Uhuru-Spirit Interview


Nnimmo Bassey

Date Posted: May 19, 2013

In this Interview Nnimmo Bassey reacts to the State of Emergency in parts of Nigeria. He also discusses Oilwatch International and Oilwatch Africa, the on-going struggle in the Niger Delta and more.

Nnimmo Bassey is currently the International Coordinator of the Oilwatch International. He was the Chair of the Friends of the Earth International and the former Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA) in Nigeria. He now serves as the Chairperson of the board of ERA. He heads the newly-formed Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF).

Nnimmo Bassey, who is also widely known as the Environmental Policeman of the World, was one of Time magazine's Heroes of the Environment 2009. He was a co-winner of the Right Livelihood Award in 2010 and in 2012 was awarded the Rafto Prize.

Though Nnimmo Bassey is an architect by training and has been practicing for many years, he is also a reputable poet and a writer of note. His latest book, To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa, was published by Fahamu in 2010.

Today, Nnimmo Bassey has attained world-wide fame as an environmental activist, but he is also a well-known human rights and pro-democracy activist. As a matter of fact, Comrade Nnimmo is a true revolutionary who played a central role in the struggle to overthrow military dictatorship in Nigeria in the 1990s during which he suffered all sorts of brutalities, including imprisonment, at the hands of the Nigerian state. As a supporter of the students’ movement in Nigeria, Comrade Nnimmo Bassey nurtured a good number of disciplined cadres that served the then revolutionary National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) in various capacities.

Recently, between May 6 and May 15, Nnimmo was in South Africa for various meetings and other engagements of the global environmental movement. And Uhuru-Spirit editor Comrade Hilary Ojukwu caught up with him at the Elijah Barayi Memorial Training Centre in Midrand, South Africa for this interview. Here are the excerpts….

Uhuru-Spirit: Comrade Nnimmo Bassey, welcome to South Africa.

Nnimmo Bassey: Thank you. I want to thank South Africa for the warm African hospitality we have received since we arrived. We thank South Africa for hosting us this year.

Uhuru-Spirit: Firstly, let us start with the State of Emergency that President Goodluck Jonathan declared in Bornu State, Adamawa State and Yobe State over the spate of terrorist activities in those parts of Nigeria. What is your reaction?

Nnimmo Bassey: The situation in Nigeria today requires serious political thought, organizing and action. While parties jostle for political power, it is clear that the challenge of Nigeria today is systemic. A situation where corruption, exploitation of the weak, acts of environmental impunity, rape of persons and nature go unchallenged cannot but lead to violent manifestations. We are in a complex situation and what is needed is a radical response. It should be obvious that although the State of Emergency may restore order, it will not resolve the national contradictions. It will simply restore a state of business as usual and then the wheels will role again.

Violence has become big business and the concept of amnesty has acquired a perverse meaning in Nigeria today. Amnesty ordinarily means being granted a reprieve from punishment or being held to account for an offense. Here it means not just being freed from account, it means having your bank account loaded. Militants, kidnappers etc receive loads of cash. If the trend is not curtailed persons engaged in all sorts of objectionable and antisocial activities will intensify their acts and them call for an "amnesty" or even call the bluff when offered such.

Having said that, we must admit that the state of emergency declared by President Jonathan was long in coming. Nigeria has been embroiled in violence and lawlessness has almost become the norm in many areas. We can hazard that there are few Nigerians today who, if not directly affected, at least knows someone who has been affected by these acts. The media also has been replete with these horror tales. The young and the old have been kidnapped, shot, bombed or slaughtered at will. Economic activities have been severely limited. Schools have been impacted. Even hospitals have not been safe for the sick and for the health care delivery officials.

While I do not believe that this menace can be tackled solely through the use of force, I believe that any responsible government must take steps to ensure that criminal activities do not become the norm and are not practiced with reckless abandon. We have seen how military action flattened a number of Niger Delta communities such as Odi, Odioma, Gbaramatu, etc. During such assaults innocent citizens get mowed down thereby compounding the initial problems.

It is doubtful if the President could have done anything less considering the state of affairs in parts of our country. It is also important to note that the governance structures are intact – and the security measures proposed appear to aim at helping them secure the states.

We read reports of many dissensions to the declaration by the President. That is to be expected. The President has a duty to perform and he must judge by the weight of evidence available to him.

