Perverse Corporate Investment Benefits

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Let us look at forces that lock in perverse corporate investment benefits. The quality of political leadership of nations is often judged by the volume of corporate investments they are able to attract, or trigger. These investments could be from national or transnational corporations. A favoured manner of describing some of the inroads made by, or with, the transnational corporations is one that encourages foreign direct investment. Diplomatic travels by political leaders is often geared towards showcasing business opportunities in their home countries by selling the notion that such investors would enjoy political protection as well as the best business environments.

Nations also make laws and regulations to ensure that local businesses are integrated in the areas dominated by transnational corporations. Such moves are sometimes termed backward integration, economic empowerment or indigenisation processes. Whatever is the case, governments work hard to ensure that these entities enjoy a good level of ease of doing business. The quest for ease of doingbusiness has become such a desirable thing that indices for measuring achievements in that mode have been developed and governments work hard to ensure that they are not found on the wrong end of the measuring stick.

Transnational corporations are especially favoured in the viewing lenses of national governments because they are seen as a major source of foreign exchange earnings and their flourishing encourages the influx of other corporate entities. The corporations are also seen as major job creators and politicians do whatever they can imagine would help ensure that the job numbers are higher than those recorded by their predecessors, or are unassailable by the promises of their competitors.

Followers of international politics will notice the way some political leaders are fixated or deeply immersed in following the job indexes as well as the outcomes of each trading day at the stock exchanges.  To some of us who are not experts in the economic fields, the posture of political leaders with regard to the indexes and indices sometimes appear comparable to the way people focus on games, rejoicing when things go our way, then sulking and laying out blames when things turn against our favoured teams. Whereas spectators at a sporting event cannot determine the outcome of the competition, officials sometimes engage in what is termed match-fixing in the soccer arena, for example. Match-fixing distorts the spirit of the game and attracts sanctions when uncovered. However, political leaders engage in what can be regarded as match-fixing through tariff wars or when they manipulate the value of their national currencies. Who sanctions them?

Having political leaders deeply focussed on their national, and even global economic fortunes, does make sense to the extent that a state of health of the nation can be gauged by the health of her economy. However, the economy can give a distorted sense of the wellbeing of nations when the measures are inclined mostly to the production and movement of goods and services in the formal sectors.

The forgotten and often purposely ignored sectors are populated by citizens that are not employed by governments or by corporations. They lie in the informal or unorganised sectors, if we take note of the term ‘organised private sector’ as is used in countries, including Nigeria. The notion that government has no business in business has led to the general belief that it is not the duty of government to provide jobs for the people. This has pushed governments to strive to reduce their workforce and forever moan over the fact that recurrent expenditure spent on civil service wages is bloated and a blot on the health of national economies. While the workforce continues to be constricted, the work to be done by government remains and to justify keeping citizens in an endless search for jobs, duties that ought to be carried out by government workers are farmed out to the private sector.

While the private sector is a vital part of any nation’s economy, the general belief that government cannot effectively and efficiently deliver services is a myth entrenched by neoliberal propagandists. Making the distortion worse is the reality that after giving contracts to private entities, governments also provide financial coverage for these entities when they obtain loans for the execution of the contracts. The reality that governments access loans at a cheaper rate than the private sector does not bother the promoters of the dubious creed that government has no business in business. With layers of consultancies and a web of invisible services, corporations are sometimes able to obtain a pile of financial benefits for providing services that only they can see. This phenomenon has been characterised as official larceny by Nicholas Hildyard of The Corner House in his book, Licensed Larceny: Infrastructure, Financial Extraction and the global South.

The matter of invisible services is heightened in the extractive sector where transnational corporations enter into agreements with governments but act as the operators of the businesses, determining what needs to be done, how it is done and what is expended on carrying out such activities. This is the case in the petroleum sector in Nigeria, for example. The operators determine the cost of operations, and such costs are recovered at source and the balance of the earnings is what is then shared with the government and other players in such joint ventures. This state of affairs subsists, and the Petroleum Industry laws stagnate in their primordial forms, because the corporations ostensibly bring incredible benefits to the nation.

