I thank the Chancellor and President, and the entire family of York University for the great honour being extended to me today.
Being born at a time we were at the edge of breaking free from colonialism, the notion of independence was built early into my psyche. Growing up in innocence and being sucked into a season of violent secession was both disruptive and traumatic. This was a season of disruption of my primary education and it yielded an age-long struggle to figure out what was missed in the traumatic gaps of forced migration and survival as a refugee within my country.
Seasons are episodic otherwise they would not be seasons. At the end of the Biafra-Nigeria civil war, I was already severely scarred by the sights of horrible human rights abuses, man’s inhumanity to man, hunger, disease, cries of men pleading for their lives and several other stressors. War games were not video games, but games played with actual bones, fire and gunpowder. Bones of once gallant men who signed up to fight their brothers against whom they had no personal grouse. Today, more investment is being made in warfare, armaments, and destruction than in building resilience and wellbeing in the world.
My early years were wrapped by tales of resilience and charismatic anti-colonial fighters in Zimbabwe （then Rhodesia）, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Angola and South Africa. It was a time of learning of the martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Steve Biko, Amilca Cabral, Thomas Sankara and others.
Meanwhile my country was under serial authoritarian military dictatorship and as a young adult I could not escape being a part of the human rights and anti dictatorship movement. Whereas I thought that was the zenith of standing against injustices, more graphic examples were unfolding beneath the radar.
The wheels of oppression at home were literally oiled by crude oil and sundry extractivist activities. Capital trumped concerns for the health of Mother Earth and her children. Complaints against the destruction of the ecosystems and livelihoods were met with brute force. Whole communities were sacked or crushed. Oil spills and heinous routine gas flaring pumped cocktails of noxious elements and gases into the environment, birthing cancers, birth defects, breathing diseases and cutting life expectancy to a mere whisper.
It was at this time that Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders stood out and called for environmental Justice. Later we learned from Saro-Wiwa’s last writings before his judicial murder that the organizing energy rose from the conviction that “silence was treason” in the face of the debilitating pollution!
The judicial murders and assault on communities were the red lines the dictatorship crossed that set me on a lifelong journey of standing for environmental rights as the key basis for the enjoyment of the right to life. It has been quite a journey loaded with inescapably fixing one’s attention on environmental horrors, some of which are unimaginable and indescribable. While the journey has been mostly across the African continent and the sacrifice zones of the global south, we cannot fail to acknowledge the resistance and resilience of our relatives in the global north who face similar circumstances and continue to fight for environmental justice, dignity and basic rights in the efforts to decolonize their territories.
Extractivism threatens both people and planet. Its roots can be seen in every facet of the polycrisis pushing the world to the brink. Fossil fuel corporations, for one, invest so much to alter and control global imaginaries and have so far succeeded as policy makers believe that there is no other way to drive “growth”. Yet, it is clear we cannot afford lineal growth on a finite planet. While record temperatures, wildfires, floods and other stressors rage across the world, leaders are engrossed in xenophobic nationalism, building barriers against climate refugees and promoting fictional or false and risky climate solutions. They stick their tongues out and sneer: we can pollute and then engage in carbon removal; rather than adopt agroecology （which builds healthy soils and cools the planet）and support small scale fathers who actually feed the world, we will whiten the clouds, hang up mirrors and sunshades in the sky to lower the global temperature.
We are not surprised that carbon trading is the clarion call and Africa is emerging as a huge carbon sink in what may well be a neocolonial continent grab. An exploitative market cannot be the solution of a crisis created by the market.
It is a big honour for me to stand before you today. It is clearly a celebratory moment for me. However, a life entwined with that of my peoples is inevitably coated by a cloud of rage. As I look at the hopeful faces in this auditorium I plead that you never allow anything or anyone to steal your joy or to dim your hope. In May 2023, Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, one of the most polluted places on planet Earth, released through its Environment and Oil Commission, a report somberly titled Environmental Genocide. The report, among other things, revealed that the per capita pollution in the state stands at one and a half barrels of crude oil. Rather than being aghast by such a revelation the world has been loudly silent. We hear talks of decarbonizing economies at a time we should be depetrolizing the ebbing civilization and detoxifying the sacrifice zones.
The milestones in my journey and the successes in the midst of continual battles have come by the resilience of the peoples and communities. We see expanding movements and readiness of communities to suffer inconveniences today for the sake of building a sane future for those yet unborn. I have seen the power of traditional wisdom and cultural production in building hope and strengthening alliances against oppression. Talking about cultural production, poetry has been a therapeutic tool for me. Through poetry we capture the past and present and construct the future. It is a tool that exposes folly, elicits action and provides strength even in difficult moments.
