COVID-19 regulations: Most Nigerians unaware of existing law
• Govt Created Conditions For Breaches
• Security Agencies Ready
• We Must Guard Against Exploitation By Officers
Despite rising cases of infection and deaths from COVID-19, and renewed efforts by the government to curb its spread, many Nigerians seem not to be aware of Coronavirus Health Protection Regulations (2021). Recently signed by President Muhammadu Buhari, the law stipulates punishment for disobedience of the stipulated non-medical protocols.
As a result, compliance with the protocols remains very low across the country, with many claiming ignorance of the law and its provisions, a development that might land many in jail when full implementation commences.
In many public places, residents were seen disregarding the guidelines, with some believing that government is weaponising the virus to delude Nigerians. For others, the economic situation of the country makes them disregard the protocols, even as the country still awaits the arrival of vaccines.
John Odeh, a resident of Anthony Village, Lagos, said: “I am not aware, but since it has been signed into law, I will surely comply as I have always done.”
Femi Ogunsanya, a resident of Ilasamaja, added: “I am not aware of this development. Six months of imprisonment is too extreme. The National Orientation Agency (NOA) should do a lot of advertisement and public enlightenment to orientate the masses.
“I remember a legal maxim that says ‘ignorance of the law is an excuse.’ As a good citizen, I am willing to comply, after all, it is not a difficult task to put on a nose mask for our safety and that of those around us.”
A Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) officer, who pleaded anonymity, said as a law enforcement agent, “I am willing to enforce the law on the use of nose mask. It was part of the oat of office we took that we will be willing to enforce government policies. This particular one won’t be exclusive.
“I advise Nigerians to obey and avoid sanctions.”
Meanwhile, many residents of Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, seem unaware of the order, even as the myth about coronavirus subsists.
“I’m not aware of any executive order. The virus is for only the rich. With faith, we would not contract the virus,” was the response of a resident of Yemetu, Ibadan.
Some Nigerians have raised concerns that the order might cause crises due to low awareness and ignorance, as well as the possibility some security operatives and enforcers exploiting the situation to maltreat Nigerians and enrich themselves.
This is just as security agents themselves expressed their readiness to enforce the order the moment they receive instruction on it from their superiors.
An Ibadan-based human rights activist, Omolulo Ejidiran, said: “Government should have called local researchers and tapped into their knowledge so that they can give professional advice on how to address the issue with humanity.
“Government should educate Nigerians on the importance of taking personal responsibility for their health. You don’t deploy official powers and tools to make people comply with laws; it will make enforcers dehumanise the people. It will expose Nigerians to inhuman and degrading treatment from enforcers who would trample on their fundamental human rights.
“It will aggravate the problem we are trying to address. The order could be challenged in court and overturned.”
A lecturer in Law and Head, Department of Private and Business Law, Lead City University, Ibadan, Dr. Aderonke Adegbite, said: “Why are we duplicating laws when we can amend the old ones? Some (violators) were tried by the old laws in Lagos, why can’t we work to improve the old laws, instead of another Executive Order? We have a lot of laws addressing the same issue.”
“Some people were tried under particular laws for breaking COVID -19 protocols, so why are we duplicating? Can’t they amend the existing laws, instead of churning out another Executive Order?
“It is not an infringement of human rights, as no right is absolute.”
Ibadan-based rights activist and lawyer, Femi Aborisade, said: “While the Coronavirus Health Protection Regulations (2021) provisions are meant to protect public health, it would appear that the regulations would be observed mainly in the breach in public places because governments have not put in place the conditions precedent to enhance being observed.
“My reasoning is that in government offices, schools, hospitals, markets, etc, basic facilities like water, soap and public toilets, etc, are not available. The heads of the public institutions would not go and take bank loan at their individual expenses to put in place basic facilities to facilitate the observance of COVID-19 protocols.
“Similarly, there is a need to build more public hospitals and overhaul the existing ones. Where that is not done, how would those suspect to have contracted the disease be treated? Without enhancing the testing capacity in Nigeria, how would the public authorities identify those infected, isolate and treat them?
