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Jibunoh: Humans would be worst hit if we fail to preserve earth


Jibuno Desert<br />Photo: CNN

Environmentalist and founder of Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE), Dr. Newton Chukwukadibia Jibunoh, spoke to OMIKO AWA on the importance of bridging the Sahara desert and checking desertification, and how to preserve the earth. 

Over the years, you have been so concerned with the issue of deforestation and desertification. Why?
AS a young man and in my mid-20s, I decided to be adventurous, and in the spirit of adventure, I decided to drive from London across Europe, and across the Sahara to North Africa and then to Nigeria. That was in 1966 and the journey took me two months. I was just exploring as a young man looking for adventure.

How were you refueling?
I calculated what I needed for the trip, took some along in the car, while I got others from the various depots that I landed. Such a trip had never been embarked upon, so, I was the first person to do it.


When I went to embassies to get a visa, officials were shocked when I told them my mission. Some of them almost turned down my visa request because they thought I wanted to kill myself. It took me eight months to plan the journey, and it exposed me to the Sahara Desert, the biggest desert in the world. I also saw the damage that the desert was causing all the countries on its borders. I am talking about the 1960s.

As a young man, who had no ‘voice,’ I tried to write and talk about my experiences on some platforms after the journey. This was how my activism started in the 1960s, and I have been talking about the desert and desert encroachment till now.

Lake Chad was a beauty; it was one of the natural lakes in the world. I saw it as a sea on its own, and I knew that if nothing was done to the Sahara Desert, that it would end up swallowing the lake. This is gradually coming to pass because these water bodies, including oasis, are no longer there.

I also knew that if nothing is done to tame the Sahara, it would eventually take over the farmlands, grazing fields of neighbouring countries and the consequences will be the migration of animals and human beings. This is because they do not have any green land to graze and as such have to migrate to where there are grasses. This is what nomadic life is all about, and it is what we have today. I predicted this about 40 to 50 years ago, but nobody listened.

How do you feel seeing your predictions come to pass?
This is why I write in The Sun Newspaper to let the world know that I started talking about all these dangers a long time ago. I still talk about them because I do not want to die leaving the problems unsolved. Fortunately, I now have a team of wonderful people that are passionate about the environment. I have taken them to the desert to see the dangers. I will continue to write about the dangers until my pen dries up, or my voice ceases.


What contributions can Nigeria make to save Lake Chad and stem the desert encroachment?
Well, we have to tame the Sahara Desert, even though it is massive, it is surely possible. Do you know that apart from Europe that has no desert, all other continents that have it knew about 50 to 60 years ago that the desert would eat them up if they do not tame it? That was how they started taming the desert.

Next to the Sahara Desert in size is Gobi Desert in China. I have visited it and I saw what China has done, and is still doing to tame it. I have even gone ahead to publish a book on how to tame the Sahara Desert and how to build a trans-Sahara highway across it. China did it in Gobi. They built 4, 000 km of a railway across it and with this, settlements began to spring up in the desert.

Would do just that tame the Sahara Desert?
Yes, because for you to be able to build, you must green it. Greenery is the only solution to desert encroachment. It is during greenery that you have trees and provides nurseries. That is what was done in Arizona and California in the United States, and in Australia and Israel. This is the only way you can tame the desert. That the Sahara Desert is the largest desert in the world does not mean it cannot be tamed.

I have handed over to the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) my design on how to tame the Sahara. I am also interfacing with them to see the workability of the project. Since the NSE is also affiliated to the African engineers’ body, I am working with them so that if anything happens to me, they would take over from where I stopped. The project is huge and we have to give 20 to 30 years for the greening process before settlements are brought in.

Are human activities not part of the reasons that this desert is fast encroaching?
It is in a way, but we also have human activities in the Negev in Israel, Nevada in Arizona and other places, yet the countries have not gone underground. Do you know that Las Vegas was built in the middle of the desert as part of a mitigation project? The nomadic Fulani life is structured around animal husbandry; all they want to do is take care of the animals. We have people like this in Australia, Israel, and China; all they want to do is to graze in an open space; they know what climate change is all about. They know that climate change has taken over their land and if you introduce to them how to manage the land in line with their primitive ways, they will go with you.


Do you know that in the 1970s when there was a drought, Fulani nomads were settling around where there was water and grazed their animals there and once they finish the water and the grasses, they move to the next spot? This is, however, where human activities come in, but the beauty of it is that they leave behind a lot of human and animal waste, and by the time they return to that location in six to nine years, the place would have recovered.

So, Fulani nomads are the ones that introduced that primitive method of land naturally recovering by itself. With this, there was no need for them to move southwards because they were just going around the desert. But now, the water bodies and the greenery are gone because of desertification. So, they cannot sit down and watch their cattle, which are their main source of livelihood die. The nomadic Fulani keeps moving and in the process enter into people’s farmland.

I quite agree that animal husbandry is a private business and tilling the soil is another business, but when one destroys the other because of looking for grass, there will be a clash. This clash is happening because Nigeria has failed to do what should have been done.

Despite tree planting campaigns by the federal and some state governments to mitigate desertification, the problem persists. What exactly is the country not doing right?

