From Shehu Shagari to Ibrahim Babangida and Olusegun Obasanjo, and now President Muhammadu Buhari, exploring Nigeria’s bitumen reserves has been an impossible mission for the country’s leaders. As with previous governments, bitumen-bearing communities have now lost hope in government’s preparedness to break the jinx, while they keep enduring the side effects of huge bitumen deposits, reports YEKEEN AKINWALE, who recently visited Ogun, Ondo and Edo states.
Oladele Onasaya, a 70-year -old cocoa farmer in Imeri, Ijebu East Central Local Government of Ogun State, is no longer interested in whether the government explores the enormous bitumen deposit in his community or abandons it forever.
Onasanya’s hopes of a better life and development to his community when the reserves are exploited have faded, having waited for better part of his life without seeing any of the promises by past administrations concerning the exploration.
Despite his position in the village, the Secretary, he does not believe the exploration of bitumen in his village or elsewhere can take place in his lifetime.
Elsewhere in Ilubirin, Odigbo Local Government of Ondo State, 65-year-old Rufus Olapade, whose hope of being employed by a bitumen refinery has also been shattered after years of waiting, believes the government has never been serious about bitumen exploration. Oloyede Olapade, his younger brother, is much more disenchanted about it, saying; “We all have become lazy men because of hope of working in bitumen plants.”
For over 100 years, Nigerian government has not found a way around exploiting its rich bitumen reserves.
Bitumen reserves in Nigeria, put at 42.47billion metric tons — largest in Africa and second largest in the world — after Venezuela, have been estimated to be almost twice more than the oil reserves of the nation. There were 37.2 billion barrels (5.91×109 m3) of proven oil reserves in Nigeria as of 2011.
They are found in Lagos, Ogun, Ondo and Edo states, covering approximately 120km. Yet, according to Rotimi Akeredolu, Governor of Ondo State, Nigeria spends N300bn on importation of bitumen annually. Also, over 600,000 tons of asphalt are currently being imported to Nigeria, according to Kayode Fayemi, Minister of Mines and Steel Development.
READING FROM THE BOOK OF LAMENTATIONS
Sitting on the edge of a wooden bed in the expanse of his sitting room, Onasanya, after some moments of hesitation to talk on the issue and with clear feeling of disappointment written all over his face, finally opens up.
“Our fathers hoped on the bitumen until they died, I’m not interested in it any longer,” he says, sternly. “White people come, others will come, and they are just using us; I’m 70 years old now.”
Olapade shares these sentiments too. “I don’t know why the government does not have interest in bitumen,” he says as he attempts to pull out a tar-sand sprouting from the ground — clear evidence of bitumen — in front of his house.
“They were saying the exploration will start today, tomorrow or next week, I realized that we could not even trust the government because I see no reason why up to this moment, nothing has been done and we say we want to move forward.”
After being part of crowds that received three past presidents who visited the bitumen sites in the village, the Village Head says the people’s expectations about exploration have since died (Former presidents Shehu Shagari, Ibrahim Babangida and Olusegun Obasanjo visited Agbabu village in Odigbo Local Government, Ondo State; all of them promised to explore the deposit but none fulfilled it.).
Over the years many young and old men retire from farming, hoping to get enlisted into companies that would begin exploration of bitumen. They are still waiting for such companies many years after several failed attempts by the government to kick-start the process, he tells ICIR.
Damendra Oluwatoyin, Lisa of Agbabu (second in command to the monarch), also shares these sentiments. He was around, too, when the former presidents visited his village, where bitumen was first discovered in commercial quantities. Agbabu bitumen is said to have the best quality, containing petroleum deposits too.
“It was only Goodluck Jonathan that we didn’t see when he was President,” he recalls. “Upon all their promises nothing was done.”
In June 2016, the visit of Kayode Fayemi, Minister of Mine and Steel Development, to the sites of bitumen in Agbabu, where the deposit spills out in its raw form, was the assurance the locals and investors needed to believe that the time might have actually come for the long-awaited exploration of the mineral resources.
It was Obasanjo who initially came close to breaking the jinx, but he, like others, missed the opportunity. BEECON Nigeria Limited and NISSANDS of Canada, the two firms that were licensed to explore bitumen, could not raise the N75 billion needed to commence operation.
Before leaving the sites, Fayemi had raised the morale of the locals, telling them that work would resume on the exploration of bitumen by February 2018, and that government was ready for the bidding process for prospective investors.
But February 2018 ended without a sign of an investor at any of the bitumen sites. “They promised us by this February that we will see changes. February is ending now, we have not seen anything,” laments Lisa.
