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The city fit for no-one: Inside the ruined ‘capital’ of the Islamic State group (1)

Quentin Sommerville is on the streets of Raqqa with Syrian Democratic Forces.

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There is a moment in the journey into Raqqa when you leave the real world behind. After the bombed-out Samra bridge, any signs of normal life vanish. Turn right at the shop that once sold gravestones – its owner is long gone – and you are inside the city. Ahead lies nothing but destruction and grey dust and rubble. This is a place drained of colour, of life, and of people. In six days inside Raqqa, I didn’t see a single civilian. They are somewhere inside, trapped by the so-called Islamic State and the Western coalition’s bombing campaign. IS uses them as human shields, and as bait, to lure out the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It seems that not a single building has escaped the onslaught. Many have been crushed, flattened, or knocked to one side by the Western coalition’s air strikes and artillery.

It is a barrage that never ceases. More than two dozen air strikes a day, and hundreds of shells fall on the city. Their target is the last men of the Islamic State. There may be as few as 400 left. The SDF, which is made up of Kurds, Arabs – Muslims and Christian – and Yazidis, among others, has been making good progress since the offensive began in June. It has IS surrounded. And with Western air power pounding from above, its front-line advances are chewing through neighbourhoods. It is only a matter of time – perhaps a month, maybe two – before IS in Raqqa is swallowed whole. This was the capital of the Islamic State’s unrealised caliphate. It was home to half a million people. But now it is fit for no-one. IS is already making propaganda capital out of the destruction. America says this a war of annihilation. Raqqa is the battleground and the victim. Quentin Sommerville is on the streets of Raqqa with Syrian Democratic Forces.

He finds a city devastated by IS rule and Western-led bombardments.

Civilians are trapped – with many being used as human shields.

“The Islamic State was a spectre of terror that had taken over our lives for four years. We grew tired and we despaired. Life had stopped. The only escape was to drown ourselves with work.”

Hatem (not his real name), a shopkeeper in his early 30s, is one of the several hundred civilians who, in mid-August, took the risk and escaped a city plunged into death and destruction. When the SDF announced the Raqqa operation, Hatem says the people of the city were happy, if apprehensive, about the Kurdish role. However, the news coming from SDF-controlled areas was encouraging. “We heard about Tal Abyad becoming relatively stable. Prices of basic staples and foodstuff were decreasing. A barrel of diesel in Tal Abyad dropped to 12,000 liras (£15). In Raqqa it was nearly quadruple that,” the shopkeeper says. But it was the participation of the US-led coalition that the people of Raqqa were most excited about. The advanced weaponry, they thought, would spare them the grind of the urban warfare IS had been preparing for.

“When a coalition air strike took out that French jihadi near the Clocktower Roundabout, I went shortly afterwards to check the scene,” Hatem, whose shop was near the drone strike, says.

“He’d been consumed by flames in his own car. No-one else was killed. There was no shrapnel damage to be seen. We were excited because we thought it was this technology that the USA was bringing into the fight.”

But the excitement was short-lived, as displaced people from the city of Tabqa started flooding into Raqqa. Tales of an “indiscriminate” bombing campaign, flattened buildings and hundreds of alleged civilian deaths rattled the local population. In June, Raqqa’s siege was completed and the US campaign was in full swing. Civilians were trapped inside with IS fighters.

“America is a superpower. It was supposed to use laser-guided bombs and precision munitions. What did we get instead? Massive bombs, mortar rounds and countless artillery strikes. Is that how you liberate Raqqa? You’re murdering civilians instead,” Hatem says, his voice now quivering with a mix of anger and despair.

Airwars, a group monitoring civilian deaths in Russian and US-led coalition air strikes Iraq and Syria, says that US-led forces dropped 5,775 bombs, shells and missiles in Raqqa in August alone, resulting in at least 433 likely civilian casualties.

