The ills of Africa can only be remedied by its inhabitants, not the outside world. This phrase echoes the general sentiments of the first panel held at the Africa Legal Conference, hosted annually at American University’s Washington College of Law (WCL). The Panel was titled “A Shift in Constitutional Frameworks in Environmental Law, Business, and Development in Africa,” and the panelists included Alfred Lahai Brownwell Sr., lead campaigner of Green Advocates International in Liberia; Ekontang Makia, a prominent lawyer in Cameroon’s energy sector; and Adejoké Babington-Ashaye, senior counsel at the World Bank’s Administrative Tribunal. Environmental law has not been touted as Africa’s strongest enterprise, however, there are those on the continent that want to make others aware that it is a priority and it has been addressed by several African legal institutions.
Mr. Brownwell Sr. kicked off the panel by informing the audience that Environmental laws do exist in Africa and that they are adequate. He stressed that this is due to the several African countries (more than thirty) that have codified environmental protection laws within their constitutions. He went on to list a few of them that have enumerated the right to a clean and healthy environment, which he believes is especially important for future generations. The countries included Ethiopia, South Africa, Angola, and Cape Verde. A few of these countries’ constitutions not only mention environmental law safeguards, but they also list provisions addressing the right to information held by the state and the right to development, both of which coincides with environmental sustainability. One caveat though, is that outside these countries, there are some African constitutions that do not acknowledge environmental law. Mr. Brownwell Sr. emphasized that this fact should not be regarded as a major setback because although some constitutions may not address the right to a clean and healthy environment, they usually have provisions that address the right to life, which they will often try to associate with the environmental right.
Ms. Babington-Ashaye built upon Mr. Brownwell Sr.’s constitutional analysis by emphasizing that the problem in Africa is not with the absence of environmental law, it is with its enforcement. She took a similar approach to Mr. Brownwell Sr. and discussed the various conventions and articles that underscore the importance of environmental law, such as the African Commission of Human and Peoples Rights and Article 12 of the Convention on Environment and Human Rights, that underscore the importance of environmental law. She was bothered by the fact that non-African nations choose to focus on Africa’s failures rather than recognize their success in the environmental law field.
The last panelist to speak, Mr. Makia, broached a different subject in his presentation. Rather than focusing on specific statutes or conventions, he spoke about the West African energy sector, and the important role it plays in ensuring adequate infrastructural development, which could help civilians prioritize environmental sustainability. He argued that improving the livelihood of civilians could move Africa forward if there was a more cohesive effort put forth by government agencies. African governments need to stop relying on foreign aid and come together to start relying on each other for help. This cohesive nature will allow African nations to fend for themselves and improve their own infrastructure and environments without the help of outsiders.
Moreover, the panelists raised very important issues refuting the worldview of Africa as a continent with stunted knowledge of environmental sustainability. I found the tone of the lecture to be hopeful, however I held a few reservations. As a Nigerian, I feel that Africa has many other problems to prioritize before solely focusing on environmental issues. Tackling environmental problems is an initiative that cannot be handled by the government alone. The people themselves must believe in it and be aware that they have a right to it. I do not imagine this can happen until the livelihoods of civilians are improved through proper education, access to food, access to clean water, and consistent energy sources, among other things. Citizens in most African countries litter on the street and treat the outdoors as their personal toilets. They do not appreciate their environment because they do not know how to.
With proper education, civilians can learn the importance of environmental issues. Additionally, these initiatives need to be spearheaded by African governments, not outside nations. Africa has become too dependent on outside aide and will continue to be unless they learn to work amongst themselves and for themselves. The suppression and the greed must end to make room for progress. If corrupt governments can begin to prioritize increasing the livelihoods of their people by using government income and resources properly, then civilians will have a better appreciation for their lives, and therefore their environments.