INTERVIEW ON THE CURRENT SITUATION OF LAND ENCROACHMENT ON OGBA ZOO

 

INTERVIEW GRANTED BY MR ANDY OSA EHANIRE,  CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF OGBA ZOO AND NATURE PARK, BENIN CITY; ALSO AS NATIONAL SECRETARY OF THE NIGERIAN ASSOCIATION OF ZOOS AND PARKS (NAZAP): EXCERPTS ON THE CURRENT STATE OF THE ZOO AND THE SECTOR 


The Ogba Zoo, which we manage, was designed and developed in the early seventies by then military Administrator, Brig. General S. O. Ogbemudia, now of blessed memory. Its concept was an extensive biological garden, with potentials for resort development. In tandem with the ambitious and iconic scale of Ogbemudia’s drive and vision for then Midwest Region, later Bendel State, and now Edo / Delta States, Ogba Zoo was at par, or even surpassed most of its kind, both far and near. 


Soon after Ogbemudia’s regime, Ogba Zoo suffered a long era of decline and eventual collapse, spanning the late eighties and nineties.  By the time of our Private-Sector led intervention in the year 2000, the Zoo was already in the “mortuary” and was like ready to be written off the books. Such was a far cry from the laudable vision of its founder. Our mandate, therefore, was to reverse the rot or what was left of the decayed zoo, in order to revitalize its essential functions as an urban recreational park and field laboratory in the biological sciences where schools and colleges in the entire sub-region derived conservation education and awareness. 


 It must be understood that the decline and neglect of any zoo is always horrible, since without a proper winding-down procedure, the animals suffered neglect and deprivations akin to torture. It is instructive that the treatment of wildlife in any society can be likened to the barometer for measuring the level of its humanity; hence the circumstances of the collapse of Ogba Zoo, or any of such therefore, would amount to criminal neglect in humane or civilized societies. 


Nevertheless, Ogba Zoo experienced a painful rebirth through our rescue mission, which was purely self-financing, with no support from Government. On the contrary, it is the nature of the Lease Agreement that our private sector led eco-tourism outfit pays rents to Government. But as challenging as reviving a dormant zoo was, there were other hidden challenges that can hardly be imagined in a sane society. It started as a minor incursion by community land grabbers into the zoo land, until it was aided by official government instruments in the form of a gazette. Even with Government claiming, soon after, that it committed an error in issuing such gazette, the errant instrument has not been repealed for more than ten years running, but left to serve as a license for unlimited plunder of a foremost tourism heritage of the State. 

 


All these years of battling the encroachment on the Zoo, our private-sector led management was as good as left to solely tackle the growing menace unaided. With little or no response to dozens of memos crying for speedy deployment of Government machinery to dislodge and prosecute offenders, the area encroached upon grew from about 10% of the zoo land that was purportedly ceded by the gazette, to more than 60% of the entire  Zoo. It was like a horror movie to see bulldozers levelling priceless forestry in this pristine Conservation heritage that had been a classic urban forest rarely found anywhere in the world. It is a sad commentary that these last three years (2014 to 2016) have seen the greatest devastation of the zoo, even when the then Governor, Adams Oshiomhole, would be making pronouncements as to immediate Government intervention. While not tolerating any nonsense in other areas, all the administrative machineries of his Government were appearing helpless in the face of the onslaught on Ogba Zoo.

 

 

It eventually dawned on me that I had been encircled by a mammoth conspiracy and therefore published a series of open letters to the Comrade Governor calling for an administrative or judicial inquiry, but all to no avail. It also became evident that a cabal was bent on sharing most of the zoo land without any official Government process but the diabolical ploy of using community youths and thugs as alibi. 

 


The sum effect was to create widespread but dangerous impression in the area that Government had acquiesced to sharing the zoo land, but that we were the only ones standing in the way. It was also painfully obvious that the security situation had long degenerated, with threats and suspicions of ecological terrorism becoming a constant nightmare, yet our pleas for police protection went unheeded. It was rather intended to intimidate than merely to inform, when some Government officials hurried to say that an infamous Government political appointee and other cultists were amongst those carrying on with illegal development on the Zoo. Fingers also pointed at House of Assembly Committee members, who were assigned to look into the issues, but spent over three years purporting to be engaging community agents without any new position on the matter, after an initial one had declared that the encroachment was illegal and unacceptable, as far back as year 2011. Meanwhile, all these were happening at the time of the worst incursions and impunities, making it all an uncanny coincidence.   

 

 

However, in Nigeria, events of such dastardly proportions are easily glossed over and quickly forgotten, but we finally had recourse to an Arbitration process in order to encapsulate the issues in proper legal perspectives. It is disheartening that even while the Arbitration was ongoing and up till the Award was published in January this year, various levels of devastation were still being unleashed on the Zoo and its assets. For example, even after the Arbitrating ruling, a six block staff quarters meant to keep critical staffers resident in close proximity to the Zoo were bulldozed and the place is already shared to political figures who are hurrying to develop their own piece of the loot. A purpose-built lion enclosure in the middle of the encroached land was also bulldozed only last month (April) and the foundation of a mansion is coming up on the premises. The case of the Zoo staff quarters that have now been demolished is of particular interest since it was part of the specific provisions in the Arbitration Award requiring it to be dedicated for the use of the Zoo.

 

Coming from this brutal experience, we now have a new Governor who is most likely to take a decisive approach to save the Zoo from the grips of brigandage and anarchy. We are therefore anxious as to when specific Government interventions would commence to save the Zoo before all that needs to be saved are totally destroyed. 

 


To be compelled to resort to a costly Arbitration process as a last resort in demanding appropriate interventions to save the Zoo is perhaps a callous burden to be imposed on us along with a struggling zoo seeking a second lease of life. But then, there is a stranger element and a very sad feeling that some of those involved in perpetrating these atrocities on Ogba Zoo may have taken prominent roles and positions at the elaborate ceremonies to mark the exit of the revered Brig. Gen. S. O. Ogbemudia, while destroying his legacies even while he was alive.

 

 We do pray that the forces of light will prevail over those of darkness in this nascent and very promising Administration of Governor Obaseki.  

 

My role in the rescue and resuscitation of Ogba Zoo has evolved from just its management, to that of an activist, since the Zoo Association (NAZAP), of which I am National Secretary, is aimed at the pioneering mission of bringing sanity to all the Zoos and Parks across the whole Nigeria , for which we seek collaboration from all stakeholders.

 

We can truly evolve a new society that our generation and posterity can be proud of in the spirit of the Change mantra.

 

Thank you.    

 

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