Leaders have a duty to curtail their statements at this time and help to defuse the ticking bombs that are rapidly playing into the hands of sovereignty speculators who would love to see the nation break into fiefdoms. Someone said that nothing crawls on its back. Nigeria is on her back. The least we can do now is to organize, mobilize and get off our back.

Nnimmo Bassey with Professor Patrick Bond - Director of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal South Africa and Dr. Godwin Ojo - Director of the Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria

Uhuru-Spirit: We understand that one of the meetings you have here is for an organization known as the Oilwatch International. Could you tell us more about this organization?

Nnimmo Bassey: Oilwatch is a network of activists and communities across the global South resisting destructive extraction of fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas – and the other variants of extreme extraction like fracking and shell gas extraction. Oilwatch believes that communities have a right to accept or reject any kind of extractive activities in their territories. Nature itself has a right that must be respected. In fact two countries now have the right of nature in their national constitutions – Ecuador and Bolivia. So it’s getting increasingly accepted that nature has rights that must be respected because the current mode of development is seeing nature only as something that must be exploited and not to be respected.

Oilwatch has membership in Latin America, Africa, and South-East Asia. We also have a global international organization in the global North. We believe firmly that the fossil-fuel led civilization has achieved the best it could achieve which is the worst for the planet and for mankind because of climate impact and so on. Right now, we are in a planetary emergency that requires urgent transition from fossil fuels as the major energy source, so that we move into another development pattern that is respectful of people and the environment.

Uhuru-Spirit: From which countries are the delegates at this conference?

Nnimmo Bassey: With respect to Oilwatch International, what we have here is the Oilwatch Africa meeting. As Oilwatch Africa, we have delegates from 13 countries in this meeting – South Africa - the host country, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Ghana, Cote D'Ivoire, Togo, Mali, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Mauritius and Mozambique. These are the countries that were represented and these are all countries that have either gas, coal, or oil being extracted. Actually, we have members in other countries who could not come to this meeting. And if you look at the map of Africa, virtually every country is now involved in one form of extraction of fossil fuel or the other.

Uhuru-Spirit: Why did you choose to have this summit in South Africa?

Nnimmo Bassey: Every year we have a conference followed by an annual general meeting. And we move it from country to country. Part of the reason is for us to exchange ideas and also to see the damage done by the fossil fuel industry in various countries. Two years ago, we met in Uganda and we had the opportunity of going to the oilfields of Uganda. We were at the Lake Albert area where oil is being extracted in nature reserve where no mining activity should take place. Last year we met in Ghana and as part of our field trip we went to a place called Havasini – very close to the border with Cote D'Ivoire. It’s offshore from that place where oil is being extracted and the major occupation of the people there is fishing. So the livelihoods of the fishermen and women are heavily challenged by the offshore oil extraction going on there. The areas that have the most endemic species, where the fishermen normally go to for fishing, are now off limit because the areas are now militarized. They are not allowed to go anywhere near the platform.

This year we are in South Africa and our field visit was to the Old Coronation informal settlement in Witbank – a community that sits atop an old and abandoned mine. The devastation that we saw there was amazing because of the mine abandoned underneath that community. People’s homes can easily get swallowed up and disappear without any warning. Schools have disappeared that way. It is really horrible. Moreover, the local people because of very limited access to energy resources depend on coal for heating up and cooking. They therefore have to scavenge for coal in dumpsites. We heard stories of people who were swallowed when places where they were digging for coal collapsed. We saw another old abandoned mine where the shafts were burning – the props and the roofs were burning – with heat wave coming out and one can smell sulphur and numerous kinds of things in the atmosphere. Such is not a safe dwelling place because the ground underneath is burning and if the place collapses and someone gets swallowed, it means certain death.

So it was very instructive for us as campaigners against fossil fuel to see that there is not one place you go to where these things are extracted that the community benefit. Not even the workers benefit so much from it, except maybe the top executives of these mining companies. Of course that history is very clear in South Africa. And then the kind of diseases that workers, who worked in very harsh conditions and live in very poor communities, are exposed. At the Old Coronation informal settlement, they were buying water in drums and plastic buckets and jerry cans. So when you go to those communities, you see two very contrasting realities and this what we are campaigning against. We don’t want fossil fuel extraction. The world has to move away from this pattern of development in form energy. The fossil fuels that are extracted now took millions of years form them to be formed by nature and are buried so far beneath the belly of the earth. Now, crude oil for example has become a major energy source for transportation and for power generation for less than 200 years and we have almost exhausted the non-renewable resource that took millions of years to form. So common sense should tell our politicians and our people that before oil gets totally exhausted and before the world is moved to a more destructive extractive extreme extraction, we should reconsider the way we do things. Look at what is being proposed by Shell in the Karoo – the fracking that will take millions of litres of water and nobody knows where they are going to get the water from.

