The Nigerian government may have deliberately ignored the violation of its lockdown order by the Dangote Group in Lagos at the site of what the latter plans to be Africa's biggest oil refinery.
This is in spite of the outbreak of coronavirus disease among the workers, which resulted in the death of at least two Indians.
Some other workers on the site in Lekki on the outskirts of the commercial capital of Nigeria, including Nigerians, have also been treated for the coronavirus, PREMIUM TIMES can confirm.
While governments at both the state and federal levels have largely parried questions on the matter, the Nigerian police have denied knowledge of the ongoing massive construction works on the site, during and even after the lockdown
The denial by the police is maintained in spite of a violent protest on April 27 by the youth of the site's host communities such as Eleko, Tiye, Idasho, Akodo, Lekki, among others.
The protesting youth accused the police of providing escort service to many of the line managers of various contractors working on the project as they shuttle between the site and Sapphire Estate, a private housing estate located on Awoyaya area of Lekki, where they are accommodated.
"Even their truck drivers are allowed free access while innocent members of our communities are constantly harassed and arrested over allegations of loitering," chairman of Tiye Youth Association, Nurudeen Saka, told our reporter on phone.
About Dangote Refinery
The Dangote Refinery and Petrochemical Plant is promoted by the Nigerian multinational industrial conglomerate - Dangote Group. The group is founded by Aliko Dangote, said to have a net worth of $10.9 billion, according to Forbes 2019 list of black billionaires.
The expansive project, covering an area of 2,635 hectares, and located in Idasho community, near Akodo town, Ibeju Lekki, on the outskirt of Lagos, is said to be capable of meeting 100 per cent of Nigeria's requirement of all liquid products - gasoline, diesel, kerosene, aviation jet fuel and fuel oils, and also with capacity to export.
It is said to encompass the world's biggest fertilizer plant with a capacity of three million tonnes per annum; subsea pipeline infrastructure spanning 1,100 kilometres, and a 480MW power plant to serve the complex.
A seaport is also under construction on the site, with its first phase already completed.
The refinery is planned to be the world's largest single-train petroleum refinery, with a capacity of 650,000 barrels per day and 838 Kilo Tonnes Per Annum (KTPA) polypropylene plant.
With an estimated $12 billion already invested, and the failure to meet the 2019 completion deadline, there is a race against time, especially since the project is partly funded by a loan from a consortium of financial institutions.
Some of the workers at the site, who spoke to our reporter on the condition of anonymity, agreed that the target deadline may have informed the decision to throw caution against COVID-19 into the bin by both the promoter and the contractors.
President Muhammadu Buhari on March 29 declared total lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja - Nigeria's Federal Capital Territory (FCT), as part of measures to contain the rampaging coronavirus disease.
The total lockdown lasted between March 30 and May 3.
The partial ease of the lockdown as later announced by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State, which also came with lots of restrictions, only took effect on May 4.
Meanwhile, as a legal backing, the Lagos State Government also enacted what it tagged; "Lagos Infection Diseases Regulations 2020," which prescribes a jail term of one month or N100,000 fine or both for anyone found guilty of flouting the order.
Thus schools, businesses, airports, borders, congregational worship and human and vehicular traffic have been severely restricted.
The rule, however, exempted a few others, who are regarded as essential service providers such as healthcare workers, security operatives, food processors, petroleum distributors, power generating, transmitting and distribution officials, and the media. But construction workers at factories that are yet to take off, were not exempted.
However, while the stay at home policy lasted, investigations by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that thousands of workers - mostly Chinese, Indians, and hundreds of locals, daily resumed work on the refinery site, where there was and still is flagrant violation of the social distancing rules.
Insiders, who do not want to be named for fear of sanctions, disclosed to this newspaper that the workers were compelled to work by the various contractors handling one project or the other on the site. The contractors, this newspaper learnt, were also reacting to the nudge by the promoter of the project - Dangote Group - whose direct employees in their scores have also remained on hand to provide supervision.
Coronavirus hits workers
Satyendra Sharma, a health, safety and environmental (HSE) manager at the fertilizer plant, was the first coronavirus fatality recorded on the site, PREMIUM TIMES' findings have shown.
The exact date of Mr Sharma's death could not be ascertained as the details of his travails were shrouded in secrecy. But this newspaper can confirm that the deceased was first managed at a branch of Jajo Hospital located in Saphire Estate in Lekki.
With its headquarters on 6A, Badagry Street, Adeniyi Jones Avenue, Ikeja, Jajo Hospital Limited, which is owned by an Indian, is one of the official healthcare consultants for the Dangote Group.
