IT has been a busy day for Aliyu Ibrahim, a butcher at Bwari abattoir. He is at work on the Sallah day that Muslims are celebrating their annual ram sacrificing festival.
With his trousers rolled up, he walks barefooted on a ground covered by sooth from burnt tyres because− at Bwari Abattoir situated along Kaduna, Jere express road, tyres are used to singe the hair of slaughtered cows.
Pacing up and down, and with his hands full, shuttling between a dead cow that is being butchered and another one that has just been slaughtered, Ibrahim brings out a wrap of Indian hemp, looking for a lighter to light it up.
As he puffs grey smoke from the hemp into the air; Ibrahim uses a curvy knife to slice through a used tyre, which he would later set alight to burn a lifeless cow lying in the sooth opposite a heap of black ashes where countless animals have been burnt in the past years.
“Oga abeg make dem bring more tyres to burn this cow finish,” he told a customer, who had brought a cow for slaughter. And without minding the unsanitary state of the abattoir and the environment, he jovially handles everything with dexterity.
Having spent more than 10 years on the job, he has mastery of everything; from taming angry cow to bringing down the beast on its back to slaughtering it.
An eyesore called abattoir
Despite an intermittent rainfall that characterises the day, he and Sunusi, another butcher carry on with their deboning of dead animals while a number of customers wait for them.−some in their cars; others take shelter in the derelict corner of the slaughterhouse. Water drips from several openings on the roof, but the butchers careless.
The abattoir lacks the major features of a modern slaughter house− no potable water supply, no electricity, no concrete road, no transportation and no provision for waste disposal−it is yet a beehive of activities every day.
The abattoir was constructed more than 15 years ago by the Bwari Area Council in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.
It has two changing rooms which are not being used, the ceilings and walls of the building are covered by soothes that have settled there over the years. The ceilings are broken, a sign of years of neglect.
It has no window fittings, no doors for the three entrances −none among the butchers know what or who removed all the windows and doors of the slaughterhouse.
Even the inscription on a side of the building showing the date of the commission has faded.
The well, the only source of water at the abattoir has sufficient water only during the raining season. During the dry season, shortage of water compels butchers to use dirty water to wash meat.
Yet the dilapidated slaughterhouse is the only one that serves the entire Bwari community and environs like Dutse, Kuduru, Garam, Barangoni, Sabon Bwari, Ushafa. Approximately, a total of 7,300 cattle are slaughtered in a year at the abattoir while the Area Council rakes in about N1,460,000 as tax from slaughtered cows alone.
There is no sign that the abattoir is under any supervision from the Area Council, but authorities of the Area Council collect N200 as a tax on each cow slaughtered in the slaughterhouse every day.
“We kill between 15 to 20 cows here every day and pay N200 for one cow to the Area Council,” Ibrahim says.
Malik, another butcher at the slaughterhouse who lamented the deplorable state of the facility noted that nothing has been done by successive administrations at the Area Council to improve the house since it was first opened to public use.
Pointing to a well just behind the building, he said the well was dug when the building was constructed but was quick to add that once dry season sets in, the level of water in the well reduces.
This, according to him, explains why they (butchers) use dirty water to wash meat in spite of the health risks.
Unlike other slaughterhouses in developed countries where cows and other animals are transported mechanically, two long iron carriers are deployed by butchers at the Bwari abattoir to ferry them into the abattoir. “There are no trolleys or any vehicles here.”
For this, Ibrahim said, the Area Council despite the daily tax it collects from the abattoir has neglected it.
“No be Area Council? And na dem dey collect money. Every cow, we pay N200 to the Council and dem no repair am,” he said.
Haliru Sani, Chairman of Bwari Butchers Association told The ICIR that the association has been responsible for the maintenance of the abattoir. He said the association was tired of complaining to the the authorities at the Bwari Area Council. According to him, the association spends its personal money to maintain the abattoir.
