The Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) held its sustainability academy from May 20 – 24, 2014, visiting three cities over a period of five days. In continuing with the tradition of the academy, one instigator facilitated all three sessions, tailoring each one to the specific audience in that community. In Abuja, stakeholders in the Nigerian environment, including civil society representatives, farmers and journalists gathered to address the frequent bouts of uprising, revolts and violent conflicts across Africa and the impact of such incidents on the environment. In Bori – Ogoni, the community’s long and hard struggle for ecological justice was the backdrop for the session. The Bori session was also co-hosted by Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) and the Ogoni Solidarity Forum (OSF).
In the stilt community of Makoko, Lagos State, the final leg was the crowning jewel of the third session of the sustainability academy. The Makoko event was set out to interrogate the various uprising in Africa and to make sense of the implication these have on our environment. Here there was a special focus on the violence that comes from global warming as well as from the property speculators and other forces of disaster capitalism. The overall theme of the entire academy was Turmoil in Africa: Uprising or Chaos?
Our Instigator was Firoze Manji, director of the Pan African Institute Of ThoughtWorks. Firoze Manji holds a PhD in dental surgery, founded Pambazuka News Press and currently directs the Pan African Institute. He facilitated (and co-edited) the publication of Claim No Easy Victories – the Legacy of Amilcar Cabral as well as Silence Would Be Treason- the Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa. The later was presented at all three session of the Third Sustainability Academy and excerpts from the book were read in all three cities. His works and publications have helped to contextualise historical and current events on the African continent.
The director of HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey, encapsulated the purpose of the academy in his welcome words during the Bori session:
When Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote that silence was tantamount to treason he knew what he was saying. When he declared in the dock that We All Stand Before History, he was as prescient as any prophet could be. Today we see clearly that keeping silent in the face of ecological destruction is treason. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a man of many dreams. He was murdered, but as is universally accepted, even if you kill the messenger, you cannot kill the dream. Today we are gathered here to interrogate the turmoil in Africa and seek to find out what the roots are and whether there is are common factors connecting them. We want to ask the questions: when, where and why did the rain begin to drench us. How could storm clouds gather and yet we say there would be no rain? Ken Saro-Wiwa declared this an ecological war.
He also mentioned the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report of August 4, 2011, which presented a damning assessment of the Ogoni environment. The report uncovered that the Ogoni environment has been so damaged that rather than support lives and livelihoods, it was killing the Ogoni people. The UNEP report confirmed the alarming fact that all the water bodies in Ogoni are polluted with hydrocarbons and a variety of deadly elements including carcinogens. The pollution is so deep that it would require twenty-five years of work to decontaminate the waters so that people can safely drink and use the resources found in them.
Bassey explained that the Sustainability Academy was arranged to provide a space for the examination of the impacts of political crises and uprising on the environment and on environmental policies. As an example of how violent conflicts translate to undesirable environmental outcomes he cited recent calls for the clearing of the Sambisa forest to facilitate locating and recuing of the abducted Chibok girls. While, he commended efforts to locate the girls, he said that the forest is not the enemy or a hindrance to be dominated and the strategy for rescuing the young girls such not include the destruction of a 60,000 square kilometres forest.
He noted the popular #BringBackOurGirls campaign that has gone global and hoped that something can be achieved through the mobilisations that would go on beyond the release of the young girls: “Can a movement against violence become a movement for social, economic and environmental justice? We would waste a great opportunity if we stop at just the massive hashtag-and-photo-shoot campaigns. This is a great moment to build an issues-centred political movement in Nigeria and in Africa. It is time to go beyond the hastag.”
In Abuja, policy makers, journalists and other civil society representatives participated in the kick-off session of the Third Sustainability Academy. Nnimmo Bassey expressed concern for the state of political unrest across Africa:
“Wars kill not only directly through bullets and bombs but also through diseases, destruction of the environment and livelihoods, increase in violent crimes, displacement of populations and unsustainable exploitation of resources. Conflicts also open possibilities for the re-colonisation of the continent, on our invitation, in the guise of military and economic assistance. We are seeing this unfolding in our nation and in other nations of Africa.”
Nnimmo Bassey’s welcome address paved the way for the lecture delivered by the lead instigator for this session, Firoze Manji. The instigator began his lecture addressing the sense of despair on the continent due to frequent bouts of political uprising. However, he iterated that African is characterized by the twin brothers of hope and despair with Rwanda, Tunisia, Egypt, Angola and Togo as classic examples of such.
According to Manji, “It has been said that if you want to truly dispossess a people of their resources, you have to dispossess them of their history. We have been disconnected from our history and the danger is that any people without a history have no future.”
He concluded by criticizing the use of GDP to measure the economy of nations saying that it is not a measure of production but of extraction (water, oil, agriculture, minerals, etc). According to him, there is a need for Africa to undergo structural democratization to decide our futures. He highlighted the need to build structural solidarity in Africa and take the future in our hands.
Manji’s talk was followed by a very interactive session of questions, answers and comments.
At the Bori session, Fynface D. Fynface and MC Solomon of Bori moderated the program including introducing the guests and the Director of HOMEF who later on introduced the Instigator, Firoze Manji. Officials of MOSOP and youths from Etche community in Rivers State were also introduced.
Nnimmo Bassey opened the session with thought-provoking welcome words on the topic under review, fully anchoring it on the Ogoni experience. In his words:
“It is inspiring to see that the seeds sown by the martyrs of the Ogoni struggle continue to fire the imaginations of the marginalised peoples of the world and all those engaged in the epic battles for ecological sanity. Saro-Wiwa was an apostle of peaceful resistance and like others before him the arrows aimed at him by agents of multinational corporations and the governments that polish their bloody shoes did not cow him. His vision of an Ogoni ethnic nation of proud and dignified people lives on. Today everyone sees the Ogonis and marvel at the tenacity with which you all are committed to peaceful resistance in the face of ecological provocations and extreme pressures including those of land grabbing and outright violence.”
