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Ogun state, located in southwest Nigeria has attracted over 300 new businesses and at least 70 percent of all manufacturing investments into Nigeria in the last five years but some of these investments have come at a cost to the health and environment of its 5million people, ISAAC ANYAOGU toured one of the state’s industrial hubs to understand the true cost of commerce without morality.

I was still five kilometres away from Ogijo, one of the fastest developing industrial cities in Nigeria, sandwiched between Sagamu and Ikorodu, on the outskirts of Lagos, the commercial heartbeat of Africa’s most populous country, when the clouds suddenly began to darken.

Yes, I agree with the science indicating that our planet is heating up, as shown in scorching heatwaves and rains that fell as if the sky was inconsolably mourning a lover’s death but I found it strange to see dark clouds when the temperature was pushing 36 degrees on midday in October.

I soon understood that it was only smoke from a kiln in a steel processing plant. I wrote ‘only’ because looking at it from the perspective of a people who have lived for over a decade in a community where the smell of burning chemicals, accompanied by a hail of sooth and the ear-piercing blast of heavy machines crunching metals is just the annoying inconvenience of another Tuesday.

Ogijo is fast morphing into an industrial hub with dozens of factories, foundries and recycling plants opening plants in the community. The cost of real estate has tripled over the past two years because the merry band of businessmen are buying up every square inch of land.

Within the past 10 years, dozens of these recycling plants have relocated from Lagos to Ogun state. As enforcement of environmental laws that began under the administration of former Lagos state governor, Babatunde Fashola (2007-2015), got stricter, these companies mostly owned by Lebanese, Indians, and Chinese settled in Ogijo, an hour from Lagos.

Antonio Ayodele, former general manager, Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency in an interview last year said the relocation to Ogijo by recycling plants was because his organisation has stepped up enforcement of its environmental laws. “We routinely carry out monitoring activities and sanction them, this is why they are leaving Lagos for Ogun State,” said Ayodele.

The air around Oruku community in Ogijo was so suffocating that I began to feel slightly noxious upon entering the community. Oruku, a sleepy suburb of less than 200 lowly houses, is home to Monarch Steel Mills Ltd, ran by Indian businessmen Vishal Khandelwal and Vikas Katiyar.

 

Ogijo

The sense you get upon touring the community is of a patch of earth that has known neglect for too long. Though power lines ran through the community, the people do not have electricity. The houses are in various stages of completion suspended in time, animated by lack and despair. What passes as roads are stretches of muddy terrain where a motor grader once waddled across, and now abandoned to test the limits of automobile technology.

The road to Ogijo will test the limits of automobile technology

Ogun is open for business

In the early 2000s, Ogijo communities began selling large swaths of their land to Indian businessmen who promised them jobs and better pay. Largely, an agrarian community, the allure of white-collar jobs requiring limited skillset and better pay was irresistible. These companies sought to capitalise on Nigeria’s inability to manage its waste.

The State government led by Gbenga Daniel between 2003- 2011 began to industrialise the state. He gave companies tax breaks and offered them cheap land. Flowergate Industrial Estate opened at Sagamu interchange hosting the largest Nestlé plant in West Africa, then the Ogun Guangdong Free Trade Zone at Igbesa was established and soon a cluster of manufacturing plants owned by Chinese investors began to emerge.

In 2012, the state government under Ibikunle Amosun held the first Ogun State Investment Forum. The plan was to turn the state into a hub for industrial and agricultural processing. The governor worked with the Bank of Industry to establish a credit facility for investors. He further granted a 40 percent rebate on the cost of buying land for farming and factories. Documents were processed in days. He built new roads and bridges and launched a security trust fund to combat crime.

 

Sound of machines pulverising metals is chaos on steroids

 

These reforms began to bear fruit. Private companies started building estates to provide housing for thousands of people working in Lagos but leaving outside the city. In 2014, Bimbo Ashiru, the state’s commissioner for Commerce and Industry said these reforms have created wealth, increased the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) of the state, and began an industrial revolution. Ogun state’s IGR rose from N9bn ($29.3m) a year in 2011 to nearly N48billion ($156.3m) in 2014 and by 2018, it has risen to over N84billion ($273.6m).

“As we speak, Ogun can boast of 304 new industries and companies, which opened shops within seven years, out of this, 147 have invested over $200m,” Amosun said in 2018.