“With the continued ultimatum given for registration for NIN without multiple centres for the exercise, which compels overcrowding, the government itself has created conditions for the observance of the regulations in the breach.
“It is also curious that the regulations make an exception for religious gatherings, in terms of a number of people allowed? There can be no objective justification for this. Moreover, to encourage observance of the regulations, the government ought to provide facemask free of charge for indigent persons.
“The labour movement must now campaign that in the context of COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare must be provided free of charge for poor people, aged and the unemployed. Government must be prepared to provide guaranteed minimum income to the vulnerable classes in society to be able to buy food for a minimum level of nutrition, so as to strengthen their immune system and survive the era of the pandemic.
“Without these measures being put in place, the regulations would serve as another instrument in the hands of law enforcement agencies to subject poor people to unbearable menace and harassment.”
Foremost virologist, Professor Oyewale Tomori, warned against turning the implementation of the regulation into a money-making exercise.
Speaking with The Guardian in Ibadan, Tomori, who said the order was long overdue, however, expressed concern over its implementation, noting: “I wonder why we had to wait for so long and with a devastating second wave before enforcing such basic life-saving interventions.
“It was obvious from day one that an undisciplined group needs enforcement to get compliance with basic life-saving behaviour. It is indeed a pity that we waited so long before this order was put in place. But this is just the easy part.
“The difficult part will be getting the citizens to comply and the law agents to enforce the regulations and not turn the activity into a money-making enterprise, as they enrich their pockets with ill-gotten bribes from lawbreakers, who will want to escape the penalties of non-compliance.
“We should work harder on persuading people to comply with the interventions, rather than go through the murky root of law enforcement.”
Executive Director of Access to Justice, Joseph Otteh, wondered if the instrument the President signed is characterised as an Executive Order. He said after going through the report thoroughly, what was signed is a regulation and not an executive order.
“Regulations are different from Executive Orders. The latter clarifies the position of the executive arm of government on matters of governance, but Regulations made under an enabling law can create the basis of a criminal offence.
“From what we have experienced so far from observing social behaviour, it is going to be an uphill task getting wide compliance with the regulations. Even this government is not demonstrating the sincerity of purpose in this regard.
“For example, we watched with passive indifference as huge crowds swarm the Nigerian Identity Management Commission’s (NIMC) offices in efforts to beat deadlines the government has arbitrarily, and perhaps unwisely, set to be met, and you expect that that government’s policy ought not to instigate people flouting COVID-19 safety protocols?
“Our government has not thought it right to re-evaluate the implementation of the policies giving rise to the daily crowds and to mitigate the risks that people face when they jostle in that way to get registered.”
Otteh said there is a strong tendency for high-handedness and abuse from the Police and other security agencies when trying to enforce the regulation, going by past antecedents, as they have a track and “distinguished” record of behaving with impunity in enforcing COVID-19 safety policies.
“Many times, they end up using it as avenues for personal enrichment and for very lawless behaviour. We have seen quite a number of videos where security officers flog people on the streets, brutalise them, force them into crowded vehicles during arrests and so on.
“Government ought to have, in the same regulations, defined how law enforcement officials ought to enforce the regulations and expressly limit their powers to specific actions. I don’t think that has been done.
“This implies that our government hardly learns from past experience and can hardly put its best foot forward in dealing with the social problems of this nature. How do you arrest people for breaching regulations and then detain them in ways that constitute a worse breach of those regulations,” he queried.
He, however, admitted that regulations to promote public health and safety are good in themselves since they seek to protect human life, adding: “However, the regulations do not clarify how they may be enforced, thus leaving the question of the mode of enforcement open to arbitrary interpretation. What exactly should law enforcement officers do? Should they simply order that the specific breaches of the regulations be remedied and maybe disperse crowds that may have gathered in breach of them? Or should they arrest the offenders, put them in stuffed cells, parade them before the media and then prosecute or release them privately after negotiations are completed?
“The Regulations do not clarify these. Reading through some reports from the United Kingdom (UK), it interests me to observe that law enforcement officials in there can enforce fines payable for breaching COVID-19 laws, but they do not go on to detain the defaulters in crowded cells or sit them on the ground to conduct a media parade of them.
