Now That The River Has Come For Us
Filed Under: Floods, Vicious Cycles, Collabos.
That evening, my friends and I were playing a high-spirited five-a-side football game. We didn't stop playing until the sun had set entirely and light had drained from the yard. Panting, I left the courtyard to my corner at room 124 in Ocheja Boys Hostel, picked up my phone from beneath my pillow, and hit the power button. As the screen lit up my face, I saw missed calls from my dad and called him back immediately. After two rings, he picked up. I didn’t expect what was coming next. With the sad inflexion he had when breaking bad news, he said there was an emergency. A flood was coming. I had to go home.
I had turned 18 only a few months earlier and was navigating a law degree at Kogi State University.
Flood. It was a word removed from my reality, something I read about—like wars and famines. I put the phone back under my pillow and went for my evening bath.
As I left for the park the next afternoon, I told my roommates that I was going to Lokoja briefly and would return soon. I believed myself when I said this.
As the bus approached Ganaja, a village on the outskirts of Lokoja, the tragedy settled slowly on me. The settlements immediately after Salem University, a private university just before Ganaja, were half immersed in the overflow of the River Niger. Residents stood haplessly beside heaps of bags, electronics, furniture—property they could pull out of their homes. Our bus drove slowly through the flooded Gadumo road; I saw people on their balconies, watching the river flow towards them in slow, menacing strides.
“We’ve always taken from this river,” a woman on the bus said in Igala. “Now it is coming for us.”
We lived in Adankolo, an inner-city suburb near the River Benue. My family lived in a neighbourhood called New Layout — a paved street with working drainage and fenced apartments. Down the road, residents lived on lowlands, in the soggy areas closest to the river. They were the first victims.
I got home before sunset. My dad and I went to assess the flood. First, we needed to know how much time we had before it made its way to our home. After several minutes, he said we had only 24 hours as half the area was already immersed. Debris of forgotten, abandoned, or irretrievable items—paper from school books, plastic bowls, single pair of old shoes—were floating on the water’s surface. Canoes hovered from a distance, waiting for their moment. In a few days, canoes would be the only means of transportation.
We had less than a day to move everything from our four-bedroom flat. There were a few options of friends and family who lived on the side of town unaffected by the flood. My dad was hesitant to try the first option. He didn’t like the idea of depending on anyone, so he would go out at first light to look for an apartment.
In the morning, the neighbourhood droned with the mechanical hum of trucks moving our neighbour’s properties.
At full daylight, the water had advanced towards our neighbourhood and was already within view. Along with hired hands, I moved things out, piling them in front of our house. My stepmother and my last two siblings—younger than five—were home. My dad had had no luck getting a new place in a decent location on such short notice. We were on the brink of desperation.
By mid-afternoon, the water was a few hundred metres from our home, and my father still needed to find a new house. There were no vacant spaces, and the few he thought we could manage had doubled rent. Finally, he conceded that we could move our things to my stepmother’s uncle's home. There was a white Mitsubishi truck ready to move our stuff in three trips. We were loading the first turn when my friend, Bash, who had been frantically helping his family load their property into another truck, announced that we had lost someone we knew the night before.
My heart stopped.
Dan’assabe was one of my earliest acquaintances when we moved to Adankolo. We played football together on the pitch at Government Day Secondary School. The night before, Dan'assabe's little sister slipped as she helped move things out of their flooded house. No one noticed for a while, and when they did, Dan'assabe dove back in, looking for his baby sister.
Bash said they'd just found her body; they never found Dan'assabe's body.
The flood was already close to our home, but now its effect felt even closer. With quivering hands, I helped load the truck.
By the time we were loading the last batch of property we could salvage, we were ankle-deep into the flood. As the Mitsubishi truck pulled out of New Layout, Adankolo, the few people left on dry land stood outside their homes, beside piles of their collective misery, waiting. Many weeks later, the water would recede into the river. Nothing remained the same.
In 2012, Nigeria experienced its first significant flooding in 40 years. The flooding was caused by unprecedented excess rainfall, which led to the overflowing of some important dams around the country. Excess water from the Lagdo dam in Cameroon was released into the River Benue, while Shiroro and Kainji dams also released water into the River Niger. As a result, both rivers overflowed, flooding the communities along their banks.
According to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the floods affected 30 of Nigeria's 36 states. Between July and November 2012, 363 people were confirmed dead, and over 2.1 million people were displaced. Since 2012, what was considered a one-off disaster has become an almost annual humanitarian crisis, leaving death, destruction, and poverty in its wake.
