Fighting to eke a living
But for Segun Alufoge, 52-year-old fisherman and father of six, it’s a different story entirely; his early morning catch was extremely poor. I was standing on the jetty as I watched him struggle to row his boat amidst the plants crowding the jetty’s edge; he managed to paddle himself in and open his fishing container to reveal four fish.
“I caught only four fish,” Segun said, looking dejected, his face contoured into an expression of sadness.
His earnings have suffered considerably, coupled with the sharp increase in price of indispensable food items.
“Fishing is the only way I can survive, and I consider it my god. I do not know any other profession.”
I called on Alufoge to take me on his boat across the water so I could measure the depth of the dredged seawater, I had no life jacket on me. I consider it a bad omen that there are none available at the jetty either. This was a risk that I had anticipated and made peace with.
We had gone about 1.5 miles away from the jetty—almost in the middle of the water, I pulled up my locally made measuring bamboo stick and handed it to Alufoge to dip into the water while I took pictures. The point we measured was 7-feet deep from below to the top, we sailed to another location on the water and the result was similar. This is a confirmation of one of the many dangers these fishermen are faced with, in monsoon periods especially.
Dr. Dupe Ogunlola Olayinka, an environmentalist, says most of the people living along the coastlines use small boats that are not designed for deep water navigation.
“The depth of the lagoon is supposed to be not more than 8 meters, but the water has been dredged down to almost 20 meters, deeper waters are more tempestuous and in these small fishing boats, the water becomes a death trap for any fisherman or boat driver that sails across it.”
“When the natural ecosystem is tampered with, the water becomes turbid, it’s either the fish migrate or they die, but when they migrate the fishermen’s means of livelihood is affected.”
Dr. Olayinka says the sand mining practise in Lagos is a heavily under regulated sector, with almost no monitoring and no preset control measures.
But Mr. James Oyesola, President of Ecosystem Based Adaptation for Food Security Assembly, Nigeria has a different opinion. He says one of the greatest impacts of sand dredging on the ecosystem and its services is incessant flooding and that it affects the plants and aquatic animals in the water.
While we sailed back to the jetty, Alufoge began to tell me about his challenges, he says not long after the dredging began, invasive plant species began to grow along the coast, using up the oxygen in the water and chasing fish seaward. He says the grass proved a difficulty, but he was still able to make a living wage.
He said since the dredgers came into his village, the situation has worsened because unchecked activities of the sand dredgers have polluted the water in the Lagoon. This pollution has harmed fish population, reduced catch for fisherman and altered the taste of the fish itself.
“Why is our king doing this to us?” Alufoge asked as he rowed us on his fishing boat, it sounded like a detour from the meat of our conversation but I chose to keep quiet and allow him speak.
As if he was reading my mind, he paused and drew us back to the topic of discussion—his fears and challenges while fishing. I had resolved that I was going to ask about the King’s position as soon as we reached the jetty.
He continued with the topic. “Whenever there is storm, we are exposed to dangers, so we quickly row our canoes to the jetty for safety. But now, nothing of such, anyone who doesn’t know how to swim would be swept away to an unknown location if he is lucky and doesn’t die.”
Immediately we arrived at the jetty, I asked if the community leader is aware of their fears and challenges.
“He’s fully aware of this development,” the fishermen echoed in one voice. “He’s a party to the sand dredging activities happening here in Oto-Awori, he knows much of what is happening in our waters.”
“You can see their dredging machines on the water,” Adewale Opeseyi cuts in, pointing towards the machines. “They have spoilt our fishing business, but since our king has signed a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) with them, we can’t do anything,” he adds.
The king’s palace
After speaking with the fishermen, I left the jetty and made my way to the palace of His Royal Majesty Alayeluw, Oba J.O. Aina, Oloto of Oto-Awori, to hear his own side of the story. The palace is located just behind City Hall, a five-storey building housing the Oto-Awori Local Council Development Area.
The palace has a very spacious compound, there were four cars parked in the front the palace, including a Toyota Corolla grey coloured car with a customized plate number marked ‘OLOTO’ which in Yoruba portmanteau roughly translates to the king’s car. The palace was open but the king wasn’t in, I met a fairly skinned tall man dressed in a native blue Agbada—a member of the council of elders, who told me that the king would not be available to receive any visitor that week until the next week.
There are portraits of the king and his predecessors hanging on the palace walls, offset by framed artwork that tell of the community’s history and honouring its traditions and ancestors.
Fast forward to Wednesday morning, I arrived at the palace at 8AM, 2 hours before the appointed time— 10AM, and wait for the kings arrival, About 30 minutes past 10, members of the council began to make way into the palace, one of them who inquired why I was at the palace and when I informed him said, “Young man, if it’s the king you want to see, you would need a lot of patience. The king would be here at 12PM, that’s when the meeting begins.”
I waited patiently until 12:25PM, when I suddenly heard the bugle resonate to usher the king into the palace, all the members of the council and I stood up to welcome him as we echoed ‘kaa biesi o!. We stood still until he sat on the throne, one of the elders asked that I wait outside until the king invited me to his court.
