About 37M was paid to Landlord Communities under my watch- Ofuka

".... I have escaped a lot of assassination attempts because of this royalties'' -Ofuka Oscar Ofuka responds to issues emanting from his days as Special Adviser to Ex, Gov. Ben AYade on Cocoa Development and Control, Cross River State

Jul 13, 2023 - 08:43
Jul 13, 2023 - 08:47
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About 37M was paid to Landlord Communities under my watch- Ofuka
Oscar Ofuka
About 37M was paid to Landlord Communities under my watch- Ofuka

Kindly introduce yourself, Sir.

 

M

y name is Dr. Oscar Ofuka, immediate past Special Adviser to former governor Ben Ayade on Cocoa Development and Control, Cross River State. I hail from Bendeghe-Ekiem in Etung Local Government Area of the state.


As the former Special Adviser on Cocoa Development and Control in the past administration, what was your experience like?

Wonderful question. I was appointed Special Adviser to Ben Ayade in 2016 at a time the Cocoa Estate had gone completely moribund. The trees had suffered old age having been planted over 54 years ago. Cocoa at the time was treated as a political largesse. Allocation exercise was done to satisfy people who supported political actors to emerge victorious at election. It was just ordinary. It was not a revenue yielding business for the government. I also experience some resistance from restive youths and landlord communities over rent and royalties owed since the Liyel Imoke's administration of about 12.5m naira. There were also litigations over review for the rent, and above all, high degree of encroachment arising from neglect by previous administrations. So, communities had a filled day acquiring government cocoa plots for themselves. These people even went as far as surveying those plots against the government's original survey plan. These were the few challenges that confronted me when I assumed as Special Adviser.

Upon my assumption, I started to address one after the other. I knew that for me to excel and make cocoa the mainstay of the state's economy, I needed to restore peace and foster a healthier relationship with the landlord communities who were already in court. So, the first thing I did was to hold meetings with these communities to ascertain their grievances against government. I went to court on behalf of government and negotiated out of court settlement, so as to create an enabling environment to work.

Basically, we settled out of court on the agreement that the accrued royalties of 12.5 million naira was going to be paid and also agreed to review the rent and royalties to meet the present economic situation. At the same time, I told them that we are ready to meet the demands of the people, but on the part of government, the encroached land should be reclaimed. The court agreed that the said rent and royalties be paid in December of the same year. In a nutshell, these terms of agreement were reached between government and landlord communities and became the consent judgement of the court binding on both parties. I set out to do a Cocoa allocation exercise bearing in mind the existing distribution of the cocoa to loyalists as settlements.

As a matter of policy, I wrote to government to mandate every serious farmer to make advance payment for the four-year period of his first tenure before getting the allotted plots of cocoa. Prior to my taking over as SA in the first tenure, I realised that landlords were owing government money.

One of the things I did was recovery of funds from defaulting farmer to the tune of 17 million Naira. It did not go without a challenge because I stepped on toes of many politicians, who held cocoa farms as political largesse and refused to pay government fees.

 

With all said and done, I did an allocation that was credible and largely accepted by the people of the state. It was the best in the history of cocoa allocation because I did thorough verification to ascertain the actual number of plots and the genuine farmers occupying those plots. For the first time, we realised a whopping sum of 249 million Naira. These funds were paid to Cross River State Cocoa Project account domiciled with the state government. Nobody, except the government had access to that account. I can beat my chest with pride that the Internal Revenue Service and the office of the Accountant General attested that it was the first time the State realised such huge revenue from cocoa. It created massive impact in terms of generating revenue for government and I was happy that it went that well.

This money was used by government to do meaningful projects in the state. Other things like COVID-19 also distracted the government from paying the 12.5 million as at when due. That situation created a lot of heat for us. But while we were negotiating to pay those monies, I was also developing new plantations, on the then deputy governor's challenge that I will be judged not by the number of cocoa plots I allocate, but by the number of new farms I would have opened, because the Cocoa Estate was opened by Michael Okparain the early. So, they will be moribund.

In order to boost Cocoa production and expansion, we acquire 3800 hectares of land in a conspicuous area in Akin Osomba community and tagged it "Ayade Legacy Cocoa Estate." We were able to raise 10 million improved variety cocoa seedlings of 18 months gestation period. We also took advantage of the cheap labour which was orchestrated by the influx of Cameroonians who had fled their home country because of political and secessionist agendas. We engaged the refugees meaningfully to plant cocoa in the acquired land in Osomba. That period was like an economic boom for the area because the cocoa development activities had a multiplier effect on every other segment of the community. At the end, we successfully established a brand-new Cocoa Estate there, where the then government commissioned it in 2020. The then deputy governor, Prof. Ivara Esu, and former Speaker of the House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. and now Senator Eteng Jonah Williams, led other officials both from the state assembly and executive council, as well as the agriculture committee leadership to the epoch-making event. It was a great achievement for me to have brokered all the deals ranging from land consultation and payment of everything that was required of government. So, if you ask me, that is one of the legacy cocoa estate projects done by a state government after the one done by Michael Okpara over 54 years ago. Apart from that, we also wanted to test the soil type in the southern part of the state against the common notion that cocoa thrives only in the central part of Cross River. The success story of Akin Osomba was a major spur. In CRBC Calabar today, we also have about 1.2 hectares organic demonstration cocoa farm. It has become a seed garden for raising of nurseries and distribution to budding farmers in the southern part of the state. We have testimonies where all the local government chairmen in the south thronged into the demonstration farm to get seedlings for onward planting in their compounds and farmlands. In fact, the demonstration farm has become in recent time a cynosure of cocoa advancement particularly in the southern part of Cross River. Our achievements were so eloquent to have attracted people from Ikom, Etung and Boki to come and learn improved ways of cocoa farming.

