AGRA isn’t the Face of Agriculture

The announcement of the nomination of the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Agnes Kalibata, as the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to the 2021 UN Food Summit is very troubling. It is not a shock because of the person of Kalibata but because of her connection to AGRA. It is a shock because AGRA stands in stark contradistinction to some fundamental positions of UN agencies such as the FAO.

The FAO leans towards the promotion of agricultural systems that are in harmony with Nature as opposed to systems that erode biodiversity and force farmers to depend on artificial and chemical inputs. For example, the FAO launched an initiative to scale up Agroecology as a key pathway of supporting the SDGs.

An important International Symposium on Agroecology organized by the FAO in 2014 was attended by six UN organisations, 700 participants from 72 countries and 350 civil society organizations and NGOs. The symposium considered diverse ways by which Agroecology can be enhanced around the world to contribute to realizing the SDGs. The benefits of agroecology were pointed out as including food security and nutrition, resilience, promoting health, protecting biodiversity and soil fertility, and mitigating climate change. During the symposium, the FAO Director-General Graziano da Silva noted that it strengthens “the role of family and small-scale farmers, fisher folk, pastoralists, women and youth.” At the end of the symposium the participants endorsed the launch of the Scaling up Agroecology Initiative and demanded that FAO should develop a ten-year plan for implementation.

After over 10 years of the existence of AGRA, it is hard to find any evidence that a so-called green revolution is happening in Africa.  According to Timothy Wise, “AGRA’s stated goals are to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020. Despite millions of dollars spent by AGRA since 2006, few comprehensive evaluations of AGRA have been made available. An additional USD 30 billion was recently pledged at the African Green Revolution Forum to continue AGRA’s work and help launch the organization’s new strategic vision, without a clear understanding of how effective AGRA has been in increasing agricultural productivity and adoption of green revolution technologies and reducing poverty and malnutrition in the countries over the past decade.”

Critics see AGRA as a body that uses all the right language in framing its work as supporting small scale farmers whereas the reality is that its approaches promote the strategies of big business and the promoters of genetic engineering. AGRA has not categorically denied leaning on genetic engineering but like the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) they would claim that they don’t rule out technologies. This is duplicity of focus – posing as a supporter of small-scale farmers working with Nature while in reality working with systems that fight Nature and undercut the resilience of local ecosystems.

This is why the elevation of the President of AGRA to be the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the UN to the UN Food Summit is a loud endorsement of genetic engineering in agriculture and is highly worrisome. The move is rightly seen as a route to “hijacking the agenda and silencing the voices of African farmers and environmentalists while catering to the profits of agri-business.”

Unfortunately, big capital, such as that wielded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the parents of AGRA, has shut the ears and hearts and governments from paying attention to the people. They promote agri-business, negate local knowledge and food systems, and promote systems that are ultimately inimical to the best needs of local farmers.

We are convinced that the UN Secretary-General can better be represented by persons that would promote Agroecology and systems that would protect global biodiversity, tackle hunger and fight global warming.

At this point in time, a Special Envoy should be someone that would clearly show support for the implementation of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The findings of IAASTD were captured in the report (2008) titled Agriculture at the Crossroads. The report clearly showed that the future of food supply in the world will depend on the production from small-scale farmers as opposed to industrial agriculture and those applying genetically engineered organisms (GMOs).

A special envoy of the UN Secretary-General should be someone who would demand that African governments implement the decision of The African Union’s (AU) Maputo Declaration, better known as CAADP. That Declaration was officially adopted by member states in 2003 with the requirement that each country should allocate at least 10% of their annual budgets to agriculture by 2015. Only a handful African countries have met this target with the continental average standing at about 5%.

AGRA is not the face of agriculture in Africa and cannot speak in our name or represent us in any way.

GMOs, Herbicides – Ambush in the Night

Moi moi

Moi moi wrapped in leaves, not plastics!

The tide of GMOs and deadly herbicides creeps on unsuspected consumers as they are literally being ambushed in the night. Twenty countries, including Togo and Malawi, have placed a ban on the use of glyphosate containing herbicides based on health and environmental concerns. Togo recently joined the ranks of countries that have banned the herbicides after two years of intense debates. According to that country’s minister of Agriculture, the such herbicides already in the country must be used up or destroyed within 12 months.

