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
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
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
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
November 10, 2001