Okavango and the Tragedy of Fossils in Africa

The quest for profit in a predatory economic system has made it possible for humans to wilfully ignore extractivist crimes unfolding in broad daylight. A clear case is the clawing into Namibia’s Okavango Basin in search of hydrocarbon resources by ReconAfrica, a Canadian oil prospecting company. The company has been licensed to explore for hydrocarbons in an area of 13,600 square miles straddling Namibia and Botswana. ReconAfrica could end up fracking for oil and gas in this highly valuable region which is said to hold up to 31 billion barrels of crude oil.

The Okavango Basin is touted as the “largest oil play of the decade.” It is just as well that oil companies describe their finds as “plays” because what they do with these resources is a tragic play that routinely ends up devastating communities and basically irretrievably harming ecosystems. At a time when the world knows that not more than a third of known fossil reserves can still be extracted and burned without surpassing the already alarming 1.5 degrees temperature target of the Paris Agreement, it is shameful that oil companies are still allowed to prospect for more oil, coal, and fossil gas. 

Already, ReconAfrica’s officials claim that they are playing according to rules set by the Namibian government as they go about their exploratory activities. We understand how such rules play out, who reaps the benefits of such rules and who suffers the negative consequences. Experts have already noted that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report produced by ReconAfrica and accepted by the Namibian government would not pass serious scrutiny and the process was not open to public participation. Public consultation is a critical requirement in any EIA process and where this is lacking the process is null and void. If the Minister of Agriculture of Namibia could say that his ministry was not consulted, why should we think that citizens were consulted?

It is concerning that governments keep on allowing oil companies to arm-twist them into accepting patently false promises of revenue booms and of capacity to avoid ecological harms and to trigger development in affected oil field communities.  When the first commercially viable oil well spurted in 1956 in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, there were wild celebrations of progress arriving in the area that had hitherto suffered hundreds of years of pillage of agricultural natural resources by imperialist and then colonial forces. The first oil exports commenced in 1958 and so far, more than 5,200 wells have been drilled in the region with over 603 being discovery wells. After more than six decades of hydrocarbons exploitation in the Niger Delta, the region now ranks as one of the top ten most polluted places on earth. Water bodies, soils and the air have all been stoked full of harmful pollutants and life expectancy now stands at a dreary 41 years. 

You may say that Nigeria is an odd case. Consider the devastation that Texaco, now Chevron, wreaked in Ecuador where up to 18 billion US gallons (68 billion litres) of toxic waste and 17 million gallons of crude oil was dumped on pristine rainforest soil in an area spanning 4,400 square kilometres or 1,700 square miles.

How about the ongoing massive pollutions in South Sudan and in Sudan? What about the tar sand fields of Canada, the home country of ReconAfrica? What of the burning coal caves in South Africa? In the words of Saul Landau in his collection of essays – A Bush & Botox World – “The quest for corporate profit invalidates concern for the environment.” Besides, these companies also drag vulnerable nations into debt with the false promises of liquidity and hollow credit worthiness.

Namibia’s Minister in charge of mining, Tom Alweendo, interestingly claimed that there was nothing to worry about oil and gas extraction in the Okavango Basin even though the area is a treasure to the people of Namibia and the world. According to the minister, “It’s true the company has an oil and gas exploration license and obtained an environmental clearance certificate to do research drilling. They are not going to do hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – a more invasive method – but a conventional drilling method,” 

The truth is that exploitation of petroleum resources has routinely been accompanied by extreme ecological harms, and in some cases has also been the reason or pretext for violent conflicts and wars. Consider the invasion of Iraq and the destruction of Libya. Think of the unfolding violence in North East Mozambique and the instability in the Lake Chad basin. The handling of wastewater and other toxic wastes from test drill pits already pose serious concerns.  

The massive area earmarked for drilling by ReconAfrica reminds one of a time when Shell had the entire geographic space known as Nigeria as its concession. Okavango basin is home to over 200,000 Namibians and these Africans mostly rely on the Okavango River which brings supplies of fresh water from the forest regions of Angola all year round.  Of course, ReconAfrica will pollute the natural potable water sources of the people and sink water bore holes for them. That is the epitome of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that has proven to be nothing other than crass irresponsibility elsewhere. 

The Okavango Basin is an area of rich cultural heritage and boasts of several species that make living in this area a unique experience. The permission by the government of Namibia for the commencement of highly polluting and damaging activities in Okavango Basin is a willful denial of the real risk of permitting ecocide on its territory. It is a permit that promises glory but may end up offering genocide. It is a move that denies the existential challenge posed by climate change, the impacts of which Namibia is not a stranger to. It is digging for profit that ignores the fact that adding oil from there to the fossil fuel fires already raging in the world will compound the floods, droughts, desertification, population displacements, and other negative impacts of global warming. 

Okavango is a highly treasured living community in Namibia and Botswana. Why should anyone allow the quest for petrodollars turn this into an arena of death? It is not late for governments of Namibia and Botswana to halt this race for an asset that is bound to get stranded as the world shifts away from fossil fuels. Why permit actions that simply add to climate crimes? It is not too late to pull the plug on this gamble.

——–


Note: Image is a photograph I took of an oil spill in the Niger Delta

Talking About Seeds and Foods

Research has shown that although there are many policies around aspects of agriculture in Nigeria, there is no organizing policy that ties everything together. Officials work on silos and sometimes actively protect their turfs and appear not to care about the systemic implications of their stance. The link between seeds and plant varieties is downplayed while those protecting plant varieties do not worry about the origins of the varieties and the purposes for which anyone may wish to introduce them. Our system overlooks the fact that small scale farmers are highly innovative and grossly underestimates their productivity. People wave off small scale farmers as the key to meeting the food needs of the world, ignoring the fact, for example, that pastoralists in the Sahel region produce 2 to 10 times more animal protein per square kilometre than farmers in Australia and the USA.

