Tension in Cross River communities over superhighway

On assumption of office as governor of Cross River State on May 29, 2015, Professor Ben Ayade promised to execute three signature projects in the state: a 260-kilometre superhighway, the Bakassi Deep Seaport and a garment factory.

The superhighway was billed to start from the proposed deep seaport at Esighi in Bakassi Local Government Area, run through the Cross River National Park and terminate at Katsina Ala in Benue State. Experts have estimated it would cost N700 billion or about $3.5 billion.

Six months later, President Muhammadu Buhari, on October 20, 2015, performed the ground-breaking ceremony of the project.

In 2016, the state government budgeted N200 billion for the superhighway and a modest N600 million for rural roads.

However, two years after, the project seems to be bogged down by administrative bottlenecks, just as it is being rocked by protests and criticisms from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and host communities.

Investigations by Daily Sun revealed that over 14 NGOs and some environmental experts have petitioned the Presidency, through the Ministry of Environment, against the superhighway.

According to the experts, the Cross River superhighway should not be constructed because of carbon emissions and global warming.

Some individuals, including Fred Kwame, African regional head of World Wildlife Fund International, Switzerland, John Robinson, executive vice president, Wildlife Conservation, USA, Hazell Thompson of Birdlife International, UK, and Odey Onyamas have urged the federal government to halt the project.

At the public presentation of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Cross River superhighway held at the Channels View Hotel in Calabar last year, the NGOs argued that Cross River had some of the best preserved rain forests in Nigeria, including the Cross River National Park and the Ekuri Community Forest.

These forests, they alleged, were under threat of being destroyed to make way for the superhighway. They noted that the road could be rerouted to preserve the communities as well as endangered species.

While disagreeing with the EIA presented by the state government, the groups insisted that the proposed project would jeopardise considerable investments by such multilateral funding agencies like the EU, UK DFID and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the state.

They said an international environmental firm that studied the EIA discovered 27 major errors in the report.

The state government recently said about 90 communities, 140 homes, 50 farms and over 800 persons would be affected by the superhighway’s construction. 

Following the report, the federal government gave 23 conditions that the state must meet before commencing the project. The conditions include re-routing and realignment of the superhighway, reversal of revocation order and compensation, as well as resettlement and restoration plans for people whose properties have been destroyed from the outset of construction work.

Four months after the conditional approval was granted the state, stakeholders are complaining about compensation for affected persons and communities.

Mr. Odey Oyama, executive director, Rainforest Resource and Development Centre (RRDC), one of the leading NGOs in the state, noted that, “Part of the superhighway still falls within the gazetted boundaries of the Cross River National Park, especially at the Oban Division.”

He expressed worry that, up till date, the list of communities and persons to benefit from the compensation has not been compiled and established in compliance with the provisions of the Land Use Act, No. 6, 1978, and the Land and Allied Matters Act.

Three communities, Ikot Okpo Ene, Ikot Ndarake and Ikot Abasi Efiom, in Akpabuyo Local Government Area, lamented alleged humiliation being meted out to them by the Ayade government. They said since their homes and farmlands were destroyed, they have become beggars, exposed to untold hardship.

Leaders of the communities, including Chief Emmanuel Okon, Chief Bassey Efangha Okon and Chief Silver Effiom Duke, alleged that, besides the destruction of economic trees and the clearing of the forest, the roofs of buildings have also been pulled down by windstorms.

They said: “We are not against the superhighway. We are not against development. But we want the government to pay us compensation for our ancestral homes and our source of income.

“Since January 6, 2016, when the government destroyed our properties without consultation, we have recorded higher incidents of youth restiveness and crime due to idleness and lack of reasonable source of income. These untold hardships have quickened the steps of many to their graves,” they said.

One of the victims, Mr. Felix Okon, 62, said:  “I lost my palm plantation when they started the project and that is my only source of livelihood. I also lost my house to windstorm. I have no roof over my head anymore, all because of the superhighway. I am not against the project but they must, as a matter of urgency, do the needful, because it’s already too late.”

Another victim, Deaconess Ikwo Offiong Okon, said she and her children had become frustrated since the superhighway project commenced in 2016.

“I used to mill oil from my small plantation and, sometimes, I would sell my cassava tubers to get money. But all that is history.

“I have been a widow for 12 years now, catering for my children alone. That plantation was the only thing left for us. Now it is gone because of a road project. I can’t feed my children and I can’t send them to school,” she said.

Village head of Ikot Asi Agbor, Chief Etim Orok Ndarake, said: “We appreciate what government is trying to do, but they can’t rob Peter to pay Paul. I am a refugee in my homeland because of the superhighway project.

“I feel pained. I feel sad. Not that we don’t want our place to be opened up, but we want the government to do things in the right way. Our young people who used to be engaged because of our oil plantations have become idle. Some are destitute. It is really not acceptable. Ayade should come to our rescue now.”

However, the commissioner for lands, Dr. John Inyang, described the criticisms as unfortunate. He regretted that some people were complaining even as government was doing much to bring development to the people.

Inyang said: “There was no time we said we were not going to pay and there was no time we said we would start work without capturing the necessary data as it affects the people. But there are people now who are thinking that we have come down to the narrow space of 70 metres, thinking they might be counted out. That’s why some are making noise.

“They should be patient; nobody has been paid yet. If there are other technicalities that concern other sectors, other ministries will speak on that, but I know the governor took it up even before the Federal Ministry of Environment gave us approval. We did all that we needed to do, especially as it affects EIA,” he said.

Senior special assistant to the governor on media, Mr. Christian Ita, described the claims as not only absurd but ridiculously mendacious.

His words: “It is no surprise that elements who masquerade as environmentalists and conservationists are unrelenting in their desperate scheme to ensure that the project is stalled.

“It is instructive to note that since the conception of the superhighway project by Governor Ayade, some so-called civil society groups in the state, in connivance with their foreign sponsors, have done everything possible by weaving all sorts of falsehoods and propaganda to make the noble idea not to fly. This is rather unfortunate.

“It is indeed ludicrous to hear that one million people will suffer dislocation arising from the construction of the superhighway out of the state’s population of about four million. So the question is, how did the affected forest communities suddenly acquire such an exponential growth in population barely two years after the project was conceived?

“As a professor of environmental science, the governor is particular about the environment and has shown so much fidelity to issues of afforestation. And for this reason, he has insisted that, for every single tree that is felled, 10 should be planted. In the last two years, about five million trees have been planted.” 

Ita said government had since concluded enumeration of properties and economic trees to be affected by the project, with a view to paying compensation to the people. He promised that no individual or community would be left out in the compensation plan.

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