Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, is the Executive Director, Spaces for Change(S4C). Basically, S4C works to infuse human rights into social and economic governance processes in Nigeria. She was recently interviewed by National Weekender Newspaper on the Eko Atlantic City Project. She revealed that it is a project that will further widen the gap between the rich and the poor and as such, is anti-people. Here are the excerpts…
Can we meet you?
My name is Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri. I am the Executive Director, Spaces for Change (S4C), a policy advocacy group advocating for citizen participation in public decision-making. Basically S4C uses the human rights framework and youth-centered strategies to mobilize for the inclusion of certain often-unheard sections of the populace in social and economic governance and decision-making processes.
Who are these unheard persons?
They include, but are not limited to the marginalized populations who live in remote communities, the youth, and vulnerable groups whose voices are not often sought for in social and economic governance and public decision-making. I will give you an example, if you are familiar with some development projects in Lagos; you see a lot of impact is made in elitist zones. The roads leading to these elitist zones are usually tarred, dual carriage. You find pedestrian walks, but if you move to places like Alimosho or Okokomaiko, you will wonder if those places are in Lagos. There are actually many slums scattered around Lagos. The opinion of these people is usually not important, except during elections. So our work reaches to those traditionally neglected people.
So by implication, you are saying the whole developmental processes in Lagos are concentrated in some areas?
Yes it is too obvious. If I were to borrow the words of Patrick Obahiagbon “it is visible to the blind and audible to the deaf”. It is so easy to detect that there is a concentration of infrastructures in urban areas. Urban in the sense that, they are really just located around the Central Business Districts (CBDs). Areas that are visible to visitors or people don’t live in the state. Areas that if somebody comes in from London and lands at the airport, the person is likely to drive through e.g. the road that lead to Sheraton Hotel. So those areas have been decorated for these people to see, But if you move beyond that point and move into the inner-city or even inside the GRA, you will find out that those areas are just on their own. Lagos is the only place where communities are now paving their own road. Now communities in Lagos provide infrastructure for themselves. For example, when I use to live in Isheri-Magodo Estate, we contributed money for all kind of services. So if a non-resident uses the road, they will have to pay a toll. But it is not their duty to provide infrastructure for themselves. It is the duty of the government. All these tell you where their priorities lie, when it comes to development.
Does this apply also to the Eko Atlantic City project?
The Eko Atlantic City project is a purely an elitist project. It is a project that is designed not just for the rich, but for the super-rich. It is brazenly expensive. They say it may be affordable to middle-income earners, but that’s not true. As a middle-income class person, you have to be extremely corrupt to be able to finance that kind of life style. It is a place where, not a full plot, but 1 square meter cost $2,000 (N320,000), now multiply it by 680 or 1000 square meters (i.e. the measurement for a full plot) depending on the area of Lagos. You have not talked about the structure. So if you look at everything about that project, from the planning, decision making, strategies, construction and partnership, they were all designed to be expensive. The concern that basically people like us have is that there are people who live on the fringes of those neighboring communities of the Atlantic Ocean. Those places are not are empty places, there are human activities going on there. What happens to the people that are living on the coastlines? Where is the government going to relocate them to?
Are they aware that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out?
I have been involved in a lot of discussions concerning this EIA. What actually happened is that there are different stages of the project and the EIA done only covered the first phase of the project. Now according to the Nigeria laws, the EIA should be submitted to the Federal Ministry of Environment that will now comment based on the findings and the assessment that have been made. The EIA was taken to the Federal Ministry of Environment and they raised certain objections and till this day, even without getting approval from the Federal Ministry of Environment, the project commenced.
Now look at what they did: they hurriedly passed a state law, to proceed with dredging operations. There are so many issues that have come up. For instance, can a State law override a Federal law? Number two, can a project of that magnitude proceed without proper approval from the Federal Ministry of Environment? These are questions that a lot of environmentalists and advocates are asking. Of course, they may have noble intentions for setting up a high-rise enclave that only the super rich can afford but what about the underlying issues that must be addressed. For instance, though it may require a lot of scientific evidences to draw linkages between that project and a lot of things happening around that axis e.g. the frequent ocean surges since dredging commenced. The last ocean surge that took place recorded some casualties…
Yes, I mean some people died.