Another matter of serious concern is a bill that has been passed by the National Assembly and which may get signed into law. We believe that if signed into law, this Bill will spell disaster for our agriculture and farming systems. We are referring to the Plant Variety protection (PVP) Bill. The bill aligns with the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), a patent driven system formulated without the participation of African countries and designed by “countries where agriculture is a business rather than a way of life.” Such countries have a tiny fraction of the population involved in agriculture which is of the industrial type. 

Once in place, farmers will be criminalised if they duplicate or share seeds registered under this law. Proponents of the bill tout the roaring success of UPOV and often cite Vietnam as a country where UPOV brought about dramatic increases in farmers’ productivity. A UPOV paper published in 2017 claimed that there were annual yield increases in rice, maize and sweet potato attributable to developments in plant-breeding activities to the tune of 1.7%, 2.1%, and 3.1%, in the 10 years after Vietnam became a member of UPOV. The paper also claimed that 74 million people could be fed with the additional sweet potatoes produced and portrayed those increases as being connected to Vietnam’s membership of UPOV. A recent study has now revealed that not a single application for plant variety protection (PVP) had been filed with Vietnam’s Plant Variety Protection Office (PVPO) for sweet potatoes – the crop reported with the highest yield increase in the UPOV paper. High yields have also been recorded for cassava without any application for plant variety protection.

Although the proponents of this bill insist that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will not creep into the food system as part of the new plants varieties, there are some worrisome provisions in it. Clause 9 establishes a PVP Advisory Committee which includes known GMO promoters such as the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and the biosafety regulatory agency, NBMA. The bill makes no space for civil society representation and none for smallholder farmers except where it mentions “the registered farmers’ association.” Saying “the” rather than “a” suggests that the registered farmers’ association is already known to the drafters of this Bill. 

The PVP bill Clause 13 (2) says “The grant of the breeder’s right shall not be subject to any further or different conditions…” In other words, this act locks breeders’ rights in concrete. It could preclude the development of appropriate laws and policies to decriminalize farmers’ seed systems and farmers’ rights and is grossly inequitable. It also restricts Nigerian farmers rights more heavily than the laws of Brazil, Argentina, China, South Africa, etc. 

Another interesting provision isClause 19(7) which states that if a member of a international organisation protects a variety and brings an application by itself or in partnership with another organisation, the Registrar will register such an application unless he considers the denomination unsuitable for Nigeria. Note that this clause places national sovereignty and ecological integrity of the nation in the hands of the Registrar. Clause 29 (5-6) of the bill appears to be a backdoor for GMOs to be registered. It states that any variety that can be seen as unique varieties would be registered and protected.

We have taken time to talk about the PVP Bill because it is already on the President’s table and could be signed into law at any time. This is the time for the bill to be withdrawn and returned to the drawing board for real public consultations and inclusion of the views of small-scale farmers who risk being criminalised through this piece of legislation. Nigeria needs an omnibus law that covers plants, animals, and fishes. Rather than approaching food in silos, promoting the interest of seed oligarchs and speculators, we should be looking at how to create spaces for the celebration of traditional ecological knowledge and technologies and at how to amplify our traditional diets and cuisine. We should look for ways to encourage research into these as a sure pathway to secure our food systems for now and for the future.

We should never forget that food is a human right, and no one should be subject to the indignity of chronic hunger and malnutrition. Our composite farms offer foods needed for balanced nutritious diets rather than what plantation monocultures or green deserts offer. This is the time to build a food policy anchored on agroecology. It is time to support our farmers with adequate extension services, infrastructure, finance, and market access.

Some of the identified problems would not exist if the gap between policy making and the people were closed. The collapse of the local government structures and the limited concern of state governments to the fortunes of small holder farmers compound the problem. This gap is accentuated by the fact that small scale farmers are not consulted in policy making processes. As the research commissioned by HOMEF has shown, government should ensure that food policies are coherent, implementable and that they address the challenges in the food sector. We stress again that farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders in the food sector should fully participate in decision and policy making in this regard.


These were my talking points at HOMEF’s Food Policy Dialogue on 06 May 2021



Oil Field Monologues

The noise from gas furnaces burning across the Niger Delta make it impossible for parents to whisper to their children. Whispering may sound conspiratorial, but parents cannot even speak normally to their children – a thing people take for granted. The explosive noises and hisses from the infernal fires make shouting the only way to hold a conversation. This anomaly has become the norm for two reasons: they must speak louder than the thunderous flares or shout to overcome the challenge of many persons slowly going deaf.  Sometimes monologues appeal in the oil fields, because then you only shout at yourself.

Dialogue in the oil fields require keen attention because much of what is communicated is more in what is not being said than in what is said. Tears and sorrows, groans and gnashing of teeth speak louder than speeches or songs. Rivers coated with crude oil or bursting in flames at the whiff of a naked flame, say more than words can convey. And how about the fishes popping up belly up? The whale or the dolphin washing ashore and attracting machetes, saws and hammers as malnourished fishers hack away at the hope of a meal. They tell tales of feasting in dangerous pots.

Living in the oil field has been a disaster. And the many-tentacled roots of the ecological crisis require deep considerations. At one end is the willful irresponsibility of the oil companies who simply rake in more profits as they externalize production costs by heaping harms on the hapless communities and ignoring their groans. At the other end are the complicit governments who are trapped in the false hope that extractivism can extricate their nations from the carefully engineered grip of poverty. 

Joint Ventures easily turn into misadventures as the oil companies take the driving seats and determine how much of the revenue goes into production costs and what crumbs are shared as profit. Taking the measly shares coated with promises of rising production to the bank, the governments suddenly become “credit worthy” and get enticed by financial institutions to start a borrowing spree and sink into the quicksand of debts. Oftentimes, they borrow their own cash stowed away in foreign banks. Indebted and addicted, communities and their environments are sacrificed so the companies can keep up the rapacious binge.

