What we are doing in environment is not to run people out of business-Charles Udoh
Sir Charles Udoh is the Honourable Commissioner for Environment and Solid Minerals, Akwa Ibom State. In this interview with Kufre Etuk, he explains inroads he has made to reposition the ministry in order to protect Akwa Ibom people from environmental health hazard, talks about the various erosion control projects of the state government. The Commissioner also explores the achievements of his ministry in the last one year in office, x-rays policy thrusts of the ministry in line with Governor Udom Emmanuel’s Completion Agenda, and revealed revenue generated into the state coffers by his ministry which is a feat that has never been achieved in the sector .
Honourable Commissioner, you are a year and some weeks in the Ministry of Environment and Solid Minerals, in what way are you linking the activities of the Ministry with the Completion Agenda of Governor Udom Emmanuel?
As we all know that government is a continuum and whatever we inherited here we are working to actualize it because we are still running the same government. So we try as much as we can to link the activities of the Ministry in line with the Completion Agenda. Presently, the state government is running three flagship projects in the area of flood and erosion control and proactively the Governor had signed on for those projects following years of devastation in those locations. For instance at Etim Umana Street, by the time we started restoration work, a good number of buildings were swallowed up. So if we didn’t start what we are doing there now in that axis, five hundred buildings could have been lost in that vicinity. That was a proactive move by the Governor. We are hoping that by December, we should be through with the project. Etim Umana erosion problem was caused by a poorly terminated drain that that triggered into what we had as monster. We are spending excess of two billion naira on that project to solve the problem permanently.
If you move from there to Anua, behind St. Luke’s hospital, we all know how it was when this government came on board. But His Excellency in his first hundred days in office ordered emergency intervention work to save the School of Nursing and Midwifery, and Anua hospital from being swallowed up by erosion. So far, we have spent additional two billion naira on that project. Today we are happy that permanent restoration work is ongoing and we are also looking at December deadline to finish the project.
Aside this, the biggest flood control project today in Nigeria is the IBB flood control project in Akwa Ibom State. That project will deflood the entire stretch of IBB avenue, Atan Offot, Aka Offot, Efiat Offot. An alignment to the flood control project will also take care of flooding along Atiku Abubakar way and empty it at the main drain. The same thing with mechanic village and Abak road, Police C Division and the entire Police community at Ikot Akpan Abia. The flood project will also take care of flooding at the State Secretariat particularly the Accountant General’s office, SUBEB office and the surrounding urban and rural communities will be safe from over 15 years of agony, some their ancestral homes taken away by flood waters. The IBB project has a catchment area of 17.2SKM with covered and uncovered drains, perimeter fencing for uncovered areas. The project also comes with a maintenance road because it is one thing to build and another thing is to maintain. Because there are 17 communities and three local government areas within the project area, some of them their sources of drinking water are going be tempered with, we are going to provide them with alternative sources of drinking water. As for some communities that are going to be cut off as a result of this project, we will have to build bridges and culverts to ensure their economic life continues.
What laws or regulations has your ministry put in place to protect Akwa Ibom people from environmental exploitation by investors?
Akwa Ibom State has metamorphosed from being a geographical location to a destination of choice and investors are coming into the state. In view of this, we felt we should put a Global Environmental Law in place. Akwa Ibom did not have such law since the creation of the state. The only law we have is the one setting up Akwa Ibom State Environmental Protection and Waste Management Agency, which is not all encompassing because it does not take care of everything that pertains to environment. One things I did in my first one month in office was to ensure the drafting of Comprehensive Environmental Law that brings into consideration all facets of environmental issues. That draft law has gone through processes and State Executive Council has mandated office of the Attorney-General to vet it. We almost concluded drafting the law when petroleum beat was divorced from the ministry while mineral beat was added and that had to take us back to the drawing board.
We also drafted and got approval for beautification policy for Akwa Ibom State, stating what can be done and where it can be done in Akwa Ibom State. For instance, that beautification policy clearly spelt out what size of bill board should be placed in a particular area and other things that pertain to the beautification of the environment. Part of the policy outlaws indiscriminate placement of posters, illegal streets trading and illegal markets. People may argue that the dividends of what we are doing is not visible, they should not forget that the rot we are trying to correct has been there for many years and government is conscious that is not every situation that rude force should be used.
We have been embarking on sensitization, educating people on what to do and what not to do so that they won’t run foul of the law when government begins to wield it big stick.
