Upon the swearing in of the present administration in Cross River State (CRS), I had vowed not to hold a public opinion on anything happening within the State – be it public policy, economic policy or general administrative style. I made this decision for two reasons; the current Governor, His Excellency, Professor Benedict Ayade is first of all an uncle (maternal) and secondly, I earned my first pay check upon leaving the university, from working at what used to be Global Environmental Consultants (GEC) in Warri, Delta State where he was the Chief Executive Officer and owner. I arrived at GEC on 16th of August 2000, straight out of NYSC Orientation Camp and did my national service at GEC, working as a trainee Environmental Consultant I subsequently worked there for nine years before leaving in September 26th, 2009 to pursue other endeavours.
I had felt that there was no reason to create a fuss in public space, given that I have always had direct access and could use other back channels to offer viewpoints and suggestions on whatever I still believe could help in the governance of my State. I didn’t consider it a tall order at the time because, like many others, I have his phone number. In fact, I purchased the SIM card/number he uses, way back in 2001 when phones were sold with SIM packs for about N35,000.00. He had directed me at the time to buy two phones; one for me and one for him, so I got an Econet SIM + Motorola TalkAbout Phone for myself and an MTN SIM + Sagem Phone for him (the type that had a vibration mode). So naturally, I have always had the number up to this day, and had constantly gotten in touch to offer unsolicited suggestions and give opinions. Most times, I got replies which were one-liners, like; ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘not interested’, ‘not necessary’, ‘1B’, ‘not looking for a buyer’ ‘speak to so-and-so’ etc. Those were sufficient – I mean, I was dealing with a State Governor here; I hear they are busy people.
Over the last 7 months, I have continued to offer suggestions on alternative ways to approach the proposed airport project for which Okambi, the village where I come from, has suffered untold hardship, being in the eye of the storm. My calls and appeals to the Governor to intervene have gone largely unheeded, which has brought me to the conclusion that His Excellency has not found my suggestions worthy of any attention regarding the airport and I cannot sit here and watch my community get striped of her dignity. I am therefore compelled to end the self-imposed Omerta Code of Silence in absolute good faith. I believe that it is the right thing to do both for himself and my community, so that our remotest posterity will record both our accomplishments with pride.
My village, Okambi, has been in the news over the last year or so for all the wrong reasons; the Government of CRS wants to obliterate us from the face of the earth – quite literally, to build an airport at any cost. The interesting fact is that, the people of Okambi may be at best, unenthusiastic about the construction of a third airport in CRS, but are not exactly opposed to the idea, however, they have insisted that such a project should follow due process and they have also asked for transparency from Government agents.
They want the Government to produce a credible EIA (following every letter of the requirements of the Environmental Impact Assessment Act, No. 86 of 1992). Most importantly, Okambi Community is asking for the involvement of their elites in the consultation process (which is fundamental requirement of an EIA process) not just the illiterate village Chiefs and illiterate community leaders who are themselves vulnerable and completely ignorant of the enormity of the potential impacts likely to result from this proposed project and which is actually a basic requirement of the Act, not their personal opinion. These prayers can be better appreciated if you consider the size of Okambi community. Being a small community, with a population of about 2,637 inhabitants (projected from 2011 population census of 1577 people, using a growth rate of 2.8%) and a land mass of only about 436 hectares, they consider this an existential threat- to put it mildly.
Actions of Government Agents.
So far, the tale has been one of intimidation, coercion and outright physical mugging, employing the services of cultists (gangsters). Most members of the community have been declared wanted by the so called Airport Project Manager Paul Obi and the Aviation Commissioner Dr. Jake Enyia. One of such persons is Mr. Solomon Adie, who is an uncle of mine. Uncle Sol who recently retired from Local Government Service is also the Catechist of St. Michaels’ Catholic Church Okambi, and those who know him can attest to his extraordinarily calm demeanour. He is an epitome of humility and forthrightness. Such is the calibre of person that State Government agents are looking for to terrorise.
One of the tactics they have employed is to isolate and completely obliterate the farms of the individuals who are insisting that due process should be followed as shown in some of the photographs that were taken earlier in the week below.
