Dying for Pieces of Copper

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Okrika Water Front, Niger Delta

Of the ten most toxic places on earth, three are found in Africa. They are: the Niger Delta, the mining communities of Kabwe in Zambia and the Agbogbloshie dumpsite in Ghana. While Kabwe ranks as number five on the list, Agbogbloshie stands at the tenth spot.

The Niger Delta ranks as number two on the list prepared in 2013 by Pure Earth and Green Cross, Switzerland. If you think that the region may have slipped out of the list since 2013, we are sorry to disappoint you as the listing remained valid at the close of 2018.

The rampant pollution of communities in Africa has gone on unabated and mineral rich communities are the worst hit. The state of affairs has been driven by the manipulation of governments by a mix of transnational corporations, as well as national and international financial bodies. Throw into that, the wholesale adoption of neoliberal policies by governments eager to attract so-called foreign direct investment and development aid and the waters become murkier. The craze for privatisation of public goods continue on the premise that government cannot be a good manager of business and must not be caught in any enterprise that requires efficiency. Thus, janitorial tasks in public offices are contracted to private enterprises and the digging of trenches in warfronts are being privatised and contracted out in the rich economies.

In our 2012 book, To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and Climate Crisis in Africa, we stated, “The conversion of public goods into private property through the privatisation of our otherwise commonly held natural environment is one [of the ways] neoliberal institutions remove the tenuous threads that hold African nations together. Politics today has been reduced to a lucrative venture where one looks out mainly for returns on investment rather than on what one can contribute to rebuild highly degraded environments, communities and a nation.” This pathway has oiled and locked in corruption of various shades in the continent.

Zambia stands out as one of the countries that ended up holding the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the pursuit of privatisation, pliant surrender to corporate interest and lax regulatory and tax regimes. Corporate tax stood at almost zero at a time when they enjoyed a tax boutique that had the biggest chunk coming from workers’ withheld taxes. At that time extractive companies generated a mere 2.2 per cent of the revenue collected by Zambian authorities.

The abuse suffered on the continent is clearly systemic and places the burden on poor communities. Unfortunately, often the struggles of the poor are overlooked and even subverted by external and internal forces. How else could the list of the top ten most toxic locations in the world be in the public realm for over a decade and we continue with business as usual and keep weakening environmental laws so as to score cheap points on the chart of nations rated for ease of doing business?

Niger Delta communities continue to fight decades of horrendous oil and gas pollutions that have heinously degraded their environment. They have resisted and continue to do so through protests, litigation, direct and political actions. Thousands of lives have been lost, or cut short due to the pollution and attendant militarisation of the region.

In Zambia, 1800 villagers have stood up to the UK-based company, Vedanta Resources, that had polluted their waters through the activities of its subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM). The villagers complain that the company’s Nchanga copper mine has turned their Kafue River into a river of acid and are suing for personal injury and loss of livelihood. Villagers from Shimulala, Hippo Pool, Hellen and Kakosa are demanding compensation for harms arising from the pollution of their primary source of water. They also complain of the impact on their agriculture and socio-economic wellbeing.

The Zambian case mirrors the Niger Delta situation and underscores the critical need for solidarity between communities impacted by mining across the continent, indeed across the world. Local and international civil society networks continue to work with the suffering communities of the Niger Delta while the impacted Zambian villagers enjoy the solidarity of groups including Foil Vedanta in the difficult efforts to secure their right to life in a battle against mining behemoths. International oil corporations operating in Nigeria are deft at utilizing loopholes in the legal system to ensure that cases are often never decided on within the short lifespan of the litigants. When they are found guilty, they can shrug the sentence off as they are sure the government would be unable to force compliance since they are literally in bed together due to the business partnerships that are rigged against the people and the environment. Litigation in the home countries of the offending companies has been the option that offers a ray of hope for justice for the poor and for Mother Earth.

