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‘Nigeria needs a comprehensive environmental regulation to fully integrate infection control into our legal framework’

By Yetunde Ayobami Ojo
23 June 2020   |   3:13 am
Professor of law and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Afe Babalola University, Damilola Sunday Olawuyi, in this interview with YETUNDE AYOBAMI OJO discusses the issues of law

Prof. Olawuyi

Professor of law and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Afe Babalola University, Damilola Sunday Olawuyi, in this interview with YETUNDE AYOBAMI OJO discusses the issues of law, the importance of environmental protection and sustainable development during COVID-19 pandemic.

What are the lessons from COVID-19 and how do we adjust and live after? 
The COVID-19 pandemic is an unfortunate disaster that has further highlighted some of the salient points that we have been advocating for quite a while, which is that without sound and coherent legal systems that protect all aspects of the environment, humankind may not be able to live and enjoy life to the fullest. It also shows how interconnected our world has become and the need for countries to reflect that interconnectedness by making bold and holistic policies and laws that integrate social, economic and environmental aspects in key decisions.

Studies from the United Nations show that due to changing food consumption patterns across the world, the world will begin to witness a geometric rise in harmful zoonotic diseases i.e infectious diseases that are transferred from animals to humans.

Over the last years, we have seen zoonotic diseases such as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), Avian Flu and the COVID-19. If predictions that such diseases will rise in intensity and prevalence, then every visionary government or country must take steps to prepare for them. I have advocated the need for us to develop holistic disaster response and resilience mechanisms that can anticipate, address and monitor such problems and minimize their impacts on human life and local economy. COVID-19 is unfortunately not a one-off problem, it is the new normal in our current world, and we must accelerate and expand our abilities to deal with such zoonotic diseases. We must always ask how well our economic, social, transportation, health and legal systems are prepared for the next likely pandemic?

How can we strengthen our laws to become ready post-COVID-19?
I have consistently advocated the need to fully integrate health and environmental management systems in order to better anticipate and respond to disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Curbing the spread of infectious diseases is not a role for health practitioners or institutions alone. The linkages between environmental protection and the attainment of good health have consequently gained strong recognition in international law.

Environmental infection control is the integrated management of infection prevention and control programmes to reflect curative and preventive activities (such as good environmental practices, proper sanitation, water quality control and economic interventions) as means of safeguarding public health. Health and environmental agencies have common goals, which is: protecting the public from risk and harm. Our laws and institutions must reflect this. 

For example, health care administrators should accentuate best environmental practices, such as the safe management of wastes in hospitals and health care facilities as means for safeguarding environmental protection and public health, and forestalling spread of contagious diseases; while environmental administrators should also collaborate with public health agencies to drive environmental protection programs by safeguarding surfaces, water, air, land and facilities to prevent the spread of diseases. This approach includes estimating the environmental media and routes through which diseases spread and designing holistic measures to block those routes.

For example, during this pandemic we have seen environmental agencies such as the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) playing significant roles by releasing important guidelines on how to handle, manage, and dispose of infectious wastes. NESREA has also released timely guidelines on handling chemicals used in disinfecting surfaces against COVID-19. These are visionary and important initiatives in line with international best practices on integrated environmental infection control. What is now necessary is to further expand these measures and make them fundamental and ongoing aspects of our legal frameworks on environmental protection, as well as health management. There is a need to establish laws and regulations that clearly stipulate standards that institutions must adhere to disinfect environmental surfaces in order to prevent the spread of non-enveloped viruses (for example norovirus, rotavirus, adenovirus, and poliovirus).

In the United States for example, even though the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an environmental agency, it actively exercises public health functions by issuing regulations and guidelines on how to keep the land, air, water and public spaces free from contamination and diseases. So, while guidelines released by NESREA during the COVID-19 pandemic have been helpful, they are not comprehensive enough to address other harmful forms of viruses and contaminants. They also do not stipulate regulatory fines and penalties for defaulters. Comprehensive environmental regulation is needed to fully integrate environmental infection control into our legal framework. Such a comprehensive regulation or law can provide a timely, incisive and well needed legal framework for all environmental and public health agencies in Nigeria to work together to pursue a coherent and coordinated agenda that responds to infectious diseases and pandemics in a holistic manner.

