Zamfara Lead Poisoning and the Failure of Leadership!

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Last week the media was agog with a news report titled “Saraki commends Jonathan’s intervention in Zamfara village”. When I read this title on twitter, I quickly clicked on the link with excitement to read the details. I thought the reason for the commendation could be that the problem of lead poisoning which has reportedly claimed the lives of more than 400 children in Zamfara State has probably become a thing of the past. I was completely wrong. The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment, Dr Abubakar Bukola Saraki was commending Mr. President for his “approval to release promised funds for the remediation of Bagega Community in Zamfara State”. My excitement immediately turned to strong feeling of disappointment. I feel you may want to know why, please read on.
In March 2010, an unprecedented epidemic of lead poisoning was discovered in Zamfara State. This was a consequence of the activities of local gold miners in the affected communities. Although there has been gold mining in Zamfara for decades, the substantial appreciation in the price of gold since 2009 led to an upsurge in artisanal mining activity. Local miners dig up rocks by hand, breaks them into pebbles with hammers, grinds the pebbles to sand with flour mills, and extracts gold from the sand using sluicing, panning, and mercury amalgamation (and in some cases, cyanidation). Usually the health problems associated with artisanal mining are related to mercury and/or cyanide use. However, in Zamfara, gold bearing deposits contain unusually problematic concentrations of lead. Consequently, the environment has become terribly polluted, so much so that the CDC described the epidemic as the worst in modern history. This has resulted to the devastating effects of lead poisoning especially among children and pregnant women in the community. The worst hit community at this time is Bagega.

An international organization, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) also known as Doctors without Borders has been on ground since the discovery of this tragic epidemic helping to treat people affected particularly children. According to its recent report, MSF has enrolled more than 2500 children in her treatment programme; 2000 were still on treatment, 500 on follow up while 300 had been discharged at the time of the report. Lead poisoning affects both children and adults but children have more risk of exposure (closer to the ground, crawl and play often) and the effects on them are more catastrophic. Lead poisoning may cause a lower intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral problems, stunted growth, chronic anemia, deafness or chronic kidney disease/failure. Lead poisoning rarely shows any sign or symptom until the exposed person becomes very sick. Some scientific studies have documented a correlation between lead exposure among women and higher rate of miscarriage, premature deliveries, stillbirth and congenital malformations. But is treatment of identified cases as MSF is doing enough? Absolutely not! Chelation therapy without remediation is like using basket to fetch water.

More so, mining of natural resources is in the Exclusive List of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Therefore, the federal government bears the responsibility of controlling the activities of the miners and protecting the environment from pollution that may arise from those activities. So it won’t be out of place to say that the lead poisoning epidemic is a sign of governance failure. One would have expected any responsible government to react swiftly and stop illegal mining in Zamfara, train the local practitioners on better and safer techniques to maintain a healthy environment without denying the local miners their source of economic sustainability. A responsible government would also embark on immediate remediation of the affected communities and treatment of identified cases.

How did the federal government respond? An Inter-Ministerial Committee on Lead Poisoning was inaugurated by the Presidency in 2010. What did the committee achieve? Nothing! In May 2012, the federal government convened an International Conference on Lead Poisoning in Abuja during which President Jonathan reportedly pledged a release of N850 million to clean up the affected communities. Sadly, none of the 7 action points unanimously agreed at the conference has been fully achieved 8 months after. According to MSF report, the technical sub-committee of the Inter-Ministerial Committee visited Zamfara in mid-October 2012 (more than 2years after the discovery of the crisis) for an assessment and also met with stakeholders. Expectedly, the visit was widely publicized; the Federal Ministry of Information wrote a story on its website titled, “Lead poisoning: Proper management system stepped up in Zamfara State”. What happened thereafter? Nothing! There has been ongoing advocacy by MSF, Human Rights Watch and local civil society groups. Not even the action of Nigerians who besieged Mr. President’s facebook page last year to express their frustration with his inaction was enough to spur government to expedient action.

I’m not unaware of the efforts of Senator Saraki’s committee to draw attention to the situation; I’ve personally read his tweets on that. But I find it difficult to understand why he should be commending the President for “approving” money to solve a problem that has claimed the lives of more than 400 children and left many others with permanent disabilities almost 3years after the discovery of the crisis. As usual, the federal government will have their explanation but none will be acceptable for this horrendous display of leadership ineptitude and crass insensitivity, to say the least. The government of Zamfara State that kept waiting ‘forever’ for the federal government’s intervention when it could have mobilized funds, saved her children and the environment and apply for refund from the federal government isn’t better either. For how long would Nigerians continue to suffer from anemic and marasmic leadership especially when it concerns health matters? Action is long overdue; Save Bagega!!!

Tweet me @donlaz4u

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About Laz Ude Eze

A public health physician, health systems consultant and an advocate for good governance, health equity and social justice. Authored the book, "A Companion to Practical Pathology" and founded HAPPYNigeria in 2006. I'm also a Brand Ambassador of Social Good Nigeria. To read my full profile, copy and paste this link on your URL and check it out >> http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=35254652&trk=tab_pro Your feedback on all posts are welcome. Follow me on twitter - @donlaz4u.

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