In this special report, SAMSON FOLARIN looks at how the failure of governance and corporate irresponsibility of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation are destroying the livelihood and health of a community in Ejigbo, Lagos State.
On a recent evening, Alhaji Wahab Olorunfunmi was having a meal in his house on Sanusi Street, Eijigbo, on the outskirts of Lagos.
The meal on his table looked typical, but the slightly brownish water he had in his cup was a deadly brew of water and petrol.
Olorunfunmi wasn’t on a suicide mission.
Ejigbo, where he has lived all his life as an indigene, is also home to one of the busiest satellite depots of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.
The depot supplies petroleum products to South Western states in Nigeria powering businesses, keeping vehicles on the road and smoothening economic and social activities.
It is under the System 2B Pipeline Network, which accounts for 60 per cent of fuel supply and distribution in the country.
But in Ejigbo, the depot is the source of much agony and distress.
Leaky petroleum pipes are contaminating wells and boreholes, two vital sources of drinking water for Ejigbo’s huge population of children, adults and the aged. More than 50,000 people are said to be living in this community.
Olorunfunmi, who is 74-years-old, says he takes ‘petrol water’ with every meal.
According to him, his tenants and children travel far in search of potable water, but he has resigned to fate.
“Someone advised me to stop bothering myself because of my old age. So, I just boil the water and drink it. My wife and kids buy water, but I drink from the borehole. Even if it will affect my health, how long do I have to live again?” he said, throwing his hands up in defeat.
Down the street is the home of Mutiat Agbabiaka, the wife of a landlord, whose family relied on a borehole for sustenance.
The borehole was one of the water sources left untouched by the NNPC leaking pipes. During the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, the Agbabiakas sold the water to generate funds for their large family. Their exemption from the general malaise blighting the neighbourhood was, however, short-lived.
On the same evening, our reporter paid the Agbabiakas a visit.
The matriarch of the house was washing her children’s clothes when the reporter visited and begged to take some of the water.
After filling a plastic bottle with the water, the reporter perceived it. It reeked of fuel.
Agbabiaka, who observed the reporter’s reaction, gave a knowing nod with worry written all over her face.
“I started noticing the problem a few days ago. I went to the bathroom to take my bath when I perceived that smell of fuel. Since then, we have been allowing people to come and fetch for free. Our water has also been contaminated,” she said.
She recalled with pain how in October 2019, her husband paid N200,000 to dig a borehole, adding that the water was good until early 2020, when it started to smell of fuel.
The housewife showed our correspondent the stump of the abandoned borehole.
According to her, in May 2020, the family raised another N200,000 and dug a second borehole. It was this second borehole that just got polluted.
Ramota Sanusi, another landlady on Sanusi Street, said many of the neighbourhoods had more than one well or borehole in their households.
She explained that the wells most residents were formerly drinking water from had oil, which made them abandon the wells.
The septuagenarian said people who dug boreholes with the hope of getting clean water only ended up wasting their money.
New wells and boreholes simply got contaminated after a short while.
As she opened the rusty iron cover of her abandoned well, a sharp odour rose out of the well. It was the pungent smell of petrol.
Down in the deep well is a black mix of what appeared like water and petrol, with the clayey side walls of the well peeling off.
“This well has been here for 25 years. We locked it some years ago. I can’t remember the exact year. And that was when we first noticed the problem and abandoned it.
“The borehole we dug is not fit for drinking, all because of the spillage,” she said.
Our correspondent observed that as her daughter opened the borehole tap, the water lathered on contact with a bowl.
The soapy foam did not dissolve until a few seconds later, with a strong smell of fuel.
“We cannot drink our water. The best we do is to use it for bathing, washing of clothes and toilets,” she added.
Although the NNPC satellite depot was opened in Ejigbo in 1982, residents only began to notice that their wells and boreholes were contaminated in 2013.
The spillage was first discovered in a well belonging to a landlord, Mr Adedeji Ogunba, on Aminatu Ilo Street, on Saturday, August 24, 2013.
At the time, the development caused a stir. The plight of the community made the news and the former NNPC Depot Manager in Ejigbo, Dr Balogun Tola, visited.
