We have got to a stage in the world where selfishness has been lifted up as national interest. It is a sad platform where inequalities have been hoisted as a virtue. Humans have become so smart that we think machines can replace us, replace relationships, replace agriculture. We even think we can relocate to destinations on asteroids or somewhere else in space! And the truth is that we are diminished by all that.
The Years of Repair challenges us to jump into the future and look at the paths by which we got there. It shows us the power of our imaginations and underscores the fact we can get to our preferred destinations by acknowledging the strength of going together in movements powered by love and solidarity.
Looking back requires that we step forward. Looking back from the past is an uninteresting, unimaginative and unproductive enterprise. Looking back from the future enables us to lay the paving stones that ensure we are not trapped in the quick sands of toxic relation with Nature. It helps us escape the entrapment inherent in the pursuit of primitive accumulation of capital and power. It helps us show how sterile racism, colonialism and imperialism are. It takes us to the end, restores our faith in humanity, and takes us back penitent and renewed.
Washing hands should not stop us from seeing each other’s hands and learning from the hands that promote our entangled dreams.
We cannot afford to dream alone. And after a good dream it doesn’t make sense to remain prostrate in dreamland. After a good dream it is time to get up and jump into the struggles to build the dream.
We learned key lessons from the pandemic …
Brave smallholder farmers hold the key feeding the world. They are ignored everywhere, never bailed out and never helped even as they point the right way forward as agriculture gets to the crossroads.
Real farming frames the imaginations of today and tomorrow …
Real farming brings back to life soils killed by agrotoxics.
Real farmers fight against seed laws that criminalize the use of indigenous seeds and stifle knowledge and local wisdom.
Real farmers halt the erosion of native species that are truly climate smart and reject the promotion of alien species that are truly climate dumb.
Agri without culture is the highway to disease, pandemics and extinctions.
This mindset tramples on Mother Earth ignores critical creatures such as worms and a variety of pollinators that labour to ensure we stay alive.
Healthy soils produce healthy foods and healthy populations
Healthy soils produce healthy crops that are strong enough to resist pests
Trouble is humans operating behind corporate shields are not just the worst pests but are incurable and insatiable predators…
Farmers are essential workers. The time has come to insist that essential works must no longer be discounted and overlooked
Sparks change things. We are the spark needed for the change and transformation that must happen
We truly need to repair relationships
At personal levels: pay the debt of love
At collective levels: pay the Climate and ecological debts
The building blocks to the future on the finite planet rejects destructive exploitation of nature, refuses any act that promotes species extinction and trashes the dignity of our peoples.
These building blocks hold corporations accountable for ecocide — whether they are in the extractive or colonial agricultural sectors.
It all boils down to building systems of care and repair to ensure that Mother Earth is not sacrificed and that our peoples are not sacrificed on the altar of capital.
Life Sustaining Soils
Soil is the skin and flesh of the Earth. It is a source of life. We are sons and daughters of the soil. Earth rootedness holds a key to building global citizenship, securing the commons and propagating love both for humans and for the Earth.
A handful of fertile soil however contains thousands of species, billions of bacteria and other microscopic organisms.
Each organism in the soil system has a function in the food web with some specialising in the decomposition of matter while others help in the dispersal of dead organic matter. There is a living give-and-take economy beneath our feet that we must bend down to learn.
The linear and extractivist mindset has led to a rapid deteriorating of soils worldwide.
Economies of exploitation that sees labour as disposable and nonessential and continuously looks for ways to replace humans.
Bad soils and land grabs lead to displacement, forced migration and at times outright violence. We easily forget that there is a loss of knowledge and culture when farmers are displaced to seek livelihoods in cities
Healthy soils are spongy and retain water while poor parched soils are more impervious get easily eroded. Urbanization and cementification of soils… Killing of soils!
In contrast to the barren concrete landscapes, healthy soils are great carbon sink. We can learn to regenerate our lands through simple, inexpensive but tested methods including the
As Gandhi said, “the earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not a few people’s greed”.
The scare of scarcity — hides the cause of scarcity and hunger. Appropriation of the commons, exclusion and conversion into private properties and for-profit speculators and so-called investors are grabbing millions of hectares of fertile land/soil without any concerns for local populations. Locals turned into outgrows or outright farmyard slaves.
Economies that do not recognize the intrinsic value of Nature and the continuous nurturing contribution of Mother Earth. These spurn socio-economic injustices. Competition that tramples cooperation and displacement of farmers disconnects millions not just from there farm but from the soil.
The dependence on herbicides and crops genetically engineered to withstand them has led to the rise of super weeds. These super weeds emerge as an attempt by nature to repair the ruptures created by humans. A way of human-proofing biodiversity. We have to come to the realization that one man’s weed may well be another man’s vegetable.
In all, we must never forget that there are consequences to every action. And we must bear in mind that we all have a common duty of care or repair. We have a duty of rebuilding relationships with the soil and with one another.
The natural world is a resilient world. A major way by which this resilience is built and preserved is through diversity. Diversity raises the chances of survival of species if a part of the group is attacked or altered by some freak incidents. Diversity within species sometimes enhance multiple usage due to their colour, texture, smell and taste. For example, there are about 50 maize varieties in the world today, but the most common are the white or yellow ones. Today a number of these varieties are genetically modified to either tolerate certain herbicides or to produce toxins that kill off some pests.
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.
What has not been mythical concerning the technology is the fact that it has been pushed relentlessly byphilanthrocapitalists and related business speculators. The narratives that keep the risky and failed technology alive is mostly fetish. People tend to think that technology can solve every problem. More importantly, the push is empowered by neocolonialism and control. Willing warrant chiefs get elevated and integrated into systems where they have ready access to beads, whiskies and gunpowder.
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). By December 2019 the National Biosafety Management Agency had issued 13 permits for various types of GMOs.
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.
The process of subjugation of our agriculture and food systems to corporate interests goes on in various tracks. GMO food products flood our markets without much regulation. HOMEF conducts annual market shelves surveys and finds GMO products in shops and markets across the nation. Most are brought in without any form of authorization by the relevant agency, beyond the NAFDAC numbers on them.
There was an interesting case of a seizure of over $9m worth of genetically modified maize imported by WACOT from Argentina. After much theatre orchestrated by the NBMA, the Nigeria Customs, the NASS and the Federal Executive Council, the seized maize were ordered to be sent back as they were imported without approval. Within weeks, the importer applied for a permit to import genetically modified maize and was granted a three years license to import GM maize at will.
