By Olusegun Adeniyi
Residents of Zaria Kalakala in Koko-Besse local government, Kebbi State, were still counting their losses from the flood that washed away their farmlands and destroyed their houses when they were confronted by a huge hippopotamus that had strayed out of the water to scavenge. Rather than go for their guns or other assault weapons as most often happens in such situations in the country, they helped the semiaquatic mammal back to its natural habitat.
That hippopotamus was fortunate. In August 2011, a national newspaper carried a front page photograph of a hunter named Alhaji Maman Musa, sitting atop a hippopotamus he killed on River Niger. Four years later in 2015, another was shot dead in controversial circumstances at Dadinkowa dam by hunters in Gombe State. And in February 2017, it was in Abaji area council of Abuja that a hippopotamus met its death. In each of these situations, mobs descended on the scene with cutting implements to harvest portions of free meat that the late American hunter and writer, Peter Hathaway Capstick, once romanticized as “one of the finest of game foods … The taste is mild, less than lamb and more than beef, slightly more marbled than usual venison.”
It is comforting that even in their moment of distress, Zaria Kalakala villagers understood the threat posed to the natural ecosystem from acute depletion of animals such as hippopotamus. We will come back to the lesson that teaches, but the story of the stranded Hippopotamus at Zaria Kalakala is perhaps the only bright spot in the monumental natural disaster that has in recent weeks befallen Kebbi State. In towns and villages in no fewer than 11 local governments, including Birnin Kebbi, Argungu, Bunza, Suru, Koko-Besse, Yauri, Shanga, Bagudo, Maiyama, Jega and Dandi, thousands of people have been rendered homeless and almost destitute. Five bridges located in different parts of the state have also been washed away by the raging flood that has cut off several communities along the River Niger Bank. Having spent almost 24 hours in the state on an energy-sapping trip last weekend, the scale of the damage I witnessed is enormous.
Last Thursday, following calls from friends who shared stories of the flooding that had sacked several communities in their state, I reached out to Governor Atiku Bagudu for more information. He responded by telling me I would not understand the enormity of the damage unless I visited the state. Since he was in Abuja to brief the president, he proposed that I join him on the Friday afternoon (Azman airlines) flight to Birnin Kebbi. When I hesitated, he told me I could return by Saturday on the flight that would bring the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mohammed Sanunu, who was coming to inspect the damage.
We arrived in the state at about 2.30PM last Friday and, after a quick lunch, set out to tour the affected areas. We did not return to the state capital until midnight. What I saw on that trip to the southern part of the state, stretching more than 300 kilometres, was heartrending. As we journeyed from Birnin Kebbi along the Bagudo-Tuga-Kaoje route, which leads to the border with the Republic of Benin, we encountered a long line of refugees who had been forced to move to the roadside with their families and whatever remained of their possessions. The journey terminated at the Tuga Bridge that is now submerged, cutting off border communities and access to the critical River Niger bridge that links the two countries. Although many schools were being converted to makeshift Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps, it was evident that the expertise to deal with the emergency was sorely lacking. The people I encountered resembled victims of war. I saw a girl who straddled a goat on her back like a baby – perhaps the only possession the family could rescue before the flood took over their settlement.
At Kende Bridge, we came down from the vehicle and trekked to a village about two kilometres away. That enabled us to more clearly witness the devastation. More than half of Bagudo township had been consumed by water (flood). Villages including Soshiya, Saki jiki, Tungar Zaga, Tungar Gyara, Tungar Himo, Bidiwi, Tungar Rini, Yuna Babba Da karama, Tuga, Marake, Kende and others can also now be accessed only by wooden boats that litter the place. Schools have been converted to IDP camps and are swarming with hundreds of men, women and children. The Kebbi State Emergency Management Authority (KSEMA) chairman, Alhaji Sani Dododo, put the number of deaths at 32 persons. According to the president of the Kebbi Farmers Association, 450,000 hectares of the 500,000 hectares of farmland swept away are on the rice belt. The remaining 50 hectares grow soya beans, millet, maize, groundnut and guinea corn.
At every location, Bagudu would alight from his vehicle, speak with the people, ask for their immediate needs and then detail officials to stay and attend to them. When night fell, at every one of the stops, six vehicles (three on either side) would put on their headlamps for illumination while the governor stood in the middle to address the flood victims. But the scale of the damage is overwhelming. In addition to houses, schools and hospitals being submerged, the Bagudo prison was also overtaken by water, forcing the relocation of inmates to Birnin Kebbi correctional facility.
Last Friday night, I could sleep only for a few hours. By next morning, I went ahead of Bagudu (who had to receive the minister of agriculture at the airport) to Argungu for a scheduled appointment with the Emir, HRH Alhaji Samaila Muhammadu Mera. He shared with me harrowing tales from fishing communities in the northern part of the state that borders Sokoto. “As farmers, what we have experienced is total devastation both for crops and fishes. Rice farmlands have been wiped off and we have lost practically all the fish farms,” lamented the Emir. “But the greater challenge is that many people are now homeless. Go and see all our schools, they are brimming with displaced people,” he told me shortly before receiving the visiting Sanono who came with his team from Abuja to inspect the damage.
