ONGOING efforts by Dangote Coal Mines Ltd to reach mutual out-of-court settlement with its host community of Akpali in a recent litigation on compensation over community land on which the company is currently mining coal may have hit a brick wall and could linger for months to come.

Investigations by National Record indicate that Dangote Coal Mines Ltd recently pulled out of the out-of- court negotiation following what it felt was unreasonable demands by representatives of Akpali, a rural community in Ugbokolo Ward of Okpokwu LGA of Benue State.

When contacted upon getting the hint of the out-of-court settlement, one of the counsel to the litigants told National Record in unequivocal terms that they were not aware of any such move from either Dangote Coal Mines Ltd or the community.

The counsel, who pleaded anonymity on the ground that he had not contacted any of the five claimants in the matter simply said: “We are proceeding with our case in court; I’m not aware of their plans but they can settle anytime they want to; it is their case.”

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Trucks being uploaded by payloaders at the mining site in Effeche-Akpali

Matter Struck out of Court
Meanwhile, our correspondent gathered that the Presiding Judge in the matter, Honourable Justice D.E. Igoh of the Okpoga Judicial Division of the Benue State High Court, struck out the case on November 17, 2020 claiming lack of jurisdiction to entertain it.

When asked on the decision of the court, counsel to the claimants stated that the matter is being re-filed at the Federal High Court in Makurdi.

When National Record persisted on information available to it that the delay in filing the case at the Federal High Court in Makurdi was due to the ongoing settlement talks, the counsel insisted not being aware of the effort. “I said we’re not aware. Unless they let us know. It is their right to settle while the case is ongoing,” the lawyer stated, adding: “If Dangote approaches us for settlement, of course we will give them the opportunity to do so.”

According to him, declining jurisdiction is like transferring the case to a court that has jurisdiction, and therefore does not affect the merit of the case in any way.

He said the process for re-filing the case, in which the community is claiming from Dangote Coal Mines Ltd the sum of N500 million, is at the moment being perfected at the Federal High Court, Makurdi. Asked when the process of filing will end, the counsel said: We’re still on it. Re-filing of the matter has commenced, but not concluded yet.”

According to the official, before embarking on the exploration, officials of Dangote sought and got the consent of the community to allow exploration to first confirm whether there is enough mineral deposit to mine or not.

 

 

 

Dangote states side of the story
While acknowledging that dragging the case to court was unfortunate, highly placed sources at the site of Dangote Coal Mines Ltd in Effeche-Akpali and at the Corporate Communications Department of Dangote Group, disclosed to National Record that litigation with host communities is not one of the corporate philosophies of the Dangote brand.

Pleading anonymity as he is not authorised to speak on behalf of Dangote Group, a highly placed official at the mining arm of Dangote Group said: “Dangote is not a company that would want to antagonise or go into any legal battle with any community or individual.”

According to the official, before embarking on the exploration, officials of Dangote sought and got the consent of the community to allow exploration to first confirm whether there is enough mineral deposit to mine or not.

The consent, our correspondent gathered, was signed in the compound of Chief Joseph Moro, the Clan Head of Akpali Community. Chief Moro was a principal claimant in the litigation that was declined by the Benue State High Court on November 17.

According to the company, after the confirmation that there was sufficient coal deposit for commercial exploration, Chief Moro also presided in the ceremony for the signing of the Community Development Agreement, along with Mr Sunday Agbidi, the President General of Akpali Ai-Agbidi Development Association and other community officials as well as the community’s lawyer, Barrister Obande. The ceremony, our source said, was properly documented with photographs.

According to our source, problem soon arose after the ceremony because of the sharing of the compensation money paid to the community, and that when attempts were made to draw Dangote into the problem, the company vehemently resisted it.

“They tried to draw us into the matter but we told them that no, when Dangote paid compensation to communities, it is usually left to the community leaders to determine who gets what.

“We have two categories of beneficiaries – the individual farmers, which Benue State Ministry of Land and Survey met on their farms, took their names and enumerated them against their crops and economic trees and so on. It is on these records that they will be compensated. We have no problem with that.

“But there is another compensation due to the community because they said their land is communally-owned. The compensation for this communally-owned land is what has been bringing problem between us and the Chief of Effeche. They tried to drag us in and we told them, we cannot come in; your cheque has been delivered to you. You should design the format for the various categories in the community; we don’t know who is who in the community. We totally refused to be dragged in. At some point, they fought to the extent that they brought in SARS from Abuja and bundled some people to Abuja, but at the end of it all, they have to come back home,” our source stated.

According to our source, problem soon arose after the ceremony because of the sharing of the compensation money paid to the community, and that when attempts were made to draw Dangote into the problem, the company vehemently resisted it.

