Art and the Codes of Life

 

With Odia & Eve

Before the sage, Odia Ofeimun, took the stage

Art and the Codes of Life. While humans make history through acts of valiance or of villainy, much of history is preserved through the arts. Official historians may couch history to please the despotic rulers and politicians and may even decree the elimination of history from the educational curriculum, but true history remains largely beyond their reach. Our memory and imagination are the vaults where history is stored and these deserve to be continually nurtured and propagated.

The fact that we have had a checkered history in Nigeria cannot be disputed, but so is the history of every nation. However, we may hold the record of vigorously working to push our history under the carpet so as to obscure the unpalatable stories of those who must remain in the political firmament of the land. We seem to have found a way to decorate villainy, marking such as valiancy or gallantry. Unfortunately, brightly lit or coloured vileness, roguery or even rascality can dazzle and confuse the simple-minded. And, sadly, an obscured past births an obscured future.

Our stories hold the code for rebuilding hope and for rebuilding Nigeria, even the world. We have to decipher the codes of life, recognize our commonalities, know our stories and tell them, defend our memory, build our imagination and march in the direction of solidarity as we fight for socio-ecological justice.

Happily, the arts, by and large, hold the torch to light the way to our past in a way that refuses to be suppressed or obliterated. Poetry, songs, paintings, sculpture, stories, films, architecture and the like, tell our history in a living way. Novels by writers such as Chinua Achebe, Festus Iyayi, Helon Habila, Chimamanda Adichie, Okey Ndibe, Wale Okediran and many others give us clear sketches of  the rough waters of our histories. The poetry of Christopher Okigbo, Gabriel Okara, J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Ogaga Ifowodo, Harry Garuba, Nduka Otiono and several others, brilliantly capture our histories and fearlessly lay out the paths of our times of innocence, colonialism, neocolonialism, kleptocracy, authoritarianism, socio-ecological and financial corruption. They also give us the outlines of hope, as they inevitably sketch the way forward to a preferred future.

We also call to mind, notable sculptors, painters and writers such as Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onabrokpeya, Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo and Uche Okeke who were immersed in the struggle for Nigeria’s political and artistic independence. The vibrancy of their artistic production, discourse and vision, held up brilliant signposts to what could have been. Along with the architectural production of those days, we saw that our built and unbuilt spaces spoke of our hopes and enclosed the innate desires to be authentic in our march into the future.

Writing on the works of Odia Ofeimun, but also focusing on the general fighting spirit of Nigerian writers, Dan Amor captured the roles played by our writers in the historic struggles in the nation: “The traumatic effects of the social upheavals in the mid-sixties, the civil war and its attendant horrors, increased writers’ political commitment. Nigerian creative writers were caught in ambivalence after the war – torn between anguish over the predatory tendencies in human nature, as displayed or exhibited in mutual destruction of lives and property, and the need to reconstruct the society after the catastrophe. But the most significant creative development from the civil war is not merely the exposition of the horrors nor the writers’ anguish from the traumatic results of the war, but their determination to make their work an organic function of the nation’s history.”

What can we say about our music? Musicians raised the flag of highlife and equally sounded the alarm as the nation wavered between hope and despair, between light and darkness and between goodness and near absolute meanness. No matter what anyone may write as the history of Nigeria, the music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti will stand as a testimony of their truthfulness or willful perfidy. Anikulapo-Kuti’s songs, including Beasts of No Nation,  Zombie and Vagabonds in Power speak volumes of the days of infamy in Nigeria.

The long list of artistes that have captured history and placed it out of reach of official deniers or manipulators is long and cannot be covered in this piece. Why do artistes do what they do, even to their own peril?

Some art may be for art’s sake, but to some of us, art aims to achieve particular ends. Even so, we realize that no matter how targeted a work of art may be, it often throws up unexpected additional results. The complexities of the crafts and the richness of memory and imagination necessarily moderate our architecture, sculpture, paintings, poetry, fiction, music and films as they capture our histories in verse, colour, movement or in concrete.

I listened closely to Odia Ofeimun as he spoke on Art and the Environment on 11 June 2019. The key points I distilled from the broad, intricate and rich tapestry of his presentation were that our memory is fed by our senses and that our imagination is developed by what our senses pick up. Our common humanity presents us with codes that teach us how to live together with a sense of order and without hurting each other. Without a sense of order there can be no successful pursuit of social justice. If this is true, as we believe it is, it means that we have either lost the code, our sense of common humanity, imagination or memory.

Evelyn Osagie

Poetry flows from Evelyn Osagie

Stories told in verse or carved in stone hold out mirrors that help us see who we are and grasp the codes of life. They both preserve and promote our memory and our imagination. Who are we? Where have we come from from? Where are we headed? Can we continue in the trajectory of so much insecurity such that  that one cannot walk between his bedroom and kitchen without fear of being kidnapped? How far can a nation go when corruption rises, the more it is fought?

