By Gele Agbai
Mbieri community in Mbaitoli Local Government Area of Imo State has asked an Owerri High Court to eject the Catholic Church from its land over alleged failure to pay rent worth N2.5 billion.
Some aggrieved families in the community said the leadership of Christ the King Catholic Church violated a lease agreement entered into with them.
To secure justice, the community, comprising Ubakiri-Mbieri, Umuagwu-Mbieri, Amankuta-Mbieri and Amogugu communities (applicants) filed a suit with No. HOW/625/2016 in the court.
The case if filed against the Catholic Archbishop of Owerri, Anthony Obinna, and the registered trustees of the Roman Catholic Mission of the Vicariate of Onitsha-Owerri (defendants).
In the court papers, the applicants said their representatives/forefathers entered into a lease agreement with the church in 1948 over a parcel of land (40 acres) with a Deed of Lease made on March 30th, 1950 as evidence and that at no time did they outrightly sell the land to the church or any other person.
They also claimed that the said Deed was duly registered as No. 38 at page 38, Vol. 3 in the Lands Registry office at Enugu (now Owerri) together with Plan No. G.A. 6/48 signed by a licensed surveyor, G.A. Obianwu and that the annual rent of the lease at the time was one Shilling.
In that agreement, the community insisted the church covenanted among other things to pay rent annually; not to assign or sublet the land without the consent of the land owners and to fence off the land within three months and keep the leased land so fenced-off during the duration of the lease.
They added that the church agreed that if the rent of one Shilling was in arrears of one month, the lease should cease and the owners might re-enter the said land; and that the lease should also cease if there was non-observance of the covenants even as they stated that the lease provided that the rent should be reviewed after every 20 years.
The landowners, however, noted that after the church made the initial payment of one shilling, they failed to pay rent again until 1960 when they, through Rev. Fr. M. Shanley of the Catholic Mission Mbieri, paid rent of 12 Shilling for the 12 years covering the period 1948 to 1960.
They stated that the defendants had since then violated the terms of the lease by failing to pay rent as at when due.
The argued that failure to renew the rent after 20 years as well as fence-off the leased land thereby encroaching on other portions of the claimants’ land above the 30.125 acres originally granted in the lease agreement and up to 40 acres.
They added that the church after the payment of rent in 1960, had refused to pay the rent even after they collected the sum of 80,000 British Pounds on the land in dispute from the East Central State Government that took over the management of the school, Holy Rosary Primary School, belonging to the Christ the King Catholic Church.
The claimants said as at December 2016, the arrears of rent the church owed them amounted to five million pounds (N2.5billion) saying the defendants no longer had any legal rights to the ownership of the land in dispute.
They lamented that they had been subjected to enormous suffering, untold hardship and denial of rent since 1960 and t urged the court to revert the statutory right of occupancy of the land to them.
They aggrieved communities also sought an order of perpetual injunction restraining the defendants from further claiming ownership, entering and using the said parcel of land.