Last week, Minister of Environment, Laurentia Mallam announced the suspension of work on the second Niger Bridge.

Mallam had stated categorically that the project was suspended because the Environment Impact Assessment Law was not taken into consideration before work on the site of the bridge commenced.

Without attempting to pooh-pooh the minister’s good intentions, her brandishing of the Environment Assessment Law at the outset of the project throws up a fundamental question: who is the law for?

Basically, the Environment Impact Assessment Decree No 86 of 1992 states that before undertaking any project (public or private) which is likely to have a substantial impact on the environment, an Environmental Impact Assessment must be done in order to establish what these impacts will be and how best to cope with them.

However, the Environment Impact Assessment Law makes some exceptions in respect of its enforceability. Part I, No 15 subsection 1 of the law states that an environmental assessment of project shall not be required where:

(A) In the opinion of the Agency, the project is in the list of projects which the President/Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces or the Council is of the opinion that the environmental effects of the project is likely to be minimal.

(B) The project is to be carried out during national emergency for which temporary measures have been taken by the government.

(C) The project is to be carried out in response to circumstances that, in the opinion of the Agency, is in the interest of public health and safety.

Point C, which is principal to this analysis, puts the burden of proof squarely on the Ministry of Environment. It also means that the ministry is responsible for determining when a project is in “the interest of public health and safety”.

This is a delicate clause for the suspension of the construction of the second Niger Bridge by the Ministry of Environment could be interpreted by Nigerians conversant this part of the law as implying that the ministry does not believe that the project is in the interest  of public safety, thereby “whittling it down”.

In addition, the tricky question that the ministry’s action could raise is: does it mean the construction of a vital bridge in the southeast of the country is not in the interest of public safety, considering that the only bridge linking the region to other parts of Nigeria is five decades and one year old, and far spindly? Again, the importance of the second Niger Bridge is questionable if the Ministry of Environment does not agree — and that is what its action shows — that the project is in the interest of public safety. Who, then, is the law for?

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