We must understand the times

We must understand the times. It has been said that the only thing that is permanent in life is change. Understandably, humans are perpetually engaged in the struggle to make change happen. Sometimes, in a hurry to effect change, little thought is given to the direction of that change. The obstacles to be overcome may be so daunting that an opportunity to instigate a change is seized without delay and without reflection.

There are instances where the challenges are so complex that people go numb or simply become indifferent. You could call that the frog-in-the-pan syndrome – although no frog has actually remained in a pan with boiling water without leapfrogging out of the pan!

We can identify the future by looking at the past. The arts have been excellent consciences of societies. Through paintings, sculpture, poetry, fiction, prose, movies, music and others, we receive impulses for action and warnings in times of inaction. Remember songs such as Redemption Song, War and Africa Unite by Bob Marley. And how about the one by The Mandators who asked Where are the prophets? We may throw stones at artistes, disagree with them and even kill them, but their ideas and messages remain and demand to be explored.

These are interesting and challenging times. However, as in all epochs, the key to finding resolutions lies in being able to identify the critical issues of the time. In other words, understanding the time is a key challenge that must not be underrated. However, having a common understanding of what constitute these challenges is understandably difficult in complex societies such as Nigeria. This is one reason why our political terrain is so slippery and treacherous.

The ongoing electoral process in Nigeria has revealed so much that most thought had become a thing of the past in the nation. The stern warning by the president that ballot box snatching would be the last unlawful act of anyone that tried it evoked much debate, but evidently did not deter those determined to subvert the popular will. We saw and read of blatant ballot box snatching, ballot paper burning, arson, kidnappings, underage voting, thump printing and outright violence.

The announcement of election results is an interesting exercise. Taking the job of being the chief returning officer in an election in Nigeria must be like walking wide-eyed into a nightmare. And so, we must pity Professor Mahmud and all the electoral umpires. Some of us were astonished to hear that INEC officials at the collation centre in Abuja were seeing the results for the first time at the same time that citizens saw or heard of them on television. The manual transmission of results leaves much to be desired and reduces voters’ confidence in the process. This should not happen in 2023.

The fortunes of the newer parties at the polls did not come as a surprise because most of them started rather late and apparently did not have the resources to navigate the tedious and cumbersome Nigerian electoral terrain. 2019 served to bring up some new faces. It will be a shame if they go to sleep and wait to wake up in the next campaign season. This is the time for the parties to reexamine their platforms and see if they can forge alliances or merge to build greater momentum than they can build separately.

While the newer parties have a lot of reengineering to do in order to reposition themselves as forces to be reckoned with, the dominant parties equally have to seriously reexamine their platforms and modus operandi. The ruling party’s efforts at providing support for the unemployed as well as small scale entrepreneurs has been routinely criticized as avenues for waste or vote-buying. One way of understanding the criticisms is to see them as being based historical mistrust built on perceptions and the generally opaque nature of governance in the nation. Thus, the efforts would meet the same criticisms whether operated by the All Progressives Congress (APC) or by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The two parties will have to campaign on clean or at least new slates at the 2023 election because they will be forced to campaign on ideas and not on personalities.

The morning is the best time to test ideals that may initially be uncommon or unpopular. Such ideals may become the norm by noon and get celebrated by evening.

How should the parties, new or old, generate the ideas and platform for the next seasons? First, let us reiterate that they must understand the times. Being devious in a crooked system may no longer work in the coming years. Nigeria has travailed for decades and  the time for the birth of a new nation is on the horizon.

Political parties and entities must have clear and distinct organizing ideas. Such ideas must have socio-economic and ecological justice at the core. The building blocks around the core would necessarily have to be on building solidarity and collective action to empower the grassroots and to disempower the oppressors. Our youths have served as the fodder for murderous conflicts and this scenario can be tackled by building them into a vanguard for transformative and collective undertakings.

Political parties will have to construct and rebuild internal democracy, develop long term visions and halt the pattern of prostituting between platforms. Indeed, one way to weed out fickle and corrupt fellows is to build a map of their shifts from one party platform to another. A person that cannot be known for particular ideals will turn out a traitor and should not be trusted. It is true that politicians thrive on short term opportunistic visions, but that cannot build enduring legacies.

If the land, waters and the air support life, citizens will enjoy enhanced health and be better positioned to carry out economically productive activities. It is time to go to work. Staying quiet is no option.

As soon as the ballots are cast, results announced and irrespective of who gets elected or not, we must pick up the pieces and rebuild the nation. There are no options here. The revealed fissures should serve as specific targets for repair or for dramatic surgical actions. The morning is the best time to test ideals that may initially be uncommon or unpopular. Such ideals may become the norm by noon and get celebrated by evening.

