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Interview with ERA

Corruption: the Root of Nigeria's Environmental Woes

Margaret Okorodudu-Fubara
December 9, 2015

Professor Margaret Okorodudu-Fubara formerly Dean, Faculty of Law at the Obafemi Awolowo University is the first Nigerian female Professor of Environmental Law. A mother and teacher of teachers. Fubara is also a member of several global bodies and member of ERA/FoEN Governing Board. She spoke with Akinbode Oluwafemi and Philip Jakpor on several national and global environmental issues.

Q. How will you assess the state of the Nigerian environment today?

A. Well, there's still a lot of work that needs to be done to make our environment wholesome. I will say the Nigerian environment is not really where we want it to be since dating back to 1988 when we started this journey of advocating for the environment. I'm sure we can still do better. But then on a scale of one to10 I think I will rate the state of the environment five. I think we are like midway. I hope we will get to our destination.

Q. So when you say five, what exactly do you mean?

A. That is like 50 per cent. I think to a large extent we have laws in place that we can actually use to improve on the situation of the environment. There is some level of awareness in the populace. but what I'm most happy about is the n u m b e r o f C o m m u n i ty - B a s e d Organisations (CBOs) and Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that have emerged since 1988 helping to really make sure that the environment of the country is the way we want it to be. I'm not sure where we would have been without the NGOs. In fact, I just finished a class today and we were discussing compliance with, and enforcement of multi-lateral environmental agreements like the natural environmental laws and we observed that significant milestones have been contributed by the NGOs. Without them we would not have known the level of improvement that has been made on the Nigerian environment because there are still so many obstacles on the part of the government in actually enforcing the laws that they put in place.

Q. Are you therefore saying that the current laws that we have in Nigeria to guard the environment are enough?

A. They are more than enough. There are close to 30 regulations. You don't look at the laws alone. The regulations are bulky and that is where we really have the gem of the law that we need to improve on our environment. But how many people are aware of these regulations?

Q. So apart from creating awareness about these regulations, that means we have work to do in influencing compliance and enforcement?

A. That's the problem. You know, the laws, the regulations, treaties, you name it are just one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is compliance with these laws and regulations. First of all you need compliance at the level of the government and you also need compliance at the individual level. But are we really complying with these laws? Why do we need to comply? What are the obstacles that are making it impossible for us to comply? What are the obstacles that are even making it impossible for government to ensure compliance with these laws? Government has to make it feasible because there are some laws that are not feasible. We still need to do something to enforce them. Anywhere you go in this country you still find this cattle herdsmen. Look at the regulations. Local governments are supposed to designate cattle routes. So if these herdsmen come into this campus, you tell them 'you cannot go that route. 'If these herdsmen come into this campus today how do you stop them? The moment they find fertile grassland around, they'll say 'oh, we hear there are fertile grounds in OAU, so they'll start coming here. Many of these fellows are uneducated. They are illiterates. They are not even aware of the laws we have made. What are the alternatives? There should be incentives to make them comply with these laws. Even at our own level there should be incentives to make us compliant.

Q. If you look at the way the society is, even for that compliance and enforcement, it also has to be driven by government. What advice will you give to government, in terms of how to get all citizens to cooperate and comply with these laws? How do we move from policy to action?

A. I think I will advise the government to weave incentives into those policies. Economic incentives should be there and I think we have to start from the basics, to make us understand why we should even comply. If we don't have a clear understanding of why we should comply, we will never get it right. So I believe that the moment you start from the kindergarten level, we have to weave in environmental education into our educational curriculum. Right from kindergarten level, primary one, we were taught two plus two is four. There is no way you will be told that two plus two is five and you will believe it. Likewise if we start teaching the kids right from the primary level that environmental protection is life, they will grow up with it. And they will understand why they shouldn't throw their waste around, why they should frown at any company that will come in and start polluting our environment. They will understand, they will get it right. But like I told my students today, I said you are studying law and ecology in this class but you are not even up to 0.1 per cent of the 170 million population of this country. When you go out to the world the people out there don't understand what you are saying. Take the NGOs for example. What's the population of the NGOs to the overall population of the country? You are well informed about our environment. But if all of us, from our primary stage, had been taught about the importance of the environment, we will get it right. We will know that it is life. Have you seen the latest? The state of the ocean floor. If you see the state of the ocean floor, I'm sure many of you will stop eating some of this frozen fish.

So many things are happening. And I can tell you because I'm a child of Niger Delta. I know the difference in the taste of the fish I used to eat when I was young from the 1950's to the 1960's. From 1970's it started having bad taste. It is not a make-believe thing. It is real that all these pollutions are impacting the food that we are eating.

Q. Let us draw it a little bit to the current situation. What is your take about the environment policy, if there is any, of the current government?

A. I'm very hopeful. This present government is a government of change. And it's not just the mantra. Look at the lady in charge of the environment ministry that went to COP21. Maybe that's why I'm so hopeful, because this is somebody I believe knows her onions very well. She's very well informed about the environment. She was our Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) point person, then she was Senior Special Assistant to Ban Ki-Moon on the Strategic Development Goals (SDGs). And all these MDGs and SDGs have their core in the environment. They talk of how we can sustain a livable environment for planet earth, for all of us, citizens of this earth. So I believe that she's well groomed in this sphere. Now she's our minister of environment so it should not be business as usual anymore in Nigeria, especially in the environment sector. But it is not just the credentials. I am telling you that she has the wealth of knowledge and information that she needs to turn things around for the environment of this country.

