Lawrence Dube describes himself as the servant of the people and a mangrove enthusiast. A pastor, Dube is the executive director of Citizens Trust which does legislative advocacy by supporting citizens right and participation in legislative work. He is also the secretary, Rivers State board, West African Network in Peacebuilding.
In an exclusive interview on whether the Niger Delta environment is creating jobs or destroying jobs, he said vehemently that the environment or what is left of it after 60 years of oil exploitation is a killer.
The Niger Delta environment is not creating jobs the way it is, it is rather destroying jobs. First it has destroyed old jobs. The two major jobs we see these days are oil industry jobs and oil bunkering jobs. In the first category, the oil companies employ few persons to service oil exploration and extraction. In terms of absorbing people, the biggest organisation that does that is the church, and the oil industry is not a church. It’s a place for few hands.
Oil theft, the only job going on
Any other job is oil theft, which everybody regards as a fallout of negligence and abandonment of the people. Another is the Nigerian kind of politics where criminality pays and the right thing doesn’t work.
Nigeria’s oil industry is a disaster that shouldn’t be imagined anywhere. There is no place in the world where they steal oil to the magnitude that obtains in Nigeria. We are funny people, and our own human story is bizarre (you can’t understand it) and unique (you can’t find it elsewhere). This makes it dangerous in the sense that we are unable to deal with it.
Yes, oil can be taken from the soil but in Nigeria, it is taken in a way that destroys everything. Sustainable and civilized oil exploitation is when you take it in a way that it neither destroys life or the environment (other things in the ecosystem).
The mangrove enthusiast
People say I have a huge passion for the environment, and I do not deny this. Apart from God, the highest passion I think I have is Nature. I tell people every day that I am a mangrove enthusiast.
If you see any man of about 80 years who comes from mangrove areas like Bodo in Ogoni, parts of Okrika, Ogu/Bolo, Opobo, Kalabari, Bonny, Okrika, Nembe or Brass, and parts of Ibono, Oron, parts of Cross River, and if they tell their stories about the mangrove, you will weep.
Mangrove, the maternity home for fishes
Yes, the mangrove is the maternity home, the breeding centre for fishes from the ocean.
With the mangrove, you don’t need money because everything needed to survive is there. Mangrove is breeding ground for fish. It is the maternity for fish. That is where big fishes from the ocean come and lay eggs, and the eggs give birth to millions of fish. But because of oil, our mangrove forests have been destroyed.
You have varieties of fish including shell fish, some you pick on the mangrove trees. You have other mangrove animals. It is a congregation. It is a unique place. Probably the biblical garden of Eden was a mangrove forest. It is home of very unique fish and animals.
Everything you can imagine is there. By the shores of the mangrove, you can pick fish. The tide from the ocean washes out various kinds of fish ashore.
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The ruins of oil
But for oil, you could see fishes as big as man. From Lagos to Calabar is mangrove and it’s probably the largest mangrove in the world. You could see millions of fishes playing as seen in on Discovery Channel. All this has gone. That is what oil has done to us.
The coast is Nigeria’s wealth. The number one wealth is the mangrove and its content, it is not oil. Any fish you see on television channels on Nature we had it, even whale, sharks. In Bayelsa, they once caught one ugly fish that looks like a chimpanzee. We said, take this thing back, don’t eat it.
Nature, culture and mangrove
The forest is part of the people’s culture. We lived in an environment of nature. Some fishes were treated as deities; they were worshipped.
The mudslides would supply periwinkles (isam), lobsters, prawns, etc. With the mangrove, you didn’t need money. You picked things and people would give you money. The only man that was poor was a lazy person. If you come back from the mangrove or the river, you get what you wanted. Nobody lacked what to eat.
When they say it was subsistence living, its fraud. People exploited the mangrove according to their abilities. There were fishes during heavy water and during dry season. They dried fish during dry season and kept it. You could dry shark and some kinds of fish and keep the for years. Now, oil has destroyed all this.
If Niger Delta had no oil
Many ask, if there was no oil, where would Niger Delta been now? There would have been over-harvesting of fish, but it wouldn’t have been this bad from oil destruction. Yes, some nations would have been sending trawlers to harvest fish here. Our leaders would have collaborated with them, but all of that would not have been like oil. The colonial politicians did not understand the magnitude of the wealth in the mangrove.
The people were clamouring for special development, and got a development commission.
The rain forest
Everything you see in other countries are right there in our rain forests; lions, monkeys, hippopotamus, baboons, etc. There is the snake island in Bodo. Any variety of forest is in the Niger Delta. Mangrove timber is another. Fresh water forest is there. Mangrove forest is our gift. Mangrove timber is stronger than Iroko. Parrots live on top of mangrove trees. We had parrot forests all over. Eagles had clusters.
Without oil, we still had lives. Excessive fishing would have been a problem, but because there would have been no extractive pressure, there would have been sanity. Fishes from the ocean would have been replenishing the fish stock.
There would have been a forest or fish development commission. Oil took all of that away. We got pollution and destruction of rivers, forests, ponds, all many other horrible things they did. The worst of it is spills that are not cleaned up.
That is a fallout of the injustice, discrimination, and alienation of the people of the lace. Young people and local actors now said, oh, we can steal this oil. With collaboration from security agents, oil, and government officials, they moved into industrial scale.
Two types of people are involved; young people and women who took care of families have joined. Men did fishing and farming, but now in oil theft business.