Oil wealth flies above the heads of communities. Just like power lines take power elsewhere leaving us in the dark. Communities farm and endure rotten harvests.  Fishers fish, but the fishes are banished by crude. Fishes eat imported iced fish. Communities live by the riverside but may well have been in parched deserts.  Riverine communities drink pure water!

Oil spills are waved off as inconsequential. And no matter how much is spilled, the volume exported is never affected because the export volume is a twisted piece of fiction. Whether on land or in the deep sea, no one knows exactly how much oil is extracted. When NEITI blew the whistle concerning offshore oil the government agency responsible for ensuring responsible behaviour among the oil companies squirmed and provided some specious denial. Oh, we know how much is taken! Really?

The oil spills that turned farmlands into an oily lake at Ikot Ada Udo in 2006/7 was ignored for many months. The spill attracted media and NASS’s attention and became a tourist attraction before Shell adjusted the cap on the well. The Niger Delta holds so much crude oil that hundreds of thousands of barrels of the resource can be spilled or stolen daily and no one would bat an eyelid. Community farms get destroyed. Forests get incinerated. Rivers get suffocated by blankets of crude. The big shots directly committing this ecocide are safely hidden away in air-conditioned board rooms onshore and offshore.

At Ororo-1 oil well at OML 95 off the coast of Ondo State, a blowout-induced fire has been burning for almost one year with no one lifting a finger to stop it. 

And over a period of two years (2018-2019) NOSDRA registered 1,300 oil spills or 5 spills a day.

Oil spills are readily classified as being caused by sabotage even before officials get to the scene of the incident. The poor community people, the victims, are labeled criminals while the actual criminals are safely ensconced in stately mansions and are serenaded by wailing sirens as they dash between the bank and their stuffed bars and pepper soup joints.

Dialogues in the oil fields have to be hurried because our communities are basically open isolation wards of the forgotten. Territories of the sick and forgotten. The toxic air loaded with volatile hydrocarbons give visitors a headache within a few minutes of arrival there. For the locals, the fumes produce breathing diseases that make their whizzing sound like dull dirges and their voices crack like overstretched funeral drums.

Will this state of affairs continue for ever? The answer is a resounding NO. Soon the income from crude oil will dry. Soon, crude oil will become a stranded asset. The signs are in. At the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, the price of oil went below $40 per barrel. The Nigerian government struggled to meet budgetary needs. The struggle continues today. While the world charts ways out of the oil pit, we dig deeper into it.

Our healing will come, and it must come soon. Now is the time for the process to begin. As we sit at the banks of our rivers or in the middle of our forests, let us remind ourselves of stories of times when we could drink water from our streams and never needed to buy water hawked in plastic sachets. It is time for us to reflect on what went wrong and who we accepted should exploit our land in exchange for a dream that has become a nightmare. It is time for reflection as to what went wrong that our land would be so polluted while the polluter walks away free. It is time for us to reflect on what must be done so we can live in our land with dignity and enjoy the gifts of nature with no hindrance.

It is time for us to hear ourselves again, to hear the crickets chirp and the birds sing. It is time to quench the evil flames and allow the moon to light our night sky again. The time it is for us to flush away the polluting crude and toxic wastes from our steams, creeks and rivers and once more see our faces in our waters.

The future begins with an open whisper, an open dialogue. An open dream. An open conspiracy where people hear each other and whispers ride on the waves of our hopes.

Our future begins today with dialogues, not monologues, on our struggles, visions and hopes. 

My talking points at an Oil Field Dialogue at Ikot Ada Udo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria on 20.04.2021.

Emerging Technologies and the Politics of Hunger

The number of persons in the world that go to bed hungry hovers around 700 million. The hungry equally fall under the same category as the malnourished besides those whose plates may be loaded with unsuitable foods.  COVID-19 is also said to have put about a third of food and farming livelihoods at risk. Interestingly small farmers, herders, and fishers who account for about 70 percent of the global food supply are also among the most vulnerable to food insecurity. There are also estimates that a shocking 3 billion people or more cannot afford a healthy diet in the world today. And such persons are found in all parts of the world.

Hunger is not a neutral phenomenon and can be triggered by a number of factors, including being used as a weapon during wars and as a political tool through hunger strikes. Generally, people are not hungry due to lack of food, but more on account of lack of access to food, poverty and violent conflicts among other factors.

The politics of food and hunger require that we examine why hunger persists in a world where about a third of available foods either go to the waste bin or get spoilt while in storage. The situation where some people are forced to eat foods that are unsuitable, inappropriate and non-aligned to their bests interests or culture needs to the interrogated.   

Hunger is a critical matter for policy making because it concerns everyone as everyone needs food for survival and as a right. Hunger can debase a person’s dignity and wilfully starving anyone is a crime, an infringement on their right to life. The spectre of a national or global population bursting the charts can raise fears of hunger and force decisions that overlook food quality but rather focus on quantity. Indeed, talks of food security sometimes appear to be a call for anything that can fill the belly in the name of food. Hunger is a powerful tool often used to subvert arguments for ecological agriculture and support of majority farmers – the small holder farmers. The fear of a projected galloping human population has literally become the vehicle for speculating on foods and for promoting technologies and practices that would otherwise be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism. 

The politics of food shortages have been shown by some analysts to be a system where food supplies are underestimated while future demand is overestimated – all based on doubtful assumptions. While projecting rapid and continuous population growth, policy makers ignore the fact that improved socio-economic conditions would naturally place brakes on such exponential growth. It can be argued that such projections are reflections of the fact that policy makers have no intention of building pro-people policies that cater for the optimal wellbeing of the people. 

