Controversy, which has been the lot of Gov Ben Ayade’s proposed 275km superhighway from inception, has refused to go away, even as forest community dwellers in the superhighway corridor are crying foul, saying the Calabar-based government has added to their sorrows with complete destruction of their farmlands, economic trees, forest resources and wild life. In this reports, those affected directly by the project express their frustration and anger over effect of the project on their socio-economic life.
Forest community dwellers in the proposed super highway corridor in Cross River State are angry. They are disappointed that the said road, which most of them were made to embrace with open arms at the initial stage of project conception, has turn out to be their Waterloo, saying their condition has nose-dived since the day bull-dozers were sent to destroy everything they held dear.
The proposed 275 km superhighway, which was to run from Bakassi to Katina Ala in Benue State was estimated at about N800 billion. Governor Ben Ayade had said the road would serve as an evacuation corridor for the new deep seaport in Bakassi, another proposed signature project of his.
Ayade has remained passionate anytime he talks about the project which, he believes, would immensely improve the economic life of the State. He had promised the project would be completed in his first term in office, saying some of the features of the proposed road would include broadband internet connectivity, speed cameras, photology solar system and ambulatory services.
“If after four years, I have not achieved the superhighway I promised, then I am not Ayade. I am going to shock the country. I promised that I will deliver. I will not fail the people. I will work hard to wipe out poverty in the State. I promised God I will do everything possible to help my people. That is what I owe God,” the Governor had told enthusiastic congregants during a thanksgiving mass at the St Theresa The Little Flower Parish, in his hometown, Obudu few years ago.
However, a four day visit to Nsan, Ebom, Okokori, New Ekuri and Etara communities revealed that all is not well. The Governor is yet to fulfil his promise seven months to the end of his administration. Weeds have taken over the super highway route which was cleared since three years ago. Apprehension and euphoria which greeted the ground-breaking of the project by President Muhammadu Buhari years has turned to anger, frustration and complete loss of hope and confidence in the Calabar-based government.
In Nsan and Ebom communities in Akamkpa local government of the state, residents and indigenes described as nightmarish the conceptualization of the project to criss-cross their communities. They accused government of insincerity and outright attempt to impoverish them and their children.
Ernest Ndifon, a village council member, who spoke on behalf of the Clan Head of Nsan community, HRH Ntufam Saviour Ndifon Edem, said “when the government came with the idea shortly after the inauguration of the governor, we were made to believe on claims of numerous benefits.
“Without any memorandum of understanding, bulldozers entered our farming lands and forest areas and started clearing and destroying everything. Many of us, whose source of livelihood and economic sustenance had been the farm produce, had been deprived for three years now. The area have become a fallow land and over grown with weeds and people are now shedding tears of frustration.
“We have graduates and people in the institutions that used to get their fees from the farms, now they are at home, because they are unable to pay fees again. Even normal feeding is a problem. About 90 per cent of our people have been affected by this problem and some people have died out of frustration.
“The area cleared by the government bulldozers cut across our communities and beyond. After the ground breaking ceremony, the bulldozers left the community and nothing was heard or done in terms of compensation or any memorandum of understanding. Last year, some person claiming to be government officials came for what they said was enumeration of residents for possible compensation over lost economic crops and trees, but as we speak, we have not heard anything anymore.”
Valentine Ofoebi, one of the youths of the area, in his remarks, said “my father died because of the shock of destruction of all our farms, and about 90 per cent of our community is affected. The government has done very badly. In other climes, when things of this nature are contemplated, government would take statistics of each person’s property, they evaluate it and then pay compensation before works commence, but this government did not do that.”
In Okokori community in Obura local government area of the State, the story was the same. Ogar Francis Imoh, member of the chief’s council, who spoke on behalf of the village head, Chief James Ayimobi, said “we have never seen a government like this in the State. They talked about super highway, cleared our bush, fell our economic trees and distorted our stream water and left our people with misery. Even the fallen economic trees were carted away and our only access road destroyed. We will not allow them in again.”
Another council member, who preferred anonymity added: “The last time they came was for enumeration and they said they will return in two weeks but it’s now one year, nobody has seen them. Let them just see how the federal government can do the existing federal highway and the State should concentrate on the rural roads, we are tired of failed promises.”
At Etara in Etung Counil area, a community leader, Prince Simon Ifere spoke with our reporter. He described their experiences over the super high way issue as ‘very ugly,’ saying his people were deceived in the name of development only to be paid back with a bad coin.
