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Community living in bondage of gas flaring (I)

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Community living in bondage of gas flaring (I)

Living in bondage of oil firms

 

More than 50 years of oil drilling at Owaza community in Abia State, rather than bring development, has brought environmental degradation and devastation. The community members cry of sicknesses, death, neglect and poor farm yields. JULIANA FRANCIS, who recently travelled to the community, captures their agony

 

Death has waged war on the family of Mr. Daniel Asonye. The latest victim is his 28-year-old wife, mother of his two children. The woman died recently while her corpse still lies in the mortuary, waiting for burial. Daniel, 37, says that death has visited his family several times, and is no longer a stranger to him.

 

The reporter found Daniel in a relative’s compound, sitting and staring into space. A white singlet and baggy grey coloured trousers adorned his skinny frame; he presented a picture of someone, who had received several blows from life and taken them with stoic acceptance.

 

He is one of the people in Owaza community, in Abia State, where oil is produced and where gas is being flared, who has lost many loved ones to death and strongly believes that these deaths were connected to operations being carried out by Shell and Total oil companies. The community is demanding availability of essential welfares and community advancement from the oil companies and governments. These demands, they say, fall under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CRS) of the oil companies. Nothing seems to be working; everything is comatose, they alleged.

 

According to them, gas flaring has rendered the soil infertile, destroys farm life and ecosystem. The river, where residents fetch to drink, has been contaminated and sand-filled because of oil spill. Fishermen have walked away from their vocation in utter defeat and resignation. The community people say that breathing air is akin to inhaling poison.

 

The air is described as toxic, causing sicknesses and death of children and adults. Today, many are leaving the community for other communities to trade, just to survive. Some of them allege that their leaders and kings have been grabbing money from the oil companies and keeping quiet about their plights. The kings, however, have denied the allegations, insisting they are also fighting for the advancement of the community. The people insist that among all the oil p

 

roducing states in Nigeria, theirs is the most neglected, abandoned and marginalised. The people are embittered and now brewing for a show down with Shell, Total, and the government. As the clock ticks, anger is stoking and the situation is akin to a keg of gunpowder, waiting to explode.

 

 

Poverty enables death

 

Daniel, like most people in the community, smiles with his lips, not with his eyes. Sadness is etched on his face. He is a farmer, but has since dumped that job because of what he describes as, “poor farm yields caused by gas flaring.” The widower, who is unemployed, discloses that his three brothers, parents and now his wife are all dead. Like a typical Igbo man, he speaks about the death of his wife and loved ones with admirable selfcontrol, refusing to anyone to catch glimpses of his grief. In between his narration, he blames Shell and Total oil companies for the calamities which have visited his home and the community.

 

“My wife shouldn’t have died, but in Owaza, there’s no standard hospital. She went into labour about 3a.m. on that fateful day. We have a cottage hospital here, but it has no doctor, staff and no medicine. Poor folks like us, patronise traditional birth attendants. These attendants are local women. When my wife was pregnant, she used to go to one of these women for ante-natal. In fact, I trust the local women more than our empty hospital. “When she went into labour, I quickly dashed to wake my stepmother.

 

We had to carry my wife and trekked a long distance to the local birth attendant’s home. My wife cried and screamed in pains. When we got there, the attendant declared she needed surgery. She didn’t tell me why she recommended surgery. We went to the attendant on Wednesday and by Thursday about 6.30a.m., she asked us to move my wife. I decided to take her to Obehe.

 

Obehe is another community, far from here. I called my brother to bring a motorbike. In truth, lack of money was my major challenge. While we were on our way, I cradled her on my lap. She died in my arms,” says Daniel. Since the demise of his wife, Daniel has been saddled with caring for his two children. They are seven and two. The children have been asking for their mother, but Daniel didn’t know any other way to break the news, than to tell them, “Your mother is dead.” He was not sure if they really understood the import of his news.

 

“Right now, I’m finding it tough to handle the two kids, coupled with looking for means to feed and survive. In this community, it’s not encouraging to go into farming. The gas flaring is affecting, not just our health, but farm produce too. “Whether Shell, Total or government, someone should take control and help us. Many sicknesses are killing us.

 

We have oil wells in this community, yet no improvement to our lives and communities. Our youths wake up every day, gather and do nothing meaningful. With what Shell, Total and government get from this community, we shouldn’t be suffering. My mother had four children, three died; I’m the only surviving child. This community produces multiples of oil wells, yet our youths are unemployed. The crops and fruits cannot produce very well because of gas flaring. You’ll see so many of them without seeds. Plantain trees don’t yield well, same thing with coconuts, oranges and paw-paw,” he adds.