The ease of doing business requirement is also enhanced by the creation of export free zones where corporates escape the requirements of national laws and to a large extent operate more or less as colonial enclaves. Besides, in the quest to ensure corporate profits, there is no accounting with regards to health and environmental harms inflicted on the people and communities. And, although national laws governing the extractive sector demands that exit plans by made, and resources kept aside for closure of mine or oil wells at the onset of the projects, these are neither enforces nor adhered to. Thus, oil wells drilled in the 1950s have been abandoned and were never truly decommissioned and are leaking crude into the environment to this day. The benefits brought by transnational oil corporations remains perverse if the question as to when the damage done to the environment, people and communities will be accounted and when the heavily impacted environment will be evaluated and restored are not addressed.

 

 

 

 

A Knife to the Throat

ChangeA Knife to the Throat. Think before you dance to the GMO beat. A popular saying has it that the person that pays the drummer dictates the tune. That saying may not hold true at all times because the drummer may on occasion allow her innate artistic flair to take over. The saying, however, finds a wide parallel in situations where governments do not fund their research institutions and agencies, thereby pushing them into the embrace of funding agencies with motives that may not be in sync with that of the governments.

A case in point has to do with the way we are handling issues of biosafety. We do not appear to worry that the surveyors of genetically modified (GM) crops and products, apart from their pretentious messianic posturing are mostly concerned with making profit out of our miseries. We do not worry that our staple crops are targeted and that these marketers are the ones declaring our vitamin or mineral deficiencies and presenting GM crops and foods as silver bullets to solve all our problems.

We are happy when we are assured that GM foods and products will be labelled and that we will definitely have a choice with regard to whether or not we wish to eat them. We do not consider the fact that most of our staples are sold in ways that do not permit labelling. We do ourselves harm when we gloss over this issue. We do know that in the global north you can know the origin of the bananas, oranges and other fruits you buy from the labels stuck on them.

We have said several times that our socio-cultural context does not allow for labelling in our informal marketing and sharing systems. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (ATF) announces that GM beans will be planted in Nigeria in 2020. We must not lose sight of the fact that we are in breach of the law if any GMO is released into our environment and to our markets if it is not, and cannot, be labelled. Without the right of choice, we are forced to eat GM foods with a knife to our throats.

Back to the payer and the drummer. Sometimes the drummer may go into a flourish, but that often happens when the payer starts what may look like limitless spraying of currency notes. If the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or Monsanto sprays you with seeds, or a laboratory, the dancer can go into a frenzy.

The fervour with which we are open to being used as testing fields of hypotheses dreamt by speculators, and even by students in foreign laboratories, should capture our attention. We recall when the great work IITA did in developing natural cassava varieties and methods for controlling the dreaded cassava leaf mosaic disease. These days they appear more bent to working on GM cassava for the increase of starch content in the tubers, not for foods for humans, but probably for industrial purposes. One such GM cassava was developed in a student project in a laboratory in Switzerland and brought to Ibadan, Nigeria, for testing. The so-called confined field trials have since been concluded but information on the outcome is not in the public sphere.

The routine response of the agency when asked for information on the basis of which they issue permits is to refer the enquirer to their website. When told that the information is not on their website, their response is to again reiterate their blanket reference to their website.

The same laboratory from Switzerland recently sent another GM cassava for a willing Nigerian institute, the Nigerian Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) located at Umudike, to obtain a permit and carry out confined field testing of a cassava variety engineered to contain high levels of iron and zinc. Despite very detailed comments sent to show why approval should not be granted for its field testing, the approval was granted by mid-July 2019.

Expert comments sent to show why certain applications should not be approved are treated with contempt and brushed aside. The agency is averse to giving a response as to why they reject the contrary points raised by concerned citizens and groups. The arrogance and hostility towards those who do not dance to the GM beats keeps increasing by the day. This has to stop.

