Ayetoro, an oil producing community in Ondo State, is on the verge of going into extinction. For more than a decade, the people have watched helplessly as their homes, means of livelihood and valuables are destroyed by ocean surge. Many elderly members of the community are said to have died of shock after losing all they had laboured for because of the problem. The people are pained that the federal government has continued to earn revenue from the community through oil exploration but has flagrantly ignored their pleas for help, INNOCENT DURU reports.
Elderly indigenes suffer shock, die of high blood pressure
How failed NDDC contracts compounded community’s woes
State, federal government officials dodge enquiry
When Kayode Okenla, an indigene of Ayetoro, a riverine community in Ondo State completed the construction of his seven-bedroom apartment recently, it was in the hope that he would never worry again about paying rent. Like a bed set free from the hunter’s snare, he leaped in ecstasy, punching the air repeatedly in full admiration of his personal accomplishment.
“This is great!” he said gleefully to himself. His status also changed instantly as friends, associates and family members teased him with the title of the latest landlord in town.
But his joy was short-lived as an ocean surge, a menace the community has contended with for more than a decade reared its ugly head again. Before his very eyes, Kayode watched helplessly as the sea launched a ferocious attack on his exquisite building, sweeping away everything in it with the force of a hurricane.
“From a proud owner of a well-furnished seven-bedroom building that cost me more than N7 million, I have suddenly become homeless,” he said regretfully. “I have already relocated to my mother’s house, but I suffered high blood pressure after the incident.”
Besides the building, Kayode also lost some fish ponds he had in the premises as well as his farm located close to the building.
“It was the first time I would experience a loss of that magnitude. Everything I lost put together would be worth more than N15 million,” he said.
Checks made across the community revealed that the hitherto lively area had become a shadow of itself. The sea, which had provided many of them with means of livelihood, had turned against them like a dreaded foe. Carcasses of buildings destroyed by the sea surge littered the area.
And it would seem that the sea was not done yet with its rage in spite of the enormous havoc it had wreaked. The more it looked at its victims, the more furious and itchy it appeared set to do more damage.
At regular intervals, waters from the sea converge on a spot like street gangsters and fiercely barge into the community. Each time they do, more houses and other valuables are destroyed, more residents are displaced and more tears rolled down the cheeks of the people.
For Kayode, the possibility of building another house is high because he is a young man. But the same cannot be said of 74-year-old Pa Emmanuel Lemamu who also lost the house he had struggled to build during his youthful days.
“I have become a refugee in my own land. I am no more in my own house. I am telling you the truth and nothing but the truth. Hundreds of houses have been destroyed in Ayetoro now. I built my house in 1956 but when the sea incursion came, it pulled down the building,” he said with a grimace.
“The damage is going on as we speak. Many people are packing the few of their belongings they can salvage from their houses destroyed by the sea incursion. Many of them are looking for where to stay now. I have been squatting in a friend’s house with my wife and children.
“We don’t have joy here in Ayetoro. We can’t sleep all night because we have to stay awake to guard our families and our few belongings from being swept away when the sea rages.”
Pa Lemmamu, who is the head of Paul Apostle Church, is fortunate to be among the survivors. Many of his peers who had similar experience were said to have developed high blood pressure and died.
“Many old people who were victims have died. It was high blood pressure that caused their death. Many who lost their buildings and valuables to the incursion have died because they didn’t know where to start from again.
“Many of them were worried over where to get money to build another house, because the cost of building was not so high back then compared to what obtains now. To build a house in Ayetoro now will cost millions and not thousands as it was in the past.”
The septuagenarian’s assertion was corroborated by the youths’ secretary in the community, Emmanuel Aralu.
Aralu said: “We lost one person to the incursion about four or five years ago, but it has claimed many lives indirectly. By this I mean that many men and women of 60 and 70 years and above who had their buildings destroyed by the sea incursion developed high blood pressure and died.
“For younger victims there is still hope that they can bounce back and build another house. But for old people, there is little or no hope of bouncing back. Before their own eyes, they watched all they had laboured for washed away by the sea incursion.
“People who had large houses suddenly turned to squatting in one-room apartments. Psychologically they are down. Such people are automatically half human beings. Many of them developed high blood pressure and other illnesses and died as I earlier said.
“That is why I said the death rate in the community has increased as a result of the incessant incursion of the sea.
More troubles for embattled community
Aside from losing their houses and valuables to the raging sea, findings revealed many members of the community have also lost their means of livelihood to the challenge. Their accommodation problems have been compounded by the challenge of what to eat, among others.
“Our economy has also been badly affected. Before, we had fish ponds and places where we used to smoke fish, but we can’t do all that again. The sea has washed everything away. Our people have lost their means of livelihood.
“Even those who are even going into the ocean are no longer making enough catches. There are no more fishes in the ocean as a result of the incursion. Crayfish which we even used to catch in the past are no longer there.
“Fishing is our major occupation here in Ayetoro, but we have lost it to the sea incursion,” Pa Lemmamu said.
The challenge, he added, has also robbed them of access to potable water.
