By Eric Dumo, who was in Ondo
Maria Sunsaya, 39, looked completely worn out as she climbed down the boat. Famished and exhausted, she needed the help of another woman to fully settle inside the mini cruiser. Having commuted almost three hours from Akure where she had gone to visit a relative, who just gave birth the previous week, making another 20 minutes on water from the wharf at Ugbo-nla enroute Aiyetoro, is the least she had looked forward to.
But there are no options here, so she is condemned to accepting this sad fate. If there were motorable roads connecting her home town to other parts of Ondo State, she could have been home far longer, perhaps. “I wouldn’t have passed through the type of suffering I experienced all the way from Akure had there been road from other places to Aiyetoro,” she told the reporter while the boat throttled on, on top speed.
“I wouldn’t have even needed to pass through Ugbo-nla or even get to Igbokoda in the first place. From Akure, the vehicle would have driven straight here and the journey could have been shorter. But look at all the time I have spent on the road? I am so tired and hungry. This is how we have been suffering all these years,” Sunsaya revealed. The other occupants of the boat had similar tales of woes, too. All through the 20-minute cruise, some of the men and women told the reporter and his cameraman of their pains at having no link road to their community – Aiyetoro – one of the oldest settlements in Ilaje territory.
The situation apart from bringing untold hardship on the people, have equally affected economic and social activities across the area. Natives have to travel long distances to purchase daily consumables at very exorbitant prices. The risks involved in plying the waterways are another source of concern here, too. “Every thing we use here, we go to Igbokoda or even Ore to get them,” Esther Aduragbemi, a petty trader in the town told the paper. “We have to go very far to get all these items and transporting them here is very expensive and difficult. It makes life here very tough for us.
We have been begging government to help us with a solution all these years but they have not done anything for us. All they do is only to promise us but they never fulfill any.” Tunmise Emmanuel, another petty trader, is not happy at how far they have to travel to get wares and also connect other parts of the state. She told the paper that the lack of motorable roads is affecting economic activities in the area, especially Aiyetoro and surrounding towns. “It is affecting us directly because a lot of people in business who are supposed to move around cannot do so easily,” she confesses.
“Sometimes you can be at the jetty and you will not get a boat for almost two hours but if we had motorable roads, you would have been at your destination in less than 30 minutes and you will be able to engage in all sorts of businesses. Fishing is the major occupation here but if there were roads, a lot of people could have been involved in other forms of business.” Apart from the lack of a link road to connect natives of Aiyetoro to the hinterland, there are a host of other obstacles the people are faced with as well.
The unavailability of basic social amenities like clean portable water, electricity, health care facilities and quality housing, are only a few in a long list. The only school in the community established several years back, is barely enough to cope with the demands on ground – it is largely inadequate in accommodating the hundreds of children and teenagers yearning for qualitative education. “Look at all these children (pointing at a bunch of kids playing at a corner), some of them don’t go to school because there is nothing there,” Bidemi Oluborode, a 58-year-old father of six explained. “No classrooms, no books, no teachers, so what are they even going to school to do.
This is the situation we face at Aiyetoro. Most of our children stand the danger of not having education at all because there are no schools here. Even the one we have is in very bad condition. This is a big worry for many parents in this town.” Besides the academic difficulties faced by the people of Aiyetoro, the environmental challenges caused by frequent ocean surges in the area is also another issue drawing concern among the natives. The town is tucked in between a river and the Atlantic, exposing it to serious danger in case of an overflow, especially during high tide.
Community leaders told the reporter that scores of houses have been washed away by the ocean with dozens more likely to go down in the coming weeks and months if things stand the way they are. It is a situation that many of them say puts the town and its inhabitants at great risk. Otunba Dele Kudeinbo, is the Principal Secretary of the town. He told the paper that all the pledges of addressing the situation by successive administrations in the state have turned out empty. He fears that if things are delayed any further, the entire town could be swept away by the ocean.
“There are no social amenities and structural development here at Aiyetoro. All we get are just empty promises from the government. “The contract to tackle this ocean problem was awarded in 2004 but till date nothing has been done. The contract for the road from Igbokoda to Aiyetoro, work stopped on that since 2007 if not by now vehicles should have been driving into the community.