What is the future of law practice in post-COVID-19 locally and internationally?
The need for disaster response and resilience mechanisms must be the watchword for law practice post-COVID- 19. 

Over the last months, in response to the pandemic, lawyers have had to embrace online meetings, virtual court appearances, online dispute resolution, as well as online legal education. These measures must be understood as the new normal. It will be very disastrous if we return back to our old ways of analogue documentation or extreme reliance on face-to-face meetings given the scientific predictions that pandemics may become rather more recurrent in our current world. Also, with less desire by clients to travel long distances due to the inherent health risks, lawyers must be prepared to accelerate digitalization of their practice. Law practice post-COVID-19 will have to be dynamic, innovative, and technology-driven. Similarly, universities will have to develop tailored programs to train and prepare law students for the emerging legal order post-COVID 19. 

Furthermore, lawyers must be prepared for diversification. The world is undergoing significant transformations that will see the emergence of new areas of law, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics, carbon finance, space technology, internet-of-things, as well as solid minerals development, healthcare and agrotechnology, which will gradually become the new oil and gas. The future of work, as well as the future of law practice will begin to accentuate these new areas and lawyers that understand the ethical and legal dimensions of these emerging fields will be in very high demand. This pandemic provides an opportunity for lawyers, as well as law students, to reassess their readiness and preparedness to provide counsel in these transformational fields.

At ABUAD, we have launched wide-ranging courses and training programmes that will place us at the forefront of producing expert lawyers in these important fields, many thanks to the innovation, sagacity and foresight of our founder, Aare Afe Babalola (SAN). You will recall that ABUAD is the first university in Nigeria and West Africa to introduce a Mechatronics Engineering course. The ABUAD Multi-systems Hospital, ABUAD Farm, ABUAD Helipad, ABUAD Planetarium are other trailblazing achievements that show that at ABUAD, we are never afraid to push the boundaries of knowledge. We believe that innovation is the primary function of world-class and research-driven universities. So, very soon you will hear more about our post-COVID 19 innovations, publications, and programmes.
What do you think should guide lawyers in their choice of the new president of the NBA in the coming elections and why? 
These are great and exciting times for the NBA as we are lucky to have the fortune of choosing between highly competent and dynamic aspirants of the highest caliber. Given the caliber of the presidential aspirants, I am confident that irrespective of who wins, the NBA will emerge as strong and formidable as ever. I can only advise lawyers to remain civil and responsible all through the process, knowing that we have the best chance to show the world how robust democratic processes should run.  Personally, I am also keen to see which of the candidates has the best agenda for legal academics. Law professors and lecturers have a lot to offer to the activities, programmes and processes of the NBA, so my constituents and I will be monitoring proceedings very closely.

What can be done to improve the lots of junior lawyers?
My journey is a demonstration of the efficacy of good mentorship. Through the kind and generous support of everyone at ABUAD, especially my College Provost and Vice-Chancellor, I have been able to achieve great career milestones. Junior lawyers in practice and in academia can also benefit from similar mentoring programmes. Law firms can help junior lawyers realize their full potential by pairing them with individuals that can help them grow. We cannot also overemphasize the need for better welfare for junior lawyers, which seem to be one of the biggest concerns in the profession. My experience while practicing in Canada is that welfare is not about money alone. There are other benefits that can significantly improve the overall job satisfaction and prospects of junior lawyers, at very minimal cost to a law firm. These will among other things include benefits relating to training, technology connectivity, networking, and productivity. These are now ever more important in the post-COVID legal order if we really want to carry along junior lawyers and provide them with the chance to grow and be able to perform optimally, especially when liaising with peers in other jurisdictions.

What are the secrets and roadmap of becoming a successful lawyer and getting to the peak of the legal profession like you?
No one truly knows the secret of success, but many of the world’s most successful people have some things in common. As Aare Afe Babalola always tells us, ‘He prays most, who works hardest’. Our level of hard work must be matched by our devotion to prayers. Impossible feats are possible when we work tenaciously and also fervently seek God’s guidance and grace. For lawyers and law students, hard work simply means leaving no stone unturned in preparing for every case or examination. 