 

 

Increasing cases of maternal and child mortality

 

Miss Pamela Adiele, 32, a graduate of Information and Communication Technology, graduated in 2014. She is one of the 180 graduates in Owaza, waiting for an alleged promised employment from Total. There are many things troubling Adiele about the situation in Owaza, but the greatest is children and women mortality rate. She says: “Every year our women and children die. Two of my brothers lost their wives during child birth. Doctors have private clinics, but don’t live here. They are mostly in Port Harcourt. If a woman goes into labour, especially at midnight, the possibility of getting a doctor is slim.

 

 

This makes many of them to patronise traditional birth attendants. These attendants are not gynaecologists. Another major issue is convulsion; gas flaring causes convulsion in our children. We lost between 20 and 30 children last year. A woman, living over there (gesticulates), lost three children to convulsion. Adults are not spared.

 

Take me for instance, I have sight problem. I can’t see clearly to read. I almost lost my niece, Chiamaka, to convulsion. “We left this community, went to Imo State, to seek help. It cost us a lot of money.

 

Sometimes, you will see a woman that had given birth to four or five children; a woman who had decided that she was no longer interested in giving birth anymore, then suddenly, her children would start dying one after another, what would she do? “There is a woman here, she had just a child, and the child died of convulsion. Since then, she had refused to open her shop.

 

Her son was called Tochukwu and died on December 26. He was just nineyear- old.

 

These women are not compensated for their losses. At least, a standard hospital, to tackle such medical issues should be built, equipped with good doctors and other medical essentials. “A woman, Chichebe, died of bleeding after she went into labour. She died while being rushed to a private hospital in Aba. Not only her; there are many other women. Mrs Ugochukwu died at the home of a traditional birth attendant.”

 

‘Soldiers have caged us and our community

 

Battalions of soldiers stand out in the community.

 

They are in every nook and cranny, with roads barricaded. The soldiers, mostly in camouflage, wield guns and look stern. They are in the community to stop uprising against the oil companies. Attempt to move near the plants is like daring to go where angels fear to tread.

 

The soldiers stare at everyone and every movement with suspicion. At the sight of motorbikes and cars, they are quickly on the move and alert. Visitors stand out like sore thumbs in the community and are often detained and questioned. Residents sum the situation thus:

 

“They have used soldiers to cage us. We can’t say, do anything or take any step. If we sneeze, they would be right in our faces. We’re continually harassed and intimidated.” The military went further to build a base, where soldiers are posted to different points in the community every day.

 

Reacting to the soldiers’ presence, Adiele recollected: “If you move close to those oil plants, you’ll be arrested. A friend of mine, a Yoruba guy, once came to visit me. He was a serving youth corps member. I decided to take him round the community. We were on a motorbike, and stopped around the plants. Just because he was looking at the plants, soldiers arrested him. I had to kneel and begged for his release. If you say or do anything, soldiers will be unleashed on you.”

 

 

Unemployed, angry youths of Owaza and Total’s MoU

 

Adiele says that Total Oil has taken so much from the community, but has given nothing back in return. The lady fumes: “There are always negotiations, yet nothing  comes out of them. Graduates in this community have been waiting on Total for employment. They promised to employ us once they start operation.

 

Today, we’re still waiting; we’ve been waiting for a year now. “Total Oil said it doesn’t have scholarship for us. How can they be operating in someone’s community, and say they don’t give scholarship? Meanwhile, their gas flaring is killing our women and children.”

 

She discloses that the community has tried to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Total Oil, but the deal crumbled like a pack of badly arranged cards. “They promised to employ those of us that are graduates, but had not done so. I got tired of waiting and have moved on. I have started looking for a job. We have formed Owaza Graduate Association.

 

We are over 180 graduates, all unemployed. We have our meetings every Tuesday. I’m one of the executives,” Adiele recalls. She says that kidnapping usually starts because oil companies often fail to do what they are supposed and expected to do.

 

Our reporter visited a palm wine bar. It was still quite early in the morning, but already, the place was brimming with energetic youths. These youths are unemployed, and hang around the joint, waiting and hoping someone will buy them a bottle. Ironically, the owner of the joint is one of the chiefs in the community. He introduces himself as High Chief Adiogu Oguguo. He was once a farmer, but had abandoned that occupation. He resorted to selling palm wine.

 

“Yes, I’m a titled chief, but I can’t steal; I sell palm wine to ensure I’m able to feed my children. “We have 158 oil wells in this community. The kings grab all money from oil companies. I’m paying for the supply of electricity. It’s painful. Total Oil started full operation in 2012 and till date, nobody is happy with it. Total Oil takes all, but gives nothing back.

