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British colonialism’s horrific legacy has not only suppressed this complex African state’s prosperity but is now causing dangerous desertification
“Last week, my wife was saying ‘can we go back to fuel wood?’ – even to me!”
I met Umar on the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow. He told me that the £13 fare would have cost him three days’ salary, if the Scottish government hadn’t issued travel cards to conference delegates. But he self-funded his long journey from northern Nigeria to COP26 in the middle of a global pandemic because he is very concerned about desertification in the Sahel.
The global gas crisis, he said, has pushed up the cost of cooking gas across the country – it has roughly doubled over the last year. Cooking with gas is a relatively new innovation in the country. According to the website, Vanguard Nigeria, the country only used 40,000-50,000 metric tonnes of natural gas in 2008. Today, the total annual requirement is about 1.3m metric tonnes: a growth of over 2,000%.
For many Nigerians, the solution to this is simple – return to what they used to cook with: fuel wood. And here lies the problem.
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Umar’s home region, in the north of Nigeria, sits within the Sahel. This semi-arid Savannah land is rapidly being swallowed up by the Sahara desert – at a rate of 0.6 kilometres a year, he estimates.
Millions of Nigerians returning to wood as their source of cooking fuel means that more trees are being cut down. And, like ash follows fire, desertification follows deforestation.
The very fact that Nigerians are subjected to these bends and bumps of the international gas market infuriates Umar: “I don’t think the government is addressing the problem sufficiently. We have more than enough natural gas. Nigeria exports crude oil, we don’t even process it here, we have to export it and re-import it.”
The fact that Nigeria – the world’s eleventh largest oil producer – spends billions of dollars a year importing petrol and gas is a painful relic of imperialism.
When the country first struck oil in 1956, it was a British colony, and rather than refining the crude where it was extracted – adding commercial value and creating good jobs in the process – British companies shipped it to the UK, building an enormous refinery in Wales.
This reliance on the international market to power such an oil-rich country is not only accelerating desertification but contributing to another problem too.
“Desertification in northern Nigeria [means that] people have lost their sources of livelihood, thereby creating climate refugees across the country and beyond, which led to the rising of insurgencies in the region by Boko Haram,” Umar explained.
With former farmers desperate to survive, banditry and kidnapping rates have soared. In September, the government instructed all telecommunications companies to shut down their networks in Zamfara state in the north west of the country to try and take on the kidnappers.
According to Umar: “They kidnap people – they don’t have enough money to shift to industrial agriculture because of low rainfall and low crop yield, so people have to create a means of making a living.”
When he was due to travel to the area recently to give a lecture on climate change, Umar recalled that his friends were shocked, asking him; “How can you travel to that zone?”
While some struggling farmers turn to banditry, others are forced to migrate.
The phenomenon of nomadic farmers from across Nigeria and beyond driving their herds onto the rich, tropical soils in the south of the country goes back to ancient times. But it has increased in recent decades. As rainfall rates decline in the north, more and more people are moving, and tensions have increased – often snapping into violence and killings.
“Cattle rearers have had to migrate from north to south,” said Umar. “This has created a lot of conflict – they [southerners] feel threatened by people from north Nigeria with their cattle moving to southern Nigeria. They have resorted to killing northerners and telling them to leave.”
And the response of the state to these events has often been even more brutal. In October 2020, revelations of profiling, extra-judicial killings, kidnappings and rapes committed by officers from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) triggered a wave of support for a youth movement to abolish the unit, known as #EndSARS, which was met with violent force, including the police killing and torturing protesters – although, officially, the squad has now been disbanded.
After the Shell-BP teams struck oil, “the life of the land and the history of its people began their terrible descent”
The country that is now known as Nigeria is made up of a rich patchwork of civilisations that were colonised by the British in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in a series of battles that, for some reason, British schoolchildren are never taught about: the annexing of what is now Lagos by British forces in 1861, the conquest of the Ijebu kingdom in 1892, the razing of Nembe in 1895 and the Anglo-Aro war of 1901-1902.
To take one example, the Benin Kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria existed from the 11th century until it was pillaged by the British in 1897 in an act of revenge for Benin’s defeat of a previous British attempt to conquer the kingdom.
Before British troops burnt down Benin city (originally known as Edo), studies have shown that it featured extraordinary architecture and urban planning. The city, including various composite villages, as well as its houses and rooms, were laid out in fractals, from a time before Europeans understood the maths that this would require. The walls surrounding the kingdom are thought to have been the largest earthworks of the pre-industrial era, bigger even than the Great Wall of China.
In 1901, the year that Queen Victoria died, British soldiers arrived in another kingdom – Ogoniland on the delta of the River Niger and, in 1914, having conquered the region in the face of some resistance, they absorbed it into the new colony of Nigeria.
In their book ‘Crude Britannia’, James Marriott and Terry MacAlister recounted how a deal signed in Whitehall in 1936 decided the fate of the people in the region, granting a joint venture between Shell and BP rights to explore for oil anywhere in Nigeria’s 370,000 square miles – “it was, and remains, one of the largest concession deals ever signed”, the authors wrote.
For 14 years, the Shell-BP teams surveyed the creeks and mangrove forests and, eventually, in 1956, they struck oil.
With that, according to Marriott and MacAlister: “The life of the land and the history of its people began their terrible descent.”
