By NBF News

When former governor of Imo State, Chief Achike Udenwa, at the twilight of his administration in May 2007 announced the creation of 114 autonomous communities in the state, many indigenes of the Heartland State received the news as a welcome development and a tangible parting gift from the state chief executive.

The communities granted autonomy then included Ohumala, Nnebi Naasonye, Umuariam, Okoro-na-egelle, MgbomaAlike, Ndionyemobi, Umuofeke Agwu, Mbutu Ukwu among others.

But the joy of having an autonomous status and a new traditional ruler was, however, short-lived as a few months later, the new government of Chief Ikedi Ohakim proscribed the newly created autonomous communities. The Attorney General of the state even went to court to challenge the process through which the communities were granted autonomy by the Udenwa administration.

After series of investigation, meetings and consultations, the government announced that the matter had been settled and that the communities and their traditional rulers should be given formal recognition by the state government. The concerned communities heaved a sigh of relief and looked forward to the swearing in of the new traditional rulers.

Conduit pipe?
Sunday Sun, however, learnt that before the decision was taken to again recognize the autonomous communities, each of them allegedly paid additional N150,000 to members of the Committee on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs in the state House of Assembly to offset the cost of litigation and other logistics.

As the communities were gearing up for the formal presentation of staff of office to their traditional rulers, the story took another dimension when on April 2010, the Assembly repealed the former law that backed the creation of the 114 autonomous communities and called for fresh applications with price tags from any interested community seeking autonomy.

The gathering storm
Some prominent individuals from the affected communities have kicked against what they called the 'commercialization of autonomous communities' and the fraudulent demand for money from the communities by the legislators.

Operating under the aegis of Concerned Members of the 114 Autonomous Communities in Imo State, the group after a meeting convened in Lagos condemned the manner in which the creation of autonomous communities in the state has been turned into a money-spinning venture.

In a communiqué signed by the spokesperson, Chief Emeka Okafor, and made available to Sunday Sun, the group said it is crying out so that the relevant authorities in Nigeria should know what is happening in Imo.

'The 114 communities in Imo State spent a minimum of one million and fifty thousand naira each for application and verification by the House members only for them to just wake up one day and repeal the law backing the creation of the autonomous communities. Now, they have called for new entries and from our enquiries, they have sold more than 400 forms.

'The most disheartening of them all is that the legislators are now demanding a whopping sum of five million naira from each of the communities before they can recommend such community for recognition by the Executive.

'Our further investigation revealed that it is only about 50 communities that are penciled down for recommendation, yet they are collecting money from all the communities. Also, there is no receipt issued upon payment of the amount and there is no written commitment to back up these payments.

'They have issued a deadline when the payment of this amount shall elapse and there is no guarantee that those who paid the money will get automatic recognition. We feel that this development in our state is a big fraud that needs to be investigated by the relevant agencies.

'It is painful that those sent to defend the rights of the people are allegedly defrauding the people they represent. The entire traditional rulers-elect (Ezes) have been presented to the government and are already waiting for their staff of office after going through the rigorous process of screening and the financial constraints only for them to hear that the law establishing their office has been repealed. Now the same autonomous communities are being asked to pay again to get fresh autonomy, yet they are not even sure whether anything positive shall be achieved in the end. Autonomous communities are for development purposes and not for personal aggrandizement,' Okafor noted.

House denies allegations
Members of the House Committee on Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters include Larry Ajaero (Ideato South), Ugochukwu Nzekwe (Nkwere), Louis Chukwu (Ideato North), Chris Eboh (Okigwe) and Celestine Ngaobiwu (Obowo).

Others are Oyibo Nwaneri (Oru East) and Declan Ewelumba (Oru West).

Speaking to Sunday Sun in a telephone interview, the committee chairman, Hon Larry Marcel Ajaero, dismissed the allegation that the lawmakers were using the creation of autonomous communities for selfish enrichment. He also accused some mischievous individuals and agents of various communities of using the issue to defraud their people.

'Some people are specialists in tarnishing the image of individuals and institutions. I have heard so many things about this matter. What we see here are cases where people will come and tell you one million, one billion and what have you, but whatever they do or say, we are not perturbed.

'The House is really in the process of trying to create some new autonomous communities and if any community wants to be recognized or carved out of the mother autonomous community, they should go through the normal process. If they qualify, they will surely be recognized.

'On the issue of money, I don't want to discuss it because I have heard so many things in that regard. It is not in my power to talk about money as I can only comment on issues that concern my constituency.

'But let me tell you what I have also discovered. Some individuals from the communities agitating for autonomy use the avenue to extort money from their community and turn around to tarnish the image of the legislature and the executive,' Ajaero said.

The House Clerk, simply referred to as Mr Uzohu, also told Sunday Sun on the telephone that members of the House of Assembly were constitutionally empowered to receive application, clarify and review the applications and finally make recommendations to the state governor, who has the power to create the autonomous communities.

He also dismissed the issue of demanding and collection of money from the communities by the House members, saying, 'I don't think it is true.' Sunday Sun further gathered that the House had alerted the public on the activities of syndicates who go about extorting money from individuals and communities over their request for autonomous communities.

In a release signed by Hon Nze Ray Emenna, who is the chairman of the Committee on Information, Due Process and Inter-parliamentary Relations, the Assembly assured Imo indigenes that the creation of autonomous communities in the state 'shall be strictly based on merit and other criteria already set and in the guidelines.'