From JUDEX OKORO, Calabar
For over decades now, Cross River State has been noted for its landmark achievements in the areas of tourism, agriculture and rural development. And it was in the light of this that Governor Ben Ayade, at his inauguration on May 29, 2016, promised to execute three signature projects. These are the 260-kilometre Super Highway, Bakssi Deep Sea Port and Garment Factory.
He said the Super Highway was designed to start from a proposed deep sea port at Esighi in Bakassi Local Government, through the Cross River National Park and up to Katsina Ala in Benue State. Experts estimated the project to cost N700 billion or about $3.5 billion.
Six months into Ayade’s administration, President Muhammadu Buhari, on October 20, 2015, performed the ground-breaking ceremony of the project at Akamkpa, based on interim Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report by the Federal Ministry of Environment. In designing the project, the governor might have taken into consideration, other super highways across the globe, even with the grave effects on human population and conservation.
Investigations revealed that some super highways, including the 48,000-mile United States Inter-State Highway System (IHS), the China’s National Trunk Highway System, with nearly 70,000 miles highway as at 2014, the 3,600 miles highway in India and the on-going 1,600km Trans-Sumatran highway route in Indonesia, which crisscrossed forests and national parks.
But 15 months after, the construction work of the superhighway and deep sea port have been marred by intrigues and politics of EIA’s approval. Rights groups, NGOs, some local communities have raised environmental concerns at different fora, fuelling speculation that all is not well with the projects.
At the public presentation of the EIA, for the super jighway last year, some environmental experts and NGOs insisted that the super highway should not be constructed because of carbon emissions and global warming. They argued that some of the best preserved rain forests in Nigeria are the Cross River National Park and the Ekuri community forest.
They alleged that the forests were under serious threat, which could destroy the enormous biodiversity, including the rare and endangered species. The NGOs, in a statement signed by their heads, including Fred Kwame, who is the Africa Regional head of WWF International, Switzerland, John Robinson, Executive Vice President, Wildlife Conservation USA, and Hazell Thompson of Birdlife International UK, called on the Federal Government to halt the super highway.
For Cadmus Atake, Project Officer of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), the appropriation of a massive 20.4-kilometre-wide track over 260km length, for the super highway is monstrous and needless proportions:
“Of all rights of occupancy existing or deemed to exist on all that piece of land or parcel of land lying and situate along the Super Highway from Esighi, Bakassi LG to Bekwarra LG, covering, approximately, a distance of 260km and having an offset of 200m on either side of the centre line of the road, and further 10km after the span of the super highway, excluding government reserves and public institutions are hereby revoked for overriding public purpose absolutely. This is clearly unacceptable under any kind of highway design.”
The concern was expressed in a petition to the governor, dated February 13, 2016,
The communities are not left out in the protest against the super highway as the chiefs and people of Ekuri and Okokori villages of Akamkpa and Obubra, also decried the revocation of the right to their lands, including settlements, farmlands and community forest, describing it as a calculated attempt to extinguish them as a people.
According to chief Edwin Ogar of Ekuri community, the land marked out for the super highway is too large and it would destroy their forest and farms that they laboured to conserve and cultivate crops.
However, investigation revealed that the state government has met all the guidelines, stipulated by the Ministry of Environment, with regard to EIAs of super highway and Bakassi Deep Sea Port.
It was learnt that government had sacrificed 10 kilometers on both sides and limiting it to 70 meters, to ensure the success of the project. But in spite of the efforts, a source said, the state is yet to get approval for the signature projects from the Ministry of Environment. Rather, the source, hinted that the projects have now become subject of politics by APC and PDP.
Worried by this development, government threatened to adopt aggressive approaches, if the Federal Government fails to grant her the EIA final permit to commence the construction of the super highway.
Raising the alarm over the non-approval of EIA reports, government said the delay in releasing the much-awaited EIA reports had resulted in the withdrawal of some local and foreign investors, just as it has slowed down construction work on the sites.
At a recent joint press briefing in Calabar, the Commissioners for Information, Rosemary Archbong; Finance, Asuquo Ekpenyong Jnr; Lands, Dr. John Inyang; Climate Change and Forestry, Dr Alice Ekwu and Water Resources Mr. Odo Orji, the state openly accused the federal agencies of frustrating the state’s development programmes.
They warned that if EIA approvals were not given by the end of this month, the state government might be forced to go on with construction works on the two projects without minding whose ox is gored. They maintained that no NGO or agency would deny Cross River people access to their land, or decide how they would use their God-given natural resources, adding that the government is holding the land in trust for meaningful development for its citizens.
Archbong said: “It is unfortunate that in spite of our commitment to construct Super Highway and Deep sea Port, with a view to decouple the state of dependence on federal allocation, the agencies responsible for approvals thwarted our efforts.
“We have met all the guidelines set by these agencies, we have strived to meet the demands, to ensure that these projects take off smoothly. Yet, we are still battling with these approvals.
“The land Use Act of 1978 permits the governor to make use of land within his jurisdiction, for the benefit of its citizens. So, we are crying out to the Federal Government to give us approval not later than March ending, to enable us continue work on the two projects before rains set in. We are being frustrated by detractors from within and outside the state.”
Inyang, said: “We have complied with all requirements, both at the private and government levels. And if they don’t want to cooperate, we shall be forced to apply our unlimited powers as government, to continue the projects with, or without EIA approvals, since they are playing politics with it. We are not happy that our efforts are being wasted because, we are not putting the land into use, to the disadvantage of anybody.”
Accusing some Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) of conniving with some perceived political opponents of the state government to frustrate the project, Inyang demanded the cooperation of all and sundry, to kick-start the Super Highway construction, in view of its economic benefits to both the state and federal governments.
The commissioner explained that most people opposed to the super highway have nothing reasonable against the project execution: “Some of the NGO’s have decided to join our opponents, to politicise the super highway project.
“Of a truth, if you listen to some of them talk, they have nothing against the Super Highway, other than for it not to succeed because, it would be a political score for the Ayade-led administration.
”To ensure the success of the project, we have sacrificed the 10kilometer span, limiting ourselves to 70 meters. From today, they have nothing to say against the Super Highway, rather than to cooperate with us.
“We have met all the requirements, as far as EIA requirement is concerned. So, we are going to be aggressive about it, after the second week of March, 2017, if we don’t get our EIA.”
Also speaking, the commissioner for Climate Change and Forestry, Dr Alice Ekwu, said: “We regret the undue delay in EIA’s approvals by Ministry of Environment, even when we have met the requirements, including the scope. But, at the point of approval, they shifted the goal post , by bringing in extraneous guidelines because, this is Cross River.”