I am often fondly called the Desert Warrior and in many ways I see myself as one: a warrior who fights both for and against the desert. The title came as a result of my desert expeditions to raise awareness about desert encroachment and the need for Africa to tame the Sahara or face dire consequences.
The older I get, the more I realise how important the youth are to the success of any lasting development and, for this reason, I have always sought ways to pass on the mantle of the moniker “Desert Warrior” to a new generation that will continue the fight and go even further.
You see, we have a big problem on our hands and it will only get worse. Across the nation, desertification has affected over 11 states in the northern parts of Nigeria, with some of the effects ranging from taking over land and water bodies to taking over 90 per cent of grazing fields and lands, rendering millions of hamlets and their occupants homeless, destroying farming communities, imposing food insecurity and many more. The resultant effect is the massive migration of millions of animals and the affected population that in some cases have led to violent clashes between host communities and the visitors.
Returning for a second expedition 20 years after the first, I witnessed first-hand the degree of damage the encroaching desert had done to border communities – the loss of livelihood, the drought, famine and eventual need for migrating or death in some cases. Although I felt that the federal and state governments were not doing enough to tackle the problem, I knew that the crisis was and is not what only one man, state or a nation could handle.
At that time, I must have been one of the very few people in the world that had experienced the crossing of the Sahara: North to South and South to North. It felt like it was my responsibility to do something and that began my voyage into environmental activism even at the risk of my life and those that volunteered to work with me. I went on this voyage with the vehicle, FADE Africa, a non-profit environmental organisation that I founded for the sole purpose of taking climate actions against the encroaching desert.
Stories of my solo expeditions abound but, in the following two-part series, I hope to take you through my adventure with the Desert Warrior group of men and women that risked it all to join me on a desert expedition to Agadez in Niger Republic and back for over two weeks. It is a story of near deaths and resilience. Most memorable was how we almost got trapped in a military coup that took place in Niger Republic the day after we departed Agadez. I have never stopped wondering what would have been the fate of the Desert Warrior initiative if one had not left Agadez at that time.
As part of the advocacy, which is the mainstay of saving the planet earth and avoiding climate catastrophes, the likes that we are now witnessing in Central Africa and India, FADE Africa designed a Desert Warrior programme sponsored by the Lagos State government at that time about a decade ago to sensitise and put in place an activism involving FADE Africa, the people of Niger Republic and the Niger-Nigeria joint commission with a television reality show shot in the middle of the desert outside Agadez in Niger Republic.
Simply put, the reality TV show in Agadez was a desert boot camp environmental protection task-based television show designed to educate and inform the audience as well as participants on the dangers and life struggles in the desert.
The environmental protection tasks to be performed were designed to provide mitigating measures to the menace of desert encroachment and land climate change. I am forever grateful to the then governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, who was quick to see the potential of such a reality programme in educating the youth on the science of climate change, desertification, and mitigating measures to stem the continuous loss of land in the North to the creeping Sahara.
On the morning of February 2, 2010, His Excellency, Governor Fashola, accompanied by some members of his cabinet, notably the Commissioner for Environment, Dr. Muiz Banire, and Dr. Titi Anibaba, permanent secretary in the ministry, flagged off our contingent of 44 contestants and 18 support staff that included media personnel, medical staff, MOE officials, and five FADE officials travelling in a convoy of 19 vehicles.
On February 4, after a brief stop at Kano for another flag-off by His Royal Highness, the late Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero, we arrived in Niger Republic and were greeted by the security forces detailed to protect us. This unit was led by a man called Lt. Madi. He led us to the Governor of Maradi, who hosted us to some light refreshment. It had taken us over eight hours to complete visa formalities at the two border control sides in Jibya, and even though we were exhausted and hungry, Lt. Madi insisted we drove the 550km to Tahoua, our main stop and camping ground for two days. We kept going, all through the night, having left Maradi a little after 10pm. Arriving Tahoua at about 4am in the morning of February 5, we were met by the secretary to the state government, the regional director of the ministry of environment, and the chief of security in Tahoua, five kilometers to the city. These wonderful officials led us to the restaurant where our dinner of the 4th awaited us.
Departure from Tahoua was at about 10am of the 6th, after breakfast and fuelling up of the security escort vehicles. Our own vehicles were fuelled the night before. The next destination was Abalak. Before we got there, we made two stops. The first was at Lake Tabalak, a lake that lies within a ring of inactive sand dunes. It was a most beautiful site for a lake whose background features were sand dunes. For most of the contestants and the crew, this was their first contact with sand dunes and, I daresay, the desert.
Moving away from Tahoua towards Abalak, we all could observe that the vegetation was getting sparser. Therefore, to suddenly run into the beautiful lake amid sand dunes was a most pleasant surprise. Obviously an artificial lake, it provided water for the communities around it. The people, living so close to the desert, naturally engaged in irrigated agriculture all year round as well as in fishing, and animal rearing.
The second stop was about 35 kilometres to Abalak. The feature here again was an extensive range of inactive sand dunes. These were so close to the road that it was obvious the road was carved through the dunes.
About five kilometres to the town, we linked up with the welcome delegation, the prefect of Abalak and government officials. The prefect, an elderly man in his 70s, a former diplomat, was on that day a representative of His Excellency, Hamoudu Tandja, the President of the Republic of Niger. That the President of the Republic sent his representative to receive us was most gratifying and humbling; it gave the mission the seal of approval and endorsement from the government and its people. The delegation warmly hugged everyone. Our hosts expressed their joy in seeing us, gave their support for our mission at Agadez, hoped we could someday repeat same mission at Abalak, wished us well and escorted us out of Abalak for another 10 kilometres before taking their leave to allow us to continue on our way to Agadez.
The farther we moved away from Abalak, the closer we got into desert regions. Vegetation was disappearing fast, trees were shrinking to shrubs, villages were few and far in between, with many containing no more than half a dozen huts; animals were leaner and a lot of animal carcasses could be seen along the roadsides where they had taken their last breaths and died from hunger and dehydration. The sights were sobering.
That was only the beginning though, as the convoy would yet be met with even more devastating sights and challenges that I will continue to share in next week’s column for the second part of the Desert Warrior series.
The Desert Warrior programme slowed down due to the unrest in some of the regions bordering the desert but we have been informed by the authorities that there has been a considerable reduction in accidents, in killings and, once again, we are consumed with the need to replicate in different locations and almost all parts of the country. With the needed funding and the collaboration of other state governments, our desert warriors can return.