YENAGOA- Rev. Nnimmo Bassey, a renowned environmental rights advocate, has been conferred with an honorary doctorate of law degree by the York University in Toronto, Canada.
Bassey, an alumnus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and an architect, hails from Akwa Ibom.
Bassey holds a National Honour of Member of Order of Federal Republic (MFR) for Environmental Activism and Executive Director at Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF).
The honour was announced in a statement issued on Sunday by Miss Kome Odhomor, Media/Communication Lead at HOMEF, an environment-focused Non Governmental Organisation (NGO).
According to Odhomor, the event took place on Friday, October 13, at the convocation ceremony of the 64-year-old university.
York is known for driving teaching and research excellence with cross-disciplinary programming, innovative course design and experiential education opportunities.
It is Canada’s third-largest university, and it has around 55,700 students, 7,000 faculty and staff, and over 325,000 alumni worldwide.
HOMEF stated that the Dean of the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, Prof. Alice J. Hovorka, presented Bassey as a candidate for the Doctorate honoris causa, to be conferred by the university at the Convocation.
In her citation, Hovorka said as a long-time champion of sustainability and environmental justice, Bassey has built an irrefutable legacy as an agent of change that will improve the lives of generations to come.
“Nurtured by a deep-rooted commitment to the environment, his journey has been one of relentless advocacy, insightful scholarship, and tireless action.
“Born in Nigeria, Bassey commenced his professional journey as an architect, quickly transcending bounds of the built environment to emphasize the interconnectedness of society and the natural world, becoming one of Africa’s leading advocates and campaigners for the environment and human rights,” the citation said.
Continuing, Hovorka said:”On a continent bearing the brunt of colonialism and unchecked industrial-scale extraction of minerals, Bassey has mobilised and amplified the voices of communities often marginalized in pursuing industrial and economic interests.
“In an era where environmentalism was predominantly driven by Euro-Western perspectives, Bassey played a pivotal role in embedding environmental justice in global discourse, ensuring that the narrative remained inclusive and representative.
“Notably, Bassey co-founded Environmental Rights Action (ERA) in the early 1990s, the first organisation of its kind in Nigeria.
“Under his leadership, ERA encouraged bold and diverse thinking and inspired activists to stand up against the malpractices of multinational corporations and the state.
“ERA was pivotal in forming Oilwatch International in 1996 – a multifaceted network resisting the expansion of fossil fuel extraction in the Global South.
“This initiative’s groundbreaking campaign, ‘Keep Oil in the Ground’, was once considered audacious. Today, it stands as a rallying point for global climate activists confronting the real and urgent impacts of global warming.
“Over the years, Bassey has continued to promote counter-hegemonic scholarship and activism that fully embraces decolonised environmental ideologies.
“To this end, he founded the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) as a beacon of environmental justice in Africa in 2013. And his visionary FishNet Alliance unites artisanal fishers from several African countries to fight against destructive extractive activities in aquatic ecosystems.
“His ability to weave activism into poetry sets him apart. Through his work as a writer, poet and educator, Bassey has not only articulated the urgency of our environmental challenges but also inspired countless individuals to stand up for the planet and its vulnerable inhabitants.
“Rev Bassey often says ‘Art is life, environment is life; if the art does not capture what goes on in the environment, the environment cannot be adequately protected. So, art is a tool for environmental protection and a protected environment ensures a vibrant workforce, vibrant citizenship and a healthy nation with a future.’
“By mobilising this knowledge and fostering collaboration and dialogue, Bassey has reshaped how we think about our responsibilities to future generations.
“Throughout his endeavours, Bassey has demonstrated keen leadership in bringing forth ambitious action and creative solutions. His unwavering commitment to sustainability has sparked global recognition for environmental advocacy, climate justice, and food sovereignty.
“Rev Bassey has received numerous accolades, including the distinguished Right Livelihood Award, the Rafto Prize, and he was named Hero of the Environment by Time Magazine in 2009.
“As an esteemed leader in his field, Bassey is shaping a more just and sustainable world. He clearly embodies York University’s motto ‘tendanda via —the way must be tried’, by fostering positive and long-lasting change for the benefit of future generations and our precious planet.
“He brings a truly global approach to his work and is a shining example of what we can achieve when we commit ourselves to the greater good. It is truly only right that he be chosen as this year’s Honorary Doctorate recipient.”
In his acceptance speech, titled, “Build Solidarity, not Walls”, Bassey thanked the Chancellor and President, and the entire family of York University for the great honour extended to him on Friday.
According to him, “Being born at a time when we were at the edge of breaking free from colonialism, the notion of independence was built early into my psyche. Growing up in innocence and being sucked into a season of violent secession was both disruptive and traumatic.
