Green, White, Greener: Nigeria and Its Environment at 52

Despite the setbacks of the past five decades, the future trajectory of conservation, habitat protection, and other aspects of environmental health in Nigeria remains uncharted.
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As the American-born son of Nigerian parents, my deep love of red, white, and blue is balanced by an affinity for the green and white stripes of my ancestral homeland's flag. Like many others, I recognize that much of the post-colonial history of Nigeria, punctuated by episodes of inter-ethnic strife and frequent periods of military rule, has been a story of missed opportunities and unrealized potential. However, as the nation celebrates the 52nd anniversary of its independence from the United Kingdom, one of the things that troubles me most about the country's uneven path towards progress is the consequently precarious state of environmental stewardship within Nigeria's borders.

We know about the anecdotal indicators -- chronic oil spills in and around the Bight of Biafra, the steep decline of a once successful and sustainable agricultural export sector, the southward encroachment of the Sahara Desert in Nigeria's north, the terrible state of air pollution in burgeoning cities like Abuja, Lagos, and Port Harcourt. But it might be easy to dismiss Western concerns about such events when the country under examination is simultaneously dealing with other fundamental issues of development. After all, a wealthy nation like Switzerland or Sweden would probably be better able to afford comprehensive habitat remediation and enforcement of pollutant control programs than a developing country in sub-Saharan Africa. What's more shocking is that when Nigeria's metrics are measured against those of other oil producers, or in comparison to other nations within its region, it still performs badly.

And I mean really, really badly.

According the latest Environmental Performance Index (EPI), released in January 2012 by researchers from Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) and the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, Nigeria placed 119 out of 132 nations surveyed. The index measured each country's weighted score across ten policy categories, including protection of biodiversity, monitoring of productive natural resource development, and management of the environmental burden of disease. Naturally, geography and GDP were important factors, with rich, relatively-well diversified economies in western Europe occupying seven of the top nine slots, and middle-income mineral and energy exporters in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia filling most of the bottom tier. Yet Nigeria was ranked 19 out of the 21 sub-Saharan African states examined for the 2012 EPI, sitting behind nations such as Cote d'Ivoire (ranked 67) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ranked 92) which, like Nigeria, have endured extended periods of autocratic rule and civil war since independence. Furthermore, oil producers like Saudi Arabia (ranked 82), Mexico (ranked 84), Russia (ranked 106), and Azerbaijan (ranked 111) all fared better than Nigeria on the 2012 survey, though they too have suffered oil spills and wrestle with issues like drought management and agricultural planning.

In some ways, this is ironic. After all, decolonization in sub-Saharan Africa coincided with the period when the modern environmental movement was taking shape in the West. But while the attention of Africa and its donors has been focused on proximate challenges like health care and education since the 1960s, it is important for interested parties to commit greater resolve towards addressing environmental issues. I think it is no coincidence that two of the most restive regions of Nigeria -- the northeast and the Niger Delta - are among the areas where environmental stress is most acute. Redressing the grievances of dispossessed fisherman who have lost their fishing grounds in the Atlantic Ocean, or pastoralists whose grazing lands have disappeared in Bornu and other northern states, could be much more effective at addressing local issues for the long-term than investing exclusively in short-term strategies targeted towards counter-insurgency.

Environmental remediation is an area where coordinate responses to existing challenges could bring employment opportunities and, more importantly, hope to citizens of Africa's most populous country. Having examined some of the potential types of green jobs that could result from oil spill recovery on the Gulf Coast of the United States, I know that ecosystem restoration in a place like Ogoniland, which is now taking shape due to the combined action of the Government of Nigeria and the United Nations Environment Program, will provide much-needed work for thousands of people in the country's southeast. Similarly, deeper involvement in technology and information transfers like the Clean Development Mechanism (which has been largely underutilized by Nigeria and its sub-Saharan African neighbors) and the Millennium Villages Project could lead to improvements in power generation and land management that would reduce inefficient energy consumption and curtail the country's output of greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. At the civic level, municipalities like Lagos could strengthen existing partnerships with other cities in the developing world to implement workable South-South strategies for environmental management.

When I look at Nigeria's flag, I see a blank page bookended in green. I think this is a useful metaphor for the state of the country's environmental path at the half-century mark. Despite the setbacks of the past five decades, the future trajectory of conservation, habitat protection, and other aspects of environmental health in Nigeria remains uncharted. Already, there are dedicated organizations throughout the country that are working on habitat restoration and environmental justice. If improvements in governance and data collection can yield results in efforts to reform Nigeria's capital markets and increase rural access to family planning, then in a similar manner, new tools and training could be used to help these committed people address Nigeria's most pressing environmental concerns. I hope that such efforts could one day result in a country whose resource management policies and environmental stewardship practices more closely mirror the verdant hues of its national banner.

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