For a Safer Earth, Healthier Climate

Building Resilient Movements, People Power, and Challenging Systems

By Nnimmo Bassey at the School of Ecology held in Port Harcourt 8-9 November 2023.

Our drive for building resilience and people power is not for the sake of strengthening our communities to take a beating but for halting and overturning abusive systems. In other words, we are seeking to build people’s power to challenge the current exploitative system where capital and brute force reign. While the system rapaciously inflicts violence on humans, other beings, and the ecosystems, it is clear to us that sustainable resistance must be non-violent. As we reflect on this it is expedient that we know that building resilience requires a clear objective and not should not be focused merely on erecting means of adaptation and mitigation that calms frayed nerves while the exploitation and abuse continue unchecked.

Key universal organising anchors include the following:

Right to life. This is all-encompassing although the major thoughts around this may sometimes be tied to issues of conflicts, wars, and capital punishment. Although this right is often taken as something that is beyond debate, it can be infringed upon flagrantly and with impunity. Other safeguards have been erected to ensure this right is respected, including the laws in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. A strong campaign is ongoing for the inclusion of the crime of ecocide as a fifth crime that was omitted from the list. Sadly, the laws against war crimes and collective punishment of civilians are not deterring belligerent nations from these unlawful activities.

Right to a safe environment.  Having a safe environment is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of the right to life because the survival of humans is intertwined with the survival of other species. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Article 24 stipulates that all Africans shall have a right to a safe and satisfactory environment in which to develop. This Charter has been domesticated by Nigeria and helps to close the lacuna left by the current Constitution with regard to environmental rights. The crime of ecocide once adopted will provide a platform for holding polluters accountable in the Niger Delta and other regions.

Right to dignity. Dignity refers to a person’s right to be valued and treated with respect for their own sake and to be treated ethically. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

Right to food. The right to food intersects that of dignity, requiring that humans enjoy this right in dignity. It demands the regular availability of food in sufficient quantities. Starving a prisoner is considered an assault on his dignity. Without the right to food, there can be no enjoyment of the right to health.

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Right to Water. The human right to water and sanitation was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010 with a yes vote from 122 countries and 41 abstaining. As with all rights, their enforcement is uneven as is evident around us. With gross pollution from oil spills, industrial effluent and other contaminants, the right to water and sanitation is merely on paper.

A collective interrogation of our experiences in the light of those rights should clarify for us how far things have gone awry and how urgent it is for the wrongs to be righted. With polluters literally privatizing our water bodies which they use as waste dump, and by pumping noxious gases into the atmosphere they introduce deadly diseases and cut our lives short. We can complain about the crimes against Nature and against us, but to effectively challenge them we must build networks and movements. Networks of resistance are the essential ways of rebuilding our webs of life. What should we bear in mind while building the movements we need?

Further Considerations

Besides those human rights anchors on which movements may be built, there are some general considerations that help people coalesce into a formidable force.

One of the major organising ideas is that there must be core or inalienable principles around which to build. Once the core principle is identified all other things become tactics driven to suit circumstances. This is how to build a critical mass for change. We have the example of a broad coming together of social forces in the Niger Delta Alternatives Convergence (NDAC). Rigidity over tactics can disperse rather than bring people together. According to Jay Naidoo in his book, Change – Organising Tomorrow, Today, we must “Navigate the minefield of vested interests and build an agenda of shared interests.”

A movement that will successfully challenge the system must bring about situations where corrupt and inept leaders lose credibility while the people lose their fear of the corrupt system. Change is not offered on a platter but requires a fight. This fight is propelled by political education which must be seen as a process, not an event. Proponents must be ready to be in the trenches over time.

Progress itself is a process and could have several milestones along the journey. Activities such as the School of Ecology (SoE) must be seen as a process, not an event that ends when we shut the doors. Our communities are universities of struggle.

We must never forget that politicians fight for power and are adept at the struggles to keep that power. This gives them a focused short-term vision which must be challenged with clearly delineated peoples’ long-term visions. Success depends on how well the fight for basic rights is articulated and popularised. One of the key anchors for such an educated fight is on how the people can secure and hold on to their sovereignty.

Movements must have clear plans for the transition. A lack of plan was the error of the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria. That error has built a fractured nation bound in unfreedom, lack of peace and in disunity — contrary to the words of our National Anthem.

Resource nationalism/control can be an attractive but narrow platform for agitation for access to resources. The field needs to be broadened to popularise re-source democracy which exposes poverty as an unnatural social construct built to subjugate peoples. Resource democracy speaks of the African philosophies of living in harmony with Nature and interacting with what is often termed Natural resources as Nature’s gifts to her children. This is best propagated along the lines of Ubuntu, Harambe, Eti Uwem, Ebindu, and others.

Building resilience

Anything that works against Mother Earth is crass, blind exploitation and must be overturned. Our organising position must be to terminate the barbaric exploitation of Mother Earth and peoples by showing that to engage in such exploitation is to eat the fingers that feed us.

People in a movement must have a clear picture of what success may look like. This picture would help moderate expectations and clarify that the struggles will make multiple demands on them, and these could include mental, physical, and emotional distress even while they are resilient. The people should also understand that they may have to pay inordinate individual sacrifices such as Ogoni leaders paid in the mid-1990s. Individual strengths must blend into collaborative strength that ensures a cracking of the system.

Conclusion

We must always bear in mind that for a movement to be successful it must have a clear target and be built as an agent of change. It must not be inflexible in terms of tactics and certainly not monolithic. Diversity and inclusion are the keys to resilience and strength.

We must also bear in mind that movements are learning spaces where struggles, successes, failures, and lessons are shared. Here we learn what worked elsewhere and what did not work. Movements require discipline and participants must avoid rash decisions bearing in mind the implications such decisions would have on the collective.

We must be students of History with the understanding that history is always contested. That’s why streets and nations sometimes get renamed. And if you are watchful, there are many things to rename in our country.

Most importantly, we must decolonize our mindset. We must also never forget that the battle is never easy. Indeed, we should stick to the saying of Amilcar Cabral, “Claim no easy victories”.

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