Zamfara’s Poisoned Apples

Poverty will continue to visit havoc on our communities unless we wake up now. Many incidents in recent times have challenged our conscience on this startling reality. The frightening fact was further driven home by last week’s discovery that 163 people, mostly children, died in recent weeks from lead poisoning in Zamfara State. Henry Akpan, the Federal Ministry of Health’s chief epidemiologist, told The Irish Times that 355 people across six villages in the state had sustained lead poisoning, which would take up to a month to treat in those affected. The disaster took place in remote villages (Bukkuyum, Sunke, Dareta, Tungar Magaji) where poverty-stricken people tried to dig out gold and other precious stones from makeshift mines.

That the deaths occurred in the rural areas – far from the centres of power and wealth – shows that the catastrophe was not a natural one, and it affects only the poor. Those that design policy and those that benefit more from it are usually unaffected by such mishaps. This suggests that political leaders scarcely bother about what goes on in the interior. Had there been a close interface – or at best a responsible monitoring – the Zamfara disaster would have been averted or minimised. According to reports, the deaths kept happening for months, but health officials in the state had no idea why. The ‘elected’ representatives of the people were obviously too busy pursuing lucre in Gusau to know what was going on. It was only when a team from Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) was testing for meningitis in the area that they observed a near-absence of children in many villages, and they wondered why. They carried out tests that showed high levels of heavy metal in the villagers’ blood, and they alerted the authorities. Hitherto, the villagers and the politicians had concluded that the high infant mortality rate was due to malaria – and that it was an act of God. Of course, it was His will, and officials are wont to be ensconced in that truism.

But it does not remove the fact that a disaster of great magnitude has happened – and can recur. Zamfara, a state of about 2.5 million people, is like the rest of the northern states – backward in terms of social amenities, with a high rate of illiteracy. In this region poverty is a way of life and most mishaps, including the acquisition of illicit wealth by government officials, is said to be the will of God. High unemployment rate has pushed people to the edge of subsistence, forcing them to eke out a living from rudimentary sources, including raping the soil in search of precious stones. In many states, gold-digging is a lucrative venture, especially after the rainy season when farmers have stored or sold off their meagre harvests. Able-bodied men work their hands to the bone, digging the hard soil and rocky areas, threshing out the fine stones, which merchants from the cities buy.

But as the Zamfara case has proved, this source of earning a livelihood is also deadly. Large concentrations of lead are present in the soil excavated in the course of the gold search. They are inhaled from the crushed rock ore, drank from water or, in the case of infants, from breastfeeding mothers. Children, who experts say are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults, can also get infected from the fields where they play. Lead poisoning, even when it has not killed, can leave the victim in a permanent state of neurological disrepair.

Of course, the mining activities our people turned into a vocation are illegal. It beats one’s imagination why the authorities condone the crime while the stones are a veritable source of government revenue. Most states have ministries of mines. But local officials who are fully aware of the criminality of illegal mining turn a blind eye to it, smugly regarding it as the people’s way of life. They also know that it can be very dangerous. Consider that recently in the small village of Yargalma in Bukkuyum Local Government Area of Zamfara State, some abandoned mines exploded when some illegal miners climbed them, killing scores of people, most of them children between the ages of five and 10 years. Most children who hunt for gold are supposed to be in school. That incident was a precursor to the mass deaths, but it was obviously not enough warning to the powers-that-be.

We can summarise the sob story of the lead poisoning and deaths in Zamfara State into a few disturbing conclusions. One, the victims were common people who, impoverished by lack of responsible leadership, tried to fend for themselves in any possible way. Secondly, there was apathy on the part of local authorities and health officials who were aware of the frequent deaths, but simply shrugged. Thirdly, there was lack of technical expertise on the part of those whose duty it was to check the menace before it got out of hand. Without the initiative of foreign health bodies such as the MSF, more deaths would have occurred. And then when the epidemic was detected, government had to rely on international aid agencies such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the World Health Organisation, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and The Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based anti-pollution consultancy, to help clean up the mess.

Collaboration in such situations is important, but Nigeria needs to develop at least a detection mechanism in order to help minimise casualties. Billions have been spent in recent years in the area of health care, but you wonder where the money went, as nobody could tell why hundreds of Zamfara children were dying within weeks.

We must understand that disasters such as this one will continue to occur if nothing is done to avert them. Illegal mining is still rampant; even in Zamfara, the villagers say they will continue with their occupation as soon as the officials leave. They cannot think of alternative means of earning a livelihood. This means that many more people may die from lead poisoning in the coming months, especially with the advent of the rainy season. The state government must ensure that even if the mining activities will continue (so that youths in the area do not veer into cattle rustling or even robbery), it should be in such a way that safety is guaranteed. Officials should remain alert to their responsibilities. No kobo from the N240 million budgeted by the state government for the clean-up exercise last week should be diverted.

For the North, a lot needs to be done. There are many other violent phenomena that kill the poor en masse. Polio, a huge shame to northern leaders, is one. Sectarian violence is another. Coupled with general insecurity, poverty and unemployment, you’ve got tinderboxes waiting to explode, one at a time, all over the region. Who can stop that from happening? Your guess is as good as mine.

Published in LEADERSHIP
Saturday, 12 June 2010

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