After floods sacked over 100,000 people in Benue State,Solomon Elusoji travelled to Makurdi, the state capital, and writes that the disaster’s real tragedy is that it will happen again
On Saturday, September 2, 2017, a day after Lagos Muslims slaughtered rams in celebration of Eid al-Adha, this reporter arrived Makurdi, the Benue State capital, some minutes past midnight. The capital city was asleep, but a few taxis crawled the deserted roads. From Duku Park, which lies along the Makurdi-Gboko Road, this reporter joined a Toyota pick-up to Achusa, a new settlement where houses spring up like weeds. As soon as the pick-up veered off the main road, it became a boat, mowing through stagnant water as it plied the grassy streets. “There are no drainages here,” the driver of the pick-up and Achusa resident, Caleb Omonoji, said. “When it is morning proper, you will see everything better.” True, when the sun rose hours later, this reporter saw everything proper.
On August 26, some minutes before 23:59, a regular rain had started in Makurdi. Unknown to residents, though, there was nothing regular about it. Gado Abimelech, a civil servant with the Benue State Government, had thought it was going to be a cool, refreshing night. But, around 2:30a.m. on August 27, he received a call from his neighbour. The voice on the other end sounded distressed and was blabbering about “water inside the house”. Curious, he swung his foot off the bed. But instead of feet hitting solid ground, he slipped into a pool of water that stopped at his waist. “The only thing I could save were my certificates,” Abimelech, who studied Economics at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, told this reporter seven days later, at the Ultra Modern International Market in Makurdi. A swarthy, sad man, he wore a simple shirt and pair of trousers over a gleaming black shoe. “I have moved my eight children and wife to a friend’s place, but I am here (the International Market) to register for the government’s relief materials.”
Abimelech story is not unique. This reporter spoke to tens of Makurdi residents at the International Market, which has become a melting ground for flood victims after the Benue Government transformed it into an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, and they had similar stories of ‘waking up to find a flooded room with all valuables soaked’.
“What saved me was that there was no electricity,” a Barnadata Quarters resident, Terfa Abwelem, said, “I don’t know what might have happened.”
According to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), more than 100,000 people in and around Makurdi have been displaced by the flood. The casualties also included bridges, culverts, roads and farmlands. With 21 local governments out of the 23 local governments in the state affected, the state governor, Samuel Ortom, said his administration was “handicapped”.
Later that Sunday, at around 8:15a.m., this reporter walked through the gates of the International Market, where there were makeshift vigilantes checking bags and scrutinising faces.
The International Market is a series of shops sitting in perfect rows and columns and built with red bricks. The compound is commodious, with far-flung fences, and the grounds are cemented. From the entrance, the landscape slopes downwards.
There were no National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) officials or their state counterparts on the ground at the time. But children, most with little or no clothing, scuttled around the compound, playing games; their mothers sat, some in groups, in front of the shops which had become their temporary abode. There were few men in view; a handful were seated in front of a single building to the east, facing the main complex.
Beside a huge water tank was another building removed from the main complex. Inside was a woman, wearing dreadlocks, sitting on a stack of rice-bags and a fair, almost Fulani-ish man sweeping the floor. The room itself was filled with supplies: some stoves, bag of charcoals, a pile of old clothes, bags of satchel water.
The dreadlocks woman was Irene Awunah-Ikyegh, the convener of the Vanguard Against Tiv Massacres (VATIM), a non-profit organisation consisting of young Benue professionals. Below her dreadlocks, she was sporting a white, heavily-inscribed shirt, blue jeans and grey sneakers. Sitting on the rice-bags, she looked heavy, powerful, but her eyes were tired. “I left here around 22:00 yesterday,” she said, wryly.
Awunah-Ikyegh, who is based in Abuja, travelled to Makurdi on Wednesday, August 30, to assist the Makurdi flood victims. She is working under a coalition of non-profits, Benue Non-Governmental Organisation Network (BENGONET).
When the flood started on Sunday, August 27, Awunah-Ikyegh told this reporter, some BENGONET members were mobilised to help evacuate trapped residents. There was no government response until Tuesday, August 29, when the Benue State Emergency Management Agency (BSEMA), announced the International Market as an IDP camp. Even then, there was no provision of any sort for those who filtered into the camp.
“When I arrived here on Wednesday, I was very devastated,” Awunah-Ikyegh said. “There was simply no presence of government.”
Government presence only started to be felt on Friday, September 1, when the Director General of NEMA, Mustapha Maihaja, visited the camp and some affected communities. He announced the delivery of seven trucks of supplies from Abuja to Makurdi; three of those trucks arrived on Saturday, September 2. “It was only on Saturday that the people started to feel the presence of a government relief agency.”
On Saturday evening, each household inside the camp were given a quarter bag of uncooked rice and water was transported into the camp’s huge tank. But, as at 9:00 on Friday, there was no water for sanitation in the camp. The borehole was bad and there was no power supply.
Also, the camp had no mattresses – most of the children sleep on the floor; there were no mosquito nets, no condiments and energy for cooking the bags of rice shared on Saturday. This reporter was at a scene where a group of families pooled resources to prepare their Saturday rice with one of the few charcoal stoves available. The result was a white, pasty cereal. It was ladled on plates and red powdered pepper was sprinkled on top. “It actually tastes very good,” one of the men said.
But, as noon gingerly approached, the International Market began to bubble: some BSEMA and NEMA officials, Red Cross personnel and representatives from United Nations agencies, UNICEF and UNHCR, had arrived. A UNICEF Chief of Field Office, Dr. Ibrahim Conteh, described the camp situation as “appalling”, but said he was happy to see the government “taking strong steps” and non-governmental organisations showing a lot of “goodwill support.”
“We have not seen any case of malnourishment and the people seem happy,” he said. But he re-echoed the need for better medical facilities, electricity, mosquito nets and mattresses. “UNICEF has already provided 10,000 aquatabs to treat water in the camp and UNHCR is already in the process of providing sleeping mats.”
While Conteh spoke, a unit of the Nigerian Air Force drove into the camp and set up a Medical Outpost Programme on the ground.
At exactly 11:18a.m., some kids had queued at the lower end of the market, under what looked like a mini garage. They were being served a cup of pap and a wrap of moi-moi for breakfast. The food was provided by Gidan Bege Orphanage, which is run in Benue by David and Deborah Audu, a couple. “Last night, I had sleepless nights knowing the conditions of these kids,” Deborah Audu said. Through their orphanage, they have committed to providing breakfast to as many camp kids as possible. “We are only doing the little we can; if everyone can do just a little, there will be a lot of relief for the victims, especially for the women and children.” The couple make it a priority to serve kids first, then pregnant and nursing women.
A trip to town
This reporter spent Sunday afternoon patrolling downtown Makurdi, at Idye Village, one of the hardest hit communities.
Idye is a community of low-roof houses that smelt, awfully, of soaked things. The streets were not deserted; music streamed out of room windows, a woman was grinding pepper at the front of her house, a man busied himself with displaying his charcoal wares, and restaurants, made of decrepit shacks, served watery egusi and leathery fufu.
The marks of the water level can still be seen on the buildings, some wet above the window level. There were collapsed huts and buildings that had become parallelograms. But the impact of the tragedy can hardly be spotted on the faces of the people. It was like nothing had happened. “We had never seen water like that before,” a man told this reporter at a fufu joint, but refused to say no more, simply shrugging away further probing as he waited for his meal. Although some houses, those close to the canal-like body of water that borders a part of the community, were still surrounded by water as at 14:00p.m., this reporter spotted people in them.
This resolve to stay put in water-ridden areas, despite the apparent health and security implications, is driven less by a nostalgia for home than for a distrust of government. When some BENGONET officials went to some of the affected communities to record their data, they refused to cooperate. “That’s how you people do,” they said, “we do not expect anything to come out of it.” The motorcycle driver who ferried this reporter to the International Market Sunday morning was also sceptical. “Most people won’t bother to go to the IDP camps,” he said, “because they know the supplies will be diverted; that’s how we behave here.” This driver, who gave his name as Sani, is Hausa, but he was born and bred in Makurdi and calls it home.
Awunah-Ikyegh told this reporter that the civil societies will never let such a thing – diverting supplies – happen this time. “We will be monitoring the situation,” she said.
But, probably more urgent than the problem of diversification, is the problem of supplies reaching those actually affected. Although Benue is referred to as the food basket of the nation (the state is a major producer of several edible and cash crops), most of its agriculture is subsistent, curtailing its high potentials and cultivating a poor population. There have been reports of people whose houses were not flooded registering at the IDP camps, just to have a chance to put food on the table.
To address this issue of systemic theft, the camp officials at International Market announced, Saturday, that registration at the campsite had been halted; residents were now expected to return to their flooded homes and wait for officials to visit and collect their data. The idea is preposterous. “I can’t even access my house,” Abwelem, the Barnadata Quarters resident told this reporter. Gwa Obadiah, who lived in a community called Ghana before the flood, said there was no way he could return with his wife and four children.
