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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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Prime Minister under Muammar Gaddafi’s rule freed in Libya

Mahmoudi was arrested in September 2011 as he tried to flee across the border to Tunisia, and was extradited to Libya

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Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, Libya’s last prime minister under ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi, has been released from jail for health reasons four years after being sentenced to death, Tripoli’s justice ministry said Saturday.

Mahmoudi, in his 70s, was premier when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled and killed Gaddafi.

He was handed the death sentence in July 2014 along with eight other Gaddafi-era officials including the leader’s son Seif al-Islam, over their alleged role in a bloody crackdown on protesters.

The justice ministry said Mahmoudi was released “for health reasons” at the recommendation of a medical commission “so that he could be treated at specialised medical centres”.

It gave no further details on the nature of his illness or when he was liberated.

Mahmoudi was arrested in September 2011 as he tried to flee across the border to Tunisia, and was extradited to Libya the following year.

During his detention in Tunisia, he claimed that Libya had financed the 2007 election campaign of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, according to his lawyers.

The French ex-president vehemently denied the allegations, initially made by Seif al-Islam.

But Sarkozy was charged in March 2018 over accusations he accepted millions of euros from Gaddafi.

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East Africa News & Stories

The battle for women’s rights in ‘new’ Sudan is not yet over

We will no longer wait for our rights, we will fight to obtain them,” – Amani Osmane

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She may have spent 40 days in jail for demonstrating against President Omar al-Bashir who has since been toppled but activist Amani Osmane says the battle for women’s rights in Sudan is far from over.

Women have been at the forefront of the revolt which led to Bashir’s overthrow by the military on April 11 after three decades of iron-fisted rule.

Osmane, who is also a lawyer, was detained on the evening of January 12 and escorted to “the fridge”, a grim room where interrogations are paired with extreme cold.

“There are no windows, nothing, just air conditioning at full blast and the lights on 24/7,” she told AFP.

The fridge is part of a detention centre run by the all-powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) in a building on the Blue Nile that runs through Khartoum.

Dozens of activists and political opponents of Bashir’s regime have passed through what NISS agents cynically refer to as “the hotel”.

Osmane, who spent 40 days behind bars after a frigid seven hours of questioning, said she was arrested “contrary to all laws… because I stand up for women in a country where they have no rights”.

Another activist, Salwa Mohamed, 21, took part each day in protests at a camp outside the army headquarters in central Khartoum that became the epicentre of the anti-Bashir revolt.

Her aim was “to have the voice of women heard” in a Muslim country where she “cannot go out alone, study abroad or dress the way I want”.

Student Alaa Salah emerged as a singing symbol of the protest movement after a picture of her in a white robe leading chanting crowds from atop a car went viral on social media.

Portraits of Salah — dubbed “Kandaka”, or Nubian queen, online — have sprouted on murals across Khartoum, paying tribute to the prominent role played by women in the revolt.

‘We will no longer wait’

The unrest which has gripped Sudan since bread riots in December that led to the anti-Bashir uprising left scores dead.

Doctors linked to the protest movement say that 246 people have been killed since the nationwide uprising erupted, including 127 people on June 3 when armed men raided the protest camp in Khartoum.

On Wednesday, protesters and the generals who took over from Bashir finally inked a deal that aims to install a civilian administration, a key demand of demonstrators since his fall three months ago.

The accord stipulates that a new transitional ruling body be established, comprised of six civilians and five military representatives.

A general will head the ruling body during the first 21 months of a transition, followed by a civilian for the remaining 18 months, according to the framework agreement.

“We will no longer wait for our rights, we will fight to obtain them,” said Osmane, stressing that women wanted 40 percent of seats in parliament.

Amira Altijani, a professor of English at the all-female Ahfad University in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city, said: “This movement is an opportunity for women to have their voice heard.”

For Osmane, Bashir “hijacked” sharia laws for three decades to oppress women.

“But a new Sudan is rising, with a civilian government that will allow equality,” she said.

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Public clinics in Zimbabwe save lives with TB, diabetes and HIV treatments

the pilot clinics have become lifesavers for the poor – but only if they happen to live near them.

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Blessing Chingwaru could barely walk without support when he arrived at the specialist Rutsanana clinic in Harare complaining of chest pains and fatigue.

Weighing a skeletal 37 kilogrammes (5.8 stone), the HIV-positive motor mechanic knew something was wrong.

He was immediately given a number of tests and told the bad news: He was also suffering from advanced-stage tuberculosis. Dual infection by HIV and TB is a notorious killer.

Blessing Chingwaru (R), 29, an HIV positive TB scratches his head as he sits during a medical consultation with nurse Angela Chikondo at Rutsanana Polyclinic in Glen Norah township, Harare, on June 24, 2019. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

“My health was deteriorating and I kept wondering why,” Chingwaru, 29, recalled at the clinic.

Within hours of the diagnosis, Chingwaru was given free treatment and nursing care.

In a country where more than a dozen people die each day from TB-related sicknesses, it was a rare example of efficient public healthcare.

The Rutsanana Polyclinic in Harare is one of 10 pilot clinics in the country offering free diagnosis and treatment for TB, diabetes and HIV.

The clinic, which opened in 2016, is staffed by 24 nurses and currently treats 120 TB patients. 

Among the million-plus people living with HIV in Zimbabwe, TB is the most common cause of death, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

HIV-positive people, and others with weakened immune systems, are particularly vulnerable to contracting the infection.

After Chingwaru’s initial visit in February, doctors had feared for his life.

But following five months of careful treatment Chingwaru has gained 15 kilos.

“Everything I need, I get here,” said Chingwaru, forming fists with both hands to show off his regained strength.

Economic and financial challenges

In a country where public health services are faced with extreme challenges, containing the spread of TB has been a struggle.

Zimbabwe has been stuck in economic and financial crisis for a long time and many of its doctors are underpaid and under-equipped.

Although TB treatment is free, the annual number of TB infections in Zimbabwe remains among the highest in the world.

The contagious infection is usually found in the lungs and is caught by breathing in the bacteria from tiny droplets sneezed or coughed out. 

As HIV-positive people are so vulnerable to TB, the clinics have followed the advice of WHO officials to link TB testing and treatment with HIV prevention programs.

‘Catastrophic costs’

Close to the main gate of the Rutsanana clinic, a green self-testing HIV tent has been erected to encourage people to check their status.

The clinic also offers voluntary HIV counselling and antiretroviral treatment. 

Sithabiso Dube, a doctor with the medical charity International Union Against TB who heads the TB and HIV programme, said people with diabetes also have a higher risk of developing TB, so patients are tested for both diseases.

“Instead of going to seek diabetic care at one clinic and TB care at another, they are able to get these services in one place,” Dube told AFP.

Because services are free “they are able to cut down on what we call catastrophic costs to the TB patients,” she said.

Largely funded by a US Agency for International Development (USAID) programme, the pilot clinics have become lifesavers for the poor – but only if they happen to live near them.

The vast majority of the population have no access to the one-stop clinics.

As a result there are plans to scale up the programme, with another 46 similar centres to be rolled out across Zimbabwe.

Rutsanana clinic matron Angela Chikondo said the programme was crucial to minimising complications among TB and diabetes patients.

“If one is on TB treatment and also has diabetes, and the diabetes is well controlled, chances of recovering are very high,” she said.

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