It is intriguing that policy makers reject small holder farming despite research outputs showing that the best chance for the world to meet her food needs is not to be found in industrial scale, chemical-intensive agriculture, but in non-polluting agroecological production that cools the planet, does not pollute the environment and revitalizes rural communities. The fact that small holder farming feeds the world was validated by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’s (IAASTD) Agriculture at a Crossroads.

Emerging Technologies

Technologies and technofixes receive instant attention in today’s world. This happens in many sectors including that of agriculture and food. Wearing the cloak of being hunger killers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gene edited organisms, synthetic biology and intensive use of pesticides are all presented as the solution to hunger in the world. For over two decades GMOs have been touted as providing super yields and being capable of fighting off pests as they act as pesticides without creating a dent on the hunger figures. Meanwhile the system rigidly neglects those feeding the world through farming in cooperation with Nature. 

With the rise of artificial intelligence, big data and rapid technological innovations, the agricultural sector is seeing a rising population of digital networks and data merchants. The argument for the technological pathway echoes what was said of GMOs: to increase yields, slash harvest times, and ultimately reduce costs and environmental impact. This goes beyond genetic manipulation and aims at automated agriculture that would require little assistance from humans. The lure of the promise of precision agriculture where machines would take the supposed drudgery out of farming can be quite attractive to those who don’t see the wider picture of agriculture and foods.

In automated agriculture, systems are being developed that have ability to “monitor, feed, and harvest crops from seed through to sale. Automation combines the use of a wide array of sensors, computers, feeding mechanisms, and everybody’s favorite, robots. Complete automation is a nearly self-sustaining system that can handle all day-to-day activities on the farm. It all but removes the need for human staffing, which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. One of the core resources of automation is a vast network of sensors.” 

With the ravages of COVID-19 and climate change, technofixes have become indeed so attractive that they have become highly fetishized and irresistible. We are made to believe that resilience and adaptation to the dawning future requires wholesale acceptance of crops generated in laboratories and farms run by artificial intelligence besides appetites and choices molded as we click on social media buttons. At this point we should pay attention to the points made by the ETC Group: Putting food security at the mercy of digital networks and potential data glitches worries governments and food movements alike. So does the plight of farmers (who are forced off the land into ‘smart cities’ and e-commerce villages, or reduced to digital out growers).

Some of the emerging tools, technologies and systems include the following:

Gene-editing, a new technique for altering the genetic make of plants, animals and humans. It is said to be a precise science, but results have been seen already showing that there are unintended outcomes. There are serious ethical concerns about its application, and these must be considered along with the pure scientific exercises.

Synthetic biology has been defined in many different ways. According to the CBD, “the key features of synthetic biology include the “de novo” synthesis of genetic material and an engineering-based approach to develop components, organisms and products. Synthetic biology builds on modern biotechnology methodologies and techniques such as high throughput DNA technologies and bioinformatics.”  It could also involve the redesigning of organisms for desired purposes or to have new abilities it would not have in nature. Synthetic biology has applications in agriculture, medicine and manufacturing.

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation or building of structures at nano or very tiny scale.

Robots like drones which are used to autonomously plant seeds, tend the crops and harvest them. Satellite imaging, weather tracking and possibly geoengineering can come into play. 

3D Food Printing – There are ongoing research on 3D printing of foods so that you can have the food you need with a combination of specifications at the press of a button. These would offer digitalised nutrition and customised food designs.

An History and a Future

From the signing of the National Biosafety Management Agency Act in 2015, things have taken a predictable downward spiral in Nigeria. Indeed, the dangerous slide probably began with the establishment of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in November 2001 on the strength of a National Biotechnology Policy adopted in April 2001.  Setting up an institution such as NABDA without a regulatory agency in place meant that Nigeria was a playing field for promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology without any oversight over the processes. Probably recognizing that they could not openly pursue their mandate, the agency became a major driver concerning what sort of regulatory agency should be put in place. And when NBMA was finally birthed, NABDA, the topmost official promoter of the technology assured itself a seat on the board of the regulatory agency. It can be said that NBMA is a baby of NADBA. As expected, this agency teamed up with an infamous company to obtain the early approvals for the official entry of GMOs into Nigeria.

Whereas the mandate of NABDA is the “promotion, coordination, and deployment of cutting-edge biotechnology research & development, processes, and products for the socio-economic well-being of the nation.” Its vision shoots first at “food security” before mentioning “job/wealth creation, affordable healthcare delivery, and sustainable environment.” The major campaigns and advocacy of these twin agencies have been on modern agricultural biotechnology or promotion of GMOs which they loudly proclaim as safe as though they were professing a religious doctrine and not a science prevalent with uncertainties and guided by precaution. 

The point we are making is that NBMA was principally set up to legitimize the aspirations of NADBA. The maiden State of Biosafety in Nigeria report issued by Health of Mother Earth Foundation shows how key principles of biosafety, including the Precautionary Principle, have been downplayed. It also shows how public consultation and opinion received scant attention in this crucial sector. HOMEF’s market shelves surveys conducted annually since 2018 show that there are several products with genetically engineered ingredients in our markets for which there are no approvals from the regulatory agency. We also note that there is no clear sync between agencies regulating foods that get to our market shelves and to dining tables. 

Recall that Nigeria was once a frontline state for the liberation of Africa from vestiges of colonialism. The nation has now become the soft entry point of risky technologies, agrochemicals and manifestations of agricultural neocolonialism into the continent. The Bt. cotton variety that failed in Burkina Faso is the same variety approved for cultivation in Nigeria indicating how much thought and rigour goes into the process here.

Dangers Ahead

The modern agricultural biotechnologies we are discussing are mostly the basic varieties involving the transfer of genetic materials from one specie to another to accord certain traits such as to be herbicide tolerance or being pesticidal. Emerging food technologies such as gene editing do not require cross species manipulations but can edit genes in a particular species with the aim of forcing certain traits or even triggering extinction.  Gene editing can readily be weaponized and should be a concern for our national biosecurity.