Do you have the figure of the number of people that actually died?
I will look at my records and give you the figure later: but there were people who really died, apart from the properties that were lost. Secondly, ever since that project stated, the frequency of ocean surges have increased, but like I said earlier; it will require some scientific evidences to link these incidences with the project, but there are fringe communities that have experienced the rise in water levels.
For instance if you go to Alpha Beach, where people naturally use to trade or shop, places that tourist used to relax have been overtaken by water: these communities are no longer habitable and they have received verbal orders from the state government to move to another location. Move to where? In other places all over the world, government doesn’t just give verbal fiat and tell their citizens to move. Some of these communities are their ancestral villages and indigenous in the sense that they and their forefathers have lived there for decades. If for instance I decided to move to Isale EKo, will I now say I am from Isale Eko? Would I now go to that local government and collect a certificate of indigene-ship? Is that possible? Assuming, you are a traditional ruler in affected communities, can you go to Isale Eko, and exercise your authority? Of course that is not possible. So there are a lot of social issues that the government is overlooking and it seems that the emphasis is on economic gains, is money being place above human life? Government needs to have a rethink and you know what, tension is mounting from these communities.
How rife is this tension? Does it have the tendency to snowball into something of large scale defiance?
The truth is that the Boko Haram insurgency has taught Nigerians a lot of lessons that there is no tension that is little. Every tension has the capacity to snowball into tension of uncontrollable height. We have seen the Niger Delta tension; we have seen enough examples in the North. Imagine the first time Ken Saro Wiwa started holding small rallies in Ogoni land; they were just little pockets of actions, of course you know the scale now? You know how much the Federal Government is spending to bring these conflicts to at least manageable levels? You remember that when Boko Haram started in the North, it was started by a simple Islamic clergy?
From what we gathered, after the EIA was done, there was a public hearing and a lot of people (including stakeholders) were invited, why didn’t you raise your objections then?
I actually attended one of the “things” you called a public hearing. Usually public hearing is something that is advertised on the pages of newspapers. You use all medium possible to notify the public that so and so will happen you make sure that the real people voluntarily and willingly attend. But when you arranged a public hearing where 99% of the people in attendance are government officials, what kind of public hearing is that? Number one, you hardly hear notice of such meetings, so a few people are handpicked and told “see, we are discussing this matter today” and the hearing usually last for one to two hours. Sometimes if they are feeling charitable, they give you three hours.
Are you by any means saying that there is a conscious effort on the side of the government to hoard information on the EIA findings?
I am saying the way the government has carried on; it has done so in ways that suggest that, that public engagement is not part of their plan or strategy they want to employ. Usually when you carry out EIA and your findings reveal that a particular community may be affected slightly by your activities, while discussing the environmental risk, you are to get them involved. Because this is something that will affect them for generations to come, but that has not happened, so people go away with the impression that public engagement is not high on the agenda of the sponsors of this project.
What about the positive aspect of the project? Are you considering that at all?
Well the positive angle is that, yes it will beautify Lagos and make it ranked among cities like Dubai. As you know, even in Dubai, there are some districts more beautiful than others in aesthetics. The Lagos State government must look beyond aesthetics or urban designs based on aesthetics. It is not beauty that makes the city, but the people that make the city. It is the infrastructure and the basic services the citizens have access to, and their inalienable rights to participate in the governance of the city, that make up the city, and not just the physical beauty of the geographical area called Eko Atlantic City.
Is LASG even giving the slightest ear to your cause as if affects the EAC project? Is the government by any means changing?
I haven’t seen much of that yet. However, it is possible that in response to a lot of pressure and advocacy there may have been some softening of heart on the side of LASG officials, especially in the area of social inclusion. But a lot more can be done.