Stakeholders advocate enactment of laws to combat open defecation in Nigeria
Open defecation has continued to pose serious health and environmental challenges globally. On a global scale, it is said to have practically affected almost 1 billion people and has contributed significantly to an estimated 842,000 deaths resulting from sanitation-related diseases.
In Nigeria, a survey conducted by UNICEF ranks Nigeria as the African country with the highest population practising open defecation, next to India globally.
The most recent statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released in August 2022 showed more needed to be done on anti-open defecation.
Contrary to expectations of stakeholders, the 2021 report of the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) and National Immunization Coverage Survey (NICS) conducted by the NBS shows there is a two per cent increase in people involved in open defecation practice in Nigeria over the last five years. The report said one out of every five people still engages in open defecation.
The 2021 Water Supply and Hygiene (WASH) NORM report by Federal Ministry of Water Resources (FMWR), Unicef and NBS also reported that the percentage of the population still defecating in the open is still 23 per cent with a population of 48 million people as against 46 million in 2019.
However, the National Coordinator of Clean Nigeria Campaign Secretariat, Mrs Chizoma Opara said the efforts are not yielding desired results because states that are expected to cue into the project have not joined. She added that the campaign was expected to be carried out by state governments to complement efforts at the national level.
She also attributed the reported increase in open defecation to the fact that some states were not collaborating as expected. “It is not commensurate with activities on board because of states that are not coming on board,” she said.
Opara said the increase in population was also responsible for the increase in the percentage of open defecation, despite efforts.
To tackle the environmental and health crisis, a state of emergency was declared in the water supply and hygiene services sector, which led to the signing of an executive order to end open defecation by 2025.
President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Executive Order 009, which is titled ‘The Open Defecation-Free Nigeria by 2025 and Other Related Matters Order.’
The signing of the order was to ensure that Nigeria becomes open defecation free by 2025. The objective is to eliminate open defecation and also ensure that Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 is achieved, especially in rural areas.
Experts and some stakeholders advocate the enactment of laws to strengthen the fight against open defecation. Already, there are efforts to curb this menace through legislation in states. Igbo-Etiti Local Government Area of Enugu State for instance, with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), has launched prohibition of open defecation by-law in consonance with the Federal Government and state government’s plan of making Nigeria open defecation free by 2025.
The Executive Chairman of Igbo-Etiti Local Government Area, Anthony Nwodo said the law has given it the teeth to punish anybody who disobeys the rules. According to him, enacting the law was the initial stage of getting the local government to be open defecation free, hence the council started with the law that will give tips on enforcement.
“The first stage is to sensitise people to develop toilets in their immediate vicinity and secondly to have people get to use those toilet facilities,” he said.
In contrast, the federal ministries of finance, environment and other critical stakeholders in the environment sector had rejected a bill which sought to establish the Clean Nigeria Agency and prohibit open urination and defecation in the country.
The proposed law, ‘A bill for an Act to establish the Clean Nigeria Agency for the purpose, among others, to prohibit open urination/open defecation to keep Nigeria clean and disease free and other matters connected thereto, 2021’ was sponsored by Senator Clifford Ordia (PDP, Edo Central).
The ministries and other critical stakeholders made their position known through their presentations at a one-day public hearing on the bill organised by the Senate Committee on Water Resources.
They hinged their opposition to the bill on the need to prevent further proliferation of government agencies, paucity of funds and duplication of functions. Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, was represented by the Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Ajayi Boroffice, at the event.
The chairman of the Senate Committee on Water Resources, Senator Bello Mandiya, said there was an urgent need to eradicate open urination and defecation in the country. Mandiya said: “This bill seeks to create an agency to prohibit open urination/defecation in the country. This is very clear because we know what this causes.
“Unfortunately for this purpose, Nigeria is among the highest, if not the highest country practising open defecation. So, there is a need to do everything possible to eradicate it.”
Lawan noted that continuity was necessary to ensure that all schemes and programmes aimed at ensuring a clean environment in the country were sustained. He said: “We are familiar with the issues on cleanliness and the environment we live in and how they can shape our wellbeing. The ills are becoming more prominent because of increased human activities and complexities therefrom.”
He said the agency, when established, would certify public toilet facilities to be fit for use by members of the public. He also said the agency would have powers to shut down any public place that does not meet the required standard of public toilet facility prescribed by the agency, among others.
However, kicking against the establishment of the agency, the Director of Legal Services, Ministry of Environment, Mrs Obayagbo Helen, said the ministry was opposed to the passage of the bill.
Obayagbo said: “Creating an agency for a fragment of one component of sanitation would mean creating more than 15 agencies for sanitation issues alone. This would mean wastage of scarce government resources. Besides, there are too many Federal Government agencies in existence currently and most of them are not self-sustaining but depend on the already very thin resources of the Federal Government.”
The Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning, represented by its Assistant Director, Legal, Mrs Ate Amali, said there were government organisations already performing roles being envisaged for the proposed agency. She said the establishment of the agency would mean further duplication of agencies of government. She advised that programmes should be developed to further eradicate issues of open defecation in the country.
On his part, the National President of the Environmental Health Officers Association of Nigeria, Mr Jamilu Shuaibu, said the bill was inconsistent with the provisions of the fourth schedule of the 1999 constitution as amended.
He said the constitution vested the local government councils with the role of maintenance and regulation of public convenience.
He said the 774 Local Governments Areas had been implementing the role through their Environmental Health Services Department and units. He said the agency, if established, would be an additional liability cost on governance.
Nigeria’s Minister of Water Resources, Engr. Suleiman Adamu, insists the Federal Government will encourage states to introduce a law to ban open defecation practice.
Adamu said this at a Lunch Time Forum, with the theme, `Engage, Educate and Empower Nigerians on the Legacy Project of the Federal Ministry of Water Resources in Abuja. According to him, this is necessary as part of the national campaign toward ending open defecation practice by 2025.
“So, what we are doing as far as we are concerned is to encourage the states to, as part of their campaign, provide some legislation against open defecation.”
However, Adamu argued that there is a need for legislation to help curb the situation in Nigeria. According to a lawyer and environmentalist, Oladimeji Felix Ekengba, enacting a law to curb open defecation would be a good decision in the right direction “because it will reduce the negative impact of open defecation and the environmental hazards caused by it.”
He explained that there are so many toxins in the environment that should be reduced through laws. “The legal approach is necessary to give the law enforcement agencies the power to carry out the enforcement of compliance and at the same time public awareness is also key, but we all know that ignorance of the law is not an excuse,” he said.
According to A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Douglas Terkura Pepe, there is a need for a law to criminalise open defecation in the country. He added that with enforcement of such law, the process would work better. He also advocated stringent enforcement of such law, adding that open defecation would decrease if laws are made and enforced seriously.
The SAN also said that communal collaboration would greatly help the situation, urging the government and others to build public toilets in strategic areas.
A lawyer, Isaac Attah Ogeze emphasised the need to criminalise open defecation to pave way for arrest and prosecution of offenders. According to him, open defecation is a symptom of an unhealthy society and an index of underdevelopment. “Apart from the creepy, unnerving eyesore effect it creates, the air is noxious and inimical to healthy living like gas flaring or any other form of air pollution,” he stated.
He, however, questioned whether there are sufficient public toilet facilities to make the enactment of such a law enforceable and morally feasible. The lawyer argued that open defecation is also an indictment on the government at all levels. Some Nigerians, he explained, indulge in the unhealthy act not because of any morbid fascination, but owing to the failure of the government to provide toilet facilities in strategic and easily accessible points in towns and cities.
Ogeze pointed out that there is an acute shortage of public toilets in towns and cities where citizens can run to, when they are pressed. And sadly, even the very few ones available, he noted, leave much to be desired in terms of sanitary compliance.
He said: “I was miffed when I was pressed at Warri High Court premises and needed to use any nearby convenience. One could imagine my stupefaction when I was told that there was none for lawyers in a division with over three High Courts and three Magistrates Courts! If such basic necessity is made a luxury in that place, do you need to ask about the plight of litigants or the average man on the street?
“Given this unpalatable scenario, any proposal to enact a law to curb this menace without taking into consideration the near absence of some mitigating measures put in place, will not only be premature but anti-people.
“If the government is serious about making Nigeria clean by banning open defecation, instead of playing to the gallery, the first step to take is to provide adequate toilet facilities in easily accessible public areas and within close proximity in towns and cities all over Nigeria.
“Until this is done, any attempt to enact such a law at the moment will smack of insensitivity and irresponsibility on the part of the government and an invitation to remorseless lawlessness. Its enforcement will indeed be herculean, if not impossible.”
Silvanus Maliki said the proposal for the law is necessary and timely. He applauded the President’s declaration of a State of Emergency on Nigeria’s water supply, sanitation and hygiene sector, adding that the action was imperative as it will reduce the high prevalence of water-borne diseases in different parts of the country, which have caused preventable deaths.
“It is pertinent to note that this order is in line with section 20 of the constitution, which provides for the protection of the environment under which preventing open defecation falls. It is my opinion conclusively that the proposal for this law is necessary and timely to curb this menace that has existed for a long time,” he declared.
A lawyer, Jude Fanen, argued that it is not about legislation to curb open defecation, but the provision of the needed toilet facilities.
According to Fanen, when an individual is pressed, and there are no toilet facilities, he would be compelled to discharge at the available space.
The lawyer stated that in most rural communities where the act takes place, the people are so poor that they could not afford to build toilets or do not see defecating in the open as being harmful. He also called for more involvement of the community and educating religious leaders to see the danger of defecating in the open.
He said,” Everything is not about law and enforcement. Some issues are better resolved through dialogue, interaction, awareness and mediation.”