The 90-hectare Abuja farmland controversy by Wale Sokunbi

goodluck_1636002cIn Nigeria, it never rains, it pours. Former presidents do not just quietly resign from their political parties and go back home in peace to be “statesmen”, they conduct their “resignation ceremonies” in the full glare of television cameras, and shred their party membership cards to boot!

Disgruntled citizens do not just make their grievances known to the government in a civil manner, they take up arms and do battle against their countrymen. The electoral agency does not just do its job of getting everything set for elections for which it had had a four-year notice, it waits till the last minute and lays itself open to accusations that it is deliberately trying to manipulate the process.

Political parties are hardly interested in telling the people what they want to do with power when they get it, they are more concerned about reveling in   the perceived and concocted shortcomings of the other political parties and their candidates. The security agencies do not just go on and do their work of surmounting the insurgency in the country, they wait till few days to general elections before warning that they will not be able to provide security during the exercise, thereby effectively scuttling the exercise.

And, as if all these were not enough, the president, at a time that Nigerians   should be seeing his best foot forward, warding off allegations that he is soft   on corruption, and showing that he has largely lived above board as president, is enmeshed in a controversy over the acquisition of 90.4 hectares, about 750 plots, of farmland in the Aviation Village area of Abuja, for a private agricultural project under the name of Ebele Integrated Farms Limited.

Certainly, whoever thought up the catchphrase, one day one trouble, must have had no country but Nigeria in mind! And, as can be expected of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), the party is lapping up the story of the controversial presidential land acquisition that reportedly took place in the seventh month of Jonathan’s presidency, with all its might.  It has described the acquisition as a clear breach of the provisions of Section 138 and the 5th Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, Parts 1 and 2.

The National Publicity Secretary of the party, Lai Mohammed, has asked the president to apologise to Nigerians for “abusing his office and engaging in   corrupt practices” by acquiring the said land as a sitting president of the county. The party argued that nothing in the 5th Schedule Part 1, (Code of Conduct for Public Officers) in the Nigerian Constitution could justify the acquisition of such a large expanse of land by the president while in office. Incidentally, a group identified as Purpose-Driven Initiative was said to have brought the issue of the land to limelight in an advertorial that has not been denied by the Presidency.

Instead, what is coming from the president’s quarters is a stout defence of the acquisition on the basis that it is for agricultural purposes, and the fact that the former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, did the same thing while he was in office.

APC is contesting the propriety of what it has described as a ‘land grab”, an ‘abuse of office” and “a glaring instance of bad leadership”.   The Minister of FCT, Bala Mohammed, was also reported to have also acquired a large portion of land in the area, following in the president’s footsteps.

As I said earlier in the opening sentence of this piece, it never rains in Nigeria. It pours. Things do not happen, they do so in superlatives. So, while the constitution identifies farming, probably with the idea of subsistence, small scale farming, as one of the commercial activities that government officials can engage in to encourage food production in the country, the concession, as with all things Nigerian, has become a reason for some government officials to acquire vast expanses of land for commercial farming in choice locations in the country.

In Abuja, in particular, where land is so expensive and where there is so much talk about strict adherence to the Abuja master plan which has led to the demolition of buildings of ordinary Nigerians which violate the provisions of the plan, it is strange that a single business entity, albeit owned by the president, could be given hundreds of plots of land in the so-called Aviation Village for agricultural purposes.

Sadly, this large expanse of land, if confirmed to have been truly acquired by the president, is going to further dent his anti-corruption credential at this time that he needs it most. Some lawyers are already criticizing the president on account of this revelation.  Jiti Ogunye, quoting the Land Use Act, said the president, like the governors and FCT Minister, is a trustee of the land for the people. The acquisition of such a large expanse of land for personal purposes, he said, would be condemnable.

Dr. Reuben Abati, the president’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity has however expectedly risen in stout defence of Jonathan, saying that it is not against the constitution for the president to engage in farming.

Abati is right in his defence of the president, but he cleverly papered over the volume of the land in question and the propriety or morality of the acquisition of a large expanse of land by any individual, and in a place that is designated as Aviation Village. It would certainly have been more helpful to the president if he had said that the land in question was no more than 10 hectares!

The question, really, is not whether the president is right to have a farm or engage in farming or not. There is no debating the fact that he has a right to do these, like all other government officials. There is no conflict of interest involved.

The real issue in contention is the size of the land, which he chose to gloss over, and why land in the Aviation Village should be made open to acquisition for farming.

Yet another critical issue that Nigerians should consider is that of the procedures and regulations for the acquisition of agricultural land. Should such acquisition be for the real known farmers or the portfolio/cum political agriculturists? Again, when such acquired land is not used for the intended purpose, years after the acquisition, what happens?

These, indeed, are issues that our leaders will do well to look into and legislate on to reduce the propensity for willful and flagrant acquisition of humongous portions of land by people in power to the detriment of ordinary citizens.