Ebonyi communities at war over new federal institution

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Obinna Ezeugwu,Ebonyi

Onicha Local Government Area is arguably the largest local government in Ebonyi State, with a population of about 400,000. Yet, the area had somewhat been forgotten over the years in terms of government presence.

But the local government was remembered recently, as the Federal Government announced the location of one of its six newly approved colleges of education at Isu, the council headquarters. The celebration that greeted the pronouncement was unprecedented and the jubilation was yet to die down when some clannish interests tried to thwart the laudable project.

Former governor of the state, who represents Ebonyi North Senatorial District in the National Assembly, Dr. Sam Egwu, on May 19, 2020, tendered a petition by Izzi Nnodo people on the floor of the Red Chamber seeking relocation of the school from Ebonyi South zone to his area.

Ebonyi North consists of Abakaliki, Ebonyi, Izzi and Ohaukwu local governments, while Ebonyi South is made up of Afikpo North, Afikpo South, Ohaozara, Onicha and Ivo.

In addition, Ebonyi North Elders Consultative Assembly also petitioned President Muhammadu Buhari in an open letter published in two national dailies on June 2.

The elders, like Egwu, stated that siting the institution in Isu community in the southern part of the state was against the federal character principle. According to them, two of the three federal tertiary institutions in the state, Akanu Ibiam Federal Polytechnic, Unwana, in Afikpo North Local Government Area, and the Federal College of Agriculture, Ishiagu, Ivo Local Government Area, already exist in the zone.

They said the third institution, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, was located in Ikwo Local Government Area in Ebonyi Central Senatorial District, while their zone was left with none.

The elders said: “For the sake of justice, equity and fairness in the distribution of federal tertiary educational institutions in Ebonyi State, we pray that the President intervenes by prevailing on the Federal Ministry of Education to rescind its earlier decision on this issue and approve the siting of the college in Ebonyi North Senatorial District.”

Some of the signatories were former vice chancellor of Ebonyi State University, Prof. Francis Idike, former Minister of State for Health, Chief Fidelis Nwankwo, two former senators, Chief Chris Nwankwo and Sylvanus Ngele, Eze John Nwenyi, Chief Austin Edeze, Chief Elias Mbam and Dr. Peter Okorie.

Not leaving anything to chance, elders of Ebonyi South fired back. They said their zone was indeed the one being marginalised in siting of federal and state government projects since the creation of Ebonyi 24 years ago.

In a rejoinder to the open letter to the President by their northern counterparts, they thanked President Muhammadu Buhari for siting the institution in Isu, while urging that the evil intension of misleading and deceiving the government and people, who might not know the true position of things in Ebonyi State, be disregarded.

They argued that Ebonyi North, being landlords of the state capital territory, was already saturated with several state and federal institutions. These include the Alex Ekwueme Federal Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki, the National Obstetric Fistula Centre, Abakaliki, the Federal Government Girls’ College, Ezzamgbo, the proposed National Raw Materials Research Institute as well as state and federal ministries, departments and agencies.

The Ebonyi South Elders Consultative Forum accused Ebonyi North elders of craftily concealing the facts in their open letter, while quickly mentioning the only two tertiary institutions in Ebonyi South Senatorial District inherited from the old Imo and Abia states.

They enumerated over 50 establishments sited in the northern zone of the state. These include the Ebonyi State University (EBSU), Abakaliki, School of Health Technology, Ezzamgbo, the National Examinations Council (NECO), the Command Secondary School, Abakaliki, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration (NAFDAC) and the West African Examination Council (WAEC), among others.

Ebonyi South elders further noted that, in the immediate and foreseeable future, the Ebonyi North Senatorial District as the host of the state capital territory will continuously witness the deployment of over 60 per cent of the state resources to its ever-expanding developmental needs.

Therefore, they urged President Buhari to discountenance and disregard in its entirety the petition seeking to relocate the Federal College of Education, Isu, noting that entertaining it will amount to injustice and supplanting the peace that exists in Ebonyi state.

They noted: “The Federal College of Education, Isu, Onicha Local Government Area of Ebonyi State is a child of equity, justice and fair play, which Your Excellency has graciously displayed and should not be sacrificed on the altar of unbridled sentiment rooted in the quest for chaos and disunity in Ebonyi State.”

Former Minister of Police Affairs, Chief Francis Orji, former Deputy Governor of Ebonyi State and currently Vice Chancellor, Ebonyi State University, Prof. Chigozie Ogbu and Senator Azu Agboti signed the letter alongside Ezeogo Ambrose Ogbu, Eze Ntum II of Isu Autonomous Community, Dr Steve Egbo, Executive Director, Administration and Training, Nigerian Television Authority, Hon. Darlington Okereke, Commissioner, National Population Commission and former member of House of Representatives, Hon. Kelechi Chima, former member, House of Representatives, Dr Ben Igwenyi, former Attorney General of Ebonyi State and Prof. Ogbonnaya Ogbu.

Meanwhile, Egwu’s role in the whole saga, which culminated in the ‘stay action order’ issued by the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions to the Minister of Education, has continued to receive condemnations from across the state with many describing it as unbecoming of a supposed father of the state who should have acted as a statesman.

Chairman of the Committee, Senator Ayo Akinyelure, in a letter dated June 9, 2020, asked the minister to convey his position on the matter to the committee to enable them “take appropriate peaceful decision on the matter.”

He said the committee had, at its hearing on June 4, directed the minister through his representative to suspend action on the institution until a decision was reached by the principal stakeholders on behalf of Ebonyi people.

Akinyelure said that the committee’s action was in the interest of peace and fairness to the Senatorial Districts and the people of Ebonyi State.