At exactly 2:27PM—about two hours into the meeting, I was asked to come in, I had prepared my jotter, sound recorder and camera.
Thwarted by bureaucracy
Instead of responding directly to me, the king chose instead to allow his chiefs interrogate me.
“What’s your name?”
”Which publication are you from?”
“Where is your office located?” “Who sent you, why are you here?
I didn’t even know who to answer first.
“Kabiesi, let him come back with a printed letter headed paper before he can interview you,” says the Balogun (Balogun is a Yoruba title which means “Warlord”). “Yes! We don’t want what happened to the Inspector General of Police to replicate itself here in Oto-Awori,” members of the council chimed in support of the Balogun’s statement.
I asked the Balogun if I could quickly print the letter out and submit it immediately so I can interview the king but the Balogun declined, “as you can see, the meeting has already ended, come back next week and submit the letter for deliberation and return the upper week to interview the Oba.”
I asked if I could see the palace secretary. The Balogun said the secretary wasn’t around. For a meeting that lasted for more than 2 hours to hold without the secretary in attendance and no record of the issues discussed is confounding, and seemed geared to allow the king some level of wiggle room if decisions made within the palace are questioned by his subjects.
After facing the king’s chiefs, I was quite sure the king would not willingly speak to the press about his decision to sign a MoU with the dredging companies without the express consent of the people of Oto-Awori. Getting any public official to speak on record about unpopular decisions is a hurdle and this being a traditional institution didn’t make it any better. But to fulfil all righteousness, knowing fully well that the interview will not be granted, I decided to return the second time.
Pains of urban renewal III: Scarcity of fish, the crisis facing everyone
Of all the environmental hazards many Lagosians face, uncontrolled sand dredging and mining accounts for most of them. The sand and dredgers and sellers, fishermen and fish sellers, rural dwellers are not spared. And as Lagos, a state that accounts for more than 30% of Nigeria’s GDP continues to dredge and sand fill its lagoons to make up space for urban development, a significant sector of its economy—local fishing communities, are dwindling to the point where the market is experiencing significant shortages and an increase in the importation of seafood across Nigeria. This is a major threat to the food supply for more 193 million Nigerians.
Mafureyo Bolanle, a fish seller says she can no longer buy large quantities of fish due to the depletion of fish in the river.
“I have been here since 7 o’clock but couldn’t buy much fish, but at least, my customers will be happy to see me not empty-handed after spending almost a whole day waiting for fishermen,” she said, revealing a nearly full basket.
Mafureyo is a mother of five children, who visits Majidun in Ikorodu and buys fish in huge quantity as a wholesaler from fishermen and takes to Ikorodu market to sell in retail. She has been in the fishmongering business for twenty-five years.
She says sand dredging activities which is hampering fishermen’s fishing expedition is affecting the market demand.
“When I started this business many years ago, the dredging was not as much as it is today. Majidun bubbles for fishing activities, but since the dredging started, fish sellers rarely come here to buy fish.”
Before now, she used to buy a basket full of fish for 3,000 Naira, but now she buys that for 38,000 Naira.
For her, this is much of a problem because she and her six children and husband depend on this business for survival.
Here in Lagos coastal communities, fishermen and fish sellers are going through one of the worst crisis of their time, and they are looking to the government to redress their problems.
While accommodation and food are both livelihoods needed for both people living within and outside the coastal environments, sand dredging stands to provide both income and building solution to its 2.5 million housing shortfall.
Contributing to Imports from overseas
But despite having a coastline of 853 kilometres that runs through seven of the Southern States of the Federation, Lagos, Ondo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross Rivers bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Nigeria still depends on fish importation to meet most of her fish demands.
As of 2016, Nigeria Fisheries Statistics reported that the country’s annual fish demand was estimated at 3.32 million metric tonnes—an expectedly high number considering Nigeria’s teeming population of about 193 million people, but local production produces only about 1.12 million metric tonnes which leaves a shortfall of 2.2 million metric tonnes largely supplied through fish importation.
Dr. Vide Adedayo, an expert on food and agriculture, gender and human environmental health, blamed the huge gap on local supply of fish with overdependence of importation on unchecked sand dredging and mining activities.
“Nigeria has a huge gap on local supply to sustain her teaming population annually with overdependence of importation.”
“One of the reasons for shortfall in local supply is because we don’t have any strong law regulating the activities of the dredgers, as a result, they go extra miles in overdoing things, and at the end of the day it affects the activities of the fishermen and then we have a lot of economic problems,” he said.
He says the difference between mechanised and manual sand dredging is that the machines being used by the mechanised dredgers are very harsh on the marine ecosystem, while the manual system of dredging is less harmful to the environment.
So, if Lagos sand dredging crisis is everyone’s challenge, what’s the solution?
Dr. Vide Adedayo says a participatory policy must be enacted with members of communities along the coastal areas and all the stakeholders brought together for them to be educated and have good environmental knowledge of the coastal ecosystem to let them know where they should do the dredging.