How Agitation for Pension Arrears May’ve Led to Demolition of Benue Retiree’s 25-Yr-Old Business

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The main portion of Mrs Adegbe's entertainment joint at Kenville Park and Garden being demolished.
  • I Was the Target, Retiree Alleges, Demands N6m Compensation

By Amos Aar, Makurdi

THE recent demolition of a popular garden, popularly known as Kenville Park, located at High Level Roundabout; Makurdi is currently generating controversy in the state capital following cries of a Proprietress of an entertainment spot, Mrs Ann Adegbe, who has declared that the demolition was targeted at sabotaging her business and not for any constituency project as claimed by the government.

In the aftermath of the demolition, the Benue State Commissioner of Information, Culture and Tourism, Hon. Mike Inalegwu, had stated that Kenville Park was demolished to pave the way for a constituency project embarked upon by Hon. Benjamin Mzondu, who represents Makurdi/Guma federal constituency at the House of Representatives.

The main portion of Mrs Adegbe’s joint at Kenville Park and Garden being demolished.

Contrary to the commissioner’s narrative, Mrs Adegbe, alleged in an interview with National Record, that she was the main target of the demolition as other entertainment joints operating inside Kenville Park were left untouched by the demolition squad.

“See, my son, they say when you can’t fight something, you give chance to them. Just as you came talking to me, that’s how they came and said that the federal government has taken over the place to build lawn tennis court. I asked them why they did not give me notice but came straight to demolish my shop. I asked because I didn’t occupy the shop illegally; it was properly allocated to me; our documents, everything, are there for anyone to see.

“This park was formerly under Urban Development Board before it was transferred it to Culture and Tourism. So, in the beginning we started by paying a ground rent of two thousand five hundred naira (N2,500); from N2,500 it was increased to N5,000, then to N30,000 and now to N200,000.

“It was with Urban Development Board that I signed agreement, but later when Culture and Tourism took over control of the park, we signed a lease agreement to operate inside the park for 15 years renewal after that. So, last year, my lease agreement expired and that’s how these people came in without giving me notice. The Engineer just came and asked me to pack my things or else bulldozer would come.

 

A sideview of Mrs Adegbe’s joint before demolition.

“I went and told Commissioner of Information, Culture and Tourism that this is what is happening and I did not have any money on me to even pack my load. But I told him that if they compensate me with six million naira (N6,000,000), I would not talk again. But they said the federal government was responsible for the contract and they didn’t give them money for compensation.

“The Commissioner pitied me and gave me five hundred thousand naira (N500,000) which I used to pack my loads. See me sitting here like a Church rat! I don’t have anything. They said they would not compensate me because my lease had expired. Unfortunately for us, before we signed the agreement with the Urban Development Board, which was inherited by Culture and Tourism, we were verbally told that if they want us to pack out, they would give us six months’ notice. This was not written in the agreement, it was only verbal.

“I have stayed there for over 25 years from 1995 to 2022 and they wanted me to just pack from there because they felt I had stayed long and made a lot of money,” Mrs Adegbe narrated.

Mrs Agbede, who maybe in her early 60s, also alleged that before the demolition, a faction of pensioners falsely accused her of stealing 350 chairs belonging to them and they consequently dragged her to court. Asked why they accused her of the alleged theft, Mrs Adegbe said the pensioners alleged that she is a member of a faction of pensioners union fighting government over unpaid pension arrears. When asked what created the faction and whether the other group of pensioners was being paid their money, Mrs Adegbe said she did not know.

While National Record was making efforts to speak with the faction of pensioners that sued Mrs Adegbe to hear the side of the allegation, our correspondent gathered that the case came up on Thursday, 17th March, 2022 at a Makurdi High Court and the counsel to the claimants had withdrawn Mrs Adegbe’s name as a defendant in the suit on the grounds that her shop was completely demolished and she had no other means of livelihood.

Constituency project’s contractors at work inside Kenville Park after the demolition.

Speaking to our correspondent shortly after the court sitting, counsel to Mrs Adegbe, I. O. Alubo (Esq), was livid over the allegation. “Why did you allege that somebody did this and did that while you have not held that person? You carry a bulldozer and bulldozed her business premises and you say they should still revoke her payment? I was ready for them, I came battle-prepared but they had discharged her,” Mr Alubo said.

When asked whether he had linked the demolition with the alleged theft of chairs and the consequent court case; Mr Alubo replied: “I don’t know because I wanted to tell the court that until this allegation came out, she was there for 25 years but nobody came and bulldozed her place. So it can be inferred that the demolition can be linked to her agitation for the payment of pension arrears.”

Asked if Mrs Adegbe would take action against those who defamed her, Mr Alubo was not clear on the next action to take. “If they are willing to take the matter up, fine, I’m ready. They defamed her character and they went contrary to the terms of contract of that place. She was entitled to some months’ notice before she would leave there. If she was the one leaving on her own, she was supposed to give the government some notice, if the government was the one driving her away, they will give her six months’ notice. Imagine that kind of thing! But if she says I should not go on, I will not go on otherwise I can sue whatever authority did that.”

