The management of a country is not a child’s play. It is a serious business which is why laws are created and institutions are constituted and endowed with powers and resources to perform their functions. These functions are geared towards only one objective which is to protect and fulfill the fundamental rights of citizens. This is a legal and political obligation that the Government has and must fulfil.
Throughout history, when governments fail or wish to legitimize themselves, they engage in populist activities just to cover up their incapability and/or unwillingness to perform their functions based on the law. In such societies, uninformed and/or sycophantic citizens quickly rush to embrace such gimmicks as genuine national endeavors. But these populist activities never bear any fruit because they are not conceived with genuineness nor are they intended for what is proclaimed.
One of these populist activities, in the case of the Gambia, is what we call ‘set-settal’. This was a practice that tinpot dictator Yahya Jammeh’s regime introduced as if they truly care about cleanliness and the environment. At the end of the day, after so many years of set-settal the Gambia only became dirtier while the environment continues to be massively damaged beyond imagination.
Therefore, after seven years only to have this new Government to also announce another series of monthly national cleansing exercises indicates that this country is yet to have a serious government that understands and is committed to national development. The very idea of national cleansing exercise is simply ridiculous because it gives the impression that this country has no laws and institutions to protect and keep the environment clean. Above all, this set-settal announcement is a woeful indication that indeed both the Government and the National Assembly have failed to create the necessary legal and institutional reforms envisaged since 2017.
With the advent of the new Government in 2017, the least one would expect from it is to return to the illegalities and populist politics of the past. Rather the expectation is to take a complete turnaround by ensuring that bad laws are reformed, new and better laws based on human rights are created, and institutions are reformed to ensure that they perform their job according to the law, i.e., to protect rights and deliver quality public goods and services, effectively and efficiently. Since 2017, this has not happened.
Therefore, citizens must not allow the Government to once again fail in its duties but then hide behind populist activities just to appear to be serious. For that matter, let us remind the Government of its constitutional and legal obligations in relation to the environment. The laws of the Gambia clearly place the obligation for environmental management, protection and preservation on the Gambia Government, and it is failing in that job.
For example, in the Constitution, Section 215 outlines the directive policies of the Government. Subsection 4(a) states that the State shall pursue a policy ‘to protect the environment of the nation for posterity’. Indeed, there are multiple national policies on the environment. But are they implemented in full as they should? No.
Furthermore, Section 193 of the Constitution states that an Act of the National Assembly will make the preservation of the environment one of the functions, powers and duties of local government authorities. And indeed, the Local Government Act came to be created in 2002 and under Section 71, it has made the local councils to be responsible for the management, protection and conservation of the environment including the natural resources of the region. The Act went further to create environmental committees at district, ward and village levels purposely for the protection and preservation of the environment.
This means that each and every city council, municipality and local government area should create these committees and resource them to function effectively. The question is, are there environmental committees at regional, district, ward and village levels that are fully functional? Clearly, even if they are there, it is obvious that they are not functional. Therefore, citizens must demand that the Local Government Act be enforced in full if indeed the Government is serious about the environment.
There is also the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) which also calls for the creation of environmental committees under the local governments as stipulated in the Local Government Act. NEMA, which has created the National Environment Agency (NEA), is so comprehensive that it has addressed all aspects of the environment. For example, NEMA has even set environmental standards in terms of quality of air, water, smell, noise, soil and even industrial products among others and the control of pollution. These standards are meant to ensure that Gambians enjoy the highest quality of environment which touches all aspects of our lives.
In the NEMA, the NEA is empowered to have inspectors to ensure adherence to the Act by all, hence responsible for the enforcement of the Act. Such enforcement includes carrying out public education about the environment. This means the Government has a responsibility to provide all the necessary resources to NEA so that there is vigorous public awareness about the environment. The purpose of this awareness is that when an individual is quite informed, hopefully she will abide by that information to keep the environment clean. NEMA does not only empower NEA to conduct public education, but the Act has also prescribed sanctions for any violations of the Act.
To further empower the NEA and ensure effective protection of the environment, the Act created three regulations. The first regulation is on ozone depleting substances to prevent the discharge of fumes, chemicals and substances that destroy the environment. The second regulation focuses on environmental management, which prohibits the discharge of harmful substances and materials into the air, while the third regulation is about anti-littering which prohibits throwing things around.
In addition to the Local Government Act and the NEMA there is also the Environmental Protection Act (prevention of dumping) Act. This law prohibits the indiscriminate dumping of industrial waste on land and in the waters of the Gambia. There is also the Waste Management Act that provides for the safe management of waste.
Looked at in totality, it means the Gambia has all the necessary laws and institutions to protect the environment. We have a ministry for the environment under which is the NEA, and other departments for the forest, wildlife and parks. There are also the local governments.
Therefore, why is the Gambian environment dirty? Why is there no systematic, efficient and effective refuse collection? Why are there encroachments on forest parks? Why are the flora and fauna of the Gambia unprotected and unpreserved? Why is there widespread and indiscriminate dumping, pollution and litter everywhere – on streets, along highways, in forests, and in our neighborhoods? Before one talks about set-settal, let the Government speak about these laws and institutions first and their functions and enforcement.
A monthly set-settal is therefore a joke. It is a smokescreen that allows the Government to continue to be irresponsible while allowing our environment to be damaged, which is mainly perpetrated by the Government itself. Who is giving licenses to local and foreign companies and individuals to carry out indiscriminate fishing, sand mining and encroachment on the forests if it is not the Government itself? If you care about the environment, then hold the Government accountable first and not allow them to impose a populist set-settal on you. To be a good citizen, be informed first in order not to be misguided and misused by the Government.
As a citizen, one has the civic duty to protect and conserve the environment, and not litter or pollute the land, air and waters of the Gambia. Section 220 of the Constitution outlines the duties of a citizen, and one of these civic duties is to protect and conserve the environment. Therefore, even without an official set-settal, every Gambian has a constitutional duty to keep the environment clean. Therefore, if a citizen litters, pollutes or damages the environment, the laws are also there to bring the violator to book. That enforcement of the law is what the Government needs to do and not announce a set-settal.