Shortly before sunset on a Saturday earlier this year, relatives of Golubini Okoromadu gathered outside her house in Oporoza village, in the Gbaramatu Kingdom to share out her properties.
She had passed on five days before on January 9 as a septuagenarian. And tradition in the Ijaw-dominated town dictated that a deceased’s possessions must be shared by their relatives within one week of their death.
The items were pretty basic: canoe paddles, brooms, an umbrella, plastic buckets, kitchenware, clothes, and other household items.
As her entire worth of the items Mrs. Okoromadu left behind, the properties seemed rather insignificant. Yet, more than two dozen bereaved family members benefited from them, including the nine elderly men and women who took shelter in a nearby shed to ensure the equitable sharing of the deceased’s personal effects.
Yet no one could tell the specific illness that took her away.
“We gave her treatment for fever because that’s the only treatment anyone living in this locality could get,” her grandson, Tare Popo tells PREMIUM TIMES.
“They will only give you medicine for fever no matter what your illness may be.”
When his grandmother became critically ill, Mr. Popo took her to the two drug stores in their village, Oporoza, but none of them was adequately equipped to attend to her.
The next morning, he moved her into a canoe and paddled to the nearby village of Kurutie, bracing the winds of the Escravos River.
But after two days, all efforts to save her there failed and they returned to Oporoza. The next morning, he found her curled up in bed, pale and still.
“I knew I tried my best, but no hospital and doctors to support me,” a dejected Mr. Popo said.
VAST KINGDOM IN THE SWAMPS
The Gbaramatu Kingdom is in the cradle of the Niger Delta, a swampy maze of creeks, mangroves, streams, estuaries, and rivers.
It is a place of extremes – extreme pollution, extreme heat, and extreme poverty.
Major international oil companies have been drilling and exploring this area since 1958. This is where Nigeria has realised billions of dollars from oil exports for decades. Within that period, billions of naira have also been earmarked for development of the Niger Delta, but they often vanish with little trace.
Mrs. Okoromadu died without any real medical care in a local government area that receives an average of N140 million per month, and has officially been given more than N10 billion in budgetary allocations from the federal government within the past six years.
However, a section in the constitution, which blocks local councils from getting their allocation directly from the federal government, has been a major bane of development at the local government level.
The Fourth Schedule of the Nigerian Constitution anticipated that the local government, as the third tier of government, would meet citizens’ basic needs by providing amenities like potable water, waste disposal, and drainage while constructing light community projects like parks and gardens.
The joint-allocation account was first devised as a financial policy for state and local government areas in the 1979 Constitution as part of the recommendations of a local government reform panel set up in 1976.
In 1989, former head of state, Ibrahim Babangida, discontinued the policy due to anomalies observed in its implementation at the time. But the policy was reintroduced into the Constitution when democracy returned to the country in 1999.
Since then, the local government has regularly failed to fulfil its basic obligations. Its purpose has been largely defeated by Section 162 of the Constitution which allows the state governor complete discretion over the finances of local government areas.
MONEY GONE DOWN THE DRAIN?
In the last six years alone, more than N10 billion has gone to Warri Southwest Local Government Area, which administers the Gbaramatu Kingdom, but how it was spent has remained a mystery.
A PREMIUM TIMES visit to the communities in the area revealed the result of the apparent disappearance of budgetary allocations meant for health care, and education of the general welfare of the people.
Said to be the traditional headquarters of the Gbaramatu Kingdom, Oporoza village, along with scores of other tiny settlements, is located on the fringe of the Escravos River, a major tributary of the River Niger and home to Chevron’s largest oil terminal. Its population of slightly above 5,000 has no hospital or potable water.
In theory, the people of Gbaramatu Kingdom are supposed to receive free basic medical care. But a clinic constructed in Oporoza in 2012, which was also meant to serve neighbouring communities, has been overrun by weeds.
Although it was completed, residents say it was never put to use —even for a day.