With Nigerians being innately enterprising and hardworking, a party could build its manifesto on protecting the integrity of our environment. If the land, waters and the air support life, citizens will enjoy enhanced health and be better positioned to carry out economically productive activities. It is time to go to work. Staying quiet is no option. Politicians never rest and citizens should be encouraged to sign up to parties, demand clear policies and aim to influence the spaces. Unengaged systems either breed autocracy or make the accommodation of mediocrity inescapable.

Eat Today, Eat Tomorrow

Eating TomorrowEat Today, Eat Tomorrow. Many of us have been advised not to talk while eating, but eating without talking is hardly ever an option. We often muse over many issues as we munch. Meal time offers a time to appreciate the culinary skills of the cook and the generosity of the person providing the meal. It can also be a time to reflect on the source of the ingredients used in preparing the meal, their modes of production and distribution. Tracing the route from the seed to the bowl can be extremely informative and often helps the eater to better appreciate the roles of the farmer in the process. While some have the luxury of ruminating on the art of food, almost a billion persons on earth go to bed hungry and are simply happy to have a meal when they can find or afford one.

The saying that we are what we eat underscores our responsibility to ensure that we eat healthy. We cannot wish to eat healthy if we do not devote time to examine the political economics of food, including ownership of seeds and access to land. We cannot ignore the players behind the processes by which seeds are cultivated in particular communities, nations or regions and the related farming inputs that go with such seeds and farming methods.

A book that should be a required read for public policy makers related to seeds, farming and food as well as farmers and consumers has just been published. That book is titled Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. It was released on February 5, 2019 and is written by Timothy A. Wise. The author, Wise is a senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute, where he directs the Land and Food Rights Programme. Wise is a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute.

Eating Tomorrow is a book with three major sections. The first part speaks of Africa and the new Colonialism while the second part deals with what the author calls The Roots of Our Problems. The third section looks at trade regimes and how our Right to Food is being traded away. Reading the book has been quite a journey for me. The book is highly accessible and drips with wisdom and high-quality information. Raj Patel’s foreword to the book does not leave any reader in doubt about the seriousness of the matter under consideration. He states plainly in his opening lines, “More people are hungry today than yesterday. For the first time in a generation, global hunger is increasing. It’s not just the absolute number of malnourished people on the rise. The percentage of humans facing food shortages is climbing too.”

Patel goes on to add, “Industrial agriculture is an engine for the exploitation of humans and the web of life.” He also added, “If you want to invent pandemic disease, you couldn’t imagine a better laboratory than the hells of concentrated animal feeding operations, in which the constant drip of antibiotics creates a perfect breeding ground for the next deadly swine or bird flu. Along the food production line, workers in the food chain are treated as brutally as the product they butcher. And a complex web of social and ecological subsidies allows the system to produce food that appears as a bargain but is increasingly likely to contribute to chronic disease and ecological destruction.”

Wise and Patel underscore the fact that policy should be people driven. A person’s stand with regard to the health of the planet and people greatly influences the manner of interpretation and analyses of complex situations. And here we should say that those promoting modern biotechnology are welcome to promote their pet projects, but characterizing those opposed to these risky experimentations as “enemies of the state” is nothing but hate speech and is highly unbecoming of anyone wearing the toga of a scientist. Autocratic force-feeding of citizens with genetically modified foods just because the outcome of laboratory experiments validates a hypothesis is actually opposite to patriotism.

Wise is not shy of taking clear positions on the food and farming debate. Writing from research experience from the field, he quotes small scale farmers referring to “Climate-Smart Agriculture” as “Climate-Stupid Agriculture”. The fact presented is that farmers have developed climate adaptation strategies including intercropping, soil improvements and drought resistant varieties. Getting farmers to abandon the seeds that ensure diversity and soil building for chemical and artificial inputs, open the farmers to vagaries of often manipulated market forces. He notes that the high use of insecticides and herbicides end up literally leaving soils lifeless.

Besides examples from Asia, Latin America and North America, much of the book focuses on Africa and provides plenty of food for thought for our governments. He reminds us that the food crisis of 2008 was triggered by the massive diversion of food and land into biofuel production and the surge of speculative capital rather than on scarcity. In Nigeria, indeed in Africa as a whole, we are constantly being fed with the neo-Malthusian fear of humungous rise in population and fears of scarcity – the very hooks used by predatory agribusiness and supporting governments to dispossess poor farmers of their lands and force them into becoming farmhands or sharecroppers.

Wise gives examples of massive land grabs on the continent that failed either due to popular resistance or due to the wrong headedness of the schemes. Examples include the ProSavana project driven by Brazilian and Japanese investors, that sought to grab up to 10 million hectares of fertile lands in Mozambique and the spectacular failure of jatropha as a miracle biofuel crop in Africa.

