Efforts for Nigeria to achieve a clean and protected environment, in response to the war against climate change, may remain an unrealised dream, no thanks to lack of priority attention orchestrated by paucity of funds.
Director General and Chief Executive Officer of the National Environmental Standards Regulatory and Enforcement Agency (NESREA), Professor Aliyu Jauro, in this interview, told IDU JUDE that procuring state-of-the-art equipment, manpower training as well as other plethora of challenges are pitfalls.
What is the level of corporation NESREA enjoys from immediate communities in helping out with information needed in prosecuting your jobs?
This question is apt. Well, I think that the inhabitants of any community needs our jobs more than we need it. If we come and the people refuse to give us the needed information, more especially life threatening ones, in case anyone or group of people conceal information, it then means such person is killing own self. It is no longer our problem. Whomsoever compromises does own self the worst thing. As I told you, our initial duty is to meet the companies on site and confront them about their certification. However, we rely on such information from the locals, which is very vital. And, it is very bad more especially when it involves the foreigners, the Chinese, the Indians, who come to a certain community, mess it up and depart unchallenged.
So, to answer your question, we use one of our key mandates, which is collaborating with key stakeholders, the CSOs, the community leaders to achieve our purpose. The communities has big roles to play in our operations and to some extent the EIA exercise is never complete without asking the natives to check the EIA documents and indicate whether their interests are well captured because they are the people living within such locality.
The world is talking about how to tackle the issue of biodiversity and possible compliance and prosecution…
(Cuts in) Yes, when it comes to biodiversity conservation, there are lot of challenges and as a child you must have seen some wild lives in those days but go back to the villages now, some of them are near extinction. Nowadays we don’t see them any more because people hunt and eat them discriminatly without minding of conservation. So definitely there will be depletion of forests owing to cutting of trees and hardly now do we see a tick forrest across the country possibly because of using it for fuel or timber. So it is a very serious issue in our society. As we can see, most of these economic trees can no longer been seen within, unless one travel down to countries like Cameroon before seeing timber.
So, it is very serious issue but the Federal Government of Nigeria has also put up regulations to fight biodiversity. Now, we have the Endangered Specie Act to protect wildlife. And, this is what we used to domesticate the Sytels Convention, which was put in place to check illegal, international trade. Before now, Africans kill their wildlife and export the parts. You remember the ivory trade and pangolins scales which was rampant before? Nigeria is part of this agreement because, most of the African countries uses the Nigerian route as transit before exporting to Europe. Despite that, we have our own hands full of cases which is the declining existence of other wildlife because of bushmeat consumption and it made Nigeria to also domesticate the act of protecting endangered species. So, presently, we are reviewing the laws of both the local trade in protecting the endangered species. Apart from that, government is working on the regulations of all the National parks. We work hand in hand because they are responsible for the conservation of the ecosystem. It may interest you to know that last year, Mr. President approved the establishment of additional nine parks. Already, there is the regulation of our ecosystems; that is to say that there is already in place a body regulating the open fire or forest burning. The forest rangers or guards are in charge of illicit cutting down trees and wild fires. As I said there are several regulations made for several activities. For example, if there is going to be a road construction from one state to the other, the cutting of trees and forest devastation must be ascertained, just to protect the environment. Also, in mining activities, the regulations are there and it is meant for same purpose.
How do you contend with stepping on toes, more especially encountering highly ranked politicians in the course of your duty?
I must tell you that I don’t allow any one to use me; not even my enforcement team. Nobody is above the law. And, if anyone should allow any politician to use him or her, that is his or her own palaver. In the cause of our duties, there are spelt out rules and regulations. Let me tell you, there was a time the Cross River State Government breached the law on road construction but we stood our ground and they went to court and the court ruled in our favour insisting that they must carry out environmental impact assessment. In our time, we have not experienced such a thing like politicians telling us what to do. In other words ,there are no sacred cows in the discharge of our duties. In another case similar to this, someone also breached the law and we took him to court but when he saw that it was not what he could handle, he pleaded for out-of-court settlement.
Do you propose a special court in prosecuting offenders?
Yes. In fact, we are proposing for the amendment of our Act. You see, we find out that in environmental regulations, there are some of these cases that last longer than necessary in the court. There is no quicker way of dispensing of cases. You can imagine that cases last longer than 10 years and in the regulations, offenders are fined just N10, 000 or a minimum of three months jail term. And, no one would prefer to go to three months in jail but prefer to pay the N10.000 fine and walk away! So, such obsolete laws serve no deterrent t to perennial offenders.
Again, it is not as if these monies come to us or to the Federal Government. No, it remains with the court and it would be good if these special courts are established to end this time-consuming ordinary court procedure. We had, on one occasion, paid a courtesy visit to a former chief judge, to finding a way of speedy dispensing of cases or setting up of special courts. Even when some of my legal advisers hold the opinion that mobile courts are of military background, we are still making moves for quicker dispensing of cases.
What can you say about the prolonged cleaning of Ogoni oil spill?
