Who Says the Town Crier is Gone (The Life of Patrick Naagbanton)

Standing 12 years older than Patrick Naagbanton, it feels strange to be speaking at his memorial. However, many greats have gone before us after spending abbreviated years on planet Earth. Many such greats include Thomas Sankara, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Chima Ubani, Bamidele Aturu, Oronto Douglas and Festus Iyayi. Some of these greats passed by natural means while the majority had their lives cut short either by systemic failures or outright machinations of the anti-democratic forces. 

Patrick Naagbanton’s passing was abrupt and, of course, unexpected. To say it was traumatic, would be to put it mildly. If it rang so for us, co-travellers on the environmental justice paths, imagine what it meant and means to his young family. 

Placed on the canvass of life expectancy in the Niger Delta, one would find that he left at 49 years. Average life expectancy in the world ranges from about 50 years (Chad) to 89.4 years for Monaco. In Nigeria the figure is 55 years – about the fifth worst measure in the world. The point is this: life expectancy in the Niger Delta is atrociously low. It is almost unimaginable. But that is the reality.

Brutish and Short

Writing in the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes said left to a free reign of human competition and exploitation of other humans and of nature, people would end up in a situation, “… which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He went on to call for governance through social contracts that sets rules that govern social relationships and may include the letting go of certain personal liberties.

Looking at the life of Patrick Naagbanton, what he stood for and fought for, we come to the sad conclusion that life is indeed brutish and short in Nigeria. Happily, he left a corpus of writings in the form of poetry and prose, thus giving us a window through which to peep into his thoughts, dreams and life.

I got to know Patrick when he joined Environmental Rights Action (ERA) in the late 1990s as her Field Monitor. His fearlessness was apparent for all to see. He was literally ready to go anywhere and at any time. His Field Report of the Jesse pipeline fire of October 1998 remains the reference document for information of what transpired at that time. His reports were so detailed he would make readers feel they were at the scene of environmental crimes around the Niger Delta and the wider nation. He consolidated what became the routine format for monitoring reports – not just chronicling the pollutions and reckless extractive activities, he set out the socio-cultural context of the victims and their communities. This approach gives readers a means of knowing that what was being lost was not merely oil that was spilled, gas that was flared, but lives and dreams that were cut short.

Patrick Naagbanton was an expert on conflicts and paid special attention to the proliferation of small arms in the country. He did not write about violent action actors but was bold to step into their camps to observe and better understand what spurred and sustained such trajectories. He was fearless.

He was a man who was content with what life brought to him and could do with the barest necessities. No one could bend his position with cash. Money was nothing but a means of exchange for basic needs. His travels were by the most basic public transportation means. He epitomised the ideal that consolidated the environmental justice movement in Nigeria – live and travel the way the majority of our compatriots do. Such ideals are increasingly hard to track these days. No doubt, these endeared him to the people and opened doors to a broad spectrum of Nigerians, from those in high office to the boleseller on the streets.

Our Environment our Life

While our stations in life may differ and the foods that garnish our tables may be vastly different, we all have some things in common: the need to breathe. What we breathe may differ depending on where we live, the vast majority of Nigerians uniformly breathe highly poisonous air. Although the nation does not have adequate air quality monitoring stations, available data confirm that the air we breathe is deadly. The poisons in the air include those coming from emissions from automobiles, electricity generators, incinerators, gas flares among others. Particulate matters in the air are visible in the blanket of soot that has persisted over Port Harcourt, Rivers State and the Ekpan area of Delta State. There are high levels of sulphur and Nitrogen dioxides, volatile organic compounds, etc. 

Besides the polluted air that Nigerians must breathe, there is also extensive water pollution. High levels of toxic chemicals including heavy metals and pesticides have been recorded in Nigerian water resources. Industrial and human wastes empty into water bodies across the country with little checks. In some communities, both beasts and humans drink directly from the same ponds. 