The lead instigator, Firoze Manji, took up right from where Nnimmo Bassey left. He began his lecture with an exercise on Ken Saro Wiwa’s statement – “Silence is Treason”, during which the participants expressed their understanding of the statement as pertains to the Ogoni situation of ecological destruction. He went on to mention that financial development and extractive development (mining, extractive and agricultural factory industries) are the two most glorified types of development; none of which contribute to the actual advancement of people and their communities. “They pollute our land and our environment,” he said.
Firoze Manji of ThoughtWorks continued:
From the beginning of the slave trade era, the British made a lot of money from sugar factories cultivated by slaves. Gradually, resistance was built and with revolutionaries like Amilcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara and others, the resistance was able to grow into independence from slavery. In Nigeria, similar struggles took place in Ogoniland. It was here they stopped the multinationals from exploitation; it was here that the people stood for justice and it was here that one of your own was sacrificed because of the struggles for justice.
Firoze Manji concluded with an allusion to the stock market in which he said Africans keep getting pushed around by the West’s version of democracy and the media. “We vote every four or five years and yet in the stock market, capitalists vote every day, every minute and every second and this is to decide the prices of food and resources.”
The talk was followed by a discussion session.
The choice of the venue – The Makoko Floating School, was surely a sharp detour from the usual serenity of a conference room as it was hosted on a symbolic venue in clear appreciation to the ingenuity of the people of Makoko having found a way to live in sync with nature despite the changing times and challenges around them. To get to the floating school participants took a canoe ride through the Makoko community – a community built on stilts. For some of the participants this was their first experience of taking a canoe ride passed fishermen and women, carpenters and other craftsmen working on water. It was indeed an eye opening experience for many who never imagined how the local people live in this deprived part of a megacity such as Lagos.
According to Nnimmo Bassey:
“Makoko is a metaphor for resilience in the face of enormous pressures. This community floating on the waters of the Lagos Lagoon is resilient because it is not a rigid community. It is resilient not because the buildings in this community are the strongest in the world but because they are built in sync with nature and not against her. Her resilience is seen in the young boys and girls who ferry us in the boat taxis in order to make enough cash to pay their daily school fees and so access a measure of education.”
He continued: “Makoko as a community sitting on water is prone to the impacts of sea level rise that could be triggered by intense rains or by global warming. Flooding is a challenge to Lagos, any day and the state pays a lot of attention to building resilience and also mitigating the impacts. However, Makoko teases the sea by sitting on it. The Floating School in which this session is being held speaks volumes about how to face sea level rise and deflect its sting. The School is designed and built to float. This means that if the sea rises, the building itself rises. This school is designed and built in line with the rhythms of nature and not in defiance of nature like Eko Atlantic does, for instance. The Floating School and the entire Makoko communities show us what resilience means.”
In all three sessions, extensive amounts of time were dedicated to questions and discussions among participants. Some questions are particularly striking as they reveal the concerns of participants with regards to the theme. One Abuja participant, Dr. Bell Ihua, asked if capitalism could be executed in a more effective and environmentally conscious manner. In response to the question, Mr. Firoze Manji explained that the system of capitalism is intricately designed to maximize profits and views natural endowments solely as resources. In his words, “we would need to change the name from capitalism if we change that.” Ms. Oge Finola asked how the masses can vote as often as the capitalist vote and in similar fashion, Mr. Manji responded that “the continued enhancement of the struggle is the best ballot with which the people vote.”
Participants in Bori expressed deep passion for the issue of ecological unrest in the Niger Delta as exemplified by Mr. Harrison F. Baridakaba’s question. He asked, “how long should we continue to obey the condition of non-violence?” The director of HOMEF, Mr. Nnimmo Bassey, in response to the question, urged all participants that “militancy and violence are not only by guns. However, no matter how violent a group becomes, they have to sit down on a table to discuss issues.” In Makoko, Lagos, one indigene praised the construction of the Floating School and urged the government to build such sustainable structures in the community.
In concluding the Third Sustainability Academy, HOMEF reiterated our key calls relative to the issues we have been interrogating as follows:
- African leaders must ensure that the continent gets out of the trap of being the arena for proxy wars by interests inimical to the well being of our environment and peoples
- Ecological warfare must not be a tool in the war against terror. In this regard HOMEF endorses the demand: #BringBackOurGirls and adds that they must be brought back to a secure environment devoid of stigmatisation and exploitation in any guise including exploitation as child brides.
- Nigerian and African leaders must protect our environment and peoples from the activities of rampaging resource extractors, ensure that environmental costs do not continue to be externalised to the people/environment and that ecological crimes are severely sanctioned
- African governments must be primarily responsible and accountable to our peoples rather than to international financial institutions and to multinational corporations
- The Nigerian government should scrap the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) and replace it with a National Environmental Restoration Agency (NERA)under the Federal Ministry of Environment, with a mandate to clean up the Nigerian environment including in particular the Ogoni environment as demanded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report issued three years ago
- The Makoko Floating School model should be adopted and replicated across all coastal communities by the Nigerian government as a climate change adaptation measure and to teach the lesson that our architecture must support our ways of life and be in sync with the rhythms of nature.
- The Nigerian and Lagos State governments should commit to upgrade the Makoko communities and provide support for the communities including by providing adequate health, educational and other services. The community should also be protected from property and financial speculators as well as from other disaster capitalists.