By Ibiba DonPedro
Incensed locals in Bonny Island troubled about the reported unexplained deaths of about a dozen community persons in the past two weeks, are said to be further enraged over fresh developments in the usually calm seaside town. Their rage is said to be fueled by a statement by their local Government officials posted on Facebook, which debunked the widespread stories about unexplained deaths in the town. Secretary to the Local Government Area, Wariopusenibo Omoni LongJohn had declared that following an investigative visit to health care facilities, including government and private hospitals during which they interviewed doctors and other medical personnel, they found no truth in the reported deaths, stating that, ‘the rumours of high death rates in Bonny are unfounded and may not be too far from the fact that the mortuaries are filled as a result of the ban on public burials in the state resulting in families making calls to all and sundry, informing them of the plan to bury their deceased loved ones immediately’.
Longjohn declared that six persons who died were persons who had died and were taken to the hospital for confirmation of death. The statement gave details of their findings as limited to, ‘an increase in drug resistant malaria in the past two weeks on the island’. Other findings contained in the release include, an increase in cases of typhoid fever, and about half the patients complaining of bitterness in their mouths and loss of sense of taste and smell. The investigation is said to have been carried out by a team made up of local government officials and the local COVID-19 team.
But angry locals faulted these claims insisting that unexplained deaths have occurred in the community that should be investigated. A community member Dan Banigo asserted that, in just three days three persons who appeared otherwise healthy simply died. Giving details, he explained that one of the dead persons, Fubara Banigo, is said to have died last Saturday in Port Harcourt. A relative who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, Banigo visited Bonny as part of a team that distributed palliatives to needy community members. He returned to Port Harcourt and died suddenly. Another deceased person Mr. Bara Hart, a Choir Master at St Cyprian’s Anglican Church Port Harcourt, was in Bonny to see his wife for two weeks. He fell ill on Monday May 25, 2020 during the visit and was taken to the hospital where he died at 11am. After his death, his body was moved to a morgue, Kpaima in Port Harcourt due to filled mortuaries in Bonny, which resulted from the burial ban in the state put in place as a COVID-19 pandemic containment measure. Another young person in the community who seemed otherwise healthy, is said to have died within a short span of time.
Although no link has been established between these recent deaths and the corona virus, the deaths have created deep concern and some panic in the community and among Bonny people who live outside the ancient town. A group of concerned persons under the platform of Bonny Graduates Forum, BGF had two weeks ago raised an alarm about strange deaths in the community which has been in the news lately over the death of large numbers of croaker fish, popularly known as, ‘broke marriage’ found on the seabound shores of Finima, a sister community to Bonny. The death of a beached whale within the same period on the shores of Finima added to panic and fear among locals .The BGF in a statement signed by its President, Awolyea Samuel Allison and others posted on social media claimed that nine persons had died of unknown causes. The statement made references to the dead persons presenting symptoms including, ‘loss of smell and loss of taste. There have been other co-symptoms such as weakness, stooling, coughing, headache and very minute incidences of fever’. These deaths have been declaimed by Bonny LGA authorities as having no links to the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic. Yet locals are not reassured. In Bonny as in much of the Niger Delta, where a gulf of trust exists between the local populace and the governing authorities, the statements of Longjonn intended to reassure, have brought no peace to the local populace. The similarities between some of the symptoms observed including loss of taste, smell and COVID-19, continue to agitate people. Added to the lingering concerns over the unexplained mass death of croaker fish and a dead whale, fear builds among Bonny people in a season of global death.
Patricia Jumbo a Bonny resident told National Point on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 as news of strange deaths in the community spread,” We don’t know what’s causing so many deaths in Bonny. We don’t know if these deaths are linked to COVID-19. We suspect the deaths like those of the dead croaker fish, could be linked also to excessive gas being flared off in view of the shut down of global oil and gas markets. My worry is nobody is taking responsibility for these developments. So, our lives and condition of our environment do not matter to the authorities? What a life”.