It is mindboggling for Nigeria to expand the scope of her biosafety regulation to cover gene editing and synthetic biology when the handling of the elementary versions has generated serious doubts and worries. The NBMA Act 2015 was amended in March 2019 to open the way for gene editing and synthetic biology applications by inserting their definitions in the Act. This was followed by Gene Editing Guidelines prepared and adopted by NBMA. The guidelines offer a peculiar process that allows some gene edited products to be approved without going through the rules governing the approval of GMOs if the agency reckons that the product does not contain any recombinant DNA. Meanwhile the Act, as amended, declares that no one would engage in gene editing without the approval of the regulatory agency. We note that the determination that the product has no recombinant DNA will be made by NBMA who would then allow gene editing to proceed unregulated and unhindered. More troubling is the fact that such approvals can be given within 21 days of the application being submitted to the NBMA. This approach of the NBMA if allowed to stand will completely expose Nigeria to grave risk.

Time to Retrace Steps

It is not too late for Nigeria to get out of the biotech hole before it turns into a bottomless pit. The so-called guidelines for gene-editing and extreme GMOs are dangerous and needless – just as the permission of GMOs has always been in Nigeria. We are at a time in this nation when simple mechanical equipment are not maintained; where refineries refine zero barrel of crude oil while guzzling humongous amounts of money; where for a nation of so many millions we barely manage to generate 4000 megawatts of electricity. We are in a nation where research and educational institutions are crying for basic equipment and receive scant attention. We are unfortunately in a nation wracked by corruption and insecurity. The flagship biotech laboratory in the country is in a temporary cabin. We do not need to add risky technologies that clearly pose a security threat to our peoples and environment.

As we have said elsewhere, the purpose of introducing the so-called definitions into the Biosafety Act was to create a crack in the door so as to open Nigeria to vested interest promoting the easy-to-weaponize and extinction-driving gene editing technology. NBMA has again shown itself to be determined to lead Nigeria and Nigerians on a path of no-return. This agency should be called to order. At no time should Nigerians be used as guinea pigs or laboratory rats.

Who is feeding the world? Who is feeding Nigerians? Who will feed us into the future? It is time for us to recognize the facts of our best interests and support agroecology, small holder farmers and provide their basic needs including infrastructure, storage/processing facilities and extension services. It is time to halt and completely overhaul the biosafety architecture in Nigeria and invest resources towards ensuring that our farmers get out of poverty and hunger and do what they have always done and struggle to continue to do.


Presentation at HOMEF’s Biosafety Conference held on 13 April 2021 in Abuja, Nigeria

Ecocide and Carbon Crimes

The environment has been subjected to so much flagrant damage basically because there is no law against such acts. Ruinous exploitation of Nature for the extraction of capital has been permitted as a necessary, or good, evil. This state of affairs has allowed subsidiaries of transnational corporations to commit environmental atrocities in countries far off their home bases. 

Extensive damage to the environment often amounts to literally killing the environment. Such harms impact the soil, the air and water of such the affected areas in more or less irreversible ways. A word that aptly describes crimes of this nature is ecocide.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), established to end impunity of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community is governed by legislations under the Rome Statute. The ICC has 123 member states and four crimes have been internationally recognised under the Rome Statute. These crimes are:

  1. War crimes, 
  2. Genocide, 
  3. Crimes against humanity and 
  4. Crime of aggression. 

While war crimes include severe and long-lasting damage to the natural environment, there are currently no provisions for the protection of the environment from such harms during peacetime. We have heard of some military examining the specious idea of how they can wage war without harming the environment. War harms the environment and impacts can last far longer than the time of conflict. These include pollutions from military hardware and biological weapons and other chemicals used directly against the environment and peoples.

It is intriguing that widespread damage to the environment from mining, including oil and gas extraction, has so far been overlooked in international criminal law when such harms clearly offend the right to life of peoples.  

Why Should Ecocide be a Crime?

Stop Ecocide defines ecocide succinctly as “mass damage and destruction of ecosystems – harm to nature which is widespread, severe or systematic.”  This definition hits the roots of the problem. The problem is both widespread and systematic. 

Examples of ecocide can be found in the massive excavations of the earth through mining in ways that do not allow for the erasure of the scars and do not permit adequate restoration due to the sheer extent of the damage. Others are the impacts of deep-sea mining, large oil spills and routine gas flares. The oil field communities of Nigeria and Ecuador, the tar sand mines of Canada, the coal mines of South Africa, the gold mines of Ghana, South Africa, etc., the industrial farms and polluting industries of the USA and Europe are clear examples of irreversible harm to Nature. Examples can be found all over the world.

We can also count deforestation that translates to huge habitat losses and drives species to extinction. Industrial fishing through deep sea bottom trawling, for example, is highly destructive.  Industrial and colonial agricultural monocultures destroy complex ecosystems and create green deserts. Factories located on coastlines often use the ocean as waste dumps and simply pump their effluents directly out into the sea.

As earlier stated, due to the notion that these harmful activities are supposedly needed to ensure high living standards and inordinate consumption, they are taken as normal, as acceptable. 

Stop Ecocide and supporters believe that the Rome Statue should be amended, and ecocide added as a crime alongside the crimes against humanity, war crimes and the others. One of the steps being taken is the commissioning of a panel of international criminal and environmental lawyers to draft a legal definition of ecocide. The panel is being co-chaired by Philippe Sands, a French/British lawyer and professor, and Dior Fall Sow a Senegalese jurist and legal scholar.

