/ 23 December 2021

The Continent’s Africans of the Year: Vanessa Nakate

Speak up: Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate.

When yet another oil spill off the Nigerian coast threatened lives and livelihoods, a member of the local community tagged Vanessa Nakate in their tweet about the situation. In days past, such a tweet might have had an NGO or a western climate activist tagged. But here Nakate was chosen. 

The Ugandan climate activist has become a forceful voice from the Global South. Like her peers — who are inheriting a world that alternates between fire, drought and flood — she is blunt in her analysis of what is wrong, who is to blame and what must be done. 

Writing in The Guardian earlier this year, she said: “We know who did this – but they don’t want to pay the bill.” Getting to this point has required overcoming a system that doesn’t care about Africans unless they are an object that white Westerners can save. In 2020, Nakate attended the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland. She spoke but was not widely listened to. At this point Swede Greta Thunberg was the star of the media, and got speaking gigs at the forum. 

Nakate stood with four other climate activists for a photo taken by Associated Press, who subsequently cropped her out — the only black activist. The experience is summed up in her new book, A Bigger Picture: My fight to Bring New African Voices to the Climate Crisis. Published in October, it comes with an endorsement from Malala Yousafzai on the cover. 

Inside, Nakate writes: “We are on the front line, but we are not on the front page.” That front line is Kampala, the capital of Uganda and the 25-year-old’s home. Her country has been hit hard by extreme weather events, made more frequent and damaging by carbon emissions from rich countries. People have died in floods and as a result of droughts, while locusts have wiped out the crops of subsistence farmers. 

A large part of the blame lies with the governance of President Yoweri Museveni, with his ongoing failure to realise the potential of the country and meaningfully improve the lives of its people. Poor governance means that people are already struggling, even before their crops and savings are wiped out by the climate crisis. But, even if Museveni didn’t rig elections, people would still struggle in a world rigged by the pollution of rich countries. 

At home, Nakate has done practical things to help communities. Her Green Schools Project is bringing electricity, in the form of solar panels, to schools. Abroad, she has been forthright and consistent in her task. From speaking to political leaders to gracing the cover of Time magazine, she has pointed to the promise made by wealthy countries at climate negotiations in 2009 to give $100-billion a year to the victims of their pollution. 

The same countries spent trillions responding to the 2008 financial crash. And to Covid-19. But they have failed to pay up for the environmental and climate havoc they have wrought with their pollution. They admitted as much at this year’s climate negotiations in Glasgow. Nakate was there, at COP26, calling them out. Again, someone cropped her out of a photograph. 

But this time more people were listening to her. She wasn’t a plus-one for other, white activists. She took centre stage. Her face went around the world, and her words gave this continent a fighting chance at a fairer future. That’s why people in Nigeria, three thousand kilometres away, tagged her in the hope that this would bring more attention to their fight against indiscriminate oil pollution. They were right — such is Nakate’s influence.