Here is how the NBMA explained their about-turn on this matter:
‘NBMA confirmed that WACOT imported GMO maize in December 2017 and explained that it was after the firm had applied and met all regulatory conditions necessary for approval as prescribed by NBMA, which the firm was unable to do at the time its goods were not allowed entry into Nigeria. ‘’The Agency issued some permits and due processes were followed in the course of reviewing the applications and ensuring that all the necessary requirements are met before the permits were granted,’’ she stated.’ The agency also accused HOMEF of making unpatriotic comments concerning the WACOT matter.
The second wave of GMOs have since been released in the world without much regulatory restraints. These are of the gene drive types and already find application in manufacturing. They have been called extinction technologies as they have the capacity of wiping out targeted species within a few generations. An experiment towards wiping out anopheles mosquitoes in Burkina Faso is being attempted. Nigeria is a whistle away with the amendment of the NBMA Act to include gene drives and synthetic biology!
Researchers believe that the new GMOs have the potential to transform our natural world and even how humans relate to it. According to Friends of the Earth USA, “Gene drives force a genetically engineered trait to be expressed in every single generation, driving engineered traits through an entire species to permanently change it or cause it to go extinct.” Needless to say that this technology poses a threat to human safety as they can easily be weaponized or even used to trigger a pandemic.
Welcome words at HOMEF’s Biosafety Roundtable held on 24.11.2020 in Abuja
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)
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.
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.
It is with deep humility that I address this gathering to mark the 79th posthumous birthday of our great leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa. I thank Ogoni Civil Society Stakeholders’ Forum for facilitating this event.
For some of us Ogoni has become the training ground for environmental justice. It has remained the prime territory for learning how difficult it is to undo ecological harm once it has occurred; once it has been allowed to fester and take root. The Ogoni people have also given us a clear base to understudy the workings of a people-driven non-violent revolt; the challenges, the pitfalls and the triumphs. Ogoni has been a metaphor for ecocide and an inspiration for resistance.
Standing at the centre of the Ogoni experience are a number of personalities one of whom is Ken Saro-Wiwa. His leadership at various levels and platforms left indelible marks on the socio-ecological struggles of the Ogoni people and others. Some of us make regular visits to the polluted sites in Ogoni to remind ourselves that ecocide in any location is a crime against Mother Earth and all our relatives. Ogoni reminds us all that corporate greed can covert a verdant land into a land where humans and other living beings are literally either sick or dead.
The literary output of Ken Saro-Wiwa helped to preserve his thoughts for us and for generations yet unborn. Needless to say, his bluntness also made him controversial. That can be understood because when you are a minority fighting to breathe, those whose knees are pressed into your neck would claim that as long as you can complain it means you can breathe. In other words, their knees would only be lifted from your neck when you fall silent. Dead. The noose snuffed the physical life from him 25 years ago, but he still speaks. His satirical story, Africa Kills Her Sun[ii], shows how fiction can chisel a message in stone. Writing about how a priest would approach to pray for a person about to be executed, he said: “The priest will pray for our souls. But it’s not us he should be praying for. He should be praying for the living, for those whose lives are a daily torment.”
His fiction was never altogether fictive. According to one Onookome Okome, “These fictive characters are modelled on social types and local events. This explains why some of these characters provoked great and enthusiastic, albeit sometimes acerbic debate in Nigeria’s literary history.” Okome goes on to say that “his political ideas about the Nigerian Federation were even more controversial. His book on the Nigerian civil war (On A Darkling Plain: An Account of The Nigerian Civil War), carefully conceived around the minority/majority problems of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, aroused heated hate-debate, especially among members of the three largest Nigeria ethnic groups.”[iii]
His focus on bringing the plight of the Ogoni people to the world in the context of the unequal majority-minority relations within the Nigerian state combined with the brutal state capture by notorious transnational oil companies obviously earned him many adversaries, including those who eventually orchestrated his judicial murder along with Barinem Kiobel, Saturday Dobee, Paul Levura, Nordu Eawo, Felix Nuate, Daniel Gbokoo, John Kpuinen and Baribor Bera. Their death was both an epitome of the viciousness of an unholy matrimony between a rapacious transnational entity and an autocratic state, and a glaring failure of international diplomacy.[iv]
Saro-Wiwa was conscious of the fact that the consequences of the struggle could be dire, even when prosecuted non-violently. In Silence Would be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa, he stated that he signed a death warrant when he “undertook to confront Shell and the Nigerian establishment.” He wrote that if his life was not cut short, he would look forward to “A few more books, maybe, & the opportunity to assist others. In a letter he wrote on 19 June 1995, he stated: “I know they will do everything to resist us and that they may still want me out of the way. I am not careless of my safety, but I do recognise and have always recognised that my cause could lead to death. But as the saying goes, how can man die better/than facing fearful odds/ for the ashes of his fathers/and the temple of his Gods? No, one cannot allow the fear of death to dent one’s beliefs and actions. I only wish there were more Ogoni people on the ground. However, the cause cannot die.”[v]
The matter of having more Ogoni people on the ground to keep the struggle alive remains an active concern; a task that must be done. Yes, the cause has not died, and 27 years after the expulsion of Shell from Ogoni, the oil wells are still not gushing crude. However, the spate of oil pollution remains and the clean-up of the territory although commenced has its speed and mode of delivery highly contested. Having layers of leadership on the ground is essential for any movement. The Ogoni struggle has been kept alive by the deep mobilisations that have gone on over the years and by the clear understanding of the value of their environment and cultural autonomy by the majority of the people. Organisational efforts have floundered and become quite fractious at times, probably due to an alternative notion of sacrifice, superficial commitment to the ideals of the collective. It may well also be driven by impulses of indiscipline and possible conspiracy to subvert the pursuit of the common good.
The Ogoni Bill of Rights[vi] of November 1990 is a major milestone document, serving to coalesce the pains, dreams and demands of the Ogoni people. It stands as a major decolonial document and was the precursor of similar pursuits by other ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta, including the Kaiama Declaration of the Ijaws, Ogoni Bill of Rights, lkwerre Rescue Charter, Aklaka Declaration for the Egi, the Urhobo Economic Summit Resolution and the Oron Bill of Rights, amongst others.[vii]
Article 16 of the Ogoni Bill of rights stated that “neglectful environmental pollution laws and sub-standard inspection techniques of the Federal authorities have led to the complete degradation of the Ogoni environment, turning our homeland into an ecological disaster.” Three decades later, this summation remains accurate, even more poignant.
The Ogoni Bill of Rights spoke of the land turning into an ecological disaster. This position was validated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in their report of the Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland.[viii] The report submitted to the Nigerian government in August 2011 revealed extensive pollution of the soil by petroleum hydrocarbons in land areas, swamps and sediments. The effort to remediate the Ogoni environment, as we all know, is handled by HYPREP.