This is not a time to walk alone. Belonging to the York University family offers a layer of strength, not just for me but for my constituencies. This is indeed a time to stand together to demand justice in all circumstances, to call for an end to ecocide, to build solidarity and not walls and to restore hope in our time. I dedicate this honour to the martyrs of extractivism and environmental defenders everywhere.
On being conferred with an honorary doctorate at the convocation ceremony at York University, Toronto, Canada, 13 October 2023.
The vital place of the narrative strategy is in awakening memories and building consciousness for action. Over the past months we have experienced an evolving of our understanding of critical storytelling. We have seen the overturning of previously held notions and seen a surge for inclusive actions to provoke change. Initially we sought to tease out folktales and songs from centuries ago but while these exude a sense of nostalgia, the epistemic value of lived stories of struggles, defeats, and victories, of pollutions, degradations, deprivations, and resilience are more prevalent in our communities. These stories, poems and songs underscore our grasping of the bases of the resolute push for a shift in power modes, as well as a systemic power shift that are rising in our communities. While the stories cover broad power equations, they areall spurn and woven around the standing, suffocating or missing stilt roots of mangroves.
The Niger Delta houses the 4th largest mangrove forest in the world. The livelihoods of coastal and indigenous peoples are inseparably coupled with mangroves which erode due to mangrove loss or degradation. Research shows that the Niger Delta mangrove ecosystem is the breeding ground of more than 60% of commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Guinea. Thus, degraded mangrove or losses in the Niger Delta affects fish production and the fisheries value-chain in the Gulf of Guinea. After over six decades of unmitigated oil and industrial pollution, Niger Delta mangroves are amongst the most degraded mangrove ecosystems globally, with a recent review of crude oil impact on mangrove showing that 37% of the global impact has occurred in the Niger Delta.
Mangrove forests serve as coastal protection from storm surges and tidal waves. They are very valuable for climate change mitigation both by providing resilience to sea level rise, coastal erosion, and as very efficient carbon sinks. Sadly, an estimated 340,000 to 980,000 hectares of mangrove forests are lost or degraded annually due to activities of humans and corporations. Such destructive actions include crude oil and plastic pollution, unregulated harvesting, urbanization, so-called land reclamation, dredging activities and the spread of the invasive nipa palm.
In the course of investigating the place of mangroves in the power equations in some communities, activists from CEHRDand HOMEF recently reached the conclusion that mangroves must be protected and that a key way to do this is through the use of indigenous knowledge and the revival of customs of community conservation of mangrove forests. While a mangrove forest is being preserved on the coast of Kono in Ogoni, there is a heavy threat by the fast-spreading Nipa Palm. These invasive palms were introduced into the Niger Delta by a colonial officer in 1906 in the belief that the Nipa Palms were more aesthetically pleasing than mangroves and were useful for beautification and beach erosion control.
At Bundu, a densely populated neighbourhood in Port Harcourt, there is urgent need to clean the mangrove ecosystem of the massive oil spills and plastics and to prevent further despoliation of the creek. Fishers in Bundu community recall that they used to have customary norms for protecting mangrove forests in certain parts of the territory, with some being used as cemeteries for the young.
Both Kono and Bundu communities have traditional laws that debarred the people from harvesting mangrove woods or fishing in mangrove forests on certain days or periods of time. Except in Kono, this conservation mode has largely become history. Replacing Nipa Palms with mangroves in Kono and cleaning oil coated mangroves from Bundu must be a collaborative effort with the government and the community including local and international organizations.
Mangroves play vital roles in shaping livelihoods and cultures in coastal communities. Their degradation also negatively impacts the cultures and spirituality of the people. Migratory fishers carry tales bound to these ecosystems wherever they go.
The Shifting the Power Lines session of HOMEF’s School of Ecology brings Stilt Roots Stories from three continents – Africa, Latin America and Asia. Member groups of Oilwatch Network in the regions undertook the fishing out of stories connected to mangrove ecosystems. As the stories come, one recalls a visit to a vast area of destroyed mangroves at Magein the Guanabara Bay area not too far from Rio de Janeiro which the fisher folks euphemistically term the cemetery of mangroves.