He confirmed the leak and told journalists that the corporation would fix it.
Tola, according to reports, commended Ogunba for reporting to the NNPC, saying the landlord visited his office with a team of policemen to report the discovery in his well.
He also said samples had been taken for tests.
Community leaders claimed that the corporation did not fulfil its promises of addressing the problem.
The situation, they added, was further complicated by pipe vandals who moved in to take advantage of the corporation’s disinterest in the security of its pipes in the area.
In 2015, 28 streets were affected by the vandalisation of NNPC pipes.
A former Chairman of the Abuna/Sanusi Community Development Association, Chief Samuel Obembe, noted that aside from the wells and boreholes being polluted, pumping machines got damaged because they could not withstand the mixture of fuel and water.
In May 2019, the NNPC pipeline on Tunde Alabi Crescent, Ejigbo, was vandalised and abandoned. The incident took place around 1am.
Reports say the pipeline was not sealed until around 12.30pm, nearly 12 hours after the incident was reported.
The then Chairman of Victory Estate Community Development Association, Mr John Akinnubi, had lamented that the spill would compound the pollution problem the community was grappling with.
Documentary evidence obtained by our correspondent revealed that several efforts were made by the community to get the government and the NNPC to fix its leaky pipes, all to no avail.
Our reporter obtained copies of letters, including reminders, sent to the Ejigbo council secretariat, the NNPC and the Pipeline and Product Marketing Company, a subsidiary of the NNPC, in 2015 and 2016, giving updates on the community problem and calling for help.
The letter to the Executive Secretary of the Ejigbo council, dated April 6, 2015, said the community noticed the problem became widespread early 2014 “when we started perceiving very serious petrol odour in our wells and boreholes.”
“We were directed to report the issue to the NNPC in Mosimi. Alhaji Abubakar was delegated to come and see the situation. He came the second time with his officials to take the sample of wells and boreholes from the area. Up till now, we have not heard from them.
“We took another step by involving the Ejigbo Divisional Police Officer. She was well involved. The NNPC delegated the same Alhaji Abubakar from Mosimi…he took samples of water from different houses again.
“All efforts to get results from the NNPC proved abortive (for) about nine months. Hence, we decided to inform the DPO and you as the chairman of the communities in Ejigbo.”
Another letter, also dated April 2015, said the problem had aggravated from “just perceiving odour to real fuel in some houses.”
In a bid to force remedial action, the community threatened to sue the NNPC for N1.5bn.
The threat forced a change in corporate behaviour, but only for a while.
The current Chairman of the CDA, Mr Remi Suara, said the NNPC later visited the community and promised to provide them with boreholes as a palliative measure.
He said they were asked to submit quotations for the renovation works to be done.
A copy of the quotations, obtained by The PUNCH, showed that the community requested a borehole with a submersible pump.
Two drilling companies, Ola-Mosh (Nigeria) Limited and Engineer Adejare Raji Enterprises, in their estimates dated November 17, 2015, demanded N302,000 and N282,000, respectively.
Suara said the NNPC did nothing about the estimates and never revisited the problem.
He listed some of the affected parts of the community to include Kamoru Street, Sanusi Street, Surprise Avenue, Abuna Street, Tunde Alabi Street, Omi Yale Street, Oboye Street, Kehinde Close, Taiwo Close, Igbehin Adun Street and Tunde Alabi Street.
He explained that the pollution was pervasive, with more households feeling the heat.
The community leader said his well water, which used to be clean, recently became undrinkable and had fuel odour.
Asked if there had been any recurring health problem in the community, Suara said no deliberate effort had been instituted to measure the health implications.
“We don’t have the medical records, but it’s affecting people’s health, with complaints here and there. But people have been trying self-medication. How long do they want us to suffer and for what offence?” a visibly disturbed Suara asked.
“Is it a crime we live here? Our houses are far away from the pipelines; we are suffering on every side. The government cannot give us good water, and instead, landlords are subjected to random police harassment,” he added.
A few years after the community began to complain about the leaking pipelines, things took a turn for the worse.