A recent visit[ix] to some of the remediation sites some weeks ago was quite revealing. Whereas the depth of hydrocarbon pollution was at an alarming 5 metres at the time UNEP conducted its study, the state of affairs has deteriorated over the years. Hydrocarbons pollution was found to have now gone as deep as an alarming 10 metres at Lot 2. One other finding was that 30,000 litres of petrol was recovered from this Lot. We saw a layer of hydrocarbons on the excavated pit at Lot 16, at Korokoro community, besides the tanks of recovered crude that were stored nearby.
The recovery of crude oil from the remediation sites show that without the remediation, the pollution would obviously sink deeper, leaving the disaster more intractable. It also offers a stark warning to oilfield communities that even where the land looks normal, tests need to be done at intervals of time to ensure the integrity of what lies beneath the surface.
November 1990 – when the Ogoni Bill of Rights was issued and November 1995 – when Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other leaders were executed are cardinal milestones in the march for ecological and socio-political justice for the Ogoni people and all marginalised peoples that are victims of destructive extractivism.
25 years after the judicial murders, the wounds inflicted on the Ogoni people are yet to heal. 25 years after the act, the Nigerian State has still not found the place to formally exonerate the Ogoni leaders and foster healing in the land. 25 years after the macabre act, even the sculpture in honour of the Ogoni 9 lies captive at the Apapa quays in Lagos, Nigeria, held by a system that is afraid to come to terms with an artistic artefact.[x] Who will tell the Nigerian government that arresting and detaining a piece of sculpture in an effort to block the memory of crimes committed by the state is an exercise in futility?
Ken Saro-Wiwa saw it all. He felt it. He told it. He challenged all. His last public speech or allocutus, stands like a banner at the head of a marching column and we do well to pay attention:
We all stand before history. I am a man of peace, of ideas. Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone and every ethnic group and gives us all a valid claim to human civilization, I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated.[xi]
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a man ahead of his time. He was a bright light. We all have a duty to ensure that his light shines on. Happy posthumous birthday, great son of Ogoni, Nigeria and Africa.
This was a speech by Nnimmo Bassey at the summit convened by Ogoni Civil Society Stakeholders’ Forum to Mark the 79thposthumous birthday of Ken Saro-Wiwa on 10th October 2020.
[i] Based on a chapter by Nnimmo Bassey titled Ogoniland: A People-Driven Non-Violent Revolt which will be in a forthcoming book marking the 25th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Barinem Kiobel, Saturday Dobee, Paul Levura, Nordu Eawo, Felix Nuate, Daniel Gbokoo, John Kpuinen and Baribor Bera.
Pipelines convey goods from one location to another. For example, pipelines are used to convey water to households in cities and other human communities. They can be used for irrigation purposes and for a variety of purposes.
Today we remember the tragic pipeline fire that occurred at Atiegwo, near Jesse, Delta State, on the 17th day of October 1998 killing over a thousand community persons. The pipeline is a 16-inch petrol pipeline owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and linking the Warri refinery to Kaduna. The fire raged for about five days and was eventually put out by American fire-fighters.[i]
Blaming the Victims
Without any investigation, the Petroleum Products Marketing Company (PPMC), a subsidiary of the state-owned NNPC and the Military Government alleged that the cause of the inferno was sabotage. However, this charge was not substantiated. The oil companies and then military government were quick to blame the victims. The basins that littered the death scene were interpreted to have been taken there by pipeline vandals to scoop spilled petrol. The military government of General Abdusalam Abubakar declared that no compensation would be paid, and the situation turned into one in which the surviving villagers became feared that they may be prosecuted. The fear led some families to prematurely discharge their relatives from hospitals, a situation that may have led to an increase in fatalities. We repeat, the root cause of the conflagration is yet to be established, 22 years after the tragic incident. 22 years is long enough to bring closure to this unfortunate incident.
A mother who lost her daughter, Eunice, in the inferno had this to say to environmental monitors that visited the scene:
She said she was going to the farm. She left us happy. We were expecting some red cassava for dinner. She never came back. We saw the basin of the cassava. We saw the “karta” (head pad). We recognised our basin and her cloth. Her body we did not see. Her voice we did not hear. The fire took her from us.
They say we are vandals. How? Can Eunice be a vandal? It is the oil people who have been vandalising our means of livelihood. It is the government that has stolen from us and continues to do so even to this minute.[ii]
What Caused the Fire?
Former Chief of Army Staff. Major General David Ejoor (rtd) was particularly piqued by the massacre and addressed the press in very strong terms.[iii] According to him the evidence suggested that oil companies and the government caused the fire. He said that “when the spillage became a general knowledge, the oil companies moved in to cover the cartel that was siphoning petrol from a joint valve near Idjerhe in tankers. Towards daybreak, the saboteurs failed to put the pipes back properly and hence the spillage of petrol.” According to the general, the spilled products got into farmlands as well as into the Ethiope River. This attracted the attention of the community people. “People going to their farms discovered that they were wading in petrol instead of water. There was a rush to fetch the petrol from the farm and the floating petrol in the river.”
Eyewitnesses recounted that five minutes before the fire, there was a Shell Petroleum Development Company helicopter hovering overhead and urging the people to evacuate the scene. Analysts believe that since the victims were mostly Urhobo, if the officer in the helicopter had shouted the information in their language, they would have escaped the tragedy. The interpretation of this is that the employment pattern in the companies is skewed against the oil field communities.
Moreover, General Ejoor stated that after warning the people from the helicopter, “the officials followed up their threat with firing nerve gas at the crowd, which made it impossible for them to run. Those who attempted to run could not move their limbs with agility. The horror came; the place was set on fire with the intention of killing everybody and to prevent anybody from giving evidence.”
Unending Pipeline Fires
Many pipeline fires have been recorded in the Niger Delta. Some can be traced to poor facility management —including the non-replacement of corroded pipelines or those that had reached their optimal lifespans. Most pipelines in Nigeria are designed for a limited lifespan of 20 years.[iv] Other incidents have been traced to vandalism or oil theft.
Recently the General Manager of the NNPC stated that oil pipelines in Nigeria are all compromised.[v] That is a very troubling situation. It shows that pipelines can leak volatile petroleum products at any time. Another worrying statistic came through when the NNPC stated that there were 45,347 pipeline breakages and/or explosions in Nigeria over the past 18 years. While speaking on this, the Group Managing Director of the NNPC, Mele Kyari, fingered pipeline vandalism and crude oil theft as major challenges for the oil industry for years and attributed this to “poverty in surrounding communities, community-industry expectation mismatch, and corruption.”[vi]
The analysis by the NNPC largely misses the point and heaps the blame on the victims, on the hapless communities. Crude oil theft is big business that requires technical knowledge and equipment, layers of security and other protections within the system to thrive. The theft has been said to be at industrial scale. And, because the country does not really metre or measure the actual amount of crude oil extracted, the measure of the volume of crude being stolen on a daily basis remains in the realm of speculation.