The rage of nature in Kebbi is monumental because it came from both the north and south. On the northern axis, the Birnin-Kebbi-Makera-Kangiwa international highway, which runs from the state capital to Niger Republic, currently stands the risk of caving in at Duku. At Makera bridge last Saturday, Bagudu showed Sanunu and his team the extent of destruction to farmlands within the Argungu precincts. He also explained what caused the damage. Being in a valley, Kebbi State was at the receiving end of the water from Goronyo and Bakolori dams in Sokoto as well as water from the River Niger released by authorities of Niger Republic. Meanwhile, the dams in Jebba and Kainji have attained their highest water levels in three decades and a deluge of rain resulted in surrounding rivers and streams overflowing their banks. The water from River Rima that comes to join River Niger moves uphill as it approaches the tributary in the southern part of Kebbi because of siltation. This, combined with a period of heavy downpours, has put the state practically under water!
For Kebbi, there is an urgent need for immediate relief measures. And then, the state requires short, medium and long term plans. This should apply to other flood-prone states in the country as well. What I fear most in Kebbi is an epidemic of disease arising from villages where residents still hang around their waterlogged places of abode contaminated by the surrounding waters. In the short term, what the Emir of Argungu requested, also the clarion call of resilient farmers, is that while they may have lost this rainy season farming, there is hope for the coming dry season – usually for two farming cycles. Chairman of the Wheat Farmers Association, Alhaji Abdullahi Argungu, revealed that the entire Fadama rice fields and “90 per cent of the farmlands have been submerged by the floods.” He appealed that farmers be provided with improved seedlings for maize, cassava, potatoes and other varieties for immediate planting. So, with the right help, farmers can still bounce back.
Meanwhile, this recent trip to Kebbi State was an eye opener because I visited places I had never been to before. In Bagudo and adjoining local governments, the vegetation is not different from what you have in the southern part of the country. Not only do they grow thick timber, crops like palm oil, banana and cocoa also abound. This testifies to the richness of our land. But the point I want to make is with regard to the saved hippopotamus of Zaria Kalakala. With little or no effort to preserve the vast diversity of wildlife in our country, we have become obsessed with what we will eat today. We hardly care about tomorrow and the ecosystem that sustains our world. Sadly, it is something that is common with societies like ours. Which is why the villagers of Zaria Kalakala are so remarkable.
In his famous book, ‘Why Worry About Future Generations?’ which deals with how what we do today impacts what happens tomorrow, Samuel Scheffler, professor of philosophy at New York University, argues that there is a deep interconnection between the interest in ourselves and our concern for successor generations. That is a lesson we are yet to imbibe because of the preoccupation with immediate need (sometimes greed) that blinds us to the reality that we owe the future an obligation to live responsibly. The World Commission on Environment and Development could have been referring to Nigeria in a statement it once made that, “We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying…We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.”
The sad aspect is that we see this lack of care about the future in the way we run our affairs in practically all areas of our national life. Yet there is no better time than now to begin to make radical choices about our future. It is good to establish a committee for 2050 as President Muhammadu Buhari did last week with the National Steering Committee to oversee the development of the Nigeria Agenda 2050 to be jointly chaired by Mr Atedo Peterside (representing the private sector) and Mrs Zainab Ahmed, the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning. The hope is that it will not end up like previous ones that were no more than bus rides to nowhere. Besides, the kind of choices we need to make are not what a committee can do.
All said, the growing challenge with flooding in Kebbi, as in several other states, results from climate change. While no country can legislate against the fury of nature, we can take bold decisions to mitigate its impact in a bid to build a resilient, inclusive and sustainable future. But we are failing miserably. The World Economic Forum has just released a report on population projections that point to a looming danger for our country. While the populations of both India and China will begin to contract from 2050 with a projection that “China’s total population will drop by almost half to 732 million by 2100”, Sub-Saharan Africa led by Nigeria “is the only region that will continue to see growth by century’s end.” Nigeria, according to the same report, “is dealing with a land area nearly 11 times smaller than the United States’—but it will have more than double the population.”
The demographic time bomb alone deserves serious attention but it is one we hardly concern ourselves with. Not only is our population growth rate outstripping our resources and productivity, we are not planning any projection on how many mouths we will feed in the years to come. That some villagers in Kebbi understand the significance of wildlife protection shows that all is not lost. It is something we should build upon even as we deal with the immediate challenge of havoc wreaked by floods on lives and livelihoods in several states.
At the end, what we must confront as a national priority is how to ensure that the Nigeria of tomorrow offers greater opportunities than today. That will not happen if the majority of our people remain chained to cultural values and belief systems that promote irresponsible procreation. The ultimate lesson from Zaria Kalakala in Kebbi State: We must begin to take seriously the sustainability of our environment.
Segun Adeniyi is the Chairman, Editorial Board, ThisDay Newspapers