I was a witness to the menace of flooding, and the consequences, in Nigeria that occurred in 2012, when between the months of July and October that year, 30 out of Nigeria’s 36 states were submerged by flood. By mid-October, 2.1 million persons had been displaced from their homes, over 400 persons died and many homes were destroyed. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) calculated the cost of the losses at about N2.6 trillion and described the floods as the worst in 40 years. It was not the first time Nigeria would experience floods. After all, before 2012, there had been the famous overflowing of the Ogunpa River in Ibadan, south-west of Nigeria, in 1960, 1963, 1978 and notably 1980 when the Ogunpa floods left the city of Ibadan completely devastated, and Nigeria with a national disaster. What happened in 2012 was worse than the “Omiyale” phenomenon in Ibadan, as that was known locally.
The standard narrative about the Ogunpa floods was heavy rainfall and the dumping of waste along the Ogunpa River channels. The 2012 narrative was different. This was not simply about the dumping of refuse or the seasonal flash floods but a national calamity with additional dimensions. The federal government of Nigeria led by President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan had to provide a relief fund of N17.6 billion to various states to mitigate the effect. NEMA offered relief support. Camps were set up across the country to accommodate the affected persons and families. State governments liaised with the federal government and the Red Cross to help displaced persons. Food was released from the country’s National Strategic Grains Reserve to prevent hunger and famine as the country’s agriculture supply chain had been disrupted. Farms in Nigeria’s food basket states were completely destroyed. The most affected states were Adamawa, Taraba, Plateau, Benue, Kogi and the low-lying plains of Rivers Niger and Benue and the tributaries of both rivers.
We visited the camps: 10 years later, the experience remains dark and haunting — nobody was spared, the old, the young and the infants. The worst spectacle of all was the camp set up in Delta state where we saw people on make-shift hospital beds, with the then governor of the state, Emmanuel Ewetan Uduaghan, vowing that as a governor, he had a duty to save lives! One of the explanations we were given at the time was that climate change was a problem, and the release of water from Nigerian dams and the release of water from the Lagdo Dam in Cameroon was also a major cause. It is astonishing, and a reflection of how we never take anything seriously, and how Nigerian leaders do not pay attention to critical matters, that in 2022, we are back to the same situation as we had in 2012. Some commentators have even said that the flooding this year is actually the worst ever.
More than 29 states are reportedly affected, including communities along the banks of Rivers Niger and Benue and the Delta region. In Kogi state, parts of the state capital are submerged. Governor Yahaya Bello visiting the communities has been shown riding a canoe. In Anambra state – west, east and Awka north local government areas – over 600,000 persons have been displaced. In Jigawa, deaths have been recorded in more than six LGAs. In Nasarawa, 4,400 hectares of rice farmland cultivated by Olam Agric Farms, worth about $20 million has been submerged and laid to waste. After 2012, Olam Farms built 52 kilometres of dykes around its farms. Everything has been wiped away. Olam Agric supplies about 25% of rice in Nigeria. Ade Adefeko, the company’s vice president of external relations and stakeholder management, says the damage is so devastating it could lead to food inflation, and that by December 2022, a 50kg bag of rice, a staple food among Nigerians could cost as much as N100,000 per bag. In 2014, a bag of rice was less than N20,000. As of September 2022, a bag of rice was N54,000! Five days ago, in Lagos state, the commissioner for environment, Tunji Bello, advised persons living in low-lying parts of the state and neighbouring Ogun state like Ketu, Alapere, Owode Onirin, Kara, Agiliti, Odo Ogun, Agboyi, Isheri, Akute and Warewa, to relocate to upland areas because of the threat of floods. Concerned citizens have tried to explain why Nigeria now faces such a perennial problem of flooding.
One reason is that we are in the era of climate change. The global environment has been upended by carbon emissions and global warming. The International Panel on Climate Change, a creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), advises its 195-member countries about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, and how the impact can be mitigated. But despite the efforts of the IPCC, and civil society stakeholders like 19-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, and American actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, most leaders of the world pay lip service to climate change and its effects. Meeting the target of 1.5 degrees centigrade threshold or below, as recommended by scientists, and as agreed by world leaders under the Paris Climate Agreement requires concerted action on the parts of governments, financial institutions, corporations, the private sector and others, and it is something that we hear about on a regular basis at Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings on climate change. The effect of climate change is measured in terms of how our world is becoming unrecognizable: sea levels are rising, the arctic is getting warmer, temperatures are rising, rainfall levels have changed, and nature is changing and becoming more acidic. When global leaders meet at COPs, they make promises and commitments: the last was in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021, and the next one – COP 27 is scheduled for November 6-18, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. The leaders of the world would make the same promises, but the action in terms of follow-up is poor and even worse — climate change as is the case with everything else has become an opportunity for politics and competition.
Nigeria is not left out. For more than a decade, Nigerian leaders have always included a paragraph or two on climate change in their statements at the United Nations general assembly. Most recently at the 75th session of UNGA in New York, President Muhammadu Buhari spoke about the existential threat posed by climate change, Nigeria’s climate change strategy, climate justice, and the need for financing to mitigate the effects of climate change. Like his boss, Nigeria’s vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, has also consistently proposed a debt-for-climate-swap deal to achieve an equitable and just energy transition for Nigeria and Africa. In September 2022, the Nigerian government inaugurated a National Council on Climate Change in pursuit of the implementation of the climate change act of 2021. But the situation in Nigeria is similar to that of many other countries of the world. What we can hold on to is the reality of the dilemma. This year alone, the evidence of climate change has manifested in the form of floods in Aragua state in north-central Venezuela, in Indonesia, in Trinidad and Tobago, India, Australia, Pakistan and Florida, the United States and closer home, in Chad.
The second reason that has been offered with regard to flooding in Nigeria is to blame the release of water from the Lagdo Dam on the Benue River in northern Cameroon. Built between 1977 and 1982, the Lagdo dam was meant for irrigation and the supply of electricity. Nigeria and Cameroon have a bilateral agreement over the dam and its management which is principally that Nigeria will construct a similar dam or embankment on its own side. That embankment located in Dasin Village in Adamawa state has been under construction for close to 20 years. Cameroon fulfilled their own part of the bargain. We failed on our part. International purists can argue that Cameroon cannot keep causing us havoc each time water is released from the Lagdo Dam, but we are not even in any position to reciprocate. The bilateral agreement requires Cameroon to inform Nigeria at least a month earlier before it releases water from the Lagdo Dam. Our neighbours have routinely complied in this regard. As recently as September 13, 2022, Nigeria’s Hydrological Services Agency announced that Cameroon was going to release water from the Lagdo dam and that many states along the Rivers Niger and Benue basins would be affected. Information was duly provided but we were in a helpless situation because nobody deemed it necessary to do anything positive to prevent our foreseeable and forewarned agony. Is it possible to enter into new arrangements with Cameroon? I should think so.
But who will make the effort when we cannot even manage the dams in Nigeria including the ones developed by domestic river basin authorities? Each time, for example, water is released from the Oyan Dam under the Ogun-Osun River Basin Authority, parts of Ogun and Lagos states are submerged. When water is released from the Jebba dam, the whole of that axis from Ilorin to Mokwa is flooded. Before blaming outsiders, we must focus on our own inability as a country to manage the environment or nature. The conflict between man and nature is a major existential challenge and it is indeed at the centre of man’s efforts to assert himself or herself as the most wondrous of all creations and master of the Cosmos. The trajectory of epistemology has shown man’s limitations and a constant reminder that he is indeed, only a part of the Universe and not its master, but in other parts of the world, man’s perpetual search for meaning and dominance is the historicization of the world. Here in Africa, and in many underdeveloped parts, we do not try enough. We blame God for everything. We resign to fate.
Every year, government agencies tell us that there will be bad weather, heavy rainfall, and floods, but nobody does anything. The rainy season comes, floods everywhere, people die and we just move on. In Jos, Plateau state at certain moments of the year, the weather could be so cold as if it is winter, but the people never prepare. Nigerian newspapers used to report deaths in Plateau state during the rainy season, just because some of the people will refuse to wear warm clothing! The other year, when there was heavy rainfall in Lagos, people were swimming and hunting for fish on the streets of Victoria Island. Many were more excited about catching fish than the fact that the Atlantic had overflown its banks, and the whole of Lagos Island could be submerged. We treat everything as a joke around here including the lives of citizens. There are cities around the world that are below sea level – Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Singapore, Santo Domingo — they are better managed. When floods occur here, what you are likely to hear is that it is time to propitiate the river goddess. Other countries are talking about artificial intelligence, efficient robots and cutting-edge technology, we are still at the level of spirits and goddesses. This primitivity and superstition is the biggest challenge we face. It is in fact worse than climate change.
The third point to be made is that our major problem in Nigeria is negligence. We don’t care enough about the environment. We believe the best way to live is to beat, game and cheat the system, and ignore all possible rules for harmonious living. We thrive in the midst of chaos. We revel in disaster. This is why regulations don’t work here. Part of our environmental problem is that we build on drainage channels. We dump refuse indiscriminately. We threaten nature with our actions and choices. Government officials collect bribes and look the other way. Basic rules that work elsewhere about building plans and management of the environment do not work here. When nature fights back, we blame everything on witchcraft. The floods before now and this time are a reflection of the way we are.
But should the government continue this way or look the other way, and allow the people to suffer and die? No. It is particularly disturbing that official responses have been cavalier. In Anambra and Kogi states, we have seen the state governors, Soludo and Bello, identifying with the people. Most of the other state governors can’t be bothered. In one state, a governor and his deputy, who could not be found as floods ravaged communities in the state were booed this week when they tried to attend a festival, behaving as if nothing happened. I am referring to Mohammed Abubakar Badaru of Jigawa state and his deputy, Umar Namadi. Other state governors in affected states are too busy with pre-2023 political rallies to even talk about the floods. They obviously consider their political ambitions more important than the people’s agony. This is strange. Political leaders must learn to show empathy. They must demonstrate that the people matter.
The starting point is to provide support for all the farmers who have lost their farmlands and crops, and the families and communities that have also lost so much, as was done in 2012. Where it is possible to provide grants, this must be done. Counselling too. And why are the emergency management agencies at both the federal and state levels so silent? To stave off the looming effect of food inflation, the federal government should release grains from the National Strategic Grains Reserves in the existing 33 silos, even if the entire reserve is at the depleted level of about 60,000 metric tonnes due to COVID-19 interventions and mismanagement. Above all, we have to engage the Cameroonians in terms of temporary measures that can be agreed upon on the Lagdo dam issue. At home, we need to revive the river basin authorities and address whatever problems they now pose, contrary to their original design.
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