They have abandoned the project and we are appealing to government to help us out. Our environment has been completely destroyed by the continued incursion of the ocean on our land. We have raised this alarm several years back but as we speak, nothing has been done. Even the project planned sometime back has been abandoned. Something has to be done and very fast too to save Aiyetoro,” he warned. Leader of youths in the town, Comrade Ojogbon Joseph Ajodun, also wants government and relevant agencies to turn their attention to the area immediately. He said apart from other problems faced in the community, the threat currently posed by the ocean, is giving every one of them restless nights. “The problems we have here are numerous,” he begins.
“But it is the issue of the ocean incursion that is giving everybody concern. The distance of the ocean to the town was about three kilometers before but now if you get close you will see more than 20 houses have been washed away recently. “We know that it is only government that can help us on this matter. Between January and February this year, the entire community was submerged in water, so many things happened at the time. Anytime we experience high tide, everywhere would be flooded and this is causing a lot of damage here. Several times, the government has assured us of coming to do something for us but nothing have been done so far. They have approved the project to deal with this ocean surge for more than three years but nothing has been done as we speak.
We have also written series of letters to the government and the Niger Delta Development Commission which is in charge of the project but up till now nothing has been done. They keep promising us that their men would soon get on site. There is nobody in this community that is happy about the situation. “The community, on its own has tried to do some form of bundle wall to protect it from the ocean so that the effect during a surge could be minimal. But even that bundle wall have been washed away now and this is causing panic among the people. A lot of things have been damaged; a lot of houses have been washed away due to this problem.
There are some houses now that are just three meters away from the ocean and more are coming under threat,” Ajodun revealed. In 2010 the federal government, through the NDDC, embarked on a shore reclamation and protection project in Aiyetoro with the sole aim of bringing a stop to the constant surge in the area. The project, which was pegged for N6 billion, was the reprieve many natives had long waited for. But more than two years after that time, nothing significant have changed. Instead, the volume of devastation has swelled with many families bearing the stings of the ocean.
Walking along the shoreline of the Atlantic which now stands only a few metres from the town – down from the more than three kilometers it was years back – the reporter saw dozens of buildings that have been badly affected by the salty wave of the ocean. While a handful had been completely shattered, a sizable others are wriggling fragilely, as if waiting for doomsday to come. The impact of the surge is indeed visible on almost every structure in this island. Even the palace of the town’s monarch, Oba Gard Olofin Ashogbon, The Ogeloyinbo of Aiyetoro and Danguro of Ilajeland, has not been spared.
Almost two floors out of the four-storey building have sunk. The structure is in a very terrible state as a result of the present situation. Kayode Imisi, a boat builder, told the reporter how he and his family no longer sleep with both eyes closed these days for fear on an overnight raid by the deadly surge. His building is among the closest to the sea in the community – about five metres away. He could not hide his frustrations as he narrated their ordeal to the paper. “If you are here at night, you cannot think of sleeping. Why should you even sleep when you know that this ocean can come at any time. Even when we go to bed now, we have to be alert because we know anything can happen. We do not feel safe any longer even in our own houses.”
A town of more than 14, 000 dwellers, according to the 2006 national headcount, Aiyetoro is indeed faced with perhaps its biggest challenge since its establishment about 65 years ago by a bunch of Ilaje missionaries. As another window connecting Ondo to the sea and as part of Nigeria’s oil producing communities, oil spills and environmental pollution are a constant phenomenon here, too. The area is blessed with enormous deposits of the precious ‘black liquid’ but the locals do not get to benefit anything tangible from it.
Unemployment is on the increase while many individuals and families now struggle to stay alive. But the threat of the ocean is perhaps the most worrying dimension to the barrage of problems faced in this settlement, it appears. Jackson Honmane, a 65-year-old local fisherman, fears that there might not be any fish to catch in the river around them if some of the environmental and ecological challenges are not quickly addressed. The incursion of the ocean into Aiyetoro and its river, have made their trade very difficult he says. Things will get really bad if government fails to act he thinks.
“During rainy season, the ocean would mix with the freshwater and this would force fishes who are not accustomed to this to migrate away from the area, therefore those who fish with leg can no longer make any catch,” he tells you. “There would be no catch all through that period until the rainy season is over. What we also notice is that some of the fish who live in fresh water would go into the sea and this sometimes makes our job very difficult. “Normally, when there is high tide, our fresh water would become salty and sometimes kill all the fish in there. Sometimes we used to think it’s the effect of the oil activities here but that’s not it. Though, sometimes that too affects our fishing.
