interviewBy Ebun Olatoye
Abuja — He is a soil mechanics expert and founder of Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE). A chief in his local government in Delta State, he holds the title, Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) and the African Tourism Human Treasure Award from the British Museum in London. He was the CEO of Costain West Africa for fourteen years, yet, Newton Jibunoh is known mostly as the explorer who crossed the world's largest desert alone- twice. Jibunoh undertook his first Sahara crossing as a youthful adventurer and his second journey as an environmental crusader. Chief Newton Jibunoh turned seventy on January 1st, 2008. Jibunoh is consumed with plans to embark on a third expedition from Lagos to London across the dreaded Sahara. However, this time, he is travelling with a journalist, a film-maker, an auto mechanic and an IT specialist. In spite of disapproval from family, the abortion of the 2008 Dakar rally over terrorist threats, and the death of fellow adventurer, Sir Edmund Hillary, Newton Jibunoh holds a firm resolve to heed the call of the scorching cum breathtaking Sahara. He tells Ebun Olatoye why.
What inspired you to undertake your first expedition from London to Lagos across the Sahara in 1965?
What is known today as the modern global world started over forty years ago. The world started becoming a global village in the 60s with the race to the moon and space, civil rights movements, women's rights and liberation and the trial and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. As a student in London whilst these revolutions took place, I was 27years old, but I wanted to be part of that era, and the best available option known to me at that time was trying some of the impossibles that were known at that time.
How did you prepare for the trip?
The first thing I did was, write to almost all the embassies of the twelve countries I was passing through, and I started getting replies from some of the embassies on how possible or impossible it was to make the expedition. I also spoke to people with a bit of experience on travelling on similar expeditions.
Which were the most helpful embassies?
The Moroccan and Spanish embassies were very helpful because they provided me with documentation on other people who had attempted the same feat and failed or died, and why they failed or died.
They also told me of people who went half way and came back and why they did. People like Mark Thatcher, son of Margaret Thatcher who was rescued in the desert by the Royal Air Force after getting lost, stranded and ran out of everything. Margaret Thatcher wasn't prime minister then, but she was a very prominent Parliamentarian and was able to call in the Air Force.
Did news of these failures deter you?
Yes, they scared me. But the more scared I was the more prepared I became. Because I was attempting the impossible, the fear generated into more determination. The fear also made me go back to see how to recalculate the risk that I was about to undertake. Underneath the fear there was also the vision of the final outcome and the fact that I was going to be one of the very few in the world who not only attempted but succeeded in doing the impossible.
What inspired the second expedition?
The issue of climate change and global warming was just becoming topical in 2000. Before then, I had tried to deliver a number of lectures, write papers, but because of our (African) low level of participation in global issues, we needed to have such information connected with global warming and climate change come from other sources via the satellite.
At that time, 35years had passed since my first Sahara crossing. I knew that I was better equipped because I had the advantage of a physical and scientific knowledge of the West who had satellite information. But at the same time, I wasn't sure how well equipped I was.
Secondly, the pictures that were painted by the global community about global warming and climate change were so frightening, yet most of the African countries needed to be aware and I felt that I was a better instrument, being an African, for spreading this awareness. So I wanted to use that second expedition to see how much research I could conduct which would enable me proffer solutions to the whole subject of desert encroachment, desertification, global warming and climate change.
Which was harder, the first or the second expedition?
It's difficult to tell, because I undertook the first expedition under a lot of ignorance and youthful exuberance. I took everything in its stride.
During the second, I had more support and more machinery, yet I was much older, so age was against me. Each expedition had its own pluses and minuses. Maybe after the third one I will be in a better position to do the arithmetic of which was harder. But right now, I still can't figure it out.
What were the hardest parts of the trip for you?
Moments when I questioned my own sanity. Being alone and the grueling experience fuelled that. Also, I had to stop listening to the radio because it made me aware of how far away I was. It was then that I truly realised I was depriving myself and it was like living outside the world as I knew it. I wondered why I had brought that upon myself. A lot of times I was close to tears listening to events on the radio. It added to my hallucinations and the things that I saw and heard that were not there.
