FLOODED AND FORSAKEN: How govt’s nonchalance has worsened fate of Niger’s riverine communities 
“We have not seen flooding like it occurred this year,” said most victims of the recent flooding incident in the North-central part of the country. The disaster is reported to have afflicted hundreds of thousands of Nigerians across different states, leaving many dead and many more displaced. For four days, The ICIR‘s ‘Kunle ADEBAJO visited Niger, Kogi states, and the FCT, some of the worst-hit areas, to feel the pulse of the direct victims. In this two-part report, he shares how what is seen as an act of God coupled with the actions and inaction of government has driven various communities to starvation, homelessness and despair.
“Come! Come to my house,” voices from various directions plead. “Come and cover the damage to my house. You mustn’t leave without coming to see for yourself.” The natives of Gbami, and other communities in Lapai Local Government area call on The ICIR reporter to share their loss and stories of neglect with the world.
For Yishua Abdullahi, not only was his house greatly damaged, he also lost his maize and cassava crops. Likewise, the flood ravaged the house of Ahmed AbdulMalik, which he built in 2003. It appears nearly as though an explosion recently rocked the area, blowing off parts of the building. The only thing holding the shifted rooftop from collapsing is a couple of tree branches. It was formally a five-room apartment, but four rooms have been damaged, leaving only one room that offers little from protection from the rain.
Yunusa Mohammad, another resident of the village, fares no better. His prized possessions such as a generator and furniture items were literally destroyed. Like many others who are homeless, he had to move in with family members still lucky to have a place to call home. Mohammad plans to rebuild his damaged house, but he has no money to do so now.
Many other buildings in the village lie in ruins due to the flood. The villagers have devised methods to prevent structures still standing, such as using a fuel-powered machine to channel incoming water back in the opposite direction. Despite the havoc, Gbami is not among the worst-hit because the homeless locals from other communities still find refuge close to the village.
Showing this reporter around the vast farmland of the people, Uthman Ahmed, a resident of Gbami, laments the devastation visited on them by the inclement weather. “This place wey you dey see ba, all, nah water destroy am,” he says.
“My own farm is there too,” he adds, pointing ahead with a long stick he grabbed on the way. “From it, I can get like 30 bags of rice, but mine is not even much.”
Asked what the worth of the visible farmland is, Ahmed says at least 700 bags can be harvested from the immediately visible land on the right. “I’m not talking about this other side o, or the places we’ve been passing. From this other side, you can get 800 bags.”
The people do not have anything to do unless government wades in, he adds. At a time, food items were distributed in Muye to flood victims from various communities, but the little supply has already been exhausted.
He also complains about not seeing any representatives of government around to see how they are fairing, and assist with their needs.
“Government doesn’t pay us visits here,” he says. “We’ve not seen anybody. Since the flooding, we’ve not seen anybody. They only supplied small food and it was only once they brought it. The politicians have not done anything for us. Not one of them visited us to see how we are faring.”
At least N20 million in crops lost to the Niger
Mohammed Umar, who holds a diploma in Community Health and a farmer in Gbami, tells this reporter there are plots of farmland extending beyond the places visited and estimates that the entire affected region is triple what could be viewed from a standpoint. In naira, it will be worth over 20 million, he says, especially because more individuals had embarked on farming because of the federal government’s agricultural policies. But the flood struck hard before it was time for harvest.
“We have never experienced water like this before,” he says, shock still was written all over his face. “If not that the water has started receding, you will see engine boats passing through this place down to Ebbo.”
Weeks ago, there was an outbreak of cholera in a neighbouring village and it took time before it could be managed. Malaria has also become common since the flood, leading to the death of persons from other remote communities. Umar says the Primary Health Centre at Gbami ordinarily does not have drugs, but some were sent in response to the cholera outbreak.
Yawa-Kara: Separated from the world, neglected by govt.
Usually, with a rugged motorcycle, one can enter into nearly all communities in Lapai, including the remote parts. But since the flood, communities, including Yawa, have been inaccessible because of water, except through a boat.
As our boat waddled through a brown pool of water, flowing from the Jebba Dam, one could see thick stems darkened by moss, forming a cluster in the middle of the river. Far away, farm sheds are seen half-buried in water. Fishnets tied to tree branches are spread below the water.
“All of this place used to be a rice farm,” Ahmed says as he gently paddles the boat. “During the dry season, this is just land where you can ride a bike.”
At Yawa-Kara, there is a Primary Healthcare Centre, submerged in water. It is obvious there is no drug, and the nurse had travelled for days, the villagers disclose.
On the wall of buildings nearby are politician posters. A couple of cement bags lying by the wall have become rock-hard, bags of rice have gone rotten, and maize-grinding machines have started to gather rust.
