The conversations in Nigeria are ever so often shaped around what’s wrong with our country and everything the leaders are not doing. What we fail to celebrate are the efforts, big and small, of Nigerian citizens in sustainability in environment and development. Nnimmo Bassey is perhaps Nigeria’s most outstanding environmental activist currently and is unrelenting in his efforts to speak up against environmental injustices. He has won several prestigious awards such as the Rafto Prize, the Right Livelihood Award and in 2009, he was named a Time Magazine Hero of the Environment. He is also an architect, author and poet. We had an opportunity to chat with Nnimmo Bassey about his service to environmental human rights.
I must say, I’ve admired your work from afar for a while now and I’d like to say well done for all that you’ve been doing.
What got you interested in environmental activism and how did you get started?
I did not really start out as an environmental activist; I started out as a human rights activist. From the 1980s, I focused on human rights’ activism because at that time we had a surge of new democracy activism in Nigeria, and I was a part of those who were concerned with human rights’ abuses of citizens by police and security officials. By the turn of the 1990s, the violence in the Niger Delta became extremely high and I decided to invest my time on environmental activism as the core of my human rights’ activism. One thing people need to know is that environmental rights and human rights are one and the same.
So, you’ve been in this for a long, long time.
You can say that again (laughs).
I must congratulate you on the prestigious awards you have to your name; from The Right Livelihood Award to The Rafto Prize. What do you have to say about these awards?
It is significant that environmental issues are beginning to gain recognition in form of these awards. I see myself as a coordinator or leader of the work being done by people on the ground. It is a collective thing. The Right Livelihood prize was for work done on the devastation of Niger Delta communities by oil companies and the connection with climate change. The Rafto Prize was for the work done in linking environmental and human rights. In all these, very many people in the background have helped bring recognition to these issues. I see myself as a face of the many people struggling in the background so I dedicate these prizes to them.
So, would you say people are beginning to recognize environmental rights as a core part of human rights?
Yes, finally. In our environment, people are so much more close to their environment so any little change impacts their lives dramatically. So many people are suffering as a result of unregulated extraction processes, for example, over a 100 children died in Zamfara state from lead poisoning. People in the Niger Delta can’t fish or farm as they should to make a living. Many of the polluting activities are simply criminal; generating revenue for the state at the expense of people, and that’s a wrong idea of good and progress. At the recently concluded climate change conference in Doha, there was a proposal for fossil fuels that are underground to be left there if the world is to stand a chance of avoiding catastrophic temperature increases.
You’re the only Nigerian to have won the Rafto Prize and the Right Livelihood Award was also won by the late Ken Saro-Wiwa. Do you consider Ken Saro-Wiwa a role model?
Absolutely. Ken Saro-Wiwa was very clear that environmental issues were critical for societal transformation and he reflected this in his writings through poetry, drama, and prose. He was also instrumental to the writing of the Ogoni Bill of Rights and many other ethnic groups in the Niger Delta have realized that the Bill is similar to what they are demanding. He was eventually killed for his clarity in demanding environmental responsibility from Shell and others in the Niger Delta. He has no equal.
Why do you think Nigerians as a whole are not yet vocal about environmental issues?
I think there are three reasons. Number one, we have a survivalist mentality and so people are busy struggling for survival. Unfortunately, struggling for survival outside of environmental protection is hopeless. Number two, Nigeria has become a mono-product economy based on crude oil and crude oil is the most polluting extractive resource in Nigeria. Those in the government are very dependent on the criminal activities of oil companies and the NNPC so they are unable to call them to order. If you’ve read the UNEP report released in 2011, you’ll see that the level of degradation in the Niger Delta is appalling but it’s been a year since the report was released and nothing has been done about it. So, we depend on a polluting sector. Thirdly, policies are lacking and there’s no enforcement of the already existing regulations. The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) is not adequately funded or equipped and they have to depend on the polluter to do their job. Of course, the Senate Committee on Environment is really pushing to make sure NOSDRA can take up more regulatory responsibility and the industries are not allowed to regulate themselves.