While we regret that the ban ought to have meant an immediate halt to the use of the herbicides, we believe there is a lesson to be learned here by Nigerian authorities. Glyphosate, as an active ingredient in herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready which is widely used as a weed killer around the world, have been named a cancer-causing agent. Thousands of plaintiffs have sued the makers of these herbicides due to impacts suffered through exposure to them. Probably the most well-known case is that of Dewayne Johnson who was awarded US$289 million that was later reduced to US$78million for harms suffered.

In many of the cases, the key arguments include that the manufacturers of the harmful herbicides did not adequately warn consumers and users of the associated cancer risks. Concerns raised in Nigeria as NBMA opened the avalanche of GMO approvals was initially met with the explanation from Monsanto that the chemicals are safe if used according to specifications. It can readily be seen that the caveat was given with the knowledge that the average Nigerian farmer is not likely to read the fine letters on the packages or to wear space suits before spraying their farms with the poisons.

While Togo has declared a total ban of herbicides with glyphosate, such herbicides are quite commonplace in Nigeria. They are freely sold and some even have certification from NAFDAC.

Nigerians should worry because certain crops approved in Nigeria are genetically engineered for the application of the cancer-causing herbicides.

Ministers of Agriculture appear to be stepping up to the challenge concerning the threats posed by harmful chemicals and the genetically engineered crops necessitating their production. The position of the Togolese minister and the government on these glyphosate-based chemicals must be applauded. The position will not only protect farmers who are bound to be directly exposed to the chemicals but will also protect consumers who would eat crops with the residues of the chemicals.

The other minister that stepped the plate is that of Ghana. With a bold headline, “National well-being wins over foreign interests as gov’t ditches GMOs, a report announced that the government of Ghana, through the Minister of Food and Agriculture announced the terminating of imposition of GMOs on farmers in the country. The minister was paraphrased to have said that “the nation has capable scientists who could use traditional breeding methods to produce high yielding varieties and disease resistant plants for cultivation by farmers and no need for GMOs in the next 100 years in Ghana.”

The Ghanaian groups rejected the use of their people as guinea pigs in an unnecessary experimentation. Today they will probably rest easy that the Nigerian government has taken the lead in using her citizens as guinea pigs for this sad experiment.

Peasant farmers and civil society groups responded to the declaration by urging institutions, persons and groups “benefiting from proceeds from Monsanto to promote GMO in Ghana to rather join Ghanaian scientists and farmers to promote the local seed industry”

While Ghanaians celebrated the “defeat” of GMOs in their country, a major civil society group in the country, Food Sovereignty Ghana, cautioned that the battle is not yet over. They hinged this position on the fact that government is still defending the impending release of Bt cowpea, GM rice and Bt cotton in court. The next hearing on the case comes up on 30 January 2020. Food Sovereignty Ghana and others had sued the government of Ghana represented by the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the National Biosafety Authority and the Attorney-General’s Department to stop the commercial release of these crops.

When the case against the release of the genetically engineered cowpea (beans) first went to court in Ghana in 2015, no country in the world had authorized the release of the variety for human consumption. The promoters of the GM beans declare that they cannot be visually distinguished from their natural counterpart and point to this as a mark of substantial equivalence. It is not rocket science to know that things may look alike without being the same. They may indeed have special genetic characteristics that makes their patentable as unique, as the situation with the GM beans is. Promises of labelling is trash when we consider our socio-cultural context, especially in terms of processing, storage, marketing and consumption of local foods. Selling the idea of labeling GM beans and other local crops can be compared to accepting to be ambushed in the night (apologies to Bob Marley).

The Ghanaian groups rejected the use of their people as guinea pigs in an unnecessary experimentation. Today they will probably rest easy that the Nigerian government has taken the lead in using her citizens as guinea pigs for this sad experiment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rebranding the Cabal

ChangeThe cabal toga is not one most people wish to wear in public. In recent months, we have seen concerted efforts to redefine the cabal as a political concept in order to give it a palatable connotation. In spirited pronouncements on popular television talk shows, we have been told that there is actually a cabal in the presidency but that it is not made up of mean people. The public has been told that ‘members of the “cabal” in the presidency are not hungry individuals and do not deserve the public criticism they get”. In other words, they are doing us a whole lot of good. The only problem is that we do not know this fact.