Shuaib Sidi, who speaks on behalf of Saidu Idris, the community chief, narrates how residents of the village had migrated to the outskirts of Gbami to survive the flood. People mostly camped in the bushes for weeks until the water subsided. By the time they returned, many met collapsed houses. Therefore, some victims took refuge in the community mosque.
Corroborating Ahmed’s earlier remarks, Sidi confirms that some persons came from Muye to give the people rice and garri. This food supply, he says to the agreement of others, only lasted for two days.
“Many people did not get even one mudu,” he adds. “They only gave to some leaders. Youth no get anything from the food supply … All of our farms, water has washed away. We don’t have any food now.”
Though there used to be plenty fishes in the river, that is no more. People can no longer fish because of the flood, he says.
One of the Yawa’s flood victims, AbdulMalik Yahaya, was wounded at the time of the flood and so was prevented from carrying most of his properties to safety. With his family, he moved to the border end of Gbami. By the time he returned, his house was no longer there and his valuables were destroyed.
Husseini Umar, a father of three also lost his brick house and his farm of rice and beans to the torrent. He together with his two wives and their children erected a shed where they lay till his fortune change
“To feed my family is very hard now,” he says with a sad face. “Everyone is just facing their own problems; we are all waiting upon the government to assist.”
The horrible living condition of the people has made many vulnerable to sickness. Children, especially are frequently down with malaria fever. “No be small. Heavy sufferness!” he cries, holding tightly to an oar with his left hand. “Every now and then, we go for treatment.”
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Idris Abdullahi, the chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Muyegba Ward, also has been afflicted by the flood. Among other things he has lost was a section of his house. He is now left with a single room, which he shares with four wives and seventeen children.
During the interview, Abdullahi brings out his Permanent Voters’ Card (PVC) as evidence he votes and is active politically. He says, if his family had not received any form of assistance from elected leaders, he would have resolved not to vote for them. “But at least they brought one mudu of rice, though they’ve not promised anything else.”
“Even if we call our politicians, they won’t answer,” young men standing nearby chip in, “because they have gotten what they need. Next year, we’ll vote for another party.”
Residents of Yawa-Dompo, about a kilometre from Yawa-Kara, also say they only received one mudu of food supplies. In the village, Ibrahim, a young man with two wives and three children, is seen covered in cement as he toils to rebuild his wrecked home. Presently, he sleeps in a temporary structure made of bamboo, rusty zinc sheets and sacks. He tells this reporter he is using cheap sticks and cement to build another house because he does not have money to build a decent house.
‘Our leaders have abandoned us’
In Lapai Local Government, there is Old Muye and New Muye. But while the latter has no record of damage to houses, it is a different stroke for the former where both houses and farmland are devastated beyond repair. Residents of Old Muye moved to New Muye for temporary shelter when the flood persisted.
Next to New Muye is the village of Doba, lying by both sides of the road and spreading across lower plains close to the river, a few miles away from Girinya, Kogi State.
The government provided food items and promised, in September, also to provide building materials, but nothing has been done. Officials of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) who once visited to assess the situation have also not returned.
Several houses belong to Ayuba Saliu, 39, his mother and brothers have all suffered great damage. Personally, he says he has lost not less than N2 million, including cash crops from his six hectares of farm, money, fishing instruments and canoe. Most residents now pay to live in Girinya and Muye till they are able to rebuild their homes.
The state governor, Abubakar Sani Bello visited the community on September 12, but he did not walk around the communities to see the damages for himself. Apart from the governor, none of the representatives of the people at various political offices has come to render assistance or even give moral support, says Haliru Doba, a young resident of Doba.
“He [Bello] only stayed along the road opposite GSS Secondary School, Muye, and then left in a helicopter,” he recalls. “He was not here for up to two hours. He just went to see the Chief of Muye and left. He came around 2 O’ clock and did not spend up to two hours.”
“We are the ones who supported them, but now, since they got into office, they have forgotten us. We are not demanding anything, but they should at least help us with this problem.”
He also explains that though government officials have always mouthed relocation as the only solution to the constant disasters, it is difficult to execute in reality — not only because people have lived in the communities for centuries but because of the lack of resources needed to relocate.
“How do you relocate when you don’t have food, buildings or farmland where you are relocating to?” he asks. “It’s like starting afresh, and to start fresh life is not easy.”
An insincere government, a thieving people?
Both the government and the various communities afflicted are to blame for the tragedy suffered by the people of Niger State. This is the position of one of the top officials who took part in planning the distribution of relief items in Lapai Local Government.
While the governor has not shown any commitment, the people have also not been sincere, and have been discovered to unlawfully appropriate relief items, a community elder who pleaded for anonymity expresses a mix of concern and frustration.