So this kind of field visits shows our activist that the struggle for environmental sanity is really global. Our challenges may be different in terms of the context, but the differences are very slight. The commonalities are the same – deprivation, environmental degradation, destruction of bio-diversity, destruction of human life and everyday it’s the same. The only entities that benefit from fossil fuel resources are the trans-national corporations who are extracting them for profit – not the communities, not the environment – and these are exactly the things that are causing global warming. A few days ago, it was reported that the world for the first time and for a period of 3-5 million years has got up to 400 parts per million carbons in the atmosphere. And during the last time it happened, sea level rose to about 4-50 meters above. That’s what scientists are telling us. Today if you have I meter sea level rise, all the coastal areas will be inundated. In Nigeria, up to 90 km from the coastlines will go under the sea because a lot of that area is very low-lined.

Uhuru-Spirit: Please, bring us up to date with the environmental struggle in the Niger Delta?

Nnimmo Bassey: When we visited the informal settlement in Witbank, the comrades there told us that Witbank is the most polluted city in the world and another comrade from Nigeria told us that the Niger Delta is the most polluted place in the world. It was like becoming like a contest of which place is the most polluted. And I find that very interesting that we could be arguing about who owns the record about pollution. Nobody wants to be the most polluted place.

The Niger Delta struggle has passed through different phases. If you go back to Ken Saro-Wiwa days, everything was very peaceful – non-violent resistance on the side of the people. It was a resistance based on ideas, cultural values, mobilization and public awareness. Unfortunately the state responded with extreme violence and impunity. Then by 2005, or thereabout, you had the violent resistance that manifested in kidnappings and sabotage of oil pipelines. It was a resistance based on ideas, cultural values, mobilization and public awareness. Then by 2000, you had the violent resistance that manifested in kidnappings and sabotage of oil pipelines. And then the Amnesty programme. The violence and amnesty programme added a different dimension to the environmental campaign and activism. Because the violence that we saw in the Delta and bits of it that still persist, the argument will be more of development, employment opportunities and social facilities. These I will say are peripheral to the environmental justice campaign. People should have infrastructure as these are basic things government should do without any struggle. The provision of good roads, provision of health centres, provision of schools, provision of electricity, provision of water and jobs are things that we should not even debate. These are things we shouldn’t campaign about. But when you have the kind of massive environmental degradation in the Delta that requires a direct singular and much focused attention, which means to evaluate the problem and there should be immediate action to restore the environment and remove the pollution. Up till now, that has not still happened. The United Nations Environment Programme Report of August 4, 2011 really showed that the situation of the Ogoni environment is more or else an environment emergency because of the depth of the pollution and impact on health and human life. Considering that all the extraction stopped in Ogoni-land in 1993 and is still going on across the region from Ondo State to Imo State, Akwa Ibom State and all those areas and now starting also in Anambra State shows that the ongoing pollution is adding dimensions higher than what has been experienced in Ogoni already. So if there is an emergency in Ogoni, then there is ultra-emergency elsewhere where the pollution is still continuing as we speak. As we speak now, oil-spills are going on because we have new oil-spills almost every day leakages from either corroded pipes, equipment failures or from 3rd party interference. These things are happening! There are people stealing crude oil on a daily basis and our government agencies give various figures about how much crude oil being stolen on a daily basis. So this is a reality and a lot of that is done inefficiently, of course. I don’t think they steal efficiently and a lot of oil is being lost into the environment – polluting and cutting short the lives of the people.

The struggle for me is that there must be an environmental audit of the entire Niger Delta, in fact of the entire Nigerian environment because the country is polluted from the North to the South and from East to the West. There are some specific issues in various regions, like the gully erosion in the east, deforestation in the mid-west and also in the east and the west. There is desertification in the north; industrial pollution across the nation where the industries are still working. Water bodies across the nation are heavily laced with pollutants. Even common solid waste is not being managed. So we have a lot of environmental challenges. But for the Delta, we need an immediate audit—what is the level of pollution? Who are responsible? And the pollutants must pay for the remediation. Of course, when we say the pollutants must pay, it will be the corporations and the Nigerian government because they work in partnership. I think the best service the government can offer to the Nigerian people is to give them healthy environment. If the environment is healthy, then you can build the infrastructure. If you build a beautiful clinic for me when I am living in filth and drinking poisoned water, you have not given me a healthy environment. Because you are killing me but pretending to be taking care of me.