According to data from the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), which comprises local manufacturers, Ogun state accounted for over 70 percent of all manufacturing investments in Nigeria between 2014 and 2016.

There are now over 140 waste recycling industries and a quarter of these are located around Ogijo, recycling steel rods, lead-acid batteries, turning scrap into money and leaving the community poorer.

The ceiling in every house within a walking distance from Monarch Steel looks like what you will find inside an indoor fireplace. If you spread your palms long enough, sooth gathers. This sooth settles on clothes, on furniture, in people’s water and inside their lungs.

Last year, I was part of a team that investigated the activities of lead recyclers at Ipetero, one of the most affected communities around Ogijo. We conducted medical tests which conclusively proved that many in the community had been poisoned by lead from a lead-acid battery recycling facility owned by Everest Metals Ltd, an Indian owned plant.

 

 

Wastewater from recycling plants pollute water sources

 

As with most of these recycling plants set up in Ogun state, dangerous wastewater from their operations are poured into drainages which contaminates local water sources. The recycling plants scrimp on abatement technologies thus compromising air quality, workers wrap plastic bags around their hands and legs in the stead of Personal Protective Equipment, those who lose a limb to the machines were dismissed with a month pay, many toiled hard with little to show for it, dying in installments.

Workers improvise as adequate protective equipment is often unavailable

 

However, subsequent visits to Ogijo revealed a pollution problem of epic proportions. Trucks hauling in these scrap metals leave gullies on the rickety roads, some park on the road until they can discharge their cargo but while waiting, their charges turn drainages into latrines.

A hundred machines roaring at once is the perfect background for the opera of chaos, you sniff enough carbon from the billowing cloud of grey smoke your eyes redden on their own till they appear as they belong to someone high on cheap crack.

“The smoke from this factory is driving us crazy,” says 41-year old, Rufus Noel, a local pastor, “We are tired!” he said with resignation.

Medical experts say chemicals and gases produced by these iron smelters and recycling plants could increase the likelihood of cancers. Arsenic, a toxic metal is found in air, water and soil or dust and exposure increase the risk of skin, bladder, liver and lung cancer.

Breathing in benzene released as a gas during the industrial process can cause fatigue and long-term exposures can harm bone marrow and is associated with the risk of leukaemia. Benzene is airborne and not likely to build up in the soil. Exposure to Butadiene, a colourless gas commonly produced by these processes is associated with nausea, headache, and lower blood pressure. Studies in animals and in workers suggest chronic exposure to 1,3-Butadiene may be linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Phillip Ajose, a 58-year-old resident of Oruku and a member of the local community development association said they had protested several times within the last year but Monarch Steel had ignored them. I was also unsuccessful in two attempts to speak to the company.

A few weeks to the publication of this article, Monarch Steel said it will review the agreement it reached with the community in July for implementation.

Among other things, the villages are asking the company to build drainages to contain wastewater, air pollution abatement systems along with requests to rebuild their king’s palace and donation of desks for the local school. The company says it will donate desks and school books according to Noel, but has yet to commit to building abatement systems months after it signed the agreement.

 

Some water sources have been polluted in Ogun state

 

Living in this community is, however, an on-going nightmare. Imagine living in a place where you cannot open your windows at dawn or dusk, where clothes are dried in the house to keep out black smudges, where your entire life depends on  company’s schedule, where you close your door, sometimes, pile rags at the foot of the door, as you lay on the bare ground around the smouldering glow of a flickering kerosene lantern riding out the thunderclaps of a blasting kiln while fanning yourself with a tattered newspaper.

In the home of the Olatundes, (they plead anonymity) their lives revolve around the production timeline of African Foundaries Limited, also located around Ogijo. In the morning, they cannot hurry enough to flee their own homes and at dusk, they shutter windows and imagine the moon because the sky is a heaving mass of black smoke with the clatter of grating machines as the soundtrack to an unending nightmare. Electricity is still a distant dream.

AFL plant has a capacity of 225,000 tons per year as it seeks to transform local scrap into bars reinforced by steel. Such bars are called rebars. The company says it wants to support Nigeria’s quest to be self-reliant for steel rebars and eliminate dependence on imported rebars but it is riding this wave on the back of a broken people.