Ahmad, a Turkey-based Raqqa activist has documented the deaths of at least 750 civilians in the city since June – 520 of which he says were in coalition air strikes. Airwars, on the other hand, says at least 1000 Raqqawi civilians have been killed since June. The coalition has conceded four civilian deaths during the battle for Raqqa. It says it has adhered to strict targeting processes and procedures aimed to minimise risks to civilians. As ever, the Islamic State group was quick to use civilian deaths to its own advantage and pumped out one propaganda video after the other showing burnt corpses and maimed civilians. Lawyer Obeid Agha al-Kaakaji became the face of his bloodied city. With a deep gash across his forehead, Obeid’s face appeared caked with blood and dirt. His thick white hair and long beard were stained brown. The white of his eyes had disappeared behind a disoriented, tormented gaze. He was once a proud lawyer, known across the city of Raqqa for his philanthropy and concern for the downtrodden.

“As a lawyer, Obeid was the caretaker of the family’s assets and wealth in Raqqa,” his Saudi-based relative Hani tells the BBC. “When the siege closed in during Ramadan, he refused to leave, preferring to help people in need.”

The BBC tracked down a former neighbour of Obeid. Ziad (not his real name) witnessed the coalition air strike that hit the al-Kaakajis’s house. According to Ziad, IS fighters had commandeered the house during the last week of June and set up a camouflaged mortar position in the courtyard.

“They hid it right under the tree. They used to come every couple of days and fire a few rounds towards the east of Raqqa,” he says.

“We tried to talk them out of it but they got angry and accused us of being apostates.”

On 22 July, at about 10:30, a coalition air strike targeted Obeid’s house as Ziad was coming to visit the family for their usual morning chat and coffee. That day, IS fighters hadn’t shown up to man the mortar, he says. “Just as I was about to knock on the door, I heard this terrifying noise and then everything turned black. It felt like a hurricane had picked me up and slammed me into the wall behind. I tried to run for cover, but then that’s when the second missile struck,” Ziad says. Lightly injured, but severely bruised, he picked himself up and headed towards the rubble to help survivors. He recognised his other neighbour, Abdellatif al-Sheikh, but he was already dead.

A relative of Obeid’s, I’tidal, was in agony.

“She was lying there, her legs contorted, mangled. She was begging me for help. I can still hear her whimpers asking for help. But I couldn’t do anything. She died there,” Ziad says. Six people survived, Obeid among them. He was right outside in the courtyard when the missiles hit. A wall had collapsed on to him. Ziad says the lawyer didn’t look seriously injured, only “dazed and confused”. He transported him to an IS-run hospital in the west of the city.

“They only tend to their own. As soon as they realised the injured person is a civilian, they stop caring. His injury becomes the lowest of their priorities – even if it’s life threatening,” Ziad says.

Obeid, with his lost and haggard look, quickly came to the attention of the IS propagandists. But he was soon discarded. His condition started deteriorating the second day. An internal injury was suspected. Three days later he died, untreated and uncared for. Ziad is still angry about that day.

“We know that for IS, the blood of civilians is very cheap. But is it the same for Americans? There was no-one operating the mortar that day. There were no IS fighters nearby even. It was there for nearly a month and their drones were flying night and day. Why bomb us? Why?”

His question may never be answered.

For Hatem, the shopkeeper who was excited about the US-led campaign, Raqqa was fast becoming a death-trap. At first, people he didn’t really know were being killed. But as time went by, acquaintances, friends and relatives were dying. “There were 20, 30 civilians being killed every day. People were getting buried under the rubble of their own homes,” he says.

Islamic State fighters, he says, were getting aggressive with the locals. At one point, they stopped sending bulldozers and trucks to move the rubble and rescue civilians.

“They’d ask, ‘You want me to sacrifice the life of a brother for a corpse?’ How can you argue with animals like that?”

One day in early August, stuck at home with no electricity and nothing to do, Hatem began counting incoming thuds and bangs.

“I started at 10 in the morning. By seven in the evening, I had counted more than 290 explosions. The bombing was becoming relentless.”

And so he began plotting his escape.

