Okomu: Suffering in the Midst of Plenty

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Adibe Emenyonu, who just returned from the Okomu fishing community in Ovia South West Local Government Area of Edo State, captures the sheer neglect of a people blessed tremendously by Mother Nature, but forgotten by successive governments

The Okomu National Park, formerly Okomu Wildlife Sanctuary, is a forest block within the 1,082 square kilometre forest reserve in Ovia South West Local Government Area of Edo State. The park is about 60 kilometres Northwest of Benin City, capital of Edo State. From available records, the park holds a small fragment of the rich forest that once covered the region, and is the last habitat for many endangered species.

It also holds a remnant of the Nigeria lowland forest that once formed a continuous 50 – 100 kilometres wide belt from the Niger River to the Dahomey Gap in Benin Republic. Besides, the park is home to forest elephants, buffaloes, red River logs, chimpanzees, leopards, bush baby, putty nosed guenon, porcupine, pangolins, antelopes, and the rarest white throated monkey that attracts tourists to the area.

At the southern flank of the national park is the Okomu Oil Palm Plc., a Federal Government-owned firm established in 1976 as a pilot project aimed at rehabilitating oil palm production in Nigeria. At inception, the pilot project covered a survey area of 15,580 hectares out of which 12,500 hectares was planted with oil palm. The company was incorporated on December 3, 1979 as a limited liability company.

As part of efforts to shore up its revenue base, the company acquired and installed a 1.5-tonne Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB) /hour mill in 1985 to begin to process its FFB. Prior to the installation of the mill, the company derived its revenue from the sale of FFB.

By December 31, 1989, 5,055 hectares of the estate had been planted. The company also began infrastructural developments on the estate at that period. The facilities included office blocks, workshops/stores, staff quarters, a petrol station, a powerhouse and a primary school for children of the company’s staff members.

Apart from the cultivation and processing of fresh fruits, the company is also into rubber tree cultivation and processing. It also attained the feat of being the only agricultural plantation company listed in the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE).

On March 14, Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki flagged off cultivation of the Okomu Oil Palm Company’s new plantation Extension 2 with 11,416 HA plantation.

Antithesis

However, between the two firms – Okomu National Park and Okomu Oil Palm Plc. – lies a village to the southwest, separated from the coast by mangrove and swamps; a rain forest ecosystem that is the habitat of villages numbering about 29. Among these villages or settlements is the Okomu Community, a fishing village where the two notable corporate bodies derived their names.

Ordinarily, given the rich resources surrounding it, Okomu as a community, should not lack modern facilities, such as good roads, healthcare amenities with adequate drugs, pipe-borne water etc.

But the opposite is the case. In reality, the community is a shadow of itself, as it struggles to survive under a terrible lack of government presence. The houses are mainly made of thatch roofs because of the difficulties conveying building materials through the river by boat, which is the only smooth means of reaching the community.

The only road network to the place is nothing to write home about. It is just an untarred road, which often goes from bad to worse because of the activities of heavy-duty vehicles involved in logging.

The community school in the area not only looks dilapidated with broken ceilings and leaking roofs with little or no chairs and desk for learning, it only has two staff; a teacher and a headmaster.

Same thing goes to the healthcare centre which was built by one of the past council chairmen, Mr. Christopher Adesotu. Even at that, the health facility is just a building crying for attention. The edifice built about the year 2000, looks dilapidated with no drugs and inadequate personnel to man the place, except a nurse who performs all functions of a medical personnel.

Unfulfilled Election Promises

There is a gaping lack of presence of both the local and state governments in Okomu community. Politicians and government officials are said to visit the area only during elections, after which the people are forgotten until the next election.

According to Sunday Ajele, a community leader from the area, “the only time the state and the local governments remember us is during the time of voting. The only primary school we have, has only one teacher, who incidentally is the headmaster and class teacher. The community donates money amongst themselves on monthly basis to recruit teachers to teach pupils in the school. The health centre is almost collapsing, with only one nurse. She is the doctor, nurse, matron and the house keeper. Another issue is that the health center has no drugs to dispense.”

Government Strategy

In December last year, when the community cried out over neglect by the state government, the Obaseki government said it was working out a broad-based strategy to bring development in all sections of the state according to their respective needs.

Obaseki who spoke through his Special Adviser, Media and Communication Strategy, Crusoe Osagie, also pointed out that to realise this even development, the State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) has embarked on numeration of a number of schools in the state with a view to know those that have schools and those who do not, in order to allocate schools to them.

The governor said, “There is a broad base strategy to bring development to all sections of the state in terms of their needs. To achieve this, the State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), has embarked on numeration of number of schools in the state, vis-à-vis to know those that have schools and those who do not have with a view to allocating school to them”, adding that as soon as that is completed, those who do not have will certain smile.”

However, more than seven months after the promise, it appears the situation has remained the same as the people continue to lament government neglect. Churches in the community also suffer the same fate. The buildings are a further reflection of the poverty in the area due to the alleged lack and neglect of the community.

Friction

Consequently, frequent friction had become a daily occurrence between the corporate organisations and the host community, Okomu, regarding fulfillment of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The pressure is particularly on Okomu Oil, whom the people had been in constant cold war with.

It was this constant disagreements, as gathered, prompted authorities of the company to pay a visit to Okomu, apparently to foster unity. During the meeting, allegations of neglect and marginalisation resurfaced.

Demands

Presenting their grievances to the management of the oil company, the community said it wanted Okomu Oil to respect relevant international laws, including the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The people also said Okomu Oil should rebuild the houses of the four communities forcefully evicted and pay compensation for their lost property and provide them with alternative livelihood options.

They also demanded that henceforth, the firm should respect the Fundamental Human and Environmental Rights of the people of Okomu Kingdom as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution and extant International laws.

Furthermore, they demanded that Okomu Oil should discard the purported MOU allegedly signed fraudulently on behalf of Markilolo village because it does not have the consent of the people, noting that the 6pm-6am martial curfew imposed on the people is not only too draconic, but should be called off immediately, adding that the company should extend or expand no further since the host community has no other source of livelihood left, because the land is their future.

These demands, they clarified, does not discountenance some of the good things they have gotten from the oil firm. On this, Ajele, the Fiyewei of Okomu Community said some of the projects include: three boreholes in Okomu town and Agbede, the town hall which is presently housing the JTF soldiers, donation of books to primary school pupils, the grading of the road, the bursary for three students, oil location, which has not been regular, and the public toilet under construction for over four years.

Okomu Oil Reacts

Responding, Managing Director, Okomu Oil Palm Plc, Mr. Graham Heffer, reflected on the partnership between the company and its host community, which he said dates back to 2007 when he became the MD. Admitting that the relationship had its ups and down, he expressed hope that it would blossom.

Heffer noted that henceforth, the company would see how to develop its host communities, adding that Okomu Oil Palm is just a firm in business and not government, that has more resources for development.

According to him, “We have other 29 communities to relate with. For the past six years, we have donated benches, books in schools, refurbished schools buildings in excess of N40 million.

“Though this might not be enough, we however know that it has gone a long way to bring in development in the community. It is expected that the cold war between the host community and the company will be one that can bring mutual respect.”