“We spend our days wondering why they built it in the first place,” Johnbull Demebi, Chairman of Oporoza Residents Association, said.
“Chevron built it but the company was supposed to partner with the government to provide staff and equip it, but nothing was done. They just abandoned it.”
Like the healthcare system, the education system in Oporoza is also grossly inadequate for the residents’ needs. Oporoza High School, which also serves children from nearby communities, is located in a dilapidated building with broken plywood roofing.
In this public school, the air is filled with a mouldy, fetid odour. Huge sized cockroaches could be seen scuttling about the equally squalid interior until they were savagely crushed by geckos.
“Even when the children are in session, this is the situation of the school,” Mr. Demebi said. “When it rains, water drips from the leaky ceilings.”
The town was devastated in 2009 when the Nigerian military stormed Gbaramatu Kingdom while searching for the Niger Delta militant, Government Ekpemupolo, a.k.a. Tompolo. The palace in Oporoza was bombed during a nocturnal operation on May 15 that year. Its roof was ripped off by shelling, its windows smashed and statues pulled down.
Although a new structure erected nearby now serves as the palace for the Pere of Gbaramatu Kingdom, the relics of the destroyed palace still remains.
“The old palace will serve as a memory of what the Kingdom had suffered from the Nigerian state,” Mr. Demebi said.
The town of Kokodiagbene in Gbaramatu Kingdom is a 20-minute boat ride from Oporoza. From here, meter-high flames from the incineration of the poisonous gases that are a by-product of the oil exploration in the area can be seen emerging from a horizontal pipe in Jones Creek, where Anglo-Dutch oil giant, Shell, operates four flow stations.
Night after night, these flames light up the sky around the community. They are often the only source of light, as the street lights rarely work.
The people of the community also use the heat from the Creek pipe to dry their garri, but experts say the radiation from this practice could have serious health implications.
“We breathe a lot of carbon in this locality,” said Gabriel Ekpetipu, a resident. “This area is hotter than Warri despite the breeze from the Escravos River.”
Like Oporoza, the people of this community have no access to potable water or medical care. A hospital complex that was also completed in 2012 was abandoned and residents say they have no inkling why.
“No one would talk to us about it even to give us hope about when it will be reopened.” Mr. Ekpetipu said. “People fall sick from cholera every now and then because the water is bad. It is so bad that we have to bring in water from Warri.”
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that after the military invaded Gbaramatu Kingdom in 2009, the government imposed a major blockade that made it impossible for the creek dwellers to get packaged water from Warri. This caused a cholera outbreak that left many dead.
Tebijor-Okpelama is less than 10 minutes by boat ride from Oporoza. Here, the situation is pretty much the same if not worse.
Until two years ago, students took their classes in a bamboo hut. The ramshackle facility still stands near the new block.
But the new building is unpainted. Inside, books are gathering dust because there are no windows.
The community’s biggest risk, however, is being flooded. A buffer that was constructed years ago to check the tide from Escravos River has become a death trap for residents because of the rust that has sharpened its edges.
Environmental analyst, Moses Yabrade, expressed concerns about the project.
“This project was part of the initial response of former President (Olusegun) Obasanjo when the militants first started doing damages to oil installations,” Mr. Yabrade told PREMIUM TIMES.
“We’re now at risk of being flooded again because they didn’t complete the project,” he adds.
A Chevron oil pipeline riser that feeds the Kaduna refinery from Escravos exploded last year, leaving the environment a mess and forcing residents of Ikpokpo, whose community faces the Chevron Escravos terminal, to flee for their dear lives.
“We’ve been suffering like this for many years,” Godwin Akori, chairman of Ikpokpo community said.
Ikpokpo has no school or clinic or potable water. The residents have to take a 25-minute boat ride to Oporoza to attend school or buy drugs.
Evidence of repeated oil spills from damaged pipelines can be found in the surrounding bushes of the community. The reality of the more than 100 villagers here marks a sharp contrast from those on the other side of the river in Chevron Escravos terminal.