“This was a season of disruption of my primary education and it yielded an age-long struggle to figure out what was missed in the traumatic gaps of forced migration and survival as a refugee within my country.
“Seasons are episodic otherwise they would not be seasons. At the end of the Biafra-Nigeria civil war, I was already severely scarred by the sights of horrible human rights abuses, man’s inhumanity to man, hunger, disease, cries of men pleading for their lives and several other stressors.
“War games were not video games, but games played with actual bones, fire and gunpowder. Bones of once gallant men who signed up to fight their brothers against whom they had no personal grouse. Today, more investment is being made in warfare, armaments, and destruction than in building resilience and wellbeing in the world.
“My early years were wrapped by tales of resilience and charismatic anti-colonial fighters in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Angola and South Africa. It was a time of learning of the martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Steve Biko, Amilca Cabral, Thomas Sankara and others.
“Meanwhile, my country was under serial authoritarian military dictatorship and as a young adult I could not escape being a part of the human rights and anti-dictatorship movement. Whereas I thought that was the zenith of standing against injustices, more graphic examples were unfolding beneath the radar.
“The wheels of oppression at home were literally oiled by crude oil and sundry extractivist activities. Capital trumped concerns for the health of Mother Earth and her children. Complaints against the destruction of the ecosystems and livelihoods were met with brute force.
“Whole communities were sacked or crushed. Oil spills and heinous routine gas flaring pumped cocktails of noxious elements and gases into the environment, birthing cancers, birth defects, breathing diseases and cutting life expectancy to a mere whisper.
“It was at this time that Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders stood out and called for environmental Justice. Later we learned from Saro-Wiwa’s last writings before his judicial murder that the organising energy rose from the conviction that ‘silence was treason’ in the face of the debilitating pollution!
“The judicial murders and assault on communities were the red lines the dictatorship crossed that set me on a life-long journey of standing for environmental rights as the key basis for the enjoyment of the right to life.
“It has been quite a journey loaded with inescapably fixing one’s attention on environmental horrors, some of which are unimaginable and indescribable.
“While the journey has been mostly across the African continent and the sacrifice zones of the global south, we cannot fail to acknowledge the resistance and resilience of our relatives in the global north who face similar circumstances and continue to fight for environmental justice, dignity and basic rights in the efforts to decolonize their territories.
“Extractivism threatens both people and the planet. Its roots can be seen in every facet of the polycrisis pushing the world to the brink. Fossil fuel corporations, for one, invest so much to alter and control global imaginaries and have so far succeeded as policy makers believe that there is no other way to drive ‘growth’.
“Yet, it is clear we cannot afford lineal growth on a finite planet. While record temperatures, wildfires, floods and other stressors rage across the world, leaders are engrossed in xenophobic nationalism, building barriers against climate refugees and promoting fictional or false and risky climate solutions.
“They stick their tongues out and sneer: we can pollute and then engage in carbon removal; rather than adopt agroecology (which builds healthy soils and cools the planet) and support small- scale fathers who actually feed the world, we will whiten the clouds, hang up mirrors and sunshades in the sky to lower the global temperature.
“We are not surprised that carbon trading is the clarion call and Africa is emerging as a huge carbon sink in what may well be a neocolonial continent grab. An exploitative market cannot be the solution of a crisis created by the market.
“It is a big honour for me to stand before you today. It is clearly a celebratory moment for me. However, a life entwined with that of my peoples is inevitably coated by a cloud of rage. As I look at the hopeful faces in this auditorium I plead that you never allow anything or anyone to steal your joy or to dim your hope.
“In May 2023, Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, one of the most polluted places on planet Earth, released through its Environment and Oil Commission, a report somberly titled Environmental Genocide. The report, among other things, revealed that the per capita pollution in the state stands at one and a half barrels of crude oil.
“Rather than being aghast by such a revelation, the world has been loudly silent. We hear talks of decarbonising economies at a time we should be depetrolising the ebbing civilisation and detoxifying the sacrifice zones.
“The milestones in my journey and the successes in the midst of continual battles have come by the resilience of the peoples and communities. We see expanding movements and readiness of communities to suffer inconveniences today for the sake of building a sane future for those yet unborn.
“I have seen the power of traditional wisdom and cultural production in building hope and strengthening alliances against oppression. Talking about cultural production, poetry has been a therapeutic tool for me.
“Through poetry, we capture the past and present and construct the future. It is a tool that exposes folly, elicits action and provides strength even in difficult moments.
“This is not a time to walk alone. Belonging to the York University family offers a layer of strength, not just for me but for my constituencies.
“This is indeed a time to stand together to demand justice in all circumstances, to call for an end to ecocide, to build solidarity and not walls and to restore hope in our time. I dedicate this honour to the martyrs of extractivism and environmental defenders everywhere.
“And I thank you.” Bassey said. (NAN)