On a Road to Nowhere?
After 16 years of continuous rule under the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and record levels of corruption and mismanagement, Nigeria elected a new leader Mohammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) on an anti-corruption ticket in May 2015. This was the first time in the history of Nigeria that an incumbent president had lost to an opposition candidate in a general election. The APC won in the majority of the 36 states, but PDP clung on to power in Cross River State.
The new Governor of Cross River State, Professor Benedict Ayade, assumed office in May 2015 and soon announced a number of new signature projects including construction of a superhighway to link a new Bakassi deep seaport with north-eastern Nigeria. He also announced plans for a garment factory, 5,000 new housing units, the creation of 1,000 jobs through the creation of a "green police force" to protect the state's forests. Other plans recently announced include the Calabar Rice City, a new airline known as "CallyAir", a pharmaceutical factory, a monorail, a medical insurance company and more. His plans were very ambitious and sounded expensive but in our excitement no one seemed to question where all the money might come from to pay for them, despite the fact that Nigeria is in the grips of its biggest ever recession and Cross River is the second most indebted state in the country.
The question soon on our minds was - would the new Governor continue with the pro-forest conservation policies of the past two Governors, Senator Liyel Imoke and Donald Duke? Liyel Imoke had gone so far as to ban all logging in the state and actively promoted Cross River as a candidate for REDD+ with the UN and others, to widespread international acclaim and accolade. Donald Duke had closed down a Chinese plywood factory when it threatened the state’s remaining forest reserves. We would soon find out the priorities of the new Governor.
Policy Shift from Forest Preservation to Forest Exploitation
Governor Ayade made some opening speeches that have since set the tone for his administration. He publicly stated that Cross River has
"over one million hectares of pristine forest and that forest which is an asset that has remained unexploited and this forest has been conserved over time without exploitation and that is not the way we are going to go forward, we are going to move from forest conservation to forest management which means we are going to be needing two to three thousand young men who will be responsible for regeneration of forest. As we are deforesting for development by processing it into plywood and veneer for export we are also correspondingly investing hugely for regeneration."
The writing was on the wall. In May 2015 information began to leak out that the new superhighway was not a project to renovate the existing highway as we had all imagined, and which for many years had been in a truly deplorable state, but was an entirely new highway - and one that cut straight across the middle of the Oban Division of Cross River National Park! The superhighway was to be "a digital road for the 21st century" with Wi-Fi internet access, and would comprise a massive six-lane dual carriage highway linking the new deep seaport at Bakassi to a small town on the border with the neighbouring Benue State, a distance of some 260 km. The rationale behind the superhighway appeared to have some merit - proving an evacuation route for the new deep seaport in Calabar which would reduce pressure on existing seaports in Nigeria and serve cities in north-eastern Nigeria and land-locked Chad and Niger on Nigeria’s northern border. Unfortunately the superhighway stops roughly 1,000 km short of Nigeria's northern border and the country already has eight major sea ports. Many experts doubt if there is sufficient economic justification for constructing another major seaport in Calabar particularly since the Calabar River is relatively shallow and prone to siltation, exacerbated by logging and deforestation, so periodic and expensive dredging will be required to maintain access to the "deep seaport".
In September 2015 the initial ground breaking ceremony for the superhighway by President Buhari was cancelled at the last minute when it was realized that no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had been done as required by law. This legislation prohibits activities carried out in sensitive areas where such are carried out in the absence of mandatory studies. The intention of the EIA law is to safeguard the population and environment with regard to any form of environmental degradation resulting from unplanned development projects. Although the cancellation was a huge political embarrassment to Governor Ayade a compromise deal was soon reached and an "interim EIA" was issued by the Federal Ministry of the Environment to allow the ground-breaking ceremony to go ahead, and on the understanding that a full EIA would be submitted and that no work would start until the EIA was approved. Amidst much pomp and ceremony, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, President Mohammadu Buhari, finally came to Calabar on October 30, 2015 and performed the ground breaking event on the invitation of Governor Ayade. This act tacitly gave federal government consent to the superhighway project. Suitably emboldened the Governor stepped up his campaign.
