Geography, geology and eccentric governance mesh to put Igbere – a lush, picturesque town in ‘God’s Own State’ on edge as nightmarish gully erosion rewrite the unique narrative of the land of folksy charm, swashbuckling warriors and daring achievers. LOUIS ACHI reports.
Peering down from the rim of the scary Amaofufe gully erosion site in Igbere Town of Bende Local Government Area of Abia State, four traditional monarchs of the 13 constituent autonomous communities of that realm looked deeply worried. Clearly, the sage royals have good reason to be troubled. Down, down the deep yawning gully, a Toyota bus which had plunged into the chasm with four wheels in the air dramatised just how dangerous the situation had gotten.
Are the gods angry with the folks of this warrior community? If they harboured any such thoughts, the ‘Igwes’ were careful not to give them away. But if really they secretly believed that a miffed deity was at work, they may probably have a point. They had experienced decades of relative serenity and stable existence previously. But a hazy ‘anger-of-gods theory’ cut little ice with a fifth chieftain on the excursion. He is Prof. M. A. Ijioma, president of Igbere Welfare Union. Ijioma, incidentally an environmental scientist and academician of note, is former deputy vice chancellor of Abia State University. Prof. Ijioma attributes gully initiation and propagation in Igbere land to mainly anthropogenic factors including unconsolidated soil and these have had a strong effect on the local control measures put in place to check gullying activities in the area.
Tracking back in time to convey a sense of how the Onu gully evolved Ijioma reveals – “That place used to be a major road leading to a community. That is the road our people take to their various farmlands located here. Now, after the war many people came home and started building on both sides of that…it was a valley before, not gully. We are talking about Onu gully, remember. So people started building. Many demanded to exploit the forest for farming and for harvesting of firewood. That reduced the vegetation cover in this area.”
Noting that it is a very loose sandy soil being protected by the plant cover, the lanky academician observes, “But now the vegetation is being cleared exposing the land. Once you expose an area, forces of erosion will kick in. So with this kind of change in land use pattern there were consequences of course. So when people came back in about 1972, after the war, this erosion problem developed. Our people rallied round and took measures and halted the advance of the erosion entirely; stopped the gully head.
“After doing engineering work to control it and building impoundments and all that, they planted some trees like the bamboo and some other trees that can cover the area. We thought the problem was settled. But as a result of extreme rainfall events happening, particularly this year the gully developed again. Before you knew it the remaining part of the road has been swept off. Buildings have been destroyed.”
He brings even more insight to Igbere’s quandary. “Onu is the major artery, a major gateway to the whole of Igbere communities. Nobody knew that this Onu gully erosion will develop so fast and so wide and so destructively as even to make the Amaofufe gully a child’s play. The Amaofufe gully where a bus fell in was considered a major problem while the Onu erosion was not considered a major problem. Now, it is actually severing the whole Igbere from the outside world.
“If you are coming to Igbere from any part of Nigeria you now have to go to Uzuakoli and then take a detour to Ozuitem. From there you enter Igbere. Unfortunately too that road is impassable. Nobody passes there now. The next alternative would be to pass Igbere towards Abiriba and then enter a bush path. Vehicles don’t ply there; cross the Mbuba River before coming into Igbere.
“The scope of the current gully erosions as you see yourself has surpassed the capacity for local intervention. There are none of our parliamentary representatives who can say they are not aware of this environmental crisis. In concrete terms as you have seen, there is no intervention from government. I don’t think this issue has been discussed in any forum, even in the senate or House of Representatives. Government, if ever they will make any effort, is still to make it. Government has not made any effort.”
In Igbere, government appears a distant event and this scenario only serves to complement the growing danger. Like the python which patiently asphyxiates its prey in its powerful coils before gobbling it up, the potent erosion currently gnawing at the innards of Igbere Community of Abia State is sending clear signals to those who can decode it – that dangerous, massive change is afoot. Significantly, the arrowheads of state governance in that turf appear incapable or unwilling to provide quality intervention to cage the growing menace.
Undefeated in successive battles in its history, Igbere today is confronted by a far more dangerous adversary. Even the royal fathers recognise phenomenon that fundamentally threatens their thrones. “We are a warrior community. Even our neighbours know that we have never been defeated. Our history attests to that. So in the case of this erosion, there is no retreat and no surrender,” His Royal Highness, Eze Joseph Anyanta, Enyi Ezeji I of Ibinukwu Autonomous Community tells Sunday New Telegraph reflectively.