“The little that was given to be shared for them, the day we went, they had stolen almost everything,” he discloses. “The vigilantes who were guarding those things said they’d kill them if they didn’t allow them to take because it’s their own. So we don’t know the people that took it, whether they are actual beneficiaries or other people that are not even affected who think anything from the government is awoof.”
He alleges that the President of the Association of Kakanda [people in the riverine area] in the region said he was given only N50,000 to transport relief items, though he received N400,000. Eventually, the association president did not show up at the meeting held at the Emir of Lapai’s palace to agree on the sharing formula.
He also condemned the insensitivity of the governor as well as his ethnic bias.”I don’t blame him. Since they’ve been having governors in this state, everybody has been thinking of his own side only, but it’s not only your side that is voting for you. It’s everybody.”
He says the state governor has been given a plan to resettle people in the flood-prone areas and that he would need to allocate plots and compensate them, but his excuse has always been that he does not trust any of the staff at the Ministry of Land.
“Initially, he gave 100 per cent of the relief materials to Mokwa, his side. And when we complained, he said we would share it 50:50.”
When members of the Kakanda Association, to whom delivery was made, were asked for the waybill, they responded that they did not have it. According to the community elder, the bag of rice that is meant to be 500 was instead said to be 410, kegs of palm oil that were originally 200 were said to be 150, and so on.
“So they themselves had stolen, and by the time the materials arrived in Muye again, the people also played their own game,” he concludes.
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L.G: We have not stopped working
At the Lapai Local Government Secretariat, this reporter meets with the secretary, Mohammed Ibrahim Batengi, who says the government is still working on alleviating the effects of the flood. He raises a spiral-bound 2008 report on flooding to prove his claim, and also says two representatives of the affected areas (Association of Kakanda) had just left his office.
According to him, the local government does its best to involve all stakeholders, including the people and the emirate council, to ensure fairness and accountability. This coalition regulated the distribution of materials from the state government, which included rice, beans, guinea corn, red oil, groundnut oil and garri.
“We have a committee which oversees the items brought, instead of sitting as a council to distribute,” he says. “We don’t have anything as our own here, but whatever is coming comes to us.
“The state government that time provided relief materials and we asked the communities to generate the list of those affected, village by village. Each village brought a list, of people that lost their houses and or farm products.”
He says the local government has not received any material support from the federal government and is still expecting. He also informs our reporter that the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has not made any move to work with the secretariat in distributing materials.
He admits there have been cases of people breaking into stores to make away with relief items before they are shared, but adds that the recent deployment of soldiers and policemen has curbed this. The solution, Batengi, suggests is for the affected people to relocate to a safer region, especially during the rainy season, but he adds that the government has not done enough to actualise this plan.
“There is a site allocated to the villages affected as a new location. But along the line, a lot of things fell out. There are some things to be provided by the government. I think we have the site here. Nobody came there to develop it. That’s why we said the government itself was to do something which it has not done. I know there is an already earmarked area in these villages… once those things are provided, they are supposed to move.”
Synergy of experts, forecasting needed — says Geographer
A lecturer at Ibrahim Babangida University, Lapai, with expertise in marine science, Ishaku Bashir Yakubu, has said collaboration between decision-makers, contractors and academic researchers is important if Nigeria hopes to escape the yearly flooding festival.
He says climate change is one of the leading causes of flooding. Being part of the tropical region, Nigeria is affected by the tropical maritime. More evaporation leads to excessive convective activity, which causes cloud formation and eventually heavy rainfall.
The natural soil surface, he explains, has different rates of evaporation, infiltration and porosity. Increased heating triggers a high rate of evaporation and less infiltration. Once the soil is tampered with, it might get saturated faster, absorb less rainfall, and then causes flooding and gully erosion.
“For us to overcome issues like this,” Yakubu advises that the government should develop an environment with recourse to the natural cycle because any alteration on the environment will have an equal feedback.”
He recommends that, just as it is the practice in developed nations, rainwater should be intercepted and conveyed to a particular channel for surface runoff after necessary calculations on evacuation capacity.
“Then again, you can see the way this pavement has been made,” he says, pointing in the direction of the window. “You know that for the interlocks, there’ll be low infiltration, so there’ll have been provision again that will evacuate water on the surface from the side, through this channel created.
“You can see, in our own case this is missing. When it is raining for ten, fifteen minutes, you’ll notice water logging.”
With serious forecasting, he continues, Nigeria will be able to know how much rain is expected and what measures to put in place to avert disaster. He says despite the highly unstable weather system in developed countries such as the United States, they often have minimal collateral damage because of the power of forecasting.
“What they do is that two months or so to the occurrence, if it is one that the intensity has been projected to destroy properties, they will ask all people around the vulnerable areas to move. They will now evacuate. If it is one that will stop you from going out, they will tell people to stock all the food supplies they need and activate medical services in case of any emergency,” he notes.