The Nigerian Extractive Industries Initiative (NEITI) reckoned that Nigeria lost about $42billion to crude oil theft in nine years. According to NEITI, about $38.5 billion was lost to crude theft alone, $1.6 billion on domestic crude and a further $1.8 billion was lost on refined petroleum products.[vii]
Figures that have been bandied range from 200,000 to 400,000,[viii] to 1,000,000 barrels a day. A top government figure once speculated that as much oil as is being officially exported is also being stolen. One thing is clear, the humungous amount of crude oil could not be stolen by poor villagers or even by those engaged in bush refining. Indeed it has been said that oil companies are involved in the business and that the international community is complicit.[ix]
Pipelines in Nigeria have largely been carriers of pipe dreams. Water pipelines are largely dry and those installed to convey crude oil to the refineries run largely empty as the refineries are comatose.
Lives and the Living
The loss of lives in the inferno of 1998 was, and remains, painful. However, we must not fail to mention that one regular blind spot associated with accidents of this nature is the lack of focus on what happens to the environment as a result of the incident. The environmental assessment of Ogoni by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)[x] clearly illustrated the harms of irresponsible extractive activities in the Niger Delta. The report submitted to the government in 2011 and leading to the establishment of the Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation project (HYPREP) showed that ground and surface waters in Ogoni were contaminated beyond acceptable levels. Ground water was found to have benzene, a known carcinogen, at 900 times above World Health Organisation standards. In some places, the hydrocarbon pollution had seeped into the ground to a depth of 5 metres. By the time remediation was carried out in 2020, the pollution had sunk down to a depth of 10 metres.
The National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) announced that Nigeria recorded 1,300 oil spills between 2018 and 2019. This amounted to an average of 5 oil spills per day.[xi] Not surprisingly, life expectancy in the Niger Delta is a paltry 41 years compared to an equally embarrassing national average of 55 years. The point we are making is that the living who survive oil fires remain in the grip of deadly pollution and their lives are thus highly discounted. For the living to have a fighting chance of living in dignity, the pollutions from the petroleum extractive activities must urgently be remediated across the Niger Delta.
Farewell to Fossil Fuel Fires
There have been oil spill and pipeline fires across the Niger Delta over the past decades. The best way to honour the memory of our people that died in the fire of 1998 is to ensure that there is no repeat of such a horrific incident.
The steps towards achieving this include replacing all pipelines that have outlived their lifespans and are liable to corrode or leak.
Companies should conduct regular integrity tests on their pipelines.
The companies and government must prioritize the safety of human lives and not be solely concerned with protecting pipelines and crude oil for the sake of petrodollars.
Free Prior Informed Consent must be obtained from communities before hazardous facilities such as oil/gas pipelines are allowed on their lands and territories.
Where there are existing projects and/or proposed new ones, operating companies must post a reasonable deposit for covering costs of remediation in case of accidents or on the decommissioning of their plants at the end of their lifespans.
Environmental and social impact assessments must be carried out and fully debated by affected communities before any fossil fuel project is permitted in their communities.
It is also essential to ensure that pipelines are not laid on the surface and that associated facilities are adequately protected and secured with all.
Incident reporting and response should be immediate and transparent.
Companies must adhere to the best international standards and end the reign of environmental racism in our lands.
Urgent assessment or audit of the entire Niger Delta environment followed by a thorough remediation of the pollution accumulated over the 6 decades of oil exploitation in the region.
Talking points used at a Symposium hosted (18/10/2020) by Achoja Research Council on 22 Years After the Idjerhe Pipeline Fire Disaster under the theme Farewell to Fossil Fuel Fatalities in Our Lands.
Let us begin by saying that colonialism is not yet history in Africa, or in the world. The global trade architecture has been in place for centuries and has been engineered by transnational corporations and international financial institutions as the chief guardians of neocolonialism and institutionalised thievery. Their interests are assured through the preservation of these mechanisms.
Transnational Corporations (TNCs) grew out of deep colonial roots. They are products of imperial geopolitics whose levers they hold, manipulate and tilt to suit their profit-making propensities. They have succeeded thus far because of careful modes of manipulation, erasure and replacement of imaginations as well as histories. The strength of neocolonialism lies in the perpetuation of coloniality.
Coloniality, for those not familiar with the concept, has been described as “the living legacy of colonialism in contemporary societies in the form of social discrimination that outlived formal colonialism and became integrated in succeeding social orders.” It talks of “racial, political and social hierarchical orders imposed by European colonialism in Latin America that prescribed value to certain peoples/societies while disenfranchising others.”
In many instances, transnational corporations were the original colonialists, invading territories with their bands of mercenaries and harvesting profits for imperial powers. As their direct rule became expensive and untenable, they handed over political and administrative control to their home governments who then provided the security needed for continued plunder by the corporations. That system continues today and persists under the reign of neocolonialism. And there are many subtle and not so subtle tools that keep the system going.
Foreign direct investments (FDIs) is one of the key tools of benign neocolonialism. Nations get to compete for foreign investments and in doing so lower regulatory and other bars so as to ensure the ease of doing business. There is even a so-called ease of doing business index!
The notion of integration into globalised markets and value chains further instigate the watering down of biosafety laws and right to save and use indigenous seeds.
Translational corporations or colonial governments entrenched the idea of plantation production. Plantations thrived under conditions of slavery and extreme exploitation of labour. Today they drive monocultures including through industrial agriculture. The idea goes with the notion of cash cropping which emphasises the idea of food as a commodity and disrupts the relationship of agriculture with nature and culture. Plantations inexorably lead to land grabs, deforestation, starvation and cruelty. They can be said to be centres of dispossession and displacements.
The World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions (IFIs)are the ultimate guardians of neocolonialism. While maintaining humane faces due to their placement in multilateral spaces, they can be vicious and unforgiving in their deals.
The Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 1990s stand as clear examples of how to wreck, emasculate and impoverish nations using economic pressures. Those programmes eliminated support for public institutions including in the health, educational, agricultural, manufacturing and other sectors. Nations that were net food exporters suddenly became food importers. Economic conditionalities imposed on the former colonies literally brought them to their knees before their former colonialists. Nations that previously had healthy foreign reserves became so poor they competed to be classified as highly indebted poor countries so as to access some crumbs. Each effort to escape the clutches of the IFIs sucked these nations deeper into the traps of odious debt.