“We don’t have potable water. They used to bring bags of pure (sachet) water from Igbokoda Waterside to Ayetoro for us to buy. It is the community that buys water for members of the community who cannot afford to buy it.
“The primary school in the community has been relocated more than three times. The community is just arranging a place for the children to have where they can read. The secondary school pupils have been brought together in one place.
“The major road that we often use has been affected by the incursion. The incursion, which used to happen occasionally, now happens every day.”
Another leading member of the community, Mrs Ibilola Akinluwa, also bemoaned the effects of the challenge on business and the vulnerable ones, especially women and children.
She said: “It is also having a telling effect on our businesses. Whenever the sea incursion occurs, those who have shops would lose everything they have. It always sweeps away their deep freezers and other valuables.
“When this happens, nobody can go and recover those things from the raging sea. Anybody that tries that will be swept away. The rage of the sea is better imagined than experienced.
“When it came recently, it was the able bodied men that helped to rescue the children who were helpless and confounded at the sight of the problem. But for the grace of God, the children would have been swept away.”
She added: “When a pregnant woman experiences this kind of thing, you can imagine the psychological effect it would have on her.
“Please, we are begging, they should come and do the piling for us so that our mind can be at rest. We have many children and there is nowhere to go. It is becoming unbearable for us.”
Community laments alleged neglect by government
The pains of the people are aggravated by the deafening silence of government at all levels in respect of their plight. They regretted that exploration has continued in the axis without any attempt to address their problem.
“We have been begging the government all these years to come to our aid. We have been begging them to come and use stones to stop the incursion but they are not responding,” Pa Lemmamu said.
Going down memory lane, he said: “I can remember when this community was founded in 1947, Ayetoro was very far away from the sea side. But when multinational oil companies began to erect their equipment in the area around 2002 on our offshore, erosion and incursion started to take place.
“Although I am not educated, from the local intelligence that God gave people like me, we found out that the activities of multinational oil companies are compounding the environmental problems we are facing here.
“The sea incursion often occurs around 1 am and 2 am. We almost lost two children to a recent incident.”
The youths’ secretary, Aralu, said the whole problem started about 10 years ago but has been so drastic and consistent in the last three years.
“Every one of us is skeptical and in pain. The whole community is almost getting to the point of being desolate. Buildings worth millions and property worth millions have been lost to the incursion.
“Previously, the incursion used to take place on a monthly basis, but it has now become a daily occurrence. We sleep with it, wake up with it and even dine with it.
“We can’t even identify what we can do now to ameliorate the problem because it is beyond our control. We have cried out and written letters to the government. We have made a series of efforts for the government of the day to hear our cry but nothing is forthcoming. All we get is promise upon promise.
“It is so sad and embarrassing for an oil producing community to be going through this without any help.”
The problem, according to Aralu, is affecting not only Ayetoro but the entire Ilaje.
“Ilaje is the base of oil production in Ondo State. It is this area that gave Ondo State the opportunity of being one of the oil producing states in Nigeria,” he said.
Kayode, who lost his seven-bedroom flat to the problem, wonders if there is a government in the country.
He said: “The development here makes me feel there is no government in the country. Nobody has come to our help. I think the activities of the oil companies aided the sea incursion that is ravaging our community.
“We have always called press conferences to make our plight public. We have also shared the videos of the incident on Facebook hoping that the government and relevant authorities would see it and do something about our plight, but nobody has done anything.
“The only help we have received is a small bed spread, mattress, garri and five-kilogramme rice. What can five kilogrammes of rice do for my family? We received that from NEMA.”
Mrs Ibilola Akinluwa, the woman leader of the church in the community, was close to tears as she pleaded for government’s assistance.
Akinluwa said: “The sea incursion is affecting us seriously and we don’t have anywhere to go. We are begging the federal government to come and help us. The problem is becoming unbearable and nobody has had any rest of mind since the problem started.
“When the sea rises, nobody will be able to sleep. When it comes, everybody, including children, will be seized by fear. The sea incursion often happens in the night and often rises as high as a building. When this happens, it would start breaking our houses. Half of the town is already gone.
“Many people have been displaced by the problem. It is those who have not been affected that are accommodating many of the victims now. Most houses are now overcrowded. An apartment that would ordinarily take five people is now being occupied by 10 or more people, with many children.
“Please, please, please, we are begging. Let the government come and assist us. They said they wanted to come and pile the sea for us but they never did. We have been crying for all these years.
“Please, we are begging you in the name of Jesus so that the sea incursion will not wipe us out.
5,000 residents displaced, 400 houses destroyed – Community’s spokesman
Spokesman of the community, Prince Victor Akinluwa, said more than 400 houses had been destroyed, with more than 5,000 people displaced by the incident.
“We have about 400 houses that have been destroyed and that made our people to be displaced. Our people are cramped in the remaining houses.
“This is the coronavirus period but we cannot maintain physical distancing here because a house where six people were living in before now accommodates about 50 people. Many people have migrated to the upland to stay with their relations.
“We had people staying by the roadside but the community has created makeshift structures for them. If this continues, Ayetoro has no future. If Ayetoro goes into extinction, it will definitely affect the whole Ilaje nation, because Ayetoro is like a channel to the entire Ilaje nation.
