Desert Warrior @83: A true Ekwumekwu Hero

Dr. Newton C. Jibunoh, OON, DSc, born January 1st 1938, from Akwukwu-Igbo, Oshimili North LGA of Delta State, an Ekwumekwu Hero like his ancestors is a man of many parts, with one constant thread running through them – desertification and the environment.  He is an explorer, an engineer, a patron and connoisseur of African Art, philanthropist extraordinaire, environmentalist and most importantly, a role model to millions of young people in Nigeria and beyond. 

So when Newton Jibunoh had to return back home to Nigeria in 1966, after completing his studies in London, the young engineer thought it was also time for him to blaze new trails.

An adventure seeker, Jibunoh decided to embark on a journey that was destined to change the course of his life.

“The Sahara was the largest desert in the world and very active — so I decided to explore it,” says Jibunoh, who was 27 at the time. Unfazed by the challenge, he drove home all alone by way of the desert — from the UK, and ultimately through the vast, unforgiving sands of the Sahara, to Nigeria.

“Driving from Europe all the way across the Sahara, you must be ready to die,” says Jibunoh, who has since traveled across the world’s largest desert twice more.

In the words of Sir David Attenborough, “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced”. Dr Jibunoh is living out this great quotation from the legendary conservationist.  He is protecting the environment because he cares so much about it.  He cares so much about it because he has experienced it three times! 

An explorer and foremost Nigerian environmental campaigner, he is popularly known as the Desert Warrior.  To bring to global attention, the devastating effect of desertification with respect to the Sahara Desert, he crossed the Sahara Desert three times by road, two of which were solo expeditions.

Finally retiring in 2006 as the Chairman of Costain (West Africa plc) after 44 years of working as an engineer, at a time when most of his contemporaries just play golf and enjoy their retirement, he reignited his 44-year campaign by channeling his energy and resources to running and growing FADE  (Fight Against Desert Encroachment) Africa, an international NGO he founded in 2000 after his second expedition and dedicated to fighting environmental degradation in its many forms. 

Whilst one cannot deny that there are a handful other genuine, true heroes in Nigeria who are selflessly and sacrificially making a difference in our national life, four main incontestable factors make Dr Jibunoh and his contributions stand out:

It is a common axiom amongst the Yoruba that it is easier to start a campaign than it is to maintain it.  Indeed, many people start one campaign or the other, it is the staying power of individuals that mark them out as enduring life-changers.  This, in a society where many Nigerians have been noted for their inability to keep momentum going, is what sets Dr Jibunoh apart – doggedly and unrelentingly battling desertification for over 40 years.  His tree-planting campaign was ahead of its time and in the face of a very strong and intimidating opposition to the change he was leading, he doggedly stayed the course and got even the doubters to go on the journey with him. Presenting a robustly superior and evidence-based argument, he was able to get even the younger generation to key into his vision of a sustainable environment. 

I recall an event almost two decades ago where I was in his entourage to visit a Northern governor — a very nice, progressive and well-educated governor.  When Dr Jibunoh told him his mission of wanting him to encourage the planting of trees in the state to combat the encroaching Sahara Desert, he asked how long it would take for the trees to grow.  The Desert Warrior responded that it would take between five and 10 years. Our host could not hide his disappointment when he said any project with a gestation period of more than two years is not good for him politically.  He needed to show his people that he’s working and achieving something now and not for the future.  He just closed the file before him and asked if we could join him for breakfast in the morning before our departure.  That was the end of it!  Many people could have been discouraged and given up.  Not the Desert Warrior! Never one to shy away from challenges as he saw it as his role to hand over the baton to the next generation of environmental campaigners.

2. The story of his rich and eventful life is an inspiration — there to excite and ignite hope in the new generation of Nigerians, especially the underprivileged.  An orphan from an early age and losing his only sister at a tender age of 13, Dr Jibunoh is a self-made man.  Through a dint of hard work, good fortune and determination, he overcame many challenges and rose to become a captain of industry and an elder statesman in Nigeria.  I will strongly recommend that the young ones read his autobiography “Hunger for Power” (published by Paradigm House, Dallas, Texas 2017).

3. Dr Jibunoh is humility personified. Despite his huge success and his many firsts, he remains refreshingly humble and approachable. A detribalised Nigerian, supremely charming and urbane, Dr Jibunoh is at home in company of the high and mighty, the so-called masses and most especially, people with disabilities, whom he continues to support.  In the over two decades that I have known him quite closely, he never treated anyone of any station with anything other than respect and kindness.

4. In Nigeria today, loyalty seems a word that belongs in another ancient era. It is therefore refreshing to find someone who places a high premium on loyalty, honesty and integrity. Dr Jibunoh remains fiercely loyal to his friends and associates and incorruptibly honest. Even at great cost and risk to himself, he made the 350km journey by road from Asaba to Ilesa to attend my father’s funeral in 2013, spending two nights.  Just last year in 2019, already an octogenarian, he again found the time and courage to attend my mother’s funeral in Ilesa, at a time when, even some of my younger friends couldn’t even travel from Lagos, for fear of herdsmen attacks or kidnappings. He again spent two nights.  That, to me, is loyalty.

The Desert Warrior is not in any hurry to stop impacting lives.  Even as we celebrate him, he continues to speak truth to power, not minding whose ox is gorged.  I believe I speak for thousands of Nigerians and other well-wishers when I wish our darling Desert Warrior, Dr Newton Jibunoh, Happy birthday and pray that the good Lord continues to renew his youth like the eagle’s.  Hip, Hip, Hurray!

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