We also acquired seven hectares of land in Etara-Ekuri, Etung Local Government Area, for Cocoa expansion. It is there, untouched. In Ndeghe in Akamkpa, 10,000 hectares were also gotten. In Efrumkpa and Ekpiriko in Biase, about 12,000 hectares of land had been given to the government. These are fertile grounds for cocoa expansion.

 

So, while I was busy doing all these things, the royalties issue lingered and some stakeholders in the landlord communities, particularly AIG Joseph Mbu (retired), accused me of embezzling money meant for payment for royalties; but it was not true. In several occasions, I was made to suffer humiliation, intimidation, unlawful detention over my love for Cross River State. One of such was when I was distributing seedlings where the deputy governor was an expected guest. Some fierce-looking men sauntered into the arena, saturated the place with teargas, handcuffed me and sneaked to Alagbon, into an underground cell for over four days. I learned I was arrested on grounds of refusal to pay royalties. Then I asked: "Am I the one to pay royalties as an individual? On intervention, I was released. Photographs of such incidents abound in my handing over notes. These are all the things I passed through as Special Adviser on Cocoa Development and Control to former governor Ben Ayade. Those were the prices I paid for the development of cocoa in Cross River State. I have escaped a lot of assassination attempts because of this royalties conundrum. There were also a lot of attacks on cocoa farmers by irate youths for payment of royalties. The landlord communities having tried all ways to no avail resorted to diabolical means. If not for God, I will not be alive today. There was arson to some sections of the estate. I had to use armed security operatives to combat them. Landlord Communities through their leaders invoked voodoo on the said land for me to die if I refuse to pay royalties. With all these, what else would I have done? So, I had to resolved that my achievements would mean nothing if I do not pay royalties to my people. I made efforts to the government that these royalties be paid, but due to bureaucratic bottlenecks, it delayed. And upon my return from detention, I sought redress in court, won the case and awarded 50 million Naira compensation for violation of fundamental human rights. The Paramount Ruler of Etung LGA, Ntufam Emmanuel Oru Ojong, who was also accused of collecting money meant for royalties from me, was fought and suspended by the same cabal fighting me. He also went to court, and today he has been reinstated back as the Paramount Ruler. The petition was written by former chairman, Hon. John Nkom Etuk. We dealt with only those from the landlord communities who had the power of attorney, headed by AIG Njangor Egbe. It rumbled on and on. So, I wrote a letter to the governor, drawing his attention to the need to pay royalties to landlord communities through the SmartGov platform. I prayed him for a six years extension to cocoa allocation to enable us clear the backlog of royalties (12.5m) owed by Liyel Imoke's administration, the sum accepted in the review judgement and further payment of six years upfront.

The good thing about the proposal was that funds meant for payment of royalties would be fairly and duly shared among the landlord communities through the SmartGov platform. After the whole computation of the financial implications, the money amounted to about 185 million Naira in all. So, if we would have done allocation, we would have paid royalties for 22 years (eight years of Liyel Imoke, eight years of Ayade and four years upfront) to create an enabling environment for the government to engage in massive development of cocoa, because it would have eradicated distractions stemming from royalties and rent. The SmartGov platform was an alternative source of getting money from the people to pay the people.

I had discussed it with the stakeholders of the landlord communities before meeting the governor. They agreed and supplied a unified account number for such payment. The SmartGov was set up to automatically pay 49 percent of revenue generated from cocoa allocation to landlord communities from payments by allotees. SmartGov came to stop money going into the bottomless pit, as it was hitherto the case. And after due approval, I settled down and ensured that allocations were done as approved by government and even went ahead to resolve other lingering matters in court, with terms of settlement duly signed by landlord communities and government (Suit 73/2023). And in 2023, in a consent judgement, in the state high court, Ikom, signed by the Attorney general and landlord communities mandating government to pay royalties without further delay.