For the next 10 days, he began monitoring the route he planned to take, where IS had laid mines and at what time there were fewer fighters around. He chose to go south, past the Intercity bus station, past the Central Bank and to the bombed out Old Bridge. A date and time were chosen, and close-knit friends and family were asked to join. In the early hours of 12 August, under a Moonless sky, a group of 40 people had gathered near the Clocktower Roundabout to embark on their perilous journey to safety.

“We took that chance because we all felt that to stay in Raqqa would be our death sentence,” Hatem says.

“We set off at 02:55. We had elderly and disabled people among us. It took us nearly 90 minutes to walk one mile. By 04:30, we reached the bridge and stayed under its ramp,” he says.

Had IS caught them, they would have been executed.

“At the first break of light, we started moving again waving a white flag. The SDF saw us and sent us boats to take us to the other bank,” he says. Hatem sent word to another group waiting to take the same route. Out of the 302 civilians who set off the following night, 12 died stepping on IS mines. For Hatem safety came at a price. The SDF detained the men and started asking them about IS positions in the city.

“We left 5,000 civilians behind,” he says. “Those positions are hidden in built up areas where our friends and relatives still live. Are they going to bomb them?” Asked whether he did reveal the positions, he replied: “I can’t go on remembering any more. This is very painful. I have to go and have some coffee and a cigarette.”

Abu Abdo drives around central Raqqa in an armoured car that once belonged to Islamic State fighters. It’s as ugly as it’s uncomfortable. The unit’s Humvee is in for repair, after IS, in a common tactic, shot out the radiator. Also, Abu Abdo complains, the air conditioning doesn’t work. There is only one seat inside, the driver’s, and it is reserved for the Arab SDF commander. Abu Abdo is from Manbij in northern Syria, he is 24 but looks decades older.

His unit is small, a ragtag bunch fighting in sandals and using Chinese-made AK47s. Almost no-one has a complete uniform. They are a militia, not an army. But they work well together, coordinated and fearless. Some of the fighters are very young. I ask one how old he is. He smiles and shakes his head. Like many young men and boys here in Raqqa, he knows not to answer. Abu Adbo hunches over the steering wheel, his beard almost touching the wheel.

You can see some (IS) bodies here.”

He points them out like a tour guide as the vehicle trundles along. The streets are strewn with rubble, but bulldozers have cut a path through the debris. There is no sign of life anywhere. The only sounds are shelling and sniper fire. The homemade armoured vehicle is hot and noisy inside, riding in it is like being rolled down a hill in an oil drum.

“We got this vehicle when we attacked a Daesh [IS] base,” Abu Abdo says. “We attacked them suddenly. They had no time to take their armoured vehicle, so now it belongs to us.” I ask if it is wise to ride around the city in an IS vehicle with coalition aircraft and drones overhead?

“Before we go out we inform the operations centre and we tell that this vehicle is ours,” he says.

“And we have a flag on the vehicle, a Syrian Democratic Forces flag. The jets can see that this belongs to us,” he adds.

As we rumble along, I point out that there is no flag on the vehicle. He pauses for a moment, and then remembers: “We stopped there earlier and our men took the flag off.” He radios ahead to the next checkpoint to warn of our arrival. He takes us to a high building, near Naim roundabout, at the city’s centre. This is the edge of IS control, the front line. The vehicle lumbers across a street watched by IS marksmen. Abu Abdo wants to get as close as possible so that it is safe to get out. He misjudges and crashes with a loud thud into a pillar. I worry that the building, already half destroyed by coalition air strikes, will collapse. We climb out and enter the building, a former private hospital. His men there have piled up furniture at the bottom of the stairwell, in case IS rush the building.

Further down the street, the black flag of the caliphate hangs from a building. The day is hot and still and the flag doesn’t move. It’s easily within reach, but in the direct line of sniper fire. For now, the SDF dare not remove it. They are trying to take Naim roundabout, the centre of Raqqa, the heart of the caliphate. It’s an important tactical point, overlooking many roads in an area that was full of shops, cafes and offices.