And, considering the slow-paced nature of this government (it took an emergency agency six days to respond with food), how many days (and people) will it take to complete this planned data collection? True, the NGOs have signalled their readiness to join forces, but success, from the look of things, still lies in the realm of miracles. By Tuesday, there was no money to fuel the vehicles that would transport volunteers around the communities to collect data which the government is planning to rely on.
One way to understand the Benue Government’s narrative for the cause of flooding is that it is an act of God. “As a government, we feel that this shouldn’t have happened but it has happened,” the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State, Terver Akase, told Channels Television last week. “It is a natural disaster . . . water is beyond human control; it must come whether we like it or not. It is natural disaster in the sense that, it is rain. We can’t prevent rain from coming.”
The Special Adviser to the Governor on State Emergencies, Hon. Vincent Tsea, also told this reporter that the flooding was an unexpected disaster. “We were preparing for September,” he said, “we didn’t know it would come in August.”
But the arguments are unfortunate. Flooding in Benue, especially Makurdi, is not novel. Between September and October 2012, flooding displaced over 700,000 persons in the state, with thousands of farmlands, houses and huts either submerged or washed away.
In response to the flooding, the government created camps for the displaced in Makurdi metropolis where those who were rendered homeless by the devastation went to seek shelter. Primary schools within Makurdi were closed and turned into camps where the displaced persons lived and survived on goodwill donations from charity organisations, religious bodies, non-governmental organisations, donor agencies, governmental agencies and public-spirited individuals.
In 2013, BENGONET released a report titled ‘The 2012 Flood Impact Assessment’, where it advised the government to “relocate houses built close to the river bank” and construct “new drainage channels, canals and aggressive expansion of existing ones within the areas affected to enhance the free flow of water.”
But everyone went to sleep.
Now, it is happening all over again and the government is asking for billions to dredge the River Benue and construct drainages. On Sunday, as the afternoon lengthened, the skies threatened. People looked up and shook their heads, knowing that when it pours, no one is safe.
The people saving the day
On Monday morning, the mood at the IDP camp inside Makurdi’s International Market was quite cheerful. The previous day, NEMA had delivered more supplies – mattresses, mosquito nets, stoves – to the camp. Somehow, electricity – advertised brashly with super-bright yellow bulbs attached to the walls of the shop buildings – had also found its way into the Market. As this reporter made his way into the camp, water trucks were drifting through the gates, filling the camp’s tanks.
However, none of these developments masked the herculean challenge of running a proper, humane camp. While the water trucks were doing their job, news reached camp administrators that some of the women had littered their surroundings with pads and toilet rolls. During the distribution of breakfast items – bread, packs of Indomie Noodles – scuffles, which required the intervention of armed policemen, frequently broke out. And more people continued to filter into the camp, complaining they have not been registered. And the person in the middle of all the hubbub was Helen TeghTegh.
TeghTegh is a honey-skinned woman with a perpetual smile on her face. She is the one most of the IDPs go to when they have complains, so she is always on the move, from one situation to another. This reporter spent about four hours following her around the camp, as she answered questions intermittently, barely finishing a sentence before someone called her attention to something else.
“I’m the Chairperson for BENGONET’s Emergency Response Committee (ERC),” she said, which technically means she is responsible for the over 4,000 IDPs already registered in the camp. BENGONET members are the foot soldiers practically running the government camp, collecting data and doling out hope to the miserable. “The government is ‘very fast’”, TeghTegh said, with an ironic smile, “but one simply hopes that they can cut through the bureaucracy and be faster.”
A vast majority of the supplies currently at the International Market camp have come, not from government, but from individuals and private institutions. On Monday, one woman brought two bags of water and a small sack of clothes. It was received with great joy by the BENGONET officials, who are primary collectors of data in the camp. There are also a plethora of organisations in Lagos, Abuja and other parts of the country, soliciting for funds and essentials for the flood victims.
“We are surprised by the response from Nigerians,” TeghTegh told this reporter. “I look forward to a situation where our people contribute so much that when the government is finally ready, they would find nothing to do.”
But, unfortunately, as at Monday evening, as TeghTegh strolled through the camp, talking to IDPs, there was still a lot to be done. “Look at me now,” she said, a crease of worry on her face, “I am looking for what to feed them this evening; they have to eat.” NEMA had donated 100 bags of rice, but there were no condiments and gas to power the cooking. Some charcoal stoves have been donated, but more is needed. TeghTegh was genuinely worried.