While Chevron officials in the heavily-guarded Escravos facility live amid plenty, the people facing them in Ikpokpo suffer in abject penury.
Chevron staff attached to the Escravos facility are transported by armed military personnel in helicopters and luxury boats in and out of the facility, which speaks of the disconnect between the oil workers and the locals.
“They’re living in another world, but we’re dying here,” Mr. Akori said. “We used to be far better than this before our farms were destroyed by oil drilling.”
Like other parts of the country, Warri Southwest Local Government where this communities are, relies heavily on allocations from the federal government. Its residents, who are typically subsistence fishermen, do not engage in business activities that can be taxed for additional revenues.
George Ekpemupolo, the younger brother of the famous Niger Delta militant, Tompolo, has been the chairman of the LGA since 2012.
Officials in the local government told PREMIUM TIMES that Warri South only receives “what is practically a crumb” from the state government every month.
“Because we don’t have other sources of revenue, we have to rely on what comes from the state,” a source in Mr. Ekpemupolo’s office said.
“Sometimes it could be as low as N15 million, in some cases we get nothing.”
The official said local government administrators are not allowed to speak up about the deductions by the state and that the exercise is usually shrouded in secrecy.
Even Mr. Ekpemupolo himself felt anything he said could land him in trouble with the Delta State governor, Ifeanyi Okowa, sources said.
PREMIUM TIMES’ efforts to reach Mr. Ekpemupolo for comments about the communities in his area were unsuccessful.
For several days, Mr. Ekpemupolo would make interview appointments only to fail to honour them each time.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
Mr. Ekpemupolo’s reluctance to speak out is not without basis. Local government chairmen hardly challenge governors, but when they do, they often face stiff resistance. In some cases, they lose their jobs.
Two examples occurred in 2009 and 2010, when the former governor of Ogun State, Gbenga Daniel, dismissed two local government chairmen, Tele Ogunjobi from Ijebu North and Tunde Oladunjoye from Ijebu East, for accusing him of making arbitrary deductions from local government allocations to the tune of N96 billion.
In 2013, local government officials in Imo State staged a major protest in Owerri, the state capital, demanding the immediate reimbursement of N80 billion allegedly mismanaged by Governor Rochas Okorocha. The protesters accused Mr. Okorocha of acting in defiance of a judgement of the Court of Appeals, which they said had ordered full control of local government administration to the staff.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, also accused Ibrahim Shema, the immediate-past governor of Katsina State, of mismanaging about N50 billion in local government funds during his tenure.
Despite all the allegations and growing opposition about how they’re mismanaging local government funds, state governments have regularly denied wrongdoing.
In some cases, they argue that it is the local governments that have become a burden on state resources.
David Edevbie, Delta State Commissioner of Finance, told PREMIUM TIMES that his ministry does not keep records of the funds going into local government accounts from the state, but that “the state government does not deduct from allocations to local government areas.”
He admitted though that the state does “deduct some statutory bills for local education authorities, pensions, and salaries of traditional rulers, amongst others.”
Instead, he said the state governor, Mr. Okowa, has been helping local councils to shore up their allocations in order to meet necessary bills.
For instance, there were times when allocations from the federal government were not enough to clear the salaries of officials of the local government and the institutions under it, according to Ehiedu Aniagwu, Mr. Okowa’s Chief Press Secretary.
Mr. Aniagwu said the state had spent more than N600 million propping up local government accounts in recent years.
“We don’t dip hands into local government account since we came into office 20 months ago,” Mr. Aniagwu said.
Mr. Aniagwu further explained as follows:
“We have so many primary school teachers and their salaries are deducted at source because we cannot afford to let primary school teachers go on strike in this state. So when we make those legitimate deductions they think we’re deducting their salaries.”
“The Universal Basic Education, UBEC and the State Universal Basic Education Board, SUBEB laws mandated that primary school teachers must be paid. That’s why they can’t go on strike.