Almost all state governments have done this. In fact, every year you hear them talk about planting one million trees. But the truth is if you plant trees and fail to nurture them they will die. If these tree-planting campaigns are well implemented, by now Nigeria would have been a very big forest. At independence, we had over 40 percent forest cover, but today it has been reduced to seven percent. If we have been planting trees as they keep saying, by now we would not only have recovered from what has been cut down, but Nigeria would have been a very big forest.


State governors make big ceremonies about tree planting and spend a lot of money, but after the ceremonies, everybody goes away and the trees are not looked after. By the way, where are the trees? This policy has been going on for the past 20 to 30 years, yet Nigerians have never asked, where are the trees that these governors have been planting over the years? Some of the governors and presidents that planted these trees are still alive, so we should be able to hold them to tell us where the one million trees they planted during their regimes are.

We need trees everywhere because forests in the South are being depleted; we need the trees to check desert encroachment because as the desert is encroaching in the North, people are moving down to the South. With this, we are creating room for the desert to come because instead of fighting it, we are running away from it. And when you run, it pursues. We need human activities to check it.

What is the effect of this on our economy, especially now that we depend so much on oil?
This is why I commend Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State for lunching a slogan, ‘Delta Without Oil.’ The more we emphasise Nigeria without oil, the better for us. Apart from climate change, complications that come with oil drilling, usage and the devastation/loss of marine life in the South-South among others, oil is good. But this is so only when you handle it well.

With rural dwellers still depending on trees for firewood as against gas and kerosene to cook their food; how can we ever have enough trees again?
I have been privileged to live in the North and in other places in different parts of the world where I gave advice based on my pilot project. I planted what I call energy trees and the desert fighting trees (storm breakers).


I advise people where I lived to cut the energy tree for firewood because there is no way we can do without firewood. That is why I plant trees that can be cut for firewood when they mature and also plant those, which only the branches should be cut for firewood. I did all these in the North and the people were grateful for it because it saved their land and they built a house for me and gave me titles to show their gratitude.

The storm breakers help to slow down storms, and that is why they are so-called. They are also used to fight desertification across the world. They are strong and can withstand devastating storms. Energy trees are used as firewood because they burn quickly in a fire.

If only such is replicated all over the country, we will be sure of keeping our forests intact. In the pilot project, some interested state governors came around and even the British Council came because they gave me some money for the project. Some of the governors that came promised to replicate the project, but up till now, they are yet to make good their promise. So, when I hear people talk about the use of gas, I don’t feel it is the real solution; rather there is this approach of cut one, plant four. When you plant four trees there is the tendency that two of them will survive. Some communities have adopted this approach and are reaping the gains.

Some years ago, you alleged that the Federal Government was not serious about ending gas flaring. Do you still hold that view?
Yes, of course. I still hold that view. Why would the government tell oil companies that they would pay so much if they flare gas? It does not make sense. When the exploring companies check what it would cost them to re-inject the gas that is being flared, they would prefer to pay the fine because it is more expensive to re-inject than to explore gas, which is what is happening in the country now. It is like telling me to pay N100, 000 to fly to Asaba and at the same time, you are providing a vehicle that would take me there for only N10, 000. I would prefer to use the road, as far as it is safe.


What basic steps should Nigeria take to check desertification?
We most times focus on human activities forgetting that governments in the name of development are doing more harm to the environment than any human agent. If you take a look at the distance between Lagos and Asaba, and even across other states, the wetlands are gone; they have been taken over by one government development project or the other. It is in these wetlands that you get crabs and other seafood. But the wetlands are being built up now. I am not against development, but if you must take over such important natural endowments, you should be able to replace them. These are some of the things that are hurting us.

The flooding we experience today, the erosion, landslide, heat, and others are all part of the result of damaging nature.

Nature knew that we needed these areas to survive and as such provided them, but human beings are destroying them without thinking. Surprisingly, human beings are just 0.01 percent of all the creatures in the world, despite our population is 7.2 billion and our big brain, we constitute over 80 per cent damage to the world.

How do you think nature will forgive man? How can a man be so small and yet causes so much damage, not just about the kind of carbon we are emitting, but the depletion of forest resources, the destruction of the water bodies, wetlands and the flood plains? Nature gave us flood plains to check water rise, but we have destroyed them.

In the 1960s when I started practising, there was a plan that showed all the flood plains in the country and no structures must be built on them because water needs the space to expand during water rise to avoid flooding. But today, we do not know where flood plains are. How can we continue like this? I don’t want to be seen as an alarmist, but that is the truth.

I was practicing when Victoria Island was created and I saw the Federal Government’s masterplan of how to develop Lagos. I am not sure the Lagos State government has it.


The primary and secondary canals that were built before allocating lands to people have all been taken over. Again, I tried to let people know that I am not anti-development. The law, when I started practice said that you could only build on 30 per cent of your land. The remaining 70 percent was meant for greenery, and I did that 30 to 40 years ago. If all
Lagos residents did the same, Lagos would have been a wonderful place.

Doing this was a way of replenishing the environment because you pulled down trees and destroyed grasses and even filled the land, killing other natural creatures in the process of building your house. For goodness sake, you need to replenish them.