The notion of ecocide is not new. But it has only started to gain traction in recent years. It was on the table when the other international crimes were debated, but somehow fell between the cracks until Polly Higgins picked it up as a lifetime commitment and promoted it as the key means of halting large scale ecological crimes. Higgins believed that 

“The rules of our world are laws, and they can be changed. Laws can restrict or they can enable. What matters is what they serve. Many of the laws in our world serve property – they are based on ownership. But imagine a law that has a higher moral authority… a law that puts people and planet first. Imagine a law that starts from first do no harm, that stops this dangerous game and takes us to a place of safety….” Together with Jojo Mehta, Higgins founded the Stop Ecocide Foundation, pursuing the Stop Ecocide campaign.

In 2010, Polly Higgins submitted this definition of ecocide to the United Nations Law Commission: “Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”

It is now 75 years since Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide were coined at Nuremberg. It is hoped that a legal definition of ecocide will pave the way for its being added as a fifth international crime against peace — not just as a crime against humans but also as a crime against Mother Earth or the natural world.

So far eight ICC member states, the Pope and the European Union, have openly expressed interest in the possibility of amending the Rome Statute. The eight countries are Vanuatu, Maldives, France, Belgium, Finland, Spain, Canada, and Luxembourg. Parliamentarians from a further 10 states Sweden, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, Portugal, the UK, Philippines, Australia, Cyprus and Brazil are interested to consider that definition.

Will Ecocide be Retroactive?

In conversations on this topic there have been issues raised about what threshold of destruction can be set before it can be said that a crime of ecocide has been committed. There is also the issue of the law not being retroactive. Going by standard law, a person is not charged with an offence committed at a time when there was no law against such an action. This must be a huge dampener for those who hope that once the crime of ecocide is adopted, they would simply file cases for obvious crimes committed before such adoption. The point is that we do not necessarily have to sue retroactively based on claims of what happened at the time the crime started to be committed. The fact is that these ecological crimes continue to grow, to expand, and starting at any point in time, there are sufficient grounds to hold ecological criminals accountable. Moreover, the law would create incentives for eco destroyers to check their reckless acts going forward, knowing that they would be held to account for such harms.

Recent court rulings in the home countries of transnational corporations over crimes committed by their subsidiaries in Zambia and Nigeria are pointers to things to come. They show that ecological crimes will no longer be easily hidden. On 10 April 2019, the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom ruled against Vedanta Resources PLC, insisting that Zambian victims of their polluting activities can sue the company in UK courts. The case was filed by almost 2,000 Zambian villagers against Konkola Copper Mines and its parent company Vedanta Resources PLC. The case was a long shot, a David versus Goliath match, considering that Konkola Copper Mines, the company that was polluting the water of the four farming communities with sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals, is a subsidiary of the giant copper conglomerate, Vedanta Resources PLC.  The Zambian plaintiffs can now seek redress in the UK courts and ensure that the polluter is held to account.

In February 2021, the same Supreme Court ruled in the same vein against Royal Dutch Shell in the case of Okpabi vs Shell. This ruling was a landmark victory for a group of about 50,000 victims of Shell’s polluting actions in Ogoniland, Nigeria. The court ruled that the UK Appeal Court was not right in holding that Shell could not be held accountable for offences committed by its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC). The plaintiffs from Ogale and Bille communities are demanding clean-up and compensation from Shell for years of harmful activities in their communities that has harmed them by, among other things, polluting their drinking water. They can now sue Shell in the UK.

The oil giant suffered the same fate in the cases brought against it in the court in The Netherlands by four farmers for pollutions in Oruma in Bayelsa State and Goi in Ogoni, Rivers State. The judges ruled that Shell would have to compensate the fishers and farmers for the harm inflicted on them by Shell’s oil spills. The judges declared that they needed more evidence before making a ruling on the case brought by the plaintiff from Ikot Ada Udo in Akwa Ibom State.

The judgements against Shell must be a strong signal to the other polluting fossil fuel companies that they cannot continue to get away with murder. 

Carbon Crimes

Carbon crimes may also be called climate crimes considering the catastrophic changes portended by the increased stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These are crimes at a planetary scale, beyond anything previously seen on planet Earth. Climate crimes are sharp examples of ecocide. In this sense we refer to the two ends of the fossil fuel pipelines – the demand and supply ends. We also bear in mind the false solutions being proposed by corporations and politicians looking for ways to avoid or delay climate action as long as it gives them time for raking in profits. Some of these false solutions pertain to actions such as geoengineering that can only be taken on planetary scales and which would have massive intended and unintended consequences. The focus on carbon molecules without accounting for the ones in the ground also helps to obfuscate the searchlight on the way out of the climate mess.

The current stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are already creating desperate problems for vulnerable communities, including Small Island States and increasingly threatened South Eastern seaboard of Africa that has suffered heavy battering by cyclones Idai (2019), Kenneth (2019) and Eloise (2021) in recent years. Cyclone Idai killed more than 1000 persons, affected 3 million others and caused about $2 billion worth of damage. Territories are already beginning to go under the sea. The crime is growing.

Destructive Development 

Some development projects are destructive to the environment and to communities in which they are sited. Projects in this category would include big dams, superhighways and coal fired plants. Big dams such as the INGA dams in the Democratic Republic of Congo pose serious threats to the Congo Basin. The dams are planned to be the biggest hydropower dam in the world is built as planned. Whereas 91% of the people in DRC do not have access to electricity, this dam is planned to provide electricity for extractive industries and for export. 

International Rivers notes that “diverting the flow of the Congo river to create a reservoir would flood the Bundi Valley, affecting local agricultural lands and natural environments, and may cause huge methane emissions that would contribute to global warming. The effect of a reduced flow in the Congo River may cause loss of biodiversity and a shift in the dominant species. The flooded area may also create an environment that is conducive for the breeding of water-borne vectors such as the malanquin mosquito.”