More Confusion as Urban Development Board Halts Work on Kenville Park   

There was more drama and confusion on the demolition on Wednesday, 16th March, 2022 when the Benue State Urban Development Board directed the contractor to stop ongoing work on the constituency project at the park.

Saint Abrahams Gbilekaa, the General Manager of Urban Development Board, told journalists that he personally gave the directive because he was not aware of any constituency project arrangement from the federal government.

Saint Abrahams Gbilekaa, the General Manager, Benue State Urban Development Board.

“I don’t know the position of Commissioner for Information on this matter, but based on the information I have received, a member of the House of Assembly approached me and asked me to give them time to carry out this project which he claimed is a constituency project.

“I think there are due processes, I don’t know the role of Information in this matter, but he should also know that the Urban Development Board is saddled with the responsibility of giving approvals to all structures’ development and so if people are doing such a capital project in Benue under a department where I am the General Manager, I think I should also know; what the project is for and who is handling the project so that if for instance, the Governor asks me what is going on, I should be able to give him update for me not look very incompetent.

“I just got to know about the project on Friday and I sent somebody to come and mark it. He came and served them and I am here this morning to ensure that the right thing is done. What I have done at the moment is to mark the place and to ask all the workers at site to quit the job pending when everything will be tackled legally,” the General Manager told journalists.

Asked what would happen if they continued with the work after he left, Gbilekaa responded: “The law is explicit on these issues, we have served them and we are asking them to stop work. But if they don’t stop work after thirty (30) days, we will demolish it; we have the right and powers to demolish it. If you can recall when we went to North Bank, we served them notice and they failed to oblige. We went and demolished it. So I don’t think my organisation is a toothless bulldog that anybody will claim can’t bite. At least under my time, whatever I said we were going to do, we did.

Gbilekaa (in the middle) at the project site to stop ongoing work.

“This is a Park and Garden, we need to look at the kind of structure they want to raise here and for what.”

On whether his directive might pitch him against the governor, the General Manager asked” “How? Is governor the General Manager of Urban Development [Board]? I have no friction with the governor and our functions are different. The governor is the Chief Executive of the state; he appointed me to oversee the affairs of Urban Development Board and so if there’s any issue he knows about it, he can always call me and say, GM, please, I have interest in this matter, it’s an Executive Fiat. But where the governor is unaware of an existing matter in the state concerning urban development and I am not also aware, it means therefore that the people who are doing that are saboteurs.

“At the moment, we are asking them to show us all the working drawings of this project and why they must not register with the Benue State Government. I have the power to give them approval; you can’t go to Nasarawa and do what people are doing in Benue. Politics cannot be interwoven in everything we are doing and whatever we are doing, there are processes. This is a professional matter, we are not asking them to stop the work, we are not asking them to leave Benue, we are asking them where are your building drawings because based on the information I have received, the Commissioner for Information has given them approval and after the commissioner has given them the approval, they are supposed to come to Urban Development to say these are our working drawings, give us approval. I think we are not under the Ministry of Information and even if we are under them, we are autonomous.

“We don’t know the people that are working here, so we can’t just allow people to come in with different intentions and bring it to bear on the Benue State Government. Even if the governor is the one doing this, he would let me know, he would always call and say GM, this is what we are doing.”

I’ve not been briefed on stoppage of work – Hon. Mzondu

When contacted for reactions on the stoppage of the constituency project by the General Manager of Urban Development Board, Hon. Benjamin Mzondu, the member representing Makurdi/Guma federal constituency, said he was yet to receive briefing to that effect and would revert to National Record as soon as possible. Hon. Mzondu was reminded through text message two days after his promise and asked if he was ready to respond, but he was yet to do so as at press time.

What the Commissioner said prior to demolition

Before the demolition exercise, the Commissioner of Information, Culture and Tourism, Hon. Mike Inalegwu had stated: “I want you to get this clear, every Senator, every House of Representatives member all have what they call constituency projects. Some people will give their own outside their state of origin, some people will give their own to a federal university, and some will give their own to federal polytechnic or federal school of health science outside their place.

Stop work marked boldly on the structure being constructed.

“But the member representing Makurdi/Guma federal constituency was privileged to have N49.98 million federal grant for his constituency and it’s left for him to choose which one he will use that money for. He graciously gave the name of Kenville Peace Park that the place should be modernised.

“The arrangement is that a federal institute will now take over that job and award it to a contractor on his behalf. So, this project was awarded to Energy Resources Company Ltd. to construct that place to a modern system and hand over same to the Ministry of Information to continue managing as we were managing the place before.