But in a swift reaction, a member of House of Representatives for Ohaozara/Onicha/Ivo Federal Constituency, (2011-2019), Linus Okorie, faulted the senate committee’s action, describing it as an overkill.

Okorie averred that neither a Committee of the Senate nor the Senate itself has any power under the Constitution to reverse the decision of the President to site any project anywhere in the country, being an exercise of due executive powers.

He explained: “The only way the legislature can determine the location of a project, or insist on a particular location, is when a location is in breach of an extant law, i.e, if a particular location had specifically been provided in a law of the National Assembly, including the budget. Otherwise, it is the exclusive prerogative of the executive to locate projects and institutions.”

Okorie, however, noted that the most important takeaway from the Senate Committee was its expectation of a decision to be reached by the principal stakeholders on behalf of Ebonyi people.

He then appealed to Governor David Umahi to cause the convening of a meeting of principal stakeholders to harmonize the contending elders of the North and the South; in the best interest of the state.

Also, Okorie’s successor in the House of Representatives, Chief Livinus Makwe called for caution in order not to rock the peace enjoyed by the people of the state.

He urged: “We strongly believe that as leaders, we should at all times endeavour to rise above clannish tendencies and promote peace, equity and unity in our dear state. We should be grateful that out of the five states in the South East, Ebonyi State was chosen to host this educational institution.”

For the leader of Isu Okoma community in diaspora, Chief Anthony Anoke, Egwu’s position was unfortunate. He said Egwu did nothing for Isu community while he was governor for eight years, even when they gave the highest number of votes that brought him to power then.

Some people have accused Egwu of merely playing to the gallery, pretending that he loves Izzi people. Yet they said as governor, he reportedly moved the Federal Government Girls’ Secondary School earlier proposed for Sharon, Iboko in Izzi land to his community, Ezzamgbo.

As the fireworks rage, the technical team from the Federal Ministry of Education on Saturday, June 6, inspected sites for the take-off of the institution.

Executive Secretary of National Commission for Colleges of Education (NCCE), Prof. Bappa Aliyu led the team consisting of the Director, Tertiary Education in the Federal Ministry of Education, Mr Joel Ojo, Deputy Director, Colleges of Education, Mr Ajayi Femi, Director, Physical Planning, NCCE, Mr Achumie J. E., Director, Academic Programmes, NCCE, Mr Vitalis Uji, Acting Director, Finance and Supplies, NCCE, Ukoh Ukoh and the Director of Procurement, among others.

The team. on arrival, was received at the palace of the traditional ruler by traditional rulers from the senatorial zone and other stakeholders, including Ebonyi State Commissioner for Education; Dr Onyebuchi Chima, Senior Special Assistant on Higher Education, Prof Enyi Enyi, and Caretaker Chairman of Onicha Local Government Area, Prince Chima Ude-Umanta, among others.

Following a request by the team that 100 hectares of land were required for the permanent site; the community conducted them to three different sites with large expanse of land and asked the team to make its choice.

In addition, the team inspected facilities at Isu Model Secondary School, Isu, proposed as temporary site of the institution. At the school, Chairman of Ebonyi State Universal Education Board (EBSUBEB), Chief Hyacinth Ikpor and his Secondary Education counterpart, both assured that whatever that could be done by the state government to make the place comfortable for staff and students of the nascent institution, would be done.

Speaking at a brief reception held at the local government arcade, the NCCE boss expressed gratitude to the Government of Ebonyi State, especially the Isu community for the hospitality extended to them.

He remarked: “What is most important is that we would convey to Mr President what we saw. We will also inform our minister how we were received by this community. As somebody had elaborated before, we are here as an advance party to see the facilities that are on ground; and that includes the temporary and permanent sites. The temporary site in particular would enable us make arrangements so that academic programmes will start by October.

“We must thank the governor of this state for receiving us well and for the treatment meted as well as connecting us to community. And as the LGA chairman and commissioners have testified; we were received well and the youths played their own role.

“By this, I am telling the community that you will be seeing some of our technical crews every often and that we would start the process with recruitment of principal officers who will now takeover to recruit en masse. So, we seek your support because these people, when they come and meet the main stakeholders; they would be needing houses for accommodation and we hope that stakeholders in the community will be able to meet that challenge.”

The Commissioner for Education, Dr Chima said the institution was coming when Ebonyi desperately needed good teachers.

“We will work hard to ensure that you will have enough ground to take off. What we would like is that you send us a memo indicating what you want us to do so that we present it to the state Executive Council. And it will guide us in keeping to our expectations.”

Onicha LGA Chairman, Ude-Umanta thanked President Buhari for locating the school in Isu and assured that the community would not sabotage any programmes of his government. He added that the staff and students of the school that would always enjoy the community’s hospitality because “there is no history of hostility to visitors traceable in the records of our people.”

Regardless, Ebonyi State House of Assembly, had few days ago, passed a motion under matters of urgent public importance moved by the Deputy Speaker, Odefa Odefa, urging Senator Egwu, House of Representative member, Sylvester Ogbaga and Izzi elders, to shield their sword and not allow the issue of the siting of the college divide the state.

The House also urged the two federal legislators to withdraw the petitions they tendered in the two chambers of the National Assembly against the location of the institution at Isu.

The Speaker, Francis Nwifuru, has also called for truce. “Senator Egwu aired his opinion as the leader elected by the people and we are not criticising it but all we are saying is that as leaders, we should work together for the common interest of the state and promote good governance in the country.”

Not a few people believe that the Federal College of Education is just one project out of a lot that Ebonyi State looked forward to, given how marginalised the state and its people have been. They reasoned that with greater bond of unity and an environment of peace, the state would achieve more in its quest for a larger chunk of the national cake.

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