1 December 2012

Nigeria: Palace Expansion Gbong Gwom, Jos Residents Head for Showdown

Jos — The purported move to expand the palace of Gbong Gwom Jos is causing unease among residents of the area. Though the state government says the recent survey of about 50 houses was only done for security reasons, it did little to allay the fears of residents who say they are under intense pressure to sell their homes. Weekly Trust reports that the development is threatening to stir the hornet's nest.

The Farinwata Street is one of the salient areas in Jos North Local Government Area of Plateau State. It is close to the palace of the Gbong Gwom Jos, the paramount ruler of the Berom people, and also home to various ethnic groups, mainly the Hausa, Yoruba and even some Nupe.

The street is also located off the popular and densely populated Masallacin Juma'a Street where a number of Igbo merchants sell their electronics. It is as a result of this that business owners in the area and passersby panicked on Monday, November 26, 2012 when they noticed a large group of residents flocking outside their homes and surrounded by heavy military presence. The soldiers, who came in six hilux vans and an armoured tank, were accompanied by officers of the Special Task Force (STF) paraded the area in their usual ready-for-action regalia and blocked major junctions. Their mission was simple! To ensure that there was no breakdown of law and order in the area.

The residents of Farinwata Street said their reason for trooping out was in protest of a letter sent to them from the Gbong Gwom's palace, indicating that a group of quantity surveyors from the Plateau State government were directed to survey their property. The residents alleged that the government has for long harboured the plan to demolish their houses to make way for the expansion of the Gbong Gwom's palace.

The letter dated November 14, 2012 and signed by Silas Dong, Principal Admin Officer of the Gbong Gwom, informed the residents that the surveyors were expected to survey their property on Monday November 26, 2012 around 8:00am.

In a swift response to the letter, members of the community called an urgent meeting and the owners of the houses involved in the exercise individually replied the palace intimating the Gbong Gwom Jos Dr. Jacob Gyang Buba of their displeasure, stressing that their homes were not for sale. They went further to distribute the letters to the office of the state Commissioner of Police, the Special Task Force (STF), the state command of the State Security Service (SSS) and urged them to be present on the stated date to ensure that security in the state was not breached.

Segun Baba, a member of the community whose home was marked for survey, told Weekly Trust that "I am not interested in the initiative and I don't want the state government to survey my property, because I have no intention of selling it or moving from here."

The youth leader in Farinwata community Ibrahim Adam who was also served with a notification from the palace, told Weekly Trust that "after we had replied the Gbong Gwom, we met and decided to distribute the letters to the office of the Commissioner of Police, Special Task Force (STF), the state command of the State Security Service (SSS) and we explained to them that we are not willing to sell our homes and we will not allow any quantity surveyor into our homes. That is probable why the STF deployed security men in order to make sure that there is no breakdown of law and order."

But the Plateau State Government through the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development immediately released a statement the next day, saying the affected houses where those overlooking into the palace compound and that the survey was aimed at checking and addressing potential weakness to the safety of civil and traditional institutions.

The statement which was signed by the Commissioner for Housing and Urban Development Engineer Solomon Maren also said the survey was a re-assessment of the property earlier assessed in 2004-2005 by previous administrations, but for which compensation where not paid. Maren further stressed that the action of "government has been determined by the over-riding public interest of national security, safety of lives and property, preservation of revered public institutions and good governance."

Eearlier on, Special Adviser to the Plateau State Governor on Media, Ayuba Pam, told reporters that "for now I can't tell if there is any plan to demolish the houses, but if there is, it should be noted that the matter was decided during former Governor Joshua Dariye's administration. If that happens then the houses will be demolished and the residents will be evacuated to give way for the expansion of the palace."

Pam said the survey was a normal routine in order to "clear the area to give a befitting palace for the Gbong Gwom and there is nothing wrong in doing that."

However, not everyone believes the action of the state government is innocent. Some community members argued that there are ulterior motives and that their homes predate the Gbong Gwom's palace, which they said, was first established as office - not palace.

"In fact, history has it that the office used to be the first fuel station in Jos and also the office of the District Officer (DO) which was later converted to the Gbong Gwom's palace," said one of the residents of the area. "The left side of the Gbong Gwom's office used to be the Jos North Local Government Secretariat with a C. Division police station and a magistrate court," he added.

Weekly Trust, however, learnt that though the C. Division police station and magistrate courts are still within the palace compound, in 2007, soon after Governor Jonah David Jang came to office, the Jos North Local Government Secretariat which was situated by the left side of the palace was relocated to the building housing the Jos Metropolitan Development Board (JMDB) ahead of the then 2007 Local Government Council elections.

This decision, it was further learnt, did not go down well with some residents in the state who claimed that the secretariat was a historical monument built during the time of the colonial masters, accommodating the first elementary school that produced many personalities, court rooms, the Native Authority police station and prison cells and so should not be demolished.

However, five years later, residents of Farinwata say the state government has been unable to actualize that expansion plan despite sacking the LGC secretariat and now the attention of the government has shifted to residential houses in the area.

Weekly Trust observed that home to the late Malam Muhammad Bello Farinwata, believed to be one of the first health superintendents (duba gari) in Jos city and whose name the street bears, is also marked in the survey by the state government. Though now late, Malam Bello Farinwata's descendants, still live in the house which was built in 1902.

Eldest son of the late Farinwata, 87-year-old Alhaji Gambo Farinwata, who now resides in Sokoto, told Weekly Trust on phone that his late father's house was the first house to be built in the area and predates the present Gbong Gwom's palace. He explained that the family has no plan of selling the house because apart from being the only home they know, the house is equally a historical monument which should not be destroyed.

According to him, "I don't have any home apart from the one on Farinwata Street. It is our home and it is a historical artifact, so why should the palace or state government want to destroy it?"

Though the state government has cited issues of security for the palace as the main reason why it is assessing the property on Farinwata Street, members of the community argue that hardly can any government establishment boast of the security protection accorded the palace since the C. Division police station is enclosed within the same compound as the palace. Malam Zakari, another resident in the area, said "there is a C. Division police station inside the Gbong Gwom's palace and the question is has he ever been attacked? What kind of security do they need that they have to displace people from their homes, because the Gbong Gwom says he wants to expand his palace?"

Zakari, who lives in one of the storey buildings, revealed that the palace has high fences in which other houses could not see through the compound except for the storey buildings. He explained that "last year all the women in the house were arrested by the police, because someone had poured some refuse through the back window into the gutter behind our house. The gutter is between our fence and the Gbong Gwom's fence and since then we were asked to permanently seal all windows facing the palace."

According to him, "all windows facing the palace have been sealed off so there is no way we can see into the compound, there is no house at the moment overlooking into the compound."

Another argument from some members of the community who wouldn't give their names is that the area houses the homes of some of the earliest founders of Jos city such as the late Muhammad Bello Farinwata and Malam Malami Mai Doki, and that the assessment was only a ploy by the state government to ensure that their historical homes are wiped off the map of the city.

They claimed that the Gbong Gwom, who was always at his Du home, hardly visits the palace unless on rare occasions adding that they were not against a befitting palace for the traditional ruler but urged the government not to do it at their expense.

As dust continues to rise over the issue, members of Farinwata community insist they will head to court if the state government or the palace insists on ejecting them from their homes. "We cannot fight the government but they should be rest assured that we will go to court and let the courts settle the matter," Malam Zakari said.

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