Our stories hold the code for rebuilding hope and for rebuilding Nigeria, even the world. We have to decipher the codes of life, recognize our commonalities, know our stories and tell them, defend our memory, build our imagination and march in the direction of solidarity as we fight for socio-ecological justice.

 

A Poisoned Civilization

roasting.jpgWe live in a Poisoned Civilization. The Planet is on the sick bed. With up to one million species gone extinct and many of the remaining ones under threat, it is clear that things have gone terribly wrong. While it is known that humans are largely responsible for the harms brought on the Planet, we do not seem to care about halting the predatory relationship with other beings, simply because business as usual is so profitable to the drivers of the destruction.

Civilization ought to mean progress, sophistication, advancement and refinement but is that where we are today? If advancement means oppression, militarisation, violence, destruction and a reign of intergenerational injustices, then humans are living in a state of willing delusion. You may call it a state of willing blindness. In an age of threats of the Planet being burnt up, humans stubbornly insist on continuing to burn fossil fuels for energy. In a time when it is clear that species are being wiped out in droves, humans insist that progress means entrenching agricultural modes steeped in poison.

It appears we are stuck on the fatal track because of layers of corporate blindfolds placed over the eyes of policy makers across much of the world. The interrelatedness of lives on the Planet is not a matter for debate. When a part of the web of life is interfered with by humans, other parts get affected. The war against insects gave rise to the production of chemical insecticides. The war against unwanted plants gave rise to the production of herbicides. Profit-driven industrial agriculture continues to poison the species on the Planet and yet the push is to carpet the world with more of the toxic broths.

A recent report by the Inter Governmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned that “Rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is the most extensive global direct driver of land degradation, causing significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services – food security, water purification, the provision of energy and other contributions of nature essential to people. This has reached ‘critical’ levels in many parts of the world…” The IPBES report also warned that, “With negative impacts on the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, the degradation of the Earth’s land surface through human activities is pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction.”

Science decorated with corporate interests must not be allowed to trump good sense. The fear mongering by proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that we cannot feed ourselves without their dangerous products and that those opposed to their trade are anti-development, anti-science and anti -national interests must be discountenanced as blatant nonsense.

The war on insects is a war on other species. It is known, for example, that much of our food production depends on the agency of insects who facilitate production through pollination. The effect of the use of poisons in agriculture is already known to have greatly decimated the population of bees in the world. It is so bad in some places that farmers have to rent beehives in order to enjoy the services of the creatures and ensure good harvests on their farms.

Today, humans do not only dump insecticides or poisons on croplands, crops are genetically engineered to be insecticides themselves, killing intended and unintended insects. Today, crops are genetically engineered to withstand specific poisons labelled herbicides ostensibly to eliminate the drudgery of weeding on farms, reduce competition with unwanted plants and increase the harvest for farmers and investors. Humans have advanced to the point when extinction is actually being engineered in the laboratory in a technology known as gene drives. The extinction or exterminator technology, for example, aims to deliberately drive or force a genetic trait through entire species in such a way that reproduction ends up yielding off springs of a particular sex, for example and over a period of time wipes out that species. Experiments are being cooked up against mosquitoes and will be unleashed in Burkina Faso, Mali, Uganda and Cote d’Ivoire. No one loves mosquitoes, especially the malaria parasite carrying ones, but these experiments are simply a foot in the door towards teasing out the efficacy of a technology that can easily disrupt ecological balances and can rapidly be weaponized.

Let us return to the horrors of farming with deadly poisons. Landmark legal decisions are being made in the United States of America (USA) over the impact of Bayer-Monsanto’s famous herbicide, Roundup. A few days ago, a jury awarded $2 billion in damages against the company for cancer suffered by a couple who were exposed to the herbicide in that country. Court findings suggested that the presence of glyphosate, a major ingredient in the herbicide, Roundup, in food supply has a link to increased level of more severe cases of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in the USA. In the course of the legal tussle, lawyers showed members of the jury heaps of materials said to show how the manufacturers of the herbicide are  manipulating scientific literature, ghost-writing scientific review papers and getting them published and cited as authoritative by policy making agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of that country. In the midst of the legal fights, the EPA issued a new approval for the deadly herbicide.

Nigerians should be worried about the prevalence of the herbicide, Roundup, in our markets. We should also worry that approvals for field trails of crops genetically engineered to withstand this same herbicide are ongoing in our country. Monsanto-Bayer claims that the chemical is safe when applied as prescribed by them. The right way to apply the chemical includes being suited up as though you were headed for a space flight. With lax industrial practices, our farmers are not following those prescriptions. Even with the best adherence to the prescriptions in the USA, the results are now out that farmers and others that are exposed to the poison are not safe.

The war against weeds is a war that requires delicate consideration. What is termed a weed in one community may actually be food elsewhere. The same applies to pests. Where an insect is a threat to a plant, it may be food for humans and other predators.

Science decorated with corporate interests must not be allowed to trump good sense. The fear mongering by proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that we cannot feed ourselves without their dangerous products and that those opposed to their trade are anti-development, anti-science and anti -national interests must be discountenanced as blatant nonsense. The unfolding guilty verdicts in the courts of the USA should be early warning signs to us all.

