By Henry Umahi and Magnus Eze, Enugu
Imagine this scenario: A vehicle moving on the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway suddenly drops into the belly of the earth. This reads like a scene from a horror movie. But it could play out in real life in Enugu State because of the hollow created by coal mining activities in Enugu by the defunct Nigerian Coal Corporation (NCC).
Years after the NCC became defunct, no one knows the true situation of things under the earth and nothing has been done to ameliorate the environmental devastation.
Agu Gab Agu, professor of International Law and Jurisprudence, said: “In more civilized climes, by the time they finish with mining, they will find a way of withdrawing so that the hollow caused by digging into the belly of the earth will be handled. It is natural and commonsensical that, if nothing is done, it will cave in. The danger is that even the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway might be sitting on the mine lines. A vehicle may be on the road and it will go down. And the depth of the digging is something that should not be imagined. We are saying that, by now, we are supposed to have a complete picture of the underground mine network so that people will know what they are building, or whether people are not supposed to build, on top of it in the villages or elsewhere.
“Second, there should have been support system over time. I don’t expect them to fill it entirely but there should be some measure of filling so that, when it collapses, it won’t be too much. Every mine is almost 10 feet deep so that people can manoeuvre inside it; people stand up and raise their hands. If people can stand up and raise their hands, it means that the mine is more than 10 feet deep. So, if a moving vehicle drops into a 10-feet gorge, you know what it means. It is very dangerous.”
Agu further said that the consequences of the interference with the earth were already manifesting in Enugwu Ngwo. Take this from the law teacher: “We have noticed landslides in every part of our area. There hasn’t been much of earth movement that we can decipher but the landslides show that some things are happening under the belly of the earth and we cannot detect them. Government should be able to take care of that and make sure they save the lives of our people. We are talking about the surface of the earth, where they have buildings and roads, but nobody is talking about what they have under.”
He added that, although the agreement between Enugwu Ngwo and the colonial masters talked about coal, “it did not talk about destroying the underneath of our land. In most agreements concerning such things, it decides how many feet down they are supposed to take but that was not the case.”
“I think they were even expecting surface mining, not underground mining. We saw what these things have been doing in Zambia, Brazil, London and other places where mining was done. So, we don’t want it to be our portion here.”
Tales from indigenes
Apart from the dangers posed by the abandoned mines, indigenes of Enugwu Ngwo are expressing reversionary interest in their land used by the defunct NCC.
Traditional ruler of Ngwo-Essa, Igwe Innocent Ayalogu, said: “Coal wasn’t a curse to our people because this community and neighbouring communities have benefitted immensely from coal. Our parents were able to pay our school fees because of coal mining. In this community, almost everybody is literate because of the little money that came to us as labourers. We used it in paying school fees and training of our children.
“But on the other hand, they (coal corporation) cheated us. They didn’t pay us for our land that they destroyed. We don’t have drinking water, all because of coal mining. Our farmlands are also destroyed. That’s the disadvantage we have because coal was discovered and mined in our area.”
On the solution to the menace, the centenarian said: “I feel the solution is that government was involved in all these activities. So, let the government pay us for our land they destroyed. Today, we have no farmlands as a people. Let the government provide jobs for our youths, male and female. Many of them are well educated but there are no jobs for them.
“We can’t ask government to cook food and serve us, but we want them to give us money so that we can make our own foodstuffs and cook.”
Pa Samuel Chime, chairman, Council of Elders, Enugu-Ngwo, lamented the degradation of their environment, which has made life miserable for many.
The 70-year-old retiree, who went into farming in 2009 after he retired from public service, said erosion caused by long years of mining activities in the community swallowed his farm and crops.
Pa Chime said: “It was not only my farm that was destroyed, so many others suffered the same fate. If you move towards Amuzam Quarters, even houses were sunk by the erosion. Truth is that the aftermath of the activities of the coal corporation is devastating on us. It’s now causing us much harm. It’s only by God’s grace that we have not had an earthquake here. We are living on a tunnel. All of our people are living on top of a tunnel because they had mined under us. But God is at work. If this place were prone to earthquake, we could have had one.”
On moving forward, he said: “The solution now is for the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), which claims to be looking after the property of the coal corporation, to leave us alone, let us continue bearing the devastation of coal mining activities on our land. It’s becoming so cumbersome for us. It’s becoming so horrible on us. And we have no place to live, even the small space we had has been occupied while the major ones are being sold by the BPE.
“When the coal corporation came in 1915, they were a blessing and our people reciprocated it by giving them the authority to mine coal, not the authority to own our land. The little money they paid then was for the crops destroyed, not for the land. They paid little money but it was for the cash crops.”
