Green politics make their debut
For the very first time African states acted together during 2009’s Copenhagen negotiations on global warming. During the 90s, African green movements made a first, timid appearance. To this day they are struggling to get their voices heard by powerful traditional parties, although the continent has not been spared by deforestation, coastal erosion and pollution.
“Twenty years on, going green is finally a reality,” says Ram Ouedraogo of the Burkina Faso environmentalist coalition. “Much is yet to be done in both regional and continental levels. We can be hopeful today because future support looks brighter.”
Thanks to the arrival of multiparty systems, environmentalist parties mushroomed in the 90s, even though campaigning groups had become aware of the need to preserve the environment long before that.
In 1972 the Environment and Development Action in the Third World (Enda-TM) was formed in Dakar. Its name indicates its concerns: the environment and development. The organisation was based on popular initiatives and from grassroots groups from 14 African countries as well as other parts of the world.
As early as 1977, Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, formed the Greenbelt movement in Kenya, thanks to which 10 million trees were planted all over Africa to fight soil erosion and to provide wood for domestic use by local people.
The trend also picked up in southern Africa where associations and non-governmental organisations swiftly started campaigning for the protection of the environment and for the right to ancestral land. One of them was Botswana’s Roy Sesana, from the Gana tribe of the central Kalahari game reserve.
At a time when the Botswana government was taking land from Bushmen to create tourism reserves and for the extraction of diamonds, Sesana and John Hardbattle cofounded the organization First People of the Kalahari (FPK) whose main motives were to safeguard the rights of Bushmen and hunter-gatherer groups.
In 2005, Sesana was arrested but was released several days later. He was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, better known as the “alternative Nobel Prize” in recognition of the Bushmen’s determination to resist eviction from their ancestral land and for the right to maintain their traditional lifestyle.
A court judgment was passed in 2007 in favour of Bushmen but up to the present day they have not been able to return to their ancestral land in the central Kalahari game reserve.
From NGOs to politics
Africa’s first Green parties made some progress in the late 80s in Gabon, Angola and Zaire, then, in 1991, in Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Mauritius, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. A year later, the movement spread to Senegal, Guinea and Morocco.
At the forefront, we find not only environmentally aware politicians but also activists who, tired of seeing no progress, took up political activity, in some cases, such as Wangari Maathai’s, facing prison for their pains.
In 1997, Maathai’s presidential candidacy was revoked by her own party but she did not give up , being elected an MP 2002. In 2003 she became Assistant Minister of the Environment. Two years later, due to disagreements over the new constitution, Maathai left the government.
“We have come to realise that politicians who in charge of the Ministry of Environment are not enlightened on environmental issues, so political considerations are always decisive,” says Senegalese campaigner Haidar el Ali.
After a long struggle as a member of the Oceanium environmental campaign, he went into politics, because of “the many limitations” of working in NGOs.
It was not until 1994 that 10 political parties came together in Niamey, Niger, and created a network co-ordinating Africa’s Green movement. It was the first sign of common political will in Africa. A network of non-governmental organizations was created at the same time.
The Green Africa network became a federation two years later and in 1998 held its first congress in Nairobi. Only a few political parties from English-speaking countries were present but there was a plethora of NGOs.
“For countries influenced by French culture, pressure is exerted more on the political stage, while for the Anglophone countries, lobbies have more influence,” comments French Green Party official Constantin Fedorovsky. “All these countries bear the mark of their former colonial powers.”
Four years later, in 2002, the federation met again in Dakar and internal conflicts led to its collapse.
There have been numerous efforts to revive it since, notably with the formation of the Federation of Environmental and Green Parties of West Africa in 2006, which should soon be followed by a central African equivalent.
State-sponsored killing in Nigeria
In 1995, the hanging of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa along and eight other leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) by the Nigerian military junta stunned public opinion and attracted attention to environmental problems in the country.
Mosop fought against pollution by petrol companies. This state-sponsored murder forced the oil giant Shell to write a code of conduct that included protection of the environment. The company is being sued for complicity in the violation of human rights in Nigeria today.
A threat to power
In Africa today environmentalism has also turned into a form of opposition that sometimes destabilises governments. In countries like Tunisia have phantom green parties have been set up, while parties backed by international environmental movements are still not officially recognised.
Albert Zafy of Madagascar became the country’s first environmentalist head of state in 1993. The name of his party, the National Union for Democracy and Development, made no reference to environmentalism but it was originally a small Green Party.
In 1998 in Burkina Faso, Ram Ouedraogo, the presidential candidate of the Union of Greens for the Development of Burkina Faso (UGDB), won 6.61 per cent of the votes, the highest score ever achieved by a Green in presidential elections. He was subsequently appointed Minister of National Reconciliation from 1999 to 2002.
In 2005, he left his original party the UGDB to form Environmentalists of Burkina Faso.
In Mauritius Sylvio Michel of the Fraternal Greens Party became Fisheries Minister and now heads the fight for the recognition of Creole.
Other activists in the continent have become deputies or are involved in local politics.
“Things do change,” comments Marc Ona Essangui, who is neither a political activist nor a member of any Green party but is an important opposition figure in Gabon. “The new generation of African leaders has no choice but to include environmental concerns in their political programmes because they figure among donors’ preconditions.”
Essangui was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2009. He now heads the Environment Gabon network of associations and the Brainforest NGO.
So is Green Africa working?
When the ice on Mount Kilimanjaro is melting away, when Lake Chad is drying up and Lake Victoria’s water levels are subsiding, Green Africa still has a lot on its plate.
But even as Green parties try to make a difference they have to face internal quarrels in some countries, lack of resources in others and a diaspora that only gives support via websites. For many, with other political parties taking up environmental issues, it is time to take action and not just think Green.
“It is ordinary people who bring change,” Marc Ona Essengui stresses. “It might mean pushing African Green parties to be more relevant in their approach but I do not believe this will be effective since political players are more concerned about their positions than causes.”
But Senegalese activist Haidar El Ali has not lost heart.
“We can make a difference by working together,” he says. “Solving such issues takes a while. But time is pressing. The planet will not wait, there’s no time to lose.”