We have to wake up and eliminate the poisons from our markets and farms. We must wake up and demand an end to permitting crops engineered to be cultivated with these poisons. It is time to make global peace with the Earth, recognize her rights and that of all other threatened inhabitants. The way to the future must be poison and fossil fuel free and we have to pave the pathways today.

A Journey with Ken Saro-Wiwa

A888DD39-245D-45E2-A1AE-E6059F92360FConversation with Ken Saro-Wiwa took place at the offices of We The People in Port Harcourt on Thursday 25 April 2019. The room was packed out and yet more seats had to be brought in. One seat only had a book on it. That book was Silence Would by Treason – the last writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa. The book is made up of principally of letters and poems he exchanged with Sr Majella McCarron while in his last detention.

Although the gathering was for a Conversation with Ken Saro-Wiwa., he was not physically in the room because he was murdered by the Nigerian State on 10 November 1995. This event confirmed the truth that killing the messenger does not kill the message.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a man of many parts. He was a minority rights and environmental activist. He was an acclaimed writer with works of poetry, prose, drama and other genres. He was an astute businessman and a politician.

Opening comments by yours truly were drawn mostly from Silence Would be Treason and included a reading of three poems from the book. The poems were “Fire”, “Ogoni! Ogoni!” and “Keep Out of Prison” where the title of the collection was taken. That poem reads:

Keep Out of Prison

“Keep out of prison,’ he wrote
‘Don’t get arrested anymore.’
But while the land is ravaged
And our pure air poisoned
When streams choke with pollution
Silence would be treason
Punishable by a term in prison.”

We reminded ourselves that Saro-Wiwa understood his task as taking the Ogoni people on a journey. In a letter written on 1 October 1994 he referred to having escaped an assassination plot:

“Not that death would have mattered to me. It would have carried more harm to those still alive. However, I do want to take the Ogoni people as far on the journey to re-vitalization as is possible—until other leaders are bred.”

His socio-ecological dream was captured under what he termed ERECTISM – an acronym for ethnic autonomy, Resource and environmental control. His vision has nothing to do with partisan politics. He fought for the dignity of his people and for social, economic and environmental justice.

A second introductory presentation by Ken Henshaw of We The People spoke of Saro-Wiwa as a man that utilized his writing as a tool to liberate his people. He stressed that a writer must go beyond being a critic and use his craft as a tool for shaping society. He concluded by saying that Ken Saro-Wiwa lived the principle that a writer must be combative both in theory and in practice.

A punchy presentation by Celestine Akpobari summed that Saro-Wiwa was truthful, courageous and prophetic.

Participants in the conversation agreed that the positions taken by Ken Saro-Wiwa with regard to the devastation of the Ogoni environment have all been validated, especially by the 2011 report of the Assessment of the Ogoni environment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The Conversation With Ken Saro-Wiwa stressed that although he focused primarily on the Ogoni situation the lessons from his life, ideas and actions have broad implications for oppressed peoples across Nigeria and beyond. He was more than just an Ogoni. He showed that we are all Ogoni.

A conversation with Saro-Wiwa would not be complete without reference to his allocutus or concluding speech before the Tribunal that passed a death sentence on him and 8 other Ogoni leaders.  In the allocutus he declared that “We all stand before history.” Our actions and sanctions will invariably be judged at some points in time.

“I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial and it is as well that it is represented by counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it, for there is no “doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crime of the Company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.

“On trial also is the Nigerian nation, its present rulers and those who assist them. Any nation which can do to the weak and disadvantaged what the Nigerian nation has done to the Ogoni loses a claim to independence and to freedom from outside influence. I am not one of those who shy away from protesting injustice and oppression, arguing that they are expected in a military regime. The military do not act alone. They are supported by a gaggle of politicians, lawyers, academ­ics and businessmen, all of them hiding under the claim that they are only doing their duty, men and women too afraid to wash their pants of urine”

Conversations” is an initiative of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) as part of our learning efforts and aims to create space where citizens share ideas from the lives of reputable thinkers and practitioners in the quest for justice and radical Socio-economic transformation. We aim to ensure that young activists learn from history, struggle sacrificially and ground their works on solid thinking and analyses. We emphasize intellectual militancy!

Conversation with Ken Saro-Wiwa will be held in other locations including in Ogoni and in schools. We will also have Conversations with other leaders including Aminu Kano, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral, Eskor Toyo, Frantz Fanon, Oronto Douglas, Chima Ubani and others.

Is Transformation better than Change?

IMG_0430Is transformation better than change? Sometimes we can learn deep lessons from messages or fragments of wisdom on posters and billboards. They may jump at you as slogans and offer no further thoughts as to what they were meant to convey but when combined with photographs of products being advertised, some of these messages can keep you thinking for hours, days, weeks, months and even years. One of such posters has kept this writer thinking for years now.