STILL WAITING FOR THE PROMISED BLESSINGS
“New business would spring up at all the bitumen belts…the benefits are immense,” those were the promising words of Julius Ihonvbere, in June 2002. He was the Chairman of Bitumen Implementation Committee in the Presidency.
“More importantly, the bitumen bearing states and bitumen bearing communities would experience unparralled development,” he added.
Fast-forward to 2018 – 16 years after – none of the states and the community where bitumen is discovered has experienced any development influenced by the exploration of this natural resources.
On the contrary, they are bearing the brunt of having bitumen deposits in their domain, such as environmental degradation, pollution and health risks.
For instance, Agbabu, a community of about a thousand fishermen and farmers, several kilometres away from Ore in Ondo State where bitumen was first discovered in 1900 by Germans, is without amenities. Agbabu is believed to be home to the country’s largest reserves of deposit.
Even the Bitumen Field Office constructed at Ore directly opposite the Headquarters of Odigbo Local Government is wasting away unused. No one can say what it is meant for.
Villagers in Agbabu, where the first drilled site of bitumen has become a tourist centre, have perpetually lived without electricity, clean and safe water and good road; they fetch water for domestic use from Agbabu river, which is already contaminated by bitumen spillage.
The bitumen site, with a completely bitumen coated pipe through which a bamboo pole has been used to feel the reserves since 1900, is taken over by grasses with broken-down gates. No one visits the site despite its economic potentials for the village – because the road is deplorable.
“Governor Mimiko gave us a small health centre, it is just for delivery and it is not administered by a professional doctor. It’s a two-bed facility,” he says, adding: “We have just one secondary school and a primary school, which I can rate as the worst in Ondo State.”
Ilubirin was among the villages from where a team of geologists, led by Professor Stephen Adegoke of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), picked samples of bitumen for testing in Canada, in 1977. It remains a rustic village without a primary and secondary school, leaving children from the village trekking several kilometres every day to attend schools at Mulekangbo Village or Agbabu, .
Like Agbabu, Ilubinrin villagers fetch water for drinking and domestic use from a nearby river that is also being polluted by bitumen spillage.
For Gbeledu-Loda in Irele Local Government, Ondo State, and Imeri in Ijebu Mushin, Ogun State, the situation is no less worrisome. In 2003, Obasanjo laid the foundation for the exploration of bitumen at Loda; that effort later turned a failed adventure. The opening plaque erected to commemorate that day has since broken down.
The people of Gbeledu Loda have lost hope on anything good coming from bitumen; they rely on water from Araromi river.
According to Ayo Fada, a cocoa farmer at Loda, bitumen deposits have taken over all the wells sunk in the village, a situation that compels them to make use of water from the river. They live without electricity, although there is a secondary school and a primary school.
And despite being some kilometres away from Ijebu Ode town, Imeri has no school, no hospital; two water pumping machines were blocked by bitumen reserves when two boreholes were drilled in the village some years ago.
It has played host to investors and representatives of government who have at one time or the other come to check the bitumen deposit. The village needs a face-lift: motorable road, water, schools and healthcare facility. Illegal bitumen miners have also tricked the villagers to make away with some tons of the deposits at some point.
Sick children and pregnant women are often rushed to Imusin Esure where there are private hospitals, or Ijebu-Ode where there is a General Hospital. It takes crossing the express-road for kids to attend schools, too.
RISK OF ANOTHER NIGER DELTA CRISIS
Femi Akinbode, an environment activist, complains that government is not taking measures to avoid a repeat of mistakes of the past.
“Ignoring environment-related issues and needs of the residents” could create a situation that is unimaginable in terms of conflict and security, he warns.
Whenever the government decides to finally explore the country’s bitumen reserves, one of the major issues that will apparently play up is the readiness of the host communities to let go of their land.
Already, Buhari has granted licence to South West Bitumen Company Limited and BEECON Nigeria Limited to begin the extraction of bitumen as his government diversifies the economy.
But the government cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of Niger Delta in the exploration of bitumen in the four bitumen bearing states; legacy of the Niger Delta oil exploration is one of pollution, corruption and unfulfilled promises.
For Olapade and his kinsmen at Ilubinrin, the village, the knowledge of what happens to them, their homes and farmland given an eventual exploration of the tar sand is vague.
“We are not aware that we could be displaced or our land may not be useful again for farming if the exploration starts, the cocoa farmer says.
There is limited public understanding of what exactly Nigerians can expect during and after bitumen exploration, Christina Milos writes in her book, ‘Bitumen in Nigeria: Weighing the true cost of exploration’.