Residents, who had started drinking and bathing with petrol water, began to face an additional threat.
Our correspondent was told that both the police and officials of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps randomly raided some of the landlords on allegations of breaking the NNPC pipelines and connecting hoses from the pipes to their wells.
An aged couple, Afusatu Akanni and Nurudeen Akanni, said they had lost count of the number of times the police harassed them over their well.
Afusatu, 66, said the police turned her family to cash cows and accused them of building their house from proceeds of illegal oil bunkering.
“Imagine a policeman threatening an old woman like me? One told me that the money we got from selling the oil in our well was what we used to build our house. A house we built over 30 years ago? Imagine that. I never sold any oil; I only took water from my well and abandoned it when I saw it had oil,” she said.
Her husband, 70-year-old Nurudeen, said to stop the continued police harassment, he decided to block the well with dirt.
“That was five years ago. It is now our refuse dump,” he added, as he showed this reporter the waste-clogged well.
A tour of the community revealed several wells that had been blocked with dirt by their owners, who at one time or the other had been arrested over similar allegations.
Some of the families of the landlords, residents said, paid hundreds of thousands to get bail from security agencies, who always threatened to arraign them on illegal oil bunkering charges.
In September 2013, a former Governor of Lagos State, Mr Babatunde Fashola, became so furious at the indiscriminate arrest of the landlords that he instructed the Office of the Public Defender to take legal action on their behalf.
Reports said the NSCDC had arrested eight residents on Aminatu Ilo Street, at the time, including a landlord, his wife and a pregnant woman.
Fashola, through the Commissioner for the Environment at the time, Tunji Bello, had said the arrests were done without proper investigation.
A former Director of the OPD, Mrs Omotola Rotimi, who also visited the area that period, assured that her office would take legal action and the arrested persons were freed.
But in June 2020, more than seven years after, a port worker and landlord on Surprise Avenue, Mr Abayomi Shafe, was also arrested by men of the Inspector-General of Police Intelligence Response Team, on the same suspicion of “connecting pipes to the NNPC pipelines to the well.”
He was whisked away, as his family was subjected to pains and agony, because the policemen did not reveal where they were taking him to.
A few days later, his family got a message that they should come to Ibadan, Oyo State, to perfect his bail.
When Shafe spoke to our reporter, he was a much troubled man.
“I have dug two boreholes, each at the cost of N200,000 and they were polluted. What have I done to deserve this? I am devastated that instead of getting compensated for the loss and inconvenience, including health hazards, caused me by the NNPC, I am getting harassed, embarrassed and humiliated for what I never did,” he said.
The Chairman of the Ejigbo Local Council Development Area, Bello Oloyede, said letters and meetings with the NNPC yielded no fruit.
He dismissed claims by security agents and the NNPC that residents were linking their wells to pipelines.
He said, “The idea of linking the wells with NNPC pipelines is a fabricated lie. I have been in government for many years and I know what is going on. We informed the NNPC and the state government about it. We held stakeholders’ meetings. If they have not done anything, we need to continue making a noise. We cannot go beyond reporting to the relevant authorities.”
The member representing Oshodi/Isolo Constituency at the Lagos State House of Assembly, Jude Idimogu, said he was aware of the spillage.
Idimogu lamented that efforts to get the attention of the NNPC had been futile.
“There was a time we took it up and discussed it during a plenary at the House of Assembly. We advised the Federal Government and the NNPC to do the needful. But you know the way things like this happen; they kept dragging their legs while the police accused residents as if they deliberately dug a hole (to siphon fuel),” he added.
Nigeria has ratified the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation of 1990, which focuses on the responsibility of member states to establish a system or plan for responding promptly and effectively to oil pollution incidents.
This is among the reasons for the establishment of the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan of 2010.
The plan stipulates that the government, as the environmental conscience of the nation, has a role to play in the spillage of oil, whether deliberate or accidental, as long as the environment is impacted.
Emphasis is also placed on prompt response to protect the environment from both short and long term damage.
The government acknowledges that while there may be third party interruptions in terms of activities of vandals, minor spills “are more predominant” in frequency.
