Urhobo Historical Society

ISSUES IN THE DREDGING OF
THE NIGER AND BENUE RIVERS
 

By Peter Ekeh, Chair
Urhobo Historical Society

PhoneNews, a leading Nigerian internet news provider, performed good service to its readers when it focussed on "Controversy Over Dredging of Rivers Niger & Benue" in its edition of November 8, 2001. That article raised many vital issues, on this dreadful matter of dredging the Niger and Benue, that should be developed much further. In its short article, PhoneNews touched on (a) the scope of the "drying-up" of the Niger and Benue and (b) what the Federal Government considers as an adequate remedy for the restoration of the two rivers for "navigation." Significantly, the Federal Government's point man in its advocacy is the Minister of Transport.
 

PhoneNews' focus on this problem of dredging the Niger and Benue and its attempt to analyse it are very useful. It covers the terrain of presentation by the Federal Government. But it is inadequate. In order to provide minimum analysis of this complex problem we need to include the following items: (a) the facts and scope of the phenomenon of the drying-up of the Rivers Niger and Benue and their tributaries; (b) the cause of this dreadful event in the last forty years or so; (c) proper restoration measures, including the issue of whether the tributaries should be dredged first or whether the Niger and Benue should be the first to be dredged; and (d) alternatives to the navigation-based advocacy of the dredging of the Niger and Benue. I will consider these issues, one after the other.
 

The Desiccation of the Niger and Benue and Their Tributaries
 

The PhnoneNews article quotes Obasanjo's Minister of State for Transport, Isa Yugudu, as saying the following: "Both rivers Niger and Benue are fast drying up because they are almost silted and studies have shown that they may completely dry up in the next 20 to 25 years if concerted efforts are not made to safeguard them."
 

The truth of the matter is that Obasanjo's Minister has sadly understated the crisis that confronts us all in the matter of the desiccation of our rivers and lakes. It is probably a reflection of the Federal Government's poor knowledge of the situation of the Niger Delta that Minister Isa Yugudu did not include in his statement the fact that numerous lakes, rivers, and streams in the Niger Delta have already dried up completely or else are on the way to becoming miserable rivulets. These tributaries of the Niger were vital sources of navigation and fisheries only forty years ago. In other words, it is faulty to dissociate the drying-up of the Niger and Benue from the tragedy of their tributaries. In the normal course of things, with a government that cares about its people, the loss of so many rivers, lakes, and streams in the Niger Delta would be a matter of great concern. It is interesting that the Minister mentions studies that reveal that the Niger and Benue are drying up. Does he know of any studies that reveal the drying up of rivers, lakes, and streams in the Niger Delta? Many old women in the Niger Delta will be glad to point out to the President and his Ministers where once there were streams and lakes. But, of course, that assumes that they would bother to visit the Niger Delta to find out the facts for themselves.
 

I am also troubled that Abuja may not be fully mindful of the larger significance of this phenomenon of desiccation of rivers and lakes in our region of Africa. Five to ten thousands years ago, the area we now call the Sahara Desert had rivers and lakes that supported human habitation, with a good amount of farming and plenty of animal resources. The desiccation of the Sahara, turning it into the wasteland that it is today, is one of Africa's historic tragedies. It is well known that the Sahara is marching southwards, relentlessly. Are the desiccation of the rivers and lakes in the Niger Delta and the expected drying-up of the Benue and the Niger in any way related to the Sahara's misfortunes? Is it possible that Nigerian governments have done things that may endanger our region, leading to its desertification? In any case, what is the cause of the feared desiccation of the Niger and Benue and the tragedy of their tributaries in the Niger Delta?
 

Causes of the Desiccation of the Niger and Benue and their Tributaries
 

The Niger and Benue and the rivers, lakes, and streams of the Niger Delta have been with us for thousands of years - and have possibly been around for millions of years. Why are they now drying up? It is not enough for Abuja to offer a few facts that will allow its managers to make smooth contracts from our common tragedy. We want to know why these vital bodies of waters are drying up? Is it the theory of the drying up of these waters that not enough water is coming from the Atlantic? Is the point of the dredging to bring in more water from the Atlantic? We want our Government to talk to us, not talk past us, on this issue. Most people in the Niger Delta will understand ordinary explanations about rivers and lakes.
 

The bare truth of the matter is that this is an instance where common agreement among scientists may be difficult to find. However, there is one stable fact about the tragedy that we all are seeing unfolding in our history. The desiccation of the rivers, lakes, and streams in the Niger Delta has occurred after the building of the giant Kainji Dam and other numerous dams on the Niger and Benue and their tributaries. The ongoing drying up of the Niger and Benue have also followed the building of these dams. It makes very little scientific sense to argue that the desiccation of the rivers, lakes, and streams in the Niger Delta and the threatening desiccation of the Benue and the Niger have nothing to do with these dams. The Niger and Benue and their tributaries are fed from rains and waters from interconnected streams. Interfering with these streams at will and at random have their consequences. That is what we are all now faced with. The Atlantic is not the source of the waters we need for fisheries and agriculture. It may be good water for Shell's and Chevron's ships. But the backflow of Atlantic waters into our streams could lead to the destruction of our agriculture, fisheries and ways of life.
 