During the visit in 2012, we met with members of Homens e Mulheres do Mar Association(AHOMAR) – Association of Men and Women of the Sea in the Guanabara Bay. That name did not include women initially, but after years of gender struggles, the role of the women had to be duly recognized and acknowledged in the name. One fisher pointedly told us about why they struggle to secure their livelihoods from the polluting actions of Petrobras. “We are resisting because we have no options. We might live or die. Our death may not result from gun shots, but because our livelihoods have been destroyed.” He added: “We are not seeking to be rich; we just want to live our lives in dignity.”
The reports, stories and songs from Africa, Asia and Latin America reveal the interlinkage of struggles and cultures across the continents. We learn also of the great need to recognize the intrinsic value of the gifts of Nature to humanity. We also learn that people power is essential to constructing the right power alternatives by which we can collectively design the future where every person lives in dignity, fully respecting other species, and their right to enjoy the cosy embrace of Mother Earth. Do not only see the trees when you look at mangroves. See the thriving life support systems that cut across species. See the culture of struggle and resilience. See power, power modes and unfolding alternatives.
Welcome words at HOMEF’s School of Ecology on Shifting the Power Lines. 27.07.2021
Standing 12 years older than Patrick Naagbanton, it feels strange to be speaking at his memorial. However, many greats have gone before us after spending abbreviated years on planet Earth. Many such greats include Thomas Sankara, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Chima Ubani, Bamidele Aturu, Oronto Douglas and Festus Iyayi. Some of these greats passed by natural means while the majority had their lives cut short either by systemic failures or outright machinations of the anti-democratic forces.
Patrick Naagbanton’s passing was abrupt and, of course, unexpected. To say it was traumatic, would be to put it mildly. If it rang so for us, co-travellers on the environmental justice paths, imagine what it meant and means to his young family.
Placed on the canvass of life expectancy in the Niger Delta, one would find that he left at 49 years. Average life expectancy in the world ranges from about 50 years (Chad) to 89.4 years for Monaco. In Nigeria the figure is 55 years – about the fifth worst measure in the world. The point is this: life expectancy in the Niger Delta is atrociously low. It is almost unimaginable. But that is the reality.
Brutish and Short
Writing in the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes said left to a free reign of human competition and exploitation of other humans and of nature, people would end up in a situation, “… which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He went on to call for governance through social contracts that sets rules that govern social relationships and may include the letting go of certain personal liberties.
Looking at the life of Patrick Naagbanton, what he stood for and fought for, we come to the sad conclusion that life is indeed brutish and short in Nigeria. Happily, he left a corpus of writings in the form of poetry and prose, thus giving us a window through which to peep into his thoughts, dreams and life.
I got to know Patrick when he joined Environmental Rights Action (ERA) in the late 1990s as her Field Monitor. His fearlessness was apparent for all to see. He was literally ready to go anywhere and at any time. His Field Report of the Jesse pipeline fire of October 1998 remains the reference document for information of what transpired at that time. His reports were so detailed he would make readers feel they were at the scene of environmental crimes around the Niger Delta and the wider nation. He consolidated what became the routine format for monitoring reports – not just chronicling the pollutions and reckless extractive activities, he set out the socio-cultural context of the victims and their communities. This approach gives readers a means of knowing that what was being lost was not merely oil that was spilled, gas that was flared, but lives and dreams that were cut short.
Patrick Naagbanton was an expert on conflicts and paid special attention to the proliferation of small arms in the country. He did not write about violent action actors but was bold to step into their camps to observe and better understand what spurred and sustained such trajectories. He was fearless.
He was a man who was content with what life brought to him and could do with the barest necessities. No one could bend his position with cash. Money was nothing but a means of exchange for basic needs. His travels were by the most basic public transportation means. He epitomised the ideal that consolidated the environmental justice movement in Nigeria – live and travel the way the majority of our compatriots do. Such ideals are increasingly hard to track these days. No doubt, these endeared him to the people and opened doors to a broad spectrum of Nigerians, from those in high office to the boleseller on the streets.
Our Environment our Life
While our stations in life may differ and the foods that garnish our tables may be vastly different, we all have some things in common: the need to breathe. What we breathe may differ depending on where we live, the vast majority of Nigerians uniformly breathe highly poisonous air. Although the nation does not have adequate air quality monitoring stations, available data confirm that the air we breathe is deadly. The poisons in the air include those coming from emissions from automobiles, electricity generators, incinerators, gas flares among others. Particulate matters in the air are visible in the blanket of soot that has persisted over Port Harcourt, Rivers State and the Ekpan area of Delta State. There are high levels of sulphur and Nitrogen dioxides, volatile organic compounds, etc.
