A leading environmental and human rights activist in Africa, Nnimmo Bassey works tirelessly to stand up against the practices of multinational corporations in Nigeria and the environmental devastation they leave behind— destroying the lives and ignoring the rights of the local population. His works have turned Bassey into one of Africa’s leading advocates and campaigners for the environment and human rights.
From human rights to environment
Born on June 11, 1958 in Nigeria, Bassey qualified as an architect and practiced in the public sector for 10 years. In the 1980s, he became active on human rights issues as a member of the Board of Directors of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organisation. However, it was when he witnessed a 1990 assault on the village Umuechem by Nigerian armed forces that he increased his activism. Residents of the oil-rich Niger Delta spoke out against Shell for environmental degradation and economic neglect, but what resulted was two days of violence, which led to 80 people dead and 500 houses burned. The deaths propelled Bassey and his colleagues to take a stand. And in 1993, Bassey co-founded Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a Nigerian advocacy NGO, to deal with environmental human rights issues in the country.
oil in the soil
The petroleum wealth of the Niger Delta runs from the ground into government coffers and the accounts of foreign oil majors, leaving the region one of the poorest in the world. Its schools are crumbling. Its hospitals often lack doors — never mind modern equipment. Electricity, drinking water and employment are all in short supply. The oil itself doesn’t always flow smoothly. Spills are common, all the more so because thieves tap into pipelines and angry villagers prevent infrastructure maintenance. If oil catches fire, it can burn for days. Bassey’s group documents all these consequences and educates people about their rights. “Oil has been the destruction of the Nigerian economy,” says Bassey. “It destroys the relation between the people and the state.”
As co-founder and Executive Director of ERA—the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth—one of Bassey’s focus is oil spills and the widespread damage they cause in Nigeria and other surrounding oil-producing countries: Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sudan. Through ERA, Bassey has initiated lawsuits against the oil companies on behalf of Nigerian communities to protect people’s rights and the environment. Bassey also supports a broader movement across African countries with new discoveries of oil.
It has been estimated that spills equivalent to the size of that from the Exxon Valdez have occurred in the Niger Delta every year over the past 50 years. Bassey says that there are at least 300 (major and minor) spills every year. The Nigerian Government has established that there were more than 3200 spills between 2006 and 2010. Many have not been cleared up; few lead to compensation payments. Life expectancy in the Niger Delta is 41 years, compared to 48 years nationally in Nigeria.
ERA and the local communities blame rusting pipes and other deteriorating infrastructure as the reasons for oil spill and say that often companies are slow to respond. Bassey is convinced that the costs of the oil production are far greater than its benefits so he demands to “leave the oil in the soil”.
But in a country where 85 per cent of government revenues rely on oil money, Bassey’s positions often pit him against the authorities. Under the dictatorship of the 1990s, he was stripped of his travel papers and detained without trial several times. As the battle over Nigeria’s oil wealth has turned into full-blown militancy, he has found himself on the same side as the armed rebels who have taken on the now democratic government in Abuja. While Bassey disagrees with the militants’ tactics — kidnapping of oil workers, attacks on infrastructure, clashes with the military — he stops short of condemning them. “Any society that uses violence against its own people will have a segment that stands up against it”.
In 1996, Bassey led Oilwatch Africa to mobilise communities in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Congo, Ghana, and Uganda to resist destructive oil and gas extraction activities. In 2006, the initiative spread to Oilwatch International, aiding South America and South East Asia.
Gas flaring and GMO
In addition to its work on oil spills, ERA has campaigned against gas flaring, winning a landmark case by a Nigerian High Court in 2005, which ruled that gas flaring is unconstitutional, damages people and the environment, and must stop.
Another major area of ERA’s work is with GMO’s (genetically modified organisms), agro-fuel and food sovereignty. Between 2004 and 2009, Bassey worked to create a regional campaign to speak out against GMO issues such as contamination of natural food sources in Africa.
In Nigeria, ERA trains people on environmental monitoring and gives legal support to communities affected by environmental damage, with Bassey being directly involved in community monitoring as well as media training for Nigerian journalists. Because of these contributions, in 1998, the ERA won the Sophie Prize for its work on environmental justice. —