One of Mr Sharma's colleagues, who asked not to be named for fear of victimisation, told our reporter how the deceased struggled for life at the hospital for more than five days while the hospital's headquarters refused its doctor's plea to allow him to be transferred to the headquarters for further review.
"The doctor had complained bitterly of the hospital's negligence and the risk they were being exposed to as they attended to Sharma and other patients without PPE," our source explained.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that Mr Sharma, who had earlier been diagnosed of fly infestation, had returned to the hospital about a week later with symptoms of the coronavirus disease.
This narration was corroborated by voice notes that soon went viral among the workers' various WhatsApp groups.
The voice notes, which were confirmed by many sources among the workers to be one of the doctors that attended to Mr Sharma, exposed the frustration of the hospital's healthcare workers who accused the managements of the hospital and the Dangote Group of pleading with them to keep the cause of Mr Sharma's death secret.
The voice notes state in part, "So last week Monday, he (Mr. Sharma) came with one of his roommates, saying he was weak and so we should give him a drip. We checked his temperature and found out his temperature was above 39oC. We immediately put him on IV drip, normal saline and then ran his Full Blood Count (FBC). So the FBC revealed leukopenia; his PVC too was low and temperature was high.
"Then he started coughing but it wasn't much. He was on nose masks throughout. We asked for his history, he said he only travelled home last year. So we placed him on antibiotics and by Tuesday, we called Jajo Hospital Limited to explain the condition.
"Jajo said we should not refer to him but we should continue to manage him. The cough became severe. So on Wednesday morning, we ran another FBC, which also revealed bacterial infection. Meanwhile, the first day he came on Monday, it was the day we diagnosed him with diabetes, and he never knew until then.
"We sent him for x-ray on Thursday which revealed a pneumonia infection. So we called Jajo and said that he would be referred on Friday to Jajo but they said he should be referred to Lagoon Hospital and that I should follow him. So they begged me to follow him, even without PPE."
The doctor noted that 'a chest CT' done for the patient revealed symptoms peculiar to COVID-19, and the hospital simply informed the doctor that took him there to "proceed to the infectious disease hospital (IDH), Yaba," where he reportedly died a few days after he was confirmed positive.
The development informed NCDC's contact tracing at both the hospital and on the construction site. Thus, apart from some of the health workers who were confirmed positive, PREMIUM TIMES learnt that some of Mr Sharma's immediate Indian friends and associates, and other locals including a 36-year-old Nigerian female steward was later confirmed positive. The woman was later treated for COVID-19 at the Lagos government isolation facility in Onikan.
Investigations revealed that one of the confirmed cases, a 28-year-old mechanical engineer with OIL company limited - an Indian construction firm - Shivajeet Kumar, on Sunday, April 26, hanged himself right on the site.
According to our sources, Mr Kumar, who was a piping expert, committed suicide following the confirmation of his COVID-19 positive status and his family's battle with the dangerous virus back home in India. PREMIUM TIMES could not independently confirm this.
Apart from the Nigerian female steward, who was discharged at the Onikan isolation centre a week ago since April 10 that she was on admission, another Indian working on the site was on Sunday admitted at the same facility for COVID-19.
Jajo hospital shut down
Apart from Mr. Sharma, who was managed at its branch, findings also revealed that an unnamed Indian coronavirus patient was managed at the hospital's headquarters before he was transferred to the infectious diseases hospital, Yaba.
Based on the development, about 32 workers at the hospital were also tested for the virus by the government, but according to one of the workers, none came out positive.
When our reporter visited the hospital, it was already shut down by the government and only security officers were on hand. One of them, who spoke to our reporter on condition of anonymity, said the hospital's manager was not available to talk to anyone.
"Are you a journalist or government worker? We are already closed down, so there is nothing more to say," the security officer said.
But when probed further, the officer narrated the hospital's experience managing a COVID-19 patient and the hospital's neighbours complaints against its practice.
"Even me, I was tested for the virus," the security officer said.
Communities protest against 'injustice'
Worried by what they described as unfair treatment of their people, youth of the various host communities of the refinery staged a massive protest on Monday, April 27. The angry youth burnt down police posts and a vehicle around the Eleko area.
According to the state police command, 51 youth were eventually arrested as a result of the protest, which led to about five police officers sustaining injuries.
The police spokesperson in Lagos, Bala Elkana, confirmed that many of those arrested were eventually arraigned in court.
Mr Elkana said since no one came to lodge formal complaint, the police could not have known of the company's operation.
"Even the Funke Akindele's matter that you mentioned, the police didn't just go after them until we saw the complaints online," he said.
According to Mr Saka, the community youth leader, the youth were unhappy that foreigners working in the country were protected by security men even while violating the nation's laws.
