Road construction crews in southeastern Nigeria have begun work on a six-lane, 260-kilometer “superhighway” in Cross River State, which a Nigerian governor argues will be an economic booster shot for the region.
The road is slated to go through the buffer zone of Cross River National Park, and opponents say its construction could have a devastating impact on the park.
Cross River National Park is home to many forest-dependent species, such as the critically endangered Cross River gorilla.
Road construction crews in southeastern Nigeria have begun work on a six-lane, 260-kilometer “superhighway” in Cross River State, which Governor Ben Ayade argues will be an economic booster shot for the region. Opponents, however, worry about the effects it may have on the nearby Cross River National Park.
The Oban division of Cross River National Park holds some 3,000 square kilometers of lowland rainforest. It’s a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site and recognized as a biodiversity hotspot because of the many unique species there facing pressure from humans. Its slopes are home to important watersheds, and they hold rare and endangered animals such as forest elephants, leopards, and primates like drills and Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees. Cross River National Park is also contiguous with Korup National Park across the border in Cameroon.
The rarely seen and critically endangered Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), numbering perhaps 300, inhabits a separate section of the park.
The superhighway’s path is slated to cut through the park’s buffer zone. This will likely encourage communities to pick up and move there in search of greater economic opportunities, says Odey Oyama, executive director of the Rainforest Resource and Development Centre based in Cross River State. Construction of the road could have a devastating impact on that section of the forest, Oyama told mongabay.com.
“If that happens, you can be sure that the entire forest will be gone in no time,” he said.
A lot of research has shown how detrimental roads can be to forests, as well as to the biodiversity and ecosystems they support. Deforestation from the construction of roads isn’t the only threat. Roads allow greater access to formerly far-flung places, bringing with them agricultural expansion, illegal logging, and poaching.
Even now, illegal logging is a problem in Cross River National Park, and poachers have reportedly pushed down the numbers of large mammals living inside park boundaries, according the Daily Trust, a Nigerian newspaper.
The superhighway is a “signature project” of Governor Ayade, who took office on May 29, 2015. Once completed, it will connect a proposed deep seaport – also one of Ayade’s initiatives – in Calabar with the cities of Ikom and Katsina Ala.
“It became imperative that we reconstruct a new means of production,” Ayade said in a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony on October 20. He said that Cross River State is still reeling from the loss of the oil wealth when Nigeria relinquished the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon in 2012 after a 2002 ruling by the International Court of Justice, and the highway will allow the transport for goods to and from the port.
“We need to open the horizon to get teeming young people employed,” he said. He added that the road should reduce the travel time between Katsina Ala and Calabar from five or six hours down to 90 minutes.
The original groundbreaking ceremony had been set for mid September, but Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari cancelled his trip when Nana Fatima Mede, the Ministry of Environment Permanent Secretary, told him that the legally required environmental impact assessment – EIA, for short – for the highway had not been filed. Furthermore, she advised him, the track was supposed to cut right through Cross River National Park.
“The President’s reaction is a very strong signal to remind everyone that the law cannot be taken for granted,” said Nnimmo Bassey, in an interview with mongabay.com. Bassey is the director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an environmental think-tank in Benin City, Nigeria.
After the president passed on the first groundbreaking ceremony, the governor’s team changed their plans, according to an article in the Nigerian newspaper Premium Times. “Based on the input of the Cross River National Park, the road has since been re-routed with the alignment now several kilometers away from the park,” said Ayade’s press secretary, Christian Ita.
Even with the route seven kilometers from the border of the park, the forest is still at risk, Bassey said. “That is too close.”
Ita also told Premium Times that a Ministry of Environment-sanctioned consultant, PGM Nigeria, was handling the EIA.
But critics of the project say that they haven’t yet seen evidence of an impact study. In a statement, Oyama pointed out that Ayade and the project architects have not said how they will compensate indigenous groups and local communities in places where the road impinges on the forest and agriculture land on which they depend. And he said that road building in the buffer zone of the national park violates Nigerian law.
Amid these “ethical issues,” Oyama said in an interview with mongabay.com, he questions why the president came to the village of Obung (near Calabar) for the groundbreaking ceremony in October.
“I think the president was not properly guided before he went to the groundbreaking event,” he added. “I am sure that if he got the information that we are providing him now, he definitely would not have gone to the groundbreaking.”
Concerned about the transparency of the project design, Oyama said that no blueprints have been released for the four-to-five-year project.
“We don’t know what the goal of this administration is in the next four years,” Oyama said. “We don’t know their specific objective or what they intend to achieve to attain their goal.”
And he believes Nigerian taxpayers deserve to know where the money for the project comes from. Oyama said it’s not clear whether the financing is in the form of a loan or a grant, or whether the
The estimated cost for the seaport and the road together is 700 billion Naira (more than $3.5 billion), according to an article in the news website Information Nigeria.
Currently, Oyama is working through the courts to stop progress on the road until these questions are addressed.
Although neither President Buhari’s nor Governor Ayade’s office responded to mongabay.com’s requests for comment, Ayade said in his speech at the groundbreaking that they had received 500 million Euros ($537 million) from an “Israeli-British” investment firm, as well as backing from several Nigerian banks.
President Buhari pledged his future support to the project: “I want to assure you of the commitment of the federal government to ensure the completion of the project. I promise I will come back to commission it.”
The superhighway project also has its supporters beyond the government. Chinedum Nwajiuba, dean of postgraduate studies at Imo State University, applauded Ayade’s efforts in an editorial in Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper. He said that projects such as the road could help Cross River State realize its long-discussed potential for ecotourism, in addition to serving as a conduit for commerce through eastern Nigeria. Ayade’s development plans, he argued, serve as a model for other governors looking to bolster their states’ bottom lines.
“This is about attracting financial inflows into the Cross River economy,” Nwajiuba wrote.
But opponents say the officials involved have to be held accountable and follow the legal processes, regardless of the intended benefits, so that Nigerians understand all of the impacts of a project the scale of a superhighway.
“It’s a clear case of impunity, without regard for the law or consultation,” Bassey said.