Named after the Hausa word for “river”, Kogi State lies in the middle-belt region of Nigeria. Its capital city, Lokoja, lies at the confluence of the River Niger and River Benue—two of the largest bodies of water in the country. The state’s proximity to these rivers has put it in a precarious position, leaving it susceptible to flooding. Moreover, because of the state’s dependence on agriculture, many of its residents live in low-lying areas along flood plains, vulnerable to the devastating effects of floods.
Ten years after the 2012 floods, not much has changed. Every other September, Nigerians brace themselves for the impact of another wave of flooding; and every other year, a new family falls into a new dimension of hardship.
The Abdullahi family is one such family.
In 1996, a young Aboh Abdullahi, the fourth child of eight, moved to Adankolo with his family. His father had just purchased land at the bank of River Niger, joining other people who had started setting up base in the Adankolo lowlands. He had first built a small house, just enough to cram his young family into, and as they grew older, he allotted portions of the land to each of his six sons to build and raise their own families on. Like most of the Bassa Nge people—one of the earliest settlers in Lokoja—the family subsisted on farming and fishing. This location was essential to their occupation and livelihood.
As they transitioned into adulthood, Aboh’s two sisters married and left the family land. His brothers married too and began raising their own families. In 2005, Aboh married Lami; they had four children. Together with Aboh’s brothers, they expanded the existing structure on the land into a bigger house with five small rooms.
The entire family has now been forced to consider moving in light of their current situation.
In 2012, when the first flood came, they watched the water levels rise but did not imagine it would get close enough.
“We had never experienced anything like that,” Aboh told me. “We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t move. We just kept watching and watching the water until it came into the compound. After it started getting into the house, we started gathering up things to leave.”
They moved property they could salvage to the homes of friends and neighbours whose homes were unaffected. Most houses along the bank of the river are built with thatch, wood, and blocks made out of clay. His family’s home was one such house, and when the flood came, it didn’t take long for it to fall apart. Aboh and his brothers crossed the river to their farms and stayed in the farmhouse while the women and children squatted with relatives. Immediately after the flood, the troubled brothers returned to rebuild the house. With every flood, the house collapsed, and they rebuilt again.
The 2022 floods, named the worst national disaster in a decade by the National Emergency Management Agency, forced the family to retreat to the Internally Displaced People’s camp in Adankolo.
St. Luke Model Primary School Adankolo serves as the makeshift camp for people internally displaced by the flood. It’s adjacent to the Adankolo junction, a few hundred meters from the Adankolo market. Before converting it into an IDP camp, the state government used it as a Covid-19 vaccination centre.
The school has five classroom blocks, but only two have been made available to IDPs because it's in session. With over 500 displaced people in the camp, only seven rooms are available in both blocks. Women and children occupy six rooms, while one is left to the men. Every night, over 50 people sleep in each of these rooms.
When I got there on October 21, 2022—a sunny Saturday morning, most occupants sat on the balconies outside, watching as charity organisations distributed relief packages of food and medicine. A bus offloaded rice, garri, and packs of noodles at the compound's centre. Members of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria, whose Lokoja branch has its head office within the school premises, hovered around, providing security. Older women in the camp participated in sorting, measuring and distributing the food items. Officials of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) supervised the process.
“The meals are little and a bit irregular. They don’t help much,” Lami Abdullahi, Aboh’s wife, told me. They have been forced to live in the IDP camp since the beginning of the flooding two months ago. Lami is a petty trader, but current realities have prevented her from doing business. She depends on handouts from relatives for sustenance while in the camp. Her oldest child, Mariam, is 16 and a Government Day Secondary School student. While her mother ensured her family members didn’t get passed over in the distribution of relief items, Mariam cared for her three younger siblings.
Now and then, arguments erupted over the distribution of relief items. While I waited by the shade for Lami and her daughter, a gang of agitated men approached me to register a complaint – the oldest was probably 24. Their grouse was that the camp administration had failed to recognise them as part of the camp and had deprived them of benefits accessible to the other occupants.
“They're not displaced. They're only here to cause trouble,” Ayatu, a member of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria, told me.
“Sometimes those boys steal, and when they're caught, they're brought to us. We either handle it internally or hand them over to the police,” he told me.
Ajolo “AY” Ayatu is from Lokoja and lives in Adankolo. Like Aboh and his family, the flooding has badly affected him. Since 2012, his house had withstood the impact of the flood, only needing a mild renovation. However, with the 2022 flood, whatever is left of his home currently floats on the flooded banks of River Benue.
