SPECIAL REPORT: Ayetoro: Ondo coastal community faces destruction as NDDC abandons crucial project

Save a last-minute intervention, Ayetoro, a coastal community in South-west Nigeria, may soon be swept into the bin of history.

This is as a result of natural and human activities, worsened by the abandonment of a multi-billion naira shore protection project, which was first awarded in 2004 and awarded again in 2009 by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

Ayetoro, otherwise known as “Happy City” because of the unique and communal lifestyle of its inhabitants, is located in Ilaje Local Government Area of Ondo State.

But today, the community, which is one of about 400 villages and towns that make up the local government area, has lost its happiness. it is now almost a ghost of its old self.

The rise in sea level – a result of both global warming and oil exploration – has led to floods that have washed away homes, the cemetery and the iconic worship centre of the town.

Sixteen years after the multi-billion-naira shore protection project aimed at rescuing the community was awarded by the NDDC, with billions of naira already paid the contractors, nothing is on the ground to stop the ocean surge that is fast washing the community away.

As early as 2004, just four years after its creation, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) – a government agency tasked with providing essential services for oil-producing communities – awarded the contract for the construction of a shoreline protective wall designed with a geo-tube technology in Ayetoro.

Gallet Nigeria Limited was awarded the original contract at a cost of N6.4 billion, of which 25 per cent was reportedly paid. Later, Gallet was adjudged to be incapable of handling the project.

While it was not clear whether additional money was paid to the contractor before the revocation of the contract, in 2009, the contract was re-awarded to Dredging Atlantic Limited at an undisclosed cost. The new contractor, which according to NDDC was selected after a competitive bidding process, was reportedly paid 15 per cent of the cost for mobilisation.

However, 11 years after the new contractor took over, and 16 years after the contract was first awarded, there is nothing on ground to show any intervention by the government.

The community dwellers told our reporter that in the beginning, the discovery of oil in Ayetoro’s neighbourhood did not derail the peaceful co-existence and orderliness enjoyed by the people until exploration activities in nearby communities contributed to rising sea level, thereby gradually making the town uninhabitable.

According to Priscilla Offiong, in a report entitled; “Nigeria Relies on Oil Despite Having Large Coal Reserves,” and published by Climate Scorecard, an organisation focused on environmental sustainability, Ondo State contributes 60,000 per barrel of crude oil per day to the country’s oil production. Ilaje Local Government Area is said to be the state’s only oil-producing local government.

The 60,000 BPD, Ms Offiong noted, amounts to about 3.7 per cent of Nigeria’s total oil production with the state ranked 5th among Nigeria’s eight oil producing states captured by the NDDC law.

But what was meant to be a blessing soon turned into a curse for the peace-loving people as the once-friendly atmosphere became so violent that a hitherto happy city has now been enveloped by gloom.

Fishing – the people’s main occupation – has also become impossible due to the polluted water and high tide. Those who have tried, have sometimes paid with their lives. The pollution of the area and rising sea level have led to the loss of properties, plants, animal species, among others, while some families have been separated over the need for shelter.

Residents of the community point accusing fingers at the oil exploration activities at nearby oil well such as Opuekepa, Omuro, Ojumole, Malu, Eko, Parabe, operated by oil giants including Chevron Nigeria Limited

An expert in Marine Biology, Ecosystem Health and Risk Assessment, Lucian Chukwu, linked ocean surge to natural occurrences and consequences of human activities.

Mr Chukwu, a professor and former dean of the postgraduate college at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Akoka, said Ondo State has Nigeria’s longest coastline of about 180 kilometres, noting that the impacts of various structures such as drill ridge “and others that can change the hydrodynamic properties of the ocean water affect wave patterns and eventually lead to surge.”

He said; “Now, this ocean surge usually happens during the rainy season. Oftentimes, between the months of April and October but usually more in August. It is usually as a result of meteorological changes which are caused by something called roaring forties – strong winds that we normally have in the southern hemisphere.

“The strong winds are usually generated through the earth rotation and temperature changes that we have here below the equator in the southern hemisphere. So when you have a combination of the very strong winds, and a very low pressure occurring out there at sea, it generates the ocean surge. What I’m saying, in essence, is that it is a natural phenomenon that continues to occur and will continue to occur along that area.”

The don, who said he had visited the area for research activities, noted that the impacts of the natural phenomenon on the beach can be exacerbated by anthropogenic activities.

