For the 50th edition of eco@africa, we caught up with the UN's new Deputy Secretary-General in Abuja. The outgoing Nigerian Environment Minister says integrating different sectors is key to protecting the environment.
DW: How would you rate what have you done here in Nigeria in terms of the environment in comparison to what has been done in the rest of Africa?
Amina Mohammed: First of all, we have got leadership. When the president himself says, ‘we are going to do this,’ then you take that up. And I think what we have shown in Nigeria is that we can actually put words into action. We have taken one of the pillars of the change agenda, which is governance, to make sure that what we are laying the foundations of governance structures that will not allow any of these efforts to be reversed in the long term because we are doing things in the right way.
What does that mean? In the case of Ogoniland, it means we have not just set up an office that starts spending money. It means to actually put in the governing council, the border trustees, communicate to the communities, to make it very clear that while we are saying that the oil companies will pay for the pollution - the polluter-pays-principle - we are also saying that this is a federal government program.
We are listening to and participating with our partners and civil society, MOSOP [Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People], and the National Assembly. We want to lay a foundation that will enable the clean-up in five years, and we can begin to restore Ogoniland over the next 20 to 25 years.
Can the situation in Ogoniland serve as an example for other oil producing states in Africa? Does the UN have a plan to ensure such oil spills are not repeated elsewhere?
No one can ensure against a repetition of what has happened in terms of the oil pollution crisis in Nigeria and other parts of Africa better than the countries and the communities themselves. You have to have a framework in place that really does not allow pollution happen to the detriment of the environment and of the people. The UN can facilitate and can provide the platforms and the voice to make sure that it doesn’t happen - but countries themselves have to take those actions and implement them.
Let’s talk about what we have done in Africa in terms of solid waste and recycling. Is it enough just to recycle, and in terms of the desert is it enough to just plant trees?
No, absolutely not! It’s about behavioral change. It is about the policy environment for regulation, it’s about people seeing that everyone creates waste. Many people want to put their waste somewhere and it should be someone’s responsibility [to come up with] some innovative way of collecting that waste and disposing of it in a manner that doesn’t do harm to health, to the environment.
That is a big question and I think we have a good waste management strategy that has been put in place. What we need to do is to roll that out and to bring partnership from the private sector and communities and the governments.
Same with the desert - you don’t just plant trees, you have to maintain them. Often I get suggestion that we should use forest guards. Forest guards are useful, but they are not the solution. The solution is communities protecting their environment, because they see that they gain from that environment. So don’t plant a tree just for a shade. Start reclaiming the desert with plantations of agro-allied products, trees that benefit, that bring revenue than it is an economic corridor.
Would that be a stance that you would want to push in the UN?
I was fortunate enough to be part of shaping the Agenda 2030 and the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]. So for me it is all about how we implement that, how we implement the climate change agreement , and how we deal with some of the symptoms we have seen in migration that cause a great deal of concern and conflict and an abuse of human rights.
I want to bring all of these strands together so that when one is looking at the tapestry of the world, we see it strengthened by its diversity and not torn.
How are you going to push the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?
Everywhere we see good practice in Africa and other parts of the world we should quickly get that on board and scale it up. I think we hear too much about what is not being done and not enough about that little glass that may be quarter full!
I think people have not to be afraid of getting out of the box. We have been constrained by being prescribed to for so long - well intentioned prescriptions - but they do not work. So we have to find a new way in this new era that has to take context into consideration. You cannot take a maternal mortality program in the southwest of this country in the same way in the northeast‚ because the context is different.
You’re struggling in one place with a lack of infrastructure and conflict and in another you may be struggling with the human resource capacity. So in both cases you have to find a good fit.
So when I go to the UN it’ll be about that - taking the strength of the individual agencies, working with governments at a state and government level, with civil society the private sector. It is a huge job, but I think we have enough in place to do it. Success is what we are looking for, that is what people are waiting for. Less grammar - more action!
Interview: Nneota Egbe