The climate change crisis, a truly global emergency if ever there was one, need not degenerate into diplomatic finger-pointing and crass moralizing. Yet, it would seem that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is intent on turning it into one. His recent article in the Washington Post is ecological populism in the service of moral extortion, and is unbecoming of a president whose seven years at the apex of political power in Africa’s most important country have redefined the art of political abdication.
That President Buhari has chosen the right occasion, the twenty-seventh Conference of the Parties to the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 27), ongoing in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to convey his message, is not in dispute. Nor is he necessarily wrong in pointing out that Western governments have thus far “failed to meet their commitments to the $100 billion fund for climate change adaptation and mitigation in the developing world…”
If climate activists everywhere agree on anything, it is that that the advanced economies ought to do more to assist developing countries, especially as the latter appear to shoulder the burden of ecological damage out of proportion to their share of global emissions.
As a matter of simple equity, this is hardly up for debate; neither is Buhari’s observation that “Africa urgently needs investment in adaptation infrastructure—such as flood prevention—to stave off the disasters that destroy communities and cripple economies.”
But Buhari does not stop there. Evidently, investment alone will not do. There must be mea culpa. The West must fall on its knees and apologize to Africa. After all, Africa would not be in its current situation if not for the fact that “Western development has unleashed climate catastrophe on my continent.”
As far as sleights of hand go, this one is quite impressive. In one breath, Buhari has shifted from asking Western governments to back the transition from hydrocarbons to renewable energy in Africa, to holding them responsible for the continent’s economic stagnation. An otherwise justifiable demand for support has been turned into a moral cudgel, and, all of a sudden, climate change morphs into an exercise in geopolitical victimhood.
No doubt, Buhari’s rhetoric will warm hearts in certain quarters, especially among those who somehow imagine that sympathy for African countries is incompatible with a rigorous demand for accountability. It is a familiar mode of exculpation, a denial of African agency whose ultimate logic is moral infantilization.
The guilt is piled high by Buhari, but perhaps not as high as the cant. Exhibit one is the opening paragraph of his article: “Part of my nation is underwater. Seasonal flooding is normal in Nigeria, but not like this. Thirty-four of the country’s 36 states have been affected. More than 1.4 million people have been displaced.”
All of this is true, but Buhari omits one inconvenient truth. He does not disclose to his audience his morally unconscionable and downright scandalous response to the terrible situation he just described. Buhari did not visit a single disaster site to commiserate with those displaced by the floods. As soon as he gave the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Hussein Adamu, a ninety-day ultimatum to coordinate with his counterparts in the Environment and Transportation ministries to “develop a comprehensive plan of action for flood disaster prevention,” Buhari got on the plane to South Korea for a World Health Organization- (WHO) organized First World Bio Summit and private meetings with Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. From there, he traveled to London for a medical checkup, the third such visit this year alone.
In other words, Buhari’s soaring climate justice talk is just that, and Nigerians have become painfully accustomed to his aloofness and political grandstanding. It is rich of him to want to educate Western governments about a subject that his feckless administration has studiously ignored and about which Nigerians themselves remain relatively unaware. According to data from the latest Afrobarometer survey, although “a growing proportion of Nigerians say that climate change is making life in their country worse,” “only three in 10 Nigerians said they had heard of climate change.” It would appear that Buhari’s climate advocacy is more needed back home in Nigeria.
None of this is to deny the seriousness of climate change in Africa. For instance, a UK relief agency, Christian Aid, estimates that unmitigated climate change devastation could cost African countries sixty-four percent of their GDP by 2100, creating “a poverty trap for millions of citizens.” At the same time, it is gratifying that the level of awareness is increasing across aboard. Incidentally, Nigeria compares poorly with the regional average (fifty-one percent) in terms of citizens’ awareness of climate change, according to the same Afrobarometer survey, with the percentage as high as seventy-four percent, seventy-three percent, and seventy percent in Malawi, Mauritius, and Gabon respectively.
While the urgency of the African situation cannot be denied, and while Western nations should continue to work with states and the nongovernmental sector in the region to secure the worthwhile goals of the 2016 Paris Agreement, it is important not to succumb to moral extortion from leaders like Buhari, for whom climate change is just a pretext to look good by jumping on the moral high horse.
In the first place, “adaptation and mitigation funding” should be separated from a demand for “compensation for loss and damages.” The former is necessary and urgent; the latter is an invitation to insincere leaders like Buhari to abdicate political responsibility by blaming all their domestic infrastructural problems on climate change. Furthermore, Western governments should be wary of entrusting financially incontinent governments with funds for climate change adaptation and mitigation. Nigeria under Buhari is a prime example. Investment in a combination of private sector and nongovernmental initiatives in climate action is the surest guarantee against climate change devastation.
In the small matter of climate change, Western governments must do what is good, rather than feels good.
Reina Patel assisted with research for this article.