He added; “What are these anthropogenic activities? They are oil exploration, oil development, among others. But to just wake up and say the surge is a result of exploration alone is like a wild goose chase. We must pinpoint the activities of the oil companies that are implicated in the catastrophic impacts and these could include dredging. This is because if some areas are dredged, the wheel actions will be deflected and their patterns will change. That can create some more problems in terms of flooding around that area.”

As a scientist, Mr Chukwu would not come to a conclusion without scientific evidence.

Similarly, Mr Chukwu’s colleague at UNILAG, a geologist, Samson Bankole, also blamed the development on nature and human activities including logging, sand mining, dredging, among others.

He said; “So coming to the question of whether it is as a result of the activities of oil companies in those areas, let me explain that oil companies embark on a series of activities during exploration, so it depends on where the oil is found, where drilling is taking place, where wells are located, and where they locate their flow station. If it is along the coast, especially the coastal swamp and the mangrove, it is possible that their activities will disturb natural defences such as beaches.

The expert added that if the activities of humans intrude into the coastal environments, anytime there is a storm surge, “as a result of hurricanes or tropical cyclones, there is a sudden rise in sea level and that can be devastating because for quite sometimes, those areas will be under the water.”

While it did not deny operating in Ondo State, the management of Chevron Nigeria Limited has said the company does not engage in any oil activities in the community.

In a short response to PREMIUM TIMES’ enquiry, and signed by the general manager, policy, government and public affairs, Esimaje Brikinn, the company blamed the development on natural phenomenon.

The statement reads; “Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL) has no operation in Ayetoro community, in Ilaje Local Government of Ondo State. The natural phenomenon of ocean surge in the community has nothing to do with CNL’s operations. We are aware that incidents of ocean surges are common in many coastal communities around the world as a result of global climate change. CNL remains committed to protecting people and the environment and conducting its operations reliably and safely.”

Though CNL does not operate in Ayetoro town, it does operate within the Ilaje Local Government Area. And as suggested by experts, the surge may not be entirely unconnected to its operations and those of other oil companies in the area.

In a similar development, a source at the Nigerian Agip Oil Company, who does not want to be named for lacking the official power to speak on the matter, told our reporter that the surge in the community can also be traced to the activities of the residents. The source cited activities such as logging.

But the firm’s spokesperson, Folu Olapade, declined to comment on the development, saying the company has a procedure for engaging the public.

It was Tuesday, October 8, 2019, and a torrential rainfall across major parts of Ondo State, South-west Nigeria, had forced many residents of Ayetoro out of their homes. Many converged on the city centre and near its wharf, with their arms wrapped around their chests. They shivered in the cold as all businesses were halted.

The raging sea incursion, which has claimed more than a three-kilometre length of land space of the island community has continued to render many families homeless.

At the community’s primary school and Happy City College, a public secondary school, the scene had depicted the anguish of struggling lads, whose resolve to cling on to life is resolute. Against the odds of rampaging flooding, biting cold and the trepidation of collapsing classrooms, these pupils insisted on salvaging their future.

It was the third time the primary school would be relocated in under five years over the violent rage of flooding, and on this day, while the rain was yet to completely subside, the pupils were busy making arrangements for new classrooms.

Some had removed their uniforms and wore only knickers, while others never minded being drenched. Aged between six and 10, they carried heavy planks to a new location approved by the community.

The headteacher, Alfred Okunuwa, expressed frustration over what he described as the government’s abandonment of the community’s only public primary school. He said the sea incursion had claimed many of the school’s structures, including offices.

“These are young children whose future should be the priority of any government. But as you can see, we cannot even afford labourers to help pack the planks. So you can see the kids defying the rain to move these items. They are used to it but this shouldn’t be part of their learning experience,” Mr Okunnuwa said.

He added that he had written letters of complaints to the authorities many times but has not received a single response. He said only 10 teachers are in charge of 350 pupils and some of the teachers are community-sponsored.

The situation is similar at the secondary school where the remaining four classrooms for the entire school are also flooded.

Both the school’s principal, Fagbile Johnson, and bursar, Nelson Iyapo, while conducting our reporter round the destroyed laboratories, offices and classrooms, said but for the community’s leadership, there would have been nothing left of the school.

Mr Johnson said: “Just before the last incursion that destroyed all these structures, we were only lucky to have removed some of the important files. The situation here is pathetic.”

