treating it as a civil matter under the Conflict Resolution Unit of the Command.
9. We have severally called the attention of the police authorities to the antics of the community agents in selling the zoo land to unsuspecting members of the public, who are being encouraged to develop same, thus creating fresh complications and jeopardy. Letters were at various times despatched by the Commissioner for Environment (and the Zoo Management) to the Commissioner of Police, requesting the arrest of the situation, but so far, and in the last nine months, there is yet to be an effective intervention in a complementary role to avowed Government’s interest. All these were in spite of regular Government public announcements warning citizens of the encroachment activities by Utagban and Ogbaneki communities and the risks of demolition of the illegal structures therein, as well as the prosecution of offenders.
 10. In the matter of Gazettes, which is only a newsletter, we are of the opinion that it is the business of Government to give effect to such. Whereby such is renounced through an elaborate administrative process as carried out by Government in this case, it can only be the handiwork of fraudsters to still carry such a document as license to perpetrate land grabs. At any stage in the life of any gazette, it is Government itself that should be approached to throw light on any controversies therein. In this particular case, the representations made so far by Government should leave no one in any doubt as to its position on these matters.
11. It is therefore ironic that in the recent interview of parties to this matter by the Commissioner of Police, Utagban community representatives were still clinging to the authority of the redundant gazette and claiming not to have stepped any further than the 17 hectares provided therein. So also did Ogbaneki Community claim complete innocence in this matter, by deposing that they did not step into the Zoo land. The obvious puzzle, therefore, that required immediate answers, but which question was not asked, was to find out those responsible for the ongoing pillaging of the zoo land that has been under investigation by the police for close to one year.  Unmasking those behind the criminal bulldozing of over 200 hectares of the zoo’s forestry by those who have been openly trading the land to developers should never have remained a puzzle by any chance under the prolonged period of police investigations by its various departments. So far, we are not aware of any police operation to apprehend suspects at the crime scene, whereas there are constant activities of land sales and development therein.
12. May we also notify the police authorities that an Arbitration clause in the extant lease Agreement between the Zoo Management and the State Government has been invoked as a result of this encroachment saga. The purpose is seeking to compel Government and its apparatus to carry out its statutory role in respect of ensuring the sanctity of the zoo land. We must also point out that being tenants, we are not in a position to carry out full proof of Government ownership of the zoo land as demanded by the police, since we are not a direct party to the land title. Considering the level of hostility associated with land matters in this clime, which is also being directed at the Zoo Management, it is our sincere appeal that we should be shielded from any perception of being the main complainant in the case. Rather, we can be adjudged witnesses or informants, since we are more exposed to the risks of the community’s restiveness.
13. In conclusion Sir, the manner of the police investigations, so far, lack any discernible direction, as all suspects arrested at the initial stage of the investigations were released without prosecution. The suspects were neither cautioned nor prevented from causing further havoc to the assets in question. There has been no element of deterrence by way of  preventive custody or criminal prosecution of the offenders, but rather, we continue to  be invited to various interviews along with the erring parties to the case, which apparently, serves more to dignify the known villains. Also, the level of evidence already taken by the police in this matter, over time, do not require any fresh investigations or cross-examinations, except in the law court. It is expected that only a firm and decisive action by the police would help to send the right signals to all such pervasive criminal land grabs that are fast becoming the norm in Edo State. Ogba zoo, being a heritage of the State, deserves adequate security protection from the police, rather than the lawless zone it has been consigned to. We are still awaiting a concrete line of official police response to the criminal encroachment on the zoo land. Thank you.
AO. EHANIRE
Director / CE                                                                                                              17 March 22, 2016
COPY:
  1. Hon Commissioner for Environment
  2. Hon. Attorney General of Edo State.

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