Port Harcourt, the capital city of Rivers state which lies along the Bonny River in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger-Delta region, is now engulfed in a dark, powdery, hazy soot that is making breathing and life difficult for residents.
The Garden City (as Port Harcourt is also known) is now a dark city, “literally.”
When did the soot begin?
Early 2017, residents of Port Harcourt noticed an unusual dark sky with tiny, black particles falling from it. On February 10, 2017, Pulsereported on the environmental pollution taking place in the Rivers State capital.
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Within the same month, the people of Port Harcourt began panicking and took to social media to demand answers over the environmental pollution that has become their lot.#StopTheSoot started trending on social media.
People affected by the soot posted pictures and videos of dark skies, soot in their swimming pools and even dark particles removed from the nose of a 9-month-old baby.
Responding to the online protest, the Rivers state government gave a sketchy reply to the environmental pollution.
Now, a year and two months after, the situation in Port Harcourt hasn't gotten any better. Sandra Ezekwesili, a radio personality who lives in Port Harcourt, says that within the last couple of months, it has become a lot more intense.
“For people who have lived in Eleme and Okrika where the refinery is located, this soot has been a problem for that long. But something changed towards the end of 2016 to make the problem that Eleme and Okrika people have been living with, transfer into the Port Harcourt metropolis. And that’s why there's an outcry,” Ezekwesili said.
Ezekwesili is referring to the Port Harcourt Refining Company situated at Alesa Eleme, 27 minutes away from Okrika which many have blamed for the soot situation in the Garden City.
“Especially because the part of Port Harcourt that’s affected the most at the moment are the ‘big men’ parts of Port Harcourt—the Woji, the Trans Amadi, the GRA. So there’s an outcry now. Everyone is talking about it. The soot problem has been around for a long time especially for people who live around the area where the refinery is. Which is why those who say it could be the refinery may have a point”, Ezekwesili says.
No one knows where the soot is coming from
No one knows exactly where the soot is coming from. Some have blamed kpo-fires—illegal refineries that dot Rivers State and much of the oil-rich Niger Delta. Others have blamed everything else under the sun.
“At the initial stage, the government set up a panel to look into the matter and the committee was supposed to give us like a report. But there has been no feedback”, Ezekwesili says. “The first two days after the committee was set up, they shut down a Chinese asphalt company, saying this company was responsible for the soot.
“Things seemed to cool off a bit but a few days later, the skies were dark again. So, apparently, it wasn’t from the asphalt company. The government still hasn’t said this is what is going on. Some people have said it’s from people burning tyres. Bullshit.
“Some have said it’s from people burning cowhide for leather. Bullshit. Some have said it’s from the illegal refineries. That might be one source. But also, another source could be the Port Harcourt refinery. But there’s no categorical proof that it’s the Port Harcourt refinery that’s the cause.
“Some say something has probably gone bad at the refinery. Like a malfunction of a unit or something”, she adds.
The effect of soot on health
According to a published paper by Okhumode H. Yakubu of the Department of Public Health Sciences, College of Health and Social Services Building, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces in December 2017, the effect of the soot on health of humans is enormous.
The paper titled ‘Particle (Soot) Pollution in Port Harcourt Rivers State, Nigeria—Double Air Pollution Burden? Understanding and Tackling Potential Environmental Public Health Impacts’ notes that: “Soot penetrates deep down in the lungs, imparting a wide range of serious health outcomes, including acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma among children, heart attacks, and strokes, as well as premature death.”
AFP reports that doctors in Port Harcourt say they are seeing the health effects of the soot already, with an increase in consultations for breathing difficulties, including asthma.
Children and the elderly are most at risk. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates some 600,000 people die in Africa every year as a result of air pollution.
Environmentalists are also sounding the alarm, as the soot has been found to contain sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which cause acid rain when combined with moisture.
Chukwuma tells Pulse that; “On the day of my worst asthma attack, I happened not to have my inhaler on me. So, when the attack started, I could not breathe. The soot gets worse during the dry season. People are suffering down here. People are really suffering. Before I could talk to you, I had to take a shot of my inhaler”.
Chukwuma was coughing and sneezing intermittently as he spoke.
Port Harcourt residents hit the streets to protest soot
On April 19, 2018, tired of complaining on the internet about their breathing problems from a worsening soot, Ezekwesili and other residents of Port Harcourt hit the streets of the city for a protest march.
They wore T-Shirts emblazoned with the words ‘Stop the soot’ and encircled the city as stern-looking police officers kept a close eye on events.
The politics of soot
The Rivers State and federal governments have resorted to trading blames and playing politics with the issue.