Export Processing Zones grew from way back in history and are still popular in neocolonial states. These are presented as launch pads for development for poor countries whereas they are zones of plunder. One analyststated that “The EPZ is an economic legation for FDI to operate free from the Nigerian tax laws, levies, duties and foreign exchange regulations.”
These are enclaves without links to the rest of the economy and ensure that TNCs enjoy reduced costs, better or dedicated infrastructure and are laws unto themselves. It is not surprising that fossil fuel companies and other extractive sector companies find these zones as the ultimate locations for their insatiable grasps at profit without responsibility or accountability to the nations in which they operate.
Neocolonial Extractivism thrives on irresponsible exploitation of Nature and labour. Indeed, labour is often seen as disposable as was clearly illustrated by the Marikana mines massacre of 2012 in South Africa. All the workers demanded was better wages. 34 miners were cut down. And of course, the army of the unemployed provides a ready pool for replacements.
With Africa holding 30% of the world’s known mineral reserves, her attractiveness to the exploiters will not fade anytime soon.
We note that corporations strive to exploit the continent even when the value of the resources they seek wanes. Case in point is the widespread search for crude oil and gas in Africa. As oil companies see their fortunes dropping and the world appearing to shift in the direction of renewable energy resources, we learn that these companies are investing in producing more plastics and earning a whopping $400 billion annually. These will thrash the planet and compound the problems associated with the impact of climate change. And, because recycling may not match the mountains of wastes being generated, the polluting nations are looking to use Africa as a continental waste dump.
Recall that in 1991, Lawrence Summers, an economist with the World Bank had declared that many countries in Africa are vastly under polluted. He also justified why toxic wastes could be dumped in Africa without conscience or consequences. The argument was that the population was dying anyway, as their life expectancy was lower than that of the polluting nations. Here him: “The measurement of the cost of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality …I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”
The theft of Africa’s natural resources by TNCs is an open secret. It is believed that about $50 billion has been lost annually over the last 50 years through illicit financial flows. This sum trumps the economic aid the continent receives annually. While the plunder goes on, the IFIs and multilateral agencies blame the economic situation in Africa on poor governance and corruption. The colonial and neocolonial roots of the challenges are hardly whispered. Consider what the Bank of Ghana said about the share of the wealth that the country receives from the mining sector:
The amount that goes to communities directly impacted by the mining industry is 0.11%, and the government of Ghana received a total of less than 1.7% share of the global returns from its own gold. Clearly, it is not the “corruption” of the government officials that brings Ghana only 1.7% of the gold revenues. When the World Bank and IFIs blame “poor governance” and corruption they are simply wilfully and conveniently overlooking the systemic larceny by the TNCs. They ignore the systemic plunder that has been engineered by colonialism and neocolonialism over the years.
Unfortunately, many of us are sucked into the “governance” debate without recognizing the tragic reality that neoliberal capitalism deepens the extractive-export model in the Global South that continues to lead to displacement, destruction of the environment, new dependencies, and recolonization. If we do not call a spade a spade, we will continue to endure a regime of deflected actions and continue to pace the burden on the poor while carbon slavery, unfair/ undifferentiated responsibilities and ecocide assault the continent.
Bassey’s Talking points on a webinar hosted by Justiça Ambiental (Friends of the Earth Mozambique), on 16.09.2020, on the theme Transnational Corporations, the World Bank and the Global Trade Architecture: Guardians of neocolonialism?
The color blue is not the problem with the blue economy. We often hear that sustainable development stands on three legs of social equity, economic viability and environmental protection. The intersection of these three leads to sustainability. The challenge is that these three are rarely given equal consideration when actions are being taken. A careful consideration of the impacts of alterations or transformations in the environment leads to less degradation and ensures less destruction of habitats. Economic measures aimed at profit accumulation will ride on the exploitation of nature and labour to the detriment of the environment. Measures taken will dress business as usual in the garbs of technological advancement and innovative ideas. Where social inclusion in decision making and implementation is not a cardinal consideration, unethical and immoral decisions may be the outcome. Such decisions may cause divisions in society, entrench inequalities and promote racism and xenophobia. These are issues we have to keep at the back of our minds as we continue.
The world has been engulfed in crises arising from turmoil in the social, economic and environmental spheres. The climate crisis is one of the most challenging problems of our age. Analysts agree that the crisis is a result of a deeply flawed economic model that sees nature as an inexhaustible source of materials including the non-renewable ones like coal, oil and gas. This mindset has led to massive deforestation, and monoculture agriculture leading to nutritional deficiencies. It has generally encouraged over consumption, wastage and the driving of species to extinction. It goes without saying that of the three legs of sustainability, it is the economic one that takes precedent, creates the problems and is at the same time presented as the solution. Some of the economic bandages applied to the multiple crises engulfing the world include the Green Economy and the Blue Economy. If we are not careful the Green New Deal may end up being another of these.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) proposed a response in the form of a Global Green New Deal (GGND) aimed at using the multiple-crises as an opportunity for transformation through placing green investment at the core of stimulus packages, including green investment in regular government budgets and creating public-private green investment funding mechanisms. It also proposed the provision of domestic enabling conditions (fiscal/pricing policy, standards, education and training and global enabling conditions covering trade, intellectual; property rights, overseas development aid, technology transfer and environmental agreements.
UNEP sees the Green Economy as the “process of reconfiguring businesses and infrastructureto deliver better returns on natural, human and economic capital investments, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions, extracting and using less natural resources, creating less waste and reducing social disparities.” This statement reinforces the exploitative business as usual model that is driving the world towards the precipice. The Green Economy hinges on the commodification of nature.
Applying the mercantilist notion of the Green Economy to the seas, rivers and other water bodies will further erode the seeing of the gifts of nature as things that should be protected, preserved and nurtured from an intergenerational perspective. This is imperative because over 200 million Africans draw their nutrition from freshwater and ocean fish and over 10 million depend on them for income.
Africa literally floats on water. She is surrounded by water. The Blue Economy covers the use of aquatic species, including those found in the creeks, rivers, lakes, oceans and underground water. It covers fisheries, tourism, transport, energy, bioprospecting, marine biotechnology and underwater mining. These will clearly have serious negative impacts on the integrity of our aquatic ecosystems.
An African Union official sees the Blue Economy as “Africa’s hidden treasure” and declared that the “potential of oceans, lakes and rivers is unlimited.” He further added that the Blue Economy would move Africa “from an economy of harvests from limited resources to an economy of harvesting unlimited resources if we organize ourselves well. With the exploitation of resources come also sustainable financial means. But to approach this revolution we must completely change our perspective.” This vision raises a lot of red flags. Firstly, there is nothing that is limitless on a finite or limited planet. This idea of unlimited resources is what has gotten us into the current ruinous state, at national as well as global levels.