When the case against Vedanta went to the High Court in the United Kingdom the company argued that the matter should be heard in Zambia and not in the UK. The court disagreed on the understanding that the villagers would not get justice in their own country because of the costs and other aspects of the adversarial legal system.  That has always been the first objection that Shell, Chevron, ENI and the others raise whenever a case is brought to a location where their shareholders may pay attention. In fact, a Zambian court had ruled in 2011 that the company should pay a $2million compensation to 2000 claimants affected by pollution of the Kafue River that occurred in 2006.

The Zambian case will be heard at the Supreme Court of the UK next week based on Vedanta’s objections. While that is coming up, the manner by which Vedanta acquired the copper mines in Zambia is a lesson that conscious citizens should pay attention to. In a sort of confessional speech captured on video, Anil Agarwal, the founder/chairman of the company at a conference, gleefully outlined how he fooled the Zambian government when they advertised the desire to privatise their mining company. The guy literally scammed/bluffed his way into acquiring the Zambian assets. The video showed the chairman of KCM boasting that the mines make him $500 million in profits a year, when he acquired the mine for only $25 million. The lame excuse by the company is that the video clip was part of a longer speech and was taken out of context.  The facts speak clearly for themselves and show a very condescending attitude towards the Zambian authorities.

The company went ahead to claim that they had invested $120 million in “local communities, providing schools, educational programmes, sustainable agricultural initiatives, critical medical programmes and funding for cultural events.” This sounds much like what we hear as corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts in Niger Delta communities where the basic right to life is clearly negated by the ecological harms orchestrated by the same companies.

Next week we shall know what the Supreme Court of the UK thinks of the cry of the Zambian communities. Whatever the outcome, it is clearly time for our communities to connect their pains, strategies and fights. Pollution respects no geographic or political boundaries and we cannot afford to allow these boundaries to short circuit our struggles.


This article was first published in The Instigator, my weekly column in The Leadership newspaper, Nigeria as Poisoned for Pieces of Copper

Struggle, Freedom and Change

Change

poster designed by Chaz Maviyane-Davies

As one year draws to a close and another one unfolds, it is always a time for reflection, introspection, and resolutions. Many persons resolve to leave bad habits and to assume acceptable modes of behaviour. Heads of governments make speeches and promise new directions. Prophets declare their annual visions and promise hope or doom. Of course, some persons and governments, convinced of their infallibility, indulge in self-congratulations, dig in and promise to forge ahead on their chosen pathways.

Some of us spend the time browsing through notes and reflections made from conversations, readings, meetings, and engagements in the fading year in a bid to pick out what was inspiring, what spurred actions, what worked, what did not work so well and what failed outright. We also reflect on what made the headlines in our communities, nations and elsewhere.

A note taken in January 2018 while listening to the Cuban journalist and philosopher, Enrique Ubieta, reminds us: “Those who have been colonised must be suspicious of anything offered by colonialism.”

Obviously, the issues that stood out for us were issues that shaped our ecological realities, challenges, and nightmares. On the local political scene, we could not ignore the drama that occurred at the Nigerian National Assembly on Wednesday, 19 December 2018 when President Buhari presented the 2019 national budget. It was quite a spectacle. It was a day of infamy on many counts. It was a day when legislators donned the garbs of legislative activism, complete with “Freedom Comes from Struggle” placards and absolutely disregarded legislative niceties.

The Nigerian national assembly has before now boasted of fence climbers (ala Spider-Man), dancers of all sorts, singers of all sorts and actors acting like politicians. On the budget presentation day, the house was neatly divided into cheerleaders and jeerleaders. While the president reminded the politicians that the world was watching the unfolding prime time drama, it turned out that the politicians were not in the mood to listen to what the President had to present as the vital grounds for running the economy in 2019.

Who won in the raucous finger displaying political combat? Did the ayes have it or was the day carried by the nays? As they say, when two elephants fight, the grass suffers. The drama left Nigerians wondering how confidence will be built in the economy in the coming year.