“I went to a training two weeks ago in Benin and we told them about the situation of our environment here and they suggested that sand-filling is the only way out for now. If the sea is driven back a little, the water won’t come and contaminate our fresh water here. But without that, in case of any high tide, this whole place would be flooded and it would be a big problem for everybody including fishermen.” But while the likes of Kudeinbo and Ajodun worry about the ocean threat, there are some others whose greatest concern is the lack of portable water in the town. Orimisan Ilesanmi, a mother of four, is among dozens of housewives who are troubled by this situation. She wants government to fulfill all the many promises along this line very quickly.
“The lack of drinking water is really affecting us here,” she says. “If we want to wash our clothes or cook food, we have to go in search of water. Even to bath, we have to go in search of water. This is really affecting us. The issue of the ocean surge is also disturbing us every day. If you came around during rainy season, you can’t even move around here. You just see people’s faces and think they are happy, they are not. People here have been enduring this problem because a lot of us born here are committed Christians who follow God’s teachings. We are really suffering.
We are begging the government to come and help us in terms of water. We need their help seriously in this area. “Another thing we want from them is also the issue of the ocean surge. There are a lot of houses that the sea has destroyed. All the open space and dry land you see now once had houses on them but the ocean has washed them away. Before you could walk several miles into the places you now see water on because people were living there. It is God that even stopped the water from taking over the entire town. So, we are calling on government to help us out before the place is completely destroyed.
“To fish these days is a serious challenge for our people because our fresh water has been contaminated. Even in the ocean, we can’t get fish anymore. Government should please help us because we are really suffering in silence.” Officials at the NDDC office at Igbokoda – administrative headquarters of Ilaje Local Government Area – about 40 minutes from Aiyetoro, declined to render some explanation on why the project to tackle
the ocean surge have failed to fully take off several years since it was sanctioned. However, findings by the paper showed that poor administration of the commission responsible for developing such oil rich communities, might have contributed heavily to the continued neglect of places like Aiyetoro. The Senate only approved NDDC’s 2012 budget last week – about 11 months into the year and less than seven weeks to its close.
The upper legislative chamber sanctioned N250 billion for the commission to carry out projects this year but with 2012 only weeks to wind, much of the problems facing this island might not be touched until perhaps next year. The late submission of operational budget and the slow implementation of projects by the agency are part of reasons why environmental degradation and underdevelopment have prevailed in this part of Ondo. Oba Afolabi Oladimeji Odidiomo, Larada I and Olu of Igbokoda, capital of the local government area, says corruption is the major cause of most of the problems faced in communities like Aiyetoro.
Except those saddled with responsibilities fulfill their part of the bargain, things might not come different in the near future the traditional ruler believes. “It is not as if accidentally the government does not think of doing some things, they would pretend that they want to do, award contracts for road construction and other things but take two third of the money and the contractor goes away with the remaining one third to do the job. Since he knows that it is for stealing, the contractor does not get to the site at all.
So, you see the masses are just being used by the so-called politicians to steal, amass wealth without necessarily doing anything for the people. These are the problem and it must stop if we are hoping to make any meaningful progress in terms of development in rural areas like Aiyetoro,” he said. Indeed the challenges faced by the people of this island community are more than they can handle at the moment. Even though the town had braced some problems thrown at them through communal effort in the past, the ones before them at the moment perhaps appear too overwhelming and might suffocate them eventually if badly needed help fails to come soon enough.
Several letters of appeal to the Ondo State Water Corporation to bring clean portable water to the town have yielded only little. Pleas to be connected to the national electricity grid have also brought nothing significant. Only a monthly donation of N1, 200 from every home ensures the community-owned power generator is run between 7pm to 12am each day.
This is the people’s only source and hope of electricity for now in spite the abundance of oil wealth in the locality. Numerous calls for the establishment and or resuscitation of local industries here have not really appealed to any of the tiers of government that should take responsibility.
Even the relentless and passionate cries for a solution to the incessant ocean surge by the natives have not particularly brought the best returns – the situation is as critical as it can get at the moment. Environmentalists and other observers say except drastic measures are taken to urgently address the situation, Aiyetoro and its surrounding towns might be buried alive, under the furious wave of the Atlantic, in the very near future.