“The Regulations signed by the President are therefore very inadequately thought out and fails to address key aspects of protecting public health and safety,” he concluded.
To Public Relations Officer of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, (NSCDC), Lagos State Command, Abolurin Oluwaseun: “It is not even about the prescribed sentence against offenders who disobey COVID-19 guidelines, but rather it is about our well being, good and sound health in general.
“With the terrific news of the casualties and mortalities caused by infection all over the globe, especially in developed climes, everyone needs not to be told to personalise the safety precautions as spelt out by the Federal Ministry of Health if we really care about ourselves.
“I think the government cares about our safety and protection of our lives in this instance. I would rather appeal to all citizens to support the government to reduce or avert mortalities or casualties that may be caused by infection.
“Therefore, the use of facemask, hand sanitisers, washing of hands and social distancing, etc, should be strictly adhered to by all citizenry.
“The jail term is avoidable; all we need is more caution, obedience to rules and regulations that are meant to protect our lives and ensure the safety of all in particular.
“The new regulation is the right step in the right direction. Ours is to assist in enforcement if asked by the government to do so with a policy directive. We are there to help the government to excel.”
In Taraba State, the level of compliance following the signing of the regulation has increased, especially in public places, as residents adhere to avoid being on the wrong side of the law. Some people who claimed not to be aware of the new rule promised to adhere to the directive to avoid punishment.
Jemila Idris, a 200-Level student of Taraba State University said: “If this information is real, though I have not been using this their so-called facemasks, I now have no choice than to go purchase some.
“After all, it is for our good, so I don’t see any reason why we should not cooperate with our President.”
She stated that the level of compliance has been low in the state “because even those whom we call our leaders here are not living by examples. We hope that with the intervention of the President, the reverse would be the case.”
Some law enforcement agents expressed readiness and willingness to carry out the order once officially communicated.
A top official of the NSCDC said: “As I am talking with you now, we have not received any circular or letter from our national headquarters directing us to immediately begin to enforce the rule.
Citing the ongoing #ENDSARS panel, which according to him has expose the ills of the past perpetrated by the Police and other security agencies, “The need for us (uniform men) to be careful now is very important. Gone are the days when our leaders would sit there at Abuja and dished out directives to us and expected us to execute such directives even when there is no written communication.
“I would not hesitate to carry out the instruction as soon as we are issued papers that would serve as backing to us.”
The NSCDC in Bauchi State, according to its Public Relations Officer, Garkuwa Adamu, has deployed its men to enforce the protocols, even as the majority of residents shunned the use of facemask in public places.
When accosted, a trader said he was not aware of the regulation, adding: “I am not aware of it. I know we have to prevent ourselves, but the government needs to do more for us. This regulation is just a way of enriching our law enforcement agencies. They will arrest people and ask for kickbacks.”
The level of awareness of the regulation and compliance in offices and many public places in Benue State was low when The Guardian visited most of the markets and other public places in Makurdi, the state capital.
Some of the customers at markets claimed ignorance of the regulation, even as they did not believe the existence of coronavirus in the state.
However, a few traders, who were hanging facemasks on their chins, said they just learnt of the new order, but called for making more publicity on the implication of non-observance of protocols.
When intimated that it is now an offence to enter any public place, including markets, churches, mosques, schools, etc, without wearing a facemask, they blamed the state government for lack or slow enforcement of the rules.
“We think the government should live by example. As we speak, visit government offices, the workers are not complying with the protocols and enforcement is not seen anywhere,” one of them said.
Speaking on enforcement, a constitutional lawyer and erstwhile chairman of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) in Makurdi, Donatus Zuanah, lauded Buhari for signing the regulation, stressing that it has to be enforced to save lives.
But he advised government and security agencies to embark on serious sensitisation on the new order, saying the law is enforceable and urged security agencies to quickly put machinery in motion to do so with a human face for the goodness of society.
Zuanah called for the setting up of special courts to handle offenders with dispatch, noting that the Police should not use the exercise to defraud members of the public.