Now it is called the Circle of Hell.

The SDF has another reason for wanting to retake it, there their comrades and friends were crucified and beheaded by IS. When the roundabout falls, they say, they will truly cleanse Raqqa of the murderous Islamic State. IS fighters have mined the buildings and the roads, so few have been cleared. They’ve left motion sensors in some buildings so that when SDF forces enter, or open a cupboard door, a bomb detonates. Every home and workplace has been damaged. Even a captured IS weapons store has been left untouched for fear of booby traps. Abu Abdo shows me a camouflage balaclava, it’s one of the few things they retrieved from there.

“Their snipers have control of the rooftops. Keep your head down.”

A call comes across the radio. One of his fighters has been shot and is trapped in a nearby street. When we get there the man can’t be reached. He has been hit in the chest. IS snipers are firing at the end of the street, and Abu Abdo’s men are pinned down. They are desperate to get to the injured fighter, but every time they move closer, more shots ring out. Suddenly there are two big explosions nearby. IS has dropped grenades from drones. The SDF fighters run and take cover in nearby shops. Abu Adbo pulls out his walkie-talkie, and looks at his phone.

He calls up a map of the street and reads out the coordinates. He looks at me. “Air strike,” he says. Everyone is told to take cover. The injured fighter, his name is Nadin Abu Aziz, is still trapped on the road. He isn’t moving. I duck into an electrical shop, its shutters have been forced open. It’s quiet outside, as the men wait patiently for coalition aircraft to take out the IS gunman. We hear warplanes fly close and low, but no bang. The SDF fighters continue to wait. There’s no sign of life from the trapped fighter.

Inside the electrical shop, there is a man-sized hole in the wall. A pneumatic drill lies on the floor. Through it is another store, and a stockpile of bottled water, and food. There’s enough to last a year. Beyond that, another gap in the wall, into another building, and a room with a bed, a stove and a motorcycle. This was an IS hideout. It spans three buildings and the IS fighter would have been able to have access to all the floors above including the roof. IS has created thousands of these firing positions across the city. Mindful of IS booby traps, I don’t explore any further. Outside I can hear coalition jets flying low and close. The strike hits the targeted building precisely. Like the others in the street, it is a ruin. Time and time again, entire buildings are taken to kill a single fighter.

It’s unsurprising so little of Raqqa is left. The SDF lacks the manpower to clear buildings themselves, so coalition bombs do the work. A thousand coalition sledgehammers, smashing down on a nut, building after building, street after street. The IS gunman is no longer shooting, he’s either dead or gone. SDF fighters rush to Nadin Abu Aziz, they pick him up and awkwardly place him in the back of the former IS armoured car. His eyes are closed, and it looks like the IS marksman shot him in the chest. When Abu Abdo returns with the news that Nadin is dead, no-one is surprised, but still they stop, stare and fall silent. One young fighter takes a crucifix from under his shirt and holds it while mumbling a prayer. Another crouches down in the street and says nothing. The Sun is beginning to set and the men are exhausted. But this is not an unusual day, says Abo Abdo, shaking his head.

“Yesterday we were supposed to receive some civilians but one of us was killed. We went to help families and babies, and one of us was shot in the head.”

IS fighters were hiding, in disguise, among the civilians. “They attacked us with their men dressed as women, and there were big numbers, like a hundred,” he continues. “We guessed that they were civilians, and they also had children with them, and suddenly the civilians and children went to the side of the road, and then they started to fire at us”. Civilians in Raqqa, there may be as many as 20,000 in IS territory, are used as bait as well as human shields. “We’ll keep going,” says Abu Abdo. “We will sacrifice our blood for Raqqawi’s and our people inside, because they are having a tough time, a really tough time.”

Raqqa is the doomsday city.