The risk of spillage, it says, is higher in areas of concentrated activities like the depots.
In the event of a spill, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) is expected to coordinate all activities, which also involves the NNPC, the state and local authorities.
While the problem is being accessed and fixed, remedial steps are expected to be taken, including provision of “boreholes for water supply and other emergency water supply sources.”
But it appears this is not the case with Ejigbo.
According to a top official at NOSDRA, who is familiar with the issue, the residents are victims of a failed system.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being sanctioned, explained that Ejigbo is one of several communities battling with environmental pollution along the System 2B Pipeline Network, which runs through Ijegun, Iba, Isheri, Ipaja areas of Lagos.
The official said residents in the other communities had been grappling with it for decades, adding that efforts by NOSDRA to help them were futile.
“It is a national concern right now. We had a number of discussions with the NNPC and PPMC. Even about three weeks ago, the head of our agency wrote to the General Managing Director of NNPC, seeking audience on this issue. There has not been any response. Delegations after delegations met brick walls. We have written to the Ecological Funds Office seeking support to get the place fixed. The Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency made efforts with us in the past without any solution. I think you should blame the system,” the source added.
The source traced the beginning of the problem with the System 2B Pipeline Network to 1994 when there were a series of demonstrations in the country against the annulment of the June 12 1993 elections by a former military leader, General Ibrahim Babangida.
The official recalled that the booster point of the pipeline around Gowon Estate, Baruwa in Ipaja, was ruptured, adding that the spillage later spread to other areas.
The public officer said the problem worsened over time, as the pipeline also wore out and leaked.
“In fact, the well in front of the house of the traditional ruler of Baruwa Estate in Ipaja, had fuel that could power an old-model car. Many of the people in the area cannot use their wells and boreholes.
“The NNPC is supposed to remedy the situation because its subsidiary, the PPMC, is responsible for the pollution,” she added.
According to its official website, the NNPC is obligated to provide ‘water, sanitation and hygiene’ for communities where it operates as part of its corporate social responsibility.
“The peculiarities of the terrain in which we conduct our businesses have necessitated the need to provide our host communities with access to clean, safe and drinkable water in line with the World Health Organization standard,” the NNPC said.
But for years, it has not cared about the wellbeing of the people of Ejigbo and its environs, who have been impacted by its business activities.
The Group General Manager, Group Public Affairs Division, NNPC, Dr Kennie Obateru, said there was no recent break or spillage of the pipelines in the Ejigbo community.
He said, “I don’t live in the community and I don’t know what is happening. If we have a pipeline running through the community, we will be concerned about whether the pipeline is leaking or not. I am telling you we don’t have any pipeline leaking in Ejigbo.
“People go into pipelines, tap and take products that they want to take and leave it to continue to flow. It is when the NNPC discovers that we go there to repair it, because for us, it is a business and as a responsible corporate citizen, we cannot allow fuel to continue to flow into the environment. But the one that has seeped out as a result of the vandalism, there is nothing that we can do about that. We can only repair the point of breakage.”
Obateru declined response to the concern of water pollution in the area, saying he had no comment.
The General Manager of the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency, Dr Dolapo Fasawe, told our correspondent some government officials had been asked to visit the community to ascertain the issues.
Fasawe promised to call a stakeholder’s meeting in order to address the challenge.
While the NNPC, the state government and the residents squabble over the causes and solutions to the problem, the residents of Sanusi, Surprise, Abuna, and other adjoining streets continue to use petrol water to wash down their meals.
Mike Iheanyi-Igwe, a businessman whose business and home are located in the neighbourhood, is one of these hapless residents.
Iheanyi-Igwe, his wife, and eight children, drink the water daily, aware of the consequences but tired of searching for drinkable water.
“That is the water,” he said, holding up a cup of foul smelling water, one afternoon after our reporter visited the house where he is a tenant.
“We have no option, because in this area, there is nowhere you can get clean water. The water smells, but we drink it like that. What can we do? We don’t have a mouth to talk to the government; we have to cope with it,” he added.
Culled from Punch