So, could we use more environmental agencies?
We need to have bodies and organizations working on various aspects of the Nigerian environment from plastic bags and waste management to flooding. It will take a whole new movement. If you look at the recent floods, it took everybody by surprise that waters flowing upstream will end up downstream. The flood was man-made, not an act of God like people are saying, instead the water was released from the dams. It’s unfortunate that they spent so much money for relief and the amount they spent does not match what people told us on the ground. The people were essentially left to fend for themselves.
Could you tell us about your organization, Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and the other environmental bodies you work with?
The Environmental Rights’ Action was officially formed in 1993 and we became the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth, International (FOEI) in 1996, so we also call ourselves Friends of the Earth, Nigeria. We will be 20years this year, 2013. FOE International has members in 74 countries of the world; I finished my tenure as chair of FOEI in November, 2012. Another organization is Oil Watch which was established in 1996 in Ecuador but now we’re coordinating in Nigeria and we’re focused on resisting fossil fuel extraction.
What do you think is the future of environmental activism and the role of the youth in this?
I don’t believe the youths are the future of tomorrow; instead they are the future of today. So, we need to instigate political education for the young people and re-education for the old people. A lot of our young people want to either escape from the country or join the bandwagon of those making money quickly without considering the consequences. Many people want to “arrive” quickly and that notion needs to be challenged. However, there are a lot of young Nigerians active on social media and perhaps that’s the way to reach them. It is important to link up to youths doing similar things in other parts of Africa in order to network, share strategies and collaborate.
What can young people do to support the kind of work your organizations do?
Very easy. I’d love to see an army of environmental monitor, where the youth get active and share their initiatives either by social media or otherwise. The key thing is for everyone to be alert to everything that’s going on and to learn to question everything. We also need young people to get into policy making and be engaging but that must not be mistaken for co-option.
You’re quite active on social media. Tell us about your blog and other outlets you use to spread this message.
I use social and new media mostly to share thoughts on issues related to environmental justice. I use my blog http://www.nnimmo.blogspot.com/ to share ideas on Nigerian as well as global issues. The sub title of the blog – Oil Politics gives an indication about the major thematic focus. By the way, I ran a column in 234NEXT newspaper for about a year before that otherwise excellent Nigerian paper took a dive. My Twitter handle is @ERAction. I may be rather annoying when it comes to being single-minded on Twitter and I cannot apologize for that. We have to make our choices as to whether we want to tweet about everything or focus on a few issues that matter the most to us. I tweet mostly about the destructive extractive activities going on in Nigeria, Africa and around the world. Occasionally you would see some tweets on hunger politics, etc. I do the same with my Facebook page. I find these spaces very useful for interactions and conversations. Sometimes it can be quite outstanding when people ask for explanations of issues and/or phenomena that they could otherwise search the internet for. To quickly reach a wider audience I turn to the excellent platform provided by the crack team at Sahara Reporters.
What two words would you use to describe Nigeria? Nigeria?
What do you do when you’re not working on environmental activism?
I’m an architect by training and I also spend a lot of my time reading.
Where do you see environmental activism in Nigeria in the next 5 years?
The direction of real environmental protection in Nigeria will be citizens driven. I see community environmental network of monitors rising up and leading a collective fight defending their environment. Already, the nucleus is budding in the oil fields of the Niger Delta, and around the mines in the Plateau, in Zamfara and in forest communities. It is getting to a point where citizens will take more aggressive (hopefully non-violent) steps to defend their environment against the destructive activities of corporations and a complicit State. I am cautiously hopeful that the environment will become a key factor in political decisions. At present political concerns are mostly about distribution of revenue along lines dictated by non-productive neo-liberal prescriptions.
It was a pleasure chatting with Nnimmo Bassey and we look forward to more leadership in revolutionary activism from him and his organizations.