While stating that the cabal does not have undue influence on the president, a spokesperson decried the attitude of Nigerians to persons who have the president’s ears without occupying public offices. He said, ‘Nigerians have formed the practice of labelling people that are in some advisable positions of the president as a cabal. People (cabals) should not be labelled negatively simply because they have offered themselves to support the president of this country.’

The spin train went as far as saying that there are cabals in every government but that on other shores, they are daintily called kitchen cabinets. Hear this: ‘Elsewhere, they call it “kitchen cabinet,” but in our own country, we are being derogatory, and we term them cabals so that it will tarnish their own good standing.’

It does appear, however, that the so-called kitchen cabinets in some countries are an inner circle of staff or other officials. In other words, such kitchen cabinets are made up of officials. However, in some countries like the USA, the term is used for unofficial advisers. A dictionary defines such a kitchen cabinet as a ‘group of unofficial advisers to a political leader, especially when considered to be more influential than the official cabinet.’

When a political leader heavily relies on an unofficial circle of advisers to the detriment of the officially appointed ones, we can be certain that this has an effect on the contributions of the real cabinet to governance in any country. Citizens of such countries have every cause to worry because the official advisers and ministers are accountable to the people whereas the kitchen cabinet is not. While the official advisers would be expected to operate within the framework of the government’s agenda and within the confines of codes regulating their activities, the kitchen cabinet has no such restraints.

There have been stories of governors who have commissioners as mere sounding boards, or rather, as mere acoustic boards set up to absorb sounds. When they are assembled in executive meetings, all they have to do is to sit and endure hours of drivels by the emperors or governors. Some are said to spend hours sleeping in the hallowed executive chambers while the emperor is fiddling somewhere and while the states burn. Official advisers whose wisdom is needed by no one are as disempowered as you can imagine and are forced to continuously guard their pronouncements or steps as they could easily go on the path that the kitchen cabinet would frown at. In such situations, the states have been said to be blatantly run by cabals or delicately put, kitchen cabinets.

Cabals turn official advisers into puppets or dummies who have little or no authority. However, you can be sure that this is not what the defenders of the cabal are saying.

A look at various dictionaries consistently yield rather uncomfortable depictions of what and who the cabal is. Calling them kitchen cabinets is a huge leap in branding. One depiction is that a cabal ‘is a group of people united in some close design, usually to promote their private views or interests in an ideology, state, or other community, often by intrigue and usually unbeknownst to those outside their group.’ There you are. A cabal promotes its private views, desires and designs. Private views. They are neither elected nor do they represent the people. By official definitions, they are said to be purveyors of intrigues. That excludes the interests of the citizenry.

The first use of the word is said to have been in the 17th Century England where it described any secret or extralegal council of the king. The Merriam-Webster dictionary captures the cabal as ‘the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot ( as to overturn a government); also a group engaged in such schemes.’

Mnguember Vicky Sylvester portrays the cabal in her book of short stories -The Cabals and the Naked Dance- as a clique said to be running government and the country’s resources. That is a hot combination in the Nigerian context. The fictional cabal would not only be whispering into the ears of the helmsmen in power, they would also be grasping at the nation’s natural resources. When that is done without popular accountability, ecological damage of horrendous proportions must ensue.

It is indeed a tough job, branding the cabal as a kitchen cabinet. The two are best kept apart as the genetic makeup of the cabal is stronger than any hardwood that may be utilised in fabricating a kitchen cabinet.

Where a cabal thrives, mistrust spreads like a cancer. Their presence places political spokespersons in very difficult situations and can seriously hamper their performance, effectiveness and public perceptions. This situation confers sinister implication to every action or events, including for example the overturning of Imo State’s gubernatorial election result by the Supreme Court of Nigeria. A panel of seven judges made that decision, but while the nation waits to hear the reasoning behind the disruptive decision, the stories in town are that a cabal is at work, pushing an agenda that is a prelude to something more ominous. This is one reason why no one needs a cabal in the corridors of power.

