Okobo and neighbouring communities in Kogi State of Nigeria have been facing environmental risks from 11 years of coal mining, despite signing a Community Development Agreement (CDA) with the mining firm envisaged to address the impact of mining operations in the communities
Salamatu Sule is used to the grating sound of machines and trucks operating at mining sites in Okobo, a small coal mining community 151 kilometres from Lokoja, the Kogi State capital. Workers and customers of an indigenous firm, Zuma 828 Coal, operate round the clock at the sites, so it is hard for the residents to catch a sleep at any time, even at night.
Before Zuma 828 Coal arrived in their then pristine community in 2011, Ms Sule and other residents used to fetch water for their domestic uses from a river from which the community got its name. But chemicals from the operations of the mines have since polluted the groundwater. Coal mining has dissolved heavy metals into the water around the mine site, making it acidic and highly toxic.
An analysis by Global Rights found a high level of copper, cadmium, chromium, phosphates, manganese in soil samples taken within 10 metres of the mining pit in Okobo in both dry and wet season.
That problem was anticipated. To address it, Zuma 828 Coal agreed to build five commercial boreholes in Okobo. But it has built only two of these and even those two have been out of use since the pipes supplying water to the tanks broke down.
“Water is scarce as our only river has become polluted by mining activities upstream. Because the boreholes are not operational, the company uses a tanker truck to supply water, but it doesn’t show up often. When this happens, we fetch the drainage water that flows from an open tap at the administrative yard of the company,” Mrs Sule said.
In 2017, the company’s chairman, Innocent Ezuma, had pledged to provide clean water for the community as part of the firm’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). It is included in the ₦500 million package it offered to support the development of critical infrastructure, including schools, hospitals and roads, in Okobo and Enjema communities over a five year period.
Since the company’s boreholes packed up, Mrs Sule said she has been walking 45 minutes, three times a week, to the neighbouring Enjema community to get water for use in her house. The trip always leaves her covered in dust raised by the company’s trucks plying the untarred road. Villagers who can afford the cost have resorted to sachet water.
“We rely on water flowing on the red earth when miners use their tap water and collect it from a grassy marsh at the roadside from where we fill up our buckets to use for domestic purposes,” Maryam Alidu, an elderly woman who suffers from back and chest pains, said.
She said her health challenges make it more difficult for her to frequently get water.
Mrs Sule said they were warned by the company not to drink the drainage water, so they only use it for laundry, bathing and cleaning utensils.
“In the river, we find coal particles flowing into the water. The company gives us water in a tanker truck once a week, which is not enough,” said Fatima Ogwu, a farmer in the community.
Ms Ogwu said she still uses unclean water from Okobo River for other chores. According to her, water from the tanker is barely enough for half of the community, so this is a difficult situation for them.
Deteriorated health centre
But water is not the only problem of the people living in this mining community. It’s only public primary healthcare centre, which was sited to also serve nearby villages like Okpoku, Ogane, Alufele, and Ofano, has been neglected by the state and local governments. Though the Government of Kogi State spent ₦477,732,092 in 2022 under its Primary Health Development Agency, not a kobo from this has trickled down to the health centre in Okobo. Mr Ezuma of Zuma 828 Coal had promised to support the centre with medical supplies and infrastructure. But residents said the company has not done this since its arrival in 2011.
Jibrin Isiaka, a native of the community, recalled his experience at the facility when he fell sick in 2021. He said he was made to pay upfront for the bed, drips and drugs for his treatment before he was admitted.
“Many members of the community cannot get treatment due to unavailability of medical facilities,” Mr Jibrin said. He said the centre has just a few beds without foams and the medical personnel are often absent. As a result, the health centre is almost “non-existent” as most people in the community do not patronise it.
In a letter dated May 11, 2020, and seen by this reporter, the health officer in-charge at the Okobo Primary Health Centre, Idih Salifu, pleaded with the administrator of Ankpa Local Government for assistance in order to alleviate the sufferings being encountered by workers and patients at the health centre. But no assistance has since been offered by the local government. “We rely on the little we have. Most of the time, patients buy the supplies needed for their treatment,” Mr Salifu said.
Juliana James, a housewife, said she “often falls sick and sweat profusely from the heat in the community. “We are very disappointed. That’s too much to endure,” while complaining that she had no money to go to the hospital.
Mrs Sule said she relies on traditional medicine whenever she or any of her family members is taken ill, because of the condition of the local health centre.
During a tour of the Okobo primary health centre, the reporter observed that the sick beds are made of iron and are relatively few without emergency equipment. Some patients were lying on the floor, others on wooden benches.
Education ‘not as expected’
Everyone in Okobo has a personal story about the impacts of mining activities on their lives. Though most of the residents are subsistence farmers, petty traders or hunters, they also feel the impact of the poor state of the only public primary school in the community.
Zuma 828 Coal pledged to build three blocks of classrooms after a building in the school collapsed and killed the son of a chief in the community, Abubakar Aminu. Mr Aminu said vibrations made by the company’s heavy machines had caused the fatal building collapse Although this was not proven, the company built three classroom blocks in 2014 and 2021 that combine Primary 1 and 2 in one class, 3 and 4 in one and 5 and 6 in the third block. But Mr Aminu said the new classroom blocks are not enough for the number of pupils.