We must understand that the Blue Economy is about the exploitation of water bodies. Just like land grabbing is raging across Africa, the Blue Economy will unleash an exacerbated sea grab on the continent. Already, marine resources on our continental shelf are being mindlessly plundered and trashed. The Blue Economy will solidify this trend. Maritime insecurity will intensify, and our artisanal fishers will be at great risk. Deep sea mining will increase the pollution of our water bodies. It is speculated that marine biotechnology can bring Africa up to $5.9 billion by 2022, but in a continent with very lax biosafety regulations this will mean reckless exploitation, contamination of local species and exposure to more risks and harms.
We conclude by iterating that the Blue Economy portends great danger for Africa. Besides the illogic of limitless aquatic resources, the economic template could open our oceans for risky geoengineering experimentations ostensibly to flight global warming. What we need is not cosmetic programmes that lock in the current ruinous track but a completely overhauled economic system built on the picture of a future that is truly socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and economically just. These are just a few red flags on the Blue Economy.
Welcome words at the School of Ecology session on Blue Economy Blues. 10.09.2020
We are happy to share this collection of short stories triggered by the The COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has exposed global vulnerabilities and challenged individuals and nations to wake up from slumber and take actions that recognize our planetary limits. The responses to the pandemic have revealed a high level of unpreparedness across the world. Lockdowns and other measures crushed the poor and heightened their exposure to the virus. The informal sector, already unsupported, got thrashed by repressive response measures.
Despite the challenges of collapsing state structures and economies, we took this as a time to think and find ways to overcome the miseries presented by the failed systems. We took this as a time to organise, even if we are/were physically isolated. We reminded ourselves that the virus will not change anything that we (the people) won’t change. In other words, the change that will frame the post pandemic era will come from humans, our relationship with each other and with Nature. The push for change will inevitably revolve around our interpretation of what is happening around us and our resolve to act. This revolves around the narratives that we frame, formulate and allow. Understanding that our lives are framed, powered and guided by stories, we sought the interpretation of the socio-ecological and health crises through the tales in this collection. We welcome you to the trip in the imaginaries.
The aroma from the tilapia on the grill wafted around the street corner. Entering every home through the front door and exiting through the windows. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew when Mama Ogie had set up shop for the morning and when some tilapia sizzled on her open grill. The pull was magnetic. By 11:00 am a line of community folks and passers-by had formed even though the first servings were yet to land on the plastic plates that crowded the tray on the rickety wooden table that served as her bukateria.
“I’m grateful to Mama Ogie,” a man said to his neighbour. “Her grill is so special. I don’t come here because I am hungry…”
“You don’t come here because you are hungry? Please, say something else,” his neighbour interrupted him. “What do you come here for? To learn how to cook?”
“I come here,” the man calmly replied, “because whenever I perceive the aroma of the tilapia, I am assured that I am well. You know one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is the loss of sense of smell.”
“So, this is your testing centre? Why don’t you smell the aroma from a distance instead of wasting my time by taking the space before me?”
“I would gladly have done so and saved some cash,” the man replied. “Unfortunately, I have to eat the fish to be sure that my sense of taste is still okay.”
“I know how you eat your fish,” replied his neighbour. “Through your nose!”
Mama Ogie looked up the customers lined up before her and splashed some vegetable oil on the grill. Today will be a good day, she told herself. Ogie, his 10 years old son, shared a broken wooden chair with his friend, Idemudia. The two were inseparable. They had big dreams of life as business tycoons or politicians. Every day the same debate: what is the difference between the politician and a business tycoon?
“Who will be the politician? Who will be the tycoon?” Ogie asked.
“That is easy to know,” Idemudia laughed. “Who makes promises and never keep them?”
Mama Ogie turned the fish and nodded satisfied by how they were turning out. She roasted some plantain along with the fish. The two made a perfect lunch for those who could afford them. Just a few months ago most of her customers always bought a combination of fish and plantain. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, only a few could buy the two. They had to decide whether to snack on fish or pile their belly with plantain.
Soon it was the man’s turn to place his order.
“That’s Mr Social Distancing,” Ogie whispered to Idemudia.
“Yes,” Idemudia agreed. “We will see if the plantain will keep a social distance from the fish today.”
The man looked around furtively and signalled his neighbour to maintain his distance. He drew in as much of the aroma from the fish as he could. He wished he could get a mouthful of the delicacy through his nostrils. Then he bent forward, got closer and closer to the fish…
“Mr Man,” Mama Ogie yelled at the man. “Be careful! Stay back. Maintain your social distance.”
“Social distance is between people,” the man replied, “never between man and fish.”
“That bridge is crossed with Naira,” Mama Ogie stated sternly. Then she laughed. “You are a funny man. What does your pocket say today? Can it close the gap between the fish and the plantain?”
Ogie winked at Idemudia. No social distance between man and fish? Does he live in the river? He always enjoyed the banter between her mother and the man. This was their street corner school. They learned the habits of the neighbours just sitting here besides the Mama Ogie’s Fish is Ready shop. Ogie thought they should prepare a signpost to brand his mother’s business. Maybe even produce some business cards, Idemudia suggested. We could even start a fish delivery service. Mama Ogie’s Tilapia Special. That sounded nice. Since Idemudia’s father was a fisher, they could ensure there is enough supply of fish to be grilled. We will be rich! We can turn it into a joint business, Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia?
Trouble was that Idemudia’s mother was a dealer in catfish. While Mama Idemudia was engaged in aquaculture, her husband would not tolerate any fish that was not caught at sea. He had no qualms killing fish but believed that the fishpond was restrictive and punishing for the fish. Eating farmed fish was like eating chicken bought from the big poultry farm from across the city. Lazy chicken. You could kick them, shove them. They could not and would not be moved. Fat chicken. Papa Idemudia believed that for chicken to land on his plate it must be able to fly over buildings and be chased across the neighbourhood. The chicken had to fight for its life before he would be satisfied. Just the way he chased fish when they dragged his line in a futile attempt to escape his grasp.
Fishpond fish or fish from the sea. This was the contention at the dinner table most nights when Papa Idemudia was not out at sea. One day he had a bout of runny stomach after dinner and accused Mama Idemudia of having cooked some of her catfish. She swore it was the wild catfish.
“You could tell by the length of their whiskers, can’t you?” she asked her husband. “You know everything about fish and can tell which is from the pond and which is from the sea by looking at them or simply by looking at how they lie in the pot.”
