Community sacks Julius Berger: Demands over N400m damages for destruction of property

*as Calabar-Itu Highway suffers major setback

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A community in Akwa Ibom State, Ekim Itam village in Itu local government area of Akwa Ibom State has halted further construction works in their portion of the ongoing Calabar-Odukpani-Itu-Ikot Ekpene Highway.

Ekim Itam community on Tuesday, December 1, invoked traditional injunction on the affected portions, planting palm fronts on the company’s equipments.

Images of Julius Berger’s equipment being decorated with traditional injunction

Trouble started earlier in 2019 when Julius Berger started construction works without drains on the Ikot Ukap-Ekim Itam section of the Highway.

Ekim Itam, a sloppy community, on October 8, 2019, wrote a letter of complaint to the Project Manager of Julius Berger Plc., Itam Industrial Estate, through their village council.

The letter addressed lack of drains in Ikot Ukap and Ekim Itam section, which could cause flood that might eventually destroy people’s houses, farmlands and that the drains at Ekim Itam junction was directed to their source of natural drinking water, “Eford Ekim” and “Iso Idim Ekim”.

The letter prayed Julius Berger to immediately remedy the situation, especially with the construction of drains on both sides of the road.

Speaking with our correspondent, the Village Council Chairman, Elder Emmanuel Uya noted that the letter which was signed by himself; the Acting Village Head, Chief Effiong Uya; the Village Council Secretary, Mr. Attah J. Emmah and a community leader, Chief Bernard Ekpenyong, neither received action from the company nor from the Federal Ministry of Works.

Elder Emmanuel Uya noted that due to threatening signs, the village council was compelled on May 19, 2020, to also write the federal government, through the Federal Ministry of Works.

The council expressed displeasure at the devastating cause of flood, asking government to “cause the company to construct drains on both sides of the road” and “pay compensation to those whose property were damaged” and then “provide alternative source of drinking water.”

Elder Emmanuel Uya, in an interview, told our correspondent that the company had responded to their second letter by coming to inspect the situation but refused to take precautionary actions.

“I personally took them round to see this. We even went ahead to recommended remedial measures through which this can be averted.

“Their engineers came here and confirmed what we said. They now did the drains and stopped it halfway. As you can see, this Church, Peace Centre Revival Mission has been damaged too”, he said.

As the story goes, the community, through their legal consultant, Great & More Grace Associates, wrote to intimate Julius Berger of “serial destruction of the property of our clients at Ekim Itam Itu, following improper channelling of drainage water on the Calabar-Itu Highway by Julius Berger.”

The letter endorsed by Akpan Malachy Esq, listed 16 natives of Ekim Itam Itu whose “lost properties, chattels, crops, economic trees, and farmlands occasioned by the improper and wrongful and/or diversion of drainage water to the tune of seventy million one hundred and twenty-seven thousand three hundred and eighty-three naira (N70,127,383).

The notification demanded that “Julius Berger should pay the sum to affected persons, failure of which, a legal action will be instituted against them.”

Similarly, the community youth, Ekim Itam Youth Vanguard Development Network on October 15, 2020 channeled their grievances to the Managing Director, Julius Berger Nigeria Plc., Utaka Headquarters, Abuja on “the destruction caused by non proper channelling of rain water.”

The letter which was accented to by the Youth President, Comrade Samuel Umoh and the Secretary, Comrade Idibeke Akpan, called on the company “to take advantage of their calm and mature disposition by compensating the affected persons without further delay.”

Meanwhile, a community leader whose filling station, hotel and residence were ravaged by the flood, Hon. Bernard Ekpenyong, through his solicitor, Nemo Judex Chambers, on November 11, petitioned the office of the Honourable Minister of Works and Housing on the economic hardship he had suffered.

Image of flood ravaged properties in Bernard Ekpenyong’s residence in Ekim Itam, Itu

The Lead Counsel of the chambers, Ernest Akpan, Esq endorsed the petition for Bernard Ekpenyong, together with Mr Abednego John Uwa, Miss Enwongo Bernard Ekpenyong and Miss Emem Edet Antia.

The complainants sought a compensation of “three hundred and fifteen million one hundred and eighty-eight thousand nine hundred and eighty-one naira (N315,188,981.00) to be paid to them not later than one month from the date the letter was issued.

It concluded that the people shall seek a legal action against the company, if they can’t meet the payment obligations.

The petitioner, on November 12, 2020 called on the Akwa Ibom State Police Commissioner, the State Director of Security, Department of State Services, DSS, and the executive governor of Akwa Ibom State, seeking “their prompt intervention to forestall possible breach of peace.”

Emmanuel Uya told newsmen that after the disaster had happened, the community had invited the company for assessment and that their promise to return to make valuations on the damage has not been kept.

He said, “How can a world class company like Julius Berger do this to us? On September 17 when this heavy downpour happened, the whole of this area was flooded. We called them and they came here to see it for themselves.”

“Two weeks had passed without their return. Having reported this issue to relevant government agencies without commensurate action, we decided to invoke this traditional injunction.

“We can only vacate the injunction on two conditions that: the company will continue with the project, pay compensation and damages to affected persons. The special conditions for vacation of a traditional injunction must equally be met.

“We are resolute that this project must be executed. But that doesn’t mean we should become victims of development when we should only be beneficiaries.”

