Flash Back: Exclusive Interview with Nigeria’s Former Environment Minister Amina Mohammed

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…Ogoniland oil spill clean-up- towards Salvaging the Niger Delta Region.

After long years of waiting, a gleam of hope has finally come for those living in the oil-rich Niger Delta of Nigeria. Nigeria’s Minister for Environment, Amina J. Mohammed, in an exclusive interview with African Leadership Magazine’s Kingsley Okeke and Eruke Ojuederie, explains the significance of the Ogoni clean-up, as well as major steps, have been put in place towards the implementation of this process. Excerpt:

History was made with the flag-off of the Ogoni clean-up but people would like to know the timeline scheduled for the completion. What are they to expect after the flag-off?

Getting to the launch (of the Ogoni clean-up exercise) was a long and complicated journey; it has been decades for the people of Ogoni to get to that point on the 2nd of June, 2016.  I think it was more complicated in the last one year at the time that this administration came in and reiterated its commitment at the G7 meeting, where it was communicated to UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme), to the time that UNEP came and started the environmental process again.

There are Issues around representation. The UNEP report is here and we talk about how to implement it but getting to the launch is all about how we are going to put the pieces in place for implementation. They agree on the implementation report, but yet to agree on the implementation plan, and representation is important.

The launching was to signal that the government meant business. It was also to mark a historical moment that the struggle is over. The new challenge will be to clean and stay clean, but then how are we going to put those building blocks in place for implementation? The idea of having a road map or timeline is not sincere if they really expected that because this is not the normal situation. There are injustices; there is currently a conflict; there is pollution, and it’s going to take 25 years to clean-up. It (the timeline) cannot be put in place in 24 hours.

Putting government structures in place, the representatives and board of trustees should be done with care because it is first and foremost about Ogoni land and also about the wider Niger Delta and the pollution. The intention to clean up is there. We have launched it, and these structures will be put in place and announced in time. I don’t think we are going to be pushed to say the hour and the day we are going to do that. This is government. We are not micro managed by the public. We have to deliver to the public, but we will not be micro-managed by them.

We continue to dialogue. There are many stakeholders from MASSOB, (Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra), the civil society, the political elite, business community, and contractors that need to come in and do this, as well as other sectors of government. Without them, I wouldn’t succeed because it is a multi-sectorial system. It is about petroleum and the diversification of the economy. After the clean-up, what do I have to stop youths from going in and breaking pipelines? What do I have in place for a stronger regulatory environment to make sure companies don’t come and pollute again? So there are a number of activities which we will lay out slowly.

What to expect in the coming weeks is the setting up of those government structures and who is going to be a part of that. We will announce how the financing mechanism will work. Basically, it is understood that we have a billion dollars to go into the initial phase and it will be put in a trust fund. Whether it goes in with a period of 5years as recommended or upfront is still left to discussion. How do we leverage other government resources to do what is supposed to be done? What we are going to do in the wider Niger Delta that needs additional funding? What do we do in terms of monitoring and evaluation such that everyone can monitor what is going on? These are the pieces to be put in place.

What we did do before the launch was to establish four ad-hoc committees and they are representatives of mostly people from Ogoni land and some in other states across the Niger Delta. First, we have community and stakeholder engagement. How can we carry everybody along especially the women? The second is about training. We’ve said that we are going to train Ogoni youths first. There are hundreds of them, so who are we going to train first and on what? And it has to be parallel to actually doing some of the actions we plan. I hear government agencies have trained about 1,500 youths but the communities are saying those are not our people; so who are they?  The third is that we have to look at the centre of excellence and what we call soil laps. Where should they be placed, are we expecting white elephants? It is going to be a collaboration. Is it going to be in an institution? What do they expect and what should we do? And I think that is not clear to people and so it is important we engage with them. Last but not the least, and in fact, the most important is emergency response. It is a little bit sad that we called emergency response after so many years of the spill. People have lived with the toxicity in water, land and food. So, emergency response is one of the low hanging fruits.  The quick things we can do is to show good fate that we mean launch to implementation. We need to listen to people because if their ideas are away from what the reality is, we can communicate with them and bring them back. It is doable.

During the submission of the UNEP report to the Nigerian government in 2011, the UNEP team emphasized the need for swift action to prevent the pollution footprint from spreading further and exacerbating the already tragic legacy for the Ogoni people. It is five years since that call was made. Would you say that the report is still valid, considering the speed at which experts have said the contaminants travel?