A human rights lawyer, Ige Asemudara, whose ancestral home has been washed away by the rampaging ocean, said he has since moved his mother to Igbokoda, headquarters of Ilaje Local Government Area.

He said, “It is not only the living that have suffered this menace but the dead too. Our community’s burial ground is no more, and there is no way to trace the graves of our forefathers.”

Residents told PREMIUM TIMES that the corpses of the community’s first traditional ruler, Ethiopia Ojagbounmi; his successor, Omotuwa Okenla; the third ruler, Charles Akinluwa, and the fourth, Michiaih Olasela, were part of the hundreds already washed away by the angry sea.

Despite clear evidence showing otherwise, the representative of the contractor- Dredging Atlantic Limited, Olusola Oyinloye, said his company has not abandoned the project.

Mr Oyinloye, who spoke to our reporter on the phone, said the difficulties faced by the company, particularly the non-availability of enough sand at the site and the increasing tide informed a ‘new decision’ by both the NDDC and the government of Ondo State.

He said, “It is true we have not been to the site for a long time but it isn’t our fault. When we did the assessment, there was still enough sand that could serve the geo-tube purpose, but by the time the contract was eventually awarded, other contractors working on road projects within the area had further dredged the place to pack available sands.

“Then, we had to move more than 10 kilometres away to pack sands using wooden boats, and we soon realised the futility of the efforts. By this time, the impact had increased significantly and the budget could no longer fund more than half of the design.”

Mr Oyinloye added that both the government of Ondo State and the NDDC later visited the site and concluded on redesigning the project to change the geo-tube system to concrete pile system.

“We were told Ondo State Ministry of Environment would do the design and will be jointly funded and monitored by both the state and NDDC. We have been waiting for the new design ever since,” Mr Oyinloye said.

Asked how much the contract was awarded and how much the company has received so far, Mr Oyinloye said the ”authentic information should be sought from the contract awarding agency”.

“Whatever I give you will be from the perspective of the contractor, so it is important you approach NDDC. But one thing is clear, we are willing and eager to return to site because abandoning the project will be much more damaging than we could imagine,” he added.

For more than four months, requests for information sent to the NDDC, relying on the freedom of information law, were not replied.

Speaking on the phone with our reporter, the NDDC’s director of public affairs, Charles Odili, said the agency’s area office in Ondo State was in the best position to speak on the matter.

But when confronted with the claim by the area office that only the headquarters has the capacity to talk on any of the agency’s projects, Mr Odilli said a formal letter would be required ”to secure information.”

But again, when our reporter said an FOI request on the project, among many others, had earlier been sent to the office, Mr Odilli said ”he was going to find out what transpired.” However, till date, there has not been any response from the spokesperson.

The state governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, has said his administration “has not forgotten and will never forget the plight of the people of Ayetoro.”

Speaking through his chief press secretary, Segun Ajiboye, the governor said the huge number of NDDC abandoned projects being reviewed across the state may have simply caused the delay of the project.

According to the government, rather than allowing a shoddy project done in Ayetoro, it would prefer to exercise patience in order to see a durable project executed.

He said; “I can assure you that we are very concerned about the plight of our people. If you look at the turnaround across the state, and even the riverine areas, you would realise how many abandoned projects we are currently working on with NDDC.

“The Ayetoro shore protection project involves huge resources and it is better we tackle the challenge once and for all than doing shoddy work.”

Aratolu Ajinde is the leader of the youth of Ayetoro community whose storey building could be the next victim of the sea incursion.

According to him, the ground floor of the building is already overtaken by flood, and in a couple of months, the once beautiful edifice may give way to the rampaging flood.

He said, “My wife has just been delivered of a baby, we moved upstairs and whenever it rains, the ground floor is completely overtaken by flood”.

“We have been here since the 1940s and we lived happily without the government supporting us. But the oil exploration has made our lives miserable instead of boosting our development. All that we ask for is this embankment which has been abandoned. We did not cause this damage, the government did and should help us.”

In a similar development, the community’s spokesperson, Mr Akinluwa, said all efforts to see to the completion of the abandoned shore protection project have been unsuccessful.

“This community has totally been brought down by the insensitivity of our government. Ayetoro wasn’t like any other community; we were independent and self-sustaining but the discovery of oil has brought us more pain than gain.

“All our infrastructure put together through the people’s ingenuity and sweat have now been washed away. Markets, halls, schools and more than 50 houses have been washed away. We are tired of the rhetoric by both the NDDC and government,” he said.