Also speaking, the Managing Director of Ndodu Petroleum, Hon. Bernard Ekpenyong pointed out that all his properties and means of livelihood have been ravaged.

The father of six, including undergraduates and secondary school students, said his filling station, hotel and residence have since been wiped out.

He added that two full loads of 45 liters of petrol tanks have been swallowed up by the flood.

Some of the properties damaged by the flood in Ekpenyong’s hotel

“We have lost over 200 million to this catastrophe. My house my hotel and my filling station are all destroyed, as you can see.

“My Children do not have where to stay. They do not have what to eat. Unfortunately, government is not doing anything. Now we have invited Satan and they are beginning to show up.

“A cross section of the community is affected. That Church there is soaked in this flood. They involved ‘vultures’ to attact me, saying I’m obstructing federal government project.

“Can you imagine that? Do I have the capacity to obstruct government? The project is their occupation and they use the proceeds to take care of their families.

“Why then are they stopping me from my legitimate businesses? They have to pay for this damage before the project continuous”, he said.

Still evidence of flood ravaged properties in Ekpenyong’s residence

In a chat with newsmen at the area, the Acting Youth President of the village, Comrade Idibeke Akpan, said the unfortunate circumstance could have been averted, if the company had done the right thing.

Comrade Akpan said it is time for Julius Berger and the federal ministry of works to come for dialogue for the situation to be resolved.

He reiterated that the community supports the project and want it to be completed in record time.

“It is not an argument that we need the project to be completed in record time. But Julius Berger and the federal ministry of works must come down here and have a round table with us”, he said.

At the vicinity of the filling station, our reporters found no trace of operation, as a deep wide pit was left besides the premium motors meters.

The fence stood with crevices of cracks, even as two 45 litres of petrol tanks had been exhumed because of the flood.

Equipment belonging to Julius Berger were seen at the elevated steep of the sloppy ground some metres away from the mountain.

Some of Julius Berger’s equipment at the suspended operation site

The equipment included one tire excavator, one chain excavator, a smooth roller, a compactor machine, a polimar generator and a GP tank serving as water dispenser.

A security personnel of Julius Berger was seen keeping watch over the equipment as at December 4 when our reporter visited the site

The community gave the assurance that the company’s properties would be safe as members of the community were also keeping watch over it.

All efforts made to reach the Public Relations Officer of Julius Berger, Ndifreke Okoche proved abortive as she did not respond to calls five days to press time.

But reacting to this, the Controller of Works, Federal Ministry of Works, Akwa Ibom State, Engr Nkereuwem Ukpong said the disaster could have been averted, if Mr Bernard Ekpenyong had accepted the construction of the drains in time.

He explained that in spite of the pleas by his humble self, with all the assurances that the compensation would be paid, Ekpenyong had insisted that if no compensation was paid, then the drains would not continue.

Nkereuwem Ukpong on Tuesday, December 8, confirmed to our correspondent that Mr Ekpenyong was only paid for his fence and a diesel meter.

He concede that the drains was one-sided, in line with the topography of the sloppy land at Ekim Itam

He said as a structural engineer, all he did was protect the interest of the federal government whose desire was to deliver quality work with the highest possible cost.

He conceded that the drains from Ikot Ukap had been ended halfway in Ekim Itam.

Ukpong added that he personally argued with the company and caused the extension of the drains

“When they terminated that drainage, I personally asked the contractor to extend it to that culvert across the junction, where there is an outfall and a storm drainage. That’s how to solve problem. But this could not be immediately executed because there were issues.

“Prior to that time, a factory  channeled their water to the road. They have a valley which they could have channeled their water properly. But they chose to turn it to the road and this increased the volume of water.

“That’s the major issue. We tried to reach them, but we couldn’t reach them because their identity was not open.

“We had to redesign the place, take it through frontage of peoples’ houses, especially that filling station. It increased the cost and you know it takes time too.

“What really delay the process was the argument by the owner of the filling station, Bernard Ekpenyong. He said his properties was going to be damaged so I called the enumeration consultant to determine the level of damage and the corresponding valuation.

“He did the work and gave me the details. You know money takes time to be processed. I personally begged him to allow us continue as the payment would be made as soon as possible. But he said no.

“I made him see the circumstances we were into and what would be the inevitable effect. But he insisted.

“I left afterwards and it was not long when rain fell and he called me around 2:00am. In fact, I was still pursuing his possible payment as at the time this happened.

“Truth is, we couldn’t have been able to avert the flood, if someone stopped us from working, on the basis of compensation.

Asked why the drains from Ikot Ukap was not linked to the ongoing one in Ekim Itam, Engr Ukpong stated that “when construction is ongoing, it is wrong to link the drains as it would affect the ongoing construction.”

The Controller said the ministry under his leadership is handicapped about doing anything to improve the situation because a petition has already been forwarded to the minister of works in Abuja.

“Until there is a directive from there, we have no powers to do anything”, he said.

Meanwhile, the Akwa Ibom State Police Public Relations Officer, SP Odiko McDon did not respond to inquiry on what the police is doing to restore law and order.

Similarly, both the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Comrade Ini Ememobong and the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Mr Ekerette Udoh failed to reply to our correspondent on steps being taken by the State government on the matter.

Although the traditional injunction was vacated on Monday, December 7, our correspondent learnt that the project would remain stalled till the issues are resolved.

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