A coal power plant that was proposed for Ghana was successfully fought off by environmentalists. The coal power plant proposed at Lamu, Kenya, is being resisted by the people who see the plant as a threat to their pristine environment, pollute the ocean, freshwater systems and hugely increase Kenya’s greenhouse gas emissions by 700 percent. The coal dust would also literally suffocate the lush mangroves in the area. 

The case of a proposed superhighway that was to pass through the Cross River National Forest in Nigeria was a huge threat. The highway was conceived with 10 kilometres right of way on either side and would have swallowed up swathes of primary rain forests, destroying communities, farms, habitats and cultural heritage of the people. The highway was realigned away from the forest due to concerted grassroots resistance. The government lost interest in the project probably because the aim was to harvest the timber and devastate one of the last standing primary forests in the region.

Tearing the Corporate and Nationalist Veils

Corporate ecological crimes have been condoned because all companies have had to do is pay fines or find ways of prolonging cases until the plaintiffs die off. This impersonal relationship with individuals and communities in which corporations extract value for their boards and shareholders has permitted gross misbehaviours in ways that may not occur if the directors of the corporations and responsible public officers are held personally liable for ordering or condoning the crimes in the same way politicians or war lords are personally held to account for war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity. 

While we await the acceptance of Ecocide, the question remains as to whether the ICC can bite in a just manner. Some African countries have complained that the court operates as though it was set to watch over Africa while some countries simply ignore the court. The challenge is to ensure that powerful nations do not shield their citizens, corporations and corporate leaders from accountability for ecological crimes. This is not impossible to achieve as the global crises caused by reckless abuse of the environment and Nature generally is moving citizens to rebelling and demanding action in order to give humans and other species a breathing space, a space to recover from centuries of abuse. 

Ecocide is a law whose time has come, even if almost late. It will be a key tool for fighting for environmental justice. It will be a tool for ensuring that humans understand the duty of stewardship over Natures gifts that we merely borrow from our grandchildren. Ecocide will tear the corporate veil and should eliminate nationalist shields.

We demand that nations make the crime of ecocide a part of national laws now! There is no time to waste. The era of merely treating the environment as a passing concern in our statute books must end. 

To destroy the Earth is simply idiotic. “There is no beauty in mass damage and destruction. A beauty born of deep care, however, is a beauty that comes from the heart — not simply an adjunct, added on as a veneer.” We cannot escape the fact that ecocide is a crime both morally and ethically. 

What’s Wrong with our Food System?

One of the most important lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that life is best preserved when beings live in deference to one other. When species are not displaced from their habitats and when humans are not denied their rights to shelter, food and dignity. Lessons learned in the past one year must include that the quality of our food is key to the assurance of not just our health, but also our socio-economic wellbeing. It has been a time when those that have not touched the soil to plant a seed must be ashamed of their negligence and lack of care about where food comes from.

The restrictions and safety protocols that are part of the response to COVID-19 have included some that have hampered the productivity of our farmers. Think of farmers that could not access their farms or those that had no access to farming inputs. And do not forget the fishers who suffered from the same complications. And the herders too, except for those who camp in forests and whose jobs are only tangentially related to being cowboys. We salute our farmers for their solid adaptive capacities.

Policies with provisions guiding farming and food in our nation have generally not been the most progressive. While the colonial and immediate post-colonial era laid more emphasis on cash cropping for export, the current situation was birthed by two factors: the structural adjustment conditionalities of international financial institutions and the corruption that dependence on income from petroleum resources planted in the nation.

One would expect a nation, nay continent, that has been so dastardly exploited to demand for reparations by way of colonial, ecological or climate debt, but no, our leaders still kowtow to the same temples of exploitation, plead for more loans and sink deeper into the mire of hopeless debt.

The truth that small scale farmers are the ones feeding the world and cooling the planet cannot be over emphasized. The fact that the future of food (for humankind) lies in their hands was a key outcome of a multilateral study titled Agriculture at a Crossroads issued by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development

(IAASTD). Today, nations under the pressure of big agribusiness keep a wilfully blind eye to this fact and ignore our small-scale farmers to our collective detriment. The dominant official doctrine is that only industrial agriculture, another name for plantation or colonial agriculture, can feed the world. Rather than promote technologies and innovations that would support and upscale the agroecological techniques employed by our farmers public structures are busy promoting the very systems that entrust power into the hands of a handful of big agribusinesses and philanthrocapitalists. This has spawned a system where concerns about safety, sustainability and ethical implications are discarded by the preaching of a catechism that insists only safe GMOs are permitted in Nigeria without telling the people which harmful GMOs have been rejected. This has built a system where our farmers are hooked on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are known to harm soils and overall biodiversity on our farms.

Concerning the support for small-scale farmers, we are impressed by the announcement by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development that it has commenced the training of 1,110 extension agents in 36 states, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The FAO gives the minimum ration of extension officers to farmers as 1:1000. Sadly, the ratio in Nigeria is about one extension officer to 10,000. Sabo Nanono, the minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, was right when he reportedly said that delivery of agricultural extension is the driver to having practical application of the products of agricultural research.

Recently the National Assembly passed the Plant Variety Protection Bill (2019) by which a Plant Variety Protection Office will be set up in the National Agricultural Seeds Council. According to reports, the Bill was promoted by actorsincluding the Agricultural Transformation in Africa (PIATA), Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Rockefeller Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID.

The Bill’s explanatory memorandum states that it “seeks for the protection of Plant Varieties, to establish a Plant Variety Protection Office for the promotion of increased staple crop productivity for small holder farmers in Nigeria.” This claim is contestable seeing that the Bill actually seeks exclusive rights of investors or inventors to commercialise seeds and other propagating materials as a means of incentivising investments form national and multinational companies. Exclusive rights is another name for patenting. We are totally opposed to the patenting of life. Patenting of life forms is the turf of genetic engineering corporations and the key promoters of the law are all deeply steeped in that sector.