Transformation is better than change. That was all the poster declared. And the thoughts about that assertion is what we will examine in this reflection. What is change, when does it occur and what may trigger it and for what purpose? Dictionaries tell us that change is a process by which a practice, function or thing is altered to become different compared to what it is at present. In other words, change is to alter, replace, exchange or convert. Transformation connotes change, but one that refers to a dramatic or total change in form or appearance of something or the order of things. Synonyms for transformation include alteration, variation, evolution, metamorphosis and mutation. In short, transformation refers to a process of profound or radical change.

Many thinkers have pondered and debated over these two words and concepts with some declaring that the difference is not clear. What is agreed by most is that change can be externally instigated while transformation often works from within. We have change of policies, for instance, in order to respond or adapt to situations. On the other hand, our reaction to changes can transform or radically alter our disposition in fundamental ways.

Such responses can lead to resistance or even acceptance and accommodation of things and situations that were previously unthinkable.

Sometimes, things can be in such a state of flux that the statement, attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus, that change is the only constant thing offers a blanket for emotional stability, something to hang onto without being overcome by a sense of drift. We are often told to accept changes that come with age, social status, economic circumstances.

Many changes around us demand responses. Think of climate change.There is global agreement that the climate is changing inexorably and will continue to do so except some drastic changes are orchestrated or put in place. It is well known that the crisis is driven by the persistent fossil-fuel civilisation but policy makers find it inconceivable to rapidly stop the burning of fossil fuels and to redirect efforts to energy sources that are truly renewable and are not disruptive to global ecological balance.

Such a shift in direction requires radical changes in modes of production, consumption and other socio-ecological relations. Rather than tackling the root causes of the problems, society prefers to tinker at the edges and keep to what is considered safe and can maintain the status quo, especially including the privileges enjoyed by those that benefit from the crisis. This posturing leads to heavy investment in armament and in the enclosure of nations, if possible by walls, to ensure the exclusion of others who may wish to move to those locations. Enforcement of identity and exclusion have been the anchor of responses to some of the social, economic and political challenges in history and continue today. Exclusion can be an easy way out for those that do not wish to see societal transformation even where such is inevitable.

Change, as a slogan, played an incredibly effective role in the 2015 elections in Nigeria. In that season, the All Peoples Congress (APC) which was the main opposition party at that time, sold the idea of change to the populace. The change on offer was not interrogated but it stood as a veritable counterforce to a government that had claimed it had a transformation agenda, and they won. They won because Nigerians clamoured for change. At the next election cycle, it was quite clear that “Change” as a slogan would be problematic as Nigerians may have wished to be told what the core change of the previous four years was. The clever slogan on offer in 2019 was couched in a promise to take the people or economy to the “Next Level”. That slogan worked for the purpose of the election. Now, Nigerians have to examine what needs to be done to get to that next level or to say if they are already there.

Political change is not a matter of semantics. It is derived from practice. The same can be said of social and cultural changes including in the areas of the arts. Socio-economic changes can be complex and when birthed by forces of external power politics can have dire consequences. Consider for instance, the advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that Nigeria stops paying subsidies for petroleum products. Although the government has always said that the subsidies would be removed, doing so has not happened and may not happen soon. This state of affairs persisted because of the intricate and complex webs of corruption surrounding the scheme. The country is unable to accurately guesstimate the amount of petroleum products consumed by its citizens. If not for their being major sources of hydrocarbons pollution one would have said that the petroleum refineries in the country are a huge joke. They are not a joke but a major problem. The importers and marketers of the products are embedded in the system, enjoy hugely from the state of affairs and will continue to work to block positive changes.

Considering the spate of statistical bashings that Nigeria has had to endure in recent times, it is obvious that the nation sorely needs some radical changes in many sectors. The figures are horrendous in the areas of extreme poverty, infant and maternal mortality, out of school children, unemployment, access to water/sanitation and corruption. Even without adding the state of insecurity and ecological degradation to the list, it is clear that the country is in dire straits and citizens are on the throes of pain and collective disorientation.

One may be tempted to consider the examination of the meanings between change and development as mere hair-splitting, but it is not. The understanding of the terms has the tendency of giving direction to efforts especially in socio-political organisation and practice. How does the alternation in context challenge or affect our identity and history? In what direction would changes take us? Change and transformation are powerful words and concepts. Like others such as sustainable development and green economy, they can easily acquire questionable connotations or become oxymorons. No matter whether you vote for change or for transformation, it appears that we need a combination of both in order to build an inclusive system that caters for the interests of all, including the weakest and the most disadvantaged among us.

Coloniality and the Geography of Seeds and Foods

NnimmoBThe geography of food shows the peculiarities and patterns of food production and consumption across the world or in particular territories. It tells a tapestry of stories of the individuals or communities where they are found and consumed. Food is a key component and marker of any culture.

Peculiar food types are found in particular places and are promoted by persons embedded in such places. The geography of food is largely determined by the type of plants and animal species prevalent in particular areas. The spread of plants and animals across the world is largely dispersed according to the climatic realities of various territories. Available food sources determine our cuisine, support our health needs and impact economic, socio-cultural and religious activities.