Tools such as Virtual Geographic Environment (VGE) are available that may be used also in Nigeria to achieve similar results but, he explains, the challenge is the lack of constant power supply.
“With VGE, the developed world put imagination into reality. They run this model on them and create artificial rainfall to see what happens if you have rainfall for thirty minutes, which area and which area are affected and by how much? So that is how they’re able to know this place is highly vulnerable and this is less vulnerable to such events. It gives them more effective adaptive measures.”
“But for you to render VGE, let’s say, simulated for five minutes,” he adds, “you will need nothing less than 24 hours uninterrupted power supply. Now let’s say you’re rendering for say one or two days, you’ll need like a whole week of uninterrupted power supply.”
Yakubu recommends that government officials, project contractors and civil engineers work in synergy to ensure policies and infrastructure are environment friendly. “There must be collaboration between experts,” he emphasises. “Once you don’t have that, you’ll design a system and it’ll fail.”
NEMA: We are moving from relief to rehabilitation soon
The Public Relations Officer of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Sanni Datti, in response to how the agency has so far responded to the flooding incident, has told The ICIR assistance is still at the stage of relief intervention.
He says Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who is the chairman of NEMA’s governing council, has been acting the government’s spokesperson and face on matters of flooding, and has visited most of the affected states to share government’s plans.
“Now that much of the water has receded and some of the communities are now dry,” he says, “attention will now be focused on their rehabilitation.”
Datti adds that the Director-General of NEMA, Mustapha Maihaji, during a recent visit to Kogi State to inspect intervention efforts, reiterated that support will be given to flood victims so they may return to their homes. He says he believes this means basic materials needed to restore them back to their original lifestyle, including building materials, will be made available.
He says: “Right now, what we are giving to them is just food items, feeding materials. It does not include building materials like cement and the rest. Maybe if that time comes, some support will be given to them on how to recover what may have been damaged.”
On communities that have not benefited from the distribution of relief items, he says he is aware staff of the agency made efforts to enter into the remotest parts of the flood-prone areas. He also tells The ICIR the federal government has plans to grade some of the water channels which will drain excess water once there is heavy rainfall.
“In fact, we are not just looking at immediate intervention of relief and rehabilitation of those affected. We are looking ahead towards future years to ensure that this thing is not left to be reoccurring,” he asserts.
Issues with state govt, lack of insurance … reasons for delay in relief
Difficulties in working with the government of Kogi and the non-provision of insurance for officials of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) are among the major reasons for the delay in distributing relief materials to Kogi flood victims. This The ICIR learnt from Hajiya Fatima Kasim, who is the coordinator of NEMA’s Emergency Operation Centre for Kogi and Edo states.
She confirms that relief materials have been received by the state agency and that distribution has started in Lokoja, with IDP camps being prioritised above host communities. She also says, if not for a workshop held in Abuja, the agency would have proceeded to begin distributing in Koton-Karfe, then other local governments.
“I am right now in Abuja, attending a workshop,” she says. “So hopefully next week, we’ll be around. We are going to KK [Koton-Karfe] next week God-willing.”
Explaining why there has been a delay in the relief distribution, she says arranging for logistics because of the difficulty in accessing some communities was a contributory factor.
“And then first we had to profile them to know the quantity of food we are taking,” she adds. “It was the profiling that took time, because you know most of us are not from these areas. So we depended on the state to lead us. We needed to know the number of houses because this time around we want to do it based on households.”
“The state … you know how they are … they were not too … how will I even say it… they had issues,” she says hesitantly. “The state had issues, that was why we didn’t finish the profiling on time.”
Asked what she meant by ‘issues’, she heaved a sigh and politely declined to speak further. One of the challenges again, she explains, is the risk to lives of SEMA employees who have no insurance.
She says: “We had issues … some people went somewhere and the boat stopped on the high sea. So to get people to go and risk their lives on that basis… you know it’s not as if the state SEMAs are insured. So those things needed to be ironed out. Those are some of the challenges, but we’ve been able to surmount them.”
Meanwhile, NEMA’s Head of Operations in Abuja, Samuel Bitrus, declined to speak with The ICIR, saying, unlike the public relations officer at the head office, he is not in a position to comment.
Aliyu Shehu Kafindangi, the head of NEMA’s operations in Kwara and Niger, did not answer calls from The ICIR and has not responded to enquiries on why communities have not received relief items from the agency.
Also, attempts by The ICIR to get in touch with the government of Niger State have wound up unsuccessful as the telephone line received has not been available. The contact page on the government’s website is also not available.
NEMA, according to a recent report, supervised the distribution of food items to 480 displaced persons in Shiroro Local Government, Niger State, thanking the people for their patience. Maihaja, the NEMA boss, also promised that “the federal government will respond with damaged needs assessment, whereby we will come up with details of the destruction and plan for reconstruction and recovery of all lost property.”