African governments accepted the notion that jatropha and other crops were needed to build a green OPEC in Africa as proposed in 2006 by then president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade. It was said to grow on marginal lands and since the fruits or seeds were not edible they would not compete with food crops. But jatropha planted on marginal soils only yielded marginal returns. Proponents of jatropha ended up grabbing massive land areas and this was accompanied by degradation of agricultural lands, in Swaziland, Mozambique and Tanzania. After the failure of the experiments, we hardly hear of jatropha being touted as the miracle biofuel crop. Silently, the crop has returned to its veritable use as a hedge crop and as a marker of the graves of those who died far from home as is the case with the nomadic Nyaburu people of Tanzania.

Eating Tomorrow reveals how government policies are often based on pressure from transnational seed and inputs companies as well as politically powerful nations bent on dumping surpluses from their own farming outputs. We also read about the place of Bill Gates and Rockefeller funded Alliance for a Green revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition launched in 2012. The architecture of the Alliance is that “Donors would provide aid; private companies like Cargill, Yara, Monsanto, and DuPont would make a non-binding promise to invest and participating African governments would commit to reforming their national laws and regulatory systems to ‘enable the business of agriculture.’”

Wise reports on the resilience of indigenous crop varieties in Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique and how externally driven policies have been very harmful to farmers and farming, forcing poor farmers to buy seeds each year and only benefiting international agribusinesses and other speculators. Monoculture cropping, in the words of Wise “produces monoculture diet deficient in many basic nutrients.”

The scope of this column does not allow us do a comprehensive review of this all-important book, and we will probably return to it in the future. Eating Tomorrow is a book that goes beyond diagnosing problems and offers real solutions. It fittingly closes by stressing that we all have the right to eat safe and healthy food and that we should not be content with only eating today but also work to ensure that we eat tomorrow. This is the crux of the struggle for food sovereignty and against the wholesale adoption of policies and practices built around aid, philanthropy or trade relations.

 

In Pursuit of Our Collective Wellbeing

Transparent green ballot box, vote for the Earth

credit: future pics

Voting for Our Collective Wellbeing . As the polls open tomorrow, Nigerians are faced with hard choices. These challenges include deciding whether to vote on the basis of political party affiliations, or to vote on the basis of the perceived standing of individual contestants. We watched the signing of the peace agreement with interest. The pledges made imply readiness to ensure decent voting and acceptance of results of the polls without recourse to violence. It was interesting to see the number of presidential candidates that stood up and moved to the podium when they were called up. The moderator of the event had to keep announcing that only candidates were called up to sign the agreement and not their aides. The crowd of dozens of candidates would make you think that party members were climbing a campaign platform.

This unfolding election cycle indicates that it is time for more new contestants to step up for the highest offices in the land. At present, most of the candidates and parties could not be distinguished from one another on the basis of differences in political programmes and leadership ideas as only a few brought up ideas that are outside the dominant and hugely discredited neo-liberal mould. By the time the polls are over and victories and defeats are accepted by the candidates, the issue will be whether the generality of people will be happy with the choices they made and if they would continue to endure the recycling of failed promises and the politics of personal charisma instead of one set around organising ideas with potential to build a viable and alternative socio-economy system.

Each election season provides the nation with an opportunity to choose the pathway to a preferred future. If the choices made are not based on a vision for tomorrow, then the exercise becomes a wasted opportunity. This is truer for the youths than for those in the twilight of their days as it is the youths that would have to live in the evolving future. Happily, the young ones are stepping up.

At the global level, we see children and youths stepping forward to denounce the way politicians are toying with their future. This is clearly illustrated by the Climate Strikeinspired by the young Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg. The call for climate action has found support from many quarters including from 224 academics who issued a statementstating “We the undersigned academics, stand in solidarity with the children going on school climate strike on 15 February, and with all those taking a stand for the future of the planet.”

Most of the candidates presenting themselves at the polls in this election season have paid little attention to climate change or other environmental concerns, even though these pose dire existential threats to the peoples. Promises of employment cannot be realised in a dead environment. As labour unions insist, there are no jobs in a dead planet. At the community level, we see clearly that there is neither life nor livelihoods in dead environments. And, no votes, except imagined and concocted ones.

Promises of privatisations and the increase of ease of doing business largely translate to preparing the grounds for intensified trashing of the environment and roughshod over the interests of the people. Touting a rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a sign of economic health ignores the fact that the GDP does not measure the wellbeing of the people or nation, but probably is a measure of a nation’s Gross Domestic Problemas Lorenzo Fioramonti – the academic turned politician – referred to it  in his outstanding book of that title. The GDP as an economic measure has had its day and should duly be retired.

As Nigerians go to the polls we cannot avoid reflecting on the future of the nation and ask questions as to what we must fundamentally change to take us to a future that affirms that “the labour of our heroes past shall not be in vain.” How have we arrived at where we are today and where are we headed?