The basic principles of the UNEP report still stand. I think, when we go into the field, we will get a greater understanding of an update on the baseline that they have given us. But the basic principles stand and are not out-dated. We know where the legacy sites are, and what type of pollution we are dealing with; it may have grown worse but it is still pollution. So, what will be the response to that? We may have to do more now since we have left it so late. I think basically it hasn’t changed. What will change are the different technologies we have today. Five years on, there is so much out there that is much more useful today than there were five years ago that may accelerate some of the things that we do. And in other cases, technology now allows us to mark the place in real-time and to see all over if we have got to clean up the sites that we are seeing third-party breaks, bunkering, illegal refineries, re-contamination. We can see that now before even going to the area.  I think there is a lot more we have in terms of tools to help us plan quicker and that’s what I hope we do.

Where do you start first with the cleanup? It has to be where there is a dividend after the clean-up. If am just cleaning up the creek then they will be saying “what is this? Just to see pretty mangrove and ecosystem? That is not what I am going to eat.” So, we have to find a balance in trying to do that restoration with cleaning up areas that people get a direct impact. Fishing, ponds, farming, and water that they drink are a top priority. Women are currently farming and eating food that is toxic; we can clean up that land and allow them to farm on it. If they can farm on it, what are the alternatives today? How can we put industrial parks up? How can we do aquaculture? How can we do farming with just water? There are so many things we can do that we can get livelihood from. We want to be able to give a menu of options to people in Ogoni land and particularly young people because young people are restless. They have ambition and want things “yesterday”. So, nobody is going to tell them that in 10 years-time, you will get something.

While it has been established that some on-the-ground results could be immediate, overall, the report estimates that countering and cleaning up the pollution and catalyzing a sustainable recovery of Ogoni land could take 25 – 30 years and will require long-term financing. What are some of the plans in place to ensure that this project does not suffer the fate of similar noble projects that were short-lived owing to politics and inconsistencies?

You are a Nigerian, I am a Nigerian, and there is no ‘must’ in Nigeria that we know. What we do have in place are the intentions and those intentions we have captured in the gazette. We have revised a framework which the government holds. It goes through the Federal Executive Council. We know that the cabinet has looked at this and backed it. That is political will. The UNEP report gives an international perspective and we are working closely with the national assembly. So, they know what is to be expected, and then we put in place the road map. The next 3 years will be about us putting those building blocks in place without looking back because the work we are doing is good. It serves as an incentive to the next administration to continue on the good work we have put in place. We know from the past that incentives were not there initially and I think inclusion, giving people ownership in the process of the clean-up, is really important. Then, the demand will be made and it is something we can’t turn back. Every day, we work in this office and it’s about how to make sure this is sustainable after we leave. This is not about President Buhari or Aisha Mohammed who is working on his behalf. It’s really about what we can lay down in this administration, which no other administration can reverse. Three (3) years is too short a time to say whether we will make it or not, but I think indications are that we have enormous support and trust by the communities. We are continuing to build bridges because it is difficult. People have mistrusted government for a long time and there is good reason, but what we are trying to do is to put those building blocks back and to start with the community and women and young people.

Outside the circle of environment expert, climate change issues have scarcely received much attention in the country, considering the enormity of this discourse. What is your Ministry doing to raise awareness and consciousness of citizens on climate change issues in the country?

You will be surprised how much buzz there is. The Nigerians that participated in the climate change conference in Paris were not the government. These were NGO’s and social activists. I think the environmental agenda and the climate change agenda have really had a flying flag in Nigeria all over the world. I wasn’t here in the last four years but Nigeria’s voice was very loud in the international community. I think Nigerians’ voices don’t get heard over here necessarily but everyone has been aware of what climate change has caused in terms of floods and rising levels. When you go to Lagos, everybody will tell you about the rising levels of the sea and you know that that is due to emissions. They may say it is because of some investment going on, but it’s more than that. The rising sea levels are there because of emissions and global warming. We see desertification. Everybody sees that. You walk towards it you see the great green wall put in place; you see tree planting trying to succeed although it is not very successful. So I think people do know about climate change. Whether it is deemed real or not, I don’t know. Scientists argue about this all over the world, not just in Nigeria. It only became real in Nigeria after the agreement in Paris and then you saw people saying: “If it’s real we can start looking for the things to mitigate and adapt to climate change.” So how can we go about our energy mix? We are now looking at our gas flaring. We are not even saying by 2020, we are saying two or three years before.

So, I think there is much more seriousness and political leverage for climate change now. I think we will hear more about it if we are better at communicating the programmes we are involved in because those are actually addressing climate change. I think that is something every ministry has to talk about.

The INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) is the first time we will get the opportunity to say specifically what each sector is doing a few months before we go to New York and sign the final agreement. So, if it is the great green wall, how are we actually reclaiming the desert and making it an economic corridor for jobs? If it is the energy mix, what is the minister of power doing with solar energy, hydro, and wind? If we are talking about the transport sector, we already have people who will be in place to look at the emission from vehicles and we will start with the FCT, and there will be fines for that to clean it up. We are also looking at what we will do with generators because we have millions of generators and they cause so much pollution. While at the Ministry of Transport, somebody came in with an idea of the way in which to treat polluted communities when we dispose of engine oil. The Italian gentleman gave me the statistics and I said we are interested in turning that waste to wealth and we are thinking of ways to recycle it. So, there are different pieces of it, just like smart agriculture, and diversification of the economy; and here research comes in, science comes in and we collect the top 10 agriculture products that we can put on the value chain, and how we can be smart about growing them; and I think that is going to help us in the way we till the land. The fertilizer that we use, the time we take for gestation, all these are factors in trying to address climate change. But that is the new narrative here. We have to communicate it. How do we empower people? How do we take climate action, and how do we protect the environment?

Some experts have observed that Nigeria may lose between 6% and 30% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2050 if urgent steps are not taken to address the negative effects of global warming. What is your Ministry doing to mitigate this projection?

It’s all about our national contributions to climate change. It is what we are trying to figure out now. We have an ambitious profile of what we would do that is not conditional and those are what we are discussing now with sectors, so that within 2017, 2018, 2019, to 2030, the budget will reflect that and investments will reflect it; and just as I have said now, what we are doing on agriculture, the energy sector, the transport sector, will actually remedy that projection for 2050. We also have to advocate for resources and technology to come into the country because the international community has promised that if we do so much with our own domestic resources unconditionally, then they will assist with the conditional one of growing green, using less coal and fossil fuel.  So, we have to work our way to see how we can get other financings to mitigate some of those issues that may put us not in a good place for our projection in 2050.

We say we are going to grow; but if we grow the way we are growing now, we will only lose those investments because we will have to go back to growing them. So, when a factory is saying they are doubling their capacity, what fuel are they using? In some cases its coal. If they must continue to use coal, it can be decarbonized and cleaned up. They can move a transition for us to see that we are making the effort to grow because we’ve got population issues, land management issues and then, of course, it’s exacerbated by climate change. What we don’t really talk about is that interface between climate change and conflict and that’s for us where we can push the urgency so that the 2050 vision that we see of this case does not happen.

We see it with Lake Chad, the exacerbation of poverty, conflict, and Boko Haram. We see that farm lands, grazing land, and grazing routes become tensioned because of desertification and urbanization. You see conflict, you see the pollution of the Niger Delta, then you see people losing hope that they have a future and that becomes another cause for conflict. So, I think we have lots of reasons why we should take notice now. It is a bit late in the day, but it is better late than never and so I think we have a bright future of possibilities. Financing is tight. We are probably one of the Ministries with the least budget but when we look at what we are trying to focus on, we are laying a foundation for infrastructure towards securing our country and our people so that they are safer, addressing governance issues like corruption, looking at the root cause and strengthening institutions. Then, I say that is a good foundation for me to build on and I think that is helpful when I want to say I have a number of projects and how do I get more money for these projects. Recently we went to the stock exchange and everyone was surprised that I was there but it’s about green bonds. They offered a proposal for financing instruments from the capital market and that can augment what we do in government because the government can’t do it alone; but in addition to bringing money into this, it brings discipline because the private sector wants returns. The pipeline of projects that the green bonds will fund depends on the means that we have to be much more disciplined about the type of projects we bring in. No white elephants. Everything must deal with empowering people and bringing the profit in without destroying the environment.

Some analysts have argued that Africa is worst hit by global warming, yet contributes very little to the global discourse on climate change, especially in the areas of policy formulation. What in your view can be done to make the continent’s voice count in the global discourse on climate change?

Our voice is already being heard. We were loud and clear in Paris and that’s why we got such a good agreement and I think ambitions were pushed. It wasn’t enough but I think where we have also got a voice for this is the INDC. There is conditional and unconditional. We have the least to do with the issues of global warming, yet we are suffering the most. If we are going to grow, and the rest of the world doesn’t want to suffer, then they have to support us to go green. If they don’t, it will be worse for everyone because if we continue with global warming, we will exacerbate the situation of conflict and migration. It is in everybody’s interest to invest in Africa so that we can deal with the issues of climate change and in particular, we will save the injustices, pressure of poverty, but also on our growth. We need to grow; we need to grow fast because our population is growing, and we have to live on the forces of climate change today which has been about emissions which essentially has nothing to do with Africa. If you collect the whole of Africa, the effect on global warming from our end is little, but if we don’t take care of it, it will increase as we are growing. So do you want us to grow brown or green? Green is in the interest of everyone including ourselves, but it is also about surviving. You cannot tell a Nigerian that their survival will have to wait, while some other country is trying to grow green. They will say “so burn the coal please I need to survive”.



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