The point is that small scale farmers who actually feed our people are extremely disadvantaged when it comes to supports for food production by a lack of incentives and including by having an abysmal extension agent to farmer ratio. As if that was not bad enough, we now have a Plant Variety Protection bill that does not seek to protect local farmers managed seeds but places seeds firmly in the hands of speculators and promoters of varieties that may erode our biodiversity. 

We strongly believe that this is the time when government should invest massively in supports for small scale farmers by closing the ratio of available extension agents, promoting local seeds varieties, providing storage and processing facilities across the nation, supporting farmers cooperatives and providing infrastructure for ensuring that harvests get to the markets and small-scale farmers earn a decent income from their labour. These are some of the scaffolds for building a food and agricultural system that produces safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods for our peoples.

Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey at HOMEF’s Dialogue with stakeholders on Food System and Food Policy on 24 March 2021 at Abuja, Nigeria

Abolishing Persistent Ecologic and Economic Crimes in the Niger Delta

When Chief Fidelis Oguru, Mr Alali Efanga, Chief Barizaa Dooh and Elder Friday Alfred Akpan filed a suit against Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) thirteen years ago, they would not have imagined it would take so long before a waft of victory would come their way. 29 January 2021 will go down in the annals of international jurisprudence as very significant because on that day, the Appeal Court at The Hague determined that the Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary was liable for oil spills that ravaged Goi in Ogoni, Rivers State and Oruma in Bayelsa State. Earlier in 2013, the lower court had held that SPDC was culpable over an oil spill that occurred at Ikot Ada Udo, Akwa Ibom State. 

A cap to the rain of judgements against one of the topmost polluters in the Niger Delta occurred on 12 February 2021 at the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom. The Court ruled in the suit brought before it by HRH Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi and the Council of Chiefs (suing for themselves and thousands of citizens from Oghale Kingdom and Bille Kingdom, in Rivers State), against Royal Dutch Shell Plc that the oil mogul can be sued in the United Kingdom for environmental offences committed by its subsidiary in the Niger Delta. 

The spills at Goi and Oruma go as far back as 2004 and 2005. Besides ruling that the oil spills were not caused by third party interferences or so-called sabotage, the court ruled that the parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, has a “duty of care” in the activities of its subsidiaries.   

The Supreme Court judges in the UK noted that a recently decided case brought by Lungowe against Vedanta Resources Plc was similar to the Oghale and Bille cases. In that case, the Supreme Court had determined that civil claims for negligence brought by Zambian claimants against Vedanta, the parent company and its Zambian subsidiary (Konkola Copper Mines plc) for damages suffered in Zambia could be heard in English courts. 

These cases mean a lot to the suffering peoples of the Niger Delta whose cry for justice has often been met with indifference or with utter violence as was the case that led to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders. The judgements clarified that parent companies can be held accountable for ecological crimes committed by their subsidiaries and not continue to enjoy financial returns from such misadventures. 

Personally, it comes as therapeutic as Goi in Ogoni has for nearly two decades become the symbol of the devastated Niger Delta. It is one community polluted, degraded and burnt by oil and whose people have have been forced to suffer the indignity of living as refugees dispersed across Ogoni and other Niger Delta communities.  Sights of kids swimming in the polluted creek at Goi and fishers desperately searching for invisible fish and other aquatic resources have been, and still are, heartbreaking. 

These judgements offer the people some hope that their peaceful fight for justice is finally being vindicated. It also offers the polluters a great opportunity, an incentive indeed, to do the right thing by swiftly negotiating and compensating the people and urgently remediating and restoring their environment. 

The struggle for justice also illustrates the power of solidarity across borders. The judgements highlight the power of peoples united and collaborating for a common cause. The case of the four Nigerians against Shell benefitted from a partnership between the Friends of the Earth groups in The Netherlands and Nigeria. The case in the UK benefited from the untiring commitment of the law firm, Leigh Day. 

We are gathered here today to examine, discuss and highlight the significance of these judgements to the global struggles for environmental justice. We also hope that the outcomes will strengthen the cause for justice for our peoples and for our environment. Indeed, the judgements should be seen as clarion calls for the utter abolishment of the persistent ecocidal ecological and economic crimes in the Niger Delta. 

We are privileged to have in our midst, Barrister Chima Williams, one of the lawyers for the four Nigerians that sued Shell in the Netherlands and he will be giving the lead paper helping us understand the implications of the judgements against the transnational oil corporation, Shell. We are equally privileged to have one of the litigants, Chief Eric Barizaa Tete Dooh of Goi Community, here with us to share his reaction to the judgement after so many years of tortuous litigation and the passing on of his father who had commenced the suit. We also have here, Comrade Celestine Akpobari, a frontline Ogoni environmental justice activist who will help situate the story of hope and pain in Ogoniland as representative of the Niger Delta. 

The unending pollution of the Niger Delta can be summed as blatant ecological and economic corruption. Thus, no better person to comment on the presentations today than an astute environmental, transparency and anti-corruption crusader, Rev David Ugolor. And, of course, this whole affair will be piloted by an indefatigable environmental and gender justice activist, Comrade Emem Okon.

Welcome words at the Polluters’ Judgements Roundtable held at Oronto Douglas Conference Hall, HOMEF Head Quarters, Benin City, Nigeria.

An Eye on Biosafety

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


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

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

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

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

Brutish and Short

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

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

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

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

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

Our Environment our Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poems on Wheels 

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

  • Restive journeys of Patrick Naagbanton 

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

(18 June 2019)

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

(21 June 2019)

  • Selfless Service

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

(13 August 2019)

  • Cemetery, Prisons and Violence in Ogoni:

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

(18 August 2019)

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

Thank you.

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

————————————————————————————————————

The Guardians of Neocolonialism

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?