The holy books of the two major religions in the country say we should leave the earth a better place than we met it. But are we doing so? No. By clearing the rocks, pulling down trees, clearing grasses and even killing insects around us, we are destroying the earth. These animals are creatures and the most important thing is that they were created before us, but we choose to destroy them. So, if everyone begins to think of the environment, it will help make the society a better place to live in.

But again, our government and institutions should be held accountable because you do not make a law and be the first to break it. In Nigeria, those that are supposed to enforce laws are usually the first to break it. So, what then do they expect of the citizens?

How can other African countries come together to save Lake Chad?
Africa is the only continent in the world that one cannot go from one side of it to the other because of the Sahara Desert. All other continents have bridged their deserts and even big seas. And as a result, huge businesses are going on.

People are moving from one country to another and traffic is high, but we cannot do this in Africa because we are not thinking enough. When I carried my campaigns to other African countries including Burkina Faso, do you know that I had to first fly to Paris then to Burkina Faso because that was the fastest route? And if I had to go by road, it would have taken me four days. The situation was that bad.


Africans are wonderful entrepreneurs, they want to move and do business, but they are constrained by the desert. Checking desert encroachment will bring immense development to the continent, as it would improve the mobility of human and other resources, including trade and commerce.

Bridging the desert will take away unemployment in most African countries. So, the only way to save Lake Chad is to think beyond the lake; think of bridging the desert.

Bridging the desert will also open up the continent to countless opportunities, including exporting energy from the sun to Europe and other places. Do you know that in the desert, the temperature could rise to about 150°F, and there is no rain? You can imagine if we begin to tap from that and thereafter export it.

Other African countries should be up and dong in this regard, this is why I handed over my design of bridging the desert to the Nigerian Society of Engineers. It is one of the very few professional bodies that have the kind of reach that can bring the desired change.

What crucial steps should be taken to curb the fast-depleting forest cover in the country?
We used to have three paper mills in the country- the Nigeria Paper Mill, Jebba, Kwara State; the Nigeria Newsprint Manufacturing Company, Oku-Iboku, Akwa Ibom State and the National Paper Manufacturing Company, Iwopin, Ogun State. Where are they now? Do you know that you have to nurture the trees to maturity before using them to make papers? Unfortunately, we do not have a system that mandates the people to plant and nurture trees to maturity.

Do you know that the over 800-year-old Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, which was burnt in April, took almost 200 years to build? When they started the building, they discovered that the number of trees they would need for the ceiling and other claddings would take a lot, and it would be difficult to go to any timber yard or country to get the quantity needed, so they decided to develop a plantation and plant the number of trees they needed, and within 40 to 50 years they were able to do the ceiling and other claddings, as the trees were matured enough to be used. That is planning. I am not against the cutting of trees, but if you must cut, you must first show me the four to five trees that you have planted because I know if you plant four at least two will survive. It is as simple as that. Doing this will make us appreciate the importance of trees in our environment, economy, and lives.


Without concerted efforts at curbing desertification, what would become of our country in the next 20 to 30 years?
Extinction! That is what Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old lady, is talking about. What are we leaving for the younger generation? We inherited a wonderful nation, planet, and environment, but we are not leaving the same for our children. And so many of us will not be alive in the next 50 years after we have plundered the earth and set it on the path of extinction. That is why teens like Thunberg are crying for the earth. She had to leave school to shame world leaders for their actions. Do you know that if anything should happen today with the planet, only human beings cannot re-generate, while all the other animals can easily re-generate? This means human beings will go into extinction.

Are governments and civil society groups doing enough to salvage the situation?
I do not think we have done enough to educate the people because in the areas where I have worked, and have been preaching, some remedies have been done, but they are not enough. We need to do more. If we can sensitise the people, mobilise the people to adopt a bottom-up approach, which Thunberg is talking about, then we will be making some impact.

Also, governors should change from their four to eight-year term mentality to adopting a holistic approach to building the nation. We should develop a 50-year plan for our forest, the Lake Chad and desertification.

Developed nations across the world had long-term plans for their people and country. Israel was a desert until David Ben-Gurion took his people scattered all over the world to Israel over 60 years ago and said to them, this is our God-given land and we must recover it, and they planned and recovered it.

So, what we see in Israel today took them 40 to 50 years to build. Adopting this approach will help us curb desertification and climate change. We must have a 50-year plan for the Sahara. Doing this means, we must start awareness creation from primary schools to tertiary institutions, letting students know the negative implications of desertification.

We must have a working and workable plan on ground for any government that is coming into the office to follow; a plan that no government, no matter its political affiliation, should deviate from.

Although 11 states in the North have accepted this idea, we are yet to see its implementation.

State governors make big ceremonies about tree planting and spend a lot of money, but after the ceremonies, everybody goes away and the trees are not looked after. By the way, where are the trees? This policy has been going on for the past 20 to 30 years, yet Nigerians have never asked, where are the trees that these governors have been planting over the years? Some of the governors and presidents that planted these trees are still alive, so, we should be able to hold them to tell us where the one million trees they planted during their regimes are.


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