Earlier, the Minister of State for Environment, Mr. Ibrahim Jubril, and Benue’s deputy governor, Mr. Benson Abounu, had visited the camp. They both thanked God that no lives had been lost in the flood disaster. TeghTegh told this reporter they had recorded two deaths, but refused to criticise the government for not doing or knowing enough, because she believes they remain major stakeholders in the relief programme and will come through for the IDPs sooner or later. “Who can live without hope,” she said.
The volunteers at the camp are the lifeblood of the relief movement. They are mostly young, vibrant persons with university education who have chosen to work in civil society organisations. Elizabeth Apoyi studied English at the Benue State University but works in a gender advocacy NGO. “More than the money, helping people makes me fulfilled,” she said.
Most of the volunteers were drafted from some of the NGOs that make up BENGONET, but some members of the coalition have refused to send any staff, ensuring that there is a shortage of manpower. Volunteers are the ones tasked with the responsibility to go into the communities and record the data of those affected by the flood disaster, but there are not enough of them. “It is very demanding and stressful,” Apoyi said, “but it makes you happy when you realise that you are making a difference in someone’s life.” On Sunday, she had crisscrossed a muddy community, forms and pen in hand.
Joshua Emmanuel, a Medical Microbiology graduate from the University of Maiduguri and development worker, serves as an observer for BENGONET at the warehouse receiving NEMA supplies. “So far, we’ve received four trucks of supplies,” he said, “and we are expecting two more on Tuesday.” Contrary to reports from some quarters, he noted, the delivery of supplies from the emergency agency were all in order. “No one is diverting anything; we are making sure none of that happens.”
Not every volunteer went to university or works at an NGO. One of those helping to keep the camp secure is a Nigerian soldier, who asked to not have his name revealed. After years of being at the forefront of the Boko Haram battle in Yobe, he has returned to Makurdi on indefinite leave after developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “I can’t sleep at night,” he said, “so I have come here to volunteer my services, to keep moving.” Rifle in hand, he glides, literally, through the camp, his back a bit stooped from whatever burden he carries from his memories of bloody conflict.
On Tuesday, as early as 8a.m., the volunteers, again, were already in full swing. TeghTegh was giving orders, running around, acknowledging random greetings.
“We don’t know how long we will be here,” the BENGONET ERC’s secretary, Martins Orga, told this reporter, “but as long as it takes to get these people resettled.” Orga is a bearded, not-too-short man with bouncing enthusiasm. “My wife has started to complain about the hours I work, but I am passionate about what I do.”
Late into Tuesday afternoon, the IDPs led a mild revolt against camp officials. Around noon, legendary African artiste and Benue indigene, Innocent ‘Tuface’ Idibia, had visited the camp and dropped some supplies. But the IDPs believed, wrongly though, that the ‘African Queen’ crooner had left ₦1 million for them and the camp officials were withholding it. The revolt was quelled and by evening, distribution of the ‘Tuface Supplies’ had commenced. “Every single one of it will get to those it is meant for,” TeghTegh said.
The return of the floods
Makurdi, a city with a population exceeding 500,000, sits along the River Benue. The river, previously known as the Chadda River or Tchadda, is the major tributary of the River Niger and is approximately 1,400 kilometres long. When Makurdi and other parts of Benue and Nigeria were ravaged with floods in 2012, the main culprit was an overflowing River Benue.
This recent flood, however, was caused by a lack of proper drainage systems, like the haphazard town planning this reporter witnessed at Achusa. “On June 13, we alerted these communities on what to expect in terms of floods this year,” the Director-General of the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (NIHSA), Mr. Moses Beckley, told this reporter. “But they did not heed our warnings. And for those who are in low lying areas, if adequate drainage systems have not been provided or are blocked, then this kind of thing will happen when it rains in torrents.”
Meanwhile, there are feelers that Cameroon is about to release water from its Lagdo Reservoir, the same event that precipitated the 2012 overflow of the River Benue. But NEMA and Benue State Government officials told this reporter they were yet to receive any such statement from Cameroonian authorities. “To do something like that, they will have to inform us first,” the SA on the Benue Governor on Emergencies, Tsea, said.
On Wednesday, the day this reporter left Makurdi, Vice-President, Yomi Osinbanjo, led a government delegation that included the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Audu Ogbeh, Minister Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, Minister of State for Environment, Dr. Ibrahim Jubril, and the NEMA DG, Mr. Mustapha Maihaja, to Makurdi.
“President Muhammadu Buhari is concerned about the flood situation, not only in Benue but in other places as well,” the Vice-President said. “Dredging of River Benue is important and as being requested by youths around, the construction of drainage will also be done.”
But talk, as they say, is cheap; more torrential rains are still to come and the real tragedy of the Benue floods is that they will happen again.