SEVERAL communities and aggrieved individuals in Benue State are at the verge of suing Dangote Group of Companies over its strip mining of coal which has allegedly caused serious environmental damage and particularly polluted rivers which are the only sources of water for the communities, National Record can authoritatively report.

Our findings indicate that while preparations for the litigation are ongoing at communal and individual levels, efforts are also being made to harmonise the complaints into a “class action suit.” This way, the claims which are essentially similar will be brought together by the communities as a collective victim of the environmental degradation orchestrated by Dangote Group.

The affected communities span four local government areas; Okpokwu, Ohimini, Otukpo and Ado, all of which depend on the polluted waters of Okollo, Umabe and Okpokwu rivers.

For the past four months since Dangote Coal Mines Limited commenced the strip mining of coal at Effeche-Akpalli, a rural community in Ugbokolo Ward of Okpokwu local government area of Benue State, several communities affected by the pollution have being crying out to both the Benue State government and Dangote Group to provide for them alternative sources of water, particularly for drinking and domestic usage. There cries have gone unheeded forcing inhabitants to drink from the polluted rivers at grievous risk to their health.

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While the state government quickly dispatched a team to evaluate the extent of the pollution, nothing positive has so far been done to rescue the communities from the danger of using waters from the polluted rivers. The relevant government organ, the Ministry of Water Resources and Environment, in conversations with National Record continue to give narratives that only indicate the depth of its duplicity, obfuscation and complicity.

What came out clearly from our telephone interviews with the Commissioner for Water Resources and Environment, Engr Oando Dondo Ahire, suggest that the ministry is either compromised by Dangote Group or totally interested in internally generated revenue (IGR) at the expense of the lives of hundreds of thousands of the inhabitants in the affected communities now forced to drink from the poisoned rivers.

As the communities wallow in this imminent danger in addition to the continuing ecological degradation with all the health and socio-economic consequences, the Dangote Group of Companies, National Record’s findings indicate, are engaged in a spending spree on state officials, chiefs, politicians and communities from some of the affected communities. According to sources, this is being done to suppress or eliminate the required communal consensus that may ultimately transform into a powerful coalition against the strip mining exploration and its attendant negative environmental impacts on a slew of communities downstream across four local government areas.

Ongoing excavation at the mining site in Effeche-Akpalli.

When confronted on why Dangote Group prefers spending huge sums of money to settle state officials, politicians, chiefs and community leaders, rather than using those funds, which were sufficient to solve the water challenges being faced by the communities by providing boreholes, a staff of Dangote Group, who pleaded anonymity as he is not authorised to speak on the matter, told National Record not to go there as that is the company’s policy wherever it operates.

The clamour for Dangote Group to stop the mining exploration until it provides alternative sources of water has mainly been coming from Edumoga District in Okpokwu LGA, under the aegis of Edumoga Youth Movement (EYM). EYM’s protestations initially got the attention of the managers of the mining site at Effeche-Akpalli, but now, they have reportedly reneged on all they had committed the company with respect to provision of alternative sources of water for the affected communities.

When EYM had sometime in May issued an ultimatum to the company to stop work, the managers had ran to one of the local chiefs in the area, Chief Ochechema Ojoh, who successfully mediated and in agreement with Dangote Coal Mines, came up with a committee, which was composed of representatives of EYM, the company, state government officials and the traditional ruler.

The committee had in the course of its work verified that the source of pollution of the rivers emanate from the mining operation. The committee’s report that the pollution is orchestrated by strip mining exploration indeed corroborated the finding of a “team of experts and technocrats” sent by the Benue State Ministry of Water Resources and Environment in the first week of May, 2020.

Dangote’s scholarship scheme

In addition to the muzzling and subtle suppression of grievances from the affected communities, Dangote Group amplified its gagging strategy by the introduction of a scholarship scheme for indigenes of the mining community, Effeche-Akpalli, when it awarded a total sum of one million naira (N1,000,000) to ten (10) students on Thursday 6th August, 2020 at the company’s mining site.