“We need government intervention. Somebody was talking about relocation the other time, but this is our natural habitat. We cannot be relocated from it. Our main occupation is fishing. Anybody who is thinking of relocating us must relocate the sea with us.”
Federal lawmaker begs government
A federal lawmaker representing Akinjo Ilaje/Ese-odo Federal Constituency, Ondo State, Hon. Kolade Victor, had earlier written an open letter to the government in this newspaper about the predicament of his people. But in spite of his position and influence, the people remain neglected.
His letter read in part: “I am constrained to write this open letter to draw your attention to the plights of the people of Ayetoro in Ilaje Local Government Area of Ondo State.
“Since my presence in the Eighth and Ninth Assemblies, several motions have personally and severally been moved concerning the parlous state of this oil producing Niger Delta community. The motions are of urgent national importance, calling the attention of the federal government to the recurring sea surge which threatens the community to near extinction.
“The issue here is about the safety and welfare of the people under your leadership; it is about life and death for all of us from the coastal region of Ondo State. This issue can no longer be ignored or be treated with laxity or tepidity; neither can it be swept under the carpet.
“It is heavily hitting at the very foundation of our existence as Nigerians and fast eroding the root of our oil-producing communities in Ondo State. Consequently, I am deeply worried that we are now standing on a precipice where we may no longer be able to hold the monstrous sea incursion at bay.”
In 2004, the lawmaker said: “The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) awarded the shoreline protection contract to Gallet Nigeria Ltd but had the contract terminated about four years later on grounds of non-execution.
“After much delay, the contract was later re-awarded in 2009 to Dredging Atlantic with nothing to show for it till today.
“Mr. President may recall that the Ayetoro community, aside from contributing its own quota out of the 60,000 barrels of crude oil per day made by Ondo State to the nation’s oil production, is also of great historical and tourism importance as the first community to have successfully practised communism in Nigeria.
“Therefore, this exposure of the people of Ayetoro community and their neighbours at Mese, Gbagira, Awoye and others in the coastline to excruciating ecological disturbance due to the oil exploration, exploitation and invidious opening of canals to the Atlantic Ocean by oil companies operating within the region would not only be perceived as an infringement but a threat to lives and properties.”
He further said: “It is lamentable that projects are being repeated annually in the budget of the NDDC without reference to the Ayetoro Shoreline Protection contract.
“Sadly, no emergency relief materials or measure has ever been provided to the victims of the sea surge, neither has any sympathetic or genuine visitation been made by the relevant agencies or their officials to Ayetoro or any of the affected neighbouring communities.
“As we head towards the rainy season, the people live each day in constant and reasonable fear for the safety of their lives. If we do not act now, God forbid, we may not be able to curtail the seismic consequences to follow.
“With utmost seriousness and concern, I seek your urgent and timeous intervention in the ongoing by ensuring that all hands be on deck to tackle headlong this recurring sea incursion in a manner that is holistic, inclusive and purposeful.
“The situation calls for cohesion, concentration of efforts and maximum force – be it political or economic to save the people of Ayetoro and the neighbouring communities. We cannot dither anymore.
NDDC, NOSDRA, others mum
Claims by the people that their pleas to the federal government and its agencies have always been ignored may not be far from the truth. The attitude of different government agencies to our enquiry indicated that much.
The Niger Delta Development Commision (NDDC) ministry, the National Oil Spill Detection Agency (NOSRA) and even the Ondo State Government whose people are affected by the challenge all failed to provide answers to our enquiries.
NDDC ministry spokesperson, Dr Ibitoye Abosede, did not respond to the calls and text message sent to her on allegations of failed contracts made by the people.
NOSDRA spokesman, who had earlier agreed to get one of the agency’s directors to speak on the alleged contribution of oil companies to the problems, subsequently failed to respond to calls from our reporter. He later asked the reporter to write a letter to the DG/CE after our reporter sent him a text message reminding him of his earlier promise.
Ondo State Commissioner for Information, Donald Ojogo, said the community’s problem was being handled by the office of the deputy governor and promised to send the details of the contact person. He never did even in spite of a reminder to that effect.
How Lagos fought ocean surge
After the state suffered a similar challenge as the embattled Ondo community, Lagos devised ways to put a stop to the menace. The state government earmarked N36 billion for the construction of 18 groynes (sea breakers) to check the ocean surge between Goshen Estate and Alpha Beach.
The then Commissioner for Waterfront Infrastructure Development, Mr. Adebowale Akinsanya, said the contract was awarded in November 2012 and divided into three phases because of funding.
Akinsanya explained that phase 1 of the project, which is the construction of three groynes, started in January, 2013 and had been completed, adding that phase 2, the construction of 12 groynes, was awarded in June 2013 while work began in January 2014.
“The reclamation of phase 1, measuring approximately 150 hectares has been completed and a road alignment has also been reclaimed which makes it accessible by driving from Freedom Way. The Project, upon completion, will not only add to the existing stock of land mass but add to the ground rent and other taxes accruable to the state, which will boost internally generated revenue,” he said.
This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Free to share project.