“If they are not told by somebody like me, an environmentalist, desert warrior and adventurer, who else will tell them?”
Dr. Newton Chukwukadibia Jibunoh’s name rings a bell. At 80, he remains a sprightly, fashionable and energetic fellow. Despite his early orphanage at two associated with its complexities, Jibunoh was driven to heights through determination and focus.
He rose as a young Building Engineer and later became the Managing Director/Chairman of Costain West Africa with its parent company in the United Kingdom.
He is a desert warrior/adventurer, an environmental crusader, arts collector, museum owner and social activist.
While speaking with Sunday Sun recently, a newspaper he contributes to, Jibunoh proffered viable solutions to the many security challenges dangling the nation in the face.
You have a bag full of unbroken records, what is the update on your desert crossings, forestation, environmental encroachment and FADE? What are you doing presently?
It is like running a race. I see myself as being on the last lap of my journey. I am 80 plus and anytime from now, the clock might tick. I am in my injury period. When I see the rate people younger and older than I who are healthy as well are kicking the bucket, I have to really see myself as running my last lap
of the long race. It has been a long journey and I am doing everything I can not to leave any stone unturned.
But you are not up to 90; many people are older than you?
Look at the way former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, died. He celebrated his 80th birthday in April, and he was looking well and when I see things like this, I look at myself as running the last lap of the long race.
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What are the things you are putting together to make sure your last stage is heaven bound?
I enjoy spending time with my grandchildren, In fact, I do not have to wait for them to come to me, I rather go to them to be engaged in their question and answer sessions. That is a delightful journey for me because I listen to them and hear their questions, the questions and the kind of answers they give me are wonderful experience. So, anytime I want to have a stressless entertaining moment, I drive to them and that is one of my nicest ways of enjoying myself. Then and again, I read a lot, I write too. For me to be able to write, I have to read and be abreast of information with happenings within and outside my jurisdiction. My reading stuffs are not only books, but also newspapers, magazines and informational materials because I love studying, travelling and adventuring. I still do my travelling now and then; if I stay at a place for close to three weeks without travelling, I get a bit restless. Now, Lagos is a very busy place, I get invitations to attend events and I select the ones that fits into my programme and attend them. If I attend events the way the invitations come, it means I will do nothing else for myself. A lot of my friends attended my 80th birthday celebration, and when they are celebrating theirs, I also reciprocate. Those are the things keeping me busy for now and, of course, my environmental sustainability, I still do and will do it until I am no longer able to walk around or use my brain because it is a life calling. Now, I do not visit my locations as often as I should do normally, like the flooded areas in Niger Delta, mud sliding in the North; usually I would have gone to those places to see things for myself; sometimes proffer solutions, but I don’t do too much of that again.
You said you are at the last circuit of your race on earth; most people who are privileged to see 80 devote their time to sincere repentance, devotion, worship and will of God to make sure they are received in heaven. I did not hear you say any of such? Why?
I keep the issue of religion a very private affair. You hardly hear me talk about it. For me, it is a private issue and I don’t advertise and indulge in it, and you may like to hear that I don’t go to church.
It is a long story; you can leave that for another day because it is a very long story.
Do you worship God?
I do not worship, but within myself I feel I am always with my God, I can always worship Him the way I choose and in a very private way.
Not for a warrior and a successful role model like you who overcame so many odds. Is it part of the environmental exposure, not talking to anyone for days in the desert? Are you an atheist?
I don’t think I want to say I am an atheist. I have been searching myself. I will autograph you a book to read about my religion. I was a choir boy at St. Johns Anglican Church, Akwukwu-Igbo in Delta State during my growing up years. I was brought up in a Christian way and I know that whatever morals, integrity that is left with me today, I owe it to my Christian background, but somewhere down the line, I decided to find God in myself.
Do you worship things like Ikenga, Amadioha, Iyi-ukwu or stuffs like that as an art collector?
I acquired Ikenga from Igbo-ukwu, it is in the museum here, but I do not worship it.
Did the preachers of the word get you irritated at some point?
I will give you my book to read because I have a chapter that dealt with all these questions. My book will give you a better answer to all the questions about my religion. It is a long story.
Is it anything to do with climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, crossing the desert, the things you saw, the environment and all that?
From his book entitled ‘Hunger for Power’, Chapter 27: Page 244 entitled ‘The power of the Almighty’. Jibunoh was a young victim of racism during his studies in the United Kingdom. He wrote: “After
that racism encounter, I realized that I could not bring myself to worship in a church anymore.
I could not rationalize the fact that the same people that gave us Christianity would turn me away from a communal fellowship with them just because I am a Nigerian and a black man. If racism could exist in the church, these prejudices must be the machinations of men not God. The men who were supposed to be the keepers of the faith had turned out to be all too human, after all, and regrettably subjective. I decided I would not listen to them, nor attend their churches. I would serve my God in my own way. I would hold dear my Christian doctrine, live by it, and die in it. That became my mantra from that fateful Sunday and has remained with me.”
