In parts of northern Nigeria, particularly in Kano and Jigawa States, a Chinese man known by the locals as Mr Lee is as popular as Aliko Dangote, Africa's richest man.
Mr Lee's chain of industries is known collectively as Lee Group of Companies, employing tens of thousands. At one of his factory along Hedejia road in Kano state, known as Asia Plastics, tens of motorcycles are packed by employees who daily depend on the firm to fend for their families.
However, this enterprise happens at the expense of local farmers who bear the misfortune of owning lands in places where the Lee Group operates. And Mr Lee's interest is not in plots of land but in hectares, perhaps given the size and scale of his factories. Over the past four years, Mr Lee and his companies may have secured over 12,000 hectares of farmlands belonging to eight different communities in Jigawa; and in Makole in Kano through alleged coercion and connivance with local chiefs and state authorities.
Sell your land or risk losing it
The people of Garawa Mallam in Gagarawa Local Government Area of Jigawa State are typically Fulani whose settlement is characterised by crop and livestock farming. This particular settlement is off the quiet road in Gunjugu and the only presence of government is a hand pump water borehole and a basic school labelled with the Universal Basic Education (UBE) signage. But for over four years, there has been a disruption in the way of life of the people of Garawa Mallam and eight other communities around it.
This is simply because Mr Lee is, with the assistance of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)'s Anchor Borrowers Scheme, building an experimental sugarcane farm. During a visit by this reporter, the local folks narrated their ordeals in a land-grab scuffle that started four years ago. There are over 2,000 farms belonging to 1,200 farmers all of which sit on some 12,000 hectares of land.
The Chairman of the community, Wada Bello, and some elders recounted experiences in the native Hausa language. According to Mr Bello, it all started in 2015 when representatives of the Lee Group visited their farms and promised to build water channels and mini dams but with a condition of sharing the farmland in the ratio of 1:2 with the bigger half proposed for the visiting investor. The offer was turned down, Mr. Wada said. However, about two years ago, he claimed that some people came to their properties with survey equipment and informed the farmers they were set to begin planting sugarcane on the land. An offer to buy at N100,000 per hectare was made, which was again rejected because the prevailing rate was "between N200,000 to N350,000 depending on the proximity to community and type of soil."
Sitting with affected farmers in Garin Mallam
At this point, Mr Bello got somewhat agitated, saying "attempting to steal our land is like trying to kill us, and when people try to kill you, defending yourself is the only option. Look around the community, we have about three persons who are salary earner, the rest are farmers. It is the crop we plant and sell that we use to feed our children, pay their school fees, and also marry for our grown up."
Appeal to President Buhari
The local chief noted further in an emotional tone, saying: "We are not scared, but we are not ready for violence, we are calling on Baba Buhari (President Muhammadu Buhari); this 50,000 people in this area voted for you, come to our aid, we are calling on international organisations, and foreign government to come to our aid."
Another significant part of the community's story is the intervention of the police which allegedly sided with the Chinese firm. According to Mr Bello, agents of Mr Lee persisted in the invasion of the community with protection from mobile police personnel after a unilateral determination of N40,000 was dangled at the land owners as a 'take it or leave it' compensation.
The local folks ran to the court in search of justice in a matter that has dragged in the courts till date. As at time of this report, April 13 was the last hearing on the case.
In another narration, Ado Idris, a member of the community, said he and five others were arrested by the mobile policemen after they were invited for a meeting over the land. He said they were however released same day even though another folk, Suraji Abdulwasiu, was not that lucky as he was detained for 13 days without trial, after he was picked up for protesting over the land.
The same sad story of the Gayawa Mallam farmers resonates in Gayawa Kano where the people also faced the grim prospect of "sell or forfeit your land." The community which is in the middle of farmlands in Garki Local Government Area has about 50 homesteads and the locals engage in either crop or livestock farming.
