The lingering misunderstanding between the Ebonyi State Government and the Presbyterian Church may be taking a new twist for the worst in the days ahead following a new pronouncement of Governor David Umahi against the church during his live broadcast on September, 30, 2020, to mark the 60th and 24th anniversaries of Nigeria and Ebonyi respectively.
Umahi during the broadcast directed the State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Barrister Cletus Ofoke to institute a legal action against the Presbyterian Joint Hospital Uburu to account for the intervention funds released to them by the past administration.
The mission hospital established in 1912 is owned by the Presbyterian Church.
The Governor accused the Church of diverting the funds meant for the development of the hospital. He alleged that the management of the mission hospital fraudulently used the funds meant for the upgrading of the hospital to establish a private university outside the state, warning that “no one would use the name of church to defraud the state.”
The people of Uburu community had petitioned the state government about the ugly trend in the hospital, among which included the lack of corporate social responsibility and failure of Presbyterian Joint Health Institute which was established by the hospital but could not secure accreditation for years before it was closed down and students moved to Ebonyi State University (EBSU) where they later graduated.
The community also alleged misappropriation of funds, high medical charges on indigent patients, use of obsolete equipment in the treatment of patients and non-presence of qualified doctors, and urged the state government to take over the management of the hospital. Besides, the community further contended that the 100 years lease of the land to the Presbyterian Church had since expired in 2011 and they never came for the renewal. Uburu community is the home town of the State Governor, Engr. David Umahi in Ohaozara LGA.
Governor Umahi had on July 14, 2020 announced the take over the 108 years old hospital during a live broadcast, citing overriding public interest. He also directed Ofoke to immediately forward an Executive Bill on the takeover of the hospital to the State House of Assembly for passage into law.
He announced that the hospital would now be designated as Ebonyi State University Community General Hospital that would also serve as the community medicine rural practice area of the State’s University Teaching Hospital Uburu.
The State House of Assembly also affirmed the revocation, which consequently returned the ownership of the land and whatever property consequently reverted to Ebonyi State Government.
Following the executive order, Ebonyi State Government subsequently announced the immediate shutdown of the hospital. The government said the action is sequel to a petition by the host community over the expiration of the church’s 100-year lease.
Commissioner for Health, Daniel Umezurike, who announced the shutdown and takeover of the hospital when he took journalists on the spot assessment of the hospital, said the state government had to revoke the right of occupancy of the hospital which was established in 1912 for overriding public interest.
Umezuruike said besides extortion, there were further allegations of poor clinical services, mismanagement of both funds generated locally and grants from government levelled against the hospital management
According to him, Uburu people donated the land to church of Scotland Mission in 1912 not to Presbyterian Church of Nigeria. When the Church of Scotland was leaving, the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria came in probably because most of the workers were members of the church especially the then Governor of the old Eastern Region, Late Ezeogo Dr. Akanu Ibiam, but ownership was never transferred to them.
“The hospital was offering qualitative services until in the 90s when the Church of Scotland stopped sending expatriates from Netherlands and the clinical services and management became completely indigenous with attendant deterioration.
“The host community Uburu complained about the ugly trend in the hospital. There was no corporate social responsibility, failure of Presbyterian Joint Health Institute which was established by the hospital but could not secure accreditation for years before it was closed down and students moved to EBSU where they graduated,” he said.
The Health Commissioner noted that as a function of law, the lease of ownership expired in 2011 having lasted 100 years. He said that the community waited patiently until the lease of ownership expired before the agitation to quit started.
He stated that in other to forestall total breakdown of law and order, the State Executive Council of July 14, in accordance with Land Use Act (Cap L.5 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, revoked the right of occupancy for overriding public interest.
He said that while the hospital remained shut, the state government would among other things take inventory, do staff auditing and verification and carry out minor renovation of the hospital to give it a befitting facelift. Umezurike asked the management of the Hospital to immediately step aside until all the task by government are completed.
But the action of Ebonyi State Government did not go down well with the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria. The church accused the state government of failing to follow due process in the acquisition and takeover of the hospital.
The Church, in a statement issued by its Head of Information and Public Affairs, Dr. Nnoke Ibe, conceded that government’s power of eminent domain confers it with power to take over any land it requires for overriding public interest, but insisted government must follow due process in exercising such power.
“The church is aware of government’s power of eminent domain confers a power to take land it requires for public purposes; but that power is made constitutionally subject to procedures which guarantee the rights, privileges and entitlements of occupiers and holders”, he said.
Nnoke said the church had no plans to stop any good intention of government for the people, but needed to understand and certain about where the Church would fit into in all that Ebonyi State Government was planning for the hospital.
He explained that while they were aware of their constitutional rights on the subject matter as a church, the long-standing good relationship between the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria (PCN) and the Ebonyi State Government, had compelled the church to beg the state government to create a conducive platform for an amicable resolution of the issues involved.
“The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria has no plan to stop the government’s best intentions for the people; but would insist on understanding and being clear and certain about where the Church fits into in all that Ebonyi State Government plans for the Presbyterian Joint Hospital, Uburu, having come a long way together,’’ Ibe said in the statement.
But Ebonyi State government maintained that all due process was followed in the acquisition and takeover of the hospital. This was stated by Ofoke, who was contacted to react to the allegations made by the church. Ofoke appealed to the Church to cooperate with the State Government on the matter for the overall interest of the people.
Whether or not the Ebonyi government will make U-turn on some of the decisions it has taken against Presbyterian Church especially as it concerns dragging them to court over alleged diversion of N4bn released by the past administration for the upgrading and equipping of the defunct Presbyterian Joint Hospital Uburu is still buried in the womb of time.