Hunger for adventures! What motivated you into adventures that grew with you?
Looking for adventure! We were brought up in different ways. The 60s was the era of voyages to the moon, and the conquest of space, every young man, especially students wanted to be part of that adventurous age. I have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, for example, and when I found out that Sahara was the biggest desert in the world and that it was a forbidden territory, I told myself that I was going to try it as well and that was it. I love to adventure.
How long did it take you to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
It took me six to seven days to climb it? When I make up my mind to go on adventures, I prepare myself. I normally go with my sleeping bag, enough food, drinks and snacks that would last me the number of days I wish to spend there. In the sleeping bag, not even an ant can crawl in, but snakes might just cross over you but would not hurt you at all, except you want to hurt them. I have crossed the desert for four times, it educated and humbled me. Most of the services I indulged in today, expeditions through the Sahara Desert made me discover who I am. When I went through the Sahara without opening my mouth for days, in the open space the sounds and things I heard are very imaginary. So, I had no other way, just myself and my God. I had that opportunity to look inside myself to find out who I am and that contributed immensely to whom I am today.
With the situation in the country now, can you repeat such voyages because you normally take off from far North where you spend days?
Because of the insurgencies all over the place, people have advised me, even the communities do not want me to come, Amina Mohammed when she was with the presidency gave me a solar system through one of the ministries SME, and also contacted a River Basin to pile water for my project. The solar panel was stolen and they even killed my security man, so because of all that, I find it difficult to go there now. I extended my project all the way to Niger Republic. Even the Ministries of Foreign Affairs have advised me not to do anything until things calm down.
Being a veteran environmentalist, what do you think was the cause of insurgencies in the country and reprisal attacks that got the country where it is today?
I started my project there in year 2002 and it went on until about 2008-2009. Immediately the insurgency started, because of the love they have for me, the relationship I have established with them over the years, I think I am in a better position than any other Nigerian to intervene. For all that I do, all the travels I have made, I would have been dead if not for what they know me for ‘restoration of encroached land’.
What would make a 70-80 years old man to go into the desert and restore the greenery?
If Nigeria had listened to me from 2,000 when I started talking about desert encroachment, we would not have been where we are today. The average nomadic Fulani is a wonderful animal husbandry person and that is their life. They do nothing else and they are very good at it. It is also a very profitable business for them. When they are at the age of 10-11, their parents give them five-male and five-female cows. By the time they are 20 years, they would have gotten thousands of cows; identify the aged ones, bring them by foot towards this axis for sale. They normally go through the East, West, pass through Sagamu, and then to Lagos which is their final destination. As they are coming, they are getting rid of some and finally everything in Lagos; invest their money in Bureau De Change and go back to their land. They practice shifting cultivation and that was the way they kept their greenery. A nomadic Fulani with a thousand cows, all he does is take his stick and take those cows to the grazing field in the morning and bring them back in the evening. It is what they use in maintaining their lives. They milk their cows, eat the meat and pass Sahara and make their own friends, but suddenly the grazing fields have gone out, climate change and desertification. What is left for them is either to sit down and watch their animal die or look for greenery where they graze these animals. Unfortunately, most of the times, they tumble into people’s farms and the owners of the farmland would fight back because their farm produce is being destroyed. That happened at the Southern part (Benue and Plateau, Bauchi Area). When they found out
that their entire life was about disappearing completely, they started arming themselves. They also started hiring mercenaries to escort them. Unfortunately for us, war was ending in Libya, Mali and Niger; there were soldiers who had nothing to do, so they joined hands with nomadic people; initially to escort them; but being warriors and fighters; they went beyond escorting the nomadic Fulani men into staging war against people. Even before Gen. TY Danjuma made that statement, I told Nigerians the story long before that statement was made.
Now, that you are closer to them through your milk of kindness by salvaging their environment, can you interfere to bring down the rate and attack by the insurgents?
I can tell you that it is a lot easier for someone like me to do that. Though I do not like talking about it, but for the good of the country, I have faced a number of attacks, but when they found out who I am, they go away. They know me and read about me. I had a conversation where they said, that is the man that has given us greenery, he is close to the ‘Seriki’ (Emir of Kano). I would have been dead in my location if not for these identifications.
You said you do not visit the places you like to visit again; does it have to do with age or as a result of insurgency?