Yusuf Ghali, a young man directly affected, stated that they (the farmers) are only allowed to use the land surrounding the community, and nothing more. Anything beyond a specific place is off limit to the community.
In another small settlement just across the fenced farm of Great Northern Agricultural Nigeria Limited, in Gayawa Chiroma, Mallam Haruna Ado was forced to move out of the land after about half of the community accepted terms and conditions for the sale of their land foisted on them by the state government.
The deal meant they had to move their abodes, which were typically made of bamboos, away from the land they had always known and cherished as theirs.
The case in Kano and a judicial intervention...
Along Wudil road, just on the outskirts of Kano city, 192 farmers also had tales of nightmare about the expansionist moves of the Chinese industrialist. According to Ishaku Yahaya, one of the 192 farmers whose lands were forcefully taken in Makole, Kano, the ordeal started during the administration of Ibrahim Shekarau the former governor of the state who is now a senator. He stated that the farmers were called to the home of Yusuf Bayero, the District head of Kudu, who shared N20,000 to each farmer.
"We asked him what is the money for, and he said, just go and spend it; we thought it's the normal 'political money' that we do get but after a while we were called to sign some document; when we inquired, they said it's for our farm lands, that it now belongs to Spanish Nigeria, a company of Mr. Lee.
"We disagreed and subsequently, mobile police were brought in."
Mr Yahaya said the aggrieved farmers took the matter to the late Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero, who asked them to return to their farms since no one had officially purchased the land from them. After the death of the late monarch, Mr Yahaya explained that the agents of the Chinese came back and made offers of between N20,000 and N38,000 to different farmers. He, however, said that the farmers rejected the offers but again mobile policemen were deplored in full force to harass the farmers.
The aggrieved farmers sought help and were able to get a lawyer, Ibrahim Boyi, to offer pro bono legal service to represent them. On November 24, 2016, a High Court in Kano granted an interlocutory injunction restraining the Lee Group and Spanish Nigeria from encroaching on the land. Other defendants in the suit are: Sani Adamu Gano, former House of Representatives candidate, Kano State; Bayero Yusuf, District Head of Dawaki Kudu; Haruna DanZango; Maikudi Gaya (Acting Chairman of Dawaki local government); and the Commissioner of Police.
According to an affidavit deposed by plaintiffs' lawyers dated January 12, 2017, "the 4th Defendant (Maikudi Gaya, the Acting Chairman of Dawaki/Kudu Local Govt) played a great role by using the office of Executive Chairman of DawakI/Kudu Local Government of Kano State with the 3th (Haruna DanZango) and 5th Defendants (Mr. Lee) to request all the plaintiffs to initially intimidate the Plaintiffs sometime back appear at Gidan Hakimi to collect the sum of N20, 000.00 which the 5th Defendant had offered out of pity."
The 3rd and 1st defendants are local politicians, while the Messer Bayero and Gaya are current local head and local chairman respectively in the local community. The commissioner of police, Kano State, was equally joined into the case because, according to the aggrieved farmers, the Chinese man was using mobile police to harass the farmers.
But the company still went ahead to fence the land, according to Mr Yahaya, who further stressed that the farmers were unable to farm on their land for three years until recently when the lawyer was able to force the police to respect the injunction of the court.
According to the court documents obtained by this reporter, Justice Lawan Mohammed ordered "the defendant, their privies, agents are restrained from trespassing, using or developing structures on the farm lands of plaintiff/applications, and use of armed personnel to harass, intimidate, stop or threatened the plaintiffs/applicants from further using their farmlands, pending the determination of their substantive matter."
However, as at the time of the reporter's visit, the farmlands were still fenced with concrete walls, though the farmers have started cultivating the land after three seasons of being debarred.
In an interview with the lawyer, he said that the position of his client is for the Lee Group to provide evidence of ownership of the land.
"We are not against Mr Lee, this is someone who has provided jobs for millions of people, but what is right is for Mr. Lee to pay what is appropriate for the land. We have a hunch that some people were given the money by Mr Lee but they decided to short-change the farmers."