We need to begin to build systems that recognise the interconnectedness of local as well as global conditions which threaten our common humanity while consciously working towards overturning such conditions. Irrespective of whether the young or old guards get elected at the current polls, the process to make this happen should be the concern of the youths in preparation for the 2023 polls. There is not a moment to waste. The deconstruction of an undesirable present and the construction of a preferred future must begin now.

Youths have  unique tools and abilities to organise and these must be turned into political advantage. And, when brilliant politically engaged youths speak, any characterisation of the enunciation of their ideas as motivational speeches must be confronted and denounced. In fact, being motivational should be a virtue and not something to be denigrated. Nigeria needs leaders that can motivate the people for positive action rather than getting sucked into a cycle of immoral political behaviour.

The starting blocks towards effective political engagement will require the building of solid political communities that recognise the vital necessity of collective decisions and actions as means of bringing about the needed socio-ecological transformation. It is such a transformation, evolved through practice, that would build a wellbeing economy in contrast to the current system of competition and incomprehensible accumulation of resources for personal rather than for the common good.

world map shaped smoke rise form factory chimneyWe need a system in which the state of our nation is measured by indicators that reflect the reality and quality of life of our peoples; one that recognises the root causes of the poverty in the midst of plenty, and that is willing to challenge and work to eliminate such conditions. By her geopolitical position, Nigeria owes Africa a duty of providing thoughtful leadership. It will be a missed opportunity if by the next election season, the brilliance of the youths is obscured or placed under the table and the ideas that would challenge the continued marginalisation of our people through ecological degradation and social disruptions are not taken up and pursued. The youths hold the key in this pursuit.

 

 

Dining on Genetically Engineered Pesticides

thumb_img_0761_1024-2.jpgEating Genetically Engineered Pesticides. All through the ages, in the development of agriculture, humans have selected and cultivated crops and animals that thrive in their environments and are good for their health. Some of the factors that determine what we love as food are highly sensory and include the texture, taste, colour and their smell. Taste, for example, can drive people to eat things they know are not good for their health. Besides, people may tilt to a food product due to the power of suggestion through advertisement on the mass media.

Food can be an instrument of control and power. Weather variations and extreme weather events can bring communities and nations to their knees. Violent conflicts and wars can also render people hungry and expose them to the need to receive or purchase food aid. Yes, some food aids are paid for and are not exactly humanitarian. One nation that stood her grounds and insisted on what sort of food aid was acceptable is Zambia. They rejected the genetically engineered grains that were extended to them as food aid in 2002. And although much political pressure was piled on the nation, they did not starve but transited to bountiful harvest the following year. In the case of Nigeria, after the devastation of agriculture of the Northeast, we have received tones of seeds without verifying if they were genetically modified or not. That is how much food aid can trump caution.

What do consumers look for when they go shopping for groceries? Research has shown that consumers that care to read the labels on the food products prefer to buy those that are pesticide free and are not genetically modified. Generally, buyers prefer fresh, clean and natural products.

Unfortunately, many of our foods in Nigeria are sold in measures using cups and basins. Foods such as beans, garri, corn, amala, and the likes are often neither packaged nor labelled. You simply have to trust your eyes to tell you whether what you are buying is wholesome or not. And, our people hardly read the labels on the packaged products on the market shelves. They may read the brand names and pay less attention to the contents. Agencies saddled with policing our borders against entry of unauthorised foods, such as the ones that are made of genetically engineered materials, appear overwhelmed by the influx of these products. Products are imported without much filtering with the assumption that whatever is presented as food is safe. It is as if it is assumed that because a thing was made in the United States of America, for instance, then it must be good for our consumption. We simply do not know what we are eating. However, we should care to know as our health depends on that knowledge and our choice.

Regulators and promoters of genetically engineered crops and foods in Nigeria accuse those that question the technology of being fear mongers or anti-science. This may be dismissed as a hollow accusation, but when they make such arguments frequently, the real fear is that they may believe themselves. Besides, they also believe that they are running the best biosafety system in Africa and that other countries such as Burkina Faso who junked genetically engineered cotton, cannot be compared to the supposed high skills and facilities Nigeria boasts of. This arrogant posturing is extremely dangerous.

When scientists produce genetically engineered beans (cow pea), do they consider the fact that the insecticidal beans could also kill non-target organisms and that even the target pests could develop resistance? When crops are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, do they consider that they kill other plants and not merely weeds? And what about the soil microorganisms they kill thereby disrupting the webs of life in the ecosystems?

Working beneath the supervisory radar, the promoters of these technologies are set to erode our biodiversity and set the stage for ecological harm. Nigeria has quickly become the testing ground for novel and risky technologies, exposing citizens to next levels of danger. With regards to the recently approved genetically engineered beans, we note that this beans variety with the transgene Cry1Ab used in its transformation, has not been approved anywhere else in the world. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) may have concluded field trials for a cassava variety that has never been planted anywhere else in the world. That cassava was engineered to produce starch that would last longer than normal before degrading.

