‘…with issues of environmental degradation, Nigeria’s political power appears to be deaf’
‘…it’s very difficult to do works of art that celebrate the Niger Delta environment today’
‘…we are running out of time’
By Anote Ajeluorou (who was in Port Harcourt)
THE urgent need to call attention to the environmental degradation in the oil-rich Niger Delta first grabbed international headlines in the early 1990s and culminated in 1995 when writer and foremost environmental rights campaigner, Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa, was murdered by the Gen. Sani Abacha regime. Abacha’s intention would be revealed decades later when his looting of oil proceeds f rom the region came to light. Clearly, Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni folks were in Abacha’s way in his shameful looting of the region’s resources, even as the environment festered with unimaginable pollution from the inhuman activities of oil exploitation by the international oil companies that government’s slack regulatory framework failed to rein in.
Like a burst dam, other writers and creatives from the region soon woke up to the reality of their grim situation and followed the steps of Saro-Wiwa and started calling global attention to the region’s environmental plight. The list is long. From Mr. Nimo Bassey (We Thought It Was Oil But It Was Blood, etc) to Prof. Tanure Ojaide (Delta Blues and Home Songs, etc), Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo (The Oil Lamp), Dr. Obari Gomba (Pearls of the Mangrove, etc), Dr. Ebi Yeibo (Of Waters and the Wild, etc), Kaine Agary (Yellow Yellow), and Chiemeka Garricks (Tomorrow Died Yesterday), among others, including the pioneering works of ace photographer, Mr. George Oshodi, whose documentary lens has tracked the despoliation of the Niger Delta environment in unflattering photographs.
Once again, the environmental health of the Niger Delta and her endangered people grabbed the spotlight at the International Communication Association (ICA) 72nd conference that was held from May 26 through 30, 2022, with Port Harcourt currently West Africa’s Region Hub headquarters. One of the regional hub’s subthemes was ‘Despoliation, Power and Redress: Issues in Communicating the Environment’ that called attention to the continuing environmental plight of the oil-rich region and the urgent need for remediation.
It was the poet and organiser of ICA’s West Africa Regional Hub, Ekaete George, who asked fellow poet, Dr. Obari Gomba, the knotty question while moderating the session on the environment: The truth of the Niger Delta, of Port Harcourt is that people are dying of cardiovascular and lung diseases as a result of environmental pollution and the economic suppression of the people of the Niger Delta. What’s the place of art in finding redress, in speaking truth to power and addressing and amplifying the issues to the point of totally reducing oil exploitation pollution, so that people of the Niger Delta no longer die from despoliation of their environment?
In his response, Gomba, an Associate Dean of the Faculty of Art, University of Port Harcourt, who just won a major Africa poetry prize for his latest collection The Lilt of the Rebel, and whose poetry has focused heavily on the negatively impacted Niger Delta environment, lamented that globally the environment has always been on the receiving end of man’s insatiable greed for wealth accumulation with scant regard and respect for it, with Nigeria presenting a worse case scenario:
“We need to boost the capacity of the communicative platforms to present messages, to present information to the rest of the world to be part of the global conversation,” he said. “There’s a basic tenet that that I like to take as my trajectory. To be able to call attention to a thing, you have to be able to pay attention to it. The very basis of communication is to call attention to issues, about their existence. And that’s important to creative people, people who produce literature, music, art, theatre, people who produce photography that reflects environmental issues. I’m very interested in the capacity of art forms that present information about environmental issues.
“Beyond the traditional form of communication, we understand that art itself is a vehicle of information. Poetry can be presented in newspapers and magazines; novels can be serialised in newspapers and magazines; photographs can be presented in newspapers and magazines and also in electronic media. Films and movies can be presented on television and cinemas. There’s a sense in which art forms – film, literature, art, photographs, music – can become vehicles of reflection, vehicles of advocacy, vehicles of information through their capacity to be featured in traditional art forms. But even if they stand alone, even if you have poems standing on their own, photographs being exhibited on their own – they are also self-sufficient modes of communication.”
Gomba highlighted the seamless connection between the creative artist’s fertile imagination and the stark reality he portrays, arguing that imagination is not a negation of reality, as one births and melds into the other.
“For people who look at art as imagination, one basic point that I want to establish is that imagine is not a negation of reality,” he noted. “The fact that we have poems deployed through the imagination to represent environmental issues does not mean they are not acceptable enough, insightful enough to represent the issues that they are intended to represent. So, there’s a connection between the ability to represent truth through the imagination and the ability to represent social reality. And this has been so right from time. Literary scholarship and practitioners of other art forms have always deployed terms like scene, setting, atmosphere, scenery, background, social context, and the basis of that is for people to understand that art has the capacity to reflect on its social environment.
“And the ability of art to capture that moment becomes a very strong tool of advocacy on the issues that are important to us, as a people who live within an environment and are part of the issues that the environment either enjoys or suffers.”
The award-winning poet and university don also spotlighted the centrality of art in communicating issues of the degraded Niger Delta environment, and called on the region’s creatives to continue deploying their art forms for this purpose until environment remediation is achieved.