The pollution covers both surface and ground water. And additional cause of poor water quality is climate change. An example in this connection is the dramatic decline in the quantity of water in Lake Chad. Coastal erosion and canalization by industry have led to increased salination of previously freshwater systems thereby denying the littoral communities’ access to drinking water and generally changing their aquatic ecosystems.

A 2017 UNICEF report “ranked Nigeria among the top 5 countries globally with large numbers of people without access to safe water, improved sanitation and practicing open defecation.” The report also showed that 66 million Nigerians did not have access to potable (safe drinking) water, and 109 million lacked access to improved sanitation.

Plastic pollution is a huge environmental problem in Nigeria. Efforts by NGOs to create awareness of the menace and promote the use of durable and reusable packaging still requires to be supported by suitable legislation. As we speak, Nigeria is yet to enact any law outlawing single-use plastics.

Biological pollution is another huge problem in Nigeria which if not check will evolve into serious biosecurity threats. Since the Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency Act came into life in 2015, there has been a flurry of permits for genetically modified organisms in the country.

As I stated in a recent roundtable with lawyers on the issue:

The business of genetic engineering is just that: business. Promoters target staple crops or varieties with wide industrial usage in a bid to take control of markets and food systems. Since the advent of the first wave of modern agricultural biotechnology the promises of this technology have been that they would end hunger, increase yield, reduce chemical inputs and so on. More than two decades on, these claims remain myths.

Failure is wished away and risks and rejected. Two examples. First is that it was in the same year that genetically modified cotton (Bt. Cotton) failed spectacularly in Burkina Faso that Nigeria approved the same variety for release in the country. That permit was issued on a public holiday that also happened to be a Sunday (1 May 2016). 

When the President of Uganda insisted that that country’s GMO law must have strict liability clauses, the promoters of the technology accused him of attempting to stifle science. In other words, Africans should be guinea pigs and accept to be used for experimentations with no one taking responsibility over possible mishaps. The Nigerian law does not have strict liability clauses.

No matter how much Nigerians protest against GMOs, the government simply keeps mum and prefers to swallow the myths peddled by industry or to allow citizens to be used as guinea pigs in their fight for profit. 

Deforestation remains a huge challenge in Nigeria. At the United Nation’s climate summit in September 2019, President Buhari pledged to plant 25 million trees. Youths were to be mobilised for the plantings. An inter-ministerial committee was set up to see to the planting of the trees and state governors all pledged to be a part of the exercise. A year has gone by and the pledge remains in the air.

Perhaps the most visible environmental challenge in Nigeria is the degradation brought about by the oil industry.  Patrick Naagbanton did quite a lot on this, not just as a avid environmental monitor but also as a writer. He tackled the oil menace from a political as well as human rights perspective. In one clearly political engineering process, he was involved with the Kaiama Declaration of Ijaw Youths in December 1998, even though he was Ogoni and not Ijaw. 

The devastation of the Niger Delta environmental by hydrocarbon pollution has rendered the region as one of the 10 most polluted places on earth. From oil spills to gas flares, to oil thefts, pipeline explosions and dumping of produce water and other contaminants into the land and water bodies of the region, the Niger Delta is a huge crime scene. NOSDRA recently reported an average of 5 oil spills per day in 2018 and 2019. 

The oil sector is literally a law unto itself and poor communities have besieged the courts in Nigeria and outside Nigeria for justice. Efforts to enact a Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) has dragged on for over a decade. A judgement on gas flaring against Shell in 2005 is yet to be enforced. A few days ago, the Nigerian Supreme Court rejected a request by Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited to review and set aside a N17 billion judgment entered against it last year as damages for a decades old oil spillage in Ejama-Ebubu in Tai Eleme Local Government Area of Rivers State.

The depth to which hydrocarbons had penetrated Ogoni soil was put at 5m in the UNEP report on the assessment of Ogoni environment. By the time one of the locations was remediated by HYPREP in 2020, the pollution had sunk to 10 metres.