There were also the difficulties with logistics, battery going flat, tyres going burst, but those were expected and one was able to attend to them. But the other challenges like hallucination, nothing prepares you for that.
What were the most memorable moments of the trip?
To watch the sunrise and set everyday. The absolute peace and cleanliness of an environment devoid of all the trappings of these cities. And the fact that I would be able to use information I acquired in the process to impact on people and future adventurers.
For the benefit of people who haven't experienced the desert, what is it about the Sahara that makes it so "impossible?
The Sahara desert is the largest desert in the world and one of the few that has a combination of the horror and the beauty. Steve Fossett is a world renowned and incredibly wealthy adventurer, yet he went missing in the Nevada desert which is one of the smallest deserts in the world.
Were there moments during the trip when you wished you had not undertaken the mission?
So many times. Most of the arguments people used to dissuade me against going on the expedition, I saw all of them and more. This was the case in both expeditions.
Why the Sahara of all other possible expeditions? It was and still remains the most challenging. It's one of the Seven Wonders of the World and remains a very intriguing subject for any scientist and any human being. Even as I speak, getting ready for my third expedition, I still don't know if the issues surrounding the Sahara can be conquered in this century. Also, conquering the desert will bring a solution to many of the environmental disasters that afflict Africa and the globe.
How do we conquer the desert?
Simply by greening it. If I had never crossed the Sahara the first time, I would never have started my NGO- Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE). My initial instinct after the second expedition was that I would write and deliver lecturers and try to proffer solutions to desertification. And I have been doing that. It was during one of my lectures in New York that I met one of the Vice Presidents of the World Bank who told me that if there was anyone in the world in the position to proffer solutions to the desertification challenge, it was me, but that I needed to go to Israel to the Negev desert to see what they were doing with their desert there. I had seven professors working with me and I was there for three months, studying, researching, and learning. At the end of the fellowship, I was excited and looking forward to the possibilities of change that we could make through FADE, first in Nigeria and later to the rest of Africa.
How has your Ngo FADE- Fight Against Desert Encroachment made a difference in the desertification challenge?
We've done a lot of work to raise awareness about desertification. We have created a great deal of awareness, not just in this country but globally as well. And we've impacted on a number of villages and hamlets and towns where we've started our wall of tree projects to stop desert encroachment which led to migration.
We trained and involved the various communities we were in the tree planting projects by planting fruits and cash crops which would be economically beneficial to the communities. We planted nim trees which can be processed into nim oil, detergent and soap, and the mangoes and oranges processed into juice and syrups. More recently, we held a peaceful protest in Bourdillon in Ikoyi to protest the felling of 5000tress which Julius Berger had marked for cutting to make way for road construction. Those trees have been protecting our environment and giving us oxygen for hundreds of years. All over the world, people are planting trees and here we are cutting ours down. As a result of our protest, the Lagos State government wrote to us this week to say that it is now illegal in Lagos State to cut down trees. Not only that, the arbitrary cutting of trees will attract a N50,000. 00 in Lagos State. This is a major step in the right direction, and one which we hope other states would emulate.
How does desertification affect the urban man who is so far removed from the desert and desert encroachment?
Everything that goes up must come down. That's the law of motion propounded by Sir Isaac Newton. We all breathe the same air, and the desertification and the environment is all about the air we breathe. We all drink the same water which is also controlled by the environment. And we all eat the same food that must be produced by the same soil. These are the three major ingredients of life. So whether you live on Banana Island in Lagos, or Makoda in Kano State, we all have to eat, live and breathe, and it is the earth and the environment that produces the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe. So it behoves all of us to preserve that environment.
Also, there's migration. People who are driven by desert encroachment have no other place to go but urban areas. They put more pressure on limited infrastructure, cause security risk and the inevitable clashes between the desert and urban dwellers.
Africans blame the West for producing most of the green house gases causing environmental degradation, yet countries like America and China failed to endorse the crusade by signing the Kyoto Protocol, so why should Africans care?
If you look at New Orleans, Tsunami, you never know where the fallout would be, because the next Tsunami could be here in Africa. That's why we are all saying it's a global concern. We can't point fingers and say we won't do anything, because there's only one planet and this is where we all live. What happens in one part of the globe affects all other parts, so there's no escaping climate change no matter where we are. This is why we must all work together to preserve our planet.