Echoing this position, James Tobin of Coastal Communities of Nigeria a gathering of young Bonny people and activists made the point that, ‘ There’s is a crisscross of pipelines both onshore and offshore, including other facilities like oil rigs, FPSOs and tank farms belonging to Shell, NPPC, Agip, total NPDC, NLNG and Mobil. We strongly and reasonably believe that there are gas leakages from some of the underwater pipelines that convey gas to the Qua Iboe and NLNG Terminals resulting to the poisoning of the marine life that could not withstand the hazard, leading to the floating of thousands of croaker fish and others on the shorelines of Bonny and Andoni Local Government Areas of Rivers State respectively’.
Following the viral images of dead fish and the fears generated, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA had visited the site of dead fish and taken samples for testing.
Director General of NOSDRA, Idris Musa had stated in response to concerns raised about the mystery of dead fish on Finima’s beaches that,
“The National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) carried out a reconnaissance of the area in Delta where we first got the report through a member of a Non-governmental Organisation. There was no incident of oil spill within the area of reported dead fishes, notwithstanding that a few dead fishes were seen along the shoreline’.The much anticipated NOSDRA report was eventually made public to deep dissatisfaction of local communities and environmental NGOs. NOSDRA in its findings did not establish the exact cause of death of the croaker fish on the shores of Bonny satellite communities.
In keeping with its watchdog role as guardians of the wellbeing of the Earth and Niger Delta, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, HOMEF, had deployed a team to the coastal community in March, 2020.
HOMEF had made public its disappointment with the results of the NOSDRA investigations noting that,’We expected a detailed and in-depth analysis from NOSDRA working in cooperation with agencies and institutions including the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Nigerian Institute of Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR), National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency and Federal Institute for Fisheries Research which they said were informed of the tragic occurrences. While the result of the laboratory analysis may reflect the true composition of the samples, the data interpretation may be misleading. For example, it is a known fact that crude oil comes with a mix of heavy metals such as Cadmium and Chromium which are some of the pollutants from that sector’.
Responding to the HOMEF concerns on the NOSDRA statement, Ako Amadi, a Marine Ecologist and former Head, Fisheries Resources Division of NIOMR said, “Fish deaths commonly result from oxygen depletion in the aquatic medium. In the case of this recent occurrence in the Niger Delta, mortalities were reportedly concentrated on the genus pseudotolithus, the croaker which is a bottom-feeder. It points to the fact that if the deaths had been as a result of ingestion of toxins the entire food web, that is, the benthic fauna of invertebrates including shrimps, crabs, zooplankton and juvenile fish, must have been affected. Evidence could then be deduced from toxicological examination of stomach contents, gills and bladder, or other respiratory and filtration organs of both dead and living croakers for comparison. This has not been the case”.
Nnimmo Bassey, Director HOMEF noted further that, “The NOSDRA statement doesn’t help the situation and doesn’t erase the anxieties of the peoples of the region. It is not new to see a specific fish species dying as this has happened in other countries where, for example, species have succumbed to thermal or temperature increase shocks. It is true that NOSDRA focuses on hydrocarbon pollution and has restricted its review to sources in that field. Seeking to shift blame to other factors, sectors or communities cannot be the end of the story.“The ministry of environment and relevant agencies have a duty to tell Nigerians what killed the fish so that we know how to respond to this and future incidents. We are not satisfied with NOSDRA’s report as this doesn’t bring a closure to the saga. Explaining why we experienced a massive death fish on our coasts is not beyond our scientists within and outside government,” he concluded.
In the midst of these exchanges, local people driven by poverty and hunger worsened by the COVID-19 containment measures including market and work place closures, had carried away the dead ‘broke marriage’ croaker fish and sawn off flesh of the dead whale to smoke dry for food at home and sale to unsuspecting persons. The fish, a popular species of croaker and part of the local native soup diet, has found its way into local fable as being responsible for several broken marriages for two reasons. The first on account of its fragile flesh which disintegrates through rigorous stirring during cooking, causing husbands to suspect their wives of having stolen some of the market money. The other reason being in the sand crystals found in the fish head, that needs to be properly cleaned out, ignorance of which often causes some new brides their marriages when cooked and eaten without this critical cleaning process. Fable holds that many angry husbands angry over chewing on the sand crystals often send their new brides home. The head of fish is usually reserved for the head of the household, the husband.
The consequence of eating such fish by these locals has not yet been factored into the discussions around Bonny’s many travails. Some locals perceive the appearance of the dead whale on their beach in a time of COVID-19 hunger as a gift from the gods.