 

Youths have taken to stealing plantains and goats because of no job,” he says. Adiogu says the agreement between their fathers and the oil companies is that the communities should be developed. “I suffered to get a borehole in my compound. There are no awards of contracts, nothing! Since Total came into this community, they have not given anyone employment. Yet their gas flaring is killing everything, damaging roofing sheets. Whenever it rains, the water will have black particles. Drinking it is toxic and the gas flaring causes excessive heat.

 

“Our health and educational systems are zero. No scholarship for our children. No standard market. Our mothers contributed money to build the market we have today. I have a wife and children, I don’t know when I’ll die, and thus the only thing I want is the development of my community. I want our youths to be employed, so that they wouldn’t have to continue stealing. Our children should be given scholarship. Good secondary and primary schools should be built for us. We need electricity, street lights and good roads,” he says.

 

One of the young men at the palm wine joint is Amara Oguguo, a trained mechanic. He says: “Total failed us so much to the extent that we had to embark on a protest. Total is bribing some people in our community; they are using them in order to suppress the community. We had an MoU with Total, but while it is ongoing, Total derailed.” “Two or three years back, people died of air pollution. The gas flaring pollutes air. Once it starts, you wouldn’t be able to stay here. You’ll wonder what the heck is going on.

 

You’ll hear a scaring loud noise. Then heat will start, with smoke enveloping everywhere. The sky will change. Later, people will start falling sick, crops will start dying,” another man chirps in. Before our reporter left the palm wine joint, a sample of water, alleged to have been polluted by gas flaring, was presented.

 

The water contained black particles, claimed to be toxic. The President of Owaza Graduate Association, Prince Obioma Asonye, says the oil companies do not acknowledge his members. “Our graduates have not been offered any employment since the creation of these companies,” he says.

 

 

 

Asonye discloses that several letters have been written to the House of Assembly, begging the lawmakers to appeal to the oil companies to employ Owaza youths, but all the entreaties fall on deaf ears. He adds: “The oil companies have refused to do anything. Soldiers have taken over our community, and we as youths cannot fight people that are armed with guns. We have really been marginalised.

 

Ordinary Industrial Training (IT) for our youths, they wouldn’t allow, let alone to employ them. If you have opportunity to meet with any of the Shell managers, ask them to give you the list of graduates working with them. None is from Awaza community.

 

“We have equally used a lawyer to write them more than four times, asking that our youths be employed. We have followed all legal means to reach out to them, but achieved nothing. Even the House of Assembly has written them, asking them to employ our youths. They always use soldiers to chase us away. These soldiers harass and intimidate us; they used to order us to jump up and down and do frog jump.”

 

Asonye says that the oil companies, rather than pick youths from the community to work with them,  bring in truckloads of strangers into the community to work for them. He recounts that the oil companies shuttle every day to Port Harcourt, to get these workers, while Owaza undergraduates idle away. He says: “Since Total Oil came, people have been dying like fowls and are visited by unknown sicknesses.

 

 

If your house is roofed, after sometime, the roofing sheet will become corroded because of gas flaring. Most times, heat doesn’t allow us to stay in our community.”

 

Sicknesses, hospital without doctors, medicine

 

Our reporter also visited the only public hospital in the community; Cottage Hospital, Owaza. The sign on the outside wall of the hospital says, ‘The Owaza Basic Health Centre was commissioned by the military governor of Imo State, Commander Anthony E. Oguguo, on April 26, 1991.’ Another sign closed to the main entrance into the hospital’s reception states that, ‘The hospital was built by the Oil Mineral Producing Area Development Commission and upgraded by Shell Petroleum Development of Nigeria, on behalf of NNPC/Shell/ELF/A

 

 

GIP joint ventures and commissioned by his Excellency Navy Captain Temi Ejoor on July 26, 1996.’ The hospital, although neat on the outside, is an empty shell. Only two women were on ground; a young lady in mufti and a frail looking old woman in a blue uniform.

 

 

They said the doctor didn’t come that day and there were no staff. They received their salary last in August 2017. Every ward was empty. One of the wards had recently been outfitted with beds, mattresses and colourful chairs by MTNF Maternal Ward Support Project, in partnership with Abia State government and MTN Foundation. This particular ward was locked and the key secreted. The reporter was, however, lucky to get the key and entrance into this ward. The chairs and bed were dusty, underscoring the fact that the ward had not been used in a long while.

 

“We have serious challenges; we don’t have staff and doctors. Patients hardly come here and there are no drugs to give them. The place will function better if doctors, nurses and medicine are provided,” the lady in mufti says.