Nobel Peace Prize winner, Al Gore, has received a lot of criticism for flying around the world in private jets which give more than four times the carbon fuel than a regular plane. You are also making this expedition with petrol cars. How do you justify the amount of carbon you will be emitting into the atmosphere with the three vehicles you're taking on this trip?
This is bound to happen. Look at all the good things Al Gore has done and all the awareness he's created. It's like spending money to make money. We are burning fuel in the cars we're taking, but I have been working with Mobil who are one of our sponsors, to create a light lubricant which will emit less carbon. It is through expeditions like these that we aid research which will help further a partnership programme to help produce lubricants that can reduce the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.
How did your family react when you announced that you would be going?
They haven't gotten over it yet, but they are supportive nonetheless. We are all working together because they know that there is no way they can stop me. So we are looking for the best way of diluting their fears and getting their full support. Somewhere down the line, we will find a middle ground?
How are you preparing physically and spiritually for this journey?
I am fortunate this time to have other adventurers to go on this expedition with me and I have managed to transfer to them the knowledge that I have acquired. All of us are now putting our heads together and we are preparing ourselves, emotionally, physically and mentally.
Physically, my health is as good as it was eight years ago and I can say, knock on word, that its still good enough for an expedition like this. Spiritually I have taken myself through a spiritual routine of fasting, abstaining and meditation, cleansing my spiritual being before my departure and cleansing myself to a point where all have been forgiven so that I can approach the journey with a clean body and soul. You have to have a clean body and soul, so you are better focused on dealing with the exceptionally difficult situation you are bound to encounter on an expedition like this.
Has any of your children ever shown any interest in going along?
They are interested but they haven't shown any concrete interest. I think that this is because my wife has worked very hard to make sure that we don't have two adventurers in the family. (laughs)
What safety measures are you taking and how would you stay in touch with civilisation while you are on the trip?
Well, we're going through thirteen countries -- Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Fasso, Mali, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, Gernmany, France, Belgium and finally the United Kingdom. So we will see a lot of civilisation on our way. However, we have gotten a lot of support from different companies to make sure we stay in touch with our mission control base, especially during the desert crossing. Companies like International Energy, our main sponsors who have taken care of our insurance, Thuraya and Danisat who have provided us with satellite phones and tracking devices, The Alitheia Capital, taking care of our sustenance during the trip, Mediabloc, catering to the unforseens, Virgin Nigeria who are flying us back to Nigeria after the trip. Also, the journalist in our team-(Ebun Olatoye) will document the daily events of the expedition and send articles to our website as well as to Nigerian newspapers so that Nigerians and the global community can get a daily report of the journey. Titi Laoye, our film-maker is coming along as well, so we will send footage of the expedition back to local and international television stations. Joshua Adegbaju will be at hand to repair the vehicles and Afam Ugah will be there for IT assistance while I lead the mission. Other precautions are security sensitive, but suffice to say we're taking every precaution for our safety.
What next after this expedition?
We're making a documentary of the expedition which will be aired all over Africa. Also, I've begun talking to Cassava Republic Press about publishing a book about the experience after our return. Also, I am hoping that I would have inspired the people who are coming along on this trip, so that they will carry on this crusade after me.
In your book- Me, My Desert and I, you said you would never embark on an expedition across the desert again, yet you are now rearing to go on your third. Is this really your last?
I've learnt from that saying 'Never say never'. This is because, there are a number of factors that will determine the decision of whether or not this will be my last crossing. This expedition is important to me because I realise that the fruits of my vision and labour will not be realised in my lifetime. So there is a pressing need to pass the crusade baton to a younger generations and the best way to do it is to school them through the crossing of the desert. So you can call it my last expedition, but I can never say 'never'.
Newton Jibunoh's expedition sets off from Lagos on February 25th 2008 and will last sixty days. His expedition crew members are Afam Ugah- IT specialist, Joshua Adegbaju- Auto Mechanic, Ebun Olatoye- Journalist and Titi Laoye- film-maker.