She says the social and environmental impacts of bitumen exploration are anticipated to be serious and widespread.
Within the bitumen bearing communities, there’s a widespread lack of understanding of what impact the exploration of bitumen could have on the locals and their means of livelihood.
From Agbabu to Ilubinrin, Loda to Imeri, their experiences and stories are similar. They don’t know much about implications of exploration and are not likely to vacate their villages; over 30 villages in the four states are likely to be affected when government commences commercial exploration of bitumen.
What the community expects from the Federal Government, Olapade explains, is a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).
“We expect government to send people down and create a forum where they will meet us and give us lecture on what is going to be the doom if this bitumen exploration starts.
“We have been looking forward to that MoU, but up till this moment, nothing was done.”
With a caveat to the government, he says: “If they ever come, we will engage them. We must have a talk; we have lawyers and we will involve valuers so that there is no loopholes, otherwise what happened in Niger Delta will repeat itself here, because this is our land.”
What impacts has bitumen had on the area at the moment? The community leader paints a disturbing picture.
“The water is not drinkable; during raining season all the well are filled with water but the water is not drinkable,” he reveals.
If the bitumen is floating and animals pass there, they get stuck there. Then the moment you plant some crops, and the tap roots start going down and hit the bitumen, the crop will die. Only palm tree has survived the toxic effects of bitumen.
Clearly, Olapade exudes ignorance of the implications of the exploration of bitumen. Onasanya, his compatriot at Imerin, does not know anything either.
He tells ICIR that he and his people are not willing to abandon their ancestral home and farmland for bitumen exploration.
“We are not interested in being relocated from here if they want to start the exploration. We are farmers, how are we going to have access to our farmland?” he asks. “We have told our Baale that we may not move from here.”
They are already experiencing the negative impacts of the deposits; ongoing spillage into Agbabu River coupled with high temperature are fast killing cocoa and other plantations.
Lisa, who says his three-year-old daughter was hospitalised for high body temperature, does not know that bitumen exploration can lead to displacement and relocation for the villagers.
“Relocation will lie in the hands of the experts. If they know that exploration will affect us, they should do that for us.
“The gas emission and oil spill from the place we call Mile 2 are already affecting our rivers and had affected the availability of fishes in those rivers.”
Zacheus Adebayo, a 40-year-old former cocoa farmer now a palm oil processor, has had a raw deal of the effects of bitumen in the village. After bitumen-generated heat killed over 400 of his cocoa plants, he switched to the cultivation of palm trees and now operates a local oil palm mill.
“Because of the high temperature that bitumen releases into the atmosphere, we are already replacing our cocoa trees with palm trees,” he says. “There is no solution to that. I have lost over 400 cocoa trees and that’s why I’m planting palm trees now. The heat is affecting us here, it is as if we are in the oven and there’s no electricity here.”
As for him, if the exploration will affect villagers and their means of livelihood, government must take all necessary measures to protect their interest. ” We don’t want the situation of Niger Delta to happen here,” he adds. “We are also part of Niger Delta, but we don’t want such to happen here.”
The young farmer says he and his people expect compensation from government after a thorough enumeration might have been carried out. “This is to avoid chaos,” Zacheus says with the hope that the exploration will take place anytime soon.
GOVERNMENT WON’T ALLOW RESTIVENESS
The Nigerian Mining Act 2007, which regulates mining and exploration activities in the country, sets out precondition for exploration — the submission and approval by the Mines Environmental Compliance Department of all Environmental Impact Assessment Studies and mitigation plans required under applicable environmental laws and regulations … and the conclusion of a Community Development Agreement approved by the Mines Environmental Compliance Department.
This, Yinka Oyebode, Special Assistant on Media to Kayode Fayemi, Minister of Mines and Steel Development, says will help to avoid any form of restiveness that may occur as result of exploration.
He stresses the need to engage the host communities by the companies because government only regulates and provides frame work but does not explore directly.
“The last time the Minister visited the communities, some of these issues — relocation and compensation — were tabled and government’s plans were also explained to them.
“Government has learnt from past experiences in other sectors, government is not just to leave it carelessly,” Oyebode explains, adding: “We emphasise on corporate social responsibility because the community must be well taken care of for you to actually enjoy your work and prevent youths restiveness.”
Although the two firms given licences to explore bitumen are still perfecting their acts — they at least have 18 months to commence operation — locals and environment rights activists say the the risk of a crisis similar to that of Niger Delta is high if appropriate measures outlined by the Mining Act are not taken.