Cover Picture: One of the mining pits from which water spills to contaminate the main sources of water in many communities of Edumoga.
The Saga of the polluted waters of many communities in Edumoga District of Okpokwu Local Government Area of Benue State continues as its youth, under the aegis of Edumoga Youth Movement (EYM), take up the fight to confront Dangote Group of Companies even as the Benue State Government braces to take sterner action against the company.
SEEMINGLY abandoned to their fate by their highly-placed political representatives, relief may be coming the way of the communities in rural Okpokwu Local Government Area of Benue State whose major sources of water have been contaminated by the mining activities of Dangote Group of Companies. The respite, National Record findings indicate, is coming from the most unlikely and un-reckoned quarters, the Edumoga Youth Movement (EYM), whose efforts seem to be yielding results lately.
EYM, which has reportedly been agitated by the polluted River Umabe and River Okoolo, took up the challenge following persistent rumours that the entire political elite in the state as well as key community leaders in Edumoga District under which the host mining falls had been ‘settled’ by Dangote Group.
There was therefore a predominant feeling of despondence based on this notion which in a way dampened any hope of a swift intervention from particularly the relevant authorities of the Benue State government, which though had in response to an SOS from the Okpokwu local government area, dispatched a team in April 2020 to ascertain the degree of contamination of the waters of River Okoolo and River Umabe which a huge population of Edumoga had depended on for generations.
It is in the context of this perception that the youth in Edumoga, under the aegis of Edumoga Youth Movement sprang up to confront Dangote Group of Companies to defend their patrimony.
When National Record broke the news of the strip mining on June 12, 2020, the EYM said it was preparing for a protest to the mining site to stop the exploration. It said it had written two letters to Dangote and were not willing to speak to the press until it concludes consultation and fully mobilise the population to stop the mining by Dangote Group.
In one of the letters, the EYM said it had carried out a preliminary investigation which point to the fact that the mining activity by Dangote Group was responsible for the contamination of rivers Umabe and Okoolo.
The EYM, in the letter addressed to the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Dangote, channelled through the Field/Site Operations Manager at the mining site in Effeche-Akpali, entitled: “Stop Work: Strip Mining Has Contaminated Our Only Source of Water, Endangers Our People,” the EYM informed the company that it had in an emergency meeting called to discuss emerging issues arising from the ongoing mining operation resolved that the company immediately stop work due to the contamination of River Umabe on which several communities solely depend on for everything they do.
“We wish to convey to your management a unanimous resolution that was arrived at in an emergency meeting of the Edumoga Youth Movement to discuss emerging issues arising from the ongoing mining operation at Effeche-Effa Community in Ugbokolo Council Ward of Edumoga District, Benue State.
“The resolutions followed a preliminary investigation by the Movement which found out that the strip-mining of coal has resulted in, among other things, the contamination of River Umabe, which is the only source of water on which majority of Edumoga population depends for drinking and domestic usage.
“While the preliminary investigation noted other environmentally destructive activities that will have long-term impact particularly on Edumoga District, it raised immediate health concerns such as the possible outbreak of cholera and other water-borne diseases in addition to a medium- to long term threat of cancer epidemic for users of River Umabe. The possibility of cholera epidemic, dysentery and other water-borne diseases look more imminent now that the rains have started in earnest leading to the escalation of the contamination and pollution of the river,” the youth organisation stated.
It said after prolonged deliberation on these findings, it was resolved that “Dangote Group STOP mining work immediately until the water issues are resolved.” While not disputing the legality of the mining operation, the EYM also resolved that before further mining work will be allowed to commence, the management of the company should, among other things call a meeting of management and community stakeholders where major concerns would be addressed; provide documents such as Mining Lease/Exploration Licence, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS); and “prove that compensations have been duly made to all those legitimately entitled to be compensated.”
The group further gave the company three days within which to meet the above demands or it will “be left with NO OPTION than to enforce the stoppage of mining activities in and around the mining site using all legitimate means within our disposal.” (Their emphasis)
The letter, signed by EYM’s President, Mr Adah Inalegwu Godfrey, and the General Secretary, Comrade Andrew Ejembi, was copied to the Honourable Commissioner for Water Resources and Environment, Benue State; the Chairman, Okpokwu LGA, Benue State; His Royal Highness, Chief Ochechema Ojo, the traditional ruler of Edumoga District and the Divisional Police Officer, Nigeria Police Force, Ugbokolo Division.
