By Tobias Lengnan Dapam
Recently, the government agreed to pay N50 billion as compensation to families of victims maimed or killed by abandoned mines during the Biafra war.
The government also agreed to take positive action by removing the remaining unexploded military ordinances such as landmines, locally fabricated weapons and a stock pile of bombs spotted in about 1, 317 identified locations in the three zones.
Areas affected included: 11 states, parts of which are in the South East, South South and parts of the North Central that became battle grounds during the Nigeria civil war of 1966 and 1970.
Apart from settling the N50 billion claim, the government also agreed to pay the contractors handling the projects a separate N38 billion to carry out total de-mining, destruction of bombs as well as rebuilding of public structures destroyed, conclude mine center activities including provision of alternative classrooms in communities where schools were used as storage areas for mines.
This was part of the settlement adopted at the ECOWAS Court in Abuja on the 30th October, 2017 in the out of court settlement reached in a suit filed by Chief Vincent Agu and nineteen others against the Federal Government with five others as defendants.
The adoption came 5 years since the case was taken to the court in 2012 to compel the federal government to remove the landmines and compensate the victims.
Despite the suffering, past administration viewed the issue with jaundice eyes, until recently under this government that an agreement was reached.
Before the agreement was reached, many people in the region died, and many others crippled by the landmines.
“In Imo, a woman took her son to the farm and suddenly heard an explosion. On her way to see what was happening, another explosion cut off her leg. The son lost his right leg and the mother lost her right leg. 90 percent of injuries of people in the south east sustained since after the war come from landmines.
“There are serious dangers; the government needs to win the mind and hearts of the people. There are schools where Nigerian soldiers used as barracks and where Biafran soldiers used as barracks. Some of the schools don’t have full capacity. Example is St Acquinas in Isa-ala Mbano. Half of the school is left because of bombs. There are also homes we destroyed because we had to evacuate the people before destroying the bombs. There are several areas that people can’t farm because of the level of contamination. Also, lots of people have bombs in there farmlands. There is serious danger because the people are now aware that those things exist so they are scared. Some of my staff also died”, a bomb expert and a Professor of humanitarian management, who has been working in the region to clear the mines, Bala Yakubu, told Peoples Daily.
This issue is also coming at a time when the people of the south east have accused the current government of marginalization, thereby arming themselves for secession through the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which the government already tagged; “terrorist organization”.
But with this gesture, and if speedily implemented, will cement the current relationship between the government and the people who are not currently at each other’s throat.
He said that the mistrust the people have of the government was because of the time it took the government. But the issue we presented to the court is that government loves the people and did not just abandon them but was making arrangement to come and clear the bombs, but it is because of impatience. If we resume now, there is a lot of work to be done. We must make them know that we will finish the work that brought us and not to pick some and leave others.
“Humanitarian demining needs a lot of awareness on what we need to do so that the people will know. I am happy that the president always shows love to his people and am sure he will not allow them to suffer.
Revealing the situation on ground, the bomb expert said he had already destroyed 17, 683 bombs, 685 landmines abandoned during the war.
More alarming, according to him, is that there are still stockpile of 1,600 bombs awaiting destruction and many more sites not yet discovered.
He said that the bombs don’t expire, adding that they live longer than man.
“I also have 75 kilogram bombs and some 50 kilogram. I have to look for land to destroy them”.
Speaking on the challenges, Prof. Yakuku said “the challenges enormous and the cardinal amongst them is vegetation. We started in semi-Sahara in the part of Benue, but the vegetation is not as that of the eastern part. In the east, up to parts of Imo, Anambra to Rivers, the vegetation changes – it is lighter and rains all through in south east and the south south, which means there are over-growths which makes it hard to detect a bomb.
“The equipment we use only locate where a bomb is but doesn’t tell you if the bomb is lying one foot above the earth, which means we have to clear that high vegetation. We risk our lives to remove the long growth of grass, cut them to the floor to see the bomb. It is when we see the bomb physically that we lie down to carry the removal. Another problem is that we have stopped demining for about 5 years now, so we have to upgrade our equipment.
“We also have the problem of funding. The number of states involved in the war is more than 270,000 square kilometers. That translates to about 2.7million meters of land. And if we say we want to charge the Federal Government 20 dollars per square meter, it will be a lot of money, that is why I ruled it off and asked them to give me what they can offer. The ground that is contaminated is about 69,000 square kilometers that covers Anambra, Imo and Abia state. Getting transportation to the hinterlands is trouble. At times we park cars about five to six kilometers and trek to remove the bombs.
“The good thing is that the communities are accommodating. Some give us food and accommodation. Some of the state governors also help us immensely. But the support from the Federal Government was not coming”.
On how long it will take him to finish the demining, Prof. Yakubu said “I am always on ground for the job. Ordinarily, it would have taken me between six to nine months to complete what is left, but in humanitarian demining, we have rules and regulations because of the lives involved. If you stop, you cannot come and continue from where you stopped. You have to go back again and rescan the places you completed, and then you hand over the areas to the communities before continuing from the new place. Now that we have not worked for 5 years, we must go back to the communities where we started.
“Based on this, I proposed that I am going to spend 12 months to finish everything. I have to employ and train new staff because some of my deminers are too old. I also have to teach them about new inventions.
“The retraining will take 3 months. As soon as the Federal Government acts, we will mobilise to site. I know the president loves saving lives and if his attention is drawn to this problem, he will act immediately”.
While commending the government for agreeing to end the plight of the people, many commentators believe that the government should not only pay lip service, but take drastic measures by adhearing to the terms of the agreement to ensure that the landmines are cleared, for the people to live freely without being hunted by the civil war abandoned landmines.