On October 13, 2023, York University in Toronto, Canada conferred on Nigeria’s and Africa’s leading environmental advocate, Dr. Nnimmo Bassey an honorary Doctorate of Law in recognition of his environmental advocacy work, writings and general contributions to humanity’s advancement.
The letter from the awarding university reads thus: “In conferring this degree, the Senate of York University wishes to recognize your contributions as an activist, architect, environmentalist, author, and poet. You have enriched academic discourse, shedding light on the complex intersections between environmental degradation, social justice and human rights. As one of Africa’s leading environmental and human rights advocates, your work has had a transformative impact for those who are most negatively impacted by toxic industries, and uncovered solutions to some of the most pressing social-ecological problems currently facing the globe.”
Dr. Bassey, 65, is Nigeria’s most visible environmental advocate and the most outspoken on the debacle of the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, where the rich endowment of fossil fuels has morphed into a multileveled resource curse amidst gross environmental degradation of the area in addition to other socioeconomic fallouts of oil finds. The trained architect is also an advocate for food security and is a writer, columnist, and profuse poet, authoring almost 20 books from poetry, and architecture to environmental subjects They include such popular titles as ‘We Thought It Was Oil But it was Blood’ (poetry); ‘To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa’ (environmental discourse) and ‘Living Houses’ (architecture).
Dr. Bassey co-founded and led Nigeria’s foremost environmental rights campaign NGO, the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria for two decades before starting ecological think-tank nonprofit, the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) a decade ago. He was the first African to lead the global environmental rights group, Friends of the Earth International, which he chaired for two terms. He has also founded and led other major organisations including Oil Watch International, Oil Watch Africa and in recent years started FishNet Alliance, agitating for the human and socioeconomic rights of fisherfolks across Africa. He is on the board of scores of local and international organisations and initiatives.
His profuse pen through which he articulates the planet’s painful plight has also seen him at various literary intersections, including being at the leadership of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) as General Secretary in the 1990’s and as a columnist with the The Guardian Newspaper, one of Nigeria’s flagship dailies.
This latest recognition for Akwa Ibom-born Dr. Bassey is just one of several from across the planet, the advocacy for whose wellbeing he has tirelessly undertaken in more than three decades. Some of them include being one of ‘TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influencial Persons of 2009’ (Hero of the Environment); ‘Rights Livelihoods Award’– Sweden (aka Alternative Nobel Laureate)– 2010; ‘The Rafto Prize’ (National human rights honour in Norway)– 2012. He has also been awarded the Nigerian national honour of the Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR).
This honorary award from the Canadian university is the second from a foreign university for Nnimmo as he is popularly known in the local and international activism circles. In 2019 he was similarly honoured with a doctorate degree by the University of York, England.
But what stands Dr. Bassey out for most of us who have been incredibly blessed to work and walk at close proximity with him is his generosity, genuine love for people (one boss who gives wings to his staff, mentees and younger activitists and dreamers in a complex world, continuing to support them long after they have left the organisation or his supervision), humility and untainted integrity. And that’s not to mention his deep sense of humour! An uncommon role model-leader aka the ‘Living Ancestor’ in the words of his countless mentees. For someone rated as one of the five eminent Climate Change activists globally in a documentary some years back, his down-to-earth and accessible nature bear the genuine portrait of a truly profound mind for indeed the greatest are ultimately the humblest.
Nigeria as a country and our generation are indeed blessed to have such an icon to call a son, indeed, an exceptional son of the soil fighting with utmost sincerity and passion to expose the destructive impacts of the extractive industry and other big corporate abusers, for a right to natural food for all and giving voice to the oppressed and voiceless majority across the remotest parts of Nigeria, Africa, South Ameria, and indeed across the globe, and with countless results to show. Here is a man who could today be addressing the European Parliament, or the USA Senate or leading a global group of activitists on a rally at an international conference on the streets of Copenhagen, interacting with youngsters in a Finland settlement and in the next couple of days is interacting so naturally with fishermen and women whose fishing routes or farms have been polluted in Ikarama community, Bayelsa State, or catching a joke with local chiefs or a group of young mentees in Makoko settlement in Lagos.
Towering Nnimmo (six-foot-four), married to the amiable Evelyn, herself also an architect and blessed with three sons, is simply an enigma. These global recognitions are not one bit of a surprise for anyone who knows the workaholic tea lover. Rather, they are a sure sign of greater things to come for a truly deserving and truly, truly remarkable human!
Go, dear Boss, go!
Ms Abah is a Lagos-based writer, activist, and founder of child’s rights NGO, CEE-HOPE.