Dangote Group, Communities in Dialogue
National Record gathered that as the EYM was mobilising to protest and stop the mining activity, it got an invitation from Chief Ochechema Ojo, summoning it to his palace for a meeting with the management of Dangote Group who had also been invited to the palace to discuss the issues highlighted in the youth group’s letter.
At the meeting held on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, the site managers reportedly stated that they did not respond to the letter from the EYM because of the inherent threat and that they had instead forwarded it to the Benue State Ministry of Water Resources and Environment as well as the head office of Dangote Group in Lagos for advice. They were said to have expressed readiness for Chief Ojo’s initiative to mediate and that they have the blessing of their headquarters to go ahead.
A reliable source at the meeting told National Record that the site manager had strongly argued that the contamination of the rivers did not originate from the mining site but rather from runoffs from a dam being constructed by the Benue State Ministry of Agriculture in neighbouring Ogbadibo local government area. When this was disputed, he then requested that a team should be picked to visit the site to verify his claim by taking a tour of the site and surrounding environment to establish his claim and exonerate Dangote Group.
The team is composed of Chief Ojo himself; six representatives of EYM, two representatives from the Federal Ministry of Mines and Solid Minerals (Makurdi Office) and two members from Dangote Group, although we gathered that there was a larger team including members of the affected communities when the mining site was visited, while the representatives from the Federal Ministry of Mines and Solid Minerals were specifically invited by the Dangote Group to witness the tour and note the finding of the team.
The team made the tour to the site on Friday, June 19 with logistics provided by Dangote Group. At the mining site, it was established that there was a valley adjacent the mining site that is linked to River Okoolo through which runoffs from the mining activities or through rain water spill into River Okoolo. At this point, the company agreed that the contamination actually originated from the site. However, it again questioned the inclusion of River Umabe, which it argued was very far from the mining site.
As noted in our story of June 12, 2020, River Okoolo empties into River Umabe. To clarify the doubt expressed by Dangote Group, our source stated that the team tenaciously traced River Okoolo to the point where it joined River Umabe in Effa Community of Ugbokolo Ward. When this was established, the team further went ahead to trace the course of River Umabe along the communities it passed through up to Ekeh Ward. After this tedious process, the company then acknowledged that truly, the contamination of the two rivers originated from the mining site.
The site Manager, we gathered, then pleaded that the same team, with the exception of Chief Ojo, be turned into a committee to among other things identify the actual number of communities affected by the contamination and make recommendations which will be passed on to the headquarters of Dangote Group for implementation.
Giving the urgency of the matter, the committee was given a week to submit its report today, June 26, 2020. While we gathered that the report was almost ready and would be submitted, attempts to get insight into the findings and recommendations did not succeed.
Benue State Government Reacts
In the effort to get the official position of the Benue State government, National Record reached out to the Benue State Commissioner for Water Resources and Environment, Engr. Oando Dondo Ahire through a telephone interview on Thursday evening. Engr. Ahire, while acknowledging that he was aware of the mining and the water crisis that it is generating, may however not be aware of the seriousness of the water challenges posed to affected communities.
“I am aware of the issues as Commissioner for Water Resources and Environment. Both of them are in my line of duty to supervise,” Engr Ahire said, adding that though he was supposed to lead a team to the site when the Okpokwu local government council drew his attention to the crisis, he instead sent a multi-disciplinary team headed by the Permanent Secretary of the ministry; along with the Director of Environment, and representatives from the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESRIA) and the Benue State Environmental Sanitation Authority (BENSESA).
“They went there and they inspected the mining site, the water sources and had interviews with the Dangote team and also the communities. It became apparent that yes, really the water sources were polluted by runoff from the mining activities and they could see black particles in the water,” the commissioner stated.