“Art is very central in communicating issues of the Niger Delta environment, in engaging with the Nigerian state and the multi-nationals. What man does with the environment is to profit from it. It’s human nature. When you have accumulation and control, what you have is abuse of the environment, disrespect for the environment. Once the environment is challenged, what we need to do is that every person who lives in communities within the Niger Delta must be involved in communicating the issues of the environment with whatever channels they have. This is moreso for creative people – writers, artists, painters, photographers, singers and musicians – must be involved in the process of communicating the challenges of the environment of the Niger Delta.”
He called attention to the changing narratives deployed by creatives about the environment from that of celebrating it in years past and lamenting the environment that has become dominant today, since government and its oil companies cohorts have remained deaf to entreaties to treat environment and those who live in the Niger Delta with respect.
According to Gomba, “There are basic ways human beings naturally respond to the environment, one of which is to celebrate the environment. But how do you celebrate an environment that is despoiled? When an environment is challenged, when it’s despoiled, the best approach becomes calling attention to the interest of the environment. In JP Clark’s poems ‘Olokun’ and ‘Streamside Exchange’, you find a celebration of the environment; but this is the environment that is not despoiled, an environment not impacted by oil extraction, and the destructive nature of oil extraction in the Niger Delta.
“And because we are now faced with the destruction of the environment, it’s very difficult to do works of art that celebrate the environment. It’s difficult to see the destruction in the environment in the Niger Delta and call people to celebrate. And because we’re confronted with that magnitude of environmental destruction and degradation by the extractive work of the oil multi-nationals, we are beginning to see less of celebration. We see that in the works of Nimo Bassey, Tanure Ojaide; we see that in the poetry of Ogaga Ifowodo, Ebi Yeibo; we see that in the novels of Isidore Okpewho, Chiemeka Garricks, Kaine Agary, in the poetry of Obari Gomba, and in the works of a host of other creatives. It appears the challenges of the environment have called writers of the Niger Delta to wake up to the issues confronting the environment. There’s an extinction taking place in the Niger Delta, and not just of flora and fauna, but of human life. And there’s little or no mitigation taking place from government or the multi-nationals.”
The university don therefore called for what he termed environmental stewardship, of accountability to the Niger Delta environment and her people who suffer the brunt of the crude behaviour of oil multi-nationals who engage in double standards in oil exploitation the way they dared behave in their home countries.
“As I said before, writers, more than any group of people, must be involved in raising awareness, in raising consciousness and calling for environmental stewardship,” he said. “We have moved from the point of praising the environment to the point where we have to raise awareness and insist that there must be a culture of resistance to all forms of industrial practices that are destroying the environment, and we must also mobilise, if there’s need for mobilisation. So not just writers, but photographers like George Oshodi and other art practitioners. We must insist on environmental stewardship, raise advocacy among the communities to rise up and speak for and defend the environment. It’s important to do this, because the environment is not an abstraction; the environment is where we live. If the environment is degraded and constantly degraded, it means that we are constantly in danger of being destroyed. We must be resilient.”
Gomba does not understand why Nigeria’s political power has remained deaf and dumb to entreaties to redressing the negatively impacted Niger Delta environment since the 1950s when extractive activities started. He argued people of the region needed to apply whatever tactic is necessary to forced government to do what needs to be done, so the people do not continue on the path of slow and certain death the Nigerian state wish them in its refusal to remedy environmental degradation of the oil-rich region. He said Nigeria’s political power has shown itself to be an agency of environmental despoliation, and has either chosen to ignore efforts to redress or withhold means of redressing the environment.
According to Gomba, “Government has shown itself incapable of being sensitive to the issues of the environment of the Niger Delta. That means we must be resilient, we must persist in calling attention to issues of the environment. I believe it’s a collective responsibility of everybody who lives in the Niger Delta to make contributions to issues of the environment, to joining or setting up platforms that make moves for redress to take place. Mustering redress for the degraded environment has been the most knotty issue.
“There’s the centrality of power in redressing the issues of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta, power as an agency of despoliation, power as a capacity to ignore redress or withhold redress. With issues of environmental degradation, Nigeria’s political power appears to be deaf. What that simply means is that for us to be able to put in place programmes of redress, we must come to the place where power yields, where power comes to understand the necessity for redress and remediation. That has possibly been the most knotty subject matter in the entire conversation. As much as advocacy is important, if we do not come to the point where we win over or compel or pressure power to yield its ground, its control, its profiteering, to become human-centred, environmentally-conscious, we may not make any progress.”
He called on people of the Niger Delta to take stock of how far they have come down the road of neglect since oil exploitation started in their region, adding whatever their self-reflection yields should spur them to greater vigour in taking their environmental destiny in their own hands and act, since time was running out for them.
“So, if you look at how far we have travelled through time in this region since the exploration and commercialisation of crude oil, and we look at where we are now, can we say we have made any significant progress in terms of environmental remediation?” he asked. “What that simply means is that we are running out of time. What that simply means is that the future is bleak. Every day that passes the environment is being negatively impacted, and we are the ones who are most affected by environmental degradation. We must all lend our voices for remediation. We must all become communicators. We must all use all media platforms that are available to us – social media, groups that we belong to, pressure groups, traditional media, whatever we can lay our hands on – to call attention to the challenges of the environment. We need to do that. Why? Because it’s a matter of life and death, and that death is our own death if we do not engage our own society and force change as soon as possible!”