He said the Federal Capital Development Association (FCDA) had wanted to dig a bore hole at the facility to ameliorate the challenge of water shortage “but there was no sufficient water around here. So they have to drill it else where in the market.”
Sani also confirmed that officials of the Area Council collect tax on each of the slaughtered cow at the abattoir.
When contacted on what his administration intends to do to uplift the slaughterhouse, Chairman of Bwari Area Council, Musa Dikko, neither answered calls to his mobile phone nor replied to the text message sent to the phone.
Bwari town is the headquarters of Bwari Area Council, one of the six Area Councils in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). It is home to the headquarters of Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB), the Nigerian Law School, Federal Government Girls College, the Area Council Secretariat, Banks, Churches and a military barracks.
According to the 1999 Constitution, Local Governments are saddled with the responsibility of running abattoirs.
Health and environmental risks
Each day that cows are slaughtered; there are no public health care workers and veterinary officials from the council to ascertain the status of the animals.
This, The ICIR gathered, allows a lot of unwholesome practices such as singe of hair of animal by fire and washing of meat with filth by butchers who learned the art locally.
Butchers neither wear hand gloves before handling the meat, nor wear protective boots around the facility. Twice, Ibrahim injured his hand while butchering a slaughtered cow. This, experts say increases rate of transmitting infectious diseases such as AIDS/HIV or hepatitis by an infected butcher to the meat and eventual consumer.
The abattoir did not meet the minimum operating standards to guarantee food safety because there is currently no national legislation relating to abattoir operation in Nigeria.
Unhygienic disposal of wastes, as well as lack of treatment of waste and byproducts utilization, are part of the reasons that the abattoir has posed a serious health risk. The whole house is surrounded by filth –majorly of animal byproducts, horns, hooves, bones and paunch contents, oozing offensive odour as flies roam freely.
An elderly man, “Maidunbu’ is always waiting with his long knife to sniff life out of the animals. That is his beat at the abattoir. He is the slaughterer. The ICIR witnessed the slaughtering of many animals at the abattoir without any public health officer giving a go-ahead, contrary to international best practices.
Once they are slaughtered, the fire made from used tyres await the dead animals.
According to American Public Health Association, unlicensed workers in unmonitored slaughter houses in developing countries (such as Ghana and Nigeria) are known to frequently use an open fire, set with scraps of automobile tires, to singe the hair of slaughtered goats and cattle before eating or cooking.
The association says this approach “is a huge potential health risk,” because automobile tyres are made of chemicals and materials that, when released into the environment under ambient conditions (like open fire burning), can release hazardous chemicals onto the meat and into the ambient environment.
Some examples of such pollutants, according to the association, are particulate matter, volatile organic compound (VOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Such chemicals or particulates, when released into the ambient air, may be inhaled or ingested, and could pose severe health hazards to the public or workers in and around the slaughterhouses.
There are no face masks for the butchers when they are around the heavy smoke that billows from the fire they set on the animals on a daily basis. The ICIR observed that the butchers seem unaware of the danger of working in a polluted environment or using vehicle tyres to burn dead animals. To them, it is faster and cost-effective to use vehicle tyres to remove hair from the animals than any other means.
“Na the tyre dey quick burn the cow and e dey burn am well,” says Malik. But when The ICIR told him that there are health and environmental risk relating to using tyres, he said there is nothing they could do about it.
Inside the main building of the Bwari Slaughter House, some butchers are busy washing animals using a combination of dirty water, iron sponge and animal waste. In spite of this unhygienic practice, customers wait anxiously outside while some stand by the window not minding the offensive odour from the gutter nearby.
Because there are no vehicles, meat that are ready for market are hauled on the seat of motorcycles for transportation to Bwari market. This is also a practice against public health as it exposes the meat and consumers to multiple infections.
A veterinary doctor, Akinniyi Samson, told The ICIR that the FCT administration and butchers have not shown positive disposition to using gas fire to singe the hair on the animal.