He said the team reported that the Dangote team at the mining site had expressed that its plan was to prevent any runoff from the mining site into the river (River Okoolo), but however accepted that indeed some runoff had taken place and that they were already prepared and were actually preventing the water by recirculating it within the mining site.
The commissioner said the company assured the team that as an immediate temporary arrangement; it accepted and was already providing water through tankers to the host community. “That arrangement, we learnt, was either once or twice a week. So I already pointed out that even as an interim measure; that would not do as that will not cover the whole communities,” said the commissioner.
As against the prevailing situation in which the communities complained that the rivers had remained contaminated, Engr Ahire said he was told that the pollution was not prolonged and that “right now, if you go there, you will not notice much of that pollution again. “This, I cannot say with much certainty, this is what my staff tell me. So I can say that I am aware of this and we actually wrote a report on this, we have circulated the report, the commissioner said.
Benue State House of Assembly to Discuss the matter
Engr Ahire revealed that his ministry takes the matter very seriously and as a result, he is scheduled to meet with the Benue State House of Assembly on Tuesday next week (June 30, 2020) to discuss the matter so that if need be, the State Governor will take it up officially with Dangote Group. “We would have discussed it this Tuesday but other things overtook our plans. So on Tuesday, I already have a 10am appointment with the State House of Assembly to go and discuss this matter with them so that the state government can take it up officially with the Dangote Group,” he said.
When asked if he was aware that the contamination extends beyond the communities in Okpokwu to Ohimini and Otukpo local government areas, especially the majority of the population of the city of Otukpo which depends on Otobi Water Works which draws water from River Okpokwu has River Umabe as a major tributary, the Honourable Commissioner expressed surprise.
“If this be the case,” Engr Ahire said, “then I will take it up even further because as it is now, we have to send another team, even a bigger team now, and actually go and verify all these and require the Dangote Group to shut down.”
He said though there is an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) but it did not address in specifics what will happen if Dangote mining activities go into operation. He said even if there is an EIA, it is not a license to breach environmental laws, which if violated attracts some penalties.
“We cannot allow our people to go through this. Things are very difficult for everybody already. From Monday, I will address myself to it and prepare so that together with the State House of Assembly we can address this thing, we will go back there, we will go back to the site and look at it and if need be, we will ask Dangote to shut down until a permanent solution is found.
“We will ensure that the water will not be affected unless they are going to provide alternative sources of water that will serve the whole communities,” the commissioner asserted.
A People Abandoned by their Representatives
While the Benue State government and authorities of the Okpokwu local government have been responsive to the challenges facing the communities as a result of the pollution of their main water sources, the same cannot be said of the three lawmakers representing the communities at the Senate, House of Representatives and the Benue State House of assembly.
Concerted efforts by National Record to have them react to the matter has so far failed as calls and whatsapp messages sent to them have not been responded to. While there is a predominant perception among the communities that Dangote Group may have influenced the unusual silence, National Record gathered that this may not be true but due largely to a life but quiet supremacy contest between particularly Senator Abba Moro, who represents Benue South Senatorial zone, and Honourable Francis Ottah, who represents Ado/Ogbadibo/Okpokwu federal constituency at the House of Representatives. A source confided in this reporter that both federal lawmakers are not on talking terms.
It was also gathered that Senator Moro’s unusual silence derive from the fact that he was not happy with the manner he had been side-lined by some community leaders who had been going about as champions of the people without reverting to him, especially against the backdrop of the fact that the mining is happening right in his immediate community of Akpali.
Senator Moro, National Record was told, is quietly working to approach the courts with the matter soon.
Honourable Tony Agom, who represents Okpokwu state constituency at the Benue State House of Assembly, a scion of the late political heavy weight, Andrew Agom; when initially reached, though said he was in the midst of the burial of his niece, however promised to respond to our inquiries. He had however failed to respond to repeated texts sent to his mobile on the matter.
While the intervention by the Edumoga Youth Movement seem to be yielding results now, the underlying conflict within the elite and some reported skirmishes between contending interests within the host community, which is still being investigated by this newspaper, suggest that there is the likelihood that crisis may linger for a while even as the communities continue to suffer for lack of potable water as can be seen from these videos here, here and here.