“You are right,” Papa Idemudia answered. “I can tell which is which even in the darkest night. In fact, when I am out fishing, I just have to whistle a tune for a particular fish to jump into my net. Or to swallow my hook. There is one particular fish I know by sight. It likes playing around my boat. Sometimes I pat its head with my paddle. I think it may want to come home with me, except that I do not think it would like your pond.”
Ogie’s eyes widened as a big car pulled up. Mama Ogie urged Mr Social Distance to pick up his roasted plantain and move on. He looked wistfully at the fish he could not afford. He couldn’t just saunter off. He hung around to test his sense of smell a little bit further. Maybe his belly could be filled through his nostrils as they say doctors do, at times. The door of the big car opened, and someone stepped out. Ogie’s mother was effusive in her welcome. This person had never stopped by her stand. There was to be a party tomorrow and the person wanted to give invitees a special treat of street food. A large order was placed. Tomorrow at noon. Sharp. Grilled fish and roasted plantain. A wad of cash exchanged hands. And the car zoomed off, tyres screeching, water splashing. Street Food. How could anyone call her special food Street Food! In any case, the money was good. No receipt. No guarantee. That person may love street food, but certainly there was no street sense.
Ogie eyed Idemudia. That’s the sign to confirm that we are in business. Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia. And Catfish! Yes, Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia& Catfish.
They would sell the idea to their mothers, and their mothers will sell the idea to their fathers.
They gave themselves a congratulatory high five and fell off their broken chair almost knocking down the grill. Horror! They looked plaintively at Mama Ogie. Would she hit them with here ladle?
“Go home, both of you,” Mama Ogie shouted, alarmed. “Idemudia, what will I tell you mother? That I poured hot oil on you? Go home!”
“Yes, home, children,” Mr Social Distance spat, then unable to stifle a sneezed let out an earth-shattering burst, tripping over a pile of charcoal. His plantain flew out of his hand, and landed in a puddle by the roadside, making his enviable dive to capture it completely useless. He sat in the puddle lamenting his misfortune. Although his olfactory organs functioned okay, he would have no way of knowing if his taste buds were yet in good order. No way to know, except someone offers him a morsel to bite, that is. And nobody did. Not yet. His neighbour walked close, clutching his plantain and the head of a tilapia. He wouldn’t offer him even the eyes of the fish.
“Go home!” Mama Ogie shouted again. “What must I do to you two?”
Idemudia began to pull Ogie by his shorts. Blame it on Mr. Social Distance. No, blame it on the broken chair. No piece of grilled fish for them today. Just then Idemudia’s father passed by on his bicycle. Stopped.
“Good morning, Papa Idemudia,” Mama Ogie greeted. “I will need plenty of fish tomorrow morning.”
“W-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l!” Papa Idemudia replied slowly. “That sounds like music to my ears. What are you celebrating? Marriage anniversary? Or is Ogie going to the university?”
Ogie wanted to step forward to greet Papa Idemudia but his friend pulled him back. Too late.
“Idemudia! Idemudia! How many times have I called you? Papa Idemudia called. “You should be at home helping you mother feed her catfish. What are you doing here at this time? Come with me quickly. These days no one knows who is spreading the virus. Have you washed your hands?”
“The pond is empty,” Idemudia whispered as his father drew him away and made to leave.
“Wait!” Mama Ogie called after him, “please, collect a deposit for the fish.”
That was a new one for Papa Idemudia. Getting paid before he goes fishing? Was that a good mor bad omen? And did she say, please? Wonders will never end. Mama Ogie, the fish and plantain seller, pleading with him to collect a deposit for fish he was yet to catch? Where will the fish come from? His fishing expedition of last night had fallen into a recent pattern. He had toiled, laboured and fished all night. What did he come back home with? A pitiful catch that could hardly fill up a bucket. What a rough night it was. He thought of joining his wife in catfish farming. But Mama Idemudia told him that due to the inter-city restriction of movements the supply of fish feed had dried up. Didn’t he help her pick all the fish from the pond two days ago? Just one throw of his net and everything came up, flapping this way and that. He saw Mama Idemudia peering at the pond the next day. Throwing a few scraps into the water and expecting a fight for her offering. There was no stir. The only ripples came from what she dropped. Her heart thumped. The pond remained silent.
He had gone to the sea with hope. He had to stay in the shallow waters. A naval blockade stopped movements into the deep waters. Did COVID-19 come from the deep? Throwing nets at the shallow waters yielded debris, plastics, invasive weeds. He got caught a few wiggly creatures. Is the Navy keeping us at the shore so that those international thieves that came with big trawlers could take everything away unseen, unchallenged? It was annoying that they were stealing the fish to make animal feed, not even for eating. What more rotten ideas would humans come up with? Thieves trawled in the deep, oil spills coated coastal waters. And the oil companies not only polluted the waters, they slashed through the mangrove forests creating canals for their barges and monstrous machines. Our freshwater creeks turning brackish. Adding salt to injury. He began to see sense in the fishers always saying fish is better than oil. He dreamt of Idemudia on an oil rig. A big man to care for him when he retires from fishing. Wie cannot eat oil. We cannot drink oil. Oil is forcing him into retirement. Should he give up? Here was cash for him to collect. Will tomorrow be better than last night? What if it isn’t? Oh, but my friend will dance to my paddle. It is quite big, almost the length of my canoe. If I invite it home… How do I get through the blockade to reach my friend? Will I betray a friend? Pandemic. Pandemonium. Take the cash? And then what? The pond was silent! The sea? He could only see!
“Here is the money,” Mama Ogie stretched her hands to Papa Idemudia over the head of the man in the mud.
“Ammm,” Mr Social Distance cleared his throat, still seated in the puddle, his plantain sinking into the mire. Out of sight. “I need to test my taste buds.”
Ogie winked at Idemudia as he climbed on his father’s bicycle. Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia & Catfish! You promised me a piece of fish, Idemudia frowned.
There is something about water that draws humans and other living beings. Could it be the fact that up to 60 percent of the human body is made up of water? When people say that water is life, the meaning goes deeper than the fact that water quenches our thirst, refreshes us and generally feeds us. It also refers to the fact that water provides the environment for aquatic species to thrive and generally for a vast variety of fauna and flora.
One of the tree species that gives an unforgettable presence once your eyes lock on them is the mangrove. If you are fisher, the sight of a mangrove forest signifies the abundance of fish. No matter who you are, the stately and entangled stilt roots lining a coastline, with a dense canopy of branches and leaves, are captivating pictures to behold.