After many years of engagement with the communities, they are, to a large extent, very enlightened about the environmental situation. They are making demands for the environment to be cleaned up. The Ogoni people are making this demand very clearly; the Ijaw people and all across the Niger Delta are making demands for environmental restitution. The people have constituted themselves into environmental monitors. We receive phone call and text messages virtually every day about incidents that occur in the villages. I think that is a major achievement that people are aware that these are things that must be announced to the whole world and the authorities must be brought to know that things like that are happening at the back of somewhere.

Uhuru-Spirit: Since the advent of the current civilian dispensation in Nigeria, have things improved on how the oil companies do business in the Niger Delta?

Nnimmo Bassey: I will say that things have remained largely the same. There are some changes, of course. For example, I can say that some of the companies respond quicker when there is an oil spillage issue and other incidents, but they have not stopped gas flaring which has been going on for over 50 years. Day and night, millions of dollars’ worth of natural gas is wasted every day; going up in smoke and impacting local people’s health and environment – in fact, the global environment because that is the biggest single source of greenhouse gas. Scientists have said that the natural gas been burnt and wasted is enough to generate electricity that can take care of the energy needs of sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa. The oil companies are still above the law. They have the resources and lawyers and thus making it easy for them to keep on manipulating the system. They have seen all the technicalities and loopholes and they can simply just ignore people.

The other thing is that the oil companies are still living in denial. They manipulate the media and the information that goes out. They set the dominant narrative and in some cases make members of the public see themselves as the criminals. Every time there is an oil-spill they call it sabotage. But really, sabotage is not a dirty word. Sabotage could be a political action. If someone has a reason to sabotage something, it’s not something to be ashamed of. But if you are sabotaging, then you have to be ready to face the consequences of that political action. So, to claim that every spill is caused by sabotage is borne out of ignorance. Third party interference cannot be called sabotage. It’s also not sabotage when people break the pipeline to steal. They are just trying to make a living. So, you can treat them like thieves or criminals but not sabotage. So we use wrong terms to criminalize communities to the extent that even the draft PIB that is before the Nigerian Senate has it that if there is any 3rd party interference with any oil facility, the community and the state concerned have to pay for the repairs and restoration. But neither the villages nor the local government nor the state have security agencies – they don’t have the police; they don’t have the army; they don’t have the air force; they don’t have the navy but they are expected to pay. So you will see that the community fund in that bill would in a way be utilized on the pretext that the communities have vandalized the pipelines while they did not. People are busy arguing about how the money will be administered, how it will be used, and so on and so forth. But it will not get to anybody because the corporation and the government will take back the money. The communities are already criminalized – they are vandals, they are saboteurs, and so on. The companies are bleeding Nigeria blue and black. One thing that I really take note of is that no matter how much oil-spill happens, no matter how much third party interference or equipment failure, these corporations still meet their production levels. They have got to produce 2.4 million barrels every day, which means they produce a lot more than that. The minister of finance in an interview with Financial Times in May last year said that Nigeria loses 400, 000 barrels of crude oil daily. But in another interview, the minister of petroleum said that Nigeria loses 160,000 barrels of crude oil every day. The fact that the two ministers did different figures about oil theft in Nigeria within about the same time shows there is something wrong with the government because there is clear discord, dissonance, and no convergence in terms of data and analysis of what is really going on with the things that drive the economy of Nigeria. We must remember that these are two key ministers – minister of petroleum and finance are giving two different figures to the world. 400,000 barrels is not the same as 160,000 barrels. Even if we must take the 160,000 as the minimum figure, then we need to know that it is still more than what Ghana produces a day now. So, we can see that we are losing what is making another country’s economy to begin to take another shape. It is a big scandal that so much crude oil can be stolen. When Dimeji Bankole was the Speaker of House of Representatives, I think he said that as much oil as is being produced officially is also being stolen every day. To me that is mind-boggling because that would mean that over 2 million barrels of crude oil are being stolen every day. That’s sounds fantastic but perhaps up to 1 million barrels are being stolen every day and that is a big scandal. That’s why we have been saying that it’s not enough to demand that the government must publish what they pay; they should also publish what they pump. There should be meters installed. We asked that they should install meters at the oil wells, but they said they cannot do that because it’s not only oil that comes from the well – we have oil, water and gas coming out, so how can we put a meter there? But you can put the meter at the flow stations where the three elements are separated so that we know from each field how much oil is coming out. Different agents of the government can have autonomous means of taking the readings and know exactly how much oil Nigeria is pumping. If we don’t know how much oil we are pumping, it means we don’t know how much the oil reserve is. So when they say that, for example, it is 40 more years before the oil is depleted, they are just talking as no one knows for sure.