Plants-based foods begin their journeys to our plates as seeds. Considering that seeds are essentially whole plants or animals covered by a seed coat, it is correct to say that seed is life. It is life to its species as well as life for those who make their foods from them. Many factors have affected the availability and prevalence of certain seeds in particular territories, nations and regions. Some of these factors include climatic changes as well as economic and political pressures. Natural disasters and wars also orchestrate a change of diet for peoples especially when the response to such situations include the philanthropic supply of seeds and foods that may also be targeted to ultimately trigger food dependence by impacted territories.

Colonialism, neocolonialism and neoliberalism are deeply implicated in the disruption of food systems and in the introduction of plants and animals that are not found in nature. We note that colonialism was a geopolitical tool utilized to ensure extraction of resources and labour from subjugated territories. In terms of agriculture, the major approaches included growing crops mainly for export to the home bases of the colonial powers. These were appropriately called cash crops. They literally shifted the control of local agriculture from the communities to distant market forces and at the same time deprecated community values. The approach of moving agriculture from meeting the needs of the producers can be seen in the manner by which a bulk of genetically modified (GM) crops are cultivated for animal feeds and for industrial purposes.

In considering the matter of seeds, foods and biosafety in Nigeria we are confronted by the display of a sophisticated lack of knowledge by highly schooled professionals who insist that whatever they say must be accepted as truth. These highly placed players pose a grave threat to Africa and not just Nigeria.

Today governments willingly sacrifice national interests in order to attract positive relationships with corporations and international financial institutions. The mindset that promotes this subservient disposition clearly ignores cultural values, our indigenous knowledge and the pressures on our people whose natural socio-ecological support systems are being eroded.

Over the years our farmers have selected, preserved and shared the best seeds. In some cultures, it is an abomination to sell seeds. Our peoples built socio-economic systems that promote human dignity and community cohesion. They built knowledge and values that respect other beings and species with the understanding of our deep interconnectedness as citizens of the Planet. Today seeds have become a global commodity and means of control.

Must we all be molecular biologists before we can reject GMOs and insist on natural seeds and foods? When can people speak up if toxic herbicides like Roundup poison non-scientists? From the grave? If a scientist tells me that cigarettes are good for my health – as they did for several years – should my response be an applause, an Amen? If an engineer or architect swears that a collapsing building is safe, should I move in and begin to decorate it? Or would painting it over with graffiti or poetry change the status of the building?

Many protagonists of the erosion of our dignity and right to life hide under the cloak of science to conceal colonial intent of control, subjugation and denial of the right of choice. The worst form of slavery happens, it is said, when the slave does not perceive that he is a slave and celebrates what he thinks is freedom within his wretched condition. It also happens when the slave master accords some powers to heads of slave gangs and watches them inflict injury of their fellow slaves. Frantz Fanon captured this situation when he stated in his book, The Wretched of the Earth, that “The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner… In its beginnings, the national bourgeoisie of the colonial country identifies itself with the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the West. We need not think that it is jumping ahead; it is in fact beginning at the end. It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness, or the will to succeed of youth.”

In considering the matter of seeds, foods and biosafety in Nigeria we are confronted by the display of a sophisticated lack of knowledge by highly schooled professionals who insist that whatever they say must be accepted as truth. These highly placed players pose a grave threat to Africa and not just Nigeria. There was a time when our country was a bastion of support for the liberation of Africa from colonial subjugation. At a time when the struggle raged in the southern parts of Africa, Nigeria was considered a frontline state in the struggles for liberation. Today when it comes to biosafety and the protection of biodiversity, Nigeria has rapidly become the soft under belly of the continent, the gateway towards a recolonization of the continent. This state of things is celebrated by GMO promoters who have foot soldiers in the corridors of government offices, research institutes and increasingly in the media.

Is shameful when educated persons claim that because genetic engineering is a science, non-scientists must unquestioningly accept whatever product is allowed by the regulators into our environment or market shelves. They claim that those that insist on precaution when it comes to GMOs must produce “evidence-based” scientific reasons for their claims. It must be said that this is a standard biotech industry public relations response to questions from citizens who are truly concerned about the erosion of our biodiversity and the challenges to environmental and human health by these unnatural species and products derived from them.

In fact, the head of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) routinely claims that whatever they allow into Nigeria is safe. That claim of absolute certainty cannot be supported by science as humans are yet to fully comprehend the intricacies of the interdependencies of ecosystems at molecular and at other levels.

In the past four years Nigeria has witnessed the influx of GMOs and products derived from these novel organisms.  The claim of safety is premised on the arguments of GMO promoters that there is no scientific evidence that such products can be harmful to humans or to the environment does not recognise the highly circumscribed nature of the tests conducted often under the control of the promoting industry. In a recently decided case in the USA where a gardener was awarded millions of dollars for having cancer after being exposed to the chemical glyphosate (once described as a carcinogen) in Bayer/Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, industry hatchet jobbers insist that the decision made by the jury was not acceptable because none of them is a scientist!

