I thank the Chancellor and President, and the entire family of York University for the great honour being extended to me today. 

Being born at a time we were at the edge of breaking free from colonialism, the notion of independence was built early into my psyche. Growing up in innocence and being sucked into a season of violent secession was both disruptive and traumatic. This was a season of disruption of my primary education and it yielded an age-long struggle to figure out what was missed in the traumatic gaps of forced migration and survival as a refugee within my country.

Seasons are episodic otherwise they would not be seasons. At the end of the Biafra-Nigeria civil war, I was already severely scarred by the sights of horrible human rights abuses, man’s inhumanity to man, hunger, disease, cries of men pleading for their lives and several other stressors. War games were not video games, but games played with actual bones, fire and gunpowder. Bones of once gallant men who signed up to fight their brothers against whom they had no personal grouse. Today, more investment is being made in warfare, armaments, and destruction than in building resilience and wellbeing in the world.

My early years were wrapped by tales of resilience and charismatic anti-colonial fighters in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Angola and South Africa. It was a time of learning of the martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Steve Biko, Amilca Cabral, Thomas Sankara and others.

Meanwhile my country was under serial authoritarian military dictatorship and as a young adult I could not escape being a part of the human rights and anti dictatorship movement. Whereas I thought that was the zenith of standing against injustices, more graphic examples were unfolding beneath the radar.

The wheels of oppression at home were literally oiled by crude oil and sundry extractivist activities. Capital trumped concerns for the health of Mother Earth and her children. Complaints against the destruction of the ecosystems and livelihoods were met with brute force. Whole communities were sacked or crushed. Oil spills and heinous routine gas flaring pumped cocktails of noxious elements and gases into the environment, birthing cancers, birth defects, breathing diseases and cutting life expectancy to a mere whisper. 

It was at this time that Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders stood out and called for environmental Justice. Later we learned from Saro-Wiwa’s last writings before his judicial murder that the organizing energy rose from the conviction that “silence was treason” in the face of the debilitating pollution!

The judicial murders and assault on communities were the red lines the dictatorship crossed that set me on a lifelong journey of standing for environmental rights as the key basis for the enjoyment of the right to life. It has been quite a journey loaded with inescapably fixing one’s attention on environmental horrors, some of which are unimaginable and indescribable. While the journey has been mostly across the African continent and the sacrifice zones of the global south, we cannot fail to acknowledge the resistance and resilience of our relatives in the global north who face similar circumstances and continue to fight for environmental justice, dignity and basic rights in the efforts to decolonize their territories. 

Extractivism threatens both people and planet. Its roots can be seen in every facet of the polycrisis pushing the world to the brink. Fossil fuel corporations, for one, invest so much to alter and control global imaginaries and have so far succeeded as policy makers believe that there is no other way to drive “growth”. Yet, it is clear we cannot afford lineal growth on a finite planet. While record temperatures, wildfires, floods and other stressors rage across the world, leaders are engrossed in xenophobic nationalism, building barriers against climate refugees and promoting fictional or false and risky climate solutions. They stick their tongues out and sneer: we can pollute and then engage in carbon removal; rather than adopt agroecology (which builds healthy soils      and cools the planet)and support small scale fathers who actually feed the world, we will whiten the clouds, hang up mirrors and sunshades in the sky to lower the global temperature.

We are not surprised that carbon trading is the clarion call and Africa is emerging as a huge carbon sink in what may well be a neocolonial continent grab. An exploitative market cannot be the solution of a crisis created by the market.

It is a big honour for me to stand before you today. It is clearly a celebratory moment for me. However, a life entwined with that of my peoples is inevitably coated by a cloud of rage. As I look at the hopeful faces in this auditorium I plead that you never allow anything or anyone to steal your joy or to dim your hope. In May 2023, Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, one of the most polluted places on planet Earth, released through its Environment and Oil Commission, a report somberly titled Environmental Genocide. The report, among other things, revealed that the per capita pollution in the state stands at one and a half barrels of crude oil. Rather than being aghast by such a revelation the world has been loudly silent. We hear talks of decarbonizing economies at a time we should be depetrolizing the ebbing civilization and detoxifying the sacrifice zones.

The milestones in my journey and the successes in the midst of continual battles have come by the resilience of the peoples and communities. We see expanding movements and readiness of communities to suffer inconveniences today for the sake of building a sane future for those yet unborn. I have seen the power of traditional wisdom and cultural production in building hope and strengthening alliances against oppression. Talking about cultural production, poetry has been a therapeutic tool for me. Through poetry we capture the past and present and construct the future. It is a tool that exposes folly, elicits action and provides strength even in difficult moments. 

This is not a time to walk alone. Belonging to the York University family offers a layer of strength, not just for me but for my constituencies. This is indeed a time to stand together to demand justice in all circumstances, to call for an end to ecocide, to build solidarity and not walls and to restore hope in our time. I dedicate this honour to the martyrs of extractivism and environmental defenders everywhere.

On being conferred with an honorary doctorate at the convocation ceremony at York University, Toronto, Canada, 13 October 2023.