The best students read as if their entire life and future depend on it, while advocates that devote themselves to comprehensive and multijurisdictional research often find the missing piece in their client’s case. This means when facing their work, they shut out all distractions and prepare vigorously. Also, I often tell my students that law is a service profession, i.e. like restaurants, our value is intricately tied to how well we serve our clients. So, the most successful lawyers master the art of amicable networking. It is highly important to actively build relationships with colleagues within and outside the profession, in order to widen one’s horizon and knowledge-base. Consistent diligence and hard work breed reliability, reliability breeds an increased network of viable contacts and allies, an increased network brings boundless opportunities, and opportunities ultimately open the door for success. 

How do you feel to be the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti at such a young age?
It is a huge privilege and honour to have been found worthy of such an important appointment. Power belongs to God and the more I ponder, the clearer I see how through God’s abundant grace, every step of my journey has prepared me for this role. Right from when I was President of the Law Students Association at the University, to when I left Nigeria at the age of 22 to obtain my masters, where I was the youngest in my class and still the Chairman of the Graduate Law Students’ Association, I have always been seen as quite young for every role I have assumed.  I have however been fortunate to be surrounded by kind mentors who believed in me and have helped me to grow.  At ABUAD, I am extremely fortunate to have the greatest mentor of all times, Aare Babalola, a highly cerebral, versatile and supportive father, whose love for mentoring young people is unparalleled. I think my head and brain size has enlarged at least 10 times more since I met him. This is an exemplary and selfless man who, without formal classroom education, has become globally recognized as the father of university reform in Nigeria and the founder of the fastest-growing University in Africa. My goal in my current role is to be an inspiration and support to others just as Aare Afe Babalola has been to me.

Why did you choose to teach law instead of practice?
Teaching is a calling, so I think I can say like many other academics that it was teaching that chose me and not the other way around. Academics go into the profession knowing well that it is not the most financially rewarding, not the most appreciated or celebrated, and certainly not the trendiest, but it is indeed one of the most fulfilling professions. Each day I am happy to inspire and mentor students, widen their imagination and horizon, and instil a passion for law and justice in them. There could be no greater reward than this. We all know that law practice is definitely more lucrative than teaching, especially in my area of specialization, which is oil and gas law. However, even though I am licensed to practice law in Nigeria and other jurisdictions, it is in the classroom that I find my greatest inspiration and joy.  Students are the foundations of our future society, so I see it as an important societal role to dedicate my entire career to mentoring, nurturing and inspiring them to become agents of transformational societal change. I also like the serenity and collegiality of the university, which allows scholars to think, innovate, and unearth new ideas through societally relevant research.
You practiced law for some years before coming to teach, what was your experience at the bar like?
My experience in law practice was very stimulating and rewarding. Practicing law is dynamic and fast-paced. As an energy lawyer, I was involved in negotiating and preparing contracts for multi-million-dollar oil and gas transactions involving multiple parties across the world. This requires great attention to detail and the ability to carefully analyze the material facts of the client’s case and evolve informed and risk-free contracts and legal opinion for them. When I look back, I see clearly that the experience and skills that I gained from practice have helped me to become a practical and experiential teacher who is able to break down legal concepts to students in a simplified and commercially relevant manner.  This is why I have not totally abandoned law practice. As a scholar-practitioner and consultant, I continue to serve as an arbitrator and counsel in complex energy, environment, climate finance, and oil and gas-related transactions and disputes. This way, I am able to continue to develop practical insights on the workings of the law, which greatly enriches my classroom lectures.
Could you tell us more about the importance of the annual World Environment Day?
World Environment Day is an important initiative of the United Nations, which sets aside a day for the whole world to reflect upon the need to protect all aspects of the environment from degradation and pollution.

The environment consists of water, air, land, plants, animals, humans, and other living organisms that make up the ecosystem. On World Environment Day, we celebrate how far we have come in protecting these elements from human-made pollution while highlighting the challenges that remain. The theme of this year’s celebration is “Celebrate Biodiversity”. The aim is for the world to reflect upon how we can better protect rare plants, animals and other biological forms that are currently facing extinction due to overexploitation and lax legal protection. This year’s theme is rather timely considering the current challenges facing the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am happy that I will be joining other environmental law experts worldwide to address this theme in different planned webinars and awareness events that will focus on biodiversity, sustainable agriculture, environmental infection control, wastewater treatment, sustainable building, green education and more.