Must we all be molecular biologists before we can reject GMOs and insist on natural seeds and foods? When can people speak up if toxic herbicides like Roundup poison non-scientists? From the grave? If a scientist tells me that cigarettes are good for my health – as they did for several years – should my response be an applause, an Amen? If an engineer or architect swears that a collapsing building is safe, should I move in and begin to decorate it? Or would painting it over with graffiti or poetry change the status of the building?

Over the past four years we have repeatedly heard highly “educated” promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria claim that the taking of a rib from Adam to create Eve was biotechnology. In other words, that creation was by biotechnology. This claim was repeated at the recently held public hearing at the House of Representatives on the attempt by NBMA to expand its law by inserting definitions of extreme forms of biotechnology, including synthetic biology and gene drives. The claim could be interpreted as blasphemous or as an indication that GMO promoters are playing God or that the act of genetic engineering is a form of worship. The claim that creation was by biotechnology is a shameful low that should not be heard from the lips of highly placed government officials.

We are concerned because new techniques deployed in genetic engineering have risks beyond the ones posed by first generation modern biotechnology. Gene drives have the capacity of driving species to extinction – a direct and irreversible threat to biodiversity. While the world is grappling with understanding the implications of these technologies and what governance mechanisms to adopt, our Nigerian regulators and some lawmakers are pushing to open the way for them to be tested here probably based on their unverified claims that Nigeria has the most qualified practitioners as well as the best equipped laboratories in Africa.

It is time for the Nigerian government to fund our research institutions and agencies so that they actually carry out researches that support our seeds, agriculture and food systems. We cannot continue to be a testing ground for risky technologies developed elsewhere. So far, it is doubtful if any of the permits issued in Nigeria is for a variety genetically engineered in Nigeria. They are more likely all engineered elsewhere and brought here to be tested.

We reiterate that seeds, agriculture and food systems mirror and develop our culture. Seed is life. Food is life. Although food is consumed mainly for energy, nutrition and health, its import clearly goes beyond just being things that humans ingest for these purposes.

Along with the GMO debacle in Nigeria is the quiet push to have Nigeria sign unto international seed laws that would further pressure our farmers and open the doors to corporate seed conglomerates to dominate and control our food systems. The combination of GMOs and uninterrogated seed laws will constitute grave environmental harm and will intensify hunger, poverty and social inequality in the country. We must continue to question and reject both.

10 April 2019

Cross section of participants at the Seeds, Foods and Biosafety Conference hosted by HOMEF on 10.04.19

 

 

 

A Morally Wounded People

ponderingThere are things that we now take for granted that were totally unimaginable a few decades ago. While we are not wishing for a return to the so-called “good old days,” it does appear appropriate for us to remind ourselves that we have gone so far down the wrong path that we can sigh and declare that indeed “There was a Country,” to borrow the title of Chinua Achebe’s book. We can even step that down and say, “There were Communities”.

The list of oddities that have become accepted as expected or normal in Nigeria include kidnappings, murders, armed robbery, blatant corruption, unmitigated pollution, rapes, diverse fraudulent activities, heightened nepotism, clannishness and related divisiveness. These were always present in subdued forms, but now they have come of age and walk the streets in broad daylight. We are not by this suggestion saying that morality and goodness have disappeared from our country. No. Nigerians are basically good and caring people. But our sense of morality is getting eroded rapidly. Recognizing this slide is a step towards recovery.

Public office holders such as presidents and governors are conferred with immunity and can get away with acts of impunity while in office. Thus, crimes go unpunished. These wounds run deep in our systems.

There was a time when armed robbery and other violent crimes were rather exotic and the criminals were regarded as exotic or deviant personalities. In the days of military dictatorship, executions by firing squad were common forms of public entertainment. Some of the top-notch criminals like Oyenusi, in Lagos, when tied to the stake, with sand-filled drums behind him to stop the projectiles, faced the bullets with a smile. Another notorious criminal, Anini, was helped up to be tied to the stake because one of his legs had been shattered during the encounter with the police that led to his arrest. Anini’s ruthless colleague, Monday Osunbor, muttered, “e be like say I wan mental,” to Abdul Oroh, and other journalists that covered the event, just before the bullets eliminated the possibility of his ever going “mental”. Or, maybe he did go “mental” for a few moments?

Public executions were spectacles that drew crowds, including of people who went there to steal while watching the gory events. It turned out that while satisfying the underlying drive for revenge, the public executions did not stop armed robbery. Soft or “slap on the wrist” penalties for corrupt practices, on the other hand, have not stemmed corruption either. Fraudsters steal hundreds of millions of Naira, get fined a few millions which they readily pay from their back pockets and walk away to enjoy their loot. Meanwhile, if a poor fellow steals a pair of slippers he gets to languish in jail for years. These aberrations injure us deeply.