All these genetically engineered events are prepared overseas and brought for testing in Nigeria and yet we boast that we are so equipped and innovative in the sector.

If anyone tells you that the producers of genetically engineered crops (and foods) are cocksure of their products, ask them why they fight against nations having strict liability clauses in their Biosafety laws. Uganda just inserted such a clause in their genetic engineering regulatory law, ensuring that makers of GMOs will be held liable for any harm that may come from cultivation or consumption of their products at any time, even if such effects come years down the road. Since that law was enacted, scientists have branded President Museveni and the Ugandan parliament as being anti-science. In other words, good genetic engineering science must leave room for doubt and when harms manifests, the producers should not be held strictly liable. That posture puts the Precautionary Principle on its head. That principle is the bedrock of Biosafety regulation. It simply means that where there is doubt, we should be cautious. The speed with which Nigeria is permitting GMOs is highly suspicious and offers no assurance that the government is concerned about food safety and the preservation of our biodiversity.

Nigerians must be mindful of what we buy, cultivate or eat. We can bet that no one will knowingly eat an insecticide. But that is what we do if we eat any crop genetically engineered to be insecticidal.

Surprised by the Storm

Changes get accepted as normal occurrences when they are uninterrogated. We hear talks of the new normal which could mean that unpredictable change is the norm. We could also take the new normal to creep in when things that initially appeared novel, or even odd, regularly reoccur and we end up accepting and taking them in our stride. In terms of the weather, climate change has birthed the wisdom that nothing will remain normal if humans do not act to stem or reverse the actions and inactions that contribute to the crisis. In this mode, the abnormal can become the normal even if it leads to the extinction of species.

Popular climate narratives attempt to make humans aware of the fact that we are at the crossroads of history, that we are at a moment of crisis driven mostly by vested interests which also promote a stubborn refusal of the powerful to accept the fact that a new ecological ethics cannot be postponed but must be recollected, learned or constructed. Climate deniers speak of freak weather events as normal or that they may not be as bad as they appear. In a flash we are surprised and in flash all is forgotten.

With this mindset, people think of climate change as a new clime of opportunities that must be exploited and profited from. While vulnerable communities, such as those living on threatened coastlines battle for survival in the face of storms, hurricanes and typhoons, disaster entrepreneurs see those events as opportunities to clear the poor from the scenic zones and appropriate them as recreation spots for the rich. When storms and floods batter coastline communities in our cities, slum clearance pops up as the first proffered solution. Rather than build the resilience of the less resourced or serviced communities, erasing them off the map and commodifying their territories become the prime solutions. This reality has been captured in-depth by Naomi Klein in her ground-breaking book, The Shock Doctrine – the Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

The first major rains are beginning to fall in Nigeria and we appear not to have expected that they would fall. Lying mostly in the tropical belt, and although we have dry and wet seasons, the reality is that no month passes by without rainfall in some areas. Not expecting a measure of rain to fall every month has become a normal situation for coastal cities such as Calabar, Lagos and Port Harcourt. This lack of expectation is not built on facts of history, but on the lack of attention to reality.

Already, Port Harcourt experienced its second heavy rainfall on 21January. When the first heavy rain in Lagos fell on 20 January 2019, it was celebration time for some and a tale of woes for many. Some Lagos residents were happily drenched by the downpour while others got trapped in traffic gridlock of the type that floods precipitate in the city. There were interesting and even amusing news reports of the event. Some residents celebrated the fact that the rain would lower current high temperatures and they would enjoy a respite and sleep well that night. For taxi drivers, the rain meant reduced business and possibly hungry families. To cap the reports from the News Agency of Nigeria, we were told that efforts to reach the director of Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMet) in Lagos proved abortive as his number “was not reachable.” One could deduce that the rain made it impossible for journalists to reach the director.

Flooding in Lagos says a lot about the climate readiness of Nigerian cities. As the economic capital of Nigeria and as an emerging “mega city,” it would be expected that more investments would be made in the direction of making the city climate smart. Residents of Lagos keep suffering and smiling and they literally take the storms as they come. When floods overran the city in 2017, some residents went kayaking and even fishing on the streets. A crocodile was even caught in the floodwater.

Flood disasters have become regular occurrences in Nigeria and floods along the River Benue and River Niger have become national nightmares. The floods of 2012 led to a reported damage worth up to 2.6 trillion Naira, killed 363 persons and displaced over 2 million others. That flood was caused by a combination of rainfall and release of water from the dams along the two river systems, especially from Lagdo Dam in Cameroon. A whopping 32 out of 36 States of the nation were affected, with 24 affected severely. That flood was followed by a flurry of activities to get relief to citizens whose homes and farmlands were submerged. Some analysts posit that disaster entrepreneurs made a killing from the relief efforts while some victims waited in vain for succour. That too, is increasingly taken as normal. No surprises.