Besides the polluted air that Nigerians must breathe, there is also extensive water pollution. High levels of toxic chemicals including heavy metals and pesticides have been recorded in Nigerian water resources. Industrial and human wastes empty into water bodies across the country with little checks. In some communities, both beasts and humans drink directly from the same ponds.
The pollution covers both surface and ground water. And additional cause of poor water quality is climate change. An example in this connection is the dramatic decline in the quantity of water in Lake Chad. Coastal erosion and canalization by industry have led to increased salination of previously freshwater systems thereby denying the littoral communities’ access to drinking water and generally changing their aquatic ecosystems.
A 2017 UNICEF report “ranked Nigeria among the top 5 countries globally with large numbers of people without access to safe water, improved sanitation and practicing open defecation.” The report also showed that 66 million Nigerians did not have access to potable (safe drinking) water, and 109 million lacked access to improved sanitation.
Plastic pollution is a huge environmental problem in Nigeria. Efforts by NGOs to create awareness of the menace and promote the use of durable and reusable packaging still requires to be supported by suitable legislation. As we speak, Nigeria is yet to enact any law outlawing single-use plastics.
Biological pollution is another huge problem in Nigeria which if not check will evolve into serious biosecurity threats. Since the Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency Act came into life in 2015, there has been a flurry of permits for genetically modified organisms in the country.
As I stated in a recent roundtable with lawyers on the issue:
The business of genetic engineering is just that: business. Promoters target staple crops or varieties with wide industrial usage in a bid to take control of markets and food systems. Since the advent of the first wave of modern agricultural biotechnology the promises of this technology have been that they would end hunger, increase yield, reduce chemical inputs and so on. More than two decades on, these claims remain myths.
Failure is wished away and risks and rejected. Two examples. First is that it was in the same year that genetically modified cotton (Bt. Cotton) failed spectacularly in Burkina Faso that Nigeria approved the same variety for release in the country. That permit was issued on a public holiday that also happened to be a Sunday (1 May 2016).
When the President of Uganda insisted that that country’s GMO law must have strict liability clauses, the promoters of the technology accused him of attempting to stifle science. In other words, Africans should be guinea pigs and accept to be used for experimentations with no one taking responsibility over possible mishaps. The Nigerian law does not have strict liability clauses.
No matter how much Nigerians protest against GMOs, the government simply keeps mum and prefers to swallow the myths peddled by industry or to allow citizens to be used as guinea pigs in their fight for profit.
Deforestation remains a huge challenge in Nigeria. At the United Nation’s climate summit in September 2019, President Buhari pledged to plant 25 million trees. Youths were to be mobilised for the plantings. An inter-ministerial committee was set up to see to the planting of the trees and state governors all pledged to be a part of the exercise. A year has gone by and the pledge remains in the air.
Perhaps the most visible environmental challenge in Nigeria is the degradation brought about by the oil industry. Patrick Naagbanton did quite a lot on this, not just as a avid environmental monitor but also as a writer. He tackled the oil menace from a political as well as human rights perspective. In one clearly political engineering process, he was involved with the Kaiama Declaration of Ijaw Youths in December 1998, even though he was Ogoni and not Ijaw.
The devastation of the Niger Delta environmental by hydrocarbon pollution has rendered the region as one of the 10 most polluted places on earth. From oil spills to gas flares, to oil thefts, pipeline explosions and dumping of produce water and other contaminants into the land and water bodies of the region, the Niger Delta is a huge crime scene. NOSDRA recently reported an average of 5 oil spills per day in 2018 and 2019.
The oil sector is literally a law unto itself and poor communities have besieged the courts in Nigeria and outside Nigeria for justice. Efforts to enact a Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) has dragged on for over a decade. A judgement on gas flaring against Shell in 2005 is yet to be enforced. A few days ago, the Nigerian Supreme Court rejected a request by Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited to review and set aside a N17 billion judgment entered against it last year as damages for a decades old oil spillage in Ejama-Ebubu in Tai Eleme Local Government Area of Rivers State.
The depth to which hydrocarbons had penetrated Ogoni soil was put at 5m in the UNEP report on the assessment of Ogoni environment. By the time one of the locations was remediated by HYPREP in 2020, the pollution had sunk to 10 metres.
