When I read recently on Thursday, November 22, 2019, the signing of Executive Order 9 deprecating the practice of open defecation in the country, I was excited. My excitement was not so much about the new order but out of the recall of the efforts I made in eliminating the practice as the then Commissioner for Environment in Lagos State. Open defecation involves the emptying of the bowels or the discharge of feces and urine indiscriminately all over the environment other than in designated and properly designed places. Open defecation is a term that developed from the interaction on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) around 2008. Open defecation is carried out mainly in most open spaces like underneath the bridges, riverbanks, water bodies, dumpsites, footpaths, playgrounds, etc. According to Wikipedia, “open defecation is the human practice of defecating outside in the open. The practice occurs when, in lieu of toilets, people use fields, bushes, forests, and open bodies of water or other open spaces for defecation.”
The Executive Order 9 signed by the President of Nigeria is targeted at the elimination of all forms of open defecation and other associated practices by the year 2025 in Nigeria. The order was signed by the President against the background of Nigeria being ranked second in the global index of people practicing open defecation and first in Africa. As at 2018, from the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, more than 47 million Nigerians were said to engage in open defecation, which constituted about 26% of the recorded population. The implication of the financial loss suffered by the country as a result of investments in the treatment of diseases arising from this practice of open defecation was put at N455b ($1.3b) in 2018. This is quite distinct from the negative impact on the health of Nigerians and, by implication, the productivity and life span.
That this revelation does not only affect the reputation of the country but also negatively impacts the health of the citizenry is merely stating the obvious. The above concern and others that shall be x-rayed later in our discussion form the basis of intervention in the practice of open defecation in Nigeria. It also constitutes the fulcrum of this piece. In furtherance of the objective of the Executive Order, a “Clean Nigeria Campaign secretariat” was set up in the Federal Ministry of Water Resources for that purpose. The import of setting up the Clean Nigeria Campaign initiative is that the brief of the Federal Ministry of Water Resources and other stakeholders in respect of the order surpasses that of open defecation eradication alone to the general clean-up of the country. By Clean Nigeria Campaign, it suggests an all-encompassing programme that will deal with the elimination of all forms of pollution, be it water, air, soil or noise, and effective management of different wastes, including the clean-up of our waterways. This will equally involve the promotion of clean energy and the planting of trees. In fact, it will, to a certain extent, include combating all forms of erosion. This gives us an idea what cleaning up Nigeria will be and the daunting task ahead of the Federal Ministry of Water Resources and other stakeholders.
Ordinarily, one would have expected significant participation from the Federal Ministry of the Environment as the policeman of the environment in this venture but the prerogative of who does what absolutely lies with the President. Beyond the prerogative, the truth is that it is one government, and delivery always depends on the passion of the operator and, at times, the initiator of the idea. However, I would suggest to the appropriate authority that in view of the gigantic task involved in the clean-up of Nigeria, which, from the content of the Executive Order, is not intended, the campaign should simply be tagged ‘Sanitation Nigeria’. This would capture the objective of the campaign intended under the order, rather than the fabulous suggestion under Clean Nigeria Campaign, which implies a utopian objective. The challenge of eradicating the practice of open defecation requires the collaboration of all Nigerians to achieve. However, without sounding pessimistic, it is not an assignment that appears achievable within the set year of 2025. Furthermore, in a manner contradictory to the Clean Nigeria Campaign, the order detailed merely issues revolving round the practice of open defecation and the ancillary issue of sanitation. In appreciation of the daunting task of the secretariat, the order commands the cooperation of all ministries, agencies, departments and parastatals to collaborate in the efforts towards the realisation of the objective. In addition, the National and State Houses of Assembly are expected to enact appropriate legislation towards achieving the desired goal of eradicating the practice of open defecation in Nigeria by the year 2025. This is to be expected as the issue of environment remains in the realm of concurrent list in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as altered). The secretariat is authorized, on behalf of the President, to implement this order by ensuring that all public places, including schools, hotels, fuel stations, places of worship, marketplaces, hospitals and offices have accessible toilets and latrines within their premises. Thus, apart from the necessity of involving all stakeholders, it is strategic that the states must be involved in the setting of the appropriate legislative framework. The order requires all development projects to include sanitation facilities as an integral part of the approval and implementation process. Towards compliance, all enforcement authorities are directed to diligently collaborate with the Federal Ministry of Water Resources in the implementation of the order. The expectation of the order that the secretariat shall expire upon the declaration of the country as being free of the practice of open defecation, technically referred to as ‘open defecation free’ presumes its potential capacity to exist beyond the year 2025. This is the inference one can draw from the order by implication. In further rationalizing the basis of the order, the President lamented the continuous shortage of access to pipe-borne water and sanitation in the country. In that regard, he seized the opportunity to declare a state of emergency in water supply. This is towards elimination of water-borne diseases in different parts of the country and prevention of premature deaths.
With the foregoing clarification of the intendment of the Executive Order, we will now zero in on the issues involved in the practice of open defecation. The practice, although ancient in nature, is still largely prevalent in contemporary period for several reasons. The simple justification for the practice of open defecation is a lack of an alternative. Most studies have revealed that people practice open defecation because they lack proper toilet facilities. This is not to suggest that, where alternatives are still available, people do not still practice open defecation in some areas. For several other reasons that we shall be highlighting, notwithstanding the availability of proper toilet facilities in some communities, people still practice open defecation. Several studies have been carried out towards unveiling the factors responsible for this practice. From a study titled “What motivates open defecation? A qualitative study from a rural setting in Nepal,” by Bhatt et all, the factors responsible for this continuous practice can broadly be categorized into two, those which occur by choice of the perpetrators and those necessitated by circumstances. In the former situation, there are alternatives as indicated above but, out of discretion, the people still practice open defecation. In the latter situation, where the element of choice is lacking, the people are compelled to resort to open defecation out of their own volition.
(To be continued next week)