Special Report

Nigeria ranks top in mortality rate attributed to air pollution

-air pollution accounts for about 65,000 deaths annually in Nigeria
-country consumes over 500 million kilograms of firewood daily

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The city of Port Harcourt in Nigeria affected by black soot
The city of Port Harcourt in Nigeria covered in thick soot [Photo credit: CNN]

Despite increased efforts to sensitise Nigerians on the importance of clean air and the attendant effects of air pollution, Nigeria still ranks top in mortality rate attributed to air pollution.

Air pollution is not peculiar problem to Nigerian as it is a global health challenge, killing about 6.5 million people worldwide.

According to data by healthdata.org, air pollution in Nigeria between 2015 and 2016 ranks number 4 among risk factors that drive the most deaths and disabilities combined.

Though efforts have been made by the government and international agencies to curb the effects of this environmental hazard, it still remains a major public health problem.

With a vast number of its population depending on coal and firewood, access to alternative sources of cleaner air remains a luxury, rather than a public good.

According to a study by The Lancet Respiratory Medicine in 2014, India and sub-Saharan Africa are most heavily affected by “Indoor air pollution deaths (per million people).”

The survey shows that Nigeria has 400-610 Indoor air pollution deaths per million populations.

Though efforts are being made worldwide to fight the duality of climate change and energy poverty especially in India and sub-Saharan Africa, an alarming number of 3.5 million and 4.3 million persons die each year to indoor air pollution, killing more people each year than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined, a report by VOX revealed.

Lung cancer and heart disease are the major health threats posed by the menace of indoor air pollution but it is not treated with the type of urgency and attention given to HIV/AIDs.

In 2017, Senate President, Bukola Saraki, represented by Senator Audu Ibrahim, said about 65,000 Nigerians die yearly to household pollution.

Bukola Saraki

The revelation was made known at the 2017 Nigeria Clean Cooking Forum which was organized in partnership with the Federal Ministry of Environment in Abuja.

According to Mr. Saraki, more than half of the deaths recorded yearly were children.

He remarked “Nigerians consume between 1.9kg to 4kg/day/capita of firewood depending on household size. When applied to the country’s population currently put at about 170 million people, the country consumes more than 500 million kilograms of firewood daily.”

In a report made available to SATELLITE TIMES, the Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) identified the challenges facing the environment as multifaceted including water pollution, indoor and outdoor air pollution, industrial pollution, biodiversity loss, erosion, coastal and marine erosion and land subsidence, land degradation, drought and desertification, among others.

“Out of all these myriads of environmental problems Nigeria is facing, air pollution is the most common and widespread,” the report cited.

While oxides of nitrogen (NOx), sulphur (SOx) and carbon monoxide (Co) remain the major pollutants affecting the environment, the report identified two (2) major sources of air pollution which are; man-made (burning of fossil fuels- natural gas, coal, burning of waste, bush burning, energy production, etc) and natural sources (forest fires, volcanic eruptions, wind erosion, pollen dispersal among others.)

 

Bush burning in Nigeria [Photo credit: Independent Newspapers Nigeria]

According to the report, air pollution has adverse effects on both the environment and on health. Smog, acid rain, greenhouse effects and global warming are some of the effects of air pollution on the environment.

On the other hand, the health challenges cannot be overlooked as indoor/household air pollution accounts for about 65,000 deaths annually in Nigeria. Top on the list of these challenges are – breathing problems, inflammation of the respiratory track causing coughing, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, vector-borne diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis, lyme disease, among others.

Government action to curb air pollution

When SATELLITE TIMES contacted NESREA on what measures it had put in place to curb the adverse effects of air pollution in Nigeria, the Director, Environmental Quality Control (EQC), Mr Simon B. Joshua said that Nigeria is signatory to and has ratified various international conventions, treaties and protocols.

The creation of NESREA as a parastatal of the Federal Ministry of Environment (FME) in 2007 is part of governments move to pay attention to the environment as the agency is “charged with the responsibility of enforcing all environmental laws, guidelines, policies, standards and regulations in Nigeria. It also has the responsibility to enforce compliance with provisions of all international agreements, protocols, conventions and treaties on the environment to which Nigeria is a signatory,” the report made available to this paper read.

