Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State on Thursday, inaugurated a seven-man Judicial Panel of Enquiry to establish the ownership of Okpe-Urhobo Forest Reserve, especially the purported de-reserved area.
He said at the ceremony at Government House, Asaba that the panel would determine the status of the forest reserve as there was tension between the Itsekiri and Urhobo host communities of the forest reserve.
According to the governor, the enquiry was to prevent the situation from escalating into a full blown conflict and the panel will receive presentations from all parties involved, in addition to dispassionate investigation of the existing legal instruments – Gazettes, Survey Maps, Documents and others – relating to the real estate.
He pointed out that from the first term, “this administration established a track record for peace-building, and we intend to keep it that way, because, peace-building as a concept, seeks to prevent the occurrence/recurrence of violence by addressing root causes and effects of conflict through dialogue, engagement, and reconciliation.
“It was a major pillar of our S.M.A.R.T agenda, which morphed into the Stronger Delta mantra, standing on the tripod of Prosperity, Peace and Progress.”
He stated that the Panel, with Justice Tessy Diai as Chairman, would, “identify and locate boundaries of the Okpe-Urhobo (Ukpe-Sobo) Forest Reserve and determine whether or not the size of the reserve was at any time altered by any existing or defunct instrument of government.
“Establish the existence or otherwise of any instrument of Delta State Government that de-reserved portion(s) of the Okpe-Urhobo (Ukpe-Sobo) Forest Reserve in favour of any beneficiary(s) and the size and extent of such de-reserved portion(s).
“Identify the immediate and remote cause(s) leading to encroachment(s) on any portions of the Okpe-Urhobo (Ukpe-Sobo) Forest Reserve and the extent of such encroachment(s); and make appropriate recommendations to the State.”
Okowa announced that the panel had four weeks to submit its report, adding that the body was made of “persons with unblemished character, unassailable integrity, vast knowledge/experience in the public service and without vested interests in the dispute.
“The members of the panel are Prof. Abednego Ekoko, Sir Okey Ofili, Mr Okeoghene Osiawa, ACP Dashuwar Abuja (Representing the Commissioner of Police), Mr Weng Chollom (Representing the Director, State Security Services) and Mr Jerome Morka, who will serve as Member/Secretary.
He said that members of the panel met the criteria to be on the panel and able to adjudicate this matter with fairness, equity, and justice.”
Responding on behalf of members, the Chairman, Justice Diai, thanked the governor for the confidence reposed in them by entrusting them with the assignment.
“In discharging our duties, we will do so diligently and with utmost sense of respectability and fairness, and without any fear or favour,” she said.
The Deputy Governor, Mr Burutu Otuaro and some members of the state’s executive council witnessed the ceremony.