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COVID-19 management and human rights 

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Amidst initiative of state governments in combating the coronavirus pandemic, the Federal Government ordered the lockdown of Lagos and Ogun states including the federal capital territory for 14 days in an act of covering the field in the war against the pandemic.  

In effect, the lockdown translates into a stay-at-home with few exceptions including essential services and windows for provisions. The Federal Government claimed to be acting under the Quarantine Act of 1926 and all federal institutions were therefore poised to obey the law so to speak. Irrespective of whether its action is grounded in jurisprudence, the times demand some proactiveness on the part of governing authorities. Indeed, there is an obvious health emergency in the country.

For the reason that government action involves an encroachment on the fundamental rights of the citizens apparently for the common good of all and more so that the pandemic being fought does not respect the natural right to life, it becomes obligatory to respect the stay-at-home order of the government in what might be called obligation of the citizens. That obligation in this period involves physical distancing and practice of basic acts of sanitation. Because of the inherent fear of levels of compliance in what appears to be a life-and-death matter, law enforcement agencies are required to be on the alert.

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Upon the lockdown, there were however apprehensions on the behaviour of the law enforcement agencies with regard to the observance of human rights of the citizens. We believe the fears are in order given the authoritarian past and continuing violation of citizens rights with impunity in our country. Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) had earlier warned the public that, “with restrictions on free movements, police and military routinely engage in beating people. Rape and sexual assault are widespread. People are arbitrarily detained and extorted.”

Also in anticipation of possible human rights abuses, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also urged citizens to report the act of violations by security forces. In this respect, it provided the contact phones of Commissioners of Police in Lagos, Ogun and FCT and also the Army Civil-Relations Affairs to be contacted in case of abuse of citizens’ rights. Besides, it provides an order of reporting to the public that includes the use of telephone calls, text messages, video documentary to the commission with Spatio-temporal information such as the location of the violation, date and time of the violation and a clear description of suspected violators and victims. And in particular, the Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu warned security operatives to respect the human rights of the citizens in their enforcement of the lockdown order.  

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Credit must be given to the Inspector General of Police who has consistently cautioned the police against the abuse of citizens’ rights and has issued standard operating procedure to this effect.  The army has also instituted hotlines for reports of unprofessional conduct of its personnel. It would seem that there is a great deal of awareness on the need to protect citizens’ rights under the prevalent health emergency. 

In spite of the above, fears expressed have been proven right given the reports of abuse of human rights in some locations across the country. Between March 30th when the lockdown took effect and now, cases of human rights violation have been reported. In Warri, Delta State, the mindless slaughter by security forces of one Joseph Pessu has morphed into a battle between citizens and the security forces. At the general hospital neigbourhood, Igando, Lagos, a pastor and his wife who went to fetch drinking water with evidence to boot had their key confiscated and kept in the blazing sun for about three hours before they regained their freedom. There were reports of good conduct too by some who allowed passage upon proper identification.

It is unfortunate that an act of saving lives is being turned into reckless abuse of human rights. Amnesty International, Nigeria Section has also expressed its concern over the increasing reports of human rights’ violations. While acknowledging the health emergency in the country, it said, “we are also concerned about reports and videos circulating on social media showing violations of human rights, that include beatings by law enforcement agencies tasked with ensuring compliance with the lockdown.” Although the army through its director for Civil-Military Affairs has denied these reports, the security forces have carried on cavalierly as if they were above the law. By the way what is the business of the army in ensuring abidance to a mere civil procedure of maintaining law and order, which is clearly the domain of the police and other sundry