The floods experienced in 2018 killed over 100 persons and pushed many others into internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) declared a national disaster in four states – Kogi, Niger, Anambra and Delta. Before the floods came, the Nigeria Hydrological Agency (NHSA) in its flood outlook released in May 2018 projected that Sokoto, Niger, Benue, Anambra, Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Anambra, Ogun, Osun, Cross River, Kogi and Yobe states faced high risks of river flooding, while Lagos, Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, and Ondo states could face coastal flooding.

The forecast for 2019 is still sketchy. NEMA projects that 20 percent of Nigeria’s population is at risk of flooding across the country. At a total population of 170 million persons, this means up to 34 million Nigerians are at risk of flooding impacts this year. That is a dire projection and demands the declaration of a national emergency considering the ecological, economic, health and security implications of this level of risk. If the nation waits until disaster strikes, we will probably take it as one of those inevitable things and simply move on.

It is not acceptable that foreseen disastrous weather events are taken as normal. They are not normal. There is urgent need to put in place policies and actions to address the threats, including response actions. The situation calls for urgent review of drainage and general infrastructure master plans for our urban centres and rural communities. The autonomous and unplanned urban sprawls must be checked. We need the greening of our cities, a focus on soft landscaping and halting of sand filling of wetlands and water bodies in so-called land reclamation efforts. These would enhance natural drainage of flood waters. Flooding is inevitable when rainfall meets clogged drainage systems. The management of solid wastes must become more efficient and single-use plastics should be banned outrightly.

The rains should not take anyone in the tropical belt by surprise except if we are living in denial of reality. It is time for leaders to draw up clear visions and to present the visions to the scrutiny of the citizenry. In an election season, debates are good platforms for such enunciations and we have seen that begin to happen. However, the debates held so far have focused on economic matters without significant reference to the environment which provides the base for the economy, health and overall wellbeing of the people. While we have seen both lackluster and forceful presentations at the debates and political conversations, we have also been treated to vacant podiums not taken by politicians who assume that they already hold the keys that will decide electoral outcomes. It would be a flood of a different kind if the Nigerian electorate rises up and demand to be respected and not to merely have slogans and clichés thrown at them from commercials or at mass rallies. That could be a storm of a different kind.

Dying for Pieces of Copper

IMG_3901

Okrika Water Front, Niger Delta

Of the ten most toxic places on earth, three are found in Africa. They are: the Niger Delta, the mining communities of Kabwe in Zambia and the Agbogbloshie dumpsite in Ghana. While Kabwe ranks as number five on the list, Agbogbloshie stands at the tenth spot.

The Niger Delta ranks as number two on the list prepared in 2013 by Pure Earth and Green Cross, Switzerland. If you think that the region may have slipped out of the list since 2013, we are sorry to disappoint you as the listing remained valid at the close of 2018.

The rampant pollution of communities in Africa has gone on unabated and mineral rich communities are the worst hit. The state of affairs has been driven by the manipulation of governments by a mix of transnational corporations, as well as national and international financial bodies. Throw into that, the wholesale adoption of neoliberal policies by governments eager to attract so-called foreign direct investment and development aid and the waters become murkier. The craze for privatisation of public goods continue on the premise that government cannot be a good manager of business and must not be caught in any enterprise that requires efficiency. Thus, janitorial tasks in public offices are contracted to private enterprises and the digging of trenches in warfronts are being privatised and contracted out in the rich economies.

In our 2012 book, To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and Climate Crisis in Africa, we stated, “The conversion of public goods into private property through the privatisation of our otherwise commonly held natural environment is one [of the ways] neoliberal institutions remove the tenuous threads that hold African nations together. Politics today has been reduced to a lucrative venture where one looks out mainly for returns on investment rather than on what one can contribute to rebuild highly degraded environments, communities and a nation.” This pathway has oiled and locked in corruption of various shades in the continent.

Zambia stands out as one of the countries that ended up holding the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the pursuit of privatisation, pliant surrender to corporate interest and lax regulatory and tax regimes. Corporate tax stood at almost zero at a time when they enjoyed a tax boutique that had the biggest chunk coming from workers’ withheld taxes. At that time extractive companies generated a mere 2.2 per cent of the revenue collected by Zambian authorities.

The abuse suffered on the continent is clearly systemic and places the burden on poor communities. Unfortunately, often the struggles of the poor are overlooked and even subverted by external and internal forces. How else could the list of the top ten most toxic locations in the world be in the public realm for over a decade and we continue with business as usual and keep weakening environmental laws so as to score cheap points on the chart of nations rated for ease of doing business?