Mr Dillip Taman, the mining site’s head, stated at the ceremony that the award of scholarships is one of the corporate social responsibilities of the company to the mining communities as contained in the Community Development Agreement (CDA), while also promising that the scholarship scheme will be an annual event.

The beneficiaries of the scholarship in a group photograph with officials of Dangote Coal Mines Ltd and Okpokwu local government council.

Although he noted that Dangote Coal Mines Ltd “has started working on various other projects under the CDA,” he however did not mention the projects the company may have initiated or make reference to the pollution of the rivers which remains the most urgent and critical for communities living downstream.

Deputy Governor’s Attempts at Intervention

The most recent effort at rescuing the affected communities came from the Deputy Governor of Benue State, Engr. Benson Abounu.

Engr. Abounu, Deputy Governor, Benue State

The Deputy Governor came to the picture after reading the story of the pollution from National Record’s update of July 2, 2020. In his comment on the story, he had requested for “a small delegation of people who have adequate knowledge of” the pollution issue to visit him in his office as soon as possible “so I can personally look into the matter.”

National Record gathered last weekend that Engr. Abounu has reportedly met twice between Thursday and Friday last week with a delegation from the affected communities although this could not be confirmed by Ede Ogaba Ede, the Chief Press Secretary to the Deputy Governor, who said he was attending to a medical emergency of a relation at the Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi and therefore not aware of the meetings.

While we made efforts on Sunday to directly reach the Deputy Governor via whatsapp message, his attempt to get back through a whatsapp video call failed as the call was missed and efforts to return the call by this reporter failed.

Impending Litigation

Although National Record has not been availed full access to the court processes, well-placed sources familiar with the preparation revealed that the communities are going to be counselled and assisted by well-heeled national and international environmentalists and pollution litigation lawyers.

“Our initial findings reveal that so much damage has already been done to the fish populations besides the contamination of drinking water. We also know that this pollution is flowing across the three rivers and threatening the quality of water down several kilometres,” a source familiar with the preparation told National Record.

The source also revealed that there is so much being hidden by Dangote Group with respect to Environmental and Socio-economic Impact Assessment (ESIA) and the statement that usually follow the assessment.

“We understand that the Environmental and Socio-economic Impact Statement, which is issued after an assessment is so damning that Dangote Group is trying to hide it. The statement is clear on the health dangers that face inhabitants of the host community, on the ecological implications and even on the future of the rivers.

“If nothing is done, and done urgently, many of these communities are at the risk of being turned into cemeteries in just a few years from now. While we are in a hurry to go to court to stop the mining because of the dangers these communities face, we need to do the needful in terms of the compelling scientific evidence,” the source said.

Another source, who stated that efforts are in place to consolidate the claims, revealed that preliminary tests indicate high concentrations of chemicals that are highly dangerous to health if consumed by human beings and have harmful ecological consequences in streams and rivers.

While the concerns of some prayers of the impending litigations are focused on associated risks for human health in the communities nearest to the mining site, there seems to be profound focus on the health and socio-economic consequences of the contamination of the rivers on which the entire population estimated to be close to a million people depend on as their only sources of water for drinking, domestic as well as agricultural purposes.

A fish farmer, who operates at the bank of River Umabe at Ogene Community, in an email message to National Record, intimated that the pollution has so negatively impacted on his farm. “I write to inform you that I have been seriously affected by the poisoned water caused by the Dangote mining business that is going on currently in Ugbokolo community. (1) I have lost over 300 fishes due to the effect of the poisoned water. (2) I also stand the risk of losing over N4.5m if there’s no solution to curtail the adverse effects of the water caused by the mining going on now. (3) I’m going be thrown into serious debt, and I feel like committing suicide. (4) I may also likely become jobless in a very short time. Please, I need help,” Victor Ameh, the fish farmer cried out.

The fish farm, our correspondents gathered, will be among many principal witnesses being lined up for the impending litigation.

As at the time of going to press, National Record gathered that with the repudiation of the efforts of the Edumoga Youth Movement (EYM) last week by Dangote Group to provide alternative sources of potable water, there has been increased tension in the affected communities as the inhabitants who hitherto felt respite was on the way now feel all hope of an immediate and amicable remedy is lost.

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