Many Nigerians were thrilled that a fellow African won the most recent Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Maathai, a woman from Kenya, was awarded this distinction for her environmental activism. In 1977 she formed the Green Belt Movement, an organisation mostly of poor women, to curtail the devastating effects of deforestation and desertification. She wanted to produce sustainable wood for fuel use as well as combating soil erosion by planting 30 million trees. This was her theme: “The environment is very important in the aspects of peace because when we destroy our resources and our resources become scarce, we fight over that.”

I was thrilled, too, although the novelty is beginning to wear off. So many Africans have gone to Oslo and so few African countries are at peace. South Africa’s Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, F.W. De Klerk, Desmond Tutu, Egypt’s Anwar El-Sadat,, Ghana’s Kofi Annan, and now Kenya’s Wangari Maathai have all taken the coveted medal home to a continent which seems less peaceful than ever.

Nonetheless, Wangari Maathai’s award highlighted an issue which most Westerners overlook in Africa — the environment. In the US or Canada or Western Europe, environmentalism is often a hobby for the spoiled scions of the middle class. In air-conditioned conference halls in New York and Berlin, academics and activists can confabulate about a fraction of a degree rise in global temperatures and whaling quotas.

In Africa, environmentalism can be literally a matter of life and death — not in 50 years time from higher rates of skin cancer, but now, from guns. As Wangari Maathai said in her acceptance speech: “the Norwegian Nobel Committee has placed the critical issue of environment and its linkage to democracy and peace before the world. For their visionary action, I am profoundly grateful. Recognising that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come. Our work over the past 30 years has always appreciated and engaged these linkages.”

Wangari Maathai was a noble recipient for the Nobel Prize. But let me tell you about Nigeria, a country where the link between the democracy and the environment is not just a romantic cause for ragged radicals, but a desperate reality.

I have in mind the Niger Delta, where oil prospecting and drilling has done such damage to the soil that tree re-planting and even soil replacement cannot repair for another 100 years. If the soil could weep and speak, that in Niger Delta would speak teary volumes and wail loud lamentations. But it has been silenced by politicians whose hands were filled with silver by foreign oil magnates unwilling to adhere to strict environmental standards.

The people of the Niger Delta live off the sea and land. Neither is possible now because effluent has killed the fish and chemicals have poisoned the soil. Those who have the task of monitoring and ensuring compliance with environmental standards prefer to keep quiet because they have been bribed by oil companies who prefer to pay a relatively small amount in bribes, than to comply fully with expensive environmental regulation.

The West has turned its back on this problem. When restive Niger Delta youths declared “war” on oil companies such as Dutch Shell, America’s Chevron, and France’s Total, it became headline news the world over. Why? Only because the price of crude oil soared to an all-time high of US$50.

Yet when novelist and television producer Ken Saro-Wiwa, of the minority Ogoni tribe, protested against the collusion of a corrupt government with foreign oil companies, no one spoke up. With eight others he was eventually executed by the government of General Sani Abacha on November 10, 1995 on the absurd charge of inciting the murder of four government sympathisers.

It’s a pity that Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously. Ken Saro-Wiwa, with his energy, eloquence and courage, is an unbeatable candidate. His words in the dock will not soon be forgotten:

On trial also is the Nigerian nation, its present rulers and all those who assist them. I am not one of those who shy away from protesting injustice and oppression, arguing that they are expected of a military regime. The military do not act alone. They are supported by a gaggle of politicians, lawyers, judges, academics and businessmen, all of them hiding under the claim that they are only doing their duty, men and women too afraid to wash their pants of their urine.

Wangari Maathai’s warning that environmental destruction leads to fighting is abundantly true in Nigeria. After Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed; the youth of the Niger Delta formed an “army”. By illegally tapping into pipelines and selling the crude oil, they could get enough money to buy AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and explosives. For several months, they made the Nigerian government quiver until international pressure made them negotiate with the “terrorists”. Now there is an uneasy calm which will erupt the moment the protection money is exhausted.

Despite the constant grumbling over Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the choice of Mrs. Maathai was an inspired one. Perhaps some curmudgeons might have thought that a female African greenie was the ultimate in political correctness. But caring for the environment in this continent is not about saving exotic spider and snails. It’s about saving human beings. As she said in her acceptance speech:

“As we progressively understood the causes of environmental degradation, we saw the need for good governance. Indeed, the state of any county’s environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place, and without good governance there can be no peace. Many countries, which have poor governance systems, are also likely to have conflicts and poor laws protecting the environment.”

Admittedly, it will be difficult to duplicate the success of the Green Belt Movement in Nigeria. Kenyans have a greater sense of solidarity. This is often missing in Nigeria where more than 250 ethnic groups distrust one another. Even among people of the same ethnic group, the tendency to “survival of the fittest” is also too glaring, with nobody trusting the other.

But Wangari Maathai’s triumph will give new heart to democratic environmentalists and will rattle the corrupt governments and businessmen throughout the continent. It’s a pity that it didn’t happen 10 years ago — perhaps one of Nigeria’s great men would still be alive today.

Eugene Ohu is MercatorNet’s correspondent in Nigeria.

With his love for writing and reading, Eugene Ohu's foray into Pharmacy is perhaps a testament to the often utilitarian choices of many Africans, faced as they are with survival needs. In this context,...