The Federal Ministry of Environment had given a 23 conditional approval to the state to meet before the commencement of construction of the super highway.
Judex Okoro, Calabar
At the inauguration of Professor Ben Ayade’s administration, he promised to execute three signature projects, including the 260 kilometre super highway, the Bakassi deep sea port and garment factory. He said: “Let me use this opportunity to announce our signature projects: We shall undertake the construction of a dual carriage super highway from Calabar through Ikom and Ogoja to the Ranch Resort in Obudu.”
According to Ayade, the 260km super highway was planned to lead from a proposed deep sea port at Esighi in Bakassi Local Government Area, run through the Cross River National Park and end at Katsina Ala in Benue State. It was estimated to cost N700 billion or about $3.5bn.
Ayade, six months into office, invited President Muhammadu Buhari on October 20, 2015, to perform the groundbreaking ceremony of the project at Akamkpa, based on Interim EIA report by the Federal Ministry of Environment.
However, over three-and-half-years after, the dream of the super highway becoming a reality seems to be a mirage as it has been marred by series of challenges ranging from finance, administrative bottlenecks and allegations of environmental degradation by the host communities. Local activists and over 15 international organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the World Conservation Society and Birdlife International said that if the project is carried out, about 180 communities will lose their lands and homes, as the super highway will pass through their local areas.
The conservationists further argued that some of the best preserved rain forests in Nigeria are the Cross River National Park and the Ekuri community forest, adding that the forests are under serious threat, which could destroy the enormous biodiversity, including rare and endangered species. Indeed, it has been nicknamed by some analysts as ‘super highway, super trouble’.
Even the interim Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) granted the state seems to have put the government and the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) at loggerhead.
While the government claims that it has tried to implement some of the conditions, the NGOs insist the state is far from meeting the conditions, alleging that the project should not be executed because
of carbon emissions and global warming. It would be recalled that the Federal Ministry of Environment had given a 23 conditional approval to the state to meet before the commencement of construction of the super highway.
One of the conditions says the state government “shall gazette the reversal of revocation order on the acquisition of 10km on either side to the 70km span of the road corridor” and it is expected that such gazette is published.
Others include comprehensive list of the actual affected communities along the proposed road corridor, list of borrow pits with coordinates and sites identity for the proposed road project; the updated fourth version of the EIA report shall be submitted to the ministry and list of all affected communities to be provided and ensure they are consulted throughout.
Again, the non-implementation of compensations of the host communities, who have lost their farmlands and community forests, has been on the front burner. The communities include Esighi in Bakassi Local Government Area, Ekuri and Okokori villages of Akamkpa and Obubra as well as Bekwarra.
Expressing concern on the ill-treatment meted to the affected communities since the land was acquired in 2015, the clan head of Nsan community in Akamkpa Local Government Area, Ntufam Saviour Ndifon Edem, represented by Chief Ernest Ndifon, a village council member, said right from the inauguration of the super highway, heavy equipment were brought in and crops destroyed in the process of de-bushing the land and nothing has been heard from government.
Edem said: “They came and bulldozed our communities. All the crops have been destroyed, including part of my farm. My palm plantation, which is over five hectares, is gone. They even came again for another extension, which they shifted, and said they were coming to extend
and bulldoze again. As I speak with you, people are still shedding tears because of the destruction of crops and nothing positive has come out from government.
“I can tell you that they did not come with any agreement on how they intend to settle us for the damaged crops and economic trees. We had expected that after bulldozing, they would still come back and pay. But as I speak with you, nothing has been done.”
Admitting that the project is a good one, Edem said: “We were even prepared to allow the farms go. Everyone believed that more benefits would come from the super highway. That was our thinking about the project, but as I speak to you now, people are still shedding tears till as 95 per cent of our people have been affected by this problem. Some people have died.”
Also lamenting, Mr Cosmas Ogar from New Ekuri, Akamkpa, said they were not aware of such project as the community woke up one morning and saw bulldozers pulling through the forest for the super highway. Piqued by the action of the government, the leaders refused further construction work on the o portion of their forest earmarked for super highway and insisted that without an MOU between them and government, nothing would be done.
“For the past three years, there had been a battle between the Ekuri people and the government of Ayade. Ekuri community had been a conservative community in Cross River State. We are known. We are strictly on conservation and sustainable management.
“We were surprised the government of the day wanted to break through our forests, the only forest sustaining the world, in the name of super highway. So, we rejected it. We have nothing to gain from the super highway. We don’t even want it because the intention of the government was bad. We knew very well that the intention of the government was to come and take our wood, not help the community.
“In 1971, I used to see the Igbo traders come into the Ekuri forests to buy Afang, bush meat and other things. The businesses thrived and for that, we try conserved the forest. Besides, in 1990s, Oversea Development and Awareness (ODA), an NGO came and added more awareness to Ekuri on conservation and development,” Ogar stated.
Another community leader in Etara, Prince Simon Ifere, said: “Since the clearing of Etara community forest three years ago for the super highway, nothing has been done as the cleared areas have been overgrown with weeds. Already, our farms, economic trees, the forest itself and the ecosystem have been destroyed.
“We cannot quantify the timber brought down during the initial clearing and we can’t stop the exploitation because the forest has been opened up. These exploiters come in when it is comfortable for them, especially at night. Frankly speaking, the community has lost over N4 billion in the past three years to timber exploitation.
“The people don’t have a representative in government to talk for us. We are at crossroads and we don’t know what to do. Our road is in a poor situation. In the rainy season, the only way to move is through motorcycle and even the motorcycle will sink to engine level. Government should come in and reconstruct the roads to enable us carry out our goods. We are out of this world, cut off and we are nowhere,” he lamented.
