Several years after the Nigeria Coal Corporation (NCC) Enugu was shut down, their former staffs recount their present ordeal, and urge the federal government to pay their outstanding entitlements, writes MIKE UBANI
He looked sickly, weak and thin – his lips and legs as white as snow. Johnson Uwakwe (not his real names) was compulsorily retired from the service of the Nigerian Coal Corporation (NCC), Enugu in 2005. And he has been in and out of the hospital since then.
While in service, Uwakwe spent several years mining coal deposited underground Onyeama and Okpara mines, Enugu, the Enugu state capital, and in the process was exposed to hazardous chemicals that affected his health.
Today, Uwakwe is suffering from lung-related illness arising from the poisonous substances he inhaled while exhuming coal from underground.
“I am asthmatic, and I have been in this condition for several years, and I can tell you that my sickness was caused by the dangerous substances I inhaled while excavating coal from underground,” Uwakwe told The AUTHORITY, on July 16.
This is not an isolated case. Many of the over 20,000 former staff of the defunct NCC who were forcibly retired from service alongside Uwakwe have several gory tales to tell anybody who cares to listen.
Jibrin A. Sani, a mining engineer who hails from Kogi state, was also retired in 2005 against his will. Today, he wears medicated eye glasses to correct the defects occasioned by exposing his eyes to chemical substances while mining underground coal.
Many former staff of NCC are not only sick, but are also living below poverty line.
“It has been difficult for us to put food on the table, clothe our children, and pay their school fees,” complained Elder Okechukwu Job Uwaelelam, former senior administration staff of NCC.
Though the ex-NCC workers have been undergoing harrowing experience, it is not certain whether they have sufficiently placed their predicament before the federal government – owners of NCC – as well as the general public.
However, that was exactly what Lekeh Development Foundation (LEDF), a non-governmental organization (NGO) did on July 16, when it organized a one-day town hall meeting at Iva Valley Primary School, Enugu North LGA, to examine the impact of coal mining on land, air, water, human beings and the environment.
Speaking at the event whose theme was “Building community resilience to coal mining in Enugu, state,” the Executive Director LEDF, Nbani Friday Barilule, stressed that the essence of the meeting was to examine the impact of coal mining on the environment; find out whether or not the federal government cleaned-up the area as it is currently being done in Ogoniland, and the status of ex-staff of NCC.
He said that if coal is no longer exploited in Enugu, it is imperative for the federal government to provide an alternative means of livelihood for the host communities and the ex-staff of NCC, as well as restore the coal polluted sites in impacted communities in Enugu state.
The Chairman of the occasion Prof. Daniel S. Ugwu, of the Faculty of Agriculture, Enugu state University of Science and Technology (ESUT), and chief executive officer, African Centre for Rural Development and Environment, expressed unhappiness over the abandonment of coal exploitation in Enugu.
He added that the town hall meeting provided an invaluable opportunity for the people to be heard concerning the impact of the coal industry on air, land, water resources, as well as the current position of ex-staff of NCC.
According to Uwaelelam, “the coal industry in Enugu is dead, and we are about burying it if God permits. The industry was left to die because it was located in the Southeast.
“Nigerians should ask the then Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration what it did with the $US 500 million it got from the World Bank for the exploitation of Enugu Coal.
“Over 20, 000 workers of the corporation were sacked in 2005 without notice, and since then we have neither been paid the statutory three months salary in lieu of notice, nor our severance allowances.
“The federal government and the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), told us that they were going to privatize NCC, and bring the industry to world standard, but NCC was not privatized, rather they ended up selling all the properties of Coal Corporation, including our head office on Okpara Avenue, Enugu, which was sold to an individual.
“The water that comes from the abandoned coal mines in Enugu is acidic, and this acidic water has found itself into the sources of drinking water of the host communities. And many people who have died or developed various illnesses due to drinking this contaminated water.
“The Enugu coal has 45 by-products, and if the federal government had set up an industry for each by-product, the high level of unemployment that we are witnessing today would have been reduced.”
H. C. Ohagwu, former chief engineer of NCC, also held the view that the closure of Enugu Coal mines and the attendant looting of the corporation’s properties was politically motivated.
He accused the federal government of abandoning the corporation’s former staff after the closure of the industry, saying that many of them, especially those who were involved in underground mining have developed lung-related diseases, and waste pain, due to exposure to harmful chemicals.
According to him, the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) embarked on secret sale of quarters inhabited by former coal miners in Enugu, some of whom have been living in the quarters for upwards of 40 years.
He further said that the owners of the land where coal was previously mined can no longer build houses or farm on those lands due to the environmental degradation that had taken place in those areas especially Enugu-Ngwo, Amachara, Nsude, Iva Valley and Aboh communities.
Indeed, the exploitation of coal has brought hardship and unbearable effects on the host communities and they have had to live and endure the negative impact of the coal mines till date.
Recall that coal generated lots of revenue for Nigeria between 1916 and 1970 when it was one of Nigeria’s major revenue earners.
The exploration of the mineral began in present day Enugu state in 1909, with production at the mines in Onyeama, Ogbete, Iva Valley and Okpara climbing from 25, 511 tons in 1916 to an estimated 583,422 tons before a decline set in during the Nigerian civil war 1967 – 1970.
At the end of the war most parts of the Sout east had been ravaged and many expatriate mining experts, mostly from Britain and Poland had left Nigeria.
The exit of experts coupled with the discovery of crude oil in commercial quantity apparently made the federal government to abandon coal, and this resulted in the neglect and subsequent abandonment of the massive infrastructure at the mines managed by the NCC.
The NCC tried to manage operations unsuccessfully for another 30 years but the game was up. It finally folded up in 2005.
The coal market was targeted at power generation, coal engine train and for other domestic reasons. The demand for coal declined when power generation and coal-related train engine moved to the use of diesel.
As the market kept declining, the BPE listed NCC for sale. The coal blocks listed included; Okpara mine, Onyeama mine, Ezinmo coal field, Inyi coal field and Amangiodo coal field all in Enugu state.
BPE said that the coal properties are wholly owned and developed by the NCC, and would be offered for sale to prospective investors through bidding.
But some of the participants at the one-day town-hall meeting said that no bidding ever took place, adding that the properties of the corporation were mindlessly sold to some political office holders within and outside the state.
The AUTHORITY recalls that the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a Chinese company – HTG- Pacific Energy Consortium, to develop the coal sector at the cost of 3.7 billion US dollars.
The MoU included building a power plant. The plant was projected to generate additional 1,200 megawatts of electricity to the national grid. But it’s uncertain what happened to the MoU.
The participants at the town hall meeting resolved that the federal government and the BPE should pay all the entitlements owed the retired workers; provide the necessary social amenities, especially potable water to the communities affected by coal mining.
The meeting also resolved that the federal government and the BPE should account for all the properties belonging to NCC which were sold to individuals, and at the same time privatize the industry.
It appealed to the federal government to revive the coal training school to enable youths from the host communities to acquire skills that will make them self-employed.