The Role of NGOs in Opposing the Superhighway
On the 20th October 2015 a coalition of 13 international NGOs, national NGOs and individuals, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of London and Birdlife International, submitted a letter to President Buhari expressing their concern about the superhighway. The letter expressed support for the ongoing EIA process but expressed outrage that the superhighway was planned to pass through Cross River National Park. After the EIA was eventually published a second letter of 13 international NGOs, national NGOs and individuals, including the World Wide Fund for Nature, Fauna and Flora International and the Wildlife Conservation Society, expressed major concern about the EIA and requested that it should be redone. A number of smaller NGOs in Cross River State have been actively involved in the campaign against the superhighway, issuing press releases and letters of protest, some acting on behalf of local communities, and there are a number of lawsuits against the state government now in court. The Ekuri Initiative (which has received international accolades for forest stewardship), the Rainforest Resource and Development Centre and NGOCE have been the most active.
With support from partners overseas, a petition of 254,000 signatures (34,000 signatures from Cross River State and 220,000 from concerned individuals worldwide) was delivered in September 2016 to President Buhari through the Ministry of Environment in Abuja. Both the press (TV, radio and newspapers) as well as social media have carried numerous stories and updates on the issue. The Nigeria office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation has actively supported the campaign against the superhighway and Rainforest Rescue in Hamburg helped organize an online petition against the superhighway that has currently generated almost 240,000 signatures to date.
A Land Grab in Disguise?
It came as a deep shock to all when, on the 22nd of January 2016, the Cross River Government Gazette announced the revocation of all traditional occupancy titles through a "Notice of Revocation of Rights of Occupancy for Public Purpose Land Use Act 1987" within a 20 km wide corridor of land along the entire highway route. This single act dispossessed more than 185 communities. The total area seized by the state amounts to 5,200 km², or about 25% of the state’s total area. Communities that had initially supported the superhighway rose up in revolt when they realized that they had been dispossessed of their ancestral lands overnight. Many people within the state began to call the superhighway project an elaborate land-grab in disguise. But a land grab for what?
Even though the EIA had not yet been finalized, Governor Ben Ayade was impatient to start work. Following up on the revocation of their lands the previous month, a number of bulldozers entered the forest in February 2016 and started clearing land and felling trees. Although some communities in Old and New Ekuri prevented the bulldozers from entering into their forest, more bulldozers soon appeared in communities within Boki LGA. Thousands of trees felled along the route were soon converted to valuable timber and mysteriously disappeared. No compensation has yet been paid to thousands of farmers whose farms have been destroyed by the bulldozers.
Cross River National Park is a proposed UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve and a tentative World Heritage Site, the richest site in Nigeria for biodiversity and indeed one of the richest sites in Africa. It is recognised as a Centre of Plant Diversity by WWF and IUCN, and as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International. Indeed the biological importance of the Oban Hills was first identified as early as 1912 when a large part of the area was declared a forest reserve. In 1991, the Oban forest reserve was upgraded to create the Oban Division of Cross River National Park through which the superhighway is now expected to pass. The Oban Division covers an area of around 3,000 km² of lowland rainforest. It is the largest area of closed-canopy rainforest in Nigeria and contiguous with Korup National Park, Cameroon. The Oban Hills are an extremely important watershed, with peaks of between 500 and 1,000 m, giving rise to numerous rivers that guarantee a perennial supply of freshwater to hundreds of downstream communities in Cross River State. The Oban Hills formed part of one of the lowland rainforest refugia in Africa during the last glacial period. As a result the area is now a centre of species richness and endemism particularly for primates, amphibians, butterflies, fish and small mammals. Oban is an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot and contains a number of rare and endangered species such as the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti), the drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus), Preuss's red colobus monkey (Procolobus preussi), leopard (Panthera pardus), forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the grey-necked Picathartes (Picathartes oreas) as well as 75 plant species endemic to Nigeria.