Restoration Measures: Where Is the Starting Point?
 

There is little doubt that, states of the Niger Delta need to face up to their responsibilities of reclaiming these streams, rivers, and lakes that are fast disappearing from our existence. Without them we will cease to be Niger Deltans. It is a shame that no Government in the Niger Delta has seen the reclamation of these endangered lakes, rivers, and streams as a matter of priority.
 

But the cause of the tragedy is federal, not located in one single state. Kainji, whose operations have coincided with the drying up of our waters, is a federal enterprise. If matters were handled rationally, it may be necessary to erase some of these dams on the Niger and its tributaries. In the United States, in which there was once heavy reliance on dams, a good number of dams are now being dismantled. The management of dams in Nigeria has been substandard, largely because they were built without the benefit of environmental impact assessments. Whole regions, especially in the North, may profit from such new management of the waters available to them naturally. Such a process of revisiting the matter of dams requires a Federal Government that not only cares but one that is willing to explain its tactics and motives to affected communities.
 

Unfortunately, Abuja has only responded politically to the water crisis in Nigeria. It has ostensibly responded to the orchestrated wishes of the people of two states that say that they want river ports. But as the PhoneNews article intimates, the real reason for Abuja's insistence on dredging the Niger and Benue at this time may be one of deferring to the needs of foreign companies at the expense of Nigerian interests. In a case cited in the PhoneNews article, it is reported: "Obudu Otobo, a Niger Delta activist, said the dredging of a water channel turned his hometown, Aleibiri, into an island. 'The purpose of the dredging was to enable an oil company move a rig to a drilling location, but the consequences have included the introduction of excess water into the area,' he told reporters. 'Farmlands are now permanently flooded, severely curtailing farming activities.'"
 

Is Abuja not ashamed that it can undertake such dredging in order to please foreigners at the expense of the welfare of Nigerians? Are the needs of Shell and Chevron all that matter to Abuja? Is this new cry for dredging the Niger and Benue not mainly intended for the benefit of foreign companies? In many other countries such acts would be tagged as unpatriotic. In this campaign for dredging, is the exclusive focus on navigation needs of foreign companies, to the neglect of agricultural and fishing needs of Nigerians, not unpatriotic?
 

It is dangerous for the communities in the Niger Delta for the dredging of the Benue and Niger to take place before the dredging of their tributaries. The reason for that is the tragedy of Aleibiri that is cited above. If the Niger and Benue are dredged without opening up their blocked tributaries, the excess water that comes in, probably as a backflow from the Atlantic, will find new avenues in the Niger Delta. This will lead to massive flooding, even of such major towns as Calabar, Port Harcourt, or Warri. This matter is so grave that we all must plead that whatever contract that has been given out for this scheme should be rescheduled. Otherwise, the people of the Niger Delta should be prepared to hold President Olusegun Obasanjo and his Ministers personally responsible for any misfortunes and devastation that the dredging will cause in the Niger Delta.
 

Alternatives to Navigation-Based Dredging
 

The issues involved in the water crisis of the Benue and Niger, and their tributaries, are well beyond the mere matter of navigation for the convenience of foreign companies. The Niger is the source of the civilization of most communities of the Niger Delta. Their agriculture and fisheries depend on these waters. We expect the Ministries of Agriculture and Fisheries at Abuja to be fully involved in discussions of the restoration of the waters of the Benue and Niger and their myriad tributaries. If that happens, then it is entirely possible that Abuja may see the larger problems that the people of the Niger Delta are pointing to. Abuja should for once understand that its primary responsibility is the welfare of Nigerians, not attending to the commercial greed and convenience of foreign companies.
 

Nor should it be assumed that the issues involved in the dredging controversy are solely in the province of Abuja. Niger Delta governments - that is, Niger Delta Governors and Houses of Assembly - should wake up and understand that what is involved here is our future. If care is not taken, Abuja's policies may wipe out entire communities in many states of the Niger Delta. Our governments need to be fully involved in the planning of the dredging that is to take place. But it should not be in a hurry. This is not the type of contract that should be awarded before national elections. We are talking about our destiny and about our children's futures.
 

There is a widespread view in the Niger Delta that President Olusegun Obasanjo despises Niger Deltans and that he does not care about their welfare. This is the President's opportunity to prove his detractors wrong. Let him go to the Niger Delta to talk to the people directly. After all, if he has been so persuasive in making a deal between White and Black Zimbabweans, can he not talk to his own countrymen and women about a subject that affects their livelihood and cultures?

Peter P. Ekeh
Buffalo, USA

November 10, 2001


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