In an emotion laden voice, Orim Raymond Andrew, a teacher in Okokori community of Obubra, said: “Why we did not need the road was because of the destruction of crops and other things that give us money in the community. They said they needed 40 kilometres on both sides of the highway and we rejected it. If it is like that, let the super highway stay.
“Since then, we have not heard anything from them. They brought bulldozers, but we did not allow them. If government is interested in doing such thing, we would discuss and say what we would do. When someone wants to come into a community like this, he normally comes to the palace and they will say bring something to appease the gods of the land and we give you go ahead. But nothing has been done.
“The last time they came, it was for enumeration. But this is over a year now and we have not seen them again. The government should give an access road. That is the main problem. Someone may fall ill and because there is no road, they person may die before being taken to the hospital. Our main problem here is the access road.” he explained.
Expressing concern over the handling of super highway, the village head, Ikot Okpo Ene, Chief Emmanuel Okon, said: “I am not against government doing their project but the right thing must be done. There are 23 conditions given by the Federal Government in the provisional approval of the super highway, which must be met before commencement of work in full.
“If you go through it, what concerns me and my community most is Number sever, which says the ‘Cross River State government shall gazette the reversal of revocation order on the acquisition of 10klm on either side to the 275klm span of the road corridor as well as the gazetting of the boundary of Cross River National Park within two weeks of receipt of this letter.’ I don’t know if this has been done.
“Number eight of the condition says the ‘Cross River State government shall ensure that the initial land clearing of the corridor that was carried out without due inventory of the third party properties /farmlands is revisited to adequately compensate the project affected persons (PAPS) in line with National and International standards of practice on resettlement and restoration plans. This shall be done prior to project commencement. Those are the things I am worried about.”
Bemoaning his fate, Rev. Elijah Okon Zion from Ikot Ndarake village, said: “We have had a lot of problems since they started this work because the village is supposed to be aware of the project, meaning that payment was supposed to be made before clearing but unexpectedly, we saw caterpillars bringing down our sources of livelihood.
“Most of us are relying on the economic trees we have in the forest and we feed our children from those crops. I planted cassava, pumpkin and other crops, which was my source of livelihood. All those plantains you see there were cleared from my compound and since then the governor promised that he will pay for the crops.
“We brought surveyors to value everything but since then we have not heard any information about the super highway from the state government. There is no sign that they are going to do the work and even grass has started growing on the super highway land. The government needs to remember that most of us are poor people, widows and orphans trying to live on what nature has provided for us. According to the surveyor, the building is about N9m while the church is about N10m and the crops are about N6m. “One of my neighbours developed stroke because he lost his property to the super highway. They took him out of the village and as I am talking now, we don’t know the condition of that man because he seriously affected.”
Worried by the action of the Cross River government, the Executive Director of Rain Forest Resource and Development Centre, a Calabar-based environment organization, Mr Odey Oyama, agreed that there is no known plan on how to resettle the approximately one million people who are being displaced from their lands for this project.
“The acquisition notice is for 180 communities spread over 5,200 square kilometres of land. How will the one million people benefit from the project after they have been forced to migrate?,” he asked.
According to Oyama, Cross River was selected by the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD+) programme where communities earn international carbon credits for protecting trees as one of the pilot states in Africa and that this programme earns the state an estimated $4 million yearly.
In the same vein, Odigha Odigha, a frontline environmentalist, said the super highway project will negatively impact on the UN-REDD+ programme by cutting down the rainforests.
“The super highway completely undermines the UN-REDD+ programme, which is intended to launch Cross River State and Nigeria on the path to a green economy/ new carbon economy. If the road had gone along the originally proposed route, you can be sure that the entire forest will be gone in no time,” Odigha said.
The Deputy Conservation of Park, National Park, Evangelist Caroline Olory, said: “We have seven National Parks in the country. The only remaining rain forest in Nigeria is the Cross River National Park. Out of the 33 species of primate in Nigeria, 18 are in Cross River National Park and we have to protect the last remaining rainforest. We have 105 communities around the Cross River National Park. Most of these communities have not felt government presence but the National Park tried to provide some facilities, including schools, health facilities, culvert and opening of road.
“In some communities, pupils sat under the tree shade to learn but we have provided between three and four classroom blocks for some of them. Some have no access road and we can’t do it alone. We request for increase in our allocation to enable us provide these essential amenities to our people.
“The super highway is a developmental project for Cross River State government and the National Park appreciates the development but the development that cannot balance up conservation, National Park cannot support it and that is why we say if you want to do super highway, the needful must be done.
“Government must do proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and that is our stand. It is not just Cross River National Park, we are under the umbrella of the National Park Service and we are answerable to them and our stands concerning super highway has been do the proper EIA because our parent ministry, Ministry of Environment, will give government approval.
“All we are saying is that the needful must be done and if the state government followed the process and do the EIA, we have no problem and that would have taken care of everything. For us, we have made our views known and we hope they will do it.”
Work in progress – Govt
Reacting to the development, the Senior Special Assistant/Chief Press Secretary to Ayade, Mr Christian Ita, said: “I can tell you that work on super highway is in progress as the government is looking into the EIA. The de-bushing has been done from Bakassi to Garkin before politics crept in with some partisan groups writing petitions.
“We got 16 cases against the super highway, including the ones instituted by Federal Government. After all said and done, we won the cases and have returned to site. We have also suffered delays in terms of approval of EIA, but in spite of that, the earth work is on. This admiration cannot abandon one of the most significant signature projects. I rather advise Cross Riverians to dissipate energy and see how we can support Ayade to deliver on this very important project.”