When Ugandan’s National Environment Management Authority (Nema) announced last month that starting April 1 anyone found driving a car without a dustbin would be fined $1,600, many motorists thought the authority had decided to deliver this year’s Fools Day joke in advance. After all, that is the market price of a typical car on Uganda’s roads, with chances of its being older than its driver, and the fine is enough to buy another one.
Many motorists probably thought that come the deadline Saturday, smiling cops would stop them, ask for the dustbin and, as they started panicking, the cop would hand them a Happy Fools Day card in form of a leaflet, urging them to protect the environment and avoid littering.
But our lawyers, not being very humorous, rose up in arms through their Uganda Law Society (ULS) and warned Nema that what they were suggesting was illegal as a penalty cannot be imposed without citing the law the offender has broken, and such a law did not exist.
Nema hit back, citing National Environment Act, which authorises them to impose a fine against a person they believe has contravened its provisions, benevolently (menacingly?) indicating that the fine would help decongest prisons! It looked like a thousand drivers would spend Easter weekend in jail.
The lawyers then raised their voice on the eve of the deadline Saturday and, splitting hairs, argued to the effect that any specific provision for the car dustbin offence was a figment of Nema’s imagination. They also, accordingly, advised the police not to become Nema’s accomplices in inflicting illegal penalties on innocent motorists on Uganda’s roads.
As expected, Kampala wags started speculating on which big shot had imported car dustbins and wanted to make a killing. Others dismissively said the dustbin law was unenforceable because Nema is “nema” (Luganda for disabled). The deadline seems to have come and some extension was made, not so loudly, accompanied by some categorisation of which vehicles may or may not carry dustbins.
It is with a heavy heart to have to criticise Nema, for they have taken some pretty commendable measures in recent times to protect the environment. They, for example, fought hard against encroachment on and grabbing of wetlands, to the extent of securing a general presidential order to cancel land titles issued on wetlands.
But criminalising driving a car without a dustbin logically means, for instance, that anytime their Health counterparts can also start arresting anyone found selling or buying a bottle of soda, since it contains high sugar levels in these days of non-communicable diseases.
Vehicular abuse of the environment has little to do with lack of car dustbins. Littering from cars is bad but so minimal that assuming that arresting whoever doesn’t have a dustbin in the car is to punish 99 percent of the drivers in anticipation of minority behaviour.
Yet, almost all cars on Uganda’s roads are massive polluters owing to their age, poor maintenance and the bad quality fuel on the market. All Nema staff, including their chief executive, possibly see with their naked eyes is thick, black smoke billowing from truck exhausts on practically every road in Uganda. Even if the instruments to measure dangerous colourless exhausts are not enough, Nema can ask police to use their eyes to impound those vehicles that have earned Kampala a top slot among the world’s most dangerous cities to breathe in.
Anyhow, an optimistic cynic can argue that by imposing a stiff fine on driving a car without a dustbin, Nema will save the environment because, when you pull our numerous contraptions off the road on whatever pretext, you will stop air pollution in Uganda.
So the troubled dustbin law could have been intended as Nema’s disguised Easter gift to Ugandans.
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]