So, we came about the SmartGov platform to enhance transactions between government and landlord communities. So those who paid for cocoa allocation did so to government pay direct platform and not Oscar Ofuka. As they pay, the money splits and both parties have their documents to it. So far, as at the time of handing over, we had realised about 72 million Naira into that account as allocations from a little above 1000 hectares out of the over 4000 hectares of cocoa plots. So, we still have over 3000 hectares unallocated. I have separated what is yet to be allocated for the new administration to handle. From what we have done, landlord communities have received about 37 million Naira. I have never been closer to previous commissioners because they were selling government land to people. Remember the 32 hectares that was sold to one Mark Prince? We resorted to court to retrieve the property courtesy of our efforts.

In your tenure, how much was paid to landlord communities?

About 37 million Naira was paid to landlord communities. Documents to that effect abound. There are eight communities all together. The first tranche of the 12.5 million Naira has been shared. And according to the chairman of landlord communities, AIG Njangor Egbe (retired), over 24 million Naira is available in the account awaiting sharing among communities.

This has permanently put the issue of royalties to rest. And with SmartGov, there is no way government can owe landlord communities anymore, because the court ruled that whatever is due landlord communities must be channelled through the SmartGov.

Is royalties’ payment done annually or per allocation?

It was initially paid by the number of hectares landlord communities donated to government. It was supposed to be yearly payment. But over the years, there were two challenges. Because farmers refused to pay allocation fees and landlord communities were at same time asking for royalties. They calculated all those years of noncompliance into the arrears of royalties.

But we did not mind, because we needed to forge ahead. So, my initiative of four years payment was to not allow farmer to owe government anymore. As at today, we have made reasonable payment to them and still has available over 3000 hectares of cocoa plots that if properly managed by the new administration, will surpass what we have done. If within this short period, we were able to pay such amount, it is not about Oscar Ofuka. It is about enforcement of court orders. So, when people I read about people saying government should compel Ofuka to refund monies paid in connection to cocoa allocation, I become embarrassed and start thinking that people are not really following what is happening. Remember, we were only enforcing orders of the court. I was dragged before the House of Assembly, by Hon. Chris Njah Mbu-Ogar to explain why we are continuing allocation at the expiration of our tenure. I told them it was not about Ofuka or Ben Ayade, but about the government of Cross River and the people owed royalties.

The new administration should manage the available 3000 plus hectares of cocoa plots. If you ask me, I would say the cocoa estate should be de-politicised. Government should source for qualified administrative officers to handle things. If you bring people based on politics, they will say we worked for the government. Government must avoid individuals who think the Cocoa Estate is a political largesse. Government needs people who are willing to sacrifice for the development of cocoa to handle affairs pertaining to cocoa in the state.

This estate was raised over 50 years ago by Michael Okpara, and since then, nothing has been done to develop the now moribund cocoa estate. The cocoa trees are crying for investment and rehabilitation. That was why we spent all our time trying to rehabilitate the estate.

Before I came, there were no motorable roads through the estate. You have to meander through track and trees. Now, you can see the difference. Today Cross Rivererians own cocoa farms courtesy of our efforts. I raised millions of cocoa seedlings and planted, but the distraction in the cocoa sector is a big problem. Cross River State has the potentials to become the largest producer of cocoa in the world, because of the comparative advantage of cocoa growing anywhere in the state.

Expatriates, agriculture experts traced me to the plantations to see the magic I was doing. It is shocking that today people are doubting the fact that anything was done in Akin Osomba. I have made laudable inroads and left remarkable footprints for the new administration to forge ahead. The administration must act against the revenue infractions by the Cocoa Association of Nigeria in the state.

Let us look at the point you made on Cross River taking over from Ivory Coast as largest cocoa producer.

We have the potentials already. What is needed is the passion and commitment and political will to catapult Cross River into the leading position in cocoa production. If without funding I could achieve all these, then with the right funding, Cross River will become the leader among the comity of cocoa producing states and nations.

How did you manage to run your office without funding?

We managed from the peanuts from cocoa development levies created by the state, initially to run offices, but there was contention from Cocoa Association of Nigeria, saying it was their initiative. Two years after, they came with an exparte order restraining collection, but I also went to court to argue about it and at the end prevailed over CAN. So, for two years they have been collecting the money. In the twilight of my leadership of cocoa, I went to seek a contempt of court orders against CAN. So, I went out of the comfort zone sourcing for financial support everywhere possible. With the help of the media, we were able to get little support here and there. In a nutshell, our cocoa is far richer than any other. The test run of the cocoa chocolate in the cocoa processing factory in Ikom had experts saying that the products were of greater medicinal and nutritional value. It is proven that cocoa reduces blood pressure drastically. The cocoa value chain is massive and capable of producing over 34 products. My call on Cross Rivererians from Bakassi to Obanliku to support cocoa production.

We have all it takes to take the lead in cocoa production. With our improved variety of 18 months gestation period and the viability of the seeds, if commensurate attention is given, then I can say that Cross River would take the lead. I want to call on the Governor Bassey Otu-led administration to bring up a Cocoa farming scheme in Akansoko, Akpabuyo Local Government Area for youths to hone their involvement in agriculture