His pregnant wife and three children are at her father's house at Old Poly Quarters—a working-class area at the centre of town.
When I asked him how much he's paid to work for the Vigilante Group of Nigeria, he laughed wryly, “Pay ke? Nobody pays us anything o. We are just doing this thing for the people.”
He manages a block industry owned by a friend. There, he oversees the sales and delivery of building blocks. “It's not a monthly thing. I have some good days and some bad days. I take home around ₦2500; nothing on bad days.”
But his good days are few and far between. On average, he made around ₦15,000 per month, all of which went to family expenses. His properties are scattered around the camp, and he cannot account for many of them.
The two-kilometre stretch of tarred road that passes through New Layout, Adankolo, stops abruptly at a swamp in front of the Chapel of Integrity, a new-age Pentecostal church at the end of New Layout. From there, the drainage is clogged, and the terrible road forms, stretching to the intersection where the Agbayi neighbourhood begins. The community shares proximity with the River Niger and is prone to flooding.
Some of the homes closest to the bank of the river, like Ayatu’s, had been completely submerged. At the flood's peak, most residents took refuge at the Internally Displaced People’s camp on the other side of Adankolo while others sought shelter with family members in unaffected parts of town.
The residents who lived close to the road trickled back as the flooding subsided. The water had receded away from their homes, and they needed to clean, dry, fumigate, and resume their lives. In the last week of October, some of the residents brought out their damp furniture for cleaning while others swept water deposits out of their houses.
Zainab Aleru, a 21-year-old student of the Federal University, Lokoja, had spent her entire day cleaning the house with the rest of the family in preparation for their return. They spent the last month at her aunt’s place, and she couldn’t wait to return home.
She is the second of four children in the Aleru family, and although she’s no stranger to floods, each year came with an emotional strain.
“Every time the flood was coming, it was hell. My mum has this thing where she starts to experience sleepless nights, you know, going through the entire grieving process before it even happened. So when this starts, it reflects on everyone, and we all start to experience panic. We start to worry about money, the stress of moving, and the discomfort of staying with people.”
She had spent the past month at her aunt’s place at Army Signal, towards the outskirts of town. But she didn’t find much comfort there as her parent’s home afforded her more convenience.
“I’ve had to sleep on a tiny mattress with my sister in a room I share with our cousins. But over here, I have my room, and I sleep on a big bed,” she said.
For Abdulrasaq Aleru, Zainab’s father and patriarch of the family, the 2012 flood was an equally jarring experience.
“There had never been an incidence of flood or anything like that since I moved here. So when the flood started, we didn’t bother because we didn’t think it would affect us.”
Born and raised in Lokoja, Abdulrasaq has lived most of his life in the town and only elsewhere during his degree and postgraduate days. He found the land upon which he built his home while supervising his older brother’s building project in 2002. He paid for the land in 2003 and completed his house in 2006. Because of the land’s relative proximity to the River Niger, he complied with the regulations of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) regulations to not build within 200 meters of the river bank.
“I built my house 500 meters away.”
Recovering from the flood has never been easy. The devastating aftermath bores a large hole in his finances. After each flood, Abdulrasaq has had to mend a broken fence, repaint a significant portion of the house, and fix leakages created by water pressure. Combining these expenses with putting four children through education has been daunting.
“I’m a local government worker. We’re placed on percentage payment, so there’s not much available to do all these things every time it floods. Only 40% was paid last month, and they still owe us some arrears.”
With the ASUU strike called off and his two oldest children scheduled to return to school, it’s not clear to Abdulrasaq how to combine the financial demands of school requirements and home repairs.
“Primary schools resumed in September, secondary schools resumed in September, the universities have just opened, and now the flood is here. How do I take care of these while collecting only a 40% salary?”
“We have to consider the historical context,” Promise Emmanuel, Chief Press Secretary to the Kogi State Deputy Governor, told me. “Lokoja is an ancient town with a lot of history. Some people living in flood-prone areas have lived there for many generations. Most of them don’t want to move.”
According to Emmanuel, in response to the 2012 floods, the Kogi State government built the Wada Estate to relocate some affected people. After they took possession of their new homes, some lived there for a while, sold the property, and moved back to the floodplains they share ancestral ties.