We are angry and we understand how unique our country is. When the South is planting, the north is harvesting. It’s a blessing. There is harvesting all the year. Each region has what it produces and supplies.
We have two fresh water rivers with plenty fish; River Niger and River Benue, plus Lake Chad that is fast drying up. We never lacked anything, but one problem is that Nigeria has no value for nature or environment.
Even when our political leaders were taking certain decisions, they never cared about environment protection, conservation, preservation, sustainability.
Nnadi Azikiwe, Obafei Awolowo, and Ahmadu Bello who never agreed on anything were always in agreement when it came to negligence of the Niger Delta or the minorities. Michael Okpara created Obudu Ranch, but it is dead. If you go there, you will weep. Bad road has stopped people from going there.
That is an investment destination. Calabar was a place many wanted to be outside Lagos. The place is a beautiful landscape. Going round is like going round Nigeria. That is the gift God gave the Niger Delta and we have lost it.
Why anger seethes:
You can’t be over-angry about the loss of the Niger Delta environment and nature. Any level of lamentation is worth it, except those who don’t understand it. But for oil, you would see a fish longer than a car that missed its way into the creeks and the community people would kill it.
It’s in our nature that any strange thing we see, we kill. Abroad, they will call the government. There, people fish for sports and return it. Lions stray into the human environment and guards rush them. You see foxes, hyena, etc. There are different kinds of lions. We do not have anything left.
There are areas you should not fish in foreign countries. They are preserving their species for the next 400 years to come.
If we had care for our biodiversity, aquatic resources, we would not be bordered.
The environment is not creating jobs:
Leisure and tourism are gone. Outsiders would have been fishermen here because already Igbos are in Nembe and Bonny crossing waters. It would have been fun seeing other cultures and ethnicities coming to see what we have and maybe exploit these resources.
Advocacy without knowledge:
Many times, our activism is not backed up by knowledge. Some just get some money from a foundation and scratches matter on the surface and that is it. Nobody goes deep to unearth the issues and resources damaged.
The richest persons were fishermen:
The richest persons in Ogoni were fishermen. They were funding football clubs up to 1960s. They were travellers up to Guinea and all of West Africa. The coastline was their route, and they followed the tide and were guided by the night star as compass. They paddled their wooden boats. They didn’t mind the risks. Some died in the ocean.
The problem we face is oil. We didn’t need oil to develop. The way you have Argungu fishing festival in Sokoto is how we had fishing festivals. I saw the last in 1984.
Do you know that when they were building the Niger Delta River Basin Development Authority there is a place, Fisheries Development Centre in Bodo. The relics exist to this day.
Single tree forest is evil:
The forest was capable of developing the people. The river can send us to school, the forest can send us to school.
Our forest system was unique. We didn’t believe in one single tree forest. We believe that the forest will be a place for all trees. If you do palm tree plantation, nothing else will grow. But multiple tree forest allows an ecosystem of trees, banana, snails, etc. The white man came and made us to do single tree forest. They took our trees and gave us rubber to do plantation.
Our forest system was an ecosystem full of everything. They destroyed our rain forest and gave us palm tree plantation. It is a selfish tree. They say its economic tree, every tree is economic. We have been defrauded. Every tree has value.
Rain forest, God’s gift:
The rain forest was God’s gift to us. It was so strange that we started worshipping it. We gave names of deities to some of them, and when you get inside, you feel strange things. Some were forbidden forests where suicide victims or outcasts were thrown into at death.
Single Tree Plantation system is the worst legacy given to Africans and Niger Delta people. It is evil to bring down a forest and replace it with a single tree.
What can the NDDC do:
At the moment, the people do not believe in the Niger Delta Development Commission any more. They are seen as terrible people. They cannot do anything and I will not recommend it to them. Their eyes are elsewhere, utopian. But if at all they want to do anything, the forests that are left can be turned into forest reserves.
They can put a restriction on them. From Akwa Ibom to Calabar, you see women selling palm oil harvested in forests. Parts of Ogoni have forests. Akwa Ibom has already made mistakes by pulling down forests to plant cocoanuts, single tree plantation.
NDDC can do conservation programme. Bringing down a forest to construct road is wrong. You can create a bypass to get to where you are going and not destroy a forest. Or, everything you take from the forest, you go and plant it somewhere else. Everything in the forest has a role. Animals are important to nature, even if some are dangerous. If you destroy their homes, they dislocate natural system.
We do not have a development system that is environmentally sensitive.
The first mistake of the NDDC is their interpretation of project as construction instead of transforming a people from one level to another in ways that would not destroy their environment. It’s about projects, contracts, etc. There is no soft side to it.
If they want to do something, they should go back to fashion their development strategies to fit into the fragility of the Niger Delta environment ecosystem. They should invest in forestry, and they could plant new forests. You can revamp mangroves and when they grow, they would attract biodiversity.
Ogoni cleanup model should be for all Niger Delta:
This clean up in Ogoni should be a Niger Delta programme for the whole area. We do not have the political will to clean the Niger Delta environment. We have lost everything
There is huge opportunity in transportation by water. This can be from Port Harcourt to Lagos and Calabar. There are fast ferries. Individuals can own ferries and they partner with the Navy to escort the ferries. In shorter time, you get to your destination, easy. Oron to Calabar is 30 minutes. God has blessed this area but we have missed it.
In every conversation about oil, one partner-owner is always missing, the communities. It’s the state and the corporations that are talking and stealing the oil. That is the reality of the oil gift.
They are reaping without replacing it.