This is however in spite of a subsisting Court directive for all parties to maintain status quo, pending the hearing of the matter and for which the Attorney General of the State has been duly communicated (meaning that, ordinarily, no Government agent should be found around my village at this point in time), not to mention the ongoing earth works – grading and wanton destruction of the fragile ecosystem, causing a potentially irreversible damage to people’s only means of livelihood. Yesterday being Saturday the 25th of April was earmarked for my late uncle, Utsu Jeremiah Adieligbo’s palm plantation to be completely levelled to the ground – this is the plantation from where his widow ekes her living (he was a former State Commissioner in the second republic and the Clan Head of Okambi/Ikwomikwu Clan). I brought some of these issues to the attention of the Governor, and never got a response, but I kept mute – we are family and I have been bounded by the self-imposed Omerta code. The Ushakas’ palm plantation has been brought down and as you read this, all adult males in the family are on the run from home for fear of being arrested by Police on the instructions of Paul Obi. I should reiterate, that, that is the only source of livelihood for most of those affected by this proposed Airport project.
I understand that the Commissioner for Aviation, in company of Paul Obi, were in Okambi on Monday 19th of April, where they read what they termed the “Riot Act” to my community. This makes it really difficult to decipher who the real aggressor is, in all of this. Here is a small community of 2600 persons, consisting of 95% peasant farmers, who currently struggle for sufficient arable land from year to year (evident in the perennial skirmishes with their Benue neighbours), going about their legitimate businesses, being invaded by total strangers to surrender over 80% of their heritage, the land where their forefathers lived, died and were buried or be massacred. If this is not an invasion, I do not know what else is. It makes me wonder who, between both parties, is supposed to be reading the so-called Riot Act.
The other individuals who have been “declared wanted” by the little-known individual who goes by the name of Paul Obi for speaking up against these ills are my cousins and paternal uncles including Mr. Joseph Ungwugwaye Ushaka, and Mr. Goddy Liwholiwhe Ushaka. While in my community, the gentlemen who arrived in a convoy of Mobile Police officers, went berserk and terrorised innocent, poor and hungry villagers who were supposed to be observing the Covid-19 lockdown, seizing motorcycles of those who they tagged as ring leaders and in the process they beat up my cousins mum (Nurse Dora-Joseph Ushaka) who was later admitted at Obudu Clinic for three days and treated for injuries. It sounds a bit like scenes from a horror movie, but all these things are happening right in my small community, Okambi. Now, that could have been my frail mum! But come to think of it, Nurse Dora is my mum too (by all definitions of the word mum) and it is a bit disappointing that I have been kept in the dark about all of this by my immediate family and for reasons obvious reasons; for them, it is family.
Another cousin of mine, who is autistic was ruthlessly manhandled by the Mobile Police officers and it took his mother’s dogged struggle with the Police to prevent them from taking him away. He is the son of my aged uncle, Mr. Donatus Ushie and his only crime is that, he was the only male member of the family at home with his mother at the time of their ‘raid’, having received orders from Paul Obi to arrest all male members of the family.
It is pertinent to put on record that my family has so far paid the ultimate price for this airport project and as I recall, this was reported widely in the news at the time. My uncle, Mr. Raphael Ushie an Immigration officer who was due to retire in December 2019, collapsed in his palm plantation as he watched it being levelled to the ground and died in Calabar Teaching Hospital a couple of days later (precisely on the 22nd of May 2019), leaving behind four children. The family is yet to overcome that tragedy.
With respect to project planning, to this point, the agents of the CRS Government have neither provided a design, nor a survey plan of the proposed project site which has led to insinuations that such documents do not exist. The survey plan currently in their possession is the one that was produced by Okambi Community (see attached) and this makes everyone wonder if the handlers of this project have the requisite competency to manage a project of such magnitude.
Purported Compensation for Affected Communities.
It is my understanding that His Excellency, the Governor made a public pronouncement to the effect that a compensation package of 500Million Naira (as announced by the Commissioner of Lands and Urban Development to Nigeria Institutes of Estate Valuers during courtesy call to his office) has been released for payment to the affected communities (four communities in total) and like I already mentioned in one of my communications to His Excellency, there is no definitive evidence of such disbursements in my community. I have been made aware that the total money received by my community is in the region of about 1.5 to 2 million naira (one million and five hundred thousand naira to two million naira). These figures are still in the realm of speculation because the whole exercise is shrouded in secrecy, which for me, is very disturbing. I had raised an alarm to the Governor concerning these irregularities and I do not remember getting any response. However, there are claims by Government agents – the Commissioner for Aviation and the Project Manager that the community has been “well compensated”. Individual payments/disbursements range from 5,000 naira (five thousand) to 145,000 (one hundred and forty-five thousand naira). No payment vouchers were at any point sighted nor cheques issued during this exercise and as I understand, folks were made to pay ten thousand naira for the services of “property valuers” and another ten thousand naira for the services of “attorneys” all provided for them by Government agents. A request was made for a list of the compensated individuals to be made public, but the handlers are averse to this and have refused to comply with these requests.
