By Greg Odogwu
It was quite refreshing to watch as the Committee on Environment submitted its report at the ongoing National Conference. Considering that matters affecting the environment have always been put in the back burner when national issues are discussed, the sight and sound of statesmen and key stakeholders discussing these vital concerns on live television can only be described as music to one’s ears.
The committee deserves commendation because it takes character to stick to the real issues while overlooking underpinning political nuances. Truthfully, the environment has the potential to unify the nation, because the ubiquitous ecological hazards do not know tribe, religion or partisan affiliation.
The beauty of the report is that it is a product of wide consultations with key stakeholders in the environmental sector, especially the legal players. For any kind of reform to work, it must be structured within a workable legal framework which can stand the test of time. It is a global practice today for lawyers and legal researchers to be actively involved in issues such as renewable energy and climate change. This is because both the policy and the contract documents emanating from these engagements need effective legal spirit in order to survive the harsh world. For instance, legal actions against environment-polluting corporate bodies in the Western world have helped to redefine, and also set the template for current international environmental laws. Instructively, foreign investors are worried about investing in Nigeria’s natural resources because of fear of our scant environmental legal framework: a small lacuna can make either the nation or the investor lose everything with little chance for redress.
Secondly, the committee also set its eye on the fundamentals, and what its searchlight located is quite shocking. Simply put, Nigeria’ constitutional reference to the environment is insulting, and clearly shows where we are as a people.
According to the committee’s report, “Although the environment is fundamental to our existence as citizens and as a nation, the 1999 Constitution made only a passing reference to the environment and environmental rights at its Section 20. For Nigerians to secure the environment and related rights this has to be placed among the Fundamental Rights section of the Constitution and made fully justiciable. A related issue is that by the multi-layered nature of the environment and its crosscutting nature in our national life, the environment is best protected when all tiers of government have clearly defined roles to play in these. Therefore, the administration of the environment should be in the concurrent list in the constitution. The 1999 Constitution did not locate the environment at all in its fiscal schedules.”
Little wonder then, the government finds it hard to come up with competitive core environmental policy standpoints, and often fails to efficiently implement lasting environmental initiatives. For those that continuously ask why it is so, the National Confab has solved the puzzle. Most of our problems are vitally as a result of this constitutional neglect. A nation’s Constitution is its vital force; therefore, the environment is not encoded in the Nigerian DNA – or in its financial blood groupings.
Interestingly, this oversight is perpetually repeated by the political parties whose behaviours are actually a reflection of the psychological status of our ruling class. A quick check in the major parties’ manifestoes reveal that the environment is mentioned in passing, either as a ritual ‘copy and paste’ or as a shallow technical consideration aimed at just “fulfilling all righteousness” for nominal political purposes. This should not be so. If our politicians are serious global players and upwardly mobile, a couple of them should recognise that Nigeria is big enough to have a Green Party, as it is found in other countries. Surely, if we had a green party, the constitutional blunder identified by the Confab committee would have been in the national front burner many years before now.
The other faux pas is that our Constitution refers to ‘waste’ as ‘refuse’, thereby trivialising – and confusing – the issue of waste management. On this, the committee notes, “Primarily, the objectives of waste management are urban hygiene and environmental protection, material conservation and energy generation. Waste management in Nigeria is still at a domestic level and not integrated with other sectors. This is evident in various Federal and State Sanitation laws. However, in other countries waste management is being mainstreamed into national development. Waste management is no longer a household problem requiring “house-to-house inspection” but an urban-scale environmental challenge that demands a “chain of control from generator to manager”. Therefore, waste management requires a more integrated and well-engineered social instrument to synchronize it with the economic development of a Nation. It is imperative therefore, that the Conference for good development of Nigeria examines and integrates the basic framework of waste management into the nation’s Constitution for sustainable development.”
Thirdly, the committee raised important legal and policy issues which when implemented would help the fight against fight climate change: like the need for NIMET to only be a clearing house for establishment of meteorological stations – and not “sole authority to approve and establish” – in order to fill the gap of dwindling met stations across the nation.
I must confess that I find some of its recommendations weak with loose ends for easy manipulations by politicians, though the committee’s report is still a work in progress to be streamlined by the general house. For example, considering that a number of existing laws are either inadequate or require urgent review, it recommends that the NESREA Act 25 of 2007 that set up Nigerian Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency be amended to enlarge its statutory duty to include oversight of oil and gas. The committee forgets that the NOSDRA Act is already in the process of being strengthened to give it more bite for oil and gas oversight, but later recommends, in general terms, that “The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) should be well funded, and allowed to recruit more personnel to carry out its functions.”
Furthermore, there are various recommendations as to key agencies, e.g. Ecological Commission, National Forestry Commission, etc, to be established by the government in order to strengthen the government’s efforts in the environment sector. But the committee fails to discuss climate change under the purview of a central management system, but rather as strategy steps most of which already exist in the National Policy on Climate Change, thereby undermining the essence. Some countries already have full-fledged Ministry of Climate Change as national focal points. Ours is just a department in a dingy corner of the Ministry of Environment, poorly funded, ill-motivated and beggarly, whereas we already have a robust and ready National Climate Change Commission bill waiting on President Jonathan’s table.
To the pessimist, the committee’s recommendations would surely end up in the country’s legislative dustbin or in the Presidency’s dark drawers, destined to gather dust until the next administration decides to clean out the closet and burn every trash. The optimist would say the beautiful words in the document will soon come to life in Nigeria, because words are the vital power for national life. But to me, even if the document ends up unused, unnoticed and unwanted, it has effectively served two purposes. One, it is a vital output of catharsis – where a nation represented by its vital stakeholders regurgitates decades old nauseating abuses of its vast God-given resources; and allows itself to feel what it is to be human. Two, it will continue to be a burden in the collective unconscious of every Nigerian for eternity. In fact, for those that believe in God, the Almighty has sent his messengers to speak to us and our government; because the National Confab delegates are the voice crying in the wilderness!