Environmental Reform And National Development In Nigeria

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Prof. Nasiru Idris
Prof. Nasiru Medugu Idris

Environment includes all living things and non-living things occurring naturally. The term encompasses the interaction of all living species, climate, weather, and natural resources that affect human survival and economic activity while national development refers to the ability of a nation to improve the lives of its citizens. Measures of improvement may be material, such as an increase in the gross domestic product, or social, such as literacy rates and availability of healthcare.

The efforts of the federal, state and local governments in Nigeria at ensuring national development through numerous environmental reforms, fiscal incentives and grants to environmental ministries and agencies remain elusive as Nigeria continues to experience complex environmental problems of atmospheric, noise and water pollution, oil pollution, climatic change including flooding, coastal erosion and perennial oceanic surge and municipal solid waste management. The reasons for such environmental reform are many. Foremost among these reasons is the problem of designing best practices to secure effective and efficient enforcement and compliance with international and municipal environmental laws.

A necessary conclusion that could be drawn from this analysis is that environmental benefits arising from existing legal and institutional frameworks are minimal and sub-optimal resulting in social and environmental welfare losses. The question that should puzzle the mind of policymakers is why this sub-optimal result? What can we do to maximize our environmental reform? What changes in policy formulation and enforcement strategies are necessary to produce optimal environmental reform? The answers to these questions are the focus of this write-up: environmental governance using the best international practices to assess and improve on the national environmental governance strategies.

Environmental Challenges in Nigeria

Environmental pollution has been in existence since man began to live in settlements. In the earlier days of nomadic hunting communities, the tribal group moved on when food in their current location became depleted and the area around their camp became polluted or soiled. These nomads were a part of a balanced eco-system. As human societies developed, land became cultivated, livestock domesticated; and as permanent settlements became established, environmental pollution began to emerge and this necessitated environmental reform. The problem became more serious as these permanent communities grew into towns and cities in Nigeria.

The increase in human population and consumption pattern also led to the increase in wastes generated, thereby creating environmental problems of collection and disposal. In response to waste disposal challenge, various societies developed waste collection and disposal systems that best suited their immediate environments. In traditional Nigerian societies, waste was dumped and burnt openly or centrally deposited in bush where they later decomposed in hygienic manner or deposited in a flowing river. In developed societies, sewage systems were developed to collect and move the untreated sewage to the nearest river or sea where nature was left to deal with the problem. Apart from this river-borne pollution, however, the effect of man’s activities tended to be local in nature.

Energy sources for domestic heating were coal and wood; and, transportation power was provided by animal or the wind. None of these produced waste products at a rate greater than the ecosystem could absorb. With the advent of science and technology in Nigeria, the nature, magnitude and impact of polluting activities began to expand. Science and technology made it possible for man to harness energy from burning fossil fuels to drive machines. They were developed at an ever-accelerating pace, developing more and more products, including chemicals to meet the ever increasing and insatiable demands of the marketplace. The waste products from these new industries were discharged directly into the environment.

As industries multiplied, so did the waste products of combustion and manufacturing processes, creating environmental problems of disposal of hazardous substances. The scope of environmental pollution also increased to accommodate new ones such as atmospheric pollution, acidic rain, water and marine pollution, soil pollution, noise pollution, climate change and deforestation. The result being that humankind lives today in an environment where all life-supporting elements are polluted. The air we breathe in is no longer healthy. The water we drink is impure and decreases in volume and quality daily. The food we eat is contaminated. Humankind continues to witness persistent drought, low harvest, diseases and poverty as a result of climate change, deforestation, accumulation and disposition of nuclear and other hazardous substances. These ominous trends are symptoms of an unhealthy planet; a planet that can no longer cope with all the demands man is heaping upon it.