Fires, Missiles and Climate Change

fires2These days no one can ignore the sad stories of Fires, Missiles and Climate Change. Watching a video of a cyclist offering water to a koala on highway in Australia, then helping it up a tree on the side of the highway was so touching. The animal turned around and waved back as the man turned to leave. Other photos of people helping scared animals have been posted on social media and they all indicate the basic human instinct of love for all species, human and non-human. There are various estimates of the number of animals that have perished in the inferno in Australia. We will never know the exact figure because some species may never have been known to humans. However, we are told that up to 500 million animals and birds may have perished. Some of the species may even be pushed to extinction.

There are loses of trees and plant varieties besides the animals and birds. We have seen posts of valiant efforts to protect gum trees by my friend Cam Walker of Friends of the Earth, Melbourne. On 4 January 2020, Walker made this Facebook post of the stress of defending the trees: “I am trying to sleep but I’m so wired. We were fighting the fire at Dinner Plain today. It was a monster. It sounded like a jet engine as it came up the hill and we were ordered to evacuate. I was gutted, more than I can say. We waited 2 hours at Mt. Hotham and were given the OK to go back in. I expected we would find the place burnt to the ground. Some of the fire was horrendously hot, but lots of old snow gums survived. And the village of Dinner Plain was completely unburnt. It felt like an absolute miracle.”

It has been tragic for so many animals. Photos of burnt sheep and other animals trapped in the raging fires are so heart wrenching. Even so, I could not but think of people setting fire on bushes in Nigeria so as to scare, kill and eat escaping rabbits, rodents and other animals. No matter what love Nigerians may have for game, it is doubtful that anyone would celebrate the sort of wildfires that have ravaged Australia in recent weeks.

In the 19th Century, some camels were introduced into Australia, from India and Afghanistan, for the purpose of using them for transportation and in construction. They were thereafter released into the wild. Today, there are 1.2 million camels in the country, and they are wreaking havoc on some communities, breaking fences and seeking water from taps, troughs and air conditioners. Reports have it that 10,000 of these camels will be shot from helicopters and the carcases may be left to dry off before they are either burned or buried. They are being slaughtered because they drink too much water.

Think of how easy leaders of nations can set these off to annihilate populations of innocent people. Think of the horrors of human suffering orchestrated by war. Then ask yourself: all that to what ends? Think about how these funds could be spent on cultural exchanges and on building solidarity across the world, sharing love and shedding less tears. Then ask yourself: why not?

Due to its rather remote location, Australia has had to import other animals into their country. Camels were imported for their utility, but rabbits were said to have been imported to bring a touch of home to the territory. We are told that Thomas Austin imported 24 rabbits from England to Victoria, Australia in the 1850s on the justification that “the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” In less than one hundred years, the rabbit population had risen to an estimated 10 billion. The population was eventually reduced to 100 million by biological control through the introduction of the virus-disease, myxomatosis. That was after trapping, shooting, poisoning and fencing had failed. In fact, from 1901 a rabbit proof fence was built and by 1905 stretched 1,166 kilometres from Point Ann on the south coast through Cunderdin to stem the advancement of the spreading rabbits. There are currently about 200 million rabbits in that country, although a chunk of that must have been killed by the fires.

Some species are also exported to other countries from Australia. What readily comes to mind here is some species of the water guzzling eucalyptus trees. And you can throw in the kangaroo. Rabbits, camels and trees are all visible and efforts can be made to check their spread. When genetically modified or even gene drive organisms are released into the environment, they cannot be identified by physical observation and checking their spread is virtually impossible. This is one reason why we must not allow open, or surreptitious, introduction of those artificial varieties whose impacts on humans and on the environment are not fully understood at this time.

Fires in Australia remind us all of how catastrophic climate change can get if real action is not urgently taken. The threat of droughts and extreme heat will not disappear on its own if we keep digging and burning fossil fuels. Another lesson is that we all share Planet Earth and there is no immediate ways of escaping to another planet. Both polluting and vulnerable nations are in this boat together.

