News Stories in 2nd Quarter 2007 Edition of DDH Magazine
FROM THE SWAMPS OF THE NIGER DELTA, TALES OF A DREDGING MAN.
Kunle Adeagbon is the executive director of Ocean Sands Nigeria Ltd, a rising star among indigenous dredging companies in Nigeria. The company which owns and operates dredgers both in Lagos and the Niger Delta is right now engaged in dredging for an NDDC ( Niger Delta Development Commission ) road project in a Warri community in Delta State. Kunle is the hands-on operation manager for that road project and in the following interview, releases an informative excursion into the realities of life and business in the deep interior of the swamps that give the Niger delta its dreaded name.
DDH: Our first question concern the fact that soldiers have to be present with you all through the time you are doing your work. What is the imperative for this?
Kunle: Basically, Warri is a community of three dominant tribes – Itsekiris, Urhobos and Ijaws. And precisely where we are working is an Itsekiri village but at the borderline with the Ijaw communities, (Ogbe-Ijaw). Some of the (reported) attacks frequently come from outside the tribes of the area where you are working. To protect that from interfering with our operations, we make sure that the place is fully armed because we have some expatriates on board. But apart from that once the security is there, there is a consciousness in the environment that that place is secured, nobody tries to play pranks.
DDH: How many expatriates do you have?
Kunle: For now we have one; he is Polish, the dredgemaster and engineer.
DDH: What is the detail of the job?
Kunle: We are preparing a 4-kilometre road, from Urogbo to Usele linking up to Ajigba, making a bridge at Ibeji, at the back of Warri Refinery and Petrochemical plant. This is a kind of inter-community accessway, because most of these communities you cannot get there by road. There are pockets of different communities around the area but with this road connecting the four communities linking with the bridge, it makes access feasible and there’s development.
DDH: There is an important point you made about roads, that roads are key to the Niger Delta. How do you mean that?
Kunle: The Niger Delta by virtue of the terrain is riverine mostly, and there are so many communities. So the key to the Niger delta is to make sure that there are roads; their roads are such that you have to dredge. Before these roads can be done you have to put sand to stabilize most of the areas. That’s the only way the laterite and all the elements (needed for roads) can get through. Because apart from that you can’t get there except by boat. And sometimes, most of the creeks are heavily silted, a small canoe cannot even have access.
DDH: What depth are you talking about?
Kunle: Depths of about three, four metres or maximum of five metres, and with a width of about fifteen to 20 or 25 metres, so that it can accommodate at least two barges.
DDH: Now what is the objective?
Kunle: The objective is to dredge from the Gburigbu river and to stockpile sand for road construction.
DDH: From your experience you said the dredging in that place should be aimed at canalization and widening?
Kunle: Yes. When I say the Niger Delta, it’s of two factors. Within the Niger delta, you have oil and gas and within the Niger delta, you have different communities. For the communities, the key reason why dredging is very important is giving access to many developmental projects, and creation of access, channelisation, that is deepening the sea bed so that vessels and barges do not go aground. Once that happens (grounding), that means you cannot move. And once you cannot move, you cannot carry granite or sand or most things that are needed for schools or development, etc. In fact, there is no access. This is why canalization is key by opening the waterways. We call it the aquatic highways. Apart from that, you also need sand from the river to do road projects and to do reclamation. You see, some of these communities, you would be amazed, they are in slums, shanty areas, where it’s full of mud, with their houses and you will see the underdeveloped nature of the Niger delta. It’s so appalling. So, the best thing to do for them, sometimes, is to reclaim land for them whereby the place is stabilized enough and people can start building and having their houses.
DDH: Can you describe the communities living in islands, in huts and not modern houses?
Kunle: Yes, that’s why I said they are islands with huts, not modern houses because the land itself is not strong, it’s like mangrove. So that’s why they have huts, and they sleep on bare floor. The only way that can change is when you do serious and extensive reclamation projects just like what you have in Lekki in Lagos or like what is happening at VGC (Victoria Garden City, Lagos), a massive reclamation. By so doing, the place will be stabilized and you can start building standard houses, because there will be a base and the base will be strong enough to take whatever type of structure you want to build there.
DDH: Are there schools there now?
Kunle: Mostly there are no schools. Children from one community to the other in canoes; you would be shocked to see children as young as two or three or four years old paddling canoes to a school at about two kilometers away in the sea, at so much risk. In fact, they wait for teachers for close to three, four or five days. Sometimes there is no chalk because transportation is not there.
DDH: What kind of classrooms do they have?
Kunle: They are basically huts, not standard schools. But NDDC (Niger Delta Development Commission) is trying navigating some areas, building schools, but it’s not enough.
DDH: Are there hospitals?
Kunle: No standard hospitals.
DDH: So if somebody falls sick, what do they do?
Kunle: First and foremost, if you don’t have access to drugs, then transportation is the problem; nobody takes you out, you are trapped. It’s like you are enclosed.