The NRCI got the permit to carry out a confined field trial of the GM cassava on a plot measuring not more than 200 square metres. That is small, right? However, NRCI is to ensure a buffer or exclusion zone of 1.5 kilometres in which there must not be any non-GM cassava planted or growing wild. Is that possible in Abia State, or anywhere in Southern Nigeria? 1.5 kilometres without a cassava plant? Another requirement is that the place in which the GM cassava is to be planted must have security personnel keeping watch on a 24 hours basis. Really?

The immediate area of the trial zone is to be surrounded by a pollen trap to prevent the spread of pollen grains from the GM cassava. The trap is not something mechanical, like a mouse trap. It is rather a planted area where the crops planted there must flower at the same time as the GM cassava in the confined trial area. If that is not preposterous enough, consider who would ensure that the area is decontaminated after the field trial. That task will be done by “persons trained by the permit holder.” It is doubtful if such a person can be trusted to be objective in carrying out the task. It is obvious that entire scheme is a wild, needless gamble.

Some of us are wondering if the biosafety regulatory agency in Nigeria should bother to advertise applications for introduction of GM crops and call for comments when they already have their minds set on being little besides a permitting agency. Expert comments sent to show why certain applications should not be approved are treated with contempt and brushed aside. The agency is averse to giving a response as to why they reject the contrary points raised by concerned citizens and groups. The arrogance and hostility towards those who do not dance to the GM beats keeps increasing by the day. This has to stop.

The Classroom of life has no graduation

C97AC918-4170-4535-86BF-5A3970E9A0D5The Classroom of life has no graduation. Life offers classrooms without walls. Increasingly we are seeing these learning spaces to be the streets. They remain enclosed by our environment and our culture. Importantly, the Classroom of life has no graduation.

The classrooms of universities and multiversities, are concentrated arenas of learning that offer special opportunities to raise students and intellectuals to speak up for the poor, for Mother Earth and her children. In a time where our foods are being assailed by chemical-based agriculture, science needs to assure us that what we eat is not eating us up. At a time when our water, land and air are poisoned by wrongheaded extractivism, we need to remind ourselves that wellbeing is not defined by how much minerals we dig up, transform or accumulate.

What we make of our environment makes us, molds our imaginations and shapes our philosophies of life. It makes us humane or monstrous.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, we cannot be onlookers in the fight to tackle the existential crises of our days, especially that of climate change. Through music and philosophies of life we can persistently project our memories and challenge our imaginations till we all agree that the saying ‘another world is possible’ and calling for ‘system change’ are not mere sloganeering but real calls for action.

We face a challenge of how to communicate the horrors of climate impacts and displacements in ways that can wake the world from slumber. We have a duty to stand as environmental defenders and reject the forces compelling millions to live in extremely contaminated environments and pushing others to early and watery graves in the Mediterranean Sea or to fiery graves in the burning dunes of the Sahara.

With broad spectrum programmes such as the Festival of Ideas annually hosted by the University of York, it is clear that the town and the gown, the field and the laboratory, can all trigger innovation that would dismantle the concentration of power in a few hands and rebuild a future for our collective humanity.

Music, poetry, prose, drama, sculpture, architecture, painting and other forms of arts have been veritable tools for education, as well as maintaining our cultures for ages. Today we can make music with our feet and fists and halt over-consumption and build cooperation, solidarity and the true ideals of wellbeing.

Education transforms. One way this happens is by empowering us to accept dissent as a true mark of patriotism and to accept criticisms and needed solutions, even if they are advanced by those we do not often agree with.

We simply cannot stay silent or feign neutrality as societies fall apart. That is challenge offered by the education and practice at the University of York. This is an arena where academics and practice truly blend. We step up today by looking at the past and with solid hindsight building a harmonious and just future with one another, Mother Earth and all our relatives.

Education transforms. One way this happens is by empowering us to accept dissent as a true mark of patriotism and to accept criticisms and needed solutions, even if they are advanced by those we do not often agree with.

Let us close with “Keep Out of Prison” – a poem written by Ken Saro-Wiwa while in 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.

* My speaking notes on receiving an honorary degree at the University of York graduation ceremony on 19 July 2019

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.