The pull of the endless expanse of the sea and the pull of the terrestrial verdant mangrove canopies on the coastline engage in continuous battle of who would hold captive the coastline communities as well as the fishers. This push and pull gives creative impetus to fishers who sing as they row out into the sea and as they row back with their catch to the expectant reception of families and friends. What would life be in a Niger Delta without mangroves?
The generous aesthetics and socio-economic pull of the mangrove environment along the Nigerian coastline got Jerry Chidi, a documentary photographer, to make the journeys along the banks of our major rivers as well as along the Atlantic coast from Badagry to Bakassi over a period of ten years. His output is a testament to focus, tenacity and high crafts from a man who sees photography as medium for awakening of consciousness. He describes his photography as a “medium for inspiration and social awakening… not only to entertain us but to also arouse in us feelings of empathy and deep connection to other beings, places or social issues and ultimately to move us to action.”
Chidi memorialised his photographs in the book, Man and Mangroves – An Environmental Awakening. The book, a catalogue of visuals that demand responses and actions, in 146 photographs, documents the beauty of the mangrove, the foods and the livelihoods they support. Importantly, it shows the severe damage and mindless despoliation that reckless exploitation of the environment has brought about.
Mangroves have roots that grow above the ground and often form intricately tangled forms that only Nature can weave. The roots are not above water for mere aesthetic effects. They are above water because the plants breathe through pores on them. The roots help the trees to breathe because the muddy soils in which they grow are poorly aerated. The trees shoot their roots into the air, literally to avoid suffocation. It is like they hold their breath in high tide and take in as much air as they can in low tide.
The book sets before our eyes incontrovertible evidence of the great ecological devastation and economic ruination visited on the Niger Delta by oil and gas exploitation as well as by the illegal activities of some community persons. The book shows how poverty gets entrenched in a region drowning in wealth. There are sections in the book that show before and after images of the same location and starkly illustrate the sharp deterioration that has occurred in a short span of 3 to 5 years.
Man and Mangroves illustrates the wealth that Nature has bequeathed to coastal communities. The pictures can speak for coastal communities whose mangroves have been devastated for touristic infrastructure or for industrial activities including forms of aquaculture across the tropics. Some of the photos echo the destruction of mangroves in Asia that exposed communities to devastating impacts of cyclones as well as in a place in Brazil which fisherfolks call the Cemetery of Mangroves due to destruction of mangroves there by hydrocarbon pollution and fires.
Mangroves are rightly considered as an important source of life and protector and supporter of coastal towns and communities. They are important place-markers and add to the identity, traditions and cultures of the peoples interacting with them.
Mangroves are trees or shrubs mostly found in tropical regions and which grow in tidal, coastal swamps. They grow in brackish or saltwater marshes and swamps and do well in harsh environments that other plants can hardly tolerate. The point to note here is the fact that although mangroves tolerate brackish or saltwater, they do also grow in freshwater swamps. There are many species of mangroves, but the most common are of the red or white varieties.
The mangrove forests in Nigeria are the largest in Africa and the third largest in the world. While they can be found all the way from the western (Badagry) to eastern (Bakassi) extremities of the Atlantic coastline of Nigeria, 60 percent of them are found in the Niger Delta.
They have roots that grow above the ground and often form intricately tangled forms that only Nature can weave. The roots are not above water for mere aesthetic effects. They are above water because the plants breathe through pores on them. The roots help the trees to breathe because the muddy soils in which they grow are poorly aerated. The trees shoot their roots into the air, literally to avoid suffocation. It is like they hold their breath in high tide and take in as much air as they can in low tide.
This breathing strategy fails when there is an oil spill. The pores through which they breathe get clogged by crude oil and the trees actually begin to suffer from loss of air and some literally suffocate. If trees could talk, they would cry out they can’t breathe! Besides being breathing roots, the stilts also help to stabilize the trees as they get older and bigger and have to contend with fairly unstable soils. The trees provide materials for construction, boat building and fuel. The leaves are medicinal and are also used for livestock feed. They help to cool the planet by serving as efficient carbon sinks.
Many fish species find the tangled mangrove roots as good places to lay their eggs and for the juveniles to thrive in. The mangroves are thus natural nurseries for fisheries. About 75 percent of global fish catch come from mangrove ecosystems. They make up about 4 percent of the vegetation on earth but provide nests for most marine life. Aquatic species found in the Niger Delta mangrove ecosystems include crabs, clams, shellfish, crayfish and shrimps which are caught at low tide. They also include species like the West Africa manatee, sea turtles and pygmy hippopotamus.
It is estimated that for every 0.4 hectare (1 acre) of mangrove forest destroyed there is a loss of about 300 kg of marine harvest. We often say #FishNotOil. Considering the fundamental importance of mangroves, we may also say #MangroveNotOil. Absorbing 2-4 times more carbon than other trees, mangroves certainly help to cool the planet while fossil fuels set the planet on fire. The mangroves are incubators of economies, cultures and overall wellbeing. On the other hand, fossil fuels pollution destroys livelihoods, build despondency and ignite conflicts.
Mangroves are important, indeed vital, for both aquatic species and for humans who depend on them. They reduce the vulnerability of coastlines to sea level rise, hurricanes, cyclones and storms. The loss of mangroves along the Nigerian coast is one reason coastal communities exposed to unrelenting sea waves are losing ground. Coastlines with less disturbed mangrove forests suffer less damage from storms and tsunamis than the coastlines that have been taken over by infrastructure including luxury resorts. In other words, faulty business activities lead to exposure of vulnerable communities to harm.
According to Devinder Sharma in an article, Tsunami, Mangroves and Market Economy, “Mangrove swamps have been nature’s protection for the coastal regions from the large waves, weathering the impact of cyclones, and serving as a nursery for three-fourth of the commercial fish species that spend part of their life cycle in the swamps. Mangroves in any case were one of the world’s most threatened habitats but instead of replanting the mangrove swamps, faulty economic policies only hastened its disappearance.” He writes that mangroves provide double protection at shorelines, with the first layer of red mangroves absorbing shock from waves using their flexible branches and tangled roots. Adding to this first line of defense is a second layer that is made up of taller black mangroves that “operate like a wall withstanding much of the sea’s fury.”
Seeing that the largest mangrove forest in Africa is in Nigeria, their destruction translates to a major threat to fisheries on the continent and to the economies and wellbeing of coastal communities and fishers. In the words of Professor Olanrewaju Fagbohun, “It is our collective responsibility …to ensure that our presence in the environment does not alter its eco-dynamics. A destabilized mangrove would have dire social and environmental consequences in the short and long run.”
A word of wisdom from Desmond Majekodunmi: protecting our mangroves is a step towards halting the ongoing infanticide and ecocide in the Niger Delta.