“I wanted to introduce gas singeing which is completely less hazardous but they just appreciated it but no follow up and they complained about funding.”
According to him, none of the abattoirs in the FCT was willing to accept the new method of using gas to singe the hair on animals despite two separate seminars he organized for them.
“On the aspect of singeing, which is roasting with fire that is where the major problems lie. Up till now, they still use plastic and tyres – all these are non- biodegradable substances. The risks vary from one thing to another. One, the health hazards that the butchers get exposed to is there as well as those ones the consumers also get exposed to,” he told The ICIR.
“There is nothing you can do about it; if you roast goat the person that is roasting while standing, the sooth or the smoke coming from the tyre, he will inhale.
“So he is exposed to respiratory problem. Now, composition of tyres and other plastic materials are such that can have long term effects such as cancer, they are such that they can travel by air, far distances to cause soil pollution, air pollution and a whole lot of other pollution. Experts have related several of these substances to even miscarriages, abortion, cancer and others.
“We practicalised the gas singeing in a house and burnt a whole goat and nobody complained of smoke. It is faster, cheaper and more health friendly and environmental friendly.”
He also bemoaned the fact that butchers don’t wear hand gloves and protective boots, which he said is due largely to absence of supervisory role of health officials and veterinary assistants.
Samson said there are supposed to be health officials and veterinary assistants that handle postmortem examination.
“To their very best of experience, they will certify which part is good. They pass the parts that are good for human consumption and condemn the parts that are not good.”
One thing that features prominently at the abattoir among the butcher is an abuse of the drug. While many of butchers smoke Indian hemp freely, a number of them also take banned codeine which they claim help them to be able to confront their bloody task.
“See the kind of work we do, honestly, you must smoke ‘igbo’ (Indian Hemp)’ said one of the butchers, as he raised his head from where he was carving up a cow meat.
When he is done cutting the meat, Aliu Ibrahim reaches for a small cellophane in the pocket of his trousers. He brings out a grass-like substance and loads it in a paper, wraps it and uses saliva to seal it before lighting it.
But as he smokes his hemp, another butcher brings out a small bottle that looks like a cough syrup with a white liquid content. He takes off the lid and gulps the content.
The abattoir is in a close proximity of a colony of scavengers known by the locals as ‘Mai bola’, who are notorious for taking all kinds of banned substances.
What has happened to Nigeria’s meat hygiene act?
In 2015, the former Registrar of the Veterinary Council of Nigeria (VCN), Markus Avong, said there were only three standard abattoirs in Nigeria−in Lagos, Borno and Nasarawa states.
According to him, the poor, unhygienic and horrible state of abattoirs in the FCT could fuel the incidences of the outbreak of Lassa fever in the Territory.
Inspection of animals by veterinarians to ascertain their level of consumption safety was rarely done, Avong said. He attributed the neglect to lack of standards or regulations for abattoir operations in the country.
”The abattoir workers usually lack the necessary tools and equipment to work with, resulting in infections.
“Today, the unhygienic condition of abattoirs and slaughterhouses poses a serious danger to public health: There are no facilities for waste management and water supply for proper washing of meat.
“Transportation of meat from abattoirs in passenger vehicles or motorcycles is a common practice in most towns and cities, and this exposes meat to disease vectors such as flies and dust,” Avong said.
The Council which ought to carry out the responsibility of enforcing standards in abattoir operations in the country lacks adequate legal backing.
According to him, there is no National Meat Law governing the activities of abattoir operators in the country except for states like Lagos, Anambra and Ogun.
“The problem again is having laws in place to govern abattoirs and slaughterhouses. We do not have a national meat law.
There were efforts by the Department of Veterinary and Pest Control Services in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture to enact a national meat law but the law did not see the light of the day.
The Federal Government in 2017 said it has commenced the process of enacting a `Meat Hygienic Act’ to regulate the operations of abattoirs and slaughter slabs in the country. But a year after, such law is yet to see the light of the day.
- This investigation was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.