By Owei Lakemfa
WE take nature for granted, extract our living from it, abuse, pollute and exploit it to the extent that we have changed the climate thereby endangering our very existence. However, there is a Nigerian Reverend, architect, poet and environmentalist, Nnimmo Adolf Bassey who has made it his duty to defend our environment, reverse climate change and guard our collective existence on earth. Not unexpectedly, in the last three decades, he has also had to guard his own life against those who find him a dangerous human species standing between them and profit.
In Nigeria, Nnimmo is a nightmare for transnational oil companies exploiting oil, spilling its content on land and waterways, flaring gas, bribing leaders and providing funds to repress the people of the Niger-Delta who are the immediate victims.
Beyond his activism, the transnationals and those who profit from oil exploitation especially in Africa, will find his ideas, quite dangerous and incendiary. He argues for instance in his 2013 book, To Cook A Continent: “Africans need soil, not oil. The environment is the cradle in which Africans are nurtured. Crude oil extraction has effectively uprooted the people from the soil. It has polluted their waters and poisoned their air.”
He laments that in the search for more oilfields, Africa is being “poked full of holes” and that the claims of clean coal and fracking shale gas being the solution, do not shield humanity from their harmful effects. His solution to climate change is “leave the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole and the tar sands in the land.”
Nnimmo, co-founder of the Environmental Rights Action, ERA and head of the environmental think tank, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, HOMEF, is the leading campaigner against Genetically Modified Organism, GMO foods in Nigeria. In his poetry collection, I Will Not Dance To Your Beat, he wrote on GMOs: “If we are hungry. Must we fill our stomachs with poison? We have a right which can’t be denied. We must decide what we eat, and when and how.”
Currently, he is leading a campaign against plastics. He told Nigerians: “ When we eat fish that feeds on plastics, it is reasonable to say that we are actually eating plastics.”
To commemorate the 2018 World Environment Day and the World Oceans Day, he told us: “Tissue papers decompose in two to four weeks. Cigarettes decompose in five years. The plastic cups in which coffee is served at cafes and fast food shops float around for 50 years. Plastic bottles will swirl about for 450 years. And, wait for it, the plastic in baby diapers will equally hang around for 450 years – long after the babies who wore them would have become ancestors.”
His proffered solution is as radical as that on oil and coal: “We should learn to refuse plastics and not just aim to reduce, reuse or recycle them. It is time to tackle this menace at source…It is time to terminate this plastic civilisation.”
Nnimmo, a Reverend of the New Covenant Gospel Church, Benin City, engages on missions and humanitarian work across borders. He preaches the gospel of love but not servitude and acceptance of oppression. In fact, he believes that an oppressed people have a duty to revolt. In his collection of poems, Patriots and Cockroaches he wrote: “He who shall not CRY OUT Shall be shrouded in silence And returned to the abyss He who keeps quiet is a sinner In the face of our misery.”
I met Nnimmo in the trenches, when all patriots were obliged to take on the Stone Age military rulers who sought to enslave Nigerians and turn the Blackman’s most populous country into a prison. Of course, there was a price to pay fighting for freedom and justice. When the security threats were getting too much, his wife, Evelyn and children abandoned their home in Benin City and relocated to Uyo; his brother-in-law, Ekere Nkanga, who was caught in his house, was carted away to Oko Prisons without trial, spending three months. Nnimmo himself went underground for over four months.
Generally, I was luckier than Nnimmo; during the military regimes; whenever the security forces came after me, they sent me an “invitation” but when they went after him on June 5, 1996 on his way to Accra, Ghana, he was kidnapped. That treatment was reserved for people they want to simply disappear without trace. But he was luckier than our mutual friend, Ken Saro-Wiwa who on November 10, 1995 was taken to the gallows and hanged.
I was a political and human rights activist while Nnimmo and Ken were better known as environmentalists, you would have expected the military to be more brutal on people like me who directly challenged their criminal rule. But they were more ruthless on the environmentalists because their actions affect oil flow which is what runs in the veins of the rogue generals and provides them looted funds. Nnimmo says he fights on so many fronts because: “Today’s battles were lost yesterday. Tomorrow’s battles must be fought today.”
With globalisation, there are talks of more freedom, democracy and a common humanity, but Nnimmo argues: “Might has never appeared to be more right than we see in today’s unipolar world. Man’s greed for natural resources has risen so high that to sate the taste, man would need several earths…Democracy is now stalled through the barrel of the gun. The so-called free market has become our slave marts. The cynicism of man has jaundiced our thinking so much that the shouts of the watchmen are ignored as the ranting of discontent.”
On June 11, 2018, this unique Pan-Africanist, humanist and watchman of our earth, turned 60. On that day, a crowd, including pro-democracy and civil society activists, environmentalists, trade unionists, architects, diplomats and politicians gathered in Abuja to honour him. The Vice-President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo who was represented by a graduate of the Military rule detention centres, Senator Babafemi Ojudu, extoled Nnimmo’s virtues. Making a private observation, Ojudu was worried that a lot of patriotic activists who put their lives on line to wrest the country from dictators, are knocking 60 or have gone through its doors, while there are very few young people taking their path.
Nnimmo has packed so much in his 60 years of existence, made so much sacrifices and fought so many battles locally and globally, that it will be understandable if he begins to slow down, but the earth is too important to allow a guardian like him rest. So I wish him many more years of struggles. It is not only Nigeria that is savable, we can also win the global war to save our earth. Mother earth or death!