Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health

ENVIRONMENT: Nigerian City Battling with Mountains of Garbage

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Jan 23 2005 (IPS) - Tonnes of garbage dot market places, bus stops and bridges, overwhelming efforts to clean up Nigeria’s commercial hub, Lagos.

The residents of this sprawling city of over 10 million people dump refuse indiscriminately. Some defecate and urinate in open places.

Last year alone, the Lagos state government spent more than 10 million dollars on clearing and disposing of refuse, and demolishing of illegal structures. Despite its efforts, the city still remains one of the dirtiest in the country.

Lagos was regarded as the dirtiest capital in the world in the seventies, but the trend changed when military ruler Muhammadu Buhari introduced a compulsory exercise to clean up the city in the late 1980s, which lasted till the early 1990s. With the exercise, Lagos attained an enviable position of one of the cleanest cities.

The exercise was abolished by President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, while Nigerians were just imbibing the virtue of cleaning their environment. Obasanjo believed the exercise should be voluntary. As a result, Lagos has now reverted to its old appellation of the dirtiest city.

In Oct. 2003 a worried Lagos state government launched a ‘’Clean Up Lagos’’ campaign, initiated by the city’s new Commissioner for Environment, Tunji Bello, an environmental journalist.

Volunteers were organised to enforce discipline. Environmental watchdogs were empowered to arrest offenders or report any acts of indiscipline with particular emphasis on indiscriminate dumping of refuse and blockage of drainage.

A number of offenders were arrested at the initial stages of the exercise and fined sums ranging from about nine dollars to 48 dollars each. Although local officials insist achievements have been made since the programme was set up in Oct. 2003, piles of refuse are still noticeable on major streets of the metropolis.

This has led to the emergence of unknown persons who have begun a subtle campaign to scare persons with the habit of dumping refuse in unauthorised places and polluting street corners with urine and feaces. The campaign seems to be working faster than government’s enlightenment campaigns, as observed by IPS during a tour of some parts of the city.

‘’If you dump refuse here, God will punish you’’ reads an inscription in black paint, on the wall of a dump site along the Oke-Afa canal in Lagos. This site is located about 50 metres from the graveyard where more than 1,000 persons, including women and children, were buried. These people perished in the brackish waters of the canal, while fleeing from ammunition explosions at the Ikeja military cantonment in Jan. 2002.

Another inscription, on an overhead bridge at Akowonjo suburb, across the Lagos-Abeokuta highway, says: ‘’Did you go to secondary school? Then do not throw pure water (sachet water) nylon on the roads anyhow. Do not dump refuse under this bridge unless you want to die.’’

At Onike, another suburb of Lagos, IPS noticed an inscription in Yoruba, a language spoken in southwest Nigeria, on the fence of a prestigious girls’ school, Queen’s college: ‘’To sihin, babalawo fe lo ito’’ (urinate here, a herbalist wants to use your urine for rituals).

‘’This spot used to be a sort of convenience for people because it is a bus stop. But since this inscription appeared on this wall, urine disappeared. You can still see the dark colouration of the effect of urine but nobody uses the place anymore,’’ said Babatunde Okeowo, a government official.

Okeowo told IPS: ‘’People are scared. I am scared myself. I can not do it here. I would rather get home before urinating even if I am very pressed. You may think that it is just a sort of campaign to stop people from using the place but it could be true some herbalist can use people’s urine for money-making rituals. Anything can happen in Nigeria’’.

A garbage collector, who identified himself only as Charles, pulled his refuse-truck pusher right to the centre of the dump before emptying it. Previously, he would probably have emptied the content outside the fence.

‘’I am a Christian. I don’t want God to punish me. I think it is not right to cause environmental officials more work,’’ said Charles.

‘’I make a living from waste collection and disposal. I will not want to incur any curse on myself,’’ he said. Charles makes between 23 dollars and 38 dollars a day from collecting refuse from residential buildings and disposing them at the dump.

Although the campaigners, who use unorthodox methods, are unknown, law abiding residents and local officials are happy with their intervention, which they agree could correct the bad habits.

‘’Whoever is doing this (inscription) is doing a good job. It has helped in its own way to stop refuse in some areas. They should come out openly, so that government and non-governmental organisations can sponsor their campaigns,’’ said Julius Enehikuere, an environmental reporter.

Supporting the campaign, Segun Thorpe, spokesperson for the Lagos State Ministry of Environment said: ‘’Any action by any individual or group of persons to help curb indiscriminate dumping of refuse is welcome. These people, though they are unknown, are partners in progress with the state government. It will make an impact in efforts to rid the state of filth. We welcome it’’.

He added: ‘’Private participation in refuse collection and disposal offers a lasting solution to the filthy environment of Lagos.’’

The state ministry of environment plans to build more dump sites and sign agreements with private firms to help turn waste to wealth. It also seeks to embark on more vigorous enlightenment programme on proper waste disposal and clean environment, Thorpe said.

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