Solving the gully erosion menace – Punch

With the increasing intensity of this year’s rain, its attendant ecological havoc of gully erosion has aggravated. It has entombed many houses, forced many communities to relocate, destroyed businesses, severed roads, damaged bridges and devastated farmland.

In Ogun State, the Owakurudu community in Ijebu Ode is one of its victims with 50 houses there reportedly ruined recently. The people have been unnerved for long by the threat. Pleas to the state government, dating back to Gbenga Daniel’s time as governor (2003-2011), for intervention fell on deaf ears, despite the disaster being induced by it. During road rehabilitation, water was improperly channelled through the community, a resident agonisingly recollects. Ironically, the state is helpless without federal assistance.

The same crisis in the South-East states of Anambra, Abia, Enugu, Imo and Ebonyi presents a scarier scenario. While a geological freak might have played considerable role in the creation of this hazard, it is undoubtedly exacerbated by ecological abuse like unregulated mining activities, builders’ search for gravel and sand, and unremitting deforestation.

The scourge did not start now. It gained national attention in the Second Republic, culminating in the establishment of the Ecological Fund through the Federation Act of 1981 to deal with it.  Through the deduction of two per cent of the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation and one per cent of the Derivation Allocation, a pool of funds was created to address not only it, but other forms of ecological degradation such as landslides, flooding, oil spills and desertification.

Unfortunately, irresponsible governance has not allowed the fund to be put to good use. At best, it is treated as a slush fund, especially by governors. Its disbursement under the government of Goodluck Jonathan was discretionary, especially in 2013 when it doled out N2 billion each to “friendly” states under the Peoples Democratic Party’s control. Governors in 2016 alluded to this and those whose states were denied asked President Muhammadu Buhari to share the balance among them, in deference to equity.

How the fund is recklessly abused is exemplified in the recent conviction of a former Governor of Plateau State, Joshua Dariye, of fraud for diverting N1.16 billion out of the N1.8 billion ecological fund the state received. He donated N100 million to the South-West PDP. All this occurred while he was in office between 1999 and 2007. Another ex-governor from a North-Eastern state, who is a serving senator, is facing a similar charge in a trial the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is handling.

The state and federal governments are all culpable in mangling the Ecological Fund’s objective. For instance, the National Economic Council said in 2009 that N200 billion was spent either on non-existent or unrelated projects. In 2010, the House of Representatives questioned suspicious withdrawals from the Fund as loans to government agencies and individuals totalled N146.5 billion. In December 2011, N20.1 billion was withdrawn for debt servicing. In 2002, N728 million was dubiously given as “grant” to the Presidential Research and Communication Unit. The third quarter budget of the Ministry of Agriculture in 2009 was funded with N44.9 billion from the Ecological Fund. The list of abuses is endless.

The balance in the account of the Fund as of July 2017 stood at N27.4 billion. A Senate public hearing, in March, on how to regulate disbursement, lamented that N500 billion was diverted in 15 years. These, no doubt, compelled NEC to set up a committee made up of governors on how to arrest the drift. It eventually recommended a disbursement formula based on physical visitation by the Ecological Office team to disaster sites and assessment by a technical team of experts, to check rampant abuses. Paradoxically, a disaster trifled with by Nigerian authorities is being viewed seriously by the World Bank, whose senior officials routinely visit the sites. With its $500 million financed by International Development Association, Nigeria Erosion and Watershed Management Project began in 2013.

Indeed, it is a gung-ho for any state to do it alone.  For instance, the remediation of six gully erosion sites, out of 972 active ones, in Anambra State will gulp N9 billion. The projects are being executed in collaboration with the Federal Government and the World Bank.  This tripartite model of response holds some hope.

Enough of seeing special funds as spoils of war. But the unconscionable sharing of the ecological fund among the three tiers of government, evidently, is a kind of recipe for its diversion to other priority areas or outright pillaging.  The extant law should be amended for only states, verifiably in need of the fund, to benefit from it. The adoption of international best practices in managing them will restore some sanity. In the United States, for instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency releases a statement of account on the Disaster Relief Fund on the fifth day of every month, while the Congress also demands a monthly report on its balance sheet in line with its oversight function.

But here, our indolent and self-serving lawmakers, oblivious of their duties, cry only when the head is off. This fact is underpinned by a Senate Public Accounts Committee report in 2013, which showed that between 2002 and 2012, the Ecological Fund, Natural Resources Fund and Stabilisation Fund, among others, were abused to the tune of N1.04 trillion out of N1.5trillion that accrued to them. Only a template legally defined, with provisions against abuses and sanctions for violations will reverse this perverse tide, if religiously enforced.

States and communities can begin to stop future gully erosions today through strict enforcement of all environmental laws and protection. This is imperative as human lives do not exist in isolation of the environment.

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