The fight against desertification has taken you far beyond the shores of Nigeria, campaigning through Europe and across the Middle East. How have you been able to sustain the struggle for a better environment?
I didn’t start exploring because of the environment rather I wanted to ensure that I was ready to compete with my peers all over the world.
However, it was the exploration, driving from London back to Nigeria when I graduated, that exposed me to desertification.
When I saw the desert, (the Sahara) which is the biggest desert in the world about 12,000miles square and it was seen then, as a forbidden territory where people don’t go. Not only was it seen as forbidden place, I was also looking for how to do the impossible. Having seen desertification in the 1960s and I started by talking about it.
Twenty-thirty years after, the climate change started and desertification became one of the issues that was contributing to climate change. The other issues were rainforest, and the biodiversity issues.
From research, most of the scientists talking about it didn’t go through the desert but I went through and decided that I would be part of the debate because I saw it practically and that is how I got into the issue of campaigning.
The press did a lot because what was needed at that time was for people to get aware, sensitised and be prepared for the consequences of the climate crisis, which we have now. I became an advocate and started campaigning. I was able to tap into some resources from government institutions and private sector, but 70 to 80per cent of resources that went into my activism came from personal resources.
When people started seeing the result of what I was doing and what I started in the 60s/70s, it became a bit easier to tap into some kind of funding.
It hasn’t been easy because I am still putting a lot of my resources about 30/40per cent and the rest come from institutions.
Nigeria is signatory to the Paris climate change agreement and expected to cut down carbon dioxide emissions. Do you think the country would be able to meet its obligations under the agreement?
I doubt it, because of gas flaring. Authorities are playing around the issue maybe due to fear for the companies doing explorations, they are mighty and you can’t fight them.
I don’t know, if Nigeria is scared of offending them because it pays them to flare than to re-inject the gas and use it other way.
Even the fee and the penalty that is put in place, they prefer it. So I don’t see Nigeria meeting the target even though President Buhari was one of the first presidents to sign the accord. But when I look around, those things that are meant to help us reduce the emissions, we have done very little about them.
We are very much behind on issues of cleaning up places affected by oil spills and building of the various walls like the green wall project, city renewals that would bring about better living environment, checking flooding and erosion as well as plastic pollution, among others.
Environmental issue globally is not what one man can address and our ministries in states and federal levels have to rise up to their responsibility. With the way Ministries of Environment operate, Nigeria is far below meeting those targets.
There appears to be policy somersault and inconsistencies in the way issue of gas flaring is managed in Nigeria. Do you think government is on the right part now?
Government is not on the right path on the issue. For instance, look at how long it took, to appoint another minister when Amina Muhammed left. That is enough to let you know that the government is not taking the issue of the environment seriously.
What bothers me is that there is hardly any continuity and that is partly responsible for all the failures. Government has started a lot of things on a good note but when it comes to following it up, there is problem. The reform is affected by change of government and ministers.
Before, I made it a point of duty that any time environment minister is appointed, I will pay a courtesy call and it is always a joy. It got to a stage, I stopped it because of lack of continuity in government.
Are you satisfied with the way government is handing issues of the environment, especially through budget provision? What are your expectations?
I am not because I had thought that at this stage of my campaign and my age, am over 80 years old, that government would have taken full control of some of the things that I started to preach about 40 years ago, but that hasn’t happen.
For instance, government created the Ministry of Environment for the first in 1999. Before then, there was no Ministry of the Environment. That was one of the major plus for me because my activism contributed to the establishment not just for the federal. Almost all the states have created Ministry of
Environment. But the downfall of this is that within the period of 20 years, the Federal Ministry of Environment had 15 ministers.
Continuity became a difficulty issue. In environment, continuity is very important because you are building the future for generations and you must have sustainable structure in place that would outlive everybody. Nigeria needs sustainable environmental structures that would outlive generations.
What I am doing today is something that would outlive me and not something that when I am no longer around, the whole thing would collapse. So that is one of the things I am not happy about.