I have a house in Sahara Desert. People built a house for me there. When I started my project, I got into advocacy to let people know about the migration problem coming from the encroachment of the desert. The land degradation why they could not farm properly was because of land liquidation. It was nice to let them know how they could get over it; because of that I went back to Ben Gurion University in Israel to study the Science of Desertification, the whole of Israel was recovered from the desert and that is why they have a university specializing on how to get land reclamation. Having acquired that knowledge in Israel, I came back to Nigeria and decided to implement some of the science of desertification. So, I started helping communities in the desert encroached areas and those that live on the fringes of the desert. I started doing land reclamation with them because being in the desert, where there is nowhere to stay, I would mount my tent and live there. The governor and his deputy visited me there, and when my project started yielding result, those that migrated out of the place because of desert encroachment came back and said to me we don’t want you to be staying in the tent; they contributed money and built a house for me.
Did you live there?
Yes, I did. I was visited by the late Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero, the governor and his deputy in that house, likewise the British High Commissioner and his wife at that time. The place was Makoda, in Dambatta area of Kano State. I built wall of trees which is used to stop the desert from encroaching; and returned it into greenery. If you are able to stop the desert from encroaching, you turn it into greenery for the community to have a place where their animals could graze. Whenever I go to Kano, I stay in my thatched and blocked house. For all my projects, the first thing is to dig a borehole to irrigate the land. It was easy for them to collaborate with me so water was there for me and I extended it to the community as well which they saw as gold.
What then do you think is the way forward?
I think there should be a census of how many of them has migrated and where they come from. If we don’t have a comprehensive Nigerian census; it is a problem. Do a proper documentation because most of them are not Nigerians. Desertification did not affect only Nigeria; it affected other countries like Burkin-Faso, Mali, parts of Ghana, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. When they found out that their brothers were being prosecuted, Nigeria became easier for them to come in and graze their animals. That was how most of them started migrating into Nigeria. We hear politicians talk nonsense here and there, without getting to the root of the matter. Other African countries have migrated into Nigeria for two reasons, to graze their animals and to help their nomadic brothers and friends. No one enters other countries without proper documentation except in Nigeria. When the government find out where they came from, they should go to such places and do greenery for them. Let them have a synergy with the communities where they are grazing at the moment. If we do not know where they come from, we have a problem. In four years, their greenery should be restored. Appeal should be made to the owners of the land to allow them graze, but with specifications on the area to graze so as not to destroy the farm land. When their greenery is restored, government can begin the process of getting them back to their various places instead of camping them in IDP’s. How can Nigerians suddenly become refugees in their own land? What is the IDP camp and grazing colony for when there are lands all over that has been taking over by the desert. A whole nation cannot restore greenery to such areas. The next step would be the process of disarming these insurgents. When I was in the desert arms and alcohol must not been seen with me in those countries, why then would they bring arms into my country. There used to be intense search on me in Mauritania, Mali and Burkina-Faso then. For instance, there is a place in my state called Otulu with just about 2000 population; they have taken over there with a population of over 10,000 people now.
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Have you tried to restore Otulu with the solution you have just proffered here?
Where will I get the resources to do that? I know what we went through during my project days with the government collaboration. A typical nomadic man does not want to be urbanised. They want to remain there and when you raise the issue of urbanizing, you are now bringing up another social crisis.
Apart from nomadic lifestyle, what about the attacks carried out on people who are going about their normal businesses of the day?
In war all sorts of things happen. If the government is not able to tell the people, I can tell them we are fighting a war. What we have is reprisals. They will kill some cows and the nomadic people will get back to them at night. Where will all the reprisals take all of us to? I took time to look inwards before proffering solutions to all these problems. I am using my area Otulu with less population of averagely 2000 persons for instance. Others are nomadic people, but we have not heard of a major crisis except for once thy killed a farmer. The issue is being over-politicised especially now that election is at hand. After the world cup, I wrote an article where I reminded of how united this country is. When I was driving through my territory, I saw these nomadic men clutching to their transistor radio listening to commentators when Nigeria was playing their matches, so I asked myself, do will still have an element of love and unity in this country; it is a pity that Nigeria did not go far during the world cup, it would have been an avenue to unite more. In my thought I wanted us to bring someone like Kofi Annan, but unfortunately he just passed on.
Restructuring is nonsense. Everybody is looking for his own political gain out of restructuring without thinking that the country should go back to Aburi; because that was where our problem started from. A lot of people will read this and sweep it underneath the carpet. They all know, if they are not told by somebody like me, an environmentalist, desert warrior and adventurer, who else will tell them? I have not compromised, not sycophant, I have my simple peace in my own little way. I can only tell the truth. My next book will be titled “Tell what you know”. I do not want to go to my grave with these amounts of experiences. I am not looking for any job rather; I want to be a solution provider.
As a solution provider, who are you talking to? Is the government or the people?
I am writing and granting interviews to various media houses and I think it is the best because all will read it. Most of the things I write about are critical issues which people read and react to. People underestimate the little ideas this could do for Nigeria as a country?