Were it not for a story published in Lâ€™Unita, an Italian leftist provincial newspaper based in Pisa, the whistle might not have been blown on the massive shipment of highly toxic wastes to Koko, a Nigerian coastal community in then Bendel State. That was way back in 1988.
The story on the toxic waste dump on the Nigerian shores was written by a 23-year-old female freelance journalist, Racaelli Gonalli.
Nigerian students in Pisa who read the Gonalli story, promptly took up the matter, writing to the home government that some containerised industrial wastes classified as â€˜toxic and radioactiveâ€™, with an â€˜Râ€™ mark were being shipped to the country.
Alarmed, the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida stepped up action, to get to the roots of the matter. It was soon found out that it was the handiwork of an international syndicate comprising Italians and their Nigerian accomplices.
Over there in Italy, a body called Chain of Saint Antuan which specialized in the â€œmarketingâ€? of industrial toxic and radioactive wastes was soon found to be behind the incident.
This group had a chain of global connection and was always in search of dumping grounds among the developing countries, to dispose of Italyâ€™s dangerous waste materials. Italy, it was learnt, produced between 40 and 50 radioactive materials annually.
Speaking on why she smashed the syndicate through her story, Gonalli had told Newswatch, a Nigerian magazine that, â€œI feel unhappy that we should be exporting our problems (toxic and radioactive wastes) to a Third World country which already has enough problems.â€?
While the Italian government was upset by the mounting heaps of industrial wastes in the country, it was also keen in knowing where the wastes would be shipped to.
The government had always desired to know from the waste disposal firms if the countries they were shipping the wastes to, had good waste disposal facilities. After producing evidence to that effect, the waste dealers are thus granted official permission.
So in 1987, Messrs S.I Ecomar, a company in the Italian waste disposal business, which was also a subsidiary of the Chain of Saint Antuan, got in touch with Gianfrance Raffaelli, an Italian businessman in Nigeria, who claimed to be residing at 126A, Nnebisi Road, Asaba, now Delta State. Raffaelli in a correspondence had asked his Italian partners to â€œship your industrial raw materials to us in Nigeria.â€?
The Italian had glorified his deal by convincing the Italian waste disposal company that the wastes would be disposed of by burying them in existing dumps.
He also sought and got the endorsement of the pharmacistsâ€™ board of Nigeria to import the industrial and laboratory chemicals which were later found to include highly toxic, natural and synthetic resins, obsolete paints, non-marketable pharmaceutical residues, obsolete biocides and phito-drugs.
To give utmost legitimacy to the ordinarily unlawful shipments, Raffaelli got a letter of recommendation from the Italian embassy in Nigeria, that Iruekpen Construction Company Limited, in whose name the wastes were to be shipped, was a genuine, functionalÂ corporate entity.
That was how Koko, the little, Bendel coastal community became the victim, as it were, of the deadly toxic wastes. Upon arrival, the Italian â€˜business menâ€™ involved the locals to off-load the deadly drums and the menial jobbers were given N1.10 per hour, a job which many of them reportedly saw as lucrative.
As fallout of the Gonalli expose, and after some preliminary investigations, security agencies, especially the State Security Service, SSS, went after those connected with the crime.
In the process, 54 persons were detained, among them immigration and customs officials at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, who were believed to have facilitated the escape of Raffaelli.
Once the story of the toxic wastesâ€™ disposal at Koko was blown open, the Italian in the centre allegedly bribed his way to beat security checks and jetted out of the country.
But Sunday Nana, the man whose compound was rented for most of the toxic waste dumps, was promptly picked up. It was learnt that his large compound was hired for N500 per month, for the storage of the toxic wastes.
But Nana was soon released following the discovery that he was ignorant of the mission of his â€˜merchants of deathâ€™ tenants.
Salvaging the situation
While Koko was brought to the limelight by the incident, the government was left with the duties of evacuating the toxic waste drums, relocating the locals many who would have contracted radioactive diseases and then, forestalling a recurrence.