I found it difficult to see what the ministries of environment are doing. They may do something for adaptation when something happens for instance, flood or oil spill but in environment that is not the issue, the issue is mitigation. What are you doing to militate against such occurrence? That is where the money should go.
When I look around, for instance, 11 states in the North are affected by desertification and those are states that that could be submerged very soon. What has been done? I have gone round the 11 states, they are doing nothing. They would tell you it’s not a state matter and that it is the responsibility of the federal government. So, my take is that they have done very little.
The ministry of the environment is one of the most important ministries because you are talking about the future of the generation and it is usually the number three ministries. I have travelled round the world dealing with ministers and those responsible for environment since 15-20 years ago and I am still dealing with the same people in the helm of affairs of the environment in other countries. In Nigeria, almost one or two years, we change the Minister for Environment.
Already, countries are imbibing the culture of ‘building green’ as a means to mitigate impact of climate change, how can Nigeria build on this and what will be the impact on the environment?
Building green is also known as clean living. Do you know that the recent cathedral in Paris that got burnt that was built over 200-years ago took 20 years to build it.
When they started the building, they discovered that the number of trees they would need for the ceiling and other claddings will take a lot and it would be difficult to go to any timber shop to get the quantity.
While the construction was going on, they planted the trees, developed a plantation. People are crying over the money but they don’t know the history. It takes between 15 to 20years for a tree to develop into timber. At the time, they were ready to start cladding, the massive plantation became useful.
If today there is a big flood that put the whole of Victoria Island under water, somehow, the money will be found for adaptation but if I had gone to the government two years before such an occurrence to tell them that if something is not done, we might likely have flood, let me have some millions of naira to do mitigation work, authorities wouldn’t listen.
For every grass you pull down for redevelopment, you must plant another and this is not expensive. People don’t know that we have a serious environmental crisis on our hands, if we don’t act.
Human activity is leading to the extinction of species and habitats and loss of bio-diversity. The ecosystems, which took millions of years to perfect, are in danger when any species population is decimating. What is your take on this and what could be done?
Very interesting question, am doing an article to educate the people that humans are the ones bringing about the extinction of other species maybe because we have a bigger brain than the other species. When you look at the effect, most of the species came before us. This is peculiar to Nigeria; in other places, a lot of respect is accorded to other species. We need them. The more of those species we bring into extinction, the more human lives are threatened.
When I was growing up, we were thought how to set traps and our fore-fathers told us that why we must catch some of them and eat them; that if we leave all of them, they would over populate and when they overpopulate, they start to destroy the farm. That was the notion even then; there were a lot of species that people were not allowed to touch. There are some fishes and animals, especially in the evil forest that people are not allowed to catch. Our forefather designed it that way because of environmental consequences.
Most of the fishes are migrating out of Nigeria once their lives is threatened, they migrate as far as East Africa, where they are treasured.
A fish for instance can lay 1,000 eggs and here, we don’t only eat the fish, we also eat the egg. We are taking more than we deserve. There are places whereby, if a fish is caught and there is egg in the belly, you let it go.
Migration of people from the rural areas to the cities has resulted to land degradation, increased traffic and other environmental issues. What is the way forward?
When I was growing up, only 10 to 15per cent of those that left school in my area migrated to the cities.
Today itís almost 100per cent. I did some research and made some recommendations. Look at Abuja; it became a reality because Lagos was becoming overcrowded not only that we wanted a capital that would be central to every part of the country.
Abuja was developed in less than 15years. I did recommend that if Nigeria could develop mega cities build around the country even if it half of Abuja, we wouldnít have the kind of migration that we are experiencing today.
Once you develop a new mega city, there would be employment, environmental sustainability and other benefits because people will find something doing.
Look at today, people will either come to Lagos or go to Abuja for survival, job, businesses and employment. We therefore need to develop more mega cities, the way we did for Abuja.