This week, I continue my story of the Desert Warriors programme that saw 44 contestants and 18 support staff make a dangerous journey across the Sahara.
After two solo expeditions and one group expedition of six people, this was my biggest and most daring adventure yet. No matter how much you plan and prepare for everything, the desert is one place where anything can happen, irrespective of your plans. Hours after the flag-off event in Lagos by former Governor Babatunde Fashola, when we started our journey, we were finally out of Nigeria and in Niger Republic. Our first stop was Maradi, to meet our guides, before we then drove 550km to Tahoua, our main stop and camping ground for two days. The journey that first day took the whole day as we arrived at Tahoua shortly before 4am the next day.
After we left Tahoua, our next destination was Agadez, with a few stops along the way to appreciate the impact of desertification in the area. About 160km to Agadez, we got into a section of the road that had been washed off. The fastest way to travel was by driving on the desert sands. The security around the region was precarious, being ‘rebel country’ as it were, hence the need for security escorts. Travel speed within that extremely dusty zone was about 80kmph, and was meant to deter any ambush. Twice, the convoy stopped to help vehicles in difficulties; once with a “sinking-in-the-sand” problem, and the next time another vehicle lost both front tires after hitting a ditch, hard.
We finally arrived at Agadez at about 6.20pm that day, almost nine hours after leaving Tahoua. We drove straight to the camp, which would be our home for the next few weeks. Thankfully, dinner was also waiting for us, and it was not couscous.
Life in the camp was Spartan. The cultural shock of primitive living was a rude awakening to majority of the contingent. Everybody wanted a bed, or a mattress but, lo and behold, the LOC had provided mattresses for the support staff and mats for the contestants!
“This is the desert and we are on an expedition. You do not take a bed with you on an expedition,” I explained.
Some accepted, others resigned their fate to us, consoled by thoughts of winning the grand prize: a road trip to Europe and a cash prize of N5 million with a four-wheel-drive vehicle in tow, for the first-place winner.
The camp and the travel, however, proved too much for two of the contestants. One left us in Kano with the story that he had just won a scholarship to study in the Netherlands. Another, a female, fell ill with severe diarrhea and stomach cramps. The doctors looked after her very well, but, eventually, we had to put her on a flight back to Abuja. The rest bravely soldiered on.
The contestants, now 54, with 12 Nigeriens joining us at the camp, vigorously pursued their tasks daily. These included early morning fitness training, search-and-find assignments, car handling skills, and Man-O’-war activities. Some of the tasks proved demanding for the contestants, in line with the expectations. Others were downright dangerous and had to be scrapped or modified. After all, it was a first for both the contestants and even we, the organizers.
In addition to their competitive tasks, the contestants also engaged in some community service. Notable among these were the planting of 1,175 trees, made up of 500 fruit trees, 500 economic trees, and 1,000 wind breakers; 2,000 seedlings had been purchased but not all got planted. Instead, we presented the villagers with the rest of the seedlings for planting and for nurturing all that had been planted. The contestants were also involved in land reclamation activities. This involved the making of ridges to act as flood water retaining structures, which would soften the parched soil and help disperse nutrients so that when trees are planted they can take root and flourish. The contestants made a total of three of these, each about 60m long. Though tedious and laborious, the contestants found the task beneficial.
Each night, in a well-directed televised show at the ‘Green Square,’ the contestants were evaluated on the tasks they had performed during the day. The host would lead the contestants, placed into five groups, through a process of eliminating the weakest links, so to say.
Since all contestants must have performed the same task, the group that won for the day got immunity from being voted into exile, while the contestants with the two highest votes in each group would go into suspension. Those under suspension would come back the following night to present a defense of their poor performance in a spirited attempt to convince the Captain, me, on why they should remain. I would then decide whether to keep a contestant or send him or her into exile. This was repeated every night until the last 18 were left standing, with the lowest scoring three as alternates for the eventual road trip to Europe. With this, the reality show came to an end at about 10.35pm on the night of February 14, 2010. Ten days after it started.