“Many tribes that make up Lokoja moved here to get closer to the water. For example, the Bassa and Oworo people are commonly fishermen, and their livelihood is directly tied to these rivers. So it’s hard to explain that they cannot build homes in certain places they consider ancestral lands.”
Since his appointment in 2018, Emmanuel has witnessed the government’s efforts to mitigate the effects of the flood. However, he admitted that it is not in the state’s power to prevent it.
“It’s bigger than one state. You know about the Lagdo and Shiroro dams. We don’t control rainfall either. We can only try to shield our people from the severity of the consequences.”
Every year, the federal government, through the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET), informs the state governments of impending floods. The state government creates awareness about the flood through the State Emergency Management Agency, warning people living in risk areas, and opening up IDP camps. The agency manages flooding emergencies and supports affected people.
“People don’t like relocating to the IDP camps because of the stigma of being perceived as a refugee,” he said.
The state also depends on donations from individuals and corporations.
About the preventive measures by the state government, he spoke about the embankment project the state government carried out on the River Niger strip opposite the Old Market at Kabawa. “The embankment keeps the water from intruding into the road, but there's just little it can do in the face of massive flooding like the one we have now.”
He challenged the federal government to declare the state an ecological disaster zone. “Kogi is the zero point of any flooding disaster in the country. Both major rivers pass through here, and that's why we are most affected. So we need special attention.”
It's been ten years since my first flood. After we moved out of our home, we nested at an uncle's home for a few days before we finally got a place at Fentolu, a neighbourhood adjacent to our old street at New Layout. Most people whose stay at New Layout was temporary have yet to return. The ones who had built their own homes there couldn’t afford to move elsewhere. I made new friends in Fentolu, and after a couple of years, my family moved to a permanent address at Lokogoma.
Last month at the flood's peak, my father, pushed by curiosity, took a canoe ride to our old house at New Layout.
“Only the roof of the house was visible outside the water,” he said over the phone. “Like a cap floating on water.”
Aboh and Lami have decided not to live on the family land anymore. Instead, they will look for a one-room apartment to rent after they get out of the IDP camp. When I asked Aboh how much he thinks the rent will cost him, he said around ₦30,000 per year. He doesn't know where he’ll get that kind of money.
Ayatu hopes to buy land elsewhere and build something there. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to raise the funds needed. He doesn’t know what he’ll do after the flood recedes.
“I don’t know many things,” he told me, “but I know I don’t want to be moving my properties from my place every year.”
When I asked Mr Aleru what alternative plans he had to shield his family from the nightmare of next year’s flood, he sighed and shook his head. “I’m 54, and I have only six years till retirement. I’m a senior civil servant who has had all his children and built his dream home. I have reached the end of my productive years, and I’m supposed to be settled now. There’s no starting over for me anywhere.”
We were in front of his house, where the family were all engaged in chores. He was using a broom to dust dry sand off a bed frame. His daughters were washing the dishes while his oldest son was scrubbing the tiles on the balcony.
“So you’re just waiting until the next flood gets here?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “What would you have me do?
Fu’ad here. As usual, it took a village to bring this story to life and, for the first time, a new author:
One conversation later, Victor was already planning to take a trip to Lokoja to begin developing the story – he took full ownership of making this come alive.
Now, it really was supposed to be just a text-based story, then things escalated quickly.
Stories are great, but they need to be nourished with research and beat into shape with editing. Ify took the lead on research.
Ope of edited the story from when it was just an outline till it became a finished story after four drafts. But then, she wanted it to travel; and took ownership of making sure this story travels. So if you found this post anywhere outside your inbox, it’s most likely because Ope made a choice that made you see it. In any format. (You also make it travel when you share it. Share it.) Samson and Ruka proofread.
There were illustrations on the internet that we could have used, but none of them felt good enough. We wanted something that felt good. So we made our own. And that’s where Yinka came in to drive design. Mariam made a new wordmark and logomark for Vistanium.
We still had photos and some footage we didn’t know what to do with; Kayode showed up to make sense of them. He made the videos we spread across the internet. Kemi’s voice carried the video, while Opeyemi’s engineering amplified her voice. Oh, and Ope wrote the script too. A roving general.
It took a little over a month to make, and it would probably have taken two weeks max if everyone wasn’t nine-to-fiving.
It wasn’t cheap, trying to cover travel and other stuff, but the bulk of those costs was covered by two people – Hassan and Sonia. After I told them casually about the story, they offered to cover the expenses.
I’m grateful for all of them, for all of you.
If you made it this far, it’s only right that you subscribe.