A long, black snake uncurled from the corner of the room where it had been nesting undisturbed.
“There is a snake here,” Emmanuel Ekejiuba startled, called out to this reporter who was taking photos of the rot left of what was meant to be a health centre.
He grabbed the camera, edged towards the reptile for a good shot. It turned out to be a bad idea. The snake lunged forward.
Both reporter and Mr Ekejiuba fled the building.
Such buildings housing reptiles and other animals are a common sight in rural areas across Imo State where health centres, meant to provide indigenes access to healthcare, are abandoned.
Umu-Okwo is an autonomous community in Owerri West Local Government Area (LGA). Deprived of the health centre, the indigenes now resort to untrained pharmacists, commonly known as chemists, for treatment for their health conditions.
Mr Ekejiuba, an indigene of the community, was on an errand when this reporter approached him for direction to the health centre. Learning about his mission in the community, he changed his plans and volunteered as a guide.
The abandoned health centre in Umu-Okwo is a five-room bungalow commissioned by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). An NDDC document made available to PREMIUM TIMES CENTRE FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM (PTCIJ) shows that a completed primary health centre should have been erected as of December 10, 2004.
The structure, still in its skeletal form 19 years after it ought to have been completed, is the only medical facility in the community with about 10,000 residents.
“We don’t have any other health centre in this community,” Mr Ekejiuba said.
“We have tried to make sure the health centre is completed. The Eze (traditional ruler) also intervened.”
When they fall sick, the indigenes of Umu-Okwo go to the neighbouring Emeabiam health centre, about 10 kilometres away. Due to the deplorable condition of the road, the journey could last hours.
“When there is an emergency, we hire a vehicle to carry the person to the nearest health centre,” said Henry Sunday, an indigene of the community.
“If we cannot afford the means of transportation, we lose the person. It is painful.”
About 19 years ago, when the foundation for the health centre was laid, Umu-Okwo indigenes were ecstatic that the days of avoidable deaths, due to inability to access health care in the community was nearing its end.
“Immediately the government brought this to us, we were happy, hoping that someday we would be enjoying quality drugs here but all of a sudden, it was stopped,” Mr. Henry said. “The only option we have is to use local drugs, unmeasured. In fact, people around the community are at risk.”
“Those who check expired drugs cannot access the community because of the bad road. The health of people in Umu-Okwo community is in the hands of God.”
The health centre in Umu-Okwo is just one of the many abandoned projects of the NDDC in Imo State.
The NDDC Financials
The NDDC has received about N1.534 trillion since its inception in 2001. The money is largely meant for infrastructural and development projects in the oil producing states.
Between 2007 and 2011, the commission received N593.961 billion. It spent N459.237 billion on recurrent and capital-related projects.
According to a report by the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), N36.2 billion worth of contracts was released for a total 95 contracts between 2007 – 2011 in Imo State. Of the 95 projects, the NEITI document revealed that only 14 of those projects were completed while the remaining 81 projects are either abandoned or ongoing.
More abandoned health centres
Oguama community in Ahiazu-Mbaise Local Government Area suffers a similar fate as Umu-Okwo.
The supposed health centre provided by the NDDC has been taken over by hedges as tall as the lintel of the building. The walls, blackened, are covered with the luscious green of spirogyra.
In 2014, the commission began the construction of a “Comprehensive Health Center”, which was awarded for N70 million. The project, which had 12 months duration for completion, was abandoned at the lintel level.
“There is no other health centre in the community,” said Gilbert Okpara, the traditional leader in Oguama community. “We go to private hospital or travel to FMC (Federal Medical Centre) Owerri for medical attention.”
Jesse Ajaonu, the spokesperson of the Federal Medical Centre, Owerri, said many of the Brought -In- Dead cases in the hospital are due to inadequate health facilities in rural communities.
“Because of the distance of bringing the person from the village, we have several cases of BID-(brought-in-dead). These issues could have been taken care of in their rural areas,” he said.
She said the FMC is the only fully functional government hospital in the state hence the large influx of people from rural communities.
Health centre to school
Apart from the overstretched and understaffed FMC in Owerri, many of the existing medical centres in Imo State are in a complete state of dereliction. The NDDC health centres could have filled this gap, except that many of the facilities are either abandoned or nonfunctional.
