At the Arewa Joint Committee Interactive Session with some presidential candidates of the 2023 general elections, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress created social media buzz when he responded to a question on how he would tackle climate change if elected into office. Tinubu said climate change “is a question of how do you prevent a church rat from eating a poisoned holy communion?” He said as a poor nation, Nigeria would not comply with climate change mitigation initiatives unless the West, the richer countries pushing the idea, “guarantees our finances.” According to Tinubu, examples of these initiatives are tree planting and stopping the burning of wood. His response predictably trended on social media, largely due to his unfortunate use of metaphors: a church rat poisoned by what is otherwise holy. His opponents either held his remarks as another example of a rambling old man going off on a tangent whenever he has to give unscripted remarks or a Muslim lacking respect for what Christians hold dear. For the latter category, Tinubu’s penchant for mis-using the symbols of Christianity was fast becoming a pattern of disrespect.
For instance, at the 70th birthday of Bishop Matthew Kukah in August, Tinubu reportedly said, “We inherited speaking in tongues from the Bible,” another proof that he lacks a basic understanding of the Christianity he seems to love to adduce to in his public speeches. Given these serial gaffes, it has become typical for a barrage of commentators to take up the job of explaining to the public what Tinubu really means when he uses what they describe as idioms, proverbs, and metaphors. One of them was a professor and columnist by the name Farooq Kperogi. Tinubu, Kperogi explained, alluded to Nigeria as a poor country, and described climate change policies as the Holy Communion. But these policies are supposedly injurious to poor countries because they require actions that will hurt us in the near-term like stopping the use of firewood to cook and “cutting down on manufacturing,” hence the “poison” reference.
To him, Tinubu was only saying since poor nations did not create climate change, industrialised nations should bear the cost of implementing climate change mitigation. While this explanation is a generous explanation of Tinubu’s poor choice of metaphors, it still misses the mark for two reasons. First, the consequences of climate change are not limited to the industrialised nations that supposedly caused it. Its effects in developing countries are more severe because poorer countries are less prepared to manage it, and less able to quickly recover when disasters happen. Situated between the Sahara Desert to its North and the Atlantic Ocean to its South, Nigeria bears unique exposure to a range of climate change impacts; from drought and desertification in the North to rising sea levels in the South.
Anyone who saw the BBC and Daily Trust documentaries on banditry in Nigeria cannot reduce the effect of climate change to a Western problem. We are already suffering its effects both environmentally and sociologically. Even the devastating flood currently assailing millions of Nigerians is another consequence of our inability to master and control our environment. Reports indicate that heavy rainfalls precipitated the release of excess water from Lagbo Dam in Cameroon. Over 600 people have reportedly died, about 2400 people are injured, and more than 1.4 million people have been displaced due to the floods. Aside from the lives already lost, Olam Nigeria Limited reportedly lost 4,400 hectares of their rice farm valued at $20m to the floods. Other big and small farmers in the affected states have lost their crops and livelihoods as well. Food prices will undoubtedly shoot up as a result.
Nigeria is also plagued with increasing desert encroachment. According to 2015 estimates from researchers, about 350,000 hectares of land is lost to desertification every year in 15 states in Northern Nigeria. This loss has dire economic significance for farming and animal husbandry. Cattle herders are being forced to head South. Tensions between farmers and herders keep escalating across the country, adding to the precarious security situation. From Gambia to Uganda, farmers and communities are dealing with the fallout of climate change; crops are lost to encroaching saltwater bodies, while farmlands and homelands are lost to landslides and floods. Though they are not the instigators or the chief culprits of the industrialisation that lead to these environmental disasters, developing countries have not been exempt from the ravages of climate change. Tinubu’s suggestion of a mafia-style extortion of the West for a situation that portends clear and present danger to us is foolhardy.
Second, reducing climate change mitigation efforts to tree-planting and stopping the burning of firewood is a gross misunderstanding of the biggest contributors to the problem. Combating climate change is anchored on attaining net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mainly divesting from fossil-based fuels like coal, petrol, and gas used in power generation and transportation, to renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro. Developed countries have achieved remarkable growth in renewable energy generation capacities in the last decade. In Texas for example, 34 per cent of the energy generated in the first quarter of 2022 was sourced from wind and solar. Data has revealed that worldwide renewable energy power sourcing so far this year has saved about 230 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. This is equal to the quantity emitted from roughly 50 million petrol-driven cars in one year. However, this rapid adoption of solar and wind power is made possible because the economics of renewable energy changed drastically in the last decade. Utility-scale solar and wind energy production are now cheaper than gas and way cheaper than coal, even without US government subsidies. Forecasts suggest that costs will continue to decrease beyond 2050.
The rapid growth of electric vehicles and the development for long distance haulage have also been aided by more competitive battery prices. It follows that for a country with huge energy deficits, the favourable economics of cleaner energy presents an opportunity for a forward-looking administration to invest more in solar, wind, and hydro for our energy needs going forward. Rather than insisting to be paid or you will spite them by using coal and other pollutants, we should consider how the natural resource of high insolation and favourable topography across northern Nigeria can be harnessed to build solar farms. Onshore and offshore wind power should also be exploited. More hydro dams should be built to generate electricity, and more importantly, control rising sea levels and floods, and irrigate farmlands as we battle desert encroachment. The unfortunate floods currently ravaging certain parts of the country could have been controlled better if successive governments had done their part and completed the Dasin Hausa dam as agreed when the Lagdo dam was built by Cameroon.
Coal plants should be phased out eventually, and our cleaner natural gas reserves can be used to sustain gas plants, exports, for domestic uses as we eventually move away from firewood, which contributes little to global warming anyways. The argument that industrialised countries should be the ones to fund climate change initiatives is understandable due to the massive financial investment required. Truly, climate change is a global problem largely caused by richer countries, and from which they have benefited greatly. At the same time, a responsible government will not leave its citizens to die, get displaced, and become impoverished while waiting for a saviour to rise from the West.
We can use our current energy deficiency as an opportunity to chart a new course to provide for our energy needs as we attempt to industrialise and cushion the deleterious impacts of climate change on our people. Going the renewable energy path is also a better argument to attract investments from the West (and elsewhere) rather than extort or blackmail. We should treat the climate change initiative as an opportunity to make the changes necessary for our survival as Africans because it is both the astute and moral thing to do.
Ojinnaka, an engineer, writes from Texas,