Registrar, Environmental Health Officers Registration Council (EHORECON), Dominic Abonyi, spoke to Paul Omorogbe on the sidelines of this year’s National Council on Environment in Akure, Ondo State. He explained why sanitary officers seem not to be as visible and effective, and the challenges involved in enforcing sanitation rules.
Your organisation exists but seems to be invisible, we hardly see your officers carrying out their work of inspection. Why is this so?
That is the general feeling of the public. The council is the professional regulating body for environmental health in Nigeria. As a professional regulatory body, our major mandate is determining the standard of knowledge and skill to be acquired by persons seeking to practise the profession in Nigeria, securing a register of persons who are so qualified, and publishing the register after revision from time to time. And doing other functions like conducting examinations for the profession and awarding certificate and advising the Honourable Minister of Environment on matters concerning environmental public health generally.
If you place this side by side with your question of the suppositions people see as a result of my appearance today, I am significantly dressed like a sanitary inspector, but I am a regulatory sanitary inspector. Our mandate does not cover that if I see heaps of refuse on the streets I should act to remove it. Rather I will act against the officer who is supposed to have removed it but didn’t. In doing this, we want to feel with the general public the near disappointment of not seeing sanitary inspectors on a daily basis on the streets. There are factors to it.
The first is uniform wearing. As the registrar of the profession, we hold the record that has state to state distribution of sanitary inspectors in Nigeria. Around the South-West here where I am speaking we are not so much lacking as we do when you compare North-East or North-West states. For instance, Lagos has the highest number of environmental health officers in Nigeria, followed by Rivers State. If you come to the field, because many of them are not in uniform, you will not know who is visibly in the street. If you pass a police officer or traffic warden you will know, but environmental health officers are not stationary. So, the best you can see of any of them in the streets is when he leaves one house and is going to another. And that is one in a chance of a moving person. But to say the least, we know that people are clamouring for this and we have pushed through serious advocacy and mobilisation for the FG to recognise this need and buy uniforms for them, and give it to them at no cost provided they have licence from the council. In doing this, we are trying to address the issue of visibility.
Two, we acknowledge the fact that Nigeria is growing more than our GDP and more than our manpower in specialised areas. Environmental health used to be the bedrock of public health in Nigeria even before the colonial masters left. And that is why you could notice that we had four schools of hygiene when we had only one university college. But today the reverse is the case, and we have more than 40 specialised schools for other professions, but we are just trying to begin that of environmental health.
So, manpower shortage is a second major factor. At this level, University of Ibadan is just beginning to introduce a degree for environmental health and they are at 200 level. Nnamdi Azikiwe University is at 300 level. Kwara State University (KWASU) has started graduating students. So, in all we have only about five universities that will uptake their training. And if you take the population of Nigerians, we have 8,000 environmental health officers nationwide, compared this to how many millions of Nigerians, you will see why the population ratio is low and the impact little. And you know that Nigeria has numerous environmental challenges requiring environmental health intervention: talk about disease control in health, surveillance and epidemiology, water sanitation and other aspects of environmental challenges that we are addressing at the Environment Ministry. We are saying that even though we are not meeting the public expectation, there are efforts, and those efforts will be more palpable in the nearest future. With these things I have said, I think we are on track.
You have officers, we don’t seem to see them enforcing…
Enforcement is not a one-man situation. Whenever you mention enforcement, the environmental health officer is a key person in enforcement in that he is the person who sources the problem and then identifies other team members. If we must enforce in any aspect of our national deviation in life, be it crime or public health nuisances, you must involve the judiciary. And then if you must involve the judiciary, you notice a little comparison: the political situation in Nigeria has overflooded the judiciary. So, if you have adjournment of a case of common nuisance three times, you will see that seeking an alternative means to resolve it arises.
But in those days when sanitary inspectors used to be sanitary inspectors, the local people would say the question of guilty or not guilty is equal to four months imprisonment. If the district officer asks you whether you are guilty, it is four months imprisonment. If you say you are not guilty, invariably they would convict you and you are still going there. So, everybody decided to avoid guilty or not guilty. But if you report anybody today, and go to court, and the next adjournment is six months to come, and so is the next, due to the overwhelming of all aspects of the judiciary. So we need a strong judiciary system, in most cases, dedicated courts, so that sanitary cases can be given accelerated hearing. This is one major factor that is making enforcement a little weaker. Then political interference also: with local governments, the chairman will come out to say please leave these people. This was not happening before.
These are the things that compound efforts at enforcement.
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