“It’s not the property of the member; it’s not the property of the contractor. So, this letter was sent to the ministry in July last year to commence the job and as you know, every government is looking for something that will beautify its town. A sum of N25 million was released to the contractor. Myself and the Permanent Secretary are new in this ministry, so when the letter came asking us why we had not given them the lease authority to commence the job, we went through the file and we discovered that they applied for almost a year and this job has a timeline. If you don’t start the job before the end of March, the total money will be refunded to the federal government and it is going to be a loss to the Benue State Government and people of the state that are supposed to enjoy that facility.

“For record purpose, we now went through their drawings, the letter of award and all the documentary evidence and the ministry became satisfied that the only way for us is to hasten it up so that the job would start in earnest, unknown to us that they had already sent various quit notices to the occupant of the place and we now demanded to know what precedent to their staying there, only to discover that it was on a temporary arrangement and the agreement states that they should give you notice within the shortest period and ask you to vacate the place. But if your own has expired, you can be informed any day any time to leave if it has not been renewed.

“So, all the people there, their lease agreements have already expired but the government is so concerned because some of them use that place as their source of livelihood. So we invited all of them and explained to them that our hands are tied, the state is desirous of a befitting beautiful place and we cannot use our hard earned resources to build when there is certain money released to the contractor. So the drawing is that they are going to build 5×5 football pitch, there will be lawn tennis court, volleyball court, toilet, standby 50KVA generator, parking space, a place for indoor games, scrabble, shell, draft and all that they have been doing there.

“So the only thing is that there is going to be a temporary site that people are not to be using some of the facilities that they were using there before. Like the woman that has that Kenville; she started since 1992 which is 25 years ago. We told her that by tomorrow (01/03/2022) they will pull the building down. The women that just left my office, they are the owners of those containers, they came with their own documents and we saw that it has all expired. What we are to do in the interim is to tell them to remove the containers to another site because there is going to be a fence round the place and there will be a high perforated barbed wire so that if you shoot your ball, it will not go to the main road and there will be a total illumination round the place for all night activities. That is the whole thing.

“The place was not sold to the member representing Makurdi/Guma federal constituency as speculated by some persons. All we have to tell you is that it was the federal government that gave that place as constituency project to the House member.

“So gentlemen, I want you to educate the people about all that you heard about government selling the place, it is false and it is a calculated attempt to spoil the name of this Government.”

Asked whether there will be compensation for the woman who built a structure on the site, the commissioner said there will be no compensation because nobody was given a lease by the state government to use the place and there was no structural design, they only permitted people to utilize the place on temporary basis.

He said: “The building was there before this contract and we even invited her that having gotten this contract to be executed, that her building is at the risk of being demolished. But in an event that the design does not affect it, people can use it as a restaurant to serve that place in the interim. But in the event that it encroaches on the building, it means she has to shift it to another place. Even the people that came today, in order not to send them out of that place permanently and then they will be out of job and their family will suffer at the end of the day when they get the layout properly done, the remaining place will now be used to do what we called a befitting store where people are going to lease their names and we will have to allocate it to them to continue with their business because there is no money anywhere. So we are not out to deprive anybody of his or her livelihood.

“I want to assure you that no permission was given to that woman to build anything before the takeover of this place. I can avail you the documents then you will see the time she built that place and the time the award was given to the contractor.

“We did not give anybody lease to use that place. If you like, go and check their papers, there was nothing like structural design. We said go and utilise that place on temporary basis and the word temporary means you can remove it anytime. So we did not enter into agreement with anybody and so there will be no compensation for anybody. The contractual agreement was not done between the Ministry and the contractor, the agreement was done between the federal government and the contractor and there was no provision for compensation.

“It was assumed to be a free place donated by the member representing Makurdi/Guma federal constituency. So we are mindful of the woman’s care of that place, most of the trees there were planted by her and she took care of that place. But citeris paribus, she has also benefited for that 25 years, whatever she put there, she might have recovered it for the past 25 years. So, if she built 10 storey building there, it is at her own peril, nobody approved that for her.

“The contractor was gracious enough and said that for her to pack her loads out of that place, this is N500,000 and she came here this morning and said her husband later phoned that she should not collect the money. I said go and call the legal officer of the ministry. The legal officer came and they opened the agreement that they purportedly said they gave her. I said let the legal officer and herself go through it, the legal officer pointed out that this is a temporary approval and you can be excited anytime. I said Madam; collect your money and go. It is not our duty but we prevailed on the contractor, he said N100,000 I said no, he said N200,000, I said no, he said N300,000 and I said please, if you don’t want this woman to collapse give her N500,000.

“The woman herself said she did not want to continue with that business because none of her children was helping her and by her age, she could not involve in it again. So anything we give her let her go. I said we in this ministry, we don’t have anything to give her because our contractual agreement with her did not involve giving her anything. But we can tell the contractor to give her something to pack out on time. So that is it.”

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