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22 Dec 2018

In a Cemetery Where There is No Rest For The Dead

There are many things that make Abakaliki what it is. Apart from being the capital of one of Nigeria’s newest states – Ebonyi – the city is also famed for his massive rice cultivation, one of the country’s staple foods.

The city was a major slave route in the 17th century, bringing it popularity in the eastern region of the country. The area also boasts of other important natural resources like lead, zinc, salt, and limestone.

But despite its strategic role in trade and commerce in the region and Nigeria as a whole, Abakaliki, unlike most state capitals in the country, cannot boast of a decent cemetery where people can bury their loved ones. In fact, in this city, there is no rest for the dead as space provided to give them a befitting burial is in short supply – almost unavailable.

During a visit to the two annexes of the Federal Teaching Hospital in the city, our correspondent discovered that between four and seven persons die daily, making the need for a decent cemetery imperative. This is aside others who die in private hospitals and other health facilities across the state. The only burial ground in Abakaliki, built during the colonial era, has been stretched beyond its limits, leaving residents in a state of confusion whenever the need to bury their dead arises.

Our correspondent, during a visit to the facility, observed how it had been overgrown with weeds. Situated close to an abattoir, cows, goats and other livestock in search of food could be seen straying into the place, defecating and messing up the entire cemetery in the process.

Some of these animals go as far as destroying people’s graves, adding to the untidy nature of the place. While the situation has become a source of concern for residents of the city, for the dead whose final resting place is this facility that is in a state of disrepair, rest may still be a long way ahead.

“Many corpses are now being buried on top of old ones,” Francis Uzo, a 41-year-old resident enraged by the development, told Saturday PUNCH. “The place has become so congested that you either bury your dead on another corpse or take the body to your home or village to do so. The situation is that bad.”
According to findings by Saturday PUNCH, instead of digging six-foot holes to bury the dead at the cemetery, most of the corpses brought into this facility are squeezed into graves not more than three feet deep. As a result, foul smell constantly emanates from the place – a situation experts fear could cause disease outbreaks.

Describing the development as worrisome, an Islamic cleric resident in the city, Dr. Haroun Ajah, said the facility had gone from bad to worse and that if not immediately checked, the crisis could become more problematic.

“This sad development has brought untold hardship on citizens especially non-indigenes who now have to spend a lot of money to convey their dead loved ones to their villages in the state or in other states.

“The terrible state of the cemetery has also caused panic in the city because people are afraid that there could be disease outbreaks, especially considering the fact that there is an abattoir opposite the place, where people buy meat every day.

“I think the government must do something about this problem before it leads to a bigger worry,” he said.

Also expressing anger and worry about the situation, another resident, Ogbonnaya Onwe, described the state of the city’s only cemetery as a gross disrespect for the dead and their right to a peaceful rest. According to him, the unkempt nature of the place and activities of cattle sellers in the abattoir opposite the cemetery, has made the problem more critical.

“A cemetery must reflect cleanliness and serenity. It must show respect for the dead because that is the way they can have a peaceful rest.

“But the current state of the cemetery in Abakaliki does not portray any of that. The place is in such a terrible state that the dead would be turning in their graves. They’ll not be happy because they are not able to rest well. The place is just too irritating to look at,” he said.

While revealing that the only reason people used the place was because there was no alternative, he said that much of the land area in Abakaliki was owned by private individuals and it would be difficult to get them to release some of them for the purpose of establishing burial grounds.

“There’s no alternative to the cemetery in the city and that is why we are having this crisis.

“Those who own land in excess are not willing to give them up for the benefit of the society, so this worsens the situation. It has made burying our loved ones very difficult,” he stated.

Another resident of the city, Eze Chima, pointed out that one of the major reasons why the government had not shown seriousness in addressing the problem was because some influential individuals in government had encroached into part of the land originally meant for the cemetery. According to him, if such land areas were retrieved from such persons, the pressure created by the lack of space to bury corpses would reduce.

“Some influential persons in government and those outside it have encroached into the place,” he said. “At the time the cemetery was established, there was nothing like abattoir or a place for selling goats there. The place was basically meant for burying people.

“But all of a sudden, we started seeing all manner of things happening there. Today, part of the land area meant for the cemetery has been taken over by powerful people in government, thereby creating crisis in the city.

“The cemetery has been in existence even before the creation of Ebonyi State 22 years ago. As a result, the entire place is filled up and there is no alternative.

“A lot of people are now burying their dead on other corpses. This is a serious crisis that must be immediately looked into by the government.”

Located within the city centre, there have been calls by residents for the cemetery to be relocated elsewhere. Those making the call fear that the continued usage of the facility for burying the dead could lead to disease outbreaks, thereby putting many lives in danger.

According to Nwafor Nwolo, a resident of Ugwuchara, a community on the outskirt of Abakaliki, the situation its becoming alarming.

“Burying people anywhere just for the sake of it, is not befitting because the purity of the place is not ascertained.

“The cemetery should be a befitting place to avoid disease outbreaks. It should be a place that’s far from where people live, so that the odour doesn’t endanger the health of those around,” she said.

Another resident, Mr Nwakpa Obochi, told Saturday PUNCH that he and some of his kinsmen struggled really hard some days earlier before they could get a space to bury a relation, who had passed on recently. According to him, several others, who were not as lucky, had to turn back with their corpses.

“We almost didn’t get a space to bury the body we took there a few days ago,” he said. “The entire place was filled up. But after pleading with one of the security men there, they allowed us put the corpse on another one in a shallow grave. Many other families had to go back with their dead.”

While confirming the situation and shedding light on the sad development, a security man at the cemetery, who works there as a volunteer, Patrick Nwafor, said that an average of five corpses were brought to the cemetery daily despite the fact that there was no longer space for burying people. According to him, the situation should be addressed urgently before it gets out of hand.

“I help people get location to bury their dead and I also render general security services.

“When people come with dead bodies, I show them spots where they can manage and bury them. I also dig the graves if they want me to.

“I don’t charge for my services, whatever I am given, I take,” he said.

“However, most part of the cemetery is overgrown with weeds. Though some groups come in here to do clean-up from time to time, the place is still not conducive to bury the dead,” he said.

Speaking on the danger the situation poses for public health, a medical practitioner, Ike Elendu, said that burying corpses in shallow graves could not only lead to air-borne diseases, but water-borne diseases as well, especially when it rains heavily and the water that runs in and out of such graves later mixes with rivers and other sources of water used by people.

“It is a dangerous practice to bury corpses in shallow graves and in fact on top of other bodies because by doing so, you are exposing the environment to all sorts of diseases.

“Many households rely on well water and even water from rivers and streams to survive, so imagine a situation whereby rainwater goes into such shallow graves and then mixes with other water sources, there’ll surely be crisis.

“Also, the offensive odour from such a facility could also result in breathing problems and other air-borne diseases.

“So, I think it is a situation the government of Ebonyi State must look into to safeguard the health of residents,” he said.

Commissioner for Environment in the state, Donatus Njoku, while reacting to the development, said that the state government would look into the matter.

“The condition of that place presently is bad; but government is planning to either relocate the cemetery elsewhere, especially as it’s close to an abattoir.

“We have discussed that and government decided that the two of them cannot remain in the same place. Therefore, we are planning to either relocate the abattoir or the cemetery.

“Although, we know that space is a big issue at the cemetery, we have yet to get the report that corpses are buried on top of others.

“However, we are working on improving the situation at the place to safeguard public health,” he said.

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