On forestry, we still have forest reserve toward the coastal areas. We have department of forestry in the ministry. In the last one year we have been in the office, we have planted over sixteen thousand varieties of trees and shrubs within the Stubb’s Creek Forest Reserve(SCFR), which is the largest forest reserve in the state, cutting across three local government areas. We also have a replenishing plan because people are falling those trees down. We have also reviewed, and updated laws and tariffs in the forestry sector. Let me put it here that the last time laws and tariffs of forestry was reviewed was in 2006 and the power to do that falls within my office which is the reason I did the review immediately I assumed duty. By reviewing that law, for the first time in Akwa Ibom State we are looking at a projected revenue of one hundred and fifty million naira for this year. This is the first time government is generating revenue in this sector. We are believing God that by next year, the number will be much.
Outdoor advertisements in a state like Lagos is a multi million naira revenue generating sector. In Akwa Ibom, we are looking at that direction because it may come a time in this country we may no longer depend on oil anymore. Learning from Lagos State, we were able to issue a revised Outdoor Advertising Guidelines, stating what you can do and where you can do clearly. After due consultation with the consultant and Board of Internal Revenue, the Ministry signed off an annual target of three hundred million naira for 2021. This is also significant because the last income recorded for outdoor advertising was seven million naira and that was in 2019 which was election year. So we are changing the dynamics. We are looking at three hundred million naira and to achieve this, we are working with ALGON and local government Chairmen to have a harmonised structure. We are also deploying signage management software and working with the consultant the state government has appointed. If God helps us we generate three hundred million naira this year it means we can do more next year. Bit by bit the ministry is contributing to the state coffers and helping to augment revenue fall.
Part of the things we have also done is looking at public private participation. Yes it’s true that any thing that has to do with waste management is domiciled in the Akwa Ibom State Environmental Protection and Waste Management Agency, but the ministry has oversight function over the agency in terms of policy direction and guidance. In the light of that, we reached out to Sweep Foundation and partnered with them to organize Akwa Ibom first ever Environmental Waste Dialogue. The event which took place in April was sponsored by Coca-Cola Foundation. The idea was to market investment opportunities in the area of waste management in the state and of course also public education. Going forward we are looking at a situation where the state government will find a consultant that will take over the burden of waste management in the state and run it as a business. With the dialogue, that process has started. Of course, implementation will lie with the Waste Management Agency. Whatever the ministry is doing in waste management, we are driving toward policy.
In 2006, the Federal government had approved the construction of Mosaic Dam which is an Integrated Waste Management Facility in seven cities in Nigeria. Sadly all other cities had taken off except Uyo. Back then in 2007, the federal government had awarded the project to each of the investors in different states and ours was awarded to a company called Dumpvill Investment Ltd with two hundred and fifty million naira take off grant provided. In that deal, the state government had 20 percent equity ownership for the land provided. Consequently the state government had provided a land in Ekid Itam and in 2011 Certificate of Occupancy was issued in favour of Federal Ministry of Environment. The facility was constructed but has never been put into use. When I assumed, I stumbled on the file, I felt it was necessary to quickly commence the process of reactivating that facility. Since project was done on a tripartite arrangement, I had to arrange a meeting with the Federal Government, the investors and of course my Ministry which led to meeting with the minister. The facility will soon be reactivated and that will create employment opportunities to our people as well as improve urban waste management in the state. The investor now has full license to operate that facility. If you can recall, there used to be sanitary inspectors and I thought it is expedient we bring back the sanitary inspectors. You know part of the ministry we have environmental health department with well trained personnel. Also we have had the first ever Akwa Ibom State workshop on Environmental Health Standards for Food and Beverages Operators and we did that in collaboration with Nigerian Environmental Society to educate and enlighten the public on standards of environmental health in the state. People should know that environmental health cut across all sectors. The restaurant we eat we don’t know the hygiene condition, so it is the business of environmental health inspectors to go behind to ensure that the food you and I eat are prepared under hygienic condition. Today most of us eat suya and roasted chicken along road side with flies pasted all over. The Ministry has moved to scrap those obnoxious practices. Like I said the negative practice is not going to be eroded away quickly because it has been part of us for a very long time and for government to enforce it immediately, it means some people have to be thrown behind bars. Most of these people are small and micro entrepreneurs that is why we keep telling them while doing your micro entrepreneurship, you have to take care of your hygiene and environmental health. People must understand that whatever we are doing in environment is not to run anybody down or take people out of business but to improve what people are doing.