Meanwhile, many countries and jurisdictions in the global north will cease to produce internal combustion engines in the coming decades. This will mean a flood of Tokunbo cars into Nigeria and other African nations as we are still thinking that internal combustion engines will remain eternally. Another implication is the constriction of markets for petroleum resources. And, of course, on a global scale, less pollution. At our local scale, we can expect more pollution as the fossil fuels age creaks to its terminal point bring to fulfilment the saying that “the stone age did not end for lack of stones” and the fossil age will not end for lack of crude oil.

All these announce the urgency of the clean-up of the entire Niger Delta because if this is not done while the goose is laying the golden egg, it will be a hard sale when the goose turns decrepit.

Poems on Wheels 

We will close this conversation with some pieces of writings that Patrick Naagbanton shared with his contacts via SMS. They show his sharp analysis and poetic capturing of thoughts and ideas. He was clearly a man in a hurry and this short form of real time reporting was very powerful and should remind all of us that we have no time to waste. Here are his words.

  • Restive journeys of Patrick Naagbanton 

In spite of the late yesterday evening heavy downpour in parts of Port Harcourt, the weather around Choba stretch of the East- West Road, the weather is hot. I am on another restless journey to Abonnema and other riverside towns in the south-west parts of Rivers- Eastern Niger  Delta. The towns are in celebration mood, but I am not. I am in my typical adventurous mood. They are celebrating their annual Go-to- Niger/ Liberation Day. The above event is always celebrated in a reflective, comic and satiric manner. They are celebrating their freedom from the ordeals they reportedly suffered in the hands of battle-fatigued Biafran soldiers who swooped on their towns during the unfortunate tribal Nigeria- Biafra wars. Am not part of the Go- To- Niger celebration. But will be in the midst of the celebrants soon due to my atypical adventurous beats. I don’t know where I will sail to after there

(18 June 2019)

Restive trips in parts of the restive eastern Niger Delta creeks, rivers and tributaries- always breathing fearfully and restively. Am not afraid of the deltaic ‘waters’ and its elements – I always enjoy sailing in them than travels by air or road. Am safe and fine after my “sojourn” in ‘The River Between’. I just arrived in the Bonny Island after my restive battles with the restive ‘waters’. Rain falling restively like sporadic gun shots from the low, dark and broken rumbling clouds over the island. I will be here until my journey end.

(21 June 2019)

  • Selfless Service

top Rivers politician just called me on phone, ‘to beg me’ to use my connections to give him contracts in HYPREP. My first reaction was to laugh heartily at his request. Later, I acted like what the late Comrade  Gani  Fawehinmi did at the Ibrahim  Auta Kangaroo Tribunal that gave the order to hang Saro-Wiwa  and others. Auta has wrongly said Gani shouldn’t complain of lack of cash to photocopy laws books he quoted from at the tribunal, and that then, he was getting a lot of foreign grants.  Gani spent about 2 hours to educate the Tribunal of High Injustice how he has NOT received a kobo as grants from any internal or external source. That was exactly what I did, and the man said ‘nawaoo. I thought you are part of them.’ Nigeria is an illiterate society. Even the so-called educated ones are inquisitive. Most of their opinions on a person or thing are derived from the wild rumour mills.

(13 August 2019)

  • Cemetery, Prisons and Violence in Ogoni:

Am told that the ongoing violence in Ogoniland – is sponsored by the Nigerian State to provide the basis for siting of military barracks, cemetery and prisons in Ogoniland.

(18 August 2019)

This presentation is left inclusive and you are invited to carry on the struggle. We believe this is what Patrick Naagbanton would wish that you do.

Thank you.

These were Nnimmo Bassey’s Talking points at First Memorial Lecture and book launch for Patrick Naagbanton held on Thursday, 3rd December 2020 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

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