The man wearing T-shirt on a wrapper lowers his head and frame slightly, to enable him step out of a small opening that serves as entrance door to his thatched house. He identifies himself simply as Fingesi.
“I teach in that school over there,” Fingesi says, pointing at a makeshift structure with zinc roof, near his house, which serves as the community’s only primary school.
Apart from two chalkboards nailed loosely onto wooden pillars, nothing suggests this is a place for learning. A goat lies on the only school desk, and what would have been a second desk is broken.
As many as 40 pupils sometimes cram inside the small space to receive lessons on Mathematics, English, Social Studies and other subjects from Fingesi and one other teacher who also serves as the school head.
That is a bit of how life unfolds in Isotoyo, in Amazaba community of oil-rich Eastern Obolo Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State.
Eastern Obolo lies on the coastline of the Qua Iboe River, and covers a landmass of 117.000 square kilometre according to state government record.
Amazaba has eight villages, all of whom were displaced from their original homeland after a 2008 communal clash with Ikot Udo, a village in neighbouring Mkpat Enin Local Government Area.
The Isotoyo primary school, which serves the Amazaba group of villages with a population of more than 7,000, is owned by the state government but run by the community.
“I sometimes feel like crying,” Fingesi says about the state of the rundown school. “But you know I can’t do that before the pupils.”
He has been teaching for 10 years, and believes the school has been abandoned by local authorities.
“The community is my own,” he says. “If I abandon my job, it means that this school will be closed down.”
Like most other Eastern Obolo communities, Amazaba is cut off from Okoroete, the local government headquarters, by a river. Access is only by water, using canoes.
Evidence of civilisation is scarce here: no electricity or pipe borne water. Locals drink from open ponds that are available throughout the community. And nearly all the houses here, including a local branch of the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, are built with palm fronds.
Gogonte Nglass, the village head of Ama Nglass, one of the villages that make up Amazaba, told PREMIUM TIMES he sent his children out of the community “so they could have a better life”, and now lives only with his wife.
Some of Mr. Nglass’ children are at Okoroete, the capital, while others are at Ibeno, a neighbouring oil-producing local government area in the state.
His three-year-old daughter died of an unknown ailment last year in Amazaba, before he could rush her across the river to Okoroete for medical help.
“Raped and forgotten”
Despite its shocking scale of deprivation and lack, Eastern Obolo is one of Nigeria’s richest local government areas in terms of natural resources.
It is rich in oil and gas deposits, with multinationals like Exxon Mobil, Total E&P Nigeria Limited and Amni International Petroleum Company Limited operating in the waters close by for decades.
From their homes at Edonwik and other coastal communities, locals could sight Mobil’s Osso Condensate platform and other platforms in the waters.
For several reasons, including regional politics, it is hard to come by the exact figures that show the amount of oil and gas here.
John Ukpatu, who has worked as an oil and gas consultant for several years in Eastern Obolo, told PREMIUM TIMES that there were more than 100 oil wells in the area.
Mr. Ukpatu, who holds a Ph.D in fisheries and aquatic science, said Mobil sees neighbouring Ibeno, Eket, Esit Eket and Onna local government areas of Akwa Ibom as its host communities to the detriment of Eastern Obolo.
“Eastern Obolo is in court against Mobil to prove that the company is operating within Eastern Obolo,” Mr. Ukpatu said.
Last year, the strained relationship between Eastern Obolo and Amni led traditional rulers in the area to call on the federal government to withdraw the operating license of the company.
Between 2010 and 2016, federal records show that Eastern Obolo received N8.22 billion in allocation that sifts through the state monthly.
But there is hardly anything on ground to show that the people benefited from that money.
Poverty lives and walks around everywhere, among the people. With no sewers, most locals in Eastern Obolo defecate in the open, a common feature of Nigeria’s slums and rural areas.
At Edonwik community, men defecate along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, while women go over to the shores of the tributaries of the Qua Iboe River where the mangrove there provides some cover.
Several incidents of oil spillages have polluted the ecosystem in Eastern Obolo and disrupted fishing which is the major preoccupation of the people.
“To get fish in recent times, the people go after the fishing trawlers in the deep sea, and buy the rotten and smaller fishes as well as shrimp for sale,” says a 2009 research report on oil exploration activities in the area, published in African Research Review.
“Although it now becomes their means of livelihood, going after it is dangerous. Almost on weekly basis, two or three out of five persons in speed boats lost their lives while trying to buy fish from trawlers.
Although residents mainly fish, there is no evidence it is a thriving business.
In a traditional Nigerian society, a village market is seen as a communal heritage and a thing of pride for the people. But in Eastern Obolo – with a population of more than 60,000, according to the 2006 national census – the people have learned to live for decades with the humiliation of not having a market of their own.
Residents travel some 15 kilometers to Ukam, a weekly market in neighbouring Mkpat Enin Local Government Area, to buy foodstuffs and other items.