Q. But are we seeing any indication that we are on that track?

A. Just calm down. You forget that when she got back from Paris, she took a tour round the country to ascertain where we have issues? I think she wants to get her acts right. .

Q. So at what point now do we begin to try to evaluate and, you know? One of the critical environmental issues now is the implementation of the UNEP report. Can you give us your assessment? Will you say that you are comfortable with the way this government is handling the UNEP report?

A. I think it has shifted its gaze from it for a while. But don't forget that after our last outing in Abuja, the government came and demonstrated willingness to take it and then act on it. I don't think the NGOs should not rest on their oars now. They should still keep on reminding this government that they have something to do. .

Q. So you are sounding a note of optimism. I mean, as someone who has worked with UNEP at the continental level, global level, what do you see in terms of African governments' response, broadly, to the issue of environment? We've not seen the African Union (AU) coming out, for instance, very strongly on issues of the environment. Do you think that's a direction that we should also look on for environmental advocacy?

A. I'm really worried when we raise this point that Africans are not doing what they should be doing because the UN agency on the environment is in Africa. T h a t i s t h e U n i t e d N a t i o n s Environmental Programme (UNEP). Do you know that it means Africa is the headquarters for the environmental management for the world? I keep wondering. This is the only international organization that is headquartered in Africa and there's no reason why we should not be doing what is right. Sometimes I just think that maybe it's because on the average the African is not really bothered about his environment. The UNEP that has moved away to E u r o p e w h e re a l l t h e s e o t h e r headquarters are, but we had it here at our doorstep and did not use it to maximum advantage. In fact, on the earlier question you raised about the Ogoni report, yes UNEP did that research work and up till now, it's almost going to the fifth year if we are not careful. After the Ogoni report was released nothing concrete has been said in response. Do we need to go abroad to remind them? But UNEP that carried it out is gone. After the work, everybody just sat down. So I think if you have some criticism on this you are right. I think we should even blame ourselves. The AU, Africans should blame themselves because we are not maximising the advantage or the privilege that we have to have the environmental organization for the whole world headquartered in Africa. I think it's something the AU still has to work on.

Q. Let's look at Environmental Impact Assessment Act. As a lawyer, how will you rate the level of implementation and compliance?

A. I think that Act is more hallowed in breach than in compliance, because people just do whatever they like. Even when they claim to have done EIA, discover they just got somebody to go and copy one EIA from somewhere and then present it to say we have done EIA. But can you really marry the EIAs that we have with the actual impact? Even the layman knows that this is the impact that you will generate from any particular action. And sometimes you find out that activities are just embarked upon before an EIA is conceived or carried out. .

Q. So what can be done to rescue it?

A. We are now back to compliance with, and enforcement of laws. That is the core of environmental policy. .

Q. That also leads us somehow to litigation. We've not made much progress in terms of litigation in the areas of the environment. What do you think is responsible for this?

A. You know what? I always try to encourage my students and my colleagues that we should litigate some of these issues but you find out that there's so much lethargy, they are so lethargic. .

Q. Maybe it's because they are not getting justice from the courts?

A. That's one. Poverty state is one of the reasons. Not many people can engage lawyers to fight cases out for them in court. So they just prefer to just lay back on it. But for the NGOs again, you know how many cases that ERA/FoEN and the o t h e r N G O s a r e f i g h t i n g f o r underprivileged people who cannot take their matters to court? So, even somehow the rich people. They will say 'nothing will come out of it. .

Q. So what hope for the Niger Delta communities?

A. The hope for the Niger Delta communities still lies, first and foremost, with the NGOs and the CBOs. To be frank with you, I don't think our situation is any different from what it was in the United States when EPA was first passed. It was mainly the NGOs that fought the case to ensure that the EIA was strenuously enforced and complied with. So I still believe that a lot still depends, a lot still rests on the shoulders of NGOs in this country to try and breathe life into the environmental laws and the treaties that we have signed in this country. .

Q. On another note, how will you assess the anti-corruption crusade of President Muhammadu Buhari?

A. I think he's doing a marvelous job in that regard. Do you know that corruption is one of the reasons why we have not gotten it right in compliance with and enforcement of these environmental laws?

Q. So there's a linkage between corruption and environment?

A. Yes. There's a linkage between corruption and the environment because poverty is at the root of environmental devaluation in this country. Let's say for instance that the money for arms procurement being probed by this government was actually voted for the guys fighting in the war front, do you know there's a correlation between environment and war? You know, in any war that is fought, barring loss of lives, the environment is impacted n e g a t i v e l y . You d e s t r o y t h e environment. Not to talk about the man- made environment. You just look at our trees. We degrade our environment in the course of war. And to make it worse, they say some people corruptly enriched themselves with the money that was meant to prosecute the war. Now that a c t i o n h a s a n i m p a c t o n t h e environment. Money that can be used to ensure that things work out normally in the country have been embezzled so corruption has a lot to do with environmental degradation. Look at the trees that are being felled. Go to Ekiti state you will see them there.


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