Uhuru-Spirit: Your meeting here ends tomorrow what is the African environmental movement taking forward?

Nnimmo Bassey: What we are going to do tomorrow will be to fine-tune common actions that we can take across the continent. We could be moderated by local contexts, but we want to move in the same direction. Our objective is to stop the expansion of destructive and socially degrading extractive activities on the continent. Africa has always been everybody’s backyard where the global North comes to plunder and take resources. Our lands are being grabbed; almost all the fertile farms are being grabbed for the production of crops for other countries. China built a new headquarters for the African Union in exchange for ………………. They know what they are looking for. You don’t set a trap with a goat and expect to catch a rabbit. So they know what they are doing. They are now focusing on Africa as the last frontier to grab all the resources and leave Africa empty-handed. An export economy does not really add value to the lives of the people. That is why when you look at the gross domestic indices, Africa appears to be one of the fastest growing regions economically, but poverty is also extremely rising. In Nigeria, up to 70% of the people live under poverty, but the economy is growing by up to 6-7% every year – a kind of enormous rate of growth. That does not make sense. We have to look at the reality and not the artificial measurements by the indices of the World Bank that will make you to say you are doing well while people are dying on the ground.

So, tomorrow, we are going to have joint strategy. We are going to review what we have done in the past couple of days and we will look for ways of working together. Right now, we have common projects and we are going to see how to expand them.

Uhuru-Spirit: Recently, you were among those that launched yet another environmental body known as the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) in Nigeria. Please tell us more about it.

Nnimmo Bassey: After leading the Environmental Rights Action (ERA) for 20 years, I decided to step back a little bit and do something slightly different while I remain on the board of ERA.

HOMEF is more or less an ecological think-tank. We will be analyzing what is going on in the environment; checking the socio-economic implications of the activities in the environment. And majorly, we are going to be focusing on perception molding. We want to work on perception re-alignment because a lot of our people see nature and the environment merely as things to be exploited or as things to be transformed for profit. We want to remind ourselves that our fore-fathers had very sound ecological ideas and practices. They had sacred lands and places you could not just go to log; they had some animals you wouldn’t kill. These were conservation ideas that helped us to have a few species still left standing. The truth is that we have to respect mother earth and nature if we want to have any chance of living.

Uhuru-Spirit: What is the website address of HOMEF for people who may want more information?

Nnimmo Bassey: The website is www.homef.org. We have three key areas: fossil fuels, the politics of hunger – we believe that people are hungry not because there is no food; there is hunger because people do not have access to food. We see markets where there is a lot of food, but there are those that don’t have money to buy. And then of course you know that there are manipulative powers that want to put us in a situation of servitude, where Africa keeps holding the begging bowl for food aid, whereas we have the fertile land that people are now grabbing to grow food for themselves. So, we want to expose the facts forcefully, in terms of environmental movement, that the neo-liberal system governing a world where capital is a god must be exposed for what it is. If people don’t understand the basis for the depredation we see, they will think that the corporations and governments are just bad. It is their nature! It is their nature to break the law, damage the environment and make profit. So, we need to help ourselves resist and help them to change. And when they cannot change, they can liquidate. We focus on these areas and then we are using what we call “The Homeschool” or “Sustainability Academy” where we get key individuals to speak to policy makers, youths and community people on the same issues – we have different levels of understanding.

As HOMEF, we strongly believe that we need a knowledge base on environmental defence and protection.

Nnimmo Bassey with Bobby Peek - Director of GroundWork, South Africa

Uhuru-Spirit: Comrade Nnimmo Bassey, thank you for your time. We wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

Nnimmo Bassey: Thank you.

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