DDH: So canoes are the major means of transportation?
Kunle: Just the canoes. But if extensive dredging takes place, then the waterways will be opened. And once the waterways are opened that means they can have access to speed boats with Yamaha engines and they can move around and people can also come in and give them what they want.
DDH: Are you saying that even speed boats find it difficult to traverse these areas?
Kunle: Yes, by virtue of access. Like there’s a village called Shekelewu in Warri North Local Government. In fact, they are out of civilization, there’s no access. They go with an extremely very small boat. But NDDC is releasing projects out there to see how some of these communities can be opened up for access.
DDH: Are there police stations?
DDH: Do the villages have chiefs?
Kunle: Some of them have chiefs. You will be shocked that some of them have huts built on stilts suspended in mid air and they have their little community heads, without light (electricity) and no form of information.
DDH: Except radios.
Kunle: Except radios. And maybe by the time you go two or three kilometres, you see an oil well belonging to Shell or Chevron or any of the others.
DDH: So how do they (Shell, etc) manage to build in this kind of environment and to stay there?
Kunle: Those Chevron or Shell locations, they have their own house boats that have all the works. Sometimes when they have to come for jobs in that area they do dredging, because without that they too will not have access. But as soon as that job finishes, they leave. And you know, dredging is once you dredge this year, there’s what we call maintenance dredging. You have to maintain it. If it is not maintained, it silts back and the community is in a problem again.
DDH: Now when these oil companies come to such villages, are they protected? How do the villages see them or receive them?
Kunle: First and foremost, the villagers are uninformed. In fact, they don’t even know what they are doing at most times. So they only see them working. Their level of education and exposure is very low. They only try to support them, to make them happy, but they are not…
DDH: What kind of things do they give them?
Kunle: The way it is, you find out there is even politics in such things. Because you discover that the people the oil company might give benefits to are not people that reside within those communities. Maybe they are people from those communities, but they stay in town, they stay in Warri and all that and by virtue of that they come on the knowledge that the oil companies are working in their area, they make trouble and collect money. But the actual people that stay within the riverine areas don’t benefit much. I don’t think they benefit anything at all because their lifestyle has not changed and there’s poverty all around enveloping them.
DDH: What kind of food do they eat?
Kunle: They eat fish because you see canoes around trying to look for fish, and they eat cassava. That’s why they protect (the waters) because that’s the main source of their (livelihood). And maybe they also do some little agriculture within them because there is no land at all.
DDH: This is why they clamour against oil spill and the death of their fish? Are these the people calling for the compensation?
Kunle: Yes, but at the same time too, like I said earlier on, it’s politicized. People in the cities will use that so that they can collect money and at the end of the day, it doesn’t get to the (swamp dwellers). They may get little and smile for a while. After sometime, they come back to the situation. Once the oil company finishes their project, they pack up and leave the area and leave the people with their problems.
DDH: Do you think this kind of alienation encourages the militancy and kidnappings?
Kunle: To an extent, it encourages it.
DDH: What I mean is whether the kidnappers take their hostages to these remote islands knowing they will accommodate them?
Kunle: Yes, that’s what happens. Some of these areas are remote and people that are kidnapped, to an extent now see why the kidnapping is going on because you see oil wells littered all over the system, at the same time, there’s no development there. But like I said, it’s being politicized.
DDH: Now to the business of dredging, what kind of equipment are you people using there?
Kunle: We are using a 22” by 20” cutter suction dredge. When I say cutter suction dredge, it has a cutter at the tip. It’s not just suction, it cuts. As it cuts, it sucks. And it goes through a hydraulic process through a pipeline and discharges to the sand dump depending on the length of pipes. We have floaters, we have sinkers, and we have land pipes. All these add up to transport the material from the burrow pit to the dump site.
DDH: What is the success rate you people are having now?
Kunle: Success rate is good because where we are dredging there is a lot of sand within that river. And that’s one of the advantages of the Niger Delta. You don’t have to dig too deep or look for sand aimlessly. By nature and design, most of the rivers have sand. So with a good sand search report, you can get sand from three, four metres deep in the sea, and you can now dredge for maybe five metres to nine metres, you get volumes of sand. Like what we are doing in Gburigbu (river) is about first phase, a total of 1,000,000 cubic metres of sand but in phases of 300,000 cubic metres.
DDH: Is there enough sand since according to you the Niger Delta requires a lot of sand?
Kunle: In fact, sand is very necessary. You need sand for roads, to construct jetties, for shore protection, for reclamation, for stockpile for construction of buildings and houses, etc. So it’s critical to the total development of the Niger Delta.
DDH: From your experience is the Niger Delta dredged enough or is there any need for more dredging projects?
Kunle: The Niger Delta is not up to 0.2% or 0.3% dredged. There is no dredging at all. With the number of dredgers coming in, there is still need for dredging because it is a whole lot of work. And this government that I see, from their plans, really want to develop the Niger Delta, (but) it needs a garrison move, it needs a massive appetite for construction.