To that extent, a ministerial task force was set up on the Koko toxic wastes, headed by Brigadier Mamman Kontagora, Minister of Works and Housing. Also, an advisory team came from the US, comprising a radiologist, a clean â€“up technician, a chemical analyst and a medical doctor.
Also, two teams of experts, one from Britain, the other from Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, were also on hand. It was revealed that evacuating the drums from Koko would pose no problem, as the drums reportedly arrived in the community with sealed head-covers and that with that, evacuating them would be less hazardous.
But what showed that dangers, either immediate or remote, had been caused to the Koko residents was that some of the drums, once off-loaded in the little community, were unsealed and their contents drained by the Italians, perhaps to make the drums useful for another batch of shipment of the waste products.
The military government then, alarmed by the large number of the toxic waste drums in Koko, a small port that could not accommodate large ships to make mass evacuation of the drums back to their senders, thus devised another means. Already, an Italian ship had been seized at the Tin Can Island, Lagos. Although, another Italian ship was detained at the Port Harcourt Port, that ship was too small for the task of carrying the toxic drums.
It could only take 800 drums of the wastes at a time, meaning that for it to make impact, it had to come for the â€˜consignmentâ€™ three times.
Therefore, the option of moving the drums to Lagos for onward return to its Italy source became the most attractive, under the circumstance.
Curiously, attempt to re-settle the Koko residents from their ancestral home â€˜because of ordinary drumsâ€™ were fiercely resisted by the natives, many who read either ethnic or political meanings to the plan.
They believed that if there would be health implications for their stay with the killer drums, then they must have contracted the accompanying ailments long before the Federal Government uncovered the toxic waste drums.
But experts said the locals acted ignorantly. According to the experts, samples of the toxic wastes had revealed the presence of some harmful substances; to humans, wildlife, plants and aquatic life.
They claimed that some of the components of the waste include resins, solvents and pigments, all of which are chemicals that can terminate life either abruptly or gradually.
Their presence in the body of living organisms, including that of a human being, researchers revealed, causes inflammation of vital human organs. Since solvents are acidic and capable of poisoning the blood system, the effect, they said, could result in complications leading to cancer.
Again, chlorine was also found in large quantum in the composition of the resins found inside the wastes at Koko.
Chlorinated water, if consumed in high concentration, the experts agreed, kills fast. And empty drums that once contained these toxic wastes were gleefully used by the Koko locals, to fetch water and sometimes, for cooking.
Eventually, the Italian government offered regrets over the toxic waste dump, accepting that the wastes be returned to their ports of origin within its shores. Over 100 workers from the Nigerian Port Authority were employed to remove the wastes.
The Nigerian government supplied the workers with equipment, protective clothing and gas masks, but some reports said the protective clothing was insufficient and many did not even have gloves to protect their hands.
â€œThe wastes were more toxic than many had realised and many workers began needing hospitalisation with problems ranging from chemical burns, nausea, to paralysis,â€? a report said.
Dr. Soloman Ogbemi, the senior medical officer at Koko General Hospital, declared that the â€œseven premature births that occurred within a one two-week period in July (1988) were due to the high toxicity of the dumpsite.â€?
The Italian government agreed to pay the cost of returning the wastes back to Italy, at least until they could determine the guilty parties. As a result, in July of 1988, two ships, â€˜Karin Bâ€™ and â€˜Deepsea Carrierâ€™, began the process of carrying the wastes from Nigeria back to Italy.
While en route back to Italy, the Italian Environment Minister, Giorgio Ruffolo, announced the Italian ports designated to accept the wastes as the Tuscan Port of Livorno and, either Ravenna or Manfredonia Harbour in the South Adriatic.
The former was to accept the wastes from the â€˜Karin Bâ€™ while the latter was to accept the wastes from the â€˜Deepsea Carrierâ€™. However, the announcement resulted in protests, strikes and blockades in all three ports in an attempt to prevent the wastes from being unloaded.
In December 1988, however, workers began unloading the â€˜Karin Bâ€™.
The â€˜Deepsea Carrierâ€™, on the other hand, was still held at bay, with its crew sequestered on board, until August of 1989 when the ship was finally allowed to unload in Livorno.