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‘There is nowhere to fish any more’: life in the shadow of Nigeria’s biggest industrial complex
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‘There is nowhere to fish any more’: life in the shadow of Nigeria’s biggest industrial complex

On the outskirts of Lagos sits Africa’s largest oil refinery, and beside it, the continent’s biggest fertiliser plant. Armed men guard the gates and the perimeters are lined with floodlights and security cameras.

Owned by Dangote Industries, a multinational conglomerate founded by Aliko Dangote, Africa’s wealthiest person, the compounds are in the Lekki free trade zone, abutting the Atlantic Ocean about 30 miles outside Nigeria’s commercial capital. The zone was designated by the federal government to develop industry and jobs.

The $2.5bn (£2bn) urea and ammonia plant opened in 2022 and the $21bn refinery opened last May and began production in January. Dangote and the government, which has a 20% stake, hope this will make Nigeria less dependent on expensive imported petroleum “and stop, once and for all, the dumping of substandard petrol products in our markets”, Dangote said in a televised speech last year.

People living near the site were happy about the developments when they were first mooted a decade ago, says Tajudeen Ismaila, 35. But the mood has changed. “We prayed for development, and we didn’t expect it to come in this form,” he says.

Thousands of people from the Ilekuru, Idasho, Okesegun, Okeiyanta and Magbonsegun communities have been evicted from ancestral lands by state authorities to make way for the development.

Local people say they were promised new schools, electricity, boreholes, jobs and compensation agreed in an MOU signed between the Lagos state government, the Ibeju Lekki local government, the trade zone managers and 12 community groups in 2007, which they understood covered all development in the area. But those the Guardian spoke to say they have received school textbooks, school tuition fees, and less than 81,000 naira (£43) in compensation.

Scores of people in boats, with a sign saying "Save the waterfronts. Stop forced evictions"View image in fullscreen

Lives and livelihoods have also been affected. A large expanse of forest has been removed to make way for the construction of the plants. Some rivers and streams have been dredged to accommodate vessels and pipeline networks. Some swamplands and creeks have been sand-filled to lay foundations. Crayfish and shrimp fishers have seen their catch reduced.

“A fisherman got up to four baskets in a day in the old days, but today, a basket in one week is a miracle,” says Ola Tunde, a youth worker in Lekuru. A wet market that attracted buyers from Epe and Lagos has seen customers disappear since 2017, when building the refinery began.

Those evicted now live on a patch of land a tenth the size of their former homes, says one, Alhaji Majeed Lateef. “There are no more farms. There is nowhere to fish any more.”

The fertiliser plant, planned to produce 2.8m tonnes of granulated urea a year, with ambitions to be the west African hub for production, is part-funded by a loan from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). A 2014 environmental impact report submitted by Dangote to the IFC said any impact on the biodiversity, health or livelihoods would be minor, but a “livelihood restoration plan” would be developed to compensate people for displacement and loss of resources.

Producing 650,000 barrels of petroleum a day at full capacity, the refinery will, according to its website “meet 100% of the Nigerian requirement of all refined products and also have a surplus of each of these products for export”. In April, the refinery began producing diesel and jet fuel for the domestic market.

Wumi Iledare, a professor of petroleum economics at Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies in the US, says the refinery could galvanise regional trade and meet energy needs across west Africa. “For me, energy poverty is as dangerous as global warming. Energy is very critical to economic growth. It is important, not just for Nigeria’s energy security but also for Africa’s energy security,” he says.

However, Yakubu Bununu, an associate professor of regional planning at Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University, says people are not in a position to challenge such developments. “The communities are poor and lack the resources to organise themselves better,” he says. “So they were not aware of what was coming. The issue has become more complicated.”

A group of men, some in traditional dress, some in suits, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. View image in fullscreen

Prof Orish Ebere Orisakwe, of Nigeria’s University of Port Harcourt, has studied the toxic effects of oil pollution in the Niger delta for decades. He warns of health risks associated with living near a refinery.

“Proximity to an oil refinery is associated with a statistically significantly increased risk of multiple cancer types,” he says. “It has also been found that people who resided within up to 10 miles showed an increased risk of more advanced disease compared with persons residing 21 to 30 miles from an oil refinery.”

Philip Jakpor, the executive director of the Renevlyn Development Initiative, which supports the rights of Indigenous groups, says “there is no doubt” that noxious emissions from a refinery could be on a similar scale to that in the Niger delta.

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“My worry, however, is that this project might slow the country’s transition from fossil fuels to clean and affordable renewables and Nigeria’s target of reducing carbon emissions,” he adds.

Nigeria has pledged to cut emissions by 20% by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060.

The Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency appears to be taking residents’ complaints seriously. Earlier this year, it took soil, water and air samples around the fertiliser plant and refinery, and commissioned an independent researcher to do the same. Dangote also took samples for analysis. The agency has not said when results may be published.

A young boy walking on pipes that cross a river.View image in fullscreen

Adebayo Solanke, a researcher in environmental micropaleontology at Florida A&M University, says it wouldn’t be too late to make changes. “What is the benefit of economic stability that comes at the expense of people’s lives and health? Only living and healthy people work. So, the government and companies should find a balance between economic stability and the health of the people and their environment,” he says.

Eighteen ultrasonic flare gas meters have already been installed on large pipelines around the refinery, to measure the gases being burned off and to monitor emissions.

Solanke says the flared gas could also be trapped and converted into different forms of energy that could power homes or industries. Jobs created by the plant could bolster the local economy, he adds. He called on regulatory agencies to continually collect, analyse, and publish data from the area so residents are kept informed of any change in circumstance.

Walid Sheriff, who lives in Idasho, says he is struggling. “I have three kids, and I can’t send them to a good school. I am struggling to provide food and shelter for them. Look around the community and see how impoverished the people look. Does this look like a community hosting a big refinery?” he says. “I was doing well as a fisherman. Now, I have to beg around for a job. The government should hear our voice and help us. We need help.”

Dangote refinery did not respond to requests for comment.

The Nigerian government responded only to confirm that the environment agency had taken samples for analysis.

Source: theguardian.com