The 2012 Rafto Prize awarded to Nnimmo Bassey

The 2012 Rafto Prize is awarded to Nigerian Nnimmo Bassey, 54, in recognition of his long-term fight for people’s right to life, health, food and water in a world affected by complex and threatening climate change and mass environmental destruction. Through his rights-based work and criticism of prevailing systems, Bassey has shown how human rights can help mitigate the effects of these changes.

Nnimmo Bassey links human rights to climate by demonstrating how climate change has the greatest effect on the world’s most vulnerable people, the very people who have contributed least to the problem in the first place.

By awarding its annual prize to Nnimmo Bassey, the Rafto Foundation underlines how the challenges we face regarding climate and the environment also have a human rights aspect. Such a reminder is necessary following the loss of focus on these issues in the wake of the disappointment over the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15) and the annual follow-up conferences.

 Africa as the continent of concern

The focus on Africa is important because climate change has an adverse effect on a large part of the African population’s already precarious situation regarding social justice and economic rights.

At the same time, Nnimmo Bassey’s approach to these global challenges represents a contribution to the debate on climate and human rights that the Rafto Foundation wishes to recognise. Nnimmo Bassey points to the injustices Africa has had to tolerate through the way the rich world has for many years exploited the continent’s large resources of fossil fuels. “Africa needs soil, not oil”, says Bassey together with others who fight for environmental and climate justice. Exploitation of oil resources is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. This has consequences for life on a global scale and leads to the destruction and loss of way of life for a large section of Africa’s population.

Oil pollution and gas flaring major problems in Nigeria

For many decades, oil pollution and gas flaring have caused irreparable damage to the Niger Delta in Nnimmo Bassey’s home country Nigeria. The Nigerian government has reported more than 3200 cases of pollution between 2006 and 2010, many of which have never been cleaned up and few have resulted in appropriate compensation. Rusting pipelines and other dangerous infrastructure also cause problems.

Oil companies often claim that pollution is the result of theft, vandalism and sabotage. Despite appropriate political decisions, Nigerian authorities are unable to build a more robust and environmentally friendly oil and gas industry, where revenues can also benefit ordinary people and where human rights are protected.

In May 2010, Nnimmo Bassey said to The Observer newspaper that while we see a great deal of effort to stop pollution in USA, companies in Nigeria cover up those cases which damage the environment and destroy people’s way of life. He says that the oil leakage in the Gulf of Mexico can be seen as a metaphor for what is happening in Nigeria and other parts of Africa on a daily basis.

Gas flaring has been practiced since the 1950s and still occurs despite it now being illegal. If it is not done in an appropriate way it can lead to widespread pollution and have serious consequences for the health of the local population. Life expectancy in the Niger Delta is 41 years, while in the rest of Nigeria it is 48 years. Gas flaring is also a global problem as it results in enormous amounts of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere. Nnimmo Bassey says that this illegal activity intensifies the poisoning of the environment and people in the region and calls on everyone to stop this “madness”. 

Background: Rafto Prize winner

Nnimmo Bassey (born in 1958) was an architect who worked in the public sector until the 1980s when, as a member of the board of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organization, he became involved in cases linked to human rights. In 1990, he witnessed the Nigerian military’s attack on the village of Umuechem, following a peaceful demonstration against the environmental destruction caused by the oil industry. The fight to keep a natural and traditional way of life ended with two days of violent attacks which led to many tens of people being killed and a village being burned to the ground. This was a turning point for Bassey. Together with his colleagues he took a clear stand, and in 1993 the Environmental Rights Action (ERA) was formed to fight for human rights in Nigeria. Bassey has also expressed his thoughts in a number of poems and has stated his opinions in several reports and factual books. His best known books are Knee Deep in Crude (2009) and To Cook a Continent. Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa (2011/2012).

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