Simeon Nwakaudu, Special Assistant to Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike, in a statement sent to Pulse, said the soot has been politicized. He also accused radio personalities in Port Harcourt of pushing the agenda of the APC led federal government at the centre.
“A few days ago, Nigerian Info Port Harcourt, broadcast on her platform that Port Harcourt was the 4th most polluted city in the world. Upon this controversial and fake information, the station's on-air personalities took turns to sell this false information, opening their telephone lines to justify this falsehood”, Nwakaudu wrote.
“These Nigerian Info on-air personalities did not stop at this falsehood, they went further to mislead the public that the Rivers State Government should be blamed for the soot that has been a major environmental challenge in Rivers State.
“They had earlier developed a twitter group where they lampooned the Rivers State government on the pollution occasioned by the soot. They designed several cartoons, with one that is extreme in which they referred to Port Harcourt as hellfire because of the soot.
“For the Nigerian Info, the narrative against the Rivers State government is a task that must be executed without conscience and respect for basic broadcast rules.
“It is no longer a secret that the APC federal government and her agencies deliberately work to undermine development in Rivers State. As a result, they have frustrated all efforts to resolve the soot challenge.
“The security services, despite the several pleas of the Rivers State governor, have refused to seek alternative means of destroying illegal refineries. Instead, they continue to damage the environment by blasting the refineries and releasing the soot into the air.
“Federal Ministry of Environment, Federal Ministry of Petroleum, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency ( NOSDRA) have permanently looked the other way, refusing to act, despite the several presentations made to them by the Rivers State Government. The sad aspect of this unfortunate attitude is the fact that several pro-APC civil society organisations have been contracted to make excuses for the failed APC federal government”.
The Rivers State government says Governor Wike is doing everything to combat the soot that has enveloped his domain.
"The present mode of destroying illegal refineries is negatively affecting our environment. Everywhere across the state you see black soot deposited on surfaces of buildings, cars and other structures.
"The state government is working hard to resolve this environmental challenge, but we need the cooperation of the Nigerian Army and other security agencies on the manner they destroy illegal refineries", the Rivers State government said.
DG explains why there's soot
Mr Peter Idabor, Director General of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), told journalists in Port Harcourt that the soot is the result of abattoirs burning tyres, heating of asphalt and also the burning of stolen petroleum products by security agencies.
Idabor adds that the Ministry of Environment and its affiliated bodies have held several meetings with law enforcement agencies and other stakeholders to end the soot.
Ezekwesili has helped draw attention to the soot through her tweets and advocacy on radio and she tells Pulse she isn’t stopping until something is done.
“The federal and State governments aren’t even saying what they should be saying. The federal government isn’t even acting like there’s a problem because it’s not Lagos that is affected. If it were Lagos...my friend who has asthma now has to use the inhaler every day because he has frequent attacks", she says.
NBC threatens to shut radio stations over soot
With radio stations in Port Harcourt sensitizing the public on the health implications of the soot and calling on the government to do more, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) recently threatened to yank stations off the air.
“So guys, NBC has threatened to shut down our three stations because we are alleged to be inciting the public to protest against the State government. They have threatened a shutdown and a N500,000 fine”, a Whatsapp message from a radio personality in Port Harcourt, sent to Pulse, read.
Last week, the management of Nigerian Info radio station, via an internal memo seen by Pulse, pleaded with its presenters to speak less about the soot in order not to incur the wrath of the NBC.
“Dear Presenters, the NBC State coordinator called today over a complaint about Nigerian Info championing a protest tomorrow against the Rivers State government over the soot. I told her the allegation is false and she advised we seek a better approach on sensitizing the public about this matter.
“Her call is coming after several from politicians on this matter who believe we are being used to make the Wike administration look bad over the soot issue.
“Like I have told some of you guys, the whole #StopTheSoot campaign is being perceived ‘wrongly’ as political. It’s normal for politicians to feel that way and note that they would try to muscle you with every strength they have got.
"We are the only radio stations really talking about this soot issue and people are listening to us. However, please note that even though we have a duty to the people to speak up on a serious health hazard like the soot, we must be careful not to become the target of anybody.
“Finally, let’s tread carefully on this matter”, the internal memo read.
Pulse reached out to the Federal Ministries of Health and Environment on the environmental pollution in Port-Harcourt. The federal parastatals did not respond to any of our questions.
As the politics over the soot intensifies, residents of Port Harcourt tell Pulse that it’s now always ‘harmattan’ season in Rivers, no thanks to the soot that is daily damaging lungs of friends and family.
A dangerous, different kind of harmattan in a city once famous for its serenity and gardens.