Chase for official reaction...
Several attempts by this reporter to get government reaction on the matter in both states were mostly futile as officials evaded questions. When this reporter visited the Chairman of Gagarawa Local Government Area of Jigawa State, Ibrahim Ya'u, for comment, he was not on seat. But an official, who declined to share his identity, said the local government would only intervene if and when the community agrees to sell. He said the council would also assist in resettlement by providing basic amenities in the new settlements subject to the resources available to local government.
He then referred further inquiries to the Jigawa State Investment and Property, an agency under the supervision of the Deputy Governor's Office. But a visit to the office bore no fruit, as the spokesperson of the agency, Uba Keya, declared that they are not responsible for the land issues in question. He thereafter referred this reporter to Ministry of Land.
Just like the previous office visited, a mention of the topic of inquiry elicited evasive reactions from officials encountered at the land ministry. A secretary in the office of the Director of Land at the ministry claimed that the Director was not available.
Also, a brief phone interview with Murtala Kwalam, the Permanent Secretary, Jigawa state Ministry of Land, Housing and Regional Planning, revealed the depth of official silence on the matter as he declined to make any comment under the guise of being a civil servant.
"I cannot talk. I am a civil servant; go and meet the governor, meet the deputy governor," he said before ending the call abruptly.
It was same story of evasion in Kano State. The spokesperson of Kano State Bureau of Land who refused to give his name said that he was recently appointed and that the Permanent Secretary who could speak on the matter was not available.
The Central bank intervention...
On May 3, 2017, the Governor of the Central Bank, Godwin Emefiele, at the ground breaking ceremony of the plantation, declared support for the farming ventures of Great Northern Agricultural Limited.
"On our part as the Central Bank of Nigeria, I appeal to you to come over to us in the Central Bank, whatever support you need to get this project on ground, so that in the next couple of months we can come back and launch the programme, that support I assure you today, you will get from Central Bank of Nigeria," he said.
Great Northern Agricultural Limited is owned by the Lee Group.
OrderPaper Nigeria could not verify the type of support given to the Lee Group after the pledge by Mr Emefiele. It is also not clear whether or not the apex bank is aware of the land grab controversy involving one of the beneficiaries of its agricultural intervention. A reach out to the bank was not fruitful as calls and text messages made to Isaac Okoroafor, the Corporate Affairs Director of the CBN, were not answered.
Mr Lee, the Chinese billionaire of Panama Papers...
Lee Sheau Yun is the name that towers over this entire controversy. The Lee Group has several of its subsidiaries in both states such as Viva Plastic, Asia Plastics, Spanish Nigeria Company, Great Northern Agricultural Limited.
During a visit to the Lee Group at Jogana, Hadeja Road Kano, a security personnel at the gate claimed that Mr Lee had left for China the day before. This reporter, however, learnt that the industrialist had passed away some days before then. He reportedly passed away in China.
Echoes in the National Assembly
The land grab controversy involving the Lee Group also resonated at the National Assembly. Sani Zorro, a member of the House of Representatives in the 8th Assembly, moved two different motions calling attention to the issue. In 2016, Mr Zorro in a motion called for the intervention of the parliament but several members argued that land matters fall within the control of the state government. However, the then Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, asked the House Committee on Judiciary to advise on possible ways out of the logjam.
Mr Zorro told this reporter in an interview that that the chairman of the committee already informed him of a means to treat the motion "but the former Deputy Governor, Ibrahim Hadeija, who is presently a Senator, visited Dogara and the motion did not see the light of the day."
Nothing was heard of the motion again until Mr Zorro sponsored another in April 2019. Although it scaled through this time, it was opposed by several members.
Despite the Reps approving the motion, however, nothing changed for the Jigawa farmers.
"This report was first published by OrderPaper. Premium Times has the permission to republish."
"This Investigative Report is supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR".