In Obitti, an oil-producing community in Ohaji/Egbema in Imo State, self-medication is the norm. Villagers say they rely more on informal drug stores, popularly known as ‘chemists,’ than the dysfunctional health centre that looks more like a morgue. More than six persons in Obitti tell BusinessDay that they have lived their last five to 10 years relying on chemist stores.
Charles Okoronkwo, 61, a native of Obitti, says he prescribes drugs for himself when ill.
“I cannot afford bills in private clinics here,” he says. “Our community health centre has been abandoned for years now. No drugs, no medics. I am afraid of going close to it because it looks like just a mortuary,” he further says.
Private clinics in Obitti charge N3,000 to N5,000 to treat common illnesses such as typhoid, malaria and flu. But the villagers say more than 60 percent of them cannot afford that. Charles Ugwu, a member of the community, says a few middle-class natives travel 20 kilometres to Owerri to visit public or private hospitals.
Health centres or morgues?
The picture of Obitti Medical Centre is pathetic. The compound looks well swept. But a popular adage says “you do not judge a book by its cover.” Inside the one-room health centre, there are two rusty iron beds not occupied by any mortal. Beside them is a heap of cartons overfilled by already dispended drugs. The floor is dusty and looks like it has not been cleaned for ages. The windows are shut and no nurse or doctor can occupy the place in 10 minutes without gasping for breath.
“Only spirits occupy places like this,” Charles Ugwu, a middle-aged villager, who walks in while this writer is having a look at the health centre, quips.
People outside Ohaji/Egbema and Oguta often assume that the oil-producing parts of Imo State have streets paved with gold. But the reality is that natives and residents of the communities cannot even go to good hospitals.
“Anybody who hears of oil-producing communities in Imo State may think we live in paradise. But you can now go as our witness,” Mike Ezenwere, president-general of Obitti community, says.
If anyone thinks that Obitti Health Centre is bad enough, maybe they can take a 25-minute ride to Ohaji General Hospital, located in Umokanne community. It was built in late 1980s by General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s self-acclaimed civilian president. The hospital is located close to Ohaji District Local Government headquarters, yet it looks more like a bush.
The once virile hospital is now overgrown with grass and taken over by reptiles. Because the abandoned hospital has no security official manning it, critical parts of the hospital building are being stolen each day, one villager says. Community leaders say the immediate past government of Rochas Okorocha left the abandoned hospital and built another one at a closer village known as Amafor, but the newly-built hospital rarely has drugs.
In Abacheke, a community, where oil spillage has done more harm than good, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) has constructed a health centre close to the community secondary school. But like others, the health centre has no drugs, no doctor or nurse and is under lock and key.
The poor state of schools
Apart from the fact that part of Obitti Primary School has leaky roofs, a proposed secondary school in the community has remained an empty piece of land for over 10 years. In a neighbouring community, Awara, there is no secondary school. Parents send their children to other communities, Umuapu and Umuokanne, an hour’s walk, for their secondary education.
Others enrol their wards in Owerri, the Imo State capital. A middle-class native of Obitti, Paul Ogaji, laments that it costs him N1, 500 ($3.3) every day to send his daughter to a secondary school in Owerri.
Roads leading to autonomous communities in Agwa, Oguta local government, are bad and get worse in rainy season. At Ohaji/Egbema, the major road to oil-producing community is broken from Umuokanne. Access to oil-producing communities is difficult, though oil and gas companies still ply their trade and move their vehicles through the road.
The environmental impact
Oil communities, whether in Imo State or other oil-producing states, suffer from environmental degradation. In Imo State, the impact is getting minimal, residents say.
However, oil spillage has become common in Abacheke community in Ohaji/Egbema. In 2010, Agip, which has now exited Nigeria, was accused of spilling oil in the community. The same allegation was repeated in 2014. A resident takes this reporter to a site in Abacheke where Agip oil spillage occurred in 2014 and 2019.
The resident, who pleads anonymity, says nothing grows there again, yet the family has not received any form of compensation. However, one youth in the community confides in BusinessDay that Abacheke youths, out of anger for lack of development, break pipelines and steal oil.
No prominent member of the community agrees to confirm this.
Neglect by companies
The people of Mgbirichi in Ohaji/Egbema accuse Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) of sending a contractor three years ago to the community, who destroyed their farms while prospecting for gas, without compensating them.
Uchenna Akagha, a native of Mgbirichi, says this has been the hallmark of the oil and gas giant.
But Bamidele Odugbesan, media relations manager, Shell Nigeria, dismisses that as untrue, saying, “SPDC has no oil prospecting operation in Mgbirichi community and has not received any complaint from the community.
“The Assa North Gas Development project currently being executed by SPDC on behalf of the SPDC JV in Ohaji/Egbema LGA is not in Mgbirichi, hence no land was acquired for oil prospecting or project development in Mgbirichi as claimed.”
He further says that the company has a gas project in Assa North hosted by Assa, Ochia, Awarra and Obile autonomous communities in Ohaji/Egbema LGA of Imo state.
“Land for the project site was lawfully acquired from the Assa North communities and the landowners paid,” he says.
In February 2019, the oil and gas company agreed to release N1 billion to develop 11 oil communities in Imo State. BusinessDay asks Odugbesan whether the fund has been released or not.
He replies that the oil and gas company has committed to funding the community development programmes over five years at N200 million per year.
“SPDC has released the 2019 funds and is in the process of disbursing the 2020 tranche payment to the development clusters,” he says. He explains that the projects are as determined by the communities, and are not determined or executed by SPDC.
Similarly, Waltersmith is accused by Obitti and Awara people of not impacting lives in Ohaji/Egbema apart from the electrification project that has not materialised.
But Eriye Onagoruwa, external affairs and government relations manager, says the allegation is untrue, noting, “Waltersmith has its areas of operations majorly in Ochia and Assa autonomous communities, and Awarra community is not one of our host or access road communities.
“Our access road communities include: Umuapu, Obitti and Obile. We currently have a GMoU in place and Ochia, Assa, Umuapu, Obitti, Obile all have representatives in the GMoU board.”
When pressed for her firm’s CSR projects in the communities, she says her firm enjoys a good relationship with Eze of Ochia, the traditional ruler of one of the communities. “We have a lot of ongoing projects that are easily verifiable and cut across our communities and by extension Ohaji/Egbema LGA.”
Apart from the electrification project, however, no other specific project was mentioned.
Unemployment in Imo State
Imo has the second highest unemployment rate (of 28.2%) in South-East Nigeria, according to the National Bureau of Statistics’ 2018 third quarter report, the latest unemployment report by the data agency. Abia State ranks first at 31.6 percent, followed by Ebonyi (21.1%), Enugu (18.7%) and Anambra (17.5%), according to the NBS.