“From the time the whole clearing was done up till now, the area which was cleared has become bushy. During the clearing, we saw some foreign persons coming into exploiting our timber with no compensation to the community. Our farms were destroyed, economic trees gone, the forest itself depleted, the eco system tempered with. The situation is ugly. In fact you cannot deceive people in the name of development and in the end the reverse is the case.
“We cannot quantify the timber brought down from initial clearing and we cannot stop the exploitation because the forest has been opened up. These exploiters come in when it is comfortable for them at night. Frankly speaking, the community has lost over N4 billion worth of timber in the past three years.
“We don’t have a representative to talk for us in government. We are by the way side and we don’t know what to do. Our road is in a poor situation. During this rainy season, we use only bike to access our community and even at that, the bike would sink to engine level at some spots. We are completely cut off from the world.”
The undulated New Ekuri community was another place our reporter visited. The bumpy road to Ekuri from Obubra tells the story of utter neglect. Fortunately for the Ekuri people, they were able to stand against bulldozers which attempted to break through the ancient forest believed to be one of the heaviest and oldest in the world dousing effect of climate change.
Mr Cosmas Ogar, Special Adviser to the youth chairman of Ekuri, who received our reporter, said “What happened to us was a surprise thing that we had never seen. One day, we just saw bulldozers in our roads, and by our investigation, we were made to understand that they were coming to pull down the whole forest for the so-called superhighway.
“For the past three years there has been a constant battle between the Ekuri people and the government of Gov Ayade. Ekuri community has been a conservative community in Cross River State. We are known. We are strictly on conservation and sustainable forest management.
“We were surprised why the government of the day wanted to break through our forests, the only forest sustaining the world so we had to stand against it, we rejected it. We have nothing to regret about rejecting the so-called superhighway, and we don’t even want it, because the intention of the government was ugly. We knew very well that the intention of government was to log timber in our forest so we stood against it.”
Besides, victims are also complaining bitterly about the environmental hazards the clearing of their forest was unleashing on their communities. Village Head of Ikot Ndarake in Akpabuyo local government area, Chief Bassey Efanga Okon lamented effects of the said clearing, saying his people were now exposed to disasters.
“With the clearing of the standing trees around our houses, the roofs of houses are being pulled down by windstorm. There are no trees any longer in our communities to serve as windbreakers and erosion sites are beginning to emerge around the communities. The sources of livelihood of our people, especially women have been destroyed,” he lamented.
It could be recalled that the Federal Ministry of Environment (FMoE) had, some months ago, given a 23 point conditional approval to the State to meet before commencement of construction of the super highway. This was after bulldozers had cleared a substantial part of forest in the superhighway corridor.
One of the conditions in the provisional approval after the presentation of the third EIA was that the state government “shall gazette the reversal of revocation order on the acquisition of 10km on either side to the 70km span of the road corridor” and that such gazette be published officially. Government was also asked to do something about compensation.
Due to pressure and public outcry, the state government had rescinded its earlier decision revoking rights of occupancy of communities on 10km on either side of the superhighway, but payment of compensation for economic crops had remained an albatross three years after bulldozers invaded the endowed forests.
However, despite this pessimism and bleak predictions on the project, the State government has remained hopeful that the vision would see the light of day. Speaking recently in an occasion, Gov Ayade said the project would be executed under a Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement and that 71 investors have bided to participate.
He added that the projects would generate much revenue to the state, as the road would serve as an evacuation corridor for the new deep seaport which, he said, would be the deepest seaport in Africa with a draft of 16 metres and a key wall of 680 metres that would allow all sizes of vessels to berth.
Reacting to issues of compensation, the State Commissioner for Lands, Dr John Inyang, said, “the first de-bushing we did was to catch up with the first dry season that we experienced, and as they were going in, records were being taken from which we compiled a list of beneficiaries, or people to be compensated.
“Now we are into financial computation such that the final copy will be presented to His Excellency for disbursement. So, there was no time we said we are not going to pay and there was no time we said we will start work without capturing the necessary data as it affects the people.”
But time for the realisation of the project is fleeing and the people are apprehensively waiting. Unless government does something tangible and speedily too about the superhighway, both the natives and international community could consider the noble efforts and vision of government as subtle way of playing a fast one on the forest communities of Cross River State. A time to do that is now.