The budget presentation was a great test for a usually taciturn president who, by self-confession, is for everybody and for nobody. Criticism has been said to be like organic compost that may smell bad but makes things grow. Being at the receiving end of criticism cannot be easy for the faint-hearted, but seekers of solutions to complex problems must learn to accept them, interrogate them and sieve the chaff from the real. Karl Marx, the great thinker, demanded “ruthless criticism” of everything including our personal views. That, to us, is a healthy attitude.

A note taken in January 2018 while listening to the Cuban journalist and philosopher, Enrique Ubieta, reminds us: “Those who have been colonised must be suspicious of anything offered by colonialism.” This is true even when the offer is coated with honey. For instance, someone could sell you the idea that you cannot afford to urgently transit to clean energy, that you need dirty energy sources to build the basic requirements of “civilised” living and that the transition is a luxury for the rich. Supposing the ultimate plan of your “sympathizer” is to sell second-hand coal or nuclear power plants to you, would that be in your best interest?

Hunger and poverty deeply affect the way individuals and groups see themselves. When anyone provides the signature image of either of these scourges, it affects both how they present themselves and how they are perceived by others. This was clear in the case of the classification (by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund from 1996) of some nations as poor and highly indebted before they could be given consideration for certain financial facilities. Looking at the offers available, and blind to the toga of poverty and indebtedness, many nations struggled to proudly wear the label. And many nations failed to be so “recognised” even though they had severely rubbished themselves in the process.

… forces of colonialism seek to retain their vice-grip on Nature, squeeze the last profit from her without care that their greed may plunge everyone over the precipice. The force of colonialism is the enduring coloniality that can only be overthrown by our emancipation from mental slavery, as in the words of Bob Marley.

Nations have opened their communities and environment to ecological abuse in their pursuit for foreign exchange in order to service odious debts and to meet the insatiable needs of their elites for foreign goods. The truth is that it is impossible to escape the hunger and poverty traps, at all levels of their manifestation, without ecological justice.

As I close my jotter for the year 2018, I keep looking a note made from Change: Organising Tomorrow, Today, the incredibly empowering book written by Jay Naidoo. He wrote: “Economic inequality and climate change are the greatest threats confronting humanity today, and how we choose to deal with them has repercussions for all species on this planet.”

With the world in a literal tailspin and with humans remaining adamant on reckless exploitation and commodification of Nature, there is much that requires us to stand up for the people and for the planet. It is time to pay attention to our children, youths, adults, and elders. We have to listen to ourselves. We have to listen to youths such as the 15 years old Greta Thunberg, from Sweden, who looked world leaders in the eye at the United Nations’ Climate COP24 and called out their irresponsible attitude and lack of climate ambition. We have to listen to elders like David Attenborough, the naturalist, who stood before world leaders at the COP and warned them, “The world is in your hands.”

We have to act in the interest of the people and the planet. My notes show that forces of colonialism seek to retain their vice-grip on Nature, squeeze the last profit from her without care that their greed may plunge everyone over the precipice. The force of colonialism is the enduring coloniality that can only be overthrown by our emancipation from mental slavery, as in the words of Bob Marley.

In dealing with climate change, leaders have fallen for the techno-optimism fetish or an oversimplified way of viewing advances in the world in a way that discounts the intricate interconnectedness of ecosystems in nature. Overcoming this issue of the loss of connectivity with nature ought to drive popular ecological struggles going forward.

The world tends to think that technology and regulation can solve virtually all problems. We tend to forget that regulations are basically drawn up to control the way certain things come into society and that if things are unwanted, they should simply be banned. To avoid taking these tough actions may encourage a slide into authoritarian environmentalism where the commercial interests and mechanistic economic opportunities are held up as the ultimate solution and government apparatchiks wear the garment of infallibility. As we walked the streets of Auschwitz in the weeks of the United Nations climate talks (COP24), one question that kept coming up was “where was the world when the holocaust happened?” Today, a tragedy of horrendous proportions is building up, indeed unfolding, before our eyes. Future generations will ask the same question as we are asking of the past. Our resolve must be to ask that pertinent question now.

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This essay was first published in my column in The Leadership newspaper on 28 December 2018 as Freedom, Struggle and Change