Many remember fondly an explosion at the AFL factory four years ago that shattered windows shook houses and even loosened a ceiling fan which crashed on a child. The people raged and pilloried the company to no avail. Nigeria’s foreign investors have since learned that if you pay the right people enough money, many problems can go away.

Someone had the bright idea to complain to a judge and seeking to avoid embarrassment, the company offered to pay for damages and dangled around N20,000 ($65) in cash. The villages jumped at it. The alternative was a protracted court case that when judgement is delivered both parties may have forgotten why they were in court in the first place.

Before you think this is a folly, understand that labour unions have been fighting to be paid N30,000 ($97) monthly as minimum wage for the better part of 2019. So, the settlement offer was a tidy sum of money to a people who had long maintained an intimate relationship with penury.

Those who could not live down the thought of their misery questioning the worth of their cheapened existence, sold their houses – to the company at half what they were worth – and fled the community!

On its website, AFL claims it provides medical care to the community, the 68 year-old matriarch of the family looked at me, the way you look at a bastard whose mother hasn’t told the well-kept secret of his conception while he speaks of what he will do with his inheritance, sighed and told me that even if someone wishes to deceive me, doesn’t it hurt to deliberately deceive oneself?

In the whole of Ogijo there are three facilities that maintain a tenuous grasp with the description of a clinic. There is only one doctor for these primary healthcare centres hence they are mostly operated by matrons whose concept of medicine was current in the last century. The dispensaries are stocked with paracetamol and aspirins and the toilets lack water. The best medical advice is to avoid getting sick while in Ogijo.

 

 

Residents at a medical center awaiting test results

 

Weak oversight

Last year, while investigating the activities of Everest Metals, whose operations led to cases of pollution, the company produced certifications from the Ogun state ministry of environment.

Some workers confirmed that Monarch Steel also has the requisite registrations. To secure certifications, waste companies are required to produce proof of compliance with environmental standards in the state. The Ogun state environmental Protection Agency (OSEPA) issues these licences on behalf of the state’s Ministry of Environment. The Federal Ministry of Environment, at the central level, coordinates environmental laws along with an agency called the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA).

The then commissioner for Environment Bolaji Oyeleye, when asked how these companies are allowed to carry on with their unsafe practices, said “We have had problems with those companies in that community in the past, but it is something we are looking into. We will definitely do something about it.”

One year later, nothing has been done.

“It is clear the community is seriously polluted and the situation actually calls for an emergency,” said Leslie Adogame, executive director of environmental non-profit, Sustainable Research and Action for Environmental Development (SRADEV).

Every quarter, these recycling plants are compelled to file air, land and soil quality reports to show compliance with the state’s environmental laws. They hire experts who tell them what they want to hear and they merely file these reports with fancy words and colourful language signifying nothing, to the government.

Vikas Das, managing director of Everest Metals Ltd presented four different environmental audit reports prepared by Batmol Environmental Consultancy Services that basically said the company’s operations were within the limits set by OSEPA.

Asked how these studies were funded, he said. “The state does not have the resources to fund the tests, so we pay for it.”

Everest Metals also had an exporter registration certificate issued by the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (REF. NO 0003356) valid till 16/02/2020, several receipts of purchases of PPE equipment which were mostly dated between October and November this year and an environmental approval by OSEPA which expired March 18 this year.

Monarch Steel had similar registration as shown by the company’s ability to procure an export license by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON).

 

Registrations are often easy to secure if you know the right people

 

Adeleke Ajani, the South West Coordinator of National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) said that monitoring activities were on-going to ensure that Monarch Steel complies with regulations.

“You know monitoring is a continuous exercise, sometimes, they will start to comply and when we leave, they return to their old ways, but we keep checking to ensure they comply,” Ajani said.

However, the community believes that he and his team are on the payroll of Monarch Steel. They said after each complaint, he goes in to discuss with the company and leaves while the problem persists.

On his recent visit to Germany, the Mohammad Mahmood Abubakar, minister of Environment told my colleague on a previous project, Petra Sorge, that government was now keener to enforce environmental provisions.

“One of our major mandates was enforcing agencies to ensure compliance with environmental regulations. Presently we are making plans to go out. We need to do a lot of sensitisation. We seek voluntary compliance. After that, if you are not willing to comply, we enforce,” he said.

However, for these businesses whose sole aim is to make profit, hoping that they will voluntarily comply with environmental rules that will cost them good money is like betting the house on the lottery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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