Meanwhile, many countries and jurisdictions in the global north will cease to produce internal combustion engines in the coming decades. This will mean a flood of Tokunbo cars into Nigeria and other African nations as we are still thinking that internal combustion engines will remain eternally. Another implication is the constriction of markets for petroleum resources. And, of course, on a global scale, less pollution. At our local scale, we can expect more pollution as the fossil fuels age creaks to its terminal point bring to fulfilment the saying that “the stone age did not end for lack of stones” and the fossil age will not end for lack of crude oil.
All these announce the urgency of the clean-up of the entire Niger Delta because if this is not done while the goose is laying the golden egg, it will be a hard sale when the goose turns decrepit.
Poems on Wheels
We will close this conversation with some pieces of writings that Patrick Naagbanton shared with his contacts via SMS. They show his sharp analysis and poetic capturing of thoughts and ideas. He was clearly a man in a hurry and this short form of real time reporting was very powerful and should remind all of us that we have no time to waste. Here are his words.
Restive journeys of Patrick Naagbanton
In spite of the late yesterday evening heavy downpour in parts of Port Harcourt, the weather around Choba stretch of the East- West Road, the weather is hot. I am on another restless journey to Abonnema and other riverside towns in the south-west parts of Rivers- Eastern Niger Delta. The towns are in celebration mood, but I am not. I am in my typical adventurous mood. They are celebrating their annual Go-to- Niger/ Liberation Day. The above event is always celebrated in a reflective, comic and satiric manner. They are celebrating their freedom from the ordeals they reportedly suffered in the hands of battle-fatigued Biafran soldiers who swooped on their towns during the unfortunate tribal Nigeria- Biafra wars. Am not part of the Go- To- Niger celebration. But will be in the midst of the celebrants soon due to my atypical adventurous beats. I don’t know where I will sail to after there.
(18 June 2019)
Restive trips in parts of the restive eastern Niger Delta creeks, rivers and tributaries- always breathing fearfully and restively. Am not afraid of the deltaic ‘waters’ and its elements – I always enjoy sailing in them than travels by air or road. Am safe and fine after my “sojourn” in ‘The River Between’. I just arrived in the Bonny Island after my restive battles with the restive ‘waters’. Rain falling restively like sporadic gun shots from the low, dark and broken rumbling clouds over the island. I will be here until my journey end.
(21 June 2019)
top Rivers politician just called me on phone, ‘to beg me’ to use my connections to give him contracts in HYPREP. My first reaction was to laugh heartily at his request. Later, I acted like what the late Comrade Gani Fawehinmi did at the Ibrahim Auta Kangaroo Tribunal that gave the order to hang Saro-Wiwa and others. Auta has wrongly said Gani shouldn’t complain of lack of cash to photocopy laws books he quoted from at the tribunal, and that then, he was getting a lot of foreign grants. Gani spent about 2 hours to educate the Tribunal of High Injustice how he has NOT received a kobo as grants from any internal or external source. That was exactly what I did, and the man said ‘nawaoo. I thought you are part of them.’ Nigeria is an illiterate society. Even the so-called educated ones are inquisitive. Most of their opinions on a person or thing are derived from the wild rumour mills.
(13 August 2019)
Cemetery, Prisons and Violence in Ogoni:
Am told that the ongoing violence in Ogoniland – is sponsored by the Nigerian State to provide the basis for siting of military barracks, cemetery and prisons in Ogoniland.
(18 August 2019)
This presentation is left inclusive and you are invited to carry on the struggle. We believe this is what Patrick Naagbanton would wish that you do.
These were Nnimmo Bassey’s Talking points at First Memorial Lecture and book launch for Patrick Naagbanton held on Thursday, 3rd December 2020 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
It is exactly at a time when mass graves Line the streets as grim markers of a stubborn invisible foe That we understand the need to appreciate little graces
It is precisely at a time when we hug and even cry in pity That we must arise and see sparkling rainbows through the tears And in the midst of all the pandemonium behold unspeakable beauty
It is about the time when we quicken our pace To escape the fangs of racism and xenophobic tendencies That’s the time to join our hands and strengths and declare we are one human race
Okay to say “all lives matter” but what’s wrong with being a witness To the truth that Black Lives Matter and that the knee on that neck for 9 minutes less some seconds Could not be hidden by any sort of political correctness
It is exactly at a time when mass graves Line the streets as grim markers of an invisible but stubborn foe That we understand the need to appreciate our little times and spaces
This poem was inspired by Regan Pritzker 25 June 2020