“In a number of times we have had to pay even when the money coming into the local government is not up to the amount we had to pay in salaries,” he said
Mr. Aniagwu said after such statutory allocations are made, whatever is left usually goes to the local governments adding that some local government already have heavy bills.
“Some local government areas spend as much as N90 million on salaries per month,” he said.
The spokesperson said the situation in the area was due to years of neglect, adding that the people of Gbaramatu Kingdom would benefit in the policies that the administration ‘would soon roll out.’
“The recent visits by the vice president have reduced militant activities in the area and we now hope to commence developmental works in the region,” Mr. Aniagwu said.
“We have a new initiative for school projects. We’re building a comprehensive package with the federal government. The state is committed towards these projects and we will complete them.”
He stated that the governor was aware of healthcare challenges the people of Gbaramatu face adding that the state will partner with the federal government and oil firms operating in the area in order to bring about a more coordinated approach to developmental projects.
“The hospital was completed but there was not enough money to import facilities. We’re still ordering equipment and need to import everything and bring them to the community to install,” Mr. Aniagwu said.
“This could take time,” he added.
He also admitted the government’s shortcomings in the area of education.
“We’re working to increase (the) number of teachers deployed to Oporoza and other nearby communities with schools,” he said. “Our overall education policies are being improved right now across the state.”
Apart from the undue deductions and mismanagement of local government funds, Gbaramatu like other oil producing communities in Nigeria also suffers from years of neglect by the state and federal governments.
For Gbaramatu and other Delta oil producing communities, the state government said it cannot on its own solve the problems.
Mr. Aniagwu said the challenges in the creeks are more than what the state could handle alone, calling on the federal government, foreign partners, and oil companies to do more to support the state.
“The challenges of the communities are more than what the state government could handle,” he said. “The activities of the oil companies make projects across the creeks very, very capital intensive.”
Local government administrators across the country are becoming increasingly alarmed by Section 162 of the Constitution, which they describe as undemocratic and prone to abuse by governors.
Last September, President Muhammadu Buhari had tasked local government administrators to take back their powers from governors.
“The relationship between the three tiers of government is not a very nice one, especially that between the local governments and the states,” Mr. Buhari said last September. “The states feel like they own the local government if they are of the same party. It is worse if they are not.”
“This is a very serious constitutional problem and unless there is absolute clarity and transparency, the relationship will continue to be exploited against the interest of the ordinary people of the country.”
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, has also been making a serious push for the true autonomy of local government areas.
Towards the end of last year, he began pushing for bills that would grant absolute autonomy to local government areas and is one of those hoping the section will be abolished in the ongoing review of the Nigerian Constitution.
Last week, the Senate and the House of Representatives finally passed constitutional amendments that would grant full financial autonomy to local governments. The amendments, however, now need to be sent to state parliaments, 24 of which must approve of it before it could become law.
OPPOSITION TO AUTONOMY
However, on the flipside, some experts have warned against allowing local councils to administer their finances.
“The calibre of people that are emerging as local government administrators cannot be trusted to prudently manage the meagre resources of the councils,” Taiwo Osopitan, a constitutional lawyer, and Professor of Public Law at the University of Lagos said.
“They’re mostly thugs and transport union leaders, and they will divert money without consequences. I believe the status quo should be maintained until we have responsible people emerging as serious leaders who can take charge of affairs in local government areas,” he opined.
The Afenifere Renewal Group, ARG, also opposed the move to grant financial autonomy to the local governments. The group argued that such move would only further weaken states as federating units. It vowed to mobilise state parliaments to oppose the amendments.
But Mr. Yabrade and other residents of Gbaramatu Kingdom have a different opinion. They said releasing money directly to their local government will allow them target their priorities.
“If we get the money directly, we’ll be able to spend it on our own programs because we all belong to one family in this kingdom. We’re capable of administering our resources, no matter how little,” he said.
The Natural Resource Governance Institute provided support for this reporting.