Election into public office appears to have turned into a contest over who has the higher capacity or best opportunities to rig and subvert the will of the people. Some citizens willingly sell their votes for a meal or snack and others expectantly await election cycles to snatch ballot boxes in exchange for a meal or two. Once returned as elected, folks who knew that they rigged their ways into office gladly answer Honourable, Right Honourable or Excellency as the case may be. And we celebrate them with the red carpets, chieftaincy titles and an assortment of honours. We have been deeply wounded.

We celebrate wealth and do not ask questions about how such wealth was acquired. The creed of competition and accumulation drives individuals and institutions to promote and operate in economic constructs that care less about the common good. Privatisation of public goods and finance are some of the manifestations of this disposition. Add to that the fact that public office holders such as presidents and governors are conferred with immunity and can get away with acts of impunity while in office. Thus, crimes go unpunished. These wounds run deep in our systems.

The drive for investment, especially of the foreign type, makes governments buy into the externally driven concepts such as structural adjustments and the much-trumpeted ease of doing business mantra promoted by the World Bank – the originator, together with the International Monetary Fund, of the structural adjustment programme that crippled our economies in the 1980s and 90s. While ease of doing business can be seen as good for local medium sized companies, it can also be seized upon by bigger entities that already have inordinate influences over our governments. Who would argue against the removal of bottlenecks and bureaucratic constraints to doing business if it all adds up to service delivery and social benefits? The truth is that the dearth of basic infrastructure, including steady power supply, does not promote any ease of doing business.

Export Processing Zones and Free Trade Zones present another concept that ought to be critically interrogated rather than being swallowed line, hook and sinker. It is not surprising that these fenced economic enclaves or colonies are mostly set up in less developed countries as hubs for production of goods for export. They offer tax incentives and enjoy special regulatory measures that those outside the zones do not enjoy. It is important to note that the bulk of the revenue generated in these zones do not stay in the country where they are located. This is salt added to our open wounds.

We are the walking wounded. Our exposure to extreme, unexpected and shocking experiences can make us hop on the aberrant train with our sense of morality numb or injured. We have become cynical of public officials and institutions. Already, the average individual does not expect much from governments, besides basic infrastructure such as paved roads, potable water and electricity – all of which are chronically in short supply. Understandably, some public officials do not careto meet those needs and do not have any sense of accountability because their election was not based on the will of the people. That is how far we have gone down the wounded highway.

Our traditional culture of good neighbourliness, for example, is greatly challenged by the prevailing insecurity and suspicions in our communities. The high fences we erect around our homes insulate us from possible help that could come from neighbours in times of distress. However, all is not lost.

Some actions that will assist to put us on the way to recovery from the moral injury that we have suffered will necessarily include a wide-ranging systemic change that covers environmental, political, socio-economic and other aspects of our national life. It will require the building of inclusive governments where participation is not based on sharing lucrative positions. It will require the building of a diversified economy shifted away from extractivism. We need to elevate the dignity of labour, build trust and promote transparency in our relationships. Of course, we need to pause, think and repent of our transgressions.

 

 

“Evolving” Extinction GMOs

gene drives“Evolving” Extinction GMOs have no place in Nigeria. While the world was debating the future of new and extreme genetic engineering, proponents of the technology in Nigeria were busy proposing amendments to the National Biosafety Management Act, 2015, with a view to opening the door for the very risky experimentations in Nigeria. The contentious issue of extreme modern biotechnology, especially of the variant known as gene drives, was one of the topical matters deliberated upon at the 14thConference of Parties (COP14) of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in November 2018 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Civil society groups and other African participants at COP14 did not feel represented by the official African delegates led by Nigeria and South Africa as spokespersons due to slack corporate positions they championed during the negotiations.

Parties to the CBD had to decide between two texts that framed as follows: “Apply the precautionary principle (with regards) to gene drives,” or “apply the precautionary principle (and refrain from) releasing gene drive organisms.” The Africans opposed refraining from releasing gene drive organisms, contrary to the strong positions that informed the drafting of an African Model Law on biosafety by the African Union – then known as the Organisation for African Unity, OAU.

On November 2018, the CBD made a landmark decision calling on governments to conduct strict risk assessments and to seek indigenous and local peoples’ consent before proceeding with the potential release of the “exterminator” technology. In the words of the outcome document, the COP “Notes the conclusions of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology that, given the current uncertainties regarding engineered gene drives, the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities might be warranted when considering the possible release of organisms containing engineered gene drives that may impact their traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water.”

This is an open door for all sorts of synthetic organisms to be released or experimented on in Nigeria provided they have a trait that can be found in Nature. Virtually everything will pass such a porous test. We should be concerned because Synthetic Biology applications have direct implications for local livelihoods as they lead to replacement of natural products with synthetic ones.

This global decision on the governance of the high-risk “evolving” genetic engineering, gene drives, may not have been foreseen by the Nigerian and other pro-GMO African delegates at COP14. And so, on 11 December 2018, less than two weeks after COP14, the Nigerian House of Representatives had the first reading of the Bill for an Act to Amend the NBMA Act, 2015 “to enlarge the scope of the Application and include other evolving aspects of the applications of Modern Biotechnology in Nigeria with a view to preventing any adverse effect on Human Health and the Environment; and for Related Matters (HB1578)” as proposed by representative Obinna Chidoka. Not deterred by the outcome of COP14, a second reading of this Bill took place on 17 January 2019.