Niger Delta communities continue to fight decades of horrendous oil and gas pollutions that have heinously degraded their environment. They have resisted and continue to do so through protests, litigation, direct and political actions. Thousands of lives have been lost, or cut short due to the pollution and attendant militarisation of the region.

In Zambia, 1800 villagers have stood up to the UK-based company, Vedanta Resources, that had polluted their waters through the activities of its subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM). The villagers complain that the company’s Nchanga copper mine has turned their Kafue River into a river of acid and are suing for personal injury and loss of livelihood. Villagers from Shimulala, Hippo Pool, Hellen and Kakosa are demanding compensation for harms arising from the pollution of their primary source of water. They also complain of the impact on their agriculture and socio-economic wellbeing.

The Zambian case mirrors the Niger Delta situation and underscores the critical need for solidarity between communities impacted by mining across the continent, indeed across the world. Local and international civil society networks continue to work with the suffering communities of the Niger Delta while the impacted Zambian villagers enjoy the solidarity of groups including Foil Vedanta in the difficult efforts to secure their right to life in a battle against mining behemoths. International oil corporations operating in Nigeria are deft at utilizing loopholes in the legal system to ensure that cases are often never decided on within the short lifespan of the litigants. When they are found guilty, they can shrug the sentence off as they are sure the government would be unable to force compliance since they are literally in bed together due to the business partnerships that are rigged against the people and the environment. Litigation in the home countries of the offending companies has been the option that offers a ray of hope for justice for the poor and for Mother Earth.

When the case against Vedanta went to the High Court in the United Kingdom the company argued that the matter should be heard in Zambia and not in the UK. The court disagreed on the understanding that the villagers would not get justice in their own country because of the costs and other aspects of the adversarial legal system.  That has always been the first objection that Shell, Chevron, ENI and the others raise whenever a case is brought to a location where their shareholders may pay attention. In fact, a Zambian court had ruled in 2011 that the company should pay a $2million compensation to 2000 claimants affected by pollution of the Kafue River that occurred in 2006.

The Zambian case will be heard at the Supreme Court of the UK next week based on Vedanta’s objections. While that is coming up, the manner by which Vedanta acquired the copper mines in Zambia is a lesson that conscious citizens should pay attention to. In a sort of confessional speech captured on video, Anil Agarwal, the founder/chairman of the company at a conference, gleefully outlined how he fooled the Zambian government when they advertised the desire to privatise their mining company. The guy literally scammed/bluffed his way into acquiring the Zambian assets. The video showed the chairman of KCM boasting that the mines make him $500 million in profits a year, when he acquired the mine for only $25 million. The lame excuse by the company is that the video clip was part of a longer speech and was taken out of context.  The facts speak clearly for themselves and show a very condescending attitude towards the Zambian authorities.

The company went ahead to claim that they had invested $120 million in “local communities, providing schools, educational programmes, sustainable agricultural initiatives, critical medical programmes and funding for cultural events.” This sounds much like what we hear as corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts in Niger Delta communities where the basic right to life is clearly negated by the ecological harms orchestrated by the same companies.

Next week we shall know what the Supreme Court of the UK thinks of the cry of the Zambian communities. Whatever the outcome, it is clearly time for our communities to connect their pains, strategies and fights. Pollution respects no geographic or political boundaries and we cannot afford to allow these boundaries to short circuit our struggles.


This article was first published in The Instigator, my weekly column in The Leadership newspaper, Nigeria as Poisoned for Pieces of Copper

Struggle, Freedom and Change

Change

poster designed by Chaz Maviyane-Davies

As one year draws to a close and another one unfolds, it is always a time for reflection, introspection, and resolutions. Many persons resolve to leave bad habits and to assume acceptable modes of behaviour. Heads of governments make speeches and promise new directions. Prophets declare their annual visions and promise hope or doom. Of course, some persons and governments, convinced of their infallibility, indulge in self-congratulations, dig in and promise to forge ahead on their chosen pathways.

Some of us spend the time browsing through notes and reflections made from conversations, readings, meetings, and engagements in the fading year in a bid to pick out what was inspiring, what spurred actions, what worked, what did not work so well and what failed outright. We also reflect on what made the headlines in our communities, nations and elsewhere.

A note taken in January 2018 while listening to the Cuban journalist and philosopher, Enrique Ubieta, reminds us: “Those who have been colonised must be suspicious of anything offered by colonialism.”

Obviously, the issues that stood out for us were issues that shaped our ecological realities, challenges, and nightmares. On the local political scene, we could not ignore the drama that occurred at the Nigerian National Assembly on Wednesday, 19 December 2018 when President Buhari presented the 2019 national budget. It was quite a spectacle. It was a day of infamy on many counts. It was a day when legislators donned the garbs of legislative activism, complete with “Freedom Comes from Struggle” placards and absolutely disregarded legislative niceties.