The Prayers of Okambi Community.
The fact that Government intends to annex 348 hectares of Okambi community land, (out of the purported 1000 hectares required for their cargo airport) leaving the community with a paltry 87.2 hectares (for about 2600 inhabitants to live and farm), the people of Okambi cannot therefore over emphasise the need for a proper engagement between respectable Government representatives and a select Committee from Okambi community to clarify the underlisted points raised by members of the community. I should clarify that the 348 hectares annexed by Government is estimated from the area which the State Government has marked down and pegged for grading.
- Does the airport have a design? – This is a fundamental requirement of the EIA. The proponent (developer) is expected to show the host community a project design, to help the consultees from the host community appreciate (for themselves) the perceived environmental impacts and make informed judgements.
- Has the Environmental Impacts Assessment (EIA) now been completed? If no, is it appropriate for the Commissioner for Aviation to write to the community, expressly declaring that “full construction work” is commencing in earnest by next week and that anyone who does not comply with Government directives should be decisively dealt with by armed Mobile Police officers?
- Why is Government continuing with construction work, despite a subsisting Court directive, urging all parties to maintain status quo?
- Should the community heed Government’s own directives even when they are in contravention of a Court directive?
- Is the Government really leading by example in this matter?
- In the highly likely event that the community cannot be supported by 87.2 hectares of land left after the construction of the airport (assuming the project goes ahead as planned); what is Government’s plan regarding resettlement of the community to an area that is adequate and arable?
- Between the airport project and the resettlement scheme, which one should commence first?
- Is the community not supposed to be resettled and be made comfortable before their land is seized?
- Is 2 million naira or thereabouts sufficient to build roughly 600 housing units which as we expect, should include social amenities in case a resettlement is eminent?
- Since this is the planting season, where should Okambi community, which, due to the siting of the proposed project, does not have any land to live on, let alone plant their food crops – where should they plant yams and cassava? Are these villagers expected to divest from sustainable farming relying on the 45,000 naira (on average) received as “compensation”?
- Usually, EIAs provide alternatives already sought by the proponent or developer. What alternative to our land has the Government sought? Also, what alternatives to an airport has the Government sought as a means of moving goods or cargo other than by air?
- If the Government continues with the tactics of intimidation and bullying during the construction phase, how does the Government intend to smoothen over frayed nerves during the operational phase? How will Government deal with a hostile host? Is Government also planning to use brute force?
- One of the aims of an EIA is to ensure that the host community “takes ownership of and protect the project”. Is this likely to be achieved at the moment?
These are critical issues that the Government needs to look at carefully with a view to changing their current strategy going forward. From my experience living and working in the Niger Delta for almost a decade, and taking the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) case studies into consideration (having worked at two of shell’s locations – Bonny terminal and Bonga field myself) the moment you force a project on the host community, you inadvertently put the lives of the operators and future users of the project at risk. There are recorded cases of hostilities perpetrated by host communities who were not ‘carried along’ in several major projects in Nigeria. The East West road recorded the highest incidents of kidnapping in the history of Nigeria leading to the implementation of the Local Content requirement for contracts in Nigeria. Similar scenarios have played out in Igwo village, leading to the kidnap and murder of a traditional ruler, and the lynching of others. It is my view that Government should not, through its actions during this construction phase create a fertile ground for similar hostilities in the future, thereby jeopardising the good intention of this proposed project. No investor would be persuaded to expose themselves and their priced assets to such potential risks.
I therefore urge the Government of CRS led by His Excellency, Governor Benedict Ayade, to please consider reviewing the whole project approach, project plan and project execution in a timely manner and change course. A stich in time, they say, saves nine. You have my absolute best wishes always.
Dr. E. Ushie writes from England.
NOTE: Opinions expressed in this article are strictly attributable to the author, Dr. E. Ushie and do not represent the opinion of CrossRiverWatch or any other organization the author works for/with.