Nigeria, one of the most populous African nations, is not without her own share of environmental right problems. Be that as it may, environmental right is an uncommonly used term. Quite on the contrary, environmental law, environmental protection and environmental pollution are terms well-known and
deeply etched in the subconscious of the average citizen.
Black’s law dictionary defines environment simplicities as the totality of physical, economic, cultural, aesthetic and social circumstances and factors which surround and effect the desirability and value of existence and the quality of people’s lives-the surrounding conditions, influence or forces which influences or modify.
According to Webster’s dictionary Environment has also been defined as
“Total outer physical and biological system in which man and other organisms live. It includes water, air land and all plants, animals and human beings living therein and the inter- relationships that exist between them.”
The National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (Establishment), Act, 2007 (NESREA) defines environment as “including water, air, land and all plants and human beings or animals living therein and the interrelationships which exists among these or any of them”
Environmental right action connotes those citizens’ reserves inalienable rights to a healthy environment. It encompasses three main areas:
(i) The right to a clean and safe environment: - This is a substantive basic right.
Many scholars support the idea that safe water and food security are “basic human rights”.
(ii) The right to act to protect the environment.
(iii) The right to information, to access to justice and to participate in environmental decision-making. These enable citizens to play an active part in creating a healthy environment.
In pre-independence Nigeria, the criminal code provided for certain sanctions, for instance, in the burial of corpses, fetching of water in streams and rivers, etc. The punishments for the violations of these and a host of others were highly ridiculous. The Colonialists at the time were engaged in diverse economic activities which were unchecked.
This connotes that no person could exercise environmental rights if trespass or pollution occurs. The period between the Nigeria independence and 1988 witnessed a mixture of political and socio-economic factors that led to the development of environmental law in Nigeria.
The emergence of local industries with its resultant waste management and pollution and the discovery of oil and the attendant oil booms thereafter marked Nigeria as being unprepared for environmental problems.
Due to the effect of industrialization on Nigeria’s environmental policy, these were a need for articulating a new concept of environmental laws as demonstrated by a comprehensive list of environmental laws as it were.
There were virtually no laws on hazardous wastes and industrial pollution. The enactment of these environmental laws showcased the fact that environmental protection was the main concern. Environmental right and its enforcement were not provided for. Environmental problems cause disturbances of natural process and disequilibrium of the natural equation of nature.
There are diverse means of human actions causing environmental problem through oil spillage, flooding, deforestation, dumping of hazardous wastes radioactive wastes, soil erosion and pollution of varied nature. With the unending activities of man against the environment, the issue of environmental right being submerged under human right is still in contention as we shall see further in this work.
Moreover, it is pertinent to note that the Universal Declaration on Human Right (UDHR) which is composed of different rights made no specific provision for environmental rights.
The Rio Declaration on environmental and Declaration vested States with the duties of ensuring that environment is protected while citizens are bereft of any right to a clean and healthful environment.
The African Charter adopted by Nigeria made provisions for environmental rights and provides thus:
All people shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development
The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria contains the supreme law of the land. Until the ratification of the 1999 constitution (as amended), there was no specific provision in the document on the environment; thereby ousting any attempt at exercising environmental right upon infringement. S.20 blazed the trail with the provision hereunder:
The State shall protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air, land, forest and wildlife of Nigeria.12
More details on Environmental Right
The defective nature of this provision possesses a linkage with that of the above mentioned Rio Declaration. It can safely be concluded that the aforementioned provision, just as the case with the African Charter provision on environmental rights falls within the ambit of chapter 11 of the constitution (Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of the State Policy) which is non-justifiable.
As a result, the provision cannot be judicially enforced13. Thus, constitutional provision bears no consideration for the citizens to exercise their environmental rights over their domain once infringement occurs.
Ironically, Nigeria as a nation exercised, for the first time, her environmental rights after the “infamous” illegal dumping of toxic and hazardous wastes totalling about 3,880 metric tonnes in koko, Delta State; A ministerial task force was established for the evacuation of the toxic wastes within the period of six weeks.14 In addition, two legislations15 were promulgated by the then Federal Military Government for the protection of the environment.
It is then expected that the issue of enforcement of environmental rights will permeate every nook and cranny of the Nation bearing in mind its environmental and economic vulnerability. This is not so. There exists myriad of factors that have constituted themselves as stumbling blocks to the free-flow realization of the dream of environmental rights enforcement.
These multifaceted factors are legally responsible for the reluctance of the populace to vigorously pursue their environmental rights over their properties, lands and general developments to a meaningful end.
Environmental spoliation is on the increase. What has been the fate of environmental pollution victims? To what extent are they permitted to enforce their environmental rights and are there firm commitments in tackling environmental right issues? These questions and many more form the background of this study.