As we write this, the world is watching as threats of escalated conflict between the USA and Iran fills the air. The human cost of war cannot be computed in monetary terms. The vast expenditure on armaments is quite horrendous when climate deniers and polluting nations shrink away from financing climate action and paying for current and historically inflicted loss and damage. Think of the cost of one military drone and the accompanying missile. Think of how easy leaders of nations can set these off to annihilate populations of innocent people. Think of the horrors of human suffering orchestrated by war. Then ask yourself: all that to what ends? Think about how these funds could be spent on cultural exchanges and on building solidarity across the world, sharing love and shedding less tears. Then ask yourself: why not?

 

Climate Change Cooked Africa (in 2019)

Solitary tree, Kano

Solitary Tree @ Dawakin Tofa, Kano. photo by Babawale Obayanju (www.tellthatstory.com.ng

2019 was a year of extreme weather events spread across the world. Sweltering heat hit much of the world. Raging wildfires were recorded in Brazil, Bolivia, Australia and the United States of America. Massive floods ravaged even cities like Venice, famed to be able to handle floods.

Climate change was implicated in exposing over 33 million Africans (spread across Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya) to food insecurity emergencies. The food situation has been compounded by the erosion of food sovereignty due to the loss of biodiversity. Violent conflicts and poverty add another dimension to the dire situation and raises the number of the vulnerable to over 52 million.

Southern Africa warmed at two times the global rate and experienced two massive cyclones in March and April leading to a loss of over 1000 lives. Having two cyclones in one season was a record. The intensity and upward reach of the cyclones on the South Eastern coastline also broke the records. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth impacted close to 3 million persons. Some researchers tie the cyclones to the warming of the Indian Ocean. If this is true, we can expect more cyclones as well as the devastation of marine ecosystems in the region.

If parts of Africa warm at double the global average, it means that if the global 1.5 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement is achieved, we can expect a 3 degrees scenario in Africa. And, if the “well below” 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase above preindustrial level is the result of lack of ambition, Africa will be cooked at over 4 degrees Celsius. We note also that the global lack of ambition or readiness to seriously tackle global warming and the aggregation of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) already points at over 3 degrees Celsius temperature rise – sentencing pasts of Africa to a calamitous roasting.

Southern Africa warmed at two times the global rate and experienced two massive cyclones in March and April leading to a loss of over 1000 lives. Having two cyclones in one season was a record. The intensity and upward reach of the cyclones on the South Eastern coastline also broke the records.

Within the year, the continent experienced a high level of climate induced refugees and migrations. Some of these refugees are internally displaced while many, seeking to escape the clutches of the disaster, lost their lives in the Sahara Desert or in the Mediterranean Sea.

The shrinkage of Lake Chad and the attendant social upheavals are already very well known. From a size of over 25,000 square kilometres in the 1960s, the lake measures a mere 2,500 square kilometres today. What caught the attention of the world towards the end of 2019 is the shrinkage of Victoria Falls to mere trickles due to disastrous droughts in the region.

In addition to the floods, droughts, deforestation, food shortages, violence complicates and escalates the problems. Floods displaced hundreds of thousands in Somalia within the year. It is known that disasters happen when hazards meet vulnerability.  Things cannot get worse than when you live in an unstable society, with violence knocking on the door and then climate change steps in.

In the same year, Nigerians, though warned of impending floods, could do nothing to stem the tide when they arrived. Storms and cyclones brought deadly floods that hit Angola, Namibia, Uganda, South Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. More than half a million people were affected by floods in Ethiopia and in South Sudan. According to reports, entire communities were submerged by floods, destroying basic services, markets and farms. Floods between August and October affected more than 420,000 people in Sudan with 78 people dead and 49,500 homes destroyed.

There are genuine reasons for anger at the inability of the multilateral system to address the climate challenge in a serious manner. Things have gone so bad it has taken the rising of kids to call out dithering adults before they could even come up with fictive false solutions. Vulnerable nations, including those in Africa were forced into a deadlock over Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. That article is the sword that fossil fuel interest groups foisted on the Planet.

The Article 6 promotes approaches that will help governments to implement their NDCs through voluntary international cooperation. The Article seeks to establish a policy foundation for a carbon emissions trading system, that allows polluters to buy the license to continue polluting from less polluting nations. The fossil fuels industry and partner nations love this article because it would require nothing but a monetary exchange for their climate sins. The point is this: the polluters have the cash and the vulnerable could receive the cash, but the Planet will suffer. The first step is to halt extracting and burning new fossil fuels. Next step is a planned systemic change. The alternative will be a chaotic change for those that may survive!