Though policies like the National Vehicular Emissions Control Programme (NVECP) and National Generator Emission Control Programme (NGECP) have been put in place, 60% of air pollution in Nigeria is attributed to emissions from transportation and generators.

Medical opinion on the implications of air pollution

SATELLITE TIME contacted a medical doctor, Terry Debo who gave his professional views on the factors that lead to air pollution, symptoms of diseases and the need for health education.

According to him, sources of air pollution (especially for indoor air pollution) vary but the most common in Nigeria are caused by cooking fuel or sources of energy for cooking like firewood, gas, charcoal and stoves that use kerosene, and bush burning.

A coal pot used to illustrate the story [Photo credit: Information Nigeria]

He said that these sources of energy or fuel release carbon monoxide that is harmful to the body.

Corroborating NESREA’s report, Debo said another major source of air pollution that affects people especially in urban areas in Nigeria are generators. He said that the substances that are emitted known as carcinogens are harmful to the body especially to the blood.

“Because carbon monoxide binds more with haemoglobin than oxygen when an individual is exposed to air pollution, oxygen cannot be transported easily this in turn begins to affect tissues in the blood. The body system begins to fail which can lead to brain death and actual death itself,” Debo said.

Symptoms of lung and heart diseases

According to Debo, the most obvious symptom is cough. If you have a cough that lasts more than three weeks, it is something that should give you a reason to go to the hospital. Chest pain is another symptom, he added.

When asked if the early signs are reversible, he said yes.

“For people who live around poorly ventilated environment, active smokers, or exposed to cooking fuel that emits toxic by- products, when they notice these early signs, they shouldn’t hesitate to see a doctor as early as possible.

“Investigations like chest X-rays would be carried out and if picked early, some of them can be abated with medications. Lifestyle changes also play a very crucial role in abating these diseases.

“Some people know the effects of these problems but they do not care. But with proper health education on these factors will help a lot because some people are outrightly ignorant. People need to know that they are affected directly or indirectly,” he concluded.

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Special Report

Yelwan: A community where trees are classrooms

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As the number of out of school children surge across the country, many communities with no presence of educational infrastructure, now turn to tree shades as learning centre. Satellite Times visit to communities in Nassarawa State reveal the harrowing experiences of children who travel several kilometers every day to get education.

Sa’adatu Umar is 15-years old. Her first school experience was July 2016, then; she was 14. Like other children in Yelwan community, education is an unnecessary luxury.  No child is enrolled into formal school in Yelwan, parents looked eager to put their wards into school but there are no schools in the community. The closest primary school is about 5 kilometers away on a bushy, lonely and dangerous path.

“We only need a normal classroom to be built for our children” says Mallam Adbulahi, the community head of Yelwan. Abdulahi points to an open space where community school can be sited.

There are more than 200 children who are not enrolled in school, the request to site a school in the community has not been heeded, the community have written to Keffi Local government, they have appealed to prominent politicians in neighbouring town who only visits during election, no one has responded to their call for educational shelter but determined to give hope to the children, the community heads tasked each household a sum of 1000 naira per month. This contribution enabled them purchase writing materials – black boards, mats and a 3,000 naira stipend to a volunteer teacher.

With no shelter yet, about 200 yearning children who had never been to school are excited to have a chance at education even if it is offered under the shades of trees. “About 90 children rushed to take a front spot at the ‘new’ Yelwan primary school on the first day of school’ remarks Adbulahi, an elderly community head.

Even Abdulahi, not sure of his own real age but wished he had a chance at education, he explained how his lack of education had cost him a decent life. “If I had attended school, I would have been a big man today” Abdulahi said through an interpreter. Every strand of his wrinkled face bares his pain “I now know the value of education and we are determined to get this children education” said Abdulahi.

The ‘new’ Yelwan School is sheltered under two large trees. The two large trees represent class A and class B.

When Satellite Times asked the Musa Muazu, the social welfare officer at the Keffi Local government, he admitted that the local government had received requests for shelter but there were no funding for the request. “We are aware of the situation here, when we got their request and visited, we decided to make recommendation to the State Universal Basic Education, SUBEC.” Said Muazu.

Musa Muazu, Social Welfare Officer, Keffi, Nassarawa State

Yelwan community is a reflection of the poor state of education in Keffi, many public schools visited were in dilapidated conditions with overcrowded classrooms, poor ventilation, open or leaking roof. There is deficiency of both physical and mental infrastructure. The teaching staff too are least qualified, delivering lecture in local Hausa dialect.

In Keffi, the sight of children wandering barefooted in torn clothing and clutching empty stained food bowl dots the town. For a state that has signed the Child Right Law, it is disturbing to observe an open disregard for that law.  It appears that families are only concerned about their own children and government about politics, not the people.

Knowing the power of traditional institutions, Muazu through the Social Welfare Department once engaged the Emir of Keffi, one of the most revered traditional ruler in the state “We are using our traditional rulers to ensure that children go to school, no matter the condition of the school, we will play our role and hope that the government will play their role of providing infrastructure” he said, narrating how the Emir of Keffi has become an advocate of child education.

As reported, a man had shipped 27 children into Keffi from Katsina under the guise of enrolling them into an Islamic school. However, his real intention was to make the children make money for him.  So he put them out on the street, handed them a bowl each and issued a daily target for food and money.

Luck ran out on him after he physically abused one of the children. The news got to the Social Welfare Officer who reported the incidence to the Emir of Keffi. The outraged members of the emirate council ordered a public punishment to serve as a deterrent. The man was whipped in the public and the children were withdrawn from the street and reunited with their parents in Katsina.

Abugye Community

Like Yelwan, Abugye community too has no school shelter. This community is in Keana local government, lafia, Nassarawa State.

The road to Abugye community is rough and dangerous. This community seats in the heart of a thick forest. There are no electricity, no clean water, no medical centre and no access to mobile telephone signal.

Abugye is home to more than 300 school age children, some of whom have been withdrawn from school because of the pain of travelling 3 kilometers to the nearest school.

“You can live here without money” says Yahaya Ibrahim, 37, the spokesperson of the community who claim he has not used money for exchange of any goods or services. “I have not used money for more than 2years, everything we need is here” he enthused.

The community may have everything they require for their nomadic lifestyle but it is lacking in the essentials for building their minds and their future. They lack schools for their children.

Adama Yahaya treks 3 kilometers everyday to school. She hurriedly makes her way through the rocky; narrow path that leads to the nearest primary school in Abugye, a fulani community in Keana Local government area of Nassarawa State.

Adama Yahaya

 

Adama is 7 but she does the chores of an adult. Her day begins as early as 5am. She accompanies her young mother to the stream to fetch water, she combs through the woods to fetch fire wood and by 7am, she begins a long journey to school.

Adama is one of the few girls in the community whose parents refused to withdraw from school. “She is very smart” says her 37 years old father of 8 children.  “I want to become a teacher, so that I can teach a lot of children in my community” Adama said with glittering smile.

Satellite Times learnt that many children of school age do not attend school in Abugye community because of the long distance and the fear of exposing the children to reptile attack.

The rate of child neglect and abandonment in Keana is high; it gives an idea of the real situation in Nigeria.

In 2003, the Child Right Act was signed into Law; it was also domesticated in about 24 States of the federation.

Still, more than 10 million children are out of school in Nigeria, the rate of abandonment, high incidences of child abuse, public and institutional disregard to the rights of vulnerable children and neglect remain constantly on rise.

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Special Report

Inside the N50 billion Sunti sugar project

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Ariel view of the N50 billion Sunti sugar project
Ariel view of the N50 billion Sunti sugar project

The presence of the President, Mohammadu Buhari, at the commissioning ceremony last week in Niger State spoke volume of the importance of the Sunti sugar project to the Nigerian economy. An initiative of Flour Mills of Nigeria, the sugar production facility is visibly ‎one of the largest agro-allied investments in Nigeria.