The direct and indirect effects of natural and anthropogenic perturbations are manifested in early death, diseases, physical deformities, genetic mutations and physiological malnutrition suffered by humankind. Locally, the wild environmental facts confronting Nigeria as a nation are enormous. A few of Nigeria’s glaring environmental problems include (a) excessive pressure on available resources, infrastructure and space due to unabated rural-urban migration in the past three decades; this stress has been reinforced by industrial and urban development that has caused a rising rate of pollution; (b) the high rate of soil degradation, sheet, gully and coastal erosion and flooding through non-judicious land use practices; (c) the depletion of natural forest resources through uncontrolled logging, tree felling and over-grazing; (d) unfettered bush burning and the risk of exterminating wildlife species as well as uncontrolled fishing and related activities which endanger the species of fish in Nigeria waters; (e) pollution of surface and underground water systems through indiscriminate disposal of solid and liquid wastes; (f) destruction of valuable agricultural land through bad mining practices; (g) permanent dangers posed by the encroachment of the desert on vast agricultural lands along northern borders; and (h) oil pollution and related environmental consequences, particularly in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria.

Environmental Regulation and Reform in Nigeria

The fundamental theoretical argument for government regulation of environmental benign activities is that pollution is a classic example of an externality – an unintended consequence of market decisions, which affects individuals other than the decision maker. Because polluters do not take into account full social costs, pollutant emissions tend to be higher than socially efficient levels. The process of forcing the polluters to recognize environmental and social costs is known as internalizing externalities. The underlining economic lesson is that when we have to pay for something, we use less of it than we do if it is free. Cost internalization will only be achieved if there is governmental regulation and reform that forces such polluters to internalize.

Legal regulation of any activities may be undertaken in two broad ways: regulation and case laws. Regulation or regulatory law, in this context refers to all state actions designed to influence industrial or social behaviours. This may be in form of promulgation of a binding set of rules (e.g. legislation or administrative regulation, executive directives) to be applied by a body devoted to this purpose or other modes of influence – for instance, those based on the use of economic incentives (e.g. taxes or subsidies), contractual powers, deployment of resources, franchise; the supply of information or other techniques in order to promote and protect both public and private interests. Here, the focus is on the rationale for Nigeria intervention through regulatory law in promoting sustainable development and why effective and efficient enforcement and compliance systems must be institutionalised.

Inadequacies of Nigerian Environmental Regulatory Laws

Governmental intervention to regulate environmental pollution through law, establishment of regulatory agencies and imposition of sanction to deter polluters may to certain extent enhance social welfare. However, these efforts may be inadequate, resulting in failure and sub-optimal environmental results unless adequately complemented with other measures and this has necessitated environmental reform. The reasons for failure are varied, complex and wide. As explained by Daniel Esty, many regulatory frameworks fail because government lacks necessary information and data to regulate environmental pollution.

According to him, government may not have information necessary to intervene appropriately to internalise externalities, or they may lack the incentive structures needed to regulate efficiently. Government decisions may also be skewed by structural failures that arise because policy-makers systematically exclude from their regulatory cost-benefit calculus some of those who are either causing or suffering harms or those who might have been affected by government action. Regulatory efforts may, furthermore, be distorted by public choice failure.

Sometimes outcomes of governmental intervention are manipulated by outright corruption of the decision makers. More often, special interest influence on the decision-making process causes policy choice not to reflect the true will of the people. Some of these regulatory imperfections will be closely examined and they include information and administrative shortcomings and allocation of environmental responsibilities.

In the celebrated case of Attorney-General of Lagos State v. Attorney General of the Federation, the Supreme Court set a bright-line standard on how federal and state governments should relate on physical planning matters but failed to set any precise standard on environmental protection. In that case, the Supreme Court held that though physical planning matter is a residual matter for the component states, the protection of the Nigerian environment is a joint responsibility of the federal, state and local governments in accordance with provision of Section 20 of the 1999 Constitution. Since then, diverse comments and opinions have been proffered on how best to achieve sustainable environmental governance in Nigeria. Some of these questions border on how we should regulate our environment under the present federal system of government being practiced in Nigeria.

What level of inter-governmental relationship and cooperation do we expect in environmental matters? Which tier of government has the responsibility to regulate the aspect of environmental pollution within the constitutional framework of Nigeria? What happens in cases of conflicts? How should such conflicts be resolved? What level of inter-governmental relationship is required to achieve sustainable development? Also tangential to this matter is the question of resource control, fiscal federalism and human rights abuse arising from oil exploitation and exploratory activities in Nigeria.

Prof. Nasiru Medugu Idris is the dean, faculty of environmental science, Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria. He can be reached on

Prof. Nasiru Medugu Idris
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