THE LEGAL EFFECT OF GOVERNMENT WHITE PAPER & RECCOMENDATIONS THEREIN: IN RESPECT OF THE PORTION OF OWERRI / ONITSHA ROAD INDUSTRIAL LAYOUT AND PORTION OF UMUGUMA LAND IN IMO STATE:
Osora F. Uzonwanne Esq.,
4th July, 2022
INTRODUCTION: The Government of Imo State headed by Chukwuemeka Nkemakolam Ihedioha (CON) under the powers conferred on him by section 3 of the Commission of Enquiry Law (Cap.24), Laws of Eastern Nigeria, 1963 through an instrument constituted a Commission of Inquiry on Lands Related Matters which came into force on 19th day of August, 2019. The nine-man commission was chaired by Hon. Justice Florence I. Duroha-Igwe (Rtd).
The terms of reference of the commission are to wit:
- Ascertain the extent of land compulsorily acquired or forcefully wrested from the owners.
- Ascertain and determine whether such compulsory acquisition as mentioned in (a) above were lawfully made or not.
- Ascertain the extent of allocation and revocation of land in Imo State from June 2006 – May 2019 and determine the propriety of such allocation and revocation.
- Ascertain and determine whether due process and diligence and strict adherence to the provisions of Land Use Act, 1978 and all other relevant laws on acquisition of land were followed.
- Determine the extent of compliance with the relevant laws for the development of the New Owerri Capital Territory and adherence to the Master Plan of Owerri Capital Territory as authored by Fingerhurt and Partners.
- Examine and ascertain whether Government land or part of it have been converted to private use and identify the persons responsible and make recommendations for recovery.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF OKOHIA UMUNJO/ PORTION OF OWERRI/ ONITSHA ROAD INDUSTRIAL LAYOUT AND PORTION UMUGUMA LAND:
At the creation of Imo State in 1976, the Government acquired the entire expanse of land known and called OKOHIA UMUNJO/ UMUGUMA LAND, currently known as Industrial layout which was owned by the UMUNJO AND UMUGUMA COMMUNITY. The acquisition of the said land was for industrial purpose and it was done without due process and no compensation whatsoever was paid to the land owners.
The Okohia Umunjo/Umuguma land belonging to Umunjo and Umuguma Community and others was left to fallow for many years and became the den of arm robbers and kidnappers where they perpetrated all sorts of crimes.
As a result of the above, the Umunjo/Umuguma Community caused a letter to be written through their attorney to the government of Imo State dated 28th November, 2018 for the release of the said land back to them.
Through a letter dated the 14th of December, 2018 the Imo State Government released the Okohia land to the Umunjo/Umuguma Community through the Imo State Housing Corporation for the development of a layout to be called Pocket Layout.
Subsequently, there was a change of government which culminated to the assumption of the government of Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha and the incident of constituting of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into land related matters in the state.
The Umunjo/Umuguma Community petitioned the Judicial Commission of Inquiry as was required by the commission for all land owners whose land were affected to appear before the commission to make submissions of their claims to the commission.
At the end of the deliberations, the Judicial Commission of Enquiry came up with their Findings and Recommendations which was accepted by the incumbent government of Sen. Hope Uzodinma and same was passed into law and published in a White Paper, an Official Gazette.
Finally, it is worthy of note that the Umunjo Okohia and Umuguma land or Portion of Owerri/ Onitsha Road Industrial Layout is cut up and mentioned in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Terms of References of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry (as is mentioned above) in their Findings and Recommendations which is accepted by the Imo State Government. The summary of the panel’s findings and recommendations is that the said land was amongst the lands wrongly or illegally acquired by the government and there was no compensation paid to the land owners, thereby recommended that government should endevour to do the needful by following due process of acquisition of land . See: Government White Paper on the Report of the Judicial Commission of Enquiry on Lands and Related Matters Imo State (June 2006 – May 2019) published, August 2020.
THE LEGAL STATUS OF A GOVERNMENT WHITE PAPER BY A JUDICIAL COMMISSION OF INQUIRY:
It is apropos at this juncture to note that it was on the strength of the above white paper that gave impetus to the Interim Forfeiture Order by Hon. Justice E. F. Njamanze (Rtd.) on 24th February, 2021 and Final Forfeiture Order on 9th August, 2021 in Suit No. HOW/191/2021– Between: ATTORNEY GENERAL OF IMO STATE AND MRS NKECHI ROCHAS OKOROCHA & 5 ORS.
On 24th February, 2021 the court had ordered the Interim Forfeiture of all the properties linked to Okorocha. The court had also asked Okorocha to show case as to why a final and absolute order of forfeiture should not be given following an application brought to it by Louis Alozie on behalf of the state.
Okorocha through his counsel failed to give good reason why the order should not be made absolute. The court in a ruling delivered on 9th August , 2021 ordered the final forfeiture of properties said to be acquired through “illegal means” by Rochas Okorocha, ex-governor of Imo state. The forfeited properties are listed in the Imo State Government White Paper Report on recovery of lands and other related matters.