Another source at the Corporate Communications Department of Dangote Group, who equally pleaded anonymity corroborated this narrative by stating that Dangote Group gathered from the mining site that the palace of the Och’Idoma intervened in the matter by imploring Akpali Community to meet the District Head of Edumoga, Chief S.S. Abah, to settle the matter as it was not an issue that they should be fighting over and taking themselves to the police.

According to this source, it was while waiting for them to settle that the company was served with the court process from the state’s High Court, Okpoga Division. According to both sources, when the company was served, its officials sought and got appointment with the Och’Idoma, who they said had counselled Chief Moro to go and withdraw the case and settle it amicably.

The sources said even after disregarding the counsel of the Och’Idoma by refusing to withdraw the matter from court, Dangote Group went out of its way and contacted Chief Moro to plead for settlement out of court.

“We summoned a joint meeting because they too agreed that we can settle out of court, and we met with their lawyers and community officials who were part of that case at Okungaga [another community of Akpali located along Otukpo-Enugu Highway]. We explained everything to them, and even their lawyers expressed surprise to say; “is this how the case is?” And we said yes! So the matter, by our own judgment, doesn’t concern Dangote, it is between them in the community to settle,” our correspondent was told.

According to the same source, the community later agreed to hold another meeting, this time with a two-person representative in the person of Chief Moro and Mr Agbidi. At the meeting, Mr Agbidi and Chief Moro tied the withdrawal of the case from court to the payment of N250 million (two hundred and fifty million naira). But upon reading the report of the recommendation at the headquarters of Dangote Group, the source revealed, the management resolved to let the case proceed.

“So, it is them, the community, that refused to settle the matter out of court, not Dangote; no, it is not Dangote,” our source at Dangote Group told our correspondent.

Corroborating this, our source at the mining site stated: “Honestly, Dangote doesn’t want to have issues with communities they operate in; if you see our community development agreement guide, it is stated there; that in case any issue arises between the company and the community, we should dialogue, discuss it instead of using force, instead of going to court. And that is the approach we have been using in all our communities, including in Effeche.

In Odoba [a community in Otukpa, Ogbadibo LGA], we had two or three cases like that but the elders met and they withdrew the cases and said they are not supposed to antagonise the company, that whatever was the problem, the elders can settle it, and those cases were withdrawn and we settled.

“So that is the situation, anybody that says it is Dangote that does not want to withdraw the case, it is not true. What does Dangote gain by pursuing litigation with communities and community leaders?”

Site Office of Dangote Coal Mines Ltd at Effeche-Akpali

“And they told us they were sending our demand to Lagos, their head office. We didn’t hear anything from them again until they appeared in court with SANs. They are doing that because they have the money and we do not have. And they think they can trample on our rights,” Mr Agbidi said.

Community yet to give go-ahead to file case at Federal High Court
When contacted, Mr Sunday Agbidi, the President General of Akpali Ai-Agbidi Development Association; in what is a clear corroboration of the information by our sources at Dangote, said the crisis arose because the compensation for communally-owned land was paid to only Effeche-Akpali and not to the entire Akpali Community, which is composed of four kindred families.

Mr Agbidi acknowledged that though Chief Moro signed the consent agreement to begin the exploration to confirm sufficiency of coal deposit and witnessed the Community Development Agreement, but that when the community’s compensation was paid, he (Chief Moro) was not informed and that the money was paid into the account of only Effeche-Akpali kindred and not to the joint account of the entire Akpali Community. This, he said therefore left the other three kindred families high and dry, a situation which precipitated a crisis in the community and culminated in the litigation at the Okpoga High Court.

“They didn’t say, well, we will pay one, two, three, four million or any amount. They said the community’s offer was going to be transmitted to the company’s head office in Lagos. The only condition they gave us was that we must first withdraw the matter from court but didn’t get back to us to say this is what they can afford to pay.

Contrary to the position of the views of the community lawyer that the matter was being re-filed at the Federal High Court in Makurdi, Mr Agbidi said the community was yet to decide and give its lawyers the go-ahead to do so. He said that that decision will be arrived at during a national meeting of the community association coming up on December 22-23, 2020.

According to the President General, when the company, through its management, approached Chief Moro and him for out-of-court settlement and they proposed the payment of 250 million naira, the company did not make any counter offer.

“They didn’t say, well, we will pay one, two, three, four million or any amount. They said the community’s offer was going to be transmitted to the company’s head office in Lagos. The only condition they gave us was that we must first withdraw the matter from court but didn’t get back to us to say this is what they can afford to pay.

“And they told us they were sending our demand to Lagos, their head office. We didn’t hear anything from them again until they appeared in court with SANs. They are doing that because they have the money and we do not have. And they think they can trample on our rights,” Mr Agbidi said.

On the said intervention by the Och’Idoma who had pleaded for amicable settlement of the case, Mr Agbidi stated that the community was only told of the directive as the community was neither directly spoken to through Chief Moro nor officially written.

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