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Newton Jibunoh: Builder, bold explorer…not afraid of deserts

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FOUR times Newton Jibunoh crossed  the world’s largest desert, Sahara Desert at the risk of his life. The first two adventures which he did alone were near death experiences. As a student in London in the early 60s, Jibunoh became aware of the problems of climate change and the encroaching desert facing the African continent.

On completion of his study in the United Kingdom, he decided he would return home by road to gain firsthand experience and face the reality of climatic and environmental factors the desert presents. That life-changing experience changed his perception about the nature of desertification and impact on our environment.

The environmental crusader who owns a house in the desert is in love with nature and his environment. To him our environment is as important as the air we breathe. He takes his fights against desertification and encroachment beyond the shores of Nigeria to other desert regions. He observed Africans don’t expend much efforts and resources on climatic change and in protecting our environment.

His message is simple; commit enough human and capital resources to tackling challenges posed by factors mitigating our environment. “Desertification is encroaching our land at an alarming rate and something needs to be done fast,” he said. To acquire knowledge in desertification, Jibunoh went back to school this time around to Ben Gurion University in Israel to study the Science of Desertification, years after his first degree. Israel provided the perfect example; the country was recovered from the desert.

Back in Nigeria, he started by helping communities in desert encroached areas and those that live on the fringes of the desert reclaimed land. One of such pilot schemes was in Makoda Dambatta area of Kano State. He built wall of trees to stop the desert from encroaching; and returned it into greenery for the community to have a place where their animals could graze.

His project attracted the visit of late Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero, British High Commissioner, among others notable people. The success of the project made those that migrated out of the place to come back. The people contributed money and built him a house in appreciation of his work.

Fondly called the ‘Desert Man’ Jibunoh was born to Samuel and Ziporah Jibunoh of Akwukwu-Igbo in Oshimili Local Government Area of Delta State in 1938. Orphaned at the age of two and became the only child of his parents after the death of sister. Growing up was challenging to young Jibunoh.

Jibunoh moved a lot in his primary and secondary days. He lived with his schoolmaster, who went on  transfer so many times. He did his primary school in Akwukwu-Igbo and had secondary school education in the different schools in eastern Nigeria and finished at Government School Agbor in Delta State. For a man who often turns adversity to advantage, he moved to Lagos after his secondary education to carve a name for himself.

The respected environmentalist studied  briefly in  Yaba College of Technology before gaining employment with the Federal Ministry of Works. Yearning for further education he gained scholarship through the Federal Ministry of Works to go to the United Kingdom to study Building Engineering at Hammersmith College of Technology and finished at the Cranfield Institute of Technology in Bedford in 1965.

The celebrated explorer returned to Nigeria in 1966 and worked with the ministry for two years; seeking for further adventure he left to join a subsidiary of Costain West Africa. Jibunoh involvement in building could be identified with some buildings in Nigeria, such as NICON house, once the tallest building in Nigeria, National Theatre, among others. He was one of the engineers that started building the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

The accomplished builder was engrossed in his work at that point that all he wanted to do was rise to the pinnacle of his career. He gained promotion from Site Engineer to Site Supervisor to Project Manager, Construction Manager, General Manager in 1988. He was later promoted to Assistant Managing Director moving from the subsidiary to the main company.

He was made the Assistant Managing Director of Costain West   Africa, a position he held for a brief period before he was promoted to Managing Director, Chief Executive of the company. He took over the controlling interest of the company after rescuing it from going bankrupt, where he retired as Chairman/CEO of the company after 35years of service.

The environmental crusader left the corporate world to pursue his interest in desertification that have become his identity. In 1999, thirty-three years after his first expedition, he embarked on his second Sahara desert expedition; this time he travelled from Nigeria to Europe.

The idea behind his second expedition was to reveal the plight of the millions of people in Africa affected by the fast-encroaching Sahara desert. The experience led to founding the Fight Against Desert Encroachment, FADE – an international non-governmental organisation (NGO), – which advocates safe, peaceful and healthy environment across the globe. FADE is accredited to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The former Chairman of Costain West Africa is an avid art collector. He owns the popular Didi Museum in Victoria Island, Lagos. He refers to the museum which began in a small room in Apapa, Lagos as an educational institution. Jibunoh was shocked when he visited the British Museum in London in his undergraduate days to see artifacts which the missionaries referred to as taboos in the museum.

He decided to start a campaign to keep our history by collecting artifacts leading to a room exhibition in the 1970s before founding Didi Museum, the first private museum in Nigeria. The museum was established in 1983 in memory of Edith (DIDI) his late sister.

Purpose-driven and result-oriented, Jibunoh at the age of 70 in 2008, made his third trip across the world’s largest desert. On his fourth expedition, he thought of the need to put in place a sustainable infrastructure that will go beyond his time; and assembled a team that will carry on the legacy and pass it on to younger generations.

He is married to Elizabeth with five children.

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