Hon. Justice Njemanze made a judicial pronouncement by saying that the White Paper Gazette by the Imo government is a legally-binding document. In defining what is white paper? Njamanze made reference to the case of TAO & SONS INDUSTIES LTD Vs GOVERNOR OF OYO STATE & ANOR (2010) LPELR 5002CA, The Court of Appeal per Kekere-Ekun JCA (as he then was) held:
“The view expressed by the court by Abdullahi Vs Hashidi at page 646 C-D is clear and straight forward. His Lordship Pats Acholonu JCA (as he then was) stated; “In the normal course of governace, the government, be it Federal, State or Local manifests its acceptance of a report or inquiry by way of publication of a White Paper which tells the world the reaction of the government to the inquiry.” The Supreme Court acknowledged the significance of a White Paper in the case of COOKEY Vs FOMBO (2005) 15 NWLR (pt. 947) 187 when it held that the 1st Respondent could not file an action against a third party on the recommendation of a panel of inquiry that had not been published in a White Paper.”
In MAJOR – GENERAL OLU BAJOWA Vs FRN & ORS (2016) LPLER-40229 CA. Ekanem JCA said:
“There is no doubt that the appellant could not have sued the Respondent in respect of the recommendation of justice Nwazota Panel because the government did not issue a white paper accepting or rejecting the same. In COOKEY Vs FOMBO (2005) 15 NWLR (pt. 947) 187 the supreme court held that the recommendation of a committee has no binding force and cannot ground a cause of action without a law or a White Paper. Also in GOVERNOR OF OYO STATE Vs FOLAYAN (1995) 1 NWLR (pt 413)292, 382. Onu JSC stated as follows “The government having not yet accepted the recommendations are legally not binding on the Government and the parties until accepted…It cannot be in doubt that where a government sets up a panel of inquiry, there must be some overt act by the government to signify its acceptance or rejection of the White Paper. The White Paper is notice to the whole world of the position taken by the government on relevant report… ” The reason is that a government that sets up a commission of inquiry is at liberty to reject or accept the recommendation of the commission. See AREMO 11 Vs ADEKANYE (2004)13 NWLR (pt 891) 571. So the Commission’s recommendation amounts to nothing until accepted by the government in a White Paper…”
The properties include Eastern Palm University, Ogboko; Royal Spring Palm Hotels and Apartments; IBC staff quarters illegally acquired for the purpose of Rochas Foundation College, Owerri; Magistrate Quarters, Orlu Road/Cooperative Office/Girls Guide Illegally converted to private use housing market square, Kilimanjaro Eatery; Public Building Plot B/2 Otamiri South Extension Layout given to the Ministry of Women Affairs for establishing a skills acquisition centre for women, illegally acquired for the benefit of Nneoma Nkechi Okorocha’s All-in Stall, Aba Road.
Others are Plot P5, Naze Residential Layout, initially part of Primary School Management Board but now annexed to All-in Stall, Aba Road belonging to Nkechi Okorocha, and all the properties contained from pages 226 to 272 of the Government White Paper on the recommendation of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into land Administration in Imo State from June 2006 to May 2019.
Njamanze, based on the above legal backings added that the Imo State Government can go ahead and do whatever it deems fit with the properties. The judge also ruled that persons who might have purchased said properties are at liberty to approach the court to prove their titles:
“In essence, the White Paper gives the State Government power to retain custody of the properties listed therein as having been obtained or acquired in breach of the law. Any person who professes to own such properties which are found or contained in the white paper cannot lawfully walk into them without incurring the wrath of the government. At the point the government be it Federal , state, Local accepts the recommendations of the panel of inquiry and publish/gazette same as in the instant case, the properties are well taken over by the government absolutely until the person or persons affected show that the findings were patently erroneous. This can be done by taking up a writ of action to challenge the findings and recommendations contained in the white Paper or the White paper itself.”
The gamut of these write up concerns the powers of the governor of the state to constitute a judicial commission of inquiry and the legal status of the white paper gazette publishing the findings and recommendations of the commission. From the foregoing, the governor is empowered by the Commission of Inquiry Law to constitute the commission and arm it with the terms of references to base their inquiry on. From the plethora of cases cited above, and many others not cited, it is discernable that the White Paper is a notice to the world of the position of Government of Imo State over and in respect of all the lands contained therein including the Okohia Umunjo/ Umuguma Land. The Okohia Umunjo/Umuguma Land is now absolutely under the control of the State Government and the government is to synergize with the Umunjo/Umuguma Community for the appropriate compensation arrangements to be made between them according to the recommendations of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry as was published in the white paper gazette. Finally, there is a window of remedy for any aggrieved or affected person or persons to take up an action by way of a writ to challenge the white paper or the findings of the panel of inquiry by showing grounds why the property or properties should be left off the hook.
Osora Francis Uzonwanne is a PARTNER IN ADVANCED CHAMBERS, A LEGAL FIRM BASED IN OWERRI. He holds a Masters Degree in Philosophy and Currently undergoing a study for a Doctorate in Philosophy at Imo State University, Owerri.