“My two children who were in primary 2 and 4 used to sit under the old, dilapidated classroom and sometimes in the sun during school hours. And most of our kids cannot read or write,” said Musa Ogane, a father and farmer.
The company also paid for the SSCE enrolment of seven students from Okobo, Enjema and three neighbouring communities.
The traffic of large trucks on its earthen roads has cast a thick coat of red dust on Okobo.
Suleiman Adaji is a commercial motorcycle operator in his early 30s. Before the arrival of Zuma 828 Coal, he used to charge passengers a fare of N50 for the 10 minutes trip between Enjema and Okobo. But because of the movement of Dangote and Bua trucks taking coal from the company, the trip now takes him an average of 17 minutes for which he now charges ₦150.
“Most of the people using the road prefer to trek due to the road hassle, except for those who own motorbikes,” he said.
Since coal mining began in the community, the Okobo to Enjema road has witnessed many accidents, some of them fatal. One of such victims was an Islamic scholar in Enjema, Yusuf Ate-Afor, who was crushed to death by a Dangote truck In the early hours of January 24, while returning home on a motorcycle from a child naming ceremony in the nearby community of Okpoku.
Mr Yusuf’s family said nothing was done by the owner of the truck to compensate for the loss of its breadwinner.
“The coal endowment cannot be exhausted over the next 10 years, so the mining company must take full consideration of the cause of the road,” Mr Adaji, the commercial motorcyclist who has lived in Okobo for over 30 years, said.
In July, when this reporter visited the area, he engaged Mikailu Idolo, a commercial motorcyclist, to take him from Enjema to Okobo. Riding through the truck-congested route, Mr Idolo said the road is plagued by dust during the dry season, due to the operations of the mining company. Pointing to an untarred pathway some metres from the Zuma 828 Coal administrative yard, he said: “As you can see, the entire community is blessed with coal. All we want is for Eta Zuma to give back to the community because their operations pose health and environmental risks. There’s nowhere we can go.”
Assault in Okobo
Idris Ibrahim, the community secretary of Okobo, was the youth leader and community liaison officer when he was shot by unknown gunmen while returning from his farm on September 8, 2016. He lost his left eye in the incident.
“I never saw the person who shot me because I was coming back at night. I am not accusing Eta Zuma of this attack, but it happened when Okobo wanted to change the Community Liaison Officer at the same time as I was demanding for a Community Development Agreement (CDA),” he recalled.
“Another man who stood up for us was shot. Some unscrupulous people took it upon themselves to eliminate him. No one was arrested for shooting me, but I leave everything to God,” Mr Ibrahim said.
He and Mr Abubakar said they have since lowered their voices in order to stay alive.
Poor CDA implementation
On March 15, 2018, Zuma 828 Coal and Okobo and Ejema communities signed the CDA at a ceremony facilitated by the state government at the Government House, Lokoja. The agreement was to be implemented over a five-year period.
According to the Nigeria Minerals and Mining Act of 2007, before a company engages in mining operations, it must sign a CDA document with the host community to ensure the transfer of social and economic benefits, infrastructure, small businesses and local governance support. This agreement is expected to deal with all community development issues, indigenous land use, partnerships, landowners, shared responsibilities, community joint ventures, and empowerment.
Until the 2018 CDA agreement, the community chief, Mr Abubakar, said he had not signed any document with the company regarding community development, since it started mining in 2011. He said all previous agreements with the company had been verbal.
However, a prominent chief in Okobo, James Opaluwa, said most of the issues in the community were aggravated by the abandonment of projects contained in the CDA.
This reporter obtained a copy of the CDA from the Mineral Resources and Environmental Management Committee’s chairman, Hassiat Suleiman, through her media representative, Hamza Yaqub. The items include drilling of five commercial boreholes within five years across Okobo and Enjema communities, maintenance of the road from Emere junction through Enjema to Okobo community, building of a block of three classrooms in Okobo, supporting the health centre in the two communities with ₦500,000 worth of drugs yearly for five years, making available ₦1,000,000 yearly for five years for scholarship in the two communities, renovation of the Onu’s palace, and that 20 percent of the company’s workforce must be indigenes of the communities.
Although a ₦1,000,000 scholarship package is contained in the CDA, Mr Ibrahim said the company only paid the WAEC registration fees of seven students pooled from Okobo, Enjema and three nearby communities, which amounts to ₦500,000, or half of the agreed sum.
He also said the company did not abide by the agreement of 20 percent of the workforce, road maintenance, renovation of the Onu’s palace, and provision of boreholes.
“A community cannot be sustained without good roads. We have no accessible road and potable water because coal particles from the coal mine pollute our only source of water, and there is no functioning hospital,” the community chief, Mr Abubakar, lamented.
When a request was sent to Zuma 828 Coal Ltd on this matter, its media assistant, Michael Anakwe, could not facilitate the request to speak to the management.
A meeting by the CDA Implementation Committee held on June 2, 2021, to evaluate the projects in Okobo and Enjema found that the only projects under the agreement that have been completed by the company are the three blocks of classrooms and two boreholes in Okobo.
By Francis Annagu
This story was produced with support from Tiger Eye Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation