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Thriving life in the dead ships of Lagos lagoons

Middlemen could typically make at least $80 to $200 a trip for several years. “It’s big business,”

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Abandoned shipwrecks lay in Lagos' waterways, Nigeria, on April 8, 2019. - Dozens of abandoned shipwrecks and barges in Lagos waterways, coastal waters and on the shores of its beaches have turned its 850 kilometer coastline into a marine cemetery, damaging the environment and aesthetics of the coastlines. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

The two men in the motorised wooden canoe look around warily as they leave a towering shipwreck in the Lagos lagoon, with the barrels of oil on board barely concealed under rags. 

The rusting hulk of iron and peeling paint has been battered by the elements and is half submerged in the water. Sprouts of green shoots on deck indicate how long it has been abandoned.

But on closer inspection, the wreck is a working storage facility for stolen or “bunkered” oil, as it is known in Nigeria.

“Oladele”, a 30-year-old who did not want to publicise his real name, has plied the waters on his boat since he was 15.

He says it’s not the only wreck that stores illegally imported oil brought into the port by the huge tankers delivering petrol and gas, then sold on in neighbouring Benin and Togo. 

“Every ship does it. They will declare 10 tonnes but bring in 12,” he told AFP.

“We will store them in the tanks, deep inside the wrecks, then at night usually, it will be picked up.”

Middle men could typically make at least $80 to $200 a trip for several years. “It’s big business,” he said.

Marine cemetery

Scores of shipwrecks in Lagos’ waterways, coastal waters and on the shores of its beaches have turned parts of its shoreline into a marine cemetery.

In Kiri-Kiri, the lagoon corridor, scores of wrecks and discarded ship scrap provide useful cover to hide illicit goods and barrels of oil and gas. 

From there, the waters offer an easy route up the Lagos coast to Benin and beyond. Expensive scrap metal culled from unmanned wrecks can be sold for thousands of dollars.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, churning out about two million barrels a day.

But a lack of fully functioning refineries means crude is exported, processed and then imported for use.

Much of it is shipped through the narrow marine corridor into Lagos. Hundreds of ships wait for days on the horizon of the Gulf of Guinea to get into the port and discharge their goods.

On the way in and out they pass the skeletons of scuttled and abandoned ships, some of which have capsized because of the effects on the tides of the wrecks.

Yet there are also suspicions that amidst lax marine regulation, companies treat Lagos’ waters as a ship refuse site, avoiding incurring the expense of disposing of old vessels.

Experts say the wrecks act as groynes, halting the flow of sand downshore and accelerating erosion. 

Lack of regulation on the waters has also helped illicit activity thrive, turning the ghost ships into hideouts for sea criminals.

Small groups of former crew lounge on several of the wrecks, lodging in dim, disused cabins, keeping watch for anyone seeking to strip the ships of valuable scrap.

One crew member, who asked not to be identified, said he and three others had worked shifts to stay in the cabin all day and night for 15 months since the ship capsized.

Copper and bronze and the brass from the ship’s propeller could be sold for as much as 20,000,000 naira ($55,000), he said.

“People will come and steal valuables that are still here,” he added.

Policing the waters

The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, which polices the country’s waterways, says it is proactive in removing the likely hundreds of wrecks but concede that removing them is expensive. 

Taibat Lawanson, a professor of urban planning at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), said the price of removal was prohibitive.

“Because removing them is so costly, neither the state government nor the federal government takes enough responsibility for their removal,” he said.

Small groups of naval officials, some with uniformed t-shirts, others topless in the sun, bask on the upper decks of confiscated ships.

Tunji Adejumo, a landscape architect and ecologist at UNILAG, says the navy has become the main monitoring agency on the coastline. 

“Yet even still, many of these shipping companies are able to avoid culpability for leaving their wrecks in the water,” he said.

“These shipwrecks hurt the aesthetics of the coastline. They degrade over time, dumped there but rarely dealt with. And they have serious environmental effects.”

Night-time curfew

In Lighthouse Beach, a mostly quiet get-away lined by large beach houses, a wreck at the very end of the shore has been a landmark for visitors for years. 

In parts of the waterways, scuba-diving and spearfishing capitalise on the wrecks aesthetics and the aquatic life it attracts.

Yet many of the wrecks, below sea level and invisible above it, present numerous dangers.

A 6:00 pm curfew exists for commercial boats, which is imposed in part to prevent accidents.

White flags are hoisted on few of the below-the-water wrecks to warn approaching craft but most have no visible warning signs, meaning riders have to remember where they are.  

“It can be dangerous riding the boats at night,” said Oladele.

“But the curfew also protects all these crazy activities that you would see if you travelled here after dark.”

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Ex-health minister arrested for embezzling Ebola funds in DR Congo

Ilunga, who resigned as health minister in July, was detained while hiding in an apartment in Kinshasa

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DR Congo's health minister resigns after removal from key Ebola response role
Former DR Congo health minister Oly Ilunga. (AFP)

Former DR Congo health minister Oly Ilunga has been arrested over allegations he embezzled public funds to tackle the Ebola epidemic, police said on Saturday.

Ilunga, who resigned as health minister in July after being removed as head of the country’s Ebola response team, was detained while hiding in an apartment in the capital Kinshasa ahead of a bid to flee the country, officers said.

He is in custody due to “misdemeanors of the mismanagement of funds allocated to the Ebola response,” police spokesman Colonel Pierrot-Rombaut Mwanamputu told AFP.

Ilunga will be referred to prosecutors on Monday, he added.

It comes after Ilunga was questioned in August as part of an inquiry into the management of funds to fight the outbreak, which has claimed more than 2,000 lives since August 2018.

Ilunga, 59, had already been banned from leaving the country.

He stepped down after criticising plans by the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) to introduce a new, unlicensed vaccine to fight the epidemic.

His lawyer told AFP in September that some payments had been made to local chiefs after the killing of a WHO doctor in April.

More than 200,000 people have been vaccinated during DR Congo’s tenth and most serious Ebola epidemic.

It is the second-worst Ebola outbreak in history after more than 11,000 people were killed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia between 2014 and 2016.

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Telemedicine revolution saving lives in Ivory Coast

The fledgling technology has long been championed by health advocates for rural economies.

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Telemedicine revolution in saving lives in Ivory Coast

Every time Catherine Coulibaly’s 19-year-old son had to make a routine appointment with the cardiologist for his heart condition, she gritted her teeth as she silently counted the financial cost.

It wasn’t just the hospital fee — there was the transport, food and accommodation, too, all of it amounting to a hefty burden for an Ivorian family on a modest income.

But thanks to telemedicine – consultations that doctors conduct through the internet or by phone – this cost is now a fading memory. 

Her son can book an appointment at a telemedicine facility in a nearby town in northern Ivory Coast.

There, he is attached to monitoring machines which send the data sent to Bouake University Hospital in the centre of the country, where it is scrutinised by a heart doctor.

The fledgling technology has long been championed by health advocates for rural economies.

Ivory Coast has become an African testbed for it, thanks to a project linking the Bouake hospital’s cardiac department with health centres in several northern towns, some of which are a four-hour drive away. 

Telemedicine “caused a sigh of relief for the population of Bouake, Boundiali, Korhogo, everyone,” says Auguste Dosso, president of the “Little Heart” association, which helps families with cardiac health issues.

Some 45 percent of the Ivorian population live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank’s latest estimate in 2017. And the minimum monthly wage — not always respected — is only around $100, or 90 euros. 

Heart disease surging

The pioneer behind the scheme is cardiologist Florent Diby, who set up an association called Wake Up Africa.

In Ivory Coast, heart disease, diabetes and other “lifestyle” ailments are surging, Diby explained. 

“Urbanisation is making people more sedentary, and there’s the rise in tobacco consumption, changes in diet, stress,” Diby said.

Three decades ago, only around one in eight of the Ivorian population had high blood pressure — now the figure is one in four, on a par with parts of Western Europe.

But in Ivory Coast — and across Africa — well-equipped cardiology units are rare.

“Ninety percent of heart attacks can be diagnosed by telemedicine, so for us cardiologists it’s a revolutionary technology,” said Diby.

The beauty of the telemedicine scheme is that neither the doctor nor the patient has to travel far. 

The cardiac patient is hooked up to the electrocardiogram (ECG) and other diagnostic machines with the help of a technician in a local health centre, which is connected to a computer in Bouake’s University Hospital. 

The cardiologist there can then see the results in real time, provide a diagnosis and prescribe treatment. 

The five-year-old project has already linked 10 health centres to the seven cardiologists at Bouake, enabling 4,800 patients in other towns to receive consultations by telemedicine each year. The goal is to expand this to 20 sites, doubling the intake.

Expertise France, the French public agency for international technical assistance, subsidises up to 185,000 euros of the network, which pays for equipment such as computers, artificial intelligence software and internet connections. 

Diby is now calling for telemedicine to be expanded in other medical fields such as neurology and psychiatry, not just in the Ivory Coast, but across West Africa too. 

That opinion is shared by other experts. Sixty per cent of Africans live in rural areas, where shortages of doctors are usually acute.

But numerous hurdles need to be overcome, especially investment in computers and access to the internet, according to a 2013 analysis published by the US National Library of Medicine. 

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Moroccan journalist arrested over “Illegal abortion”

Rights groups urged Moroccan authorities to release her, as her lawyers have firmly denied the “illegal abortion” charge.

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hajar raissouni
Hajar Raissouni. Photo credit - Amnesty.org

Hajar Raissouni writes for the Arabic-language daily Akhbar Al-Yaoum, which has a history of run-ins with the authorities.

She was arrested as she left a clinic in Rabat where her lawyer Saad Sahli said she had been undergoing treatment for internal bleeding. 

But the 28-year-old was examined by a medic and the prosecution said she showed signs of pregnancy and of having undergone a “late voluntary abortion”.

In a statement, it insisted her detention had “nothing to do with her profession as a journalist”.

On Friday, Rights groups urged Moroccan authorities to immediately release her, as her lawyers have firmly denied the “illegal abortion” charge.

Raissouni, who is religiously but not yet legally married, is also accused of having “sexual relations outside marriage” and faces a court hearing on Monday.

Her lawyers are lodging a complaint against police for forcing her to have a medical examination, her uncle Souleymane Raissouni told AFP.  

Also arrested were her fiancee, a doctor, a nurse and a secretary. 

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Friday joined social media users in calling for her release.

“Instead of intimidating Hajar Raissouni by prosecuting her on unjust charges, the authorities should immediately and unconditionally release her,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s regional director.

Ahmed Benchemsi, regional communications director at HRW, echoed Morayef’s call for all charges to be dropped.

The case had “a whiff of political manipulation since the defendant is a reporter from one of Morocco’s last newspapers,” he said.

Touafik Bouachrine, the owner of Raissouni’s newspaper, was sentenced in November to 12 years in prison on charges of rape and other offences.

He also denies all charges and his lawyers say his trial was politically motivated.

Raissouni’s arrest sparked heated debate online, and some 150 journalists signed a petition against “campaigns of defamation” against her.

Moroccan law punishes abortions with up to five years in prison, except in cases where the life of the mother is in danger.

However, NGOs say up to 800 women have clandestine abortions every day in the North African country.

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