The Act that established the principal actor was passed in 2007. They are in charge of oil spill issues and that is the National Oil Spill and Detection and Response Agency. The Act was reviewed in 2018 and its sole responsibility is oil spill and detection. So, it is not within our purview but the only thing I know, according to reports given by them, is that work has actually commenced and has gotten to some level. The cleaning work is going stage by stage and not that it have been stoped and as I said, it is not within our purview.
What is your working relationship with the CEOs? Who are major campaigners?
One of the key mandates captured in our Act is to work with stakeholders, to help solve environmental problems and one of the key partners are the civil society organisation CSOs. We work with community based organisations, the community leaders as well as the religious leaders. We also work with the MDAs both states and local authorities. Yearly, we convene stakeholders meeting where we discuss burning environmental issues and at the end of the day, we arrive at certain agreement with the plan that when they get back to their communities they will help sensitize the locals.
On our own, we did set up NESREA Green Code. It is a non governmental organisation which anyone can join. It is used to reach out and sensitise the people about the need for environmental protection and for them to be weary of these environmental law violations.
How do you expose the environmental law violators to the public without media engagement?
We don’t just publish names, but, to some extent we do invite the media, from time to time, to brief them of our activities. But, we also indicate specific cases or building under prosecution but also whenever a matter is in the court it becomes sub judice. So, it is always difficult to begin to list the number of cases we have. But, I would like to have an environment- free Nigeria where no one would be a defaulter.
On a scale of one to 10, is Nigeria on the right track to achieving environmental free society?
Yes, we are on the right track and we are moving forward. You know that before, there has not been an environment protection agency in Nigeria. This agency called Federal Environmental Protection Agency, which metamorphosed into NESREA, was set up in 1992 during the General Ibrahim Babangida regime. And, it was as a result of the nuclear toxic waste dumped on waters at Koko, Delta State, by a European ship. And, it became a full ministry during late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s administration. In 2007. the same Yar’Adua, set up this agency, so, I think that, since then, Nigeria have been getting it right in terms of environmental protection.
As you can see this is relatively a new agency and with the existence of the EIA and other regulations, I can tell you that we are on the right track but we want government to to more pro-active and increase funding to procure state of the art equipment.
Pursuant to the World Bank environmental recommendation to Nations, what are the challenges confronting NESREA?
In the National Environmental Policy, NESREA has the mandate to ensure that all the laws, guidelines and policies of the Act that established the agency are carried out to the letter. Paucity of funds has been our problem; to equip and employ additional manpower to prosecute jobs.
Secondly, we lack facilities, such as enforcement structure like clubs, helmets, gas masks, which we wear against industrial hazards and the vehicles are very old. These are the personal protective equipment (PPEs) we need to protect ourselves in carrying out our jobs. Presently, we have 34 states offices with six zonal offices, two national laboratories, the headquarters of the agency and in total, we have 43. So NESREA is inadequate in all of these. We need funds for capacity building, knowing full well that government does not budget for staff training which we all know is very important and key to our job. So, on our own, we struggle to train the staff and equip them to be able to do the job.
Another challenge is that, as a law enforcement agency, when we take defaulters to court for prosecution, we discover that some of the lawyers and judges are not conversant with the urgency of the cases. And, we have serious issues of delayed cases. As a result we would appreciate organising seminars/ workshops for lawyers and judges to be conversant with the issues of the agency. So, these are some of the issues we encounter as major challenges. I can tell you that, in one of our zonal offices, we have only seven staff and only one project vehicle to prosecute jobs. We have plans to have offices at every local government area so that activities of environmental protection will be done effectively.
Has your office been able to effectively utilise the Environmental Protection Act in Nigeria?
The Environmental Impacts Assessment Act, which was made in 1992 and was passed into law in 2004, was made to ensure that, before anyone embarks on construction of any kind, such person will carry out an assessment, to detect the environmental and social impact of such project on the people and their livelihood and also, proffer indication measures. It has been in place and the agency has been carrying out its duty of issuing environmental impact certificate and our programme are always aired on television. People call it environmental impact statute. And anymore who fails to comply with this, then, we have the right to sanction such person and it is a very brief working tool being implemented worldwide, meant to safeguard the environment not only in Nigeria.
Has Nigeria attained World Bank status as provided in its 1989 Environment Charter?
Yes, we do have this statute. Remember that Nigeria is a signatory to this environmental charter and we always participate in all the international meetings. So, we, as an enforcement agency in the Federal Ministry of Environment, have gone out about 5,000 times on enforcement routine jobs counting from our activities being carried out at all local governments and states. As I said earlier, we issue EIA certificates and, every three years, we do what is known as environmental audits and these are some of the tools we use to ensure domestication measures as recommended by the World Bank. So, we revalidate every three years; to ensure that the standards are maintained.
Again, we also submit quarterly reports of each company; be it waste discharge, chemical and what have you. This is to ensure that all these industries work within the 36 industrial regulations specifically provided. So the world bank standard is that specific industry has specific regulations spelt out for it’s environmental operations. We have two laboratories for testing. One in Kano and the other in Port Harcourt. But presently, the two labs are Ill equiped and that has been major challenge and as you know that labs are capital intensive.