Anguish of a Host Community

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Adibe Emenyonu writes that for the Ogua Community, Ikpoba-Okha Local Government Area of Edo State, it’s been one tale of neglect and deprivation despite playing host to a foreign steel company

Jerry Enauna is a native of Ogua, a community at the Benin Bypass in Ikpoba-Okha Local Government Area of Edo State. Enauna was a young school leaver when in 2012, news reached him and other members of the community that a Chinese firm, Yongxing Steel Company, had acquired about 140 hectares of their land to establish a steel company. Their joy knew no bounds because because apart from securing job opportunity, it would boost economic activities of the area. Besides, it would also minimise the idea of going to Europe through Libya via the Mediterranean sea for greener pastures.

Like the youths, the Enogie (Duke) of the community, Ogiesoba Aghahowen, including elders and other indigenes of Ogua community, thought same as they saw the establishment of the firm in their domain as a good omen. The company commenced operation of steel manufacturing in 2014. Asides steel, the company is also into metal fabrication, production of iron rods, square rods, nails, electrode, cool wire, industrial gas oxygen and glass water etc.

MOU

Initially, it was gathered that the community had a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with management of the company on what they are supposed to do for the host community such as provision of electricity, building of schools (primary and secondary), road construction, and jobs for their teeming youths.

Situation on Ground

After the MoU, the community thought an eldorado had come but that was not to be as seven years down the line, there is nothing to concrete on ground apart from the construction of three blocks of open m market and two blocks of lock-up shops already overgrown with weed.

For any visitor to Ogua either from the Sapele road axis or from the Agbor road and Sokponba road flank, the Yougxing firm is at the entrance of the community. Ironically, what welcomes a visitor to the community is the dilapidated road, usually filled with waste from the firm’s junk yard, that is as black as charcoal. There is also a thick smoke that emits from the production plants, which has turned roofs of houses in the community black.

Just as the firm enjoys 24 hours power supply from a dedicated line from the Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC), the community gets partial power supply.

Meanwhile, around the firm is a colony of scrap collectors who are not indigenes of the community but built shanties where they sleep and sell metal scraps to the company at giveaway prices. The shanties erected around the firm are being occupied by over 800 scrap collectors. One of the scrap collectors who gave his name as Musa Mohammadu, said he makes as much as N20,000 monthly from gathering aluminium and other metals around the firm.

Community Reacts

Some elders of community who spoke on the perceived neglect by the company, said some landlords were already making plans to sue the firm for environmental degradation and air pollution.

The elders said the Yongxing Steel has performed below expectation by not living up to their expected Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in terms of employment provision, scholarships for students in the community, amongst others.

Taking THISDAY to the market built by the firm that has now been overgrown with weeds, they further said it was only during festive period that the firm usually gives them 12 bags of rice to share. According to them, “we cannot buy their product as contractors. They did not give us any license to sell raw materials to them or serve as middlemen for their finished products. Also, the bad smoke from the company is affecting us. We cannot use the rain water again because it is now darkish in colour. The rain water is black like charcoal. They are killing us slowly”.

During THISDAY’s visit to the area, the Enogie of the community, said the firm failed to deliver on all the promises made to the community when the land was allocated to them through the Oba of Benin, adding that the blocks of market stall built was abandoned and taken over by weeds because of the non-completion of the toilet facilities .

According to him, “when they came they promised to provide us roads, electricity, and schools in the community. But on our part we provided electricity through communal effort from Sapele road to this place. It cost us N25million, at a point the company was depending on our light, but after they fixed their own they left because now they enjoy 24 hours electricity.

“We approached them and pleaded with them to extend the supply to us, that we are ready to pay but they refused. You can also see the dilapidated condition of our roads, anytime they want to grade the roads they bring old excavators and before six months the roads will cave in.

“Every December, they bring few bags of rice to us but what we really want from them is good roads and electricity. Landlords are even threatening to go to courts, anytime it rains for about two to three hours, the water turns black like charcoal owing to waste they emit into the atmosphere, it is giving us serious concern.

“An environmentalist that visited the community said it is dangerous and a slow killer, so we are worried. Our people know about the danger and are threatening to go to court over the matter. We have approached them on several occasions and nothing has come out of it. In the last five years, they have not addressed these issues and our people are complaining. We have written to them on several occasions but nothing has been done.

