… Unlawfully dabbles into customary matters
By Saviour Ekpe
A senior government official in the Akwa Ibom state Ministry of Justice, Barr. (Mrs.) Ima B. Esin, the Administrator General/Public Trustee, Akwa Ibom State has been accused of double-jumping and dabbling into customary matters.
The office of the Administrator General/Public Trustee, Akwa Ibom State was set up by law of Awa Ibom State to manage such issues that appertained to law but recently jumped the gun in meddling into the matter relating to the Late Mr. Okokon Denis James when the children ignorantly according to their statement sent to one of the family members, surrendered their late father’s property to them. The statement sent through his church pastor to one of the family members who was accused of defrauding the family with reference no MJ/ADG/1791/31 dated 23rd August, 2018 christened ‘Rendition of Account: Estate of Denis Okokon James’ and made available to Century Newsfront reads in part, “the above named estate was surrendered to the Administrator General/Public Trustee, Akwa Ibom State for administration by the aggrieved beneficiaries of the Late Chief Denis Okokon James Estate… his late father left behind a widow, who is his step mother and five (5) other children under a polygamous setting. The father also left behind landed properties and a bungalow of about 33 No. rooms for the sustenance of the families, which are now under contention”.
The Administrator General/Public Trustee, Akwa Ibom State whose statement accused one of the family members, Udeme Denis James of ‘embezzling about four Million, three hundred thousand naira being the proceeds from the sales of their father’s landed properties, plus non accountability of seven and a half years rent proceeds from the 33 No. rooms bungalow with effect from 2011 till date’. According to the statement, which shows that the Administrator General/Public Trustee, Akwa Ibom State issues orders to the accused said, “we have initiated several meetings with the different beneficiaries in a bid to bringing peace to the warring family members…to this effect, he was accordingly ordered to render the said account with effect from 2011 when their father died to date to the office of the Administrator General, Akwa Ibom State. But surprisingly, no sooner he was asked to render the said account than he stopped to respond to government official invitations to meetings in this regards”.
In a swift response, the accused in a reply dated August 31, 2018 captioned, ‘Re: Rendition of Account: Estate of Denis Okokon James (Putting the Records Straight)’ and made available to Century Newsfront, Udeme James, the accused explained, “I am deeply worried, disappointed and highly embarrassed over the spurious allegations leveled against me by my brother/step brothers. Disappointed in the sense that I was not given opportunity of fair-hearing by the Administrator General before proceeding to my state pastor, an action, which is embarrassing to me.
I want to state here that the accusations and derogatory terms used to describe me as using proceeds from the resources for sole benefit; alleged embezzlement of N4.3m; non accountability of over seven years rent; defrauding and short-changing my brothers; that I owned up to the allegations as well as refusal to honour invitations are concocted lies, unfounded and deliberate attempt with intention to castigate and smear my hard earned name and drag my reputations to the mud. I want to state categorically, that the allegation that I treated the Administrator General/Public Trustee, Akwa Ibom State with levity is not only untrue but unfounded. The first invitation from the authority to me was dated 8th February, 2018 which I honoured and made representations to the committee and was asked questions by the committee members in the presence of my brother and step brothers. Unfortunately, my presentations and uncontroverted facts given to them were deliberately not even referred to in the letter written to my state overseer. The subsequent invitation letters dated 20th March, 2018 and 14th May, 2018 were also honoured by me but coincidentally, the committee didn’t sit in any of those days. It was pertinent to point out that these letters were sent to me through my church address in Uyo while I was still shuttling between Uyo and Port Harcourt from where I recently relocated from. The last invitation letter dated 6th July, 2018 from the committee sent to me was not honoured because of exigencies of my duty in Port Harcourt and unforeseen circumstances beyond my control. It could be seen that at no time was there an attitude exhibited by me to warrant being called names”.
The accused further explained what led to the matter under contention, “The perceived misunderstanding started when one of my step brothers by name Ossom Denis James approached me that he needed a land to build his own house that he had moulded blocks. By this time, I had relocated to Uyo, my home state. I convened our regular meeting so as to apportion a land to him but when I brought the matter to the attention of all, everyone raised the issue that land for their personal building be allocated to all and at point, instructed Emmanuel, who knows most of the lands and as suitable for building to be shared to all, then that I invited the extended family members to come in for the sharing of lands for individual building. The family directed that individual should chose after inspecting the lands and this was done but my portion as the first son, which by custom and tradition is the land by the home building was rejected by my brothers Emmanuel and Imo, as being too big for me alone to inherit. This brought unresolved issue, which members of the extended family waded into the matter but to no avail. When it appears as it will generate strife and unnecessary controversy among us, I told them that I will forgo mine for peace to reign afterall, I have bought many lands/buildings in my own accord…I wish to point out that at no time was the management and account of the estate of our late father was an issue”.
From the a foregoing, it is clear that the Administrator General/Public Trustee, Akwa Ibom State is working in a discordance tone with the state government who is poised to ensuring that all and sundry get due justice by allowing government agencies to operate independently without any interference. Given the fact that the extended family members who waded into the matter and shared the estate according to the customs of the land as government agency jumped into a matter that appertained to custom and tradition, the extended family members and indeed, other members of the community are not happy with the governor for condoling illegality in his government on a matter, which is customary.
When Century Newsfront contacted the village head of Uyo Itam, Dr. Offiong Daniel in his palace, he explained that though the matter has not been brought officially for his consideration, he noted that the ideal thing could have been to report the matter first to the village council, if not satisfied, the District Court and Supreme Court respectively before moving to the state, “they did not come to the village, they did not invite us into the matter and we cannot force them thus. Up till now, the village is not aware of the matter though I was personally invited by the Ministry on the matter and I went because I had to obey government order”.
In his response, the Village chairman of Uyo Itam, Chief Attah Peter Akpan, opined that if tradition of the people are not respected, it will one day vanish away thereby leaving the people with nothing to fall back to, “in my opinion, such matter could be handled by the village. We have handled issues that are more complex than this. If a group of people or family jumped the fence in a traditional matter, it means such people do not honour tradition. There are stages of dispute resolution, if we could not settle a dispute, we know appropriate authority to send it to and if a matter brought before us is not under our jurisdiction, we always send them to appropriate quarters for hearing and settlement”.
Speaking to one of members of the community who pleaded anonymity on what he referred to as legal controversies and interference in a matter of custom and tradition, “we don’t understand any more, we in the traditional setting have never for ones interfered with anything that has to do with government and the law, there should be mutual respect, our tradition is so dear to us and we protect and defend it tenaciously, why should the government interfere in a matter that does not concern them?” He queried. If these children cannot obey the law of the land after the right thing was done, they chose to make caricature of our tradition, do they even know the implication of what they do?”
Findings from Century Newsfront show that the Administrator General/Public Trustee, Akwa Ibom State does not have the locus standi to entertain the matter as it does not have jurisdiction since the said marriage between Late Chief Denis Okokon James was contracted under the customary law and the tradition of the land, not legally bounded through marriage Acts of the Federal Republic of Nigeria or that of Akwa Ibom State and the said properties were intested as the deceased did not make any will before his demise.