According to the fair skinned royal father, “By the grace of God we are going to tackle it. If we continue waiting for the federal or state government to come – maybe before they intervene we may have been forced out from our ancestral turf. But then as you know government cannot do everything for the people. We shall start doing something so that when and if government comes they can see to what extent we have gone and perhaps will intervene.”
While HRH, Eze Okorie N. Chukwu, Ekpekomini of Okafia Community declared that the erosion offensive does not threaten his throne he conceded that the natural disaster is affecting his jurisdiction. His words: “Within my jurisdiction we are having serious gully erosion problems. One is on Isiugba axis on the road leading to Bende through Okafia. Then the other one is at Varavara where you have the High Court, Magistrate Court and even the government sub-treasury.
According to him, these have affected his community very adversely because the moment they allowed gully erosion to have its way, “my community will definitely be cut off from other communities in Igbere. Without gainsaying my community is the food basket of Igbere. Then we shall find it difficult to evacuate our farm produce to other areas.”
Of more than a passing interest to the Nigerian media is that HRH, Eze Okorie N. Chukwu is the traditional ruler of late Dimgba Igwe’s Okafia community and told Sunday New Telegraph that the deceased media guru was actually related to him and this accounted for his low spirit.
According to Eze Okorie Chukwu, “The erosion menace is not a threat to my throne. We are used to self-help. It is part of Igbo culture. We are also planning. We have so many projects executed by ourselves and not by any government. We have made what is happening known to our sons and daughters out there. Incidentally we are mourning now. We are mourning the death of Dimgba Igwe our son. This is his community. Until he is buried; much of our attention is focused on his burial.”
The plucky resilience of Igbere folks even in the face of a daunting threat derives from some interesting history which HRH Eze Rowland Abara Ekeoma, Akpondi I of Amakpo Autonomous Community readily shares with Sunday New Telegraph. “Igbere got its name from our adversaries; people who felt our weight in battle. Severally they wanted to enter Igbere but they couldn’t. They were pushed back and routed. The fleeing ones went back to tell the tale. At the end of the day they decided that these children of Ebiri – their name better be Igbo-eru.”
The custodian of Amakpo culture was not done as he shared another version from Igbere lore. “The other version stemmed from the slave trade period. By the way slave trade and slavery have been in existence from antiquity not minding some scholars who posited that slave trade started only a few hundred years ago. So in those days when they came hunting for those to enslave in our area they noted something significant.
“It didn’t matter the number of those they captured from Igbere, over 95 per cent of them will come back. So these slave raiders said these people must be Igbo-ere – meaning you cannot sell them; you cannot enslave them. So these are the two versions of how we got our name. We are descendants of Ebiri.” Leaning back with a steely glint in his eyes he proclaimed, “We are going to fight this erosion menace with the same resilience of purpose. We have always learnt to manage our affairs. When we are confronted like this we sit down and plan. But let me concede that to an extent the erosion has occurred because of some lack of planning. But now it is with us we are going to deal with the matter decisively. “We are also calling on government expecting they will intervene. This is because they always come around when they are in trouble; when they need us. Now we need them they have to come. They don’t have to wait till the entire place is swallowed up before somebody shows up.”
In a compelling message to both friends of Ndigbere and government he declares undying love for Igbere land, Abia State and Nigeria. “The traditional rulers are the gatekeepers. Besides being the traditional rulers they are also indigenes of this place. We love this place; we love our state; we love our country. We call on our friends, we call on those in authority to come and help us. We don’t want to feel alienated. I hope they are listening and I hope they will come.”
On his own part, the HRH Eze Chike Eme Ogbumba, Okam I of Amiyi Autonomous Community shares another perspective and concedes that the disaster is threatening his throne.
“The Igbere clan made up of 13 autonomous communities has been battling this erosion. The situation now is beyond our scope. We need urgent government intervention. We have alerted our representative legislators at the state and federal levels. They have been making efforts in their own small ways to aid us.
“But unfortunately, the menace has become so enormous that we cannot deal with on our own. The first erosion site you saw cut off about seven communities. We have local markets here. It has become very difficult for the women to carry their goods to the market. People coming from neighbouring communities to the market are also extremely impeded. The situation in a sense threatens my throne. We are no longer safe. Except the erosion menace is checked people here are no longer safe.”
Many theories have been put forward to explain gully erosions in the South-East. In their study of the phenomenon, N. N. I Onu and A. I. Opara of the Department of Geosciences, Federal University of Technology, Owerri and C. N. Ehirim of the Department of Physics, University of Port Harcourt apparently put their fingers squarely on the fundamental causes of the erosion in Bende Local Government Area of which Igbere Town is a key constituent.