When asked what he thinks should be done against the backdrop of the devastation he talked about, Pa Chime said: “We’ve been expecting them to sympathise with us but they are rather being raw, instead of feeling for us. If they can at least leave our lands, we don’t need to be as violent as some people in other states. They have spoilt our land but we are appealing to the BPE to please leave those portions of land occupied by the coal corporation as the corporation has ceased to exist.”
Regarding the agreement between the coal corporation and Enugu Ngwo people, he said: “Even a copy of the agreement can be produced when needed. We are not saying this orally; it’s documented. In everything, we agreed to allow them mine coal only. We didn’t agree to their building houses and quarters but they were very tactical; they deceived our fathers and built quarters and clubs on the land even without paying a kobo. These were not part of the agreement and, as it is now, we demand that those properties be relinquished to us, as the coal has ceased to exist.
“For us, everything has ceased, but if they are ready to mine coal here again in future, they will come for another agreement. In fact, the 99 years that the agreement is supposed to last has elapsed. Now that the agreement has elapsed and coal mining is not taking place there again, they will relinquish all the things belonging to the coal corporation to us.”
To address the issues, government set up a judicial commission of inquiry into the sale and alienation by the BPE of the parcels of land leased to the defunct Nigerian Coal Corporation by host communities in Enugu State for station and colliery purposes. In a memorandum dated June 5, 2017, Enugwu Ngwo community stated the effect of coal mining on their community and their pleas to government.
The community said: “We wish to bring to fore the plight of the people of Ngwo, who, in the overriding interest and prosperity of the nation, ceded their homestead in the plains of Enugu Ngwo township and rather climbed to perch precariously on top of the hills. Today, the entire hill areas have been built up due to ever-growing population, with no land space for expansion.
“The magnitude of gully erosion and landslide in these areas are better seen than told, the helpless members of our community are faced with uncertainty of existence, yet our communal land space abandoned as a result of collapse of the coal industry rather than being surrendered to us has become an object of uncontrolled mercantile.
“We are aware that a people as benevolent as we are deserve compensation for their sacrifices for a better Nigeria, but we chose to be patriotic and hope for better days. Our fathers have paid their dues in the economic emancipation of Nigeria, suffered death and sometimes buried alive in the underground mines. Till now, the surviving ones amongst them are still being taunted by all kinds of diseases and infirmities associated with coal mine.
“These calamities inflicted on our fathers brought socio economic retardation on us their children. Till now, no compensation has been paid to this community for the 1949 coal shooting loss of our best and brightest sons (coal shooting loss stand inestimably beyond trillions naira), which would have gone a long way to ameliorate the neglected past trauma of that event and the restoration of communal psyche.
“The entire natural water points, streams and rivers are all swallowed by the mined out and abandoned coal mines subjecting the citizenry to the whims of the commercial water tanker drivers with the attendant hazard associated with not-so-clean water that they distribute.
“This clan has borne the bad effect of mineral exploitation, which includes the dispossession of the community’s farmlands, residential lands, and mining subsidence affecting our buildings, gas pollution and the trigger off of domino effect of dangerous leaching of the soil surface.”
They attached documents to support their claims.
“It is regrettably incomprehensible that the state government who should be at the vanguard of protesting the neglect of the national economic mainstay before the advent of oil especially now that government is talking about diversification is rather obsessed with uncontrollable penchant for land grabbing.
“We make bold to plead with the state government to help us get off the hands of these agents of human abuse from Ngwo clan land because their continued cannibalization and selling of these lands is already instigating restiveness which may lead to major revolt. There is growing apprehension in the community with an attendant risk of imminent collision, civil unrest and strife, which can lead to breakdown of law and order.
“We opine most regrettably that the Niger Delta region and the North-East may not have the monopoly of violence. Let the government not take our loyalty and desire for peace for granted. It is said that no army can stop a revolution whose time has come.
“The BPE are supposed to concern themselves with disposing on non-core assets of the defunct coal corporation and not the little pieces of Ngwo land that by God’s grace has not been eaten up by urbanization.
“When Nigerian Coal Corporation was given the land for its activities, there was a definite purpose cause for which the land was granted “establishment of government collieries and railways” lease and sale of land is surely not included in this purpose clause.
“We beg the state government and their agencies, to in the name God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob stop immediately forceful annexation of Ngwo lands, including (Ukwuna) Iva Valley land along Enugu-Onitsha Express road and every other Ngwo land because the patience of our dismayed teaming youths of the clan who do not have hope of a tract of land in their father’s homeland may erupt sooner than later. Real peace, they say, is not the absence of hostility but the presence or justice.
“We deserve a fair deal; we are not allergic to the course of justice and equity. We deserve a passionate consideration and unbounded return of our lands to us to avoid being fazed out of our homeland.”
A government source, who craved anonymity, said the matter was being looked into.