Enlarging the scope of the NBMA Act 2015 to include “other evolving aspects of the applications of Modern Biotechnology in Nigeria” is an extremely dangerous proposition that would lead to risks that will compound the ones already being posed by first generation modern biotechnology governed by the existing law. Since that Act came into force, over thirty applications have been approved by the agency in a manner suggesting they are mostly after the revenue derivable from the application fees.

In the proposed review Synthetic Biology is thus: “Synthetic biology approach in genetic engineering involves the use of re-designed existing principles of engineering molecular biology, physics, chemistry and computer science to generate a new organism with traits which does not exist in nature.”

This is an open door for all sorts of synthetic organisms to be released or experimented on in Nigeria provided they have a trait that can be found in Nature. Virtually everything will pass such a porous test. We should be concerned because synthetic biology applications have direct implications for local livelihoods as they lead to replacement of natural products with synthetic ones.

The review refers to CRISPR/CAS 9 wrongly as CRISPR/cast9 and talks of ZFM instead of ZFN.These basic missteps suggest that the promoters of these extreme technologies may not be in full grasp of what they are pushing, adding another reason for caution.

There are huge gaps in the NBMA Act 2015 – including a lack of strict liability clauses to immediate and future negative impacts of genetic engineering, as well as conflict of interests. The existing law also virtually confers discretion on public consultation on the regulatory body, a situation which is contradictory to the spirit of the COP14 decision. From our experience, NBMA pays scant attention to expert rejection of the applications it has been receiving and grants rapid-fire approvals. It is hard to imagine that the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) would accept to go through a thorough and painstaking process of free, prior, full informed consent as required by the COP14 decision. No doubt, the NBMA Act, 2015, requires to be amended, but that should be  to safeguard the Nigerian people and our environment, not to place a wedge in the door for Nigerians to be used for dangerous experimentations.

Jim Thomas, co-executive director of the ETC Group explained the outcome of COP14 this way, “This important decision puts controls on gene drives using simple common-sense principles: Don’t mess with someone else’s environment, territories and rights without their consent. Gene drives are currently being pursued by powerful military and agribusiness interests and a few wealthy individuals. This UN decision puts the power back in the hands of local communities, in particular, indigenous peoples, to step on the brakes on this exterminator technology.”

A gene drive is a genetic engineering technology that aims to propagate a particular suite of genes throughout a population. With this technology a species can be engineered to produce only male offspring, thereby condemning itself to extinction. They are proposed to disrupt natural reproductive and other processes and to genetically modify specific populations and entire species. It is a technology that can drive  species to extinction. It is therefore not surprising that powerful military groups and agribusiness are the forces sponsoring this technology.

Important voices raised against these “evolving” aspects of the application of Modern Biotechnology include that of Dr. Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s best thinkers on biodiversity and biosafety,who insists that “This technology would give biotech developers an unprecedented ability to directly intervene in evolution, to dramatically modify ecosystems, or even crash a targeted species to extinction.”

Expanding the scope of the regulatory oversight of NBMA to cover “evolving” Modern Biotechnology will be a dangerous move and the National Assembly would help the Nigerian people, and indeed the African continent by not endorsing the proposal. Proponents say that Nigeria must not be left behind in the application of the new technologies, but it is essential that we question this needless aping posture or catch-up mentality. Will we aim to catch up with the gene drive or CRISPR gene-edited or designer human babies already produced in China with the aim of making them immune to HIV/AIDS?

We must not forget that given that gene drives are designed to spread through a species and across geographic regions, the environmental release of a gene drive organism has the potential to affect communities beyond the location where the release may have been authorized. The United Nations’ COP14 decision is a signal for global caution because the evolving technology has a real possibility of negatively impacting “traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water” of our communities.

Burkina Faso communities are currently facing the risk of having gene drive mosquitoes rained on them. Meanwhile, neigbouring communities to the target areas are not aware of what is happening next door. The movement of most living organisms are not limited by political boundaries and gene drive organisms released in Nigeria can easily migrate to neigbouring countries and beyond.

The interest of modern biotechnology merchants in Nigeria is increasing because, despite the often repeated false claims of having the best biosafety system on the continent, we are actually the weak link in the chain and the adventurers are having an easy ride through this soft underbelly towards the destruction of African agriculture and food system. It is clear to see that we may be setting ourselves up for a massive species annihilation. According to the ETC Group, “the ethical, cultural and societal implications of gene drives are as enormous as the ecological consequences.”

We call on representative Obinna Chidoka and other backers of this NBMA Amendment Bill to back off for the sake of present and future generations of Nigerians. Time will be better spent amending the NBMA Act 2015 along the lines proposed by Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) to strengthen it and close the yawning gaps that make for wishy-washy regulation. That will be the pathway to the promised Next Level by Mr. President.