The Nigerian national assembly has before now boasted of fence climbers (ala Spider-Man), dancers of all sorts, singers of all sorts and actors acting like politicians. On the budget presentation day, the house was neatly divided into cheerleaders and jeerleaders. While the president reminded the politicians that the world was watching the unfolding prime time drama, it turned out that the politicians were not in the mood to listen to what the President had to present as the vital grounds for running the economy in 2019.

Who won in the raucous finger displaying political combat? Did the ayes have it or was the day carried by the nays? As they say, when two elephants fight, the grass suffers. The drama left Nigerians wondering how confidence will be built in the economy in the coming year.

The budget presentation was a great test for a usually taciturn president who, by self-confession, is for everybody and for nobody. Criticism has been said to be like organic compost that may smell bad but makes things grow. Being at the receiving end of criticism cannot be easy for the faint-hearted, but seekers of solutions to complex problems must learn to accept them, interrogate them and sieve the chaff from the real. Karl Marx, the great thinker, demanded “ruthless criticism” of everything including our personal views. That, to us, is a healthy attitude.

A note taken in January 2018 while listening to the Cuban journalist and philosopher, Enrique Ubieta, reminds us: “Those who have been colonised must be suspicious of anything offered by colonialism.” This is true even when the offer is coated with honey. For instance, someone could sell you the idea that you cannot afford to urgently transit to clean energy, that you need dirty energy sources to build the basic requirements of “civilised” living and that the transition is a luxury for the rich. Supposing the ultimate plan of your “sympathizer” is to sell second-hand coal or nuclear power plants to you, would that be in your best interest?

Hunger and poverty deeply affect the way individuals and groups see themselves. When anyone provides the signature image of either of these scourges, it affects both how they present themselves and how they are perceived by others. This was clear in the case of the classification (by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund from 1996) of some nations as poor and highly indebted before they could be given consideration for certain financial facilities. Looking at the offers available, and blind to the toga of poverty and indebtedness, many nations struggled to proudly wear the label. And many nations failed to be so “recognised” even though they had severely rubbished themselves in the process.

… forces of colonialism seek to retain their vice-grip on Nature, squeeze the last profit from her without care that their greed may plunge everyone over the precipice. The force of colonialism is the enduring coloniality that can only be overthrown by our emancipation from mental slavery, as in the words of Bob Marley.

Nations have opened their communities and environment to ecological abuse in their pursuit for foreign exchange in order to service odious debts and to meet the insatiable needs of their elites for foreign goods. The truth is that it is impossible to escape the hunger and poverty traps, at all levels of their manifestation, without ecological justice.

As I close my jotter for the year 2018, I keep looking a note made from Change: Organising Tomorrow, Today, the incredibly empowering book written by Jay Naidoo. He wrote: “Economic inequality and climate change are the greatest threats confronting humanity today, and how we choose to deal with them has repercussions for all species on this planet.”

With the world in a literal tailspin and with humans remaining adamant on reckless exploitation and commodification of Nature, there is much that requires us to stand up for the people and for the planet. It is time to pay attention to our children, youths, adults, and elders. We have to listen to ourselves. We have to listen to youths such as the 15 years old Greta Thunberg, from Sweden, who looked world leaders in the eye at the United Nations’ Climate COP24 and called out their irresponsible attitude and lack of climate ambition. We have to listen to elders like David Attenborough, the naturalist, who stood before world leaders at the COP and warned them, “The world is in your hands.”

We have to act in the interest of the people and the planet. My notes show that forces of colonialism seek to retain their vice-grip on Nature, squeeze the last profit from her without care that their greed may plunge everyone over the precipice. The force of colonialism is the enduring coloniality that can only be overthrown by our emancipation from mental slavery, as in the words of Bob Marley.

In dealing with climate change, leaders have fallen for the techno-optimism fetish or an oversimplified way of viewing advances in the world in a way that discounts the intricate interconnectedness of ecosystems in nature. Overcoming this issue of the loss of connectivity with nature ought to drive popular ecological struggles going forward.

The world tends to think that technology and regulation can solve virtually all problems. We tend to forget that regulations are basically drawn up to control the way certain things come into society and that if things are unwanted, they should simply be banned. To avoid taking these tough actions may encourage a slide into authoritarian environmentalism where the commercial interests and mechanistic economic opportunities are held up as the ultimate solution and government apparatchiks wear the garment of infallibility. As we walked the streets of Auschwitz in the weeks of the United Nations climate talks (COP24), one question that kept coming up was “where was the world when the holocaust happened?” Today, a tragedy of horrendous proportions is building up, indeed unfolding, before our eyes. Future generations will ask the same question as we are asking of the past. Our resolve must be to ask that pertinent question now.

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This essay was first published in my column in The Leadership newspaper on 28 December 2018 as Freedom, Struggle and Change