Reviewing the EIA
The EIA was finally submitted to the Federal Government of Nigeria in March 2016 for approval and was circulated for public comments in April 2016. The Honorable Minister of the Environment, Amina Mohammed, appointed an independent review panel to assess the EIA. The voluminous report was 443 pages long and had been prepared by PGM Nigeria Limited on behalf of Cross River State Government. A professional review of the EIA document was completed by Environmental Resource Management (ERM) and their report concluded that the draft EIA was totally inadequate and identified 11 main flaws with the EIA as:
- the scoping process was inadequate and provided no information on the rationale or analytical process that was adopted;
- baseline data were unclear, inconsistent, frequently contradictory and often incorrect;
- the project description was fundamentally flawed, most critically it failed to consider any impacts due to the 20 km wide corridor of land acquired by the Government of Cross River State along the entire route of the proposed superhighway;
- there was no cost-benefit analysis for each of the routes proposed and no clear justification for the superhighway and reasons for building a new road as opposed to upgrading the existing highway;
- the EIA failed to consider the impacts of the superhighway on nearby protected areas namely Cross River National Park, Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, Afi River Forest Reserve, Ukpon River Forest Reserve and Cross River South Forest Reserve;
- stakeholder engagement was extremely limited and failed to meet accepted standards as outlined by both Nigerian legislation and international best practice;
- 7 the EIA failed to identify measures required to monitor effective mitigation of the impact due to the superhighway;
- mitigation measures were described at a conceptual level only with insufficient detail for implementation;
- the EIA failed to mention the presence of many rare and endangered species present within the area such as the Preuss’s red colobus monkey Procolobus preussi and the slender-snouted crocodile Mecistops cataphractus both of which are classified by IUCN as Critically Endangered, or to assess possible impacts;
- the socio-economic study focused on only 21 communities whereas it is estimated that more than 180 communities within the 20 km corridor will be affected by the proposed project. The full impact on these communities, on their livelihoods and vulnerability was not been assessed; and
- there was no consideration of any cultural heritage data.
It was therefore impossible to effectively identify potential impacts due to the project or to recommend adequate mitigation measures. A public meeting was held in Calabar in June 2016 to allow all stakeholders present their views and opinions to the Review Panel. The EIA eventually received a "D" rating for gaping oversights and errors and was ordered to be redone.
"Nigeria needs better roads, but this is one of the most ill-conceived infrastructure projects we've seen anywhere," said Professor William Laurance, an environmental scientist from James Cook University in Australia and the director of ALERT (the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers).
Where are the Funds Coming from?
It is known that German construction company Liebherr has held a number of meetings with the Governor of Cross River State but it is not yet clear if they are interested in investing in the superhighway project directly or simply seeking to supply the heavy-duty machinery required for the construction of the deep seaport and superhighway. It would appear more certain that a number of Chinese companies have offered to help fund construction of the deep seaport and superhighway. Some of them have made no secret of the fact that they are also interested in “mechanised agriculture if the enabling environment is created”.
Nigeria's agricultural sector has been neglected since the discovery of oil in 1956 and urgently needs revitalization and investment. But where will the land come for a large mechanized agricultural project? Many have speculated that the 20 km corridor of land seized from 180 local communities along the highway will be provided in exchange for those wishing to invest in the project. Many have speculated that the proceeds from logging alone would be massive and that the land could then be planted with oil palm.
Present Status: A revised EIA was submitted to the Ministry of Environment of the Federal Government in September 2016 and is currently being assessed. Early indications are that the document still fails to meet basic standards and that:
- there has still been no public consultation or dialogue with important stakeholders such as Cross River National Park;
- economic arguments for alternative project scenarios such as upgrading the existing superhighway have been poorly done;
- baseline data is still absent or weak;
- there has been no consideration of the impact of the 20 km corridor on the biodiversity of adjacent protected areas such as Cross River National Park;
- there has been no consideration of the impact on more than 185 forest-dependent communities that are expected to be displaced as a result of the superhighway.
Whether or not the Federal Government will accept or reject the revised EIA remains to be seen. Nigeria is Africa's most prosperous nation; development is needed to boost and diversify the economy which has relied solely on oil for decades. Moreover, Nigeria is a Federation with both State and Federal laws and the Governor of Cross River State has executive powers over the State which he governs as an elected Governor.
There are certain actions that the State Government can take which the Federal Government may not be in a position to forcefully stop. In which case, the State Government can only be persuaded to tow the path of reason by following due process. As such massive and unprecedented deforestation is planned, it is ironic to note that on 22 September 2016 President Buhari signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and promised commitment from Nigeria as part of the global effort to reverse the negative effects of climate change. In the same month a new US$ 12 million strategy for Nigeria was approved by the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (UN-REDD+) programme in Nigeria. The new scheme to deepen the initiative to combat climate change through improved forest governance has been validated by leaders and experts in conservation, climate and development communities. Piloted in Cross River State, the programme is jointly run by three United Nations agencies: the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and is meant to be an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development