Located in Mokwa, Niger state, the Sunti Golden Sugar Estate (SGSE) Limited is a wholly owned subsidiary of Flour Mills and features a sugar factory and cane production allotment. At full capacity the estate and mill will produce about 1,000,000 metric tonnes of cane and 100,000 metric tonnes of sugar annually.

Enclosed within a 35-kilometer dyke, the production facility area is 15,100 hectares, with a cane area that features a maximum output of 10,000 hectares. The dyke provides flood protection from the River Niger. The estate features the state-of-the-art irrigation system that will ensure efficient cultivation of sugar cane, with infrastructure that includes drain pumps, pump stations, and a power grid.

The sugar estate is the purest representation of the Federal Government’s Nigerian Sugar Master Plan which comes with an ambitious backward integration program that intends to set Nigeria on the path to self-sufficient sugar production. At capacity Sunti Golden Sugar Estates will replace about $100 million that Nigeria spends annually importing sugar.‎ Demand for labor created by this project has led to 3,000 currently employed people with a projection of 10,000-strong workforce as development proceeds.

The estate has brought infrastructure benefits to the surrounding community, with 28 communities in total taking advantage of a new 30-kilometer road in addition to expansive road networks that provide a variety of access routes to the homes of the indigenes. Drains, culverts, and flood-protection walls have also been constructed.

The 50-billion-naira investment in Nigeria’s sugar value chain provides a concrete example of the effort to reduce sugar importation, save billions in foreign exchange, boost local capacity, and reduce unemployment by putting thousands of Nigerians to work in the agricultural and industrial sectors, which is very much aligned to President Buhari’s policy thrust and agenda.

Speaking after a tour of the sugar farm, the President said “Projects like the Sunti Sugar Estate are in tandem with the vision and objectives that we set out to achieve when this administration instituted the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). While, our focus is steadfast on delivering on our policy goals of tackling corruption, improving security and rebuilding the economy; more than ever, government will work in close partnership with businesses to strengthen investments in agriculture, power, manufacturing, solid minerals, and the service sectors”.

The Chairman of Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc. Mr. John G Coumantaros said his organisation’s mantra “Feeding the Nation, Every day,” is at the heart of the company’s strategic decisions on what they produce, how and where factories are set up, the level of care that is put into products, and how they interact with host communities and the wider environment.

The site of the sugar project was acquired and compensation paid to host communities by the then President Shehu Shagari in 1980. Though sugarcanes were produced, they were never processed within the facility. The Federal Government in a privatization exercise sold the investment to an organization who in turn sold it to Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc, the current owners.

The construction of the plant commenced in 2011. The existing plant undertakes pre milling, milling and processing of sugarcane while refining is carried out in Lagos. The site which lies along the banks of River Niger measures 17 hectares out of which 3 hectares have been cultivated with sugarcane to feed the plant. Besides the plant and the farm is the staff quarter which is located closely to the plant.

Speaking on the composition of the facility the plant engineer, Benjamin Chima Alisigwe, talked about the pre milling house, milling house and process house. A digital laboratory ensure quality control. In the pre milling house are the Weigh Bridge, hydraulic grab, silo (offload), chopper, leveler, fiberizer, equalizer and magnetic separator. The mill house consists of mill one to four. At mill four, the finest juice is extracted, by-product as bagasse is separated and sent to the power to power their boiler. Finally, the juice is filter through sand catcher before it is conveyed to the process house.

Dignitaries at the commissioning ceremony included the Niger State governor Abubakar Sani Bello; governor of Kebbi State, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu; CBN Governor, Godwin Emefile and Minister for Trade and Investment, Okechukwu Enalamah. Others were Prof. Jerry Gana; Nigeria’s Ambassador to Greece; Etsu Nupe Yahaya Abubakar and representatives from Dangote group amongst others.

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