For most residents, going to Ukam market is a two-day journey. In the first leg of the journey, the people, mostly women, arrive at Mkpat Enin in the evening and rest for the day in any available space near the market.
The dawn of a new day meets them inside the market where they must quickly buy their wares – yam, rice, garri, cocoyam, palm oil, and so on – and then set forth on the journey back home, using mostly bicycles and motorcycles.
The building of market stalls is the responsibility of the local government council. But despite receiving billions of naira over decades, that has not happened.
Uduyork Aboh, a former representative of Ikot Abasi/Eastern Obolo State Constituency, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, suggested corruption could be the reason for the endemic poverty in the area.
But he also pointed at the fact that federal payments, mostly derived from oil, are held by state governments, even though the monies are statutorily meant for local government areas. The controversial practice leaves local governments across the country with meagre funding.
“Well, the local government chairmen will always say that the state is taking the statutory allocation meant for the local council,” Mr. Aboh told PREMIUM TIMES. “I don’t know how far it is true.
“At the end of the month, maybe they will just give them (the chairmen) N1 million or N2 million as running cost for the council. So, nothing will be left for development.”
Many people in Eastern Obolo drink from ponds, not minding its colour and taste. During dry seasons when the ponds are dry, residents dig deeper in the soil for water.
Those who can afford, use sachet water, popularly called “pure water”, brought into Eastern Obolo from Ikot Abasi, Mkpat Enin, and other neighbouring local government areas.
“I buy water from the city, and take to the village to drink whenever I am traveling to the village,” says Iroigak Ikann, a former commissioner for lands and housing in the state.
Residents say even the few borehole available at the local government headquarters, Okoroete, do not produce drinkable water.
A 2005 study showed that water from boreholes in Eastern Obolo contained high quantity of seven species of bacteria like Bacillus subtilis, Enterococcus faecalis, Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli.
The study, conducted by Alfred Itah and Comfort Akpan, from the Department of Microbiology, University of Port Harcourt, also found out that the quantities of iron and mercury in some of the boreholes were above World Health Organization acceptable standard.
The former commissioner, Mr. Ikann, blamed the Akwa Ibom state government for the underdevelopment of Eastern Obolo.
“It is an obligation of the state (to develop Eastern Obolo); we don’t have to beg for it,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
“When someone says he wants to be a governor, he is telling the people ‘I am prepared to provide this for you’.
“But they provide it in their hometowns and ignore the places where they get the wealth from,” he said.
Multimillion naira misplaced priority
Eastern Obolo has just one hospital, a general hospital in Okoroete, built and commissioned in 2012 by the administration of Governor Godswill Akpabio.
There are only two doctors in the hospital, against the WHO recommendation of one per 1,000 people. In addition to the general hospital, the local government area has seven primary healthcare centres. But almost all the facilities are dysfunctional.
The road to the general hospital is swampy. Mr. Aboh told PREMIUM TIMES that the official car of Mr. Akpabio got stuck in the untarred road when the former governor went to commission the hospital.
“When the people wanted to present a request to Akpabio, the governor told them that their situation didn’t call for any presentation, that he had already seen the neglect (in Eastern Obolo),” Mr. Aboh said.
The former lawmaker said that Mr. Akpabio, however, failed in his promise to develop the area.
The Akpabio administration did not construct even a kilometer of road in the area throughout his eight years in office, according to Mr. Aboh.
What perhaps stands out as the clearest evidence of misuse of public funds in the area is the Godswill Akpabio Guest House, Okoroete, built by the local government council and named after Mr. Akpabio. The guest house, completely taken over by weeds, has been abandoned.
Francis Uduyork, a former chairman of Eastern Obolo, led the local government area for six years, from 2008 to 2015. It was during his tenure that the Godswill Akpabio Guest House was built.
Mr. Uduyork defended the project as an example of good planning.
“We conceived the idea because visitors who came to the local government area would go back at the end of the day to sleep in the neighbouring local government areas,” said Mr. Uduyork who now represents Ikot Abasi Federal Constituency at the House of Representatives, Abuja.
Mr. Uduyork said it was a better decision to build the guest house than to build market stalls.
“Market is one of the things we tried to do,” he said. “Market is meant for exchange of goods. If there are no people to exchange goods for money, then the market won’t be functional.”
The local council, under the administration of Mr. Uduyork, constructed a building for a skill acquisition centre and another building meant for use as legislative chambers by the councilors. But sadly, both buildings are not in use.
Mr. Uduyork said he was not aware of the state government tampering with the money meant for the local government area.
Visiting only during political campaigns
Edwin Ukorem, the village head of Edonwik, told PREMIUM TIMES that his people had been living by the mercy of God. He said the coastal community, with about 6,000 people, has no school, no borehole or health post.
Apart from their fishing business, the only thing they have in the community are churches – the local branches of the Holy Mt. Zion Church and the Mt. Zion Mission.