Science informs that the world cannot afford to open new fossil fuel mines or fields. This sector is responsible for 80 percent of all carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Rather than halt the extraction of the climate harming fuels, the industry is set to invest US$ 1.4 trillion in new oil and gas projects between 2020 and 2024. It is estimated that this will yield 50 percent more fossil fuels by 2030 and would drive the world to a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise.

A combination of factors places African nations in a tight corner and requires critical examination of the route forward. First is the fact that while African nations have contributed little to the depletion of the carbon budget, and have been quite ambitious in the NDCs, they are trapped in the catch-up narrative where they make the futile dash to be like the rich, industrialised and polluting nations. They push is for serious climate mitigation actions while ensuring high economic growth and development. Considering that economic growth and development in the current capitalistic and neoliberal framework propel climate change, it should be obvious that that is the wrong way forward.

2020 presents us opportunity to look back, hopefully not in anger. It presents us a moment to interrogate the notion of development and growth in a finite world. It also gives us a moment to deliberate on means of halting fossil fuels proliferation and how to secure a just cooperative future for our peoples. Oilwatch International has proposed that a group of Annex 0 nations be created in the UNFCCC as a means of promoting real climate action. Countries like Belize, Costa Rica, France, New Zealand can already be grouped here as they have halted fossil fuels extraction. Ogoniland can also be recognised as a community that has taken this action within Nigeria. A fossil fuels non-proliferation treaty has been proposed for the halting of a disaster that is more likely to happen than what triggered the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

2019 was a year that sounded a loud alarm. We chose to play hard of hearing. A quarter of a million Australians called attention to the disastrous fires ravaging that nation and petitioned for a halt of the elaborate fireworks to herald 2020. Their government responded that the fireworks had already been paid for and must continue. They did. A perfect example of how we are comfortable with “the normal”, no matter the circumstances or the consequences. The alarms have gone off everywhere. 2020 is the moment for reflection and action. Shall we wake up?

 

 

 

Don’t Call Me at 9 O’clock

2020

Design by Chaz Maviyane-Davies

Don’t Call Me at 9 O’clock. Once upon a time, there were very few television stations in operation in Nigeria, and they only operated for a few hours a day. In those days most stations came on in the afternoon and went off at about midnight. The stations would open with a hissing sound which was followed by the national anthem before the presenters popped up to give a rundown of the programme of the day. Watching TV was a big deal as not every family had one. It was not unusual to see kids peeping through the window into their neighbour’s homes to snatch a few minutes of their favourite programmes.

In the 1990s many states in Nigeria had television stations, but they were obliged to join the national station at 9:00pm for the network news. That was prime time and it was a standard routine for some of us to watch at least the headlines. Watching the news was important if you wished to keep abreast of the thinking of the military dictatorships that held sway at that time. The radio was also useful, but in the tumultuous days of pro-democracy agitations, it was wiser to tune to foreign stations to confirm the reason for the commotion on your streets rather than tune to the local stations. It was that bad.

So, for over twenty years it has become a tradition in my family that we dedicate 9:00-10:00pm as a time for coming together. This has meant keeping the phones aside and not watching television. Although this has become a family tradition, we have thought it wise to regularly remind ourselves of the origins of this routine.

As twisted as some of the official media had become in those days, they provided fairly good sources of information if you learned the art of paying attention to what was not said. On one occasion watching a special broadcast by a military governor following a major uprising in my city gave some of us an inkling as to who the jackboots were targeting for arrest, assault and incarceration.  And we took some preventive measures that were partially successful, at least for a while. But that is a story for another day.

At a point, using the publicly owned mass media for propaganda to promote self-succession or transformation became the standard fair, especially in the regime of General Sani Abachi. There were advertisements extolling “who the cap fit.” Although the general was known to always spot a beret, he was getting itchy to switch over to a taller hat. The national network news at 9:00pm became so cluttered with officially sanctioned alternative news that there was little room to actually get to know what the real situation in the country was. It was at that time that my family decided that having that news hour as our family time was more productive than opening ourselves to servings of officially fabricated fake news.