Another plaguing issue I discovered when I came on board was what I called ‘the rape of our environment by illegal dredgers and borrow pit operators’. That rape is ongoing but we have made significant progress. We have reached out to dredgers and sand miners in the state because a lot of facilities and infrastructure are being destroyed by illegal dredging and mining. All these people are illegal sand dredgers from other state. Eventually we had to wield the big stick, arrest some people and set new standards. I know some people will argue that mining and dredging activities are in the Exclusive List. But in the Concurrent List all environmental issues reside within the powers of state government. It was on this basis that I had to issue a checklist for sand dredging and mining. First of all for you to do sand dredging and mining business in the state there are basic things you must do. Since I cannot issue license but once you get your license to do business in Akwa Ibom State, you must stop at Ministry of Environment and Solid Minerals, remit some funds to the state government. You cannot start dredging sand in Akwa Ibom State without a memorandum of understanding with the community and duly signed by the Local Government Chairman. This is done to avoid a situation where a Village Head will be collecting twenty thousand naira while our environment is badly degraded. There is one particular guy in Nsit Ubium who was collecting twenty five thousand every month while the only source of that community drinking water was destroyed. Every dredger must show that he is a registered business man in Akwa Ibom State. You cannot come from outside and do business here without paying tax. Above all, you must show us an Environmental Management Plan. That is, when you finish dredging what happens to that site. The person must also pay developmental fee which is one million naira per dredger. We have started enforcing these standards and we will continue to do so. We have apprehended some persons and also seized dredgers. We do this not because we want to run people out of business but clearly to ensure that our environment is protected.
We have not fully implemented our plan on illegal streets trading, illegal markets and indiscriminate posting of posters because government has human face. We need to gradually educate these people first because we know that habits formed are difficult to change over night. We are working with ALGON and local government Chairmen to drive this message so that by the time we begin full enforcement by the end of this year, people will not see government as being rude.
We have also started visiting supermarkets and shops where some of them have expired food items. We have closed a shop, seized items and we will continue to do this because the environmental health of every one in Akwa Ibom State is very paramount.
In the course of our work we have desilted the four lanes reservoir where pipe jacking system was installed. This was never desilted for ten years. The drain takes from four lanes through the doctors’ mess to behind the Tropica and empties in Ibesikpo Asutan local government area. Part of our efforts is to see how we can eradicate flood in Uyo.
One of the other things we are doing in terms of Outdoor Advertisement, in partnership with an investor, we are going to have three 40ft by 20ft LED screen. One of them will be at Nwaniba by fountain while the other one will be at Ikpa road by Ikot Ekpene road. The idea is that we are bringing new dimension into outdoor advertising. There are companies that would like to advertise in a proper manner. Day and night they can advertise in those facilities.
Erosion is causing havoc in the state virtually in all parts of Uyo. What do you think is the cause of this erosion?
Most erosion cases we inherited were caused by wrongfully terminated drains. Yes we understand that mistakes may have been made in the past, that is why going forward we want to correct those mistakes. In line with this, His Excellency has approved that all major construction and infrastructural development must have Environmental Impact Assessment conducted prior to the beginning of such construction in order to save us huge cost in future. Ikpa road and Science Park road gully is a case of wrongfully terminated drain. We have conducted environmental impact assessment in the two places. But everyone has a role to play in order to keep our environment safe and healthy. Government cannot go to every door step to clear gutters. Look at Uyo where I come from, there are buildings that should not stand where they are today. You can imagine people constructing storey building in flood-prone areas. It’s a matter of time it will carve in. We have instance where people build houses on top of underground drains. That means the drain is useless. These are some of the things we are dealing with and I keep saying environmental issues are continuous. Therefore we need all the supports and encouragement we can get. If we want to enforce everything it means we must keep arresting people every day. But government has a peaceful face and that is why we keep educating people on what to do and not to do. Government cannot finish painting a road median, the next day somebody will go and put posters there. You can’t do that because it is the tax payers’ money that we use in doing that. We are hoping that people will see reasons with us.
What is your ministry doing about incessant noise pollution by churches, business centres and some other people?