Mr. Ukorem said the people were frequently locked in and prevented from leaving the village whenever the river tide ebbs away.
“No matter how critical your situation is, you’ll have to wait for the tide to come back before you could see a canoe that will take you out or into the community,” he said.
Some residents also fear that the people of the community could someday wake up to behold their community and others along the coast submerged.
PREMIUM TIMES, during its visit to Edonwik, saw evidence showing that some parts of the community had been washed away by ocean waves.
The village head, Mr. Ukorem, said the only time government officials visit the area is either during political campaigns or oil spillages.
Ibeno, also ravaged by poverty
The situation in Ibeno, another oil-producing local government area in Akwa Ibom, is not much different from Eastern Obolo’s.
Ibeno is host to ExxonMobil. The firm’s operational office, Qua Iboe Terminal, is located at Mkpanak in Ibeno.
As Akwa Ibom is amongst Nigeria’s top oil producing state, Ibeno and Eastern Obolo are amongst the state’s leading oil producing local government areas.
While Mobil and the Niger Delta interventionist agency, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), have constructed several projects like roads and boreholes in the area, especially in the local government headquarters, Ukpenekang, poverty is still very visible everywhere.
Worst hit areas are communities across the Qua Iboe River where villagers living in shanties have to contend with stench from dirty ponds.
The two main secondary schools in Ibeno – St. Peter and Paul Technical College, Mkpanak, and Secondary Grammar school, Upenekang – were built through community effort, with substantial support either from a church, PREMIUM TIMES learned.
A model secondary school at Atabrikang, started by the Akwa Ibom state government during the administration of Governor Victor Attah, has been abandoned for years now. Mr. Attah left office in 2007.
The case of the Government Primary School, Okori-Itak, is shocking. While the six-classroom block, commissioned in 2011 by the immediate past administration of Mr. Akpabio, is furnished with school desks, no activity takes place in the school, as the classrooms and the staff office are locked.
Locals told PREMIUM TIMES no single teacher has been posted to the school.
Ibeno is also plagued with the water crisis. Abandoned borehole project is a common sight in several of the communities PREMIUM TIMES visited.
At Okori-Itak, the community spokesman, John Eyo, led this reporter to the site of a dilapidated water project, where the overhead tank said to have been blown away by wind is yet to be replaced for more than five years now.
For now, the community source of drinking water, according to Mr. Eyo, is either rain or “pure water” brought in for sale from Mkpanak.
Somewhere in the community, PREMIUM TIMES saw young girls fetching water from a weed-infested shallow pit near a corked oil well. The pit, they said, was where they get drinking water from.
Among the abandoned projects in Ibeno is a federal government-owned multi-billion naira skill acquisition centre at Iwuoachang. The project, which could help upgrade the capacity of the youth of the area when completed, was handled by the Federal Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.
Huge funds, nothing on ground
Ibeno received a total of N8.279 billion from the federation account between 2010 and 2106. While the amount is by far insignificant compared to the town’s oil wealth, it is still unclear where the money has gone to over the years, as there are no signs of projects done by the local government council.
Samuel Eyo, a former councilor in Ibeno, laughed when asked why the local council was not executing development projects in the area. “When there is no financial autonomy for the local government area, what do you expect local government councils to do?” Mr. Eyo asked PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr. Eyo’s thinking, which is shared by most people in Ibeno, is that the federal government and the Akwa Ibom State government have conspired against the area.
Mobil, Mr. Eyo said, is no longer the good neighbour it used to be in the past. “I don’t know what we have done to the rest of the world that they can’t sympathise with us over what we are going through.”
Sunday Akpanowong, the village head of Iwuo Okpom, accused both the federal and the state government of colluding with Mobil to deny Ibeno people of the benefits that should accrue to them from the exploration of oil.
The Commissioner for Information in the state, Charles Udoh, told PREMIUM TIMES that the current administration of Governor Udom Emmanuel was just 20 months old in office, and that the administration was doing everything possible to carry along every community in the state’s development plan.
“You know that development can’t take place everywhere across the state at the same time in just 20 months. Things happen in phases. Nobody will be left out.
“Government has a plan in place to motivate local government authorities to be on top of their game. Government shouldn’t function only at the centre; government should also function in those local areas.
“This government is committed to making sure that no part of this state is left out in its development process.”
The former commissioner, Mr. Ikann, believes the solution to the poverty and the shameful neglect of the oil producing communities in Akwa Ibom lies in the 13 per cent oil derivation fund.
“If the federal government pays 13 per cent derivation to oil producing states, is it not fair that the state, in turn, pays 13 per cent of the fund to the oil producing local government areas?
“If the government continues to neglect the area, I think a day is coming when Eastern Obolo will get its due,” said Mr. Ikann.
The Natural Resource Governance Institute provided support for this reporting.