So, for over twenty years it has become a tradition in my family that we dedicate 9:00-10:00pm as a time for coming together. This has meant keeping the phones aside and not watching television. Although this has become a family tradition, we have thought it wise to regularly remind ourselves of the origins of this routine.

It has been so bad in recent days that a presidential spokesman even justified the presence of a cabal in Aso Rock, claiming that this was simply equivalent to having a kitchen cabinet. Unfortunately, a cabal cannot be equated to a “kitchen cabinet” in the Nigerian context. It is a much more sinister construct, speaking of a clique that works assiduously to subvert public interests while ensuring the rule of personal or sectional interests.

In recent times, the travails of Omoyele Sowore, Col Sambo Dasuki (retd), Sheik Zakzaky, Agba Jalingo, Jones Abri, and some judges arrested in peculiar manners, and for sundry reasons, have raised a number of questions on the state of the democratic space in Nigeria.  The brushes of these Nigerians with the law, judicial processes and security agencies have led many to ask questions about the direction suggested by the drift. One of the key indicators that things are not well has been the role of the judiciary in protecting the human rights of citizens and then the obedience of court orders by security agents and actions and statements from the executive arm of government. An alarming apogee was reached when Sowore was wrestled down in the hallowed chambers of justice and whisked away into another round of detention while he had been released on bail.

The assault of Sowore rightly drew national and global condemnation, thanks to the wide sharing of the sordid spectacle through social media. We should note here that because President Buhari appears to be a man of few words, his spokespersons have resorted to speak even when silence would be more salutary. The unsavoury courthouse incident was presented as being essential for national security and other nations were told to mind their business. The Department of State Services (DSS) came up with the story that the incident was stage-managed and that Sowore was actually wrestled down, and rough-handled, by his supporters to give the security outfit a bad name. What they could not deny was that they were the ones that took him back into custody.

It has been so bad in recent days that a presidential spokesman even justified the presence of a cabal in Aso Rock, claiming that this was simply equivalent to having a kitchen cabinet. Unfortunately, a cabal cannot be equated to a “kitchen cabinet” in the Nigerian context. It is a much more sinister construct, speaking of a clique that works assiduously to subvert public interests while ensuring the rule of personal or sectional interests.

In all, we can say that the brashness displayed by the security forces, sections of the judiciary and the executive are very troubling indeed and needs to be checked before things deteriorate further. The spokespersons of the president and the governors should probably use this holiday season to have a retreat, to retool and to be reminded that abusive and unrestrained language cannot be the hallmark of governance or diplomacy.

So, Sowore was released from incarceration on Tuesday 24 December 2019 on the directive of the Attorney General to the DSS to let him regain his liberty. The same Attorney general had stated on Monday 16 December 2019 that he could not ask the DSS to release Sowore. Femi Falana, Sowore’s lawyer, had on the previous Friday asked the Attorney General to seek the release of his client since he had taken over the case from the DSS.

It came as a surprise that a few days later, he did not only ask the DSS to release Sowore but cited Section 150 (1) of the Nigerian constitution to back up his directive. It was a long, tortuous road to obeying court orders, especially when the case of Colonel Dasuki is also taken into account. Will that constitutional provision now be routinely respected or is what has transpired a fluke?

Bailed

At 9.00pm on Tuesday 24 December 2019 I tuned into the Network News to see if the release of Sowore and Col Dasuki, the most significant events of the day, would make the headlines. They did. Does that mean that things have changed significantly? Is it time to adjust the family tradition? Should I begin to take calls at 9:00pm? Whatever is the case, have an eventful New Year.

 

 

Walk Back from GM Beans

Not on our Plates!

Nigerians are not ready for GM Beans or any GMO for that matter. The commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) beans has been celebrated by the purveyors and promoters of the artificial variety. The Pod Borer-Resistant Cowpea (PBR-Cowpea) also known as Vigna unguiculata is modified to express the Cry1Ab protein expected to “confer protection from certain lepidopteran insect pests of cowpea, principally the pod borer (Maruca vitrata Fabricius).” Although the insecticidal beans has been advertised as the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be released into the Nigerian environment, and for consumption, it is actually the second crop. The first crop was GM cotton whose application for commercial release was approved by the NBMA in 2016.