“Recently, we sent emissaries and we wrote including the MoU we entered and sent through the local government to the governor, as we speak they have reneged on all the agreement we entered. My people are threatening to shut down the company because they are making a lot of money in this community and we are suffering.

“The lock up store was built five years ago and as you can see the toilets were blown away by the wind, we have appealed to them to come and fix it but again they also declined. It has been like this in the last three years. The non completion of the toilet has stalled the take-off of the market.

“The other day they promised to build a comprehensive school where everybody will be coming to attend, perhaps the land owners may not have access to the school, they want to do it their own way, we asked to enter an agreement that the school is a communal one. They want to build a high standard school where ordinary people cannot afford and that is what we are fighting against for the interest of our people.

“We want the government to as a matter of urgency prevail on them because we don’t want to take laws into our hands. We want good roads, schools and constant electricity. Even the community liaison officer that was employed has not been paid a dime since 2015. We have not benefitted anything from them.”

Company Reacts

In a chat with journalists, the company’s spokesman, Mr. Isaac Olufemi, debunked the allegations and said the firm hoped to do better. Olufemi said the market was built two years ago and has been completed 90 per cent. He maintained that it was the responsibility of the community to clear the bush around the market.

On the power supply, he said the power supply to the firm was not enough and as a result, it would not share any to the community. According to him, “power is expensive. We pay for power at a very high price. We want to build a mini power station for the benefit of the community. The power we are getting is small. We are not satisfying ourselves and we cannot give power. We shut down some machines for others to work. One of our waste product we use to repair the road. We give the community necessary things during festive periods.

“The community people do not come to ask for jobs. The job is tedious. If you give the Chinese chance, they will work for 24 hours. It is only meant for strong people. Those that agreed to work are from the North, Delta and other states but the community find it difficult to work. Those that worked there saved money and traveled abroad. It is lie that we sack indigenes of the community. We are six years old in operation. We want to build a secondary school with support from the Chinese government. The governor is aware. Apart from the ground breaking ceremony of the school, they will talk about other business.

“We have pollution control system. We filter the emission. The community people do not fall sick. We still use the underground water. We have done environmental audit on it. Their plants have not stopped growing. Our presence helps to provide security. We allow the community collect rent from stores around the company. The scraps from the metal we buy made over 2000 Hausas earn a living there. We don’t collect anything from them but they contribute money to the community.”

Environmental Implications

However, speaking on the environmental implications within Ogua community, Dr. Edeaghe Ehikhamenor, an environmental activist and founder, Save Accident Victims of Nigeria (SAVAN), lamented that the health condition of communities around the firm may worsen unless the appropriate authority intervenes to address the complaints.

He said: “I want to say that the emission no doubt is a major pollutant to the community. The emission can affect the respiratory system and as a pollutant there is no way you can organise a proper detoxification programme in the community with that industry there. The Chinese people need to be told in plain language that the black man cannot do that in China what they are doing to us here because they are gradually killing our people here.

“Beside the environmental effect, a lot of their staff had been brought to the hospital with cuts, injuries and so on. We have cried out so many times but they don’t want to listen. They don’t have any safety regulation in that place; there is always trauma and injury there. For that alone, it means that they do not have any form of control. It is a very serious thing, we are always having casualty from that place, we have complained and nothing seems to be done about it.

“At a point, I had to call the chief security officer to the governor on this matter. The last patient that was crushed died in less than 24 hours that he was brought to the hospital. I asked them if the Chinese man will allow a black person to run a company like that in their country, it is quite sad?”

Possibility of EIA by Environment Ministry

On her part, the state Commissioner for Environment and Sustainability, Omoua Alonge Oni-Okpaku, said her ministry is already in possession of a petition from the Ogua community which she said had been passed to the State House of Assembly for action.

While noting that management of the steel firm had been invited by the state legislators, she added: “Yes, we got the peoples petition written to us about a month ago and we have forwarded it to the house of assembly. The house has received it and given the firm 14 days to look into all the issues raised. So the 14 days will elapse on April 16, 2019, and we are waiting to see the measure they will take to rectify all the issues so that we as ministry can do an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In fact the management of the firm were at the state house of assembly last week”.