DDH: What kind of dredgers are most popular and suitable in that place right now?
Kunle: First and foremost, you have cutter suction dredgers, you have suction dredgers and you have bucket dredgers. A bucket dredger is a crane with a bucket size on a barge like a Manitowoc crane, sometimes 80 to 100 tons, 3900 or 4600, with a big bucket size mounted on a spudded barge. Basically such grab bucket dredgers are suitable for areas that are very thick mangrove or whereby the material that you want to pick out is strong. So you use a bucket dredge, it’s like it has a bucket about six cubic metres to pick the material and you can cut a channel adequately so that there can be proper access. Apart from that you have the hopper dredgers, they are the massive types used for channels like Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). But for the Niger Delta, predominantly, suction and cutter suction dredgers. The suction dredgers are limited mostly to places that are full of sand, so you don’t need to cut, just put your pipe and start pumping. It’s best for stockpile while cutter suction, you can cut clay or whatever the starter can dig before you hit sand. But in area where you have to dig before you dredge, the suction dredger will be absolutely impossible.
DDH: With such experience how long have you been working in the Niger Delta and in what places?
Kunle: I have been in the Niger Delta, by His grace, for 13 to 14 years. I have worked in Shekelewu, I have worked in Ogbudugbudu, Batan, Odidi 1 and 2, Origbo, Inori, Usele, Upuama, Opukuma, the road to (NDDC Chairman) Timi Alaibe’s village, we are the ones that worked and supervised that project from River Nun, I have worked in Mofomoko, Belema, Ekulamo 1 and 2, Cotton Channel 1,2,3, Kula and I have worked in Gbile. These are all within the creeks.
DDH: And there is still a lot of more work …?
Kunle: A lot of work, a lot. If the masterplan goes on from NDDC, wao! It’s massive. Jobs in excess of N200b or N300b can’t finish it.
DDH: To do all these, you need the cooperation of the villagers. What has your own companies done whenever you enter an area to ensure that you don’t have community problems?
Kunle: Before you go into any project, you must meet the chiefs and have access to the kings of the community and also discuss with the youths, the different youths. What we normally do is to make an employment list to employ skilled and unskilled workers, if they are there, add them to the list. And with that, you can work. Once you do that they are very happy, pay them their salaries as at when due. Do courtesy calls to the kings of that community and I think with that there should be no problem at all. And if there are little supplies that you can do, that first and foremost the quality is right and the price is competitive…(do that).
DDH: What do you mean by quality is right and price competitive?
Kunle: For instance, if you want them to give you AGO (diesel) for your operations. Tell them to bring diesel, instead of giving it to somebody outside that village so long as the quality of the product is right because if the quality is not right, if you use it in your machine it can damage your machine. These are multi-million dollar investments.
DDH: Seeing it is far from the cities, how do your workers cope, how do you make them comfortable?
Kunle: Before we go for any project, there is a bonus, there is a target. And we make sure that if they target their jobs adequately, they will be well compensated. Apart from that, we make sure they are highly comfortable. We give them their outstation allowance as at when due. And we make sure there is a shift to work day and night. Sometimes, if the community is not too far, we go by boat to change them. But if the community is not where we can get the kind of accommodation we are used to, we make sure the place is well furnished. Put (electric) generators, make it standard and give them good food.
DDH: Have you team encountered any militants or been harassed in all these places?
Kunle: No, we have not been harassed. Like I said, if you do what is right from the onset before you move your equipment to site, I don’t think there will be any harassment.
DDH: In view of the unrest in the Niger Delta, what is your advice to the Federal Government?
Kunle: My advice is to make sure that all communities are represented and that they should ensure, I don’t know what mechanism they will use, but let them ensure that the cake gets down to those communities, so that the thing does not hang. I don’t know how they can do that but it’s very key. Because all the money the federal government is releasing, though they are trying, there is still room for more work to be done.
DDH: What is your advice to the companies that are working? Some companies have been targeted. What do you think they have done wrong and what should they do right now?
Kunle: Most of them are multinationals. They should try and see how they can assist (the communities). Because it’s annoying your houseboat is filled up to capacity with air-conditioned (rooms), satellite (Tv), you have access to information, you are eating good food, and just some few metres or kilometres away, you see people in huts, you see small children in canoes, when you are moving with your own sophisticated boats you almost capsize the small canoes. They should seek real rapport between them and the communities to see that they assist totally and make sure the assistance is visible, not invisible. Or make sure the thing is on ground. By so doing, I think there will be peace.
DDH: How is your company Ocean Sands Marine Ltd doing generally?
Kunle: We are trying. We have just bought equipment, and we have had a pedigree of the Niger Delta. Based on that pedigree, we should be able to access those routes, and do most of these jobs. We are not doing badly at all.