Most people see cotton as a crop whose use is only in textiles. However, the truth is that cotton seeds are used in making cotton cakes as well as cotton oil. Cotton is eaten by our peoples in one form or the other. We are emphasizing this because some GMO promoters tend to wave off complaints on possible health impacts of the crop on the false claim that it would not enter our food chain.

Seeing the promoters of GM beans celebrate through press conferences, announcements and meetings is quite understandable. The approval for confined field trial of the variety was first granted in 2009, six years before Nigeria had a biosafety law. Another application for same purpose was approved in 2018. After spending over a decade working on the variety and having a system that authorizes its release into the environment and unto our food bowls, any scientist should be proud of the achievement. But the duration of an experiment does not suggest that the product is needed.

In assessing the application for release of the variety into the environment and market, the National Biosafety Committee decided that the beans was more or less the same as the natural counterpart. They also claimed that “The characteristics and factors affecting survival, multiplication, gene expression and dissemination are not different from those of the unmodified counterpart.” They further claimed that “Interactions with the environment are not different from those of the conventional counterpart, except in the insect resistance trait for which the product was modified.” They also claimed that the GM beans is substantially equivalent to the natural variety. In fact, the only queries on the GM beans application are basically on typographical errors.

A section of the report of the recommendation document speaks to the socio-economic considerations regarding the GM beans. This is what they said: “The introduction of the Bt Cowpea will not stop the continued use of unmodified farmer preferred varieties by any farmer who chooses to do so. The use of the Bt cowpea will increase farmers’ wealth from increased yield and reduce Farmer investment in pesticides, it will reduce environmental pollution by the insecticides due to reduced amount of total insecticide sprayed, it will reduce farmers’ health challenges from insecticide exposure. Introduction of Bt Cowpea will translate to improved food security in the entire country due to availability of much higher amounts of cowpea. This will also translate to higher incomes due to export of the commodity, because less residual insecticide means higher acceptability of Nigerian cowpea in the international market.”

There are a number of contentious ascertains in the above quote. First of all, this GM variety will likely contaminate natural varieties through cross pollination, although beans are usually self-multiplied. There is a possibility that even where a farmer chooses not to grow the GM variety, the preferred natural variety could be contaminated. The release of the GM variety thus poses a threat to the preservation of natural species. A loss of natural varieties would mean that rather than promote food security, Nigeria could be stepping into an era of uncertainty, of unpredictability and food supply instability.

The declaration also claims that farmers will earn more income because the beans would have “less residual insecticide” and would thus be more accepted in the international market are questionable. Apart from the fact that the GM beans is actually an insecticide, it is very doubtful that there will be much international market for genetically modified beans, unless their identity will not be declared in such markets.

Although the Nigerian Biosafety Act requires labelling of genetically modified organisms, we have said repeatedly that our socio-cultural and food systems do not lend themselves to labeling. This is obvious with the way our foods are prepared, packaged, presented, served and eaten. It means that regulating our food systems must take our context into consideration and much more care should be taken than may be necessary elsewhere. We are in a situation where the NBMA and the GMO promoters are ambushing both the farmers and the consumers through the release of these needless varieties into our environment and food system.

It is important to note that there are natural innovative strategies to solve the problem of pests including the Push and Pull method and biological control which have proven effective. The rush to adopt a technology immersed in so much controversy and linked to health, environmental as well as economic problems is unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful.

We have had reasons to warn that the NBMA’s process for GMO approval is stacked against contrary opinions and objections. This position has been strengthened by the Recommendation reports posted by the agency on the website of the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH). Two of the reports relate to applications from the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. One is for GM Beans, while the other is for “confined field trial of maize genetically modified for resistance to stem borer insect and for drought tolerance.” The NBC members that signed the recommendation document for the GM maize application include vested interests represented by prominent and frontline promoters of GMOs in Nigeria. We cannot expect rigorous evaluation and assessment of applications when the promoter is saddled with the task of such assessments.

Considering the above, it is imperative that the risky beans are recalled before it is too late. It is never wrong to retrace your steps when you find that you are on the wrong track. No matter how far you may have gone.