According to the trio, “several studies on gully erosion characterization confirmed that while human activities such as pattern of land use, socio-economic pressure on land, poor engineering and agricultural practices have contributed to the initiation and growth of gullies, the geological, hydrogeological and geotechnical characteristics of the area, and the inherent properties of the soil are the main factors influencing gully genesis and rate of growth.”
Their study disclosed that erosion gullies in southeastern Nigeria are concentrated within a broad area described as the “gully erosion belt”. This belt is situated at the southern flank of the lower Benue Trough and runs from Onitsha through Awka (Ekwulobia, Agulu, Nanka, Mbaukwu) and Orlu (Njaba, Amucha, Okwudor and Umuagu Urualla) to Umuahia-Okigwe (Ishikwuato) axis. Another related study carried out in Umuahia- Okigwe area which includes the area enclosed by latitudes 5⁰001 to 6⁰001N and longitude 7⁰001 to 8⁰001E shows the major towns and communities found within the study area include Afikpo, Okigwe, Abiriba, Bende, Arochukwu and Umuahia.
The necessity for intervention of the federal government in environmental disaster as exemplified by the Igbere gully erosions gave rise to the creation of the Ecological Fund in 1981. Flood, gully erosion and desert encroachment top the list of the commonest challenges from nature, in Nigeria. Interestingly, many Nigerians knew pretty little about this fund until the disagreements between former President Olusegun Obasanjo and former Vice-President Abubakar Atiku, ahead of the 2007 elections, brought the fund to more public knowledge. As their feud deepened, both accused each other of mismanaging the fund.
The ecological fund, from Sunday New Telegraph checks, is annually derived from billions of naira accruing from two per cent of the monthly allocations from the federation account and another one per cent from the derivation account. Criteria for access to the fund remain clear. The President, when persuaded grants states he wants to funds from the pool.
The emerging consensus is that states abuse the largesse. They do not account for the money; they freely deploy it to areas of priority, often unrelated to ecological issues. According to Mrs. Marcella Iyitor, public relations consultant and Managing Director of Niche PR, “The abuse of the Ecological Fund is usually among charges against former governors, who the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, put on trial.
But against the background of bad press for the federal fund managers, the Ecological Fund Office (EFO) in the presidency recently urged states and local governments to create similar offices for specific channeling of ecological fund to them. Mr. Tolu Makinde, Deputy Director in the office, made the call in Abuja stating that these offices would address the misconception that states were not receiving the fund or using it to address their ecological problems.
According to Makinde, the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission allocates ecological funds to states and local governments monthly and the funds are disbursed together with the federal allocation to all tiers of government. He said the amount allocated to the federal ecological account was not meant to be shared, but for intervention during emergencies. For good measure he recalled how the Federal Government approved N17 billion during the 2012 flood disaster from its share of the fund and disbursed to the affected states.
“It will be a thing of joy if states and local governments will build structures as the Federal Government has EFO for proper channeling of these funds. These structures could create room for specific disbursement of the fund and will give the public easy access.’’ On the criteria for the approval of ecological projects, Makinde said that Federal Government considered the gravity and enormity of ecological problems. The Igbere erosion disaster surely qualifies for this intervention.
When Sunday New Telegraph sought clarifications from Abia State government on why the erosion disaster was not been urgently confronted, the effort was blocked. According to Mr. Charles Ajunwa, Chief Press Secretary to Governor T.A. Orji, who alluded to the cold-war between former governor of the state, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu and his principal, they could not respond to this reporter’s enquiry. Incidentally, Igbere is the home town of Dr. Kalu.
At press time and with the intensity of rainfall ratcheting up, the apparently politically motivated indifference by the state government and the curious quietude of the areas national legislator, the Igbere erosion disaster can hardly get better on its own. As CNN’s Anderson Cooper noted in one of recent literary efforts: “Hope is not a plan.” For the mettlesome folks of Igbere land its morning yet on creation day. – By Louis Achi.
The above story was written by Louis Achi, New Telegraph Newspaper Senior Journalist who visited Igbere on a Special Assignment. Edited and illustrated by Ukaegbu Ukaegbu, Publicity Secretary (2013 – 2016), Igbere Progressive Association International, USA (www.ipaiinc.org).
Kindly make suggestions on what could be done to check the erosion menace and devastation.
Please forward this story and pictures to any Igbere Man and Woman in Nigeria and overseas.