Oil pollution poisoned the water and killed the fish that much of the population lived off. The wells were flatulent, and the spouting gas was burned in demonic flares, drowning out birdsong and stinking up the air.
The Ogoni people resisted this extraction of wealth from their land for the profit of these British companies, but their resistance was suppressed – most famously in the tragic case of Ken Saro-Wiwa, an environmental activist who was executed by a military tribunal. Despite this resistance, the oil was piped across Ogoniland, taking its vast financial value with it. The tankers that stole it away were often headed to Milford Haven in Wales, from where it was pumped inland to a vast refinery at Llandarcy. From there, this plunder was distributed across the UK, in the form of petrol, plastics and chemicals – revolutionising Britain’s socio-economic landscape and manufacturing much of the synthetic vibe of modern Britain.
While Britain’s growing post-war wealth and comfort was fuelled in large part by Nigerian oil, the presence of huge quantities of crude in Africa’s most populous country has devastated its economy, for two reasons.
Firstly, as with many countries rich in natural resources, the export of ‘black gold’ has inflated the price of the Nigerian Naira currency as buyers need to buy Naira first. The inflated currency makes it hard for any other industries to export their goods. Known by economists as ‘Dutch disease’ because of the decline of manufacturing in the Netherlands after the discovery of natural gas there in the 1980s, this problem seems to have significantly held back the Nigerian economy: in 2019, oil and gas made up around 85% of exports.
But if Nigeria is a classic victim of Dutch disease, it is also such an extreme example of another problem that the World Bank has dubbed it ‘Nigerian disease’. Just as oil props up dictatorships like the one in Saudi Arabia because they can essentially buy off their populations, it also tends to produce “higher corruption, more rent-seeking activity, greater civil conflict, and erosion of social capital,” the Bank said.
But in recent years, one thing has started to change: in 2014, Obama’s fracking boom in the US delivered a collapse in the global price of oil, as the world’s biggest oil consumer became self-sufficient. In 2015, Nigerian oil exports tumbled, and the price of the Naira halved against the dollar.
For Umar, this has been difficult. “The current dollar rate is not helping,” he said. “The exchange rate is what is bringing about all this crisis. The devaluation of Naira has caused lots of problems. It’s too cheap, foreigners have an enabling environment to come and invest. They devalued the currency in order to woo foreign investors.”
GDP has also collapsed, from around US$3,000 per capita in 2014 to around $2,000 today.
And if buying up the country’s infrastructure has become cheaper, then one country was already prepared to take advantage. Since the early 2000s, China’s trade with the African continent has grown by 2,000%, and last month, the Chinese ambassador to Nigeria announced plans to establish banks in the country.
Shortly before COP26 kicked off, President Muhammadu Buhari announced plans to turn the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation from a government agency into a private company. While all the shares in this company will initially be held by the state, there is widespread speculation that this is the first step towards privatisation – which would likely mean foreign investors buying up chunks of the country’s infrastructure. Which foreign investors? One can only guess.
All of this happens in a political context. Nigeria is a country delineated by empire and held together by oil and oppression. Buhari himself was first president in the 1980s after leading a military coup, only to claim a more recent conversion to democracy, and he won election to the role in 2015. The country is home to around a fifth of the total population of Africa, with more than 500 native languages and dialects, and numerous ethnic groups and identities, as well as historic nations and civilisations.
Desertification, floods and coastal erosion are enough evidence. For Nigeria, climate change is not about the perils of tomorrow but what is happening today
If the world does move towards serious action on climate change, then the peoples of Nigeria will have a chance to liberate themselves from the tyranny of oil, and forge an economy based on the energy sovereignty that renewables offer, without the Dutch disease that comes with reliance on mineral exports.
In its Nationally Determined Contribution to the global effort to slash emissions, Nigeria has committed that, by 2030, its emissions will be 20% lower than they would have been in a business-as-usual scenario, and 47% lower, if it is provided with sufficient funding from the Global North.
To some extent, Nigeria will benefit from the various financial initiatives launched at COP26. But any finance given to the country to help it cope with the impacts of climate change and develop as a low carbon economy will be nothing compared with what was sucked from it through that pipeline in Ogoniland, nevermind the centuries of violent occupation. And it will be nothing like what is needed to deliver the required transformation.
If the world doesn’t take serious action to reduce emissions, then the climate instability will likely continue to fuel political violence and the state oppression that comes with it.
At COP26 this week, Buhari announced a target to reach net zero emissions by 2060: ‘‘Desertification in the north, floods in the centre, pollution and erosion on the coast are enough evidence,” he said. ‘‘For Nigeria, climate change is not about the perils of tomorrow but what is happening today.’’
Umar, meanwhile, has been giving lectures across the country about climate change with the Nigerian Environmental Society. “We promote environmental protection, both in theory and in practice,” he said.
The difficulty he faces though, is that, to this day, the people who are destroying much of Nigeria’s environment are not its citizens. And climate action will require reparations for generations of plunder.
Thanks to Owen Paterson, British politicians are at last starting to use the C-word. It’s not just a Westminster bubble story, though: our panel have spent years tracking lobbyists and other professional enablers of corruption and tax avoidance. Join this free live discussion to find out where we can go from here to force transparency and accountability on our self-serving elite.
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Susan Hawley Executive director of Spotlight on Corruption
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