 

 

Sick kings of Owaza

 

Owaza has four kings. One of them is His Royal Majesty, Eze Christian Ikemefula Ukaegu. He shuffled tiredly into his palace and stared at the reporter with pale fading eyes. Initially he was not interested in speaking; remembering countless reporters had walked the soil of Owaza, but their presence and stories brought no changes. When he eventually accepted to speak, he spoke in a depressing tone about the condition of the community hospital and the schools. “There is nothing in that hospital! It’s just an empty place. It doesn’t even have a medicine. The hospital construction was started by the state government, then Shell Oil came and attached itself to it. Shell promised to equip the place, but till date, the place doesn’t have an ordinary doctor. Most of our women go to Port Harcourt or Aba during child labour.

 

 

 

Many died on their way to have their babies. The people working in that cottage hospital have not been paid for months,” he mumbles despondently: Another king, His Royal Majesty Eze Ambassador Obioma Levi Nworgu, the Eze Oha One of Etitioha Ipu Owaza Autonomous Community, also has a health condition. His deteriorating health has forced him to become hooked on different medicines. Nworgu thinks there is a conspiracy between Shell and Total to dehumanise his people.

 

 

He explains: “Four autonomous communities make up Owaza; Isi Etitioha, Ipu West, Igiri-Ukwu and Etitioha. They are all oil-bearing communities. It lies in Imo River Oil Field. Owaza is the largest oil mining lease. We give Abia State 98 per cent of our oil. Owaza remains an oil and gas crown kingdom. These two companies have done absolutely nothing for our people.

 

None of our sons and daughters is good enough for Shell Petroleum Company and Total. Only our oil is good! “Health wise, we are living in bondage. These poisonous substances they flare out have been cutting our lives short. Effects of Shell gas flaring have killed many of my people and it’s still killing us. Just last year, gas flaring activities of Total made us to lose huge percentage of human beings.

 

We’ve cried and shouted, but it seems we are not important. Up till date, there has been flaring gas here. We don’t have hospitals, but some of us around still know that majority of the dead recorded here are caused by gas flaring.”

 

Nworgu, whose palace is close to Total plant, pointed at the flare coming from the facility. The monarch brought out a bag filled with drugs. “I take all these to stay alive,” he says. “We’re calling on the Federal Government to act quickly or we may soon lose the respect and control we have over our youths.

 

The Federal Government should revisit activities of these companies. Our youths aren’t cowards. We’ve been calming them down, assuring them that all would be well. But some of these youths are seeing things differently. They think we’re being bribed to calm them down.

 

“When you begin to tell someone to be patient and he believes you, a day will come when he’ll lose patience. Most of us, as traditional rulers, are not happy. One day, these youths may do what we don’t expect. I don’t know what tomorrow may bring. “The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) doesn’t exist here. They’ve done absolutely nothing.

 

They have not even given us any appointment. I don’t know where to run to the day the youth will come against me, thinking I had collected bribe,” the traditional ruler adds.

 

Unproductive farmlands

 

Ukaegu recalls: “Our people always go outside the community to buy garri to eat.

 

There was a time this community was known for producing large quantities of cassava and garri. We were not just good farmers, we were also good fishermen. Right at that place where Total Oil is operating, we had a very big river, where we used to fish, but the place has been sand filled. Everything has been destroyed!

 

 

“The greatest thing a community can have is a university. People will come from far and near to attend it. It will bring economic growth for us. I desire a university in my community.” The monarch also yearns for small scale industries, so that the youth will be employed as well as skill acquisition centres and a power plant to generate electricity. He recollects that Shell Oil started building one of such power generating plants, but something went wrong.

 

“The generating plant, using solar energy, worked for two years, and then broke down. After it broke down, we were in darkness for over a year. It was abandoned and since then, we have been paying for electricity supply.

 

If we have power supply here, it will attract so many things to Owaza. Our present electricity bill is N20 million accumulated debts. Accrued whether we used power or not,” the monarch adds. Ukaegu saysid if unemployment continues, people may begin to look for any means to get money to feed. Some, according to him, may resort to violence.

 

“These companies do gas flaring on a daily basis. Sometimes, the gas flaring will cause smoke to envelop the community. It also does affect the immune system of our children. It sends investors away from the community,” the traditional ruler adds. Ukaegu, who was once a victim of kidnappers in the community, notes that idleness among young men and women doesn’t bode well for anyone. According to him, he is one of those gas flaring has affected, stressing that his health is failing him.

 

 

“This gas flaring weakens the immunity system. I now take too many herbal medicines. Many people in the community cannot afford medical care,” he says. Nworgu says Owaza will continue to write petitions until something is done. “Almost all our farmlands are totally dried and barren. We used to be the largest producers of cassava around here. The effects of gas flaring have made our people perpetual buyers of food they could ordinarily produced and sell to others. Agriculturally, Owaza Clan is now a history!”

 

TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK

 

•This report is supported by Wole Soyinka Cencre Investigative Journalism and MacArthur Foundation. Additional report by Emmanuel Ifeanyi

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