Calabar, Nigeria – Each day, just after dawn in the sleepy southern Nigerian city of Calabar, Hannah Edet sets up shop within the perimeter of a mountain of rubbish right in the heart of Watts Market, or Urua Watts as locals call it.
She dangles a thick bunch of fresh pumpkin leaves to passing commuters and vehicles, advertising to them in her native Efik language, ignoring the stench of decomposing rubbish in the air. The refuse, which piles up to four feet high, has spilled over onto the main road, slowing down traffic. Drivers, winding through the route, spit out in disgust while pedestrians press their palms tightly to their noses.
Edet’s voice is croaky as she laments to Al Jazeera: “This thing [the smell of the rubbish] has blocked my nose and throat. I’m not feeling comfortable.”
In the mid-2000s, Calabar, a former slave port during the days of British colonial rule, emerged as a tourism destination for local and foreign visitors attracted to its beautiful green scenery, rich culture and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.
Between 2003-2006, former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who was fleeing his country on allegations of war crimes, lived in exile in a seaside villa in the city with his family.
The city’s annual Christmas carnival, once hailed as Africa’s biggest street party, played host to a range of notable performers, including the South African composer and trumpeter Hugh Masekela and Senegalese-American rapper Akon.
In 2007, a report by The New Humanitarian, then part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, declared: “Of the many towns and cities on the African continent, Calabar must be one of the cleanest.”
These days, the city has lost its allure.
A trickle-down effect
In places where a plush line of trees once existed, pockets of trash dot the scenery instead. In some areas, rubbish trailing the streets now hosts a formidable breed of houseflies and scavengers.
Within the metropolis, the gutters are awash with refuse or thick with overgrown weed. Dan Archibong Memorial Park, which sits adjacent to the city mall, is under lock and key but also home to weeds and a mass of fallen leaves.
A number of Urua Watts traders maintain that the central landfill at Lemna on the outskirts of the city – Calabar’s major solid waste dumpsite – has reached maximum capacity and that the refuse overflow could also be the result of a boycott by garbage collectors over unpaid salaries.
And that has had a trickle-down effect on the pockets of residents like Edet, a 45-year-old single parent to five children – and their health.
“Last week, my neighbour was terribly sick [and] just recovered,” she said, her eyes becoming misty with tears. “In fact, it’s him that advised me to take some antibiotics and Paracetamol to help me a little.”
According to her, the garbage collectors last came to evacuate the waste on April 8.
“Most times flies from the refuse perch on the pumpkin and this scares customers away,” Edet told Al Jazeera, gesturing at her scant vegetables. “That’s why I didn’t buy as much market as I used to because when they [buyers] come, they cover their noses and run. Formerly, it wasn’t like this, especially in the time of Donald Duke.”
A strategic ecotourism agenda
Between 1999-2007, the governor of Cross River State was a suave saxophone-playing gentleman called Donald Duke. Under his administration, the state capital, Calabar, flourished as a tourism hub.
Taking a cue from his predecessor Clement Ebri (1992-1993) who focused on landscaping and nurturing ornamental plants around the city, Duke upped the ante. He established resorts and parks and set up agencies responsible for cleaning and evacuating waste in the capital and for beautifying the state.
It was part of a strategic ecotourism agenda, said Duke Emmanuel, a radio host and product manager at independent radio station Hit 95.9 FM Calabar.
“During Donald Duke’s time, the focus of the state was basically tourism,” he told Al Jazeera. “It was typical to find waste bins and baskets at strategic points within, say, 100 meters and they were regularly cleared, compared to what we have now.”
“Because tourism was at the heart of the administration, the salaries of the waste management guys were promptly paid,” Emmanuel said. “In fact, there were reports that Donald Duke would drive incognito to inspect the city’s cleanliness. It’s just crazy what Calabar metropolis has degraded into now.”
Effiom Duke (not related to Donald Duke), deputy national coordinator of Green Code, an environmental and human rights advocacy group, blamed the deterioration of standards on a “lack of strategic planning” for a population boom and called for the present dumpsite to be closed.
“We shouldn’t have a dumpsite close to where people live,” he told Al Jazeera. “Go and see the level of decongested water that drips from the dumpsite and flows to the river where the state’s Water Board pumping station is.”
“It’s a disgrace to the state and government,” Effiom added. “During the time of Donald Duke, it was impossible for you to find refuse on the road. There were taskforce agents around strategic points. If you dropped litter on the road, they’d arrest you and charge you to tribunal.”
For Uquetan Ibor, senior lecturer in environmental pollution at the University of Calabar, the situation is only a “worrisome” beginning of something much worse.
The accumulation of rubbish on the streets has pushed residents into disposing refuse in the gutters, thereby blocking the narrow drainage corridors and resulting in flooding of depressed areas he told Al Jazeera.
“Most times you can’t even enter these neighbourhoods when it rains,” he added. “It’s so bad you see people using elevated bridges to get to their houses.”
Scavengers, Uquetan also added, are now in the mix, spearheading an unintended ripple effect.
“They [scavengers] pick these bottles from those unsanitary conditions and sell to market women for ridiculously cheap prices,” he said. “These [market] women in turn reuse these bottles to sell palm oil, Zobo and tiger nut drink to residents … some of these bottles contained products made from mercury and cyanide.
“Some of them are even petrol products, like engine oil and such. As you know this can result in lead poisoning, posing serious health hazards for the end-users in the future.”
‘I can’t breathe’
Upon assuming office in 2015, current State Governor Benedict Ayade stressed his intention to maintain cleanliness standards in Calabar as the cleanest city nationwide. He also constituted a special task force called Green Police – later renamed Green Sheriff – as an environmental watchdog.
Four of Ayade’s more than 2,000 special advisers are specifically assigned to waste management and in the 2022 state budget (PDF), 1.1 billion Nigerian naira ($2.6m) was approved for the waste management agency
This has barely translated to anything on the streets because of indifference on the part of the government to effectively deal with the problem of waste, said Effiom Duke. “Time and time again our government has shown that they can’t be accountable. Of all the money allocated to waste management, only a tiny fraction is released … that’s the problem.”
Edet said the task force has been more preoccupied with identifying houses with inadequate sewage systems to get bribes from defaulters rather than maintaining proper sanitation in the metropolis.
“When it comes to keeping the environment clean, you will never find these people,” she told Al Jazeera.
The manager of the Cross River State Waste Management Agency did not respond to requests for comment. Sunday Oko, director of waste management at the state Ministry of Environment, told Al Jazeera: “Where’s the refuse? There’s no dirt anywhere. We’re working.”
Back on the streets, Edet has one earnest desire: “I only wish they’d come and clear this refuse,” she said. “I can’t breathe anymore.”