In Orsu Local Government Area, the only health centre available to residents of Ebenato is in a bad state. A health worker, who was on duty when this reporter visited in November, said the clinic only attends to outpatients. There are no facilities for admission. The health centre, which serves about five communities, has only seven beds and five staff. There was a provision that could have addressed this deficit. The NDDC contracted the construction of a bigger health centre at Amaebu-Eke (Ebenato). The building was completed but never used.
“This health centre did not work for one day,” said Chibuzor Ekechi, a resident in the community.
“We knew it was for health centre but it was never in operation. About two years ago, they converted it to a school.”
Originally meant for a health centre, the building now houses Unique Pentagon Montessori’s Nursery and Primary School. The school is owned by one Chukwunedum Ndirim.
Mr Ndirim said he saw a dilapidated building and got ”permission” to put it to good use.
The spokesperson for the NDDC, Charles Odili, declined to say whether the commission is aware of the development. He also declined to speak on why many of the NDDC funded health centres were abandoned despite release of funds.
“The building was completely ruined when I came here,” Mr Ndirim said.
“There was no hospital. I cleared the bush. The building got burnt. Some people burnt the place because they said kidnappers used to use the building.
“I renovated everything; I put the ceilings, some of the tiles and the toilets. I put them in place. There was no hospital here at all. I cleared the bush with N150,000. It was later I heard that it was NDDC that built the place for hospital, but after 15 years, it was not used.”
‘Ónce a week’ health centre
Okwudor is a community in Njaba Local Government Area of Imo State. Situated on the bank of Njaba River, the river separates the community from Umuaka. With a population of about 4,000 people, the only functional health centre in the community works once every week.
“Our health centre opens only on Thursday,” said Mr Nzubechi, a resident whose pregnant wife had suffered the consequences of the inadequacy.
“If you have any emergency, any day apart from Thursday, no one would be there to attend to you. My wife has been there several times, there is never a person there, except on Thursdays.”
When this reporter visited Omupara village, where the health centre is located, it was locked. The residents around said the clinic does not open on Sundays.
Mr Nzubechi lives just opposite an abandoned NDDC health centre that could have provided succour for the people of Okwudor. The building, although completed, had no medical equipment. The residents said it was never opened for a day after the last brush of paint was wiped over it.
“The building was completed in 2008 and since then, there was no staff or equipment.” Henry Okara, another resident told this reporter.
If the situation in Okwudor is bad, it is worse at Assa, a community in Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area. The rented single room apartment being used as a health centre in the community is being paid for by the community.
Chinyere Faith, the only health worker in the centre, said she used to pay the rent until three years ago when the traditional leader offered to take up the bill.
The centre has been in a poor state since 2000, even before it was moved out of the community primary school to the makeshift apartment. Ms Faith said she only gets vaccines from the local government; other medical utilities are provided by her.
About 200 metres away from the health centre lies an uncompleted ‘Comprehensive Health Centre Complex’ budgeted to be accompanied by quarters for the doctors and nurses. Like the other NDDC projects in the state, it was never completed, therefore not in use.
Onyebuchi Chima, a resident in Assa community, said the NDDC has failed to fulfil its mandate to his community.
“I don’t know what NDDC has done in this community,” Mr Chima said.
”Many of the NDDC projects were never completed. The ones that were completed are not in use or they spoil almost immediately. For over five years, they have not completed one health centre. They have even abandoned it. As you can see, grass has taken over everything.”
Felix Opaye, one of the leaders of Umo-Okwo community, also lamented the perceived lack of impact of NDDC in Umo-Okwo community.
“For more than 10 years now, the government has abandoned the health centre. There is no other NDDC project in this community apart from the health centre which has been abandoned.
“There is a rubber estate in this community. The government is enjoying it, collecting the raw materials… they government has abandoned us yet they collect our votes.”
The Niger Delta Development Commission was established by the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, in 2000 with the sole mandate of developing the oil-rich Niger Delta region. One of the mandates is to develop key infrastructure to promote in the region but this has been grossly unmet.
When contacted for comments on the abandoned health centres, Mr Odili, the NDDC spokesperson, was livid.
“Can’t you do developmental journalism?” he yelled over the phone.
“Why can’t you look at the things NDDC is doing right? I have never heard a report like that. There are just reports to pull the commission down at all times.”