The challenges of organising an expedition of about 82 people drawn from diverse backgrounds was daunting but very rewarding when it was over.
Departure from Agadez on February 16, 2010, was a rather hurried affair. We had depleted our resources considerably and many people were itching to return home. Some of the contestants, especially those already eliminated were becoming grouchy, while others had begun to miss their real lives, work, business, and families. My immediate tasks were two-fold. First, I had to keep the troupe together and avoid a mutiny, and, secondly, I must deliver everyone safely to Nigeria.
We parted ways with our ever-present security escorts after the furious drive through ‘rebel country’ to Maradi, where we spent the night. The following day, we drove to the border crossings of Jibya, and, by 3.15pm, after the immigration rites, we were continuing to the Nigerian border control when my phone rang.
“Hello, Dr. Jibunoh, where are you?” asked the voice on the other end of the line.
It was the Nigerian ambassador to Niger on the phone. I had informed him late on the 15th that we would be leaving Agadez the following day.
“We are just approaching the Nigerian side of the Jibya border, Your Excellency,” I replied.
“Good, very good. There has just been a coup in Niamey. The President has been toppled,” he announced.
I stared at the phone, with my mouth open. I could not say a word. Finally, I heard the voice of the ambassador in the distance asking if I was still there. I put the phone back to my ear.
“So, sorry, Your Excellency. What happened? This is shocking,” I said.
“Yes, it is. If you listen closely, you can hear gunshots in the distance. I hope everyone is safe.”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
“Listen, Newton, I have to go. Have a safe trip.” And with that he hung up.
What a narrow escape, I thought. What if we had been caught in it, and what if the borders had been closed on us? How would I look after 60 people with no money on me? To this day, I still shudder at the thought.
Wrapping up the reality show was only the first phase of a two-part project, the Newton Jibunoh Expedition. The second phase being the road trip from Lagos to London across the Sahara. The arrangements for this started as soon as we could reconvene the planning committee under the leadership of the permanent secretary in the Lagos State Ministry of Environment, Dr. Titi Anibaba.
Our initial route was to run through Niger Republic. After the change of government, we were advised to put our plans on hold until stability was returned to the country. Additionally, a festering insurgency north of the country became a major incident, with the kidnapping of five French soldiers. Then the Arab Spring happened, and this virtually put a stop to our plans for the expedition as all host countries along that route declined the provision of visas, citing security reasons.
This situation continued and by the fall of 2010, we tried going via the western route, the same route that was used for my third expedition in 2008. Although a few countries along that route were willing to issue us travel visas, we were advised of the inherent dangers with so many wars raging in Libya and Mali, and many terrorists loose in the Islamic Maghreb, the exact region for our journey. A convoy of 10 vehicles like ours would be a visible and tempting target, both to the terrorists and to those fighting the terrorists. We could most easily be annihilated with a friendly or enemy drone strike.
I reviewed these facts and reluctantly informed the team of the decision to cancel the second phase of the expedition. There was a lot of disappointment within the contingents and the production crew and I could easily understand, but my first duty was the preservation of lives.
If I could protect a tree from being felled, a wildlife from being hunted down, I must be able to protect the lives of those entrusted to me, the lives of those who had believed in my mission and had decided to come on board. And with that, the expedition was put on hold indefinitely
Recently, we have begun conversations to return with the Desert Warriors initiative due to the need to replicate a project like this in different frontline locations as the rate at which we are losing our fertile land to desertification is alarming. Our renewed passion is also fuelled by reports from authorities that there has been a considerable reduction in accidents, in killings along our selected routes.
Warriors have been trained and thousands have volunteered to join the Desert Warriors initiative. With those in place, all that is needed is funding and the collaboration of other state governments to once again raise a new generation of Desert Warriors that will defend and fight for the environment.