"But the sons of the soil are constantly harassed even when we expressed our fear that non-adherence to social distancing rules by the thousands of workers on the site could endanger our lives because we are landlords to many of the workers," he said.
Workers appealed for intervention
A group of aggrieved workers on the site held a peaceful protest accusing their employers of forcing them to work without pay or protection amid the pandemic.
In a video published on YouTube on May 2, the same day our reporter visited the site, they called on Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah, to take "necessary steps" for their safety.
The workers, who said they were employed by GTA Power Mech Nigeria Limited, a joint venture between Power Mech Projects Limited and Skipper T&D, expressed their frustration in foreign language.
The company, PREMIUM TIMES learnt, in 2017 got a US$76 million order for composite work tender unit-V by Dangote Group.
The leader of the team, whose identity could not be ascertained as of the time of filing this report, said in the video that; "We, the citizens of India, are speaking from Dangote Refinery, which is situated almost 60km away from Lagos in Nigeria. We are workers of the Dangote Refinery.
"The whole world is suffering from coronavirus, which is a global pandemic. Nigeria has also announced its lockdown. During this lockdown, the workers of Power Mech Company are being forced to work. The staff here are forcing us to work through physical violence.
"We request our Home Minister, Mr Amit Shah, and Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, to kindly understand our problems and help us get out of this situation by taking necessary steps to protect and save our lives."
Dangote Group, contractors refused to comment
Efforts to get the reaction of both the Dangote Group and the individual contractors on the site were frustrated.
For many days, calls made to two numbers of the group's spokesperson, Tony Chiejina, were not answered, while messages were also ignored. He also neither acknowledged nor replied to those sent to his WhatsApp numbers.
However, after persistent calls, Mr Chiejina picked his call on May 3, but claimed he was driving and so, "I cannot talk to you." Asked when he would be willing to speak, he simply hung up the line.
Meanwhile, when our reporter visited the site on May 2, it was heavily guarded by security men.
Even after registering at a crowded entry, attempts to speak to any of the officials on the site were unsuccessful as the security guards on duty denied our reporter access into the main compound.
The plain-clothed security operative whom our reporter was directed to see, simply refused all entreaties. The operative, who refused to identify himself, said he had no instruction to allow any visitor in.
Also, some of the workers, who were attempting to gain entrance, were also denied access in our presence.
As observed by our reporter during the visit to the site, only very few workers wore masks as the majority moved freely without any sense of caution.
A kitchen attendant on the site, who identified himself simply as Godspower, said he only stepped out to attend to something and expressed surprise that he was being denied access.
"I don't know why we are being denied access. You can see all of us in green uniform, we are kitchen staffers, so we have been working since," Godspower said.
But The Punch newspaper reported that Mr Chiejina responded to its inquiry on the video that has gone viral.
According to its report on the protest published on May 2, the newspaper quoted Mr Chiejina to have described the video as two months old.
He told The Punch reporter; "That video is more than two months old. It's just an unrelated issue. People are just doing what they like."
"When our correspondent pointed out that the video made reference to COVID-19, Chiejina said, 'What they are saying is rubbish. Three months ago, was coronavirus there? It is an old thing that is unrelated," The Punch reported.
Government keeps mum
After many days of poor response on the matter by officials of Lagos State Government, a meeting with the health commissioner, Akin Abayomi, was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on April 29. But about an hour before the scheduled time, the executive assistant to the commissioner, Kevwe Akpokiniovo, called to cancel the appointment.
She later indicated the commissioner's readiness for a virtual meeting for 9 a.m. on April 30. This was followed by forwarding the meeting's details. However, at exactly 8.53 a.m. on the appointed date, Ms Akpokiniovo demanded a brief of the intended issues to be discussed. As soon as this was done, the executive assistant refused to comment again.
After much prodding, Ms Akpokiniovo followed up with this response; "Sorry for the delayed reply. I just got word that the HC (honourable commissioner) has been called in by Mr Governor. We will unfortunately have to reschedule again. My sincere apologies for this."
On the same day, the spokesperson for the health ministry, Tunbosun Ogunbanwo, called our reporter to demand that the questions be sent to him. Many weeks after the questions were sent, Mr Ogunbanwo was yet to respond.
At a media briefing on COVID-19 updates recently organised by the ministry, Mr Ogunbanwo, who was in charge of recognising reporters, told PREMIUM TIMES' reporter that the commissioner could not answer such questions. He, however, failed to give any reason.
Meanwhile, when asked a similar question on the non-adherence to the presidential order, the chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, said he was unaware.
Mr Mustapha, who doubles as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), said he would find out and revert. But he was yet to do so many days after.
This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check project.