On Lagos’ monthly sanitation and freedom of movement
THE decision of the Federal High Court in Lagos voiding the restriction on movement during the monthly sanitation exercise in the state is a victory for the rule of law; a verdict that necessitates the cleansing of ambiguities in the law or actions of government but does not obviate the need for cleanliness in the society. Although subject to a possible appeal, it may be a legal victory for the plaintiff but certainly does not remove from the morality in the idea of citizens observing that exercise especially since the public interest is served by it. The sanitation exercise is, of course, a positive index of good governance that should be encouraged, the Court’s decision notwithstanding.
The monthly sanitation exercise no doubt has been done for over decades and it has become part of life in Lagos and many other states as residents have the rare opportunity, once a month, to devote about three hours to tidying up their immediate surroundings. Although the Court verdict may not have seen anything wrong in the cleansing of the environment, voiding the restriction of movement, is no doubt tantamount to bringing the exercise to an end in which case, it may be legally right but it is bad for a filth-riddled city like Lagos. Should residents take refuge in the Court’s decision, filth and garbage would once again take over the streets as people would not have time to take care of their surroundings any more. It is good enough, therefore, that the Lagos State Government has appealed the verdict to seek redress in the public interest.
Justice Mohammed Idris had the other day struck down the monthly environmental sanitation policy of the Lagos State Government, which restricts Lagosians to their homes for three hours between 7a.m. and 10a.m. every last Saturday of the month.
Delivering judgment in a suit filed against the Lagos State Government, Justice Idris declared that the policy restricting the movement of citizens during the monthly environmental sanitation exercise was illegal.
He held that there was no law in force in the state by which any citizen could be kept indoors compulsorily. The court reiterated that the 1999 Constitution grants freedom of movement to every citizen and such freedom cannot be taken by executive proclamation in the absence of any law to that effect.
He emphatically ruled that there is no regulation in force currently in Lagos State, which authorises the restriction of movement of citizens on the last Saturday of the month for the purpose of observing environmental sanitation. The court, therefore, voided the power of the state government and its agents to arrest any citizen found moving between 7a.m. and 10a.m. on the last Saturday of every month when the environmental sanitation exercise is observed.
The plaintiff had instituted the suit against the state government and the Inspector General of Police, challenging the restriction of human movement on the last Saturday of every month for the purpose of observing environmental sanitation. He had argued that Section 39 of the Environmental Sanitation Law 2000 of Lagos State, which the state claims empowers the Commissioner of the Environment to make regulations, cannot be the basis for restricting human movement. He held that even if there is such regulation in force, it cannot be enforced on federal roads for the purpose of environmental sanitation. The plaintiff was once arrested on the Third Mainland Bridge by the police and LASTMA officials, an action which prompted his legal action.
No doubt, keeping the environment clean ought to be part of our daily living and Nigerians, especially Lagosians, cannot see the Court’s decision as an endorsement of filthy living.
In the good old days, environmental sanitation was an integral part of societal governance as citizens observed it without compulsion and sanitary inspectors enforced it. Defaulters were sanctioned by way of fines.
Ideally, it is the duty of the local government councils to handle environmental sanitation matters but many state governments across the country have taken this up as the local governments have failed to live up to expectation. For the avoidance of doubt, among other things, the local governments’ duties include environmental sanitation, construction of gutters and drainage canals; waste collection, provision of markets, town halls, recreation centres, schools and libraries, responsibilities that have all been shirked.
The Court, it must be said, based its verdict purely on the constitution but without taking into consideration how long the exercise has been in place and the implications for the society should the programme be discontinued.
However, the judgment has exposed some other important issues. For instance, it is an anomaly to talk of federal roads in a federal setting, even a dysfunctional one like Nigeria in which the states are bearing the burden of maintenance. The states should have power to maintain and supervise the infrastructure that is within their jurisdiction.
Also, the environment ought to be an election issue and how to maintain a healthy environment ought to be addressed by the political parties in an election year. This has hardly been the case. The result is that government at all levels hardly serve Nigerians and the people hardly hold them to account.
Granted that there is no law higher than the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, it should be acknowledged that environmental sanitation is desirable, and as such, the Lagos State Government should enact appropriate laws to back the exercise up. It is instructive that although the 1999 Constitution grants freedom of movement, it equally empowers government to nevertheless enact laws in derogation of that freedom provided such laws are in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health (section 45 (i) (a). In which case the Adegboruwa suit has succeeded in exposing a gap, which now has to be filled. It is perhaps an opportunity for Lagos State and other states to properly put the sanitation exercise in a firm legal footing.
For, without the sanitation exercise, which is now nationwide, how can Nigerians be compelled to keep their environment clean? The local government councils have failed to do their job and no one should lose sight of the benefits of environmental sanitation in Lagos and elsewhere.