Noise pollution is one area we have not touched because we have a lot in out hands. I don’t want adopt a scattergun approach where we have so many strategies but nothing is happening. Etim Umana and Anua projects will soon finish so we will have all the time and resources to look at this area. That is part of what environmental health officer suppose to do. For instance we have a software that can detect noise level in a particular area. Let us hope that by December we shall start working in this direction. We are trying to take a step at a time to arrive at a target destination. The biggest way we can succeed on this is through public education. For instance the radio station that was in Shelter Afrique, my environmental health officer had warned the station management about the mast because the residents of that area had written to the ministry on that. But you know you cannot just go and act. Legal processes must be fallowed. So while working to get legal backing, the mast came down. We knew it will come down because structural and material integrity was nothing to write home about. Some of the things we are doing is not because we hate anybody but we are doing it in the best interest of Akwa Ibom people. For instance the arrest of dredgers, half of them are not from Akwa Ibom and ninety percent of them operated without license. The dredged at will and we are saying enough of this.
Hon. Commissioner , a tipper of sand is now thirty thousand naira against fifteen thousand naira before now and people are attributing this hike to the regulations your ministry has introduced. Don’t you think ripple effect from this will be telling on the masses?
No, I don’t think that is true. What is the major component of sand dredging, diesel is the major thing. They use diesel engine for dredging and the trucks use diesel. We need to find out how much was diesel last year and how much is diesel today. Diesel is the major component. This is not true, it’s blackmail. We cannot continue with lawlessness. I am having meeting with sand dredgers and we are going to come up with a price of what it should be. People are trying to blackmail us because we have regulated the activities of sand dredgers. Part of the environmental plans for every dredger owner is that you must tell us want you intend doing in that place after dredging, even the road must be maintained because government cannot build a road and it is destroyed after a while. The law says , for you to dredge you must do so 150m from the coast line. In Marina, Eket somebody was dredging 20m from the coast line. The reason is that if you dredge too close to the coast line you are going to trigger erosion and even threaten the ecosystem along that coast. I know that people will always resist change. It is natural. These illegal dredgers have a cartel and they are trying to blackmail the ministry for high cost of sand. Government will continue to do what it is supposed to do. Along East-West road, the final bridge that links Nsit Ubium and Eket is at risk because they have dredged to the foundation of the bridge. We are not saying people should not dredge but for you to dredge we must know where you want to dredge. Another thing we are going to tackle is the borrow-pit menace. This one is easy because those involved are Akwa Ibom State contractors and we are going after them at source. If they don’t refill the pit or do the road, their money will be deducted at source. Some months ago the Minister of State, Mines and Steel came to Akwa Ibom because of so much noise , I told the minister he has the power to give them license but mine is to protect the environment which is in the concurrent list. Somebody cannot come somewhere and scatter the road we have constructed. Federal government as at today has not built a kilometer of road.
What percentage of work is done at IBB drain and when do we expect work to start at Ikpa road, and Science park road?
At IBB we are at about thirty percent into construction. Ikpa road and Science park road situation is not like building a road. The roads are ravine prone. So if we don’t solve the problem from the source within the ravine, few years from now we will have the same problem. What we are trying to do is to trace the problem from the source and follow it up from there. What we are putting together is a safe plan. First we need to collect that water take it through the structure that we have which must be strong enough to convey the water. When we do that the next step is to reduce the speed of water using different strategies so that at the end when we discharge the water at the final point it will be at a chronic speed. If we achieve this, it means grass will begin to grow naturally and the place can even become a stream. The place doesn’t need a quick fix. Truth be told we can fix the road but all the houses there will be in great danger. Don’t forget that the same ravine at Ikpa road is the same that destroyed CCC fence and cut off Science park road. We don’t need to rush over the project in order to earn people’s commendations then after a while something worst happens. We don’t want to leave a situation where governments in future will spend huge amount again to fix the place. If you check the drainage master plan of Uyo, from ring road 3 to Ibesikpo, we have to build parallel drain because when the stadium was built and that section of ring road 3 was built there was a drain but unfortunately those who constructed that drain did not take into consideration the drainage master plan. So the alignment of that drain cannot take water from IBB because the gradient is higher. What we are doing in that master plan is that the IBB drain is taking its alignment from IBB which is the lowest in Uyo. So what they should have done is that any major drain constructed in Uyo should have taken its alignment from IBB, then the drain can be easily interlink to empty water from the city. But that wasn’t done that is why water is being emptied in different areas. I must tell you it is expensive. IBB is over fourteen billion naira ,no country has that kind of money. China and other countries are having the same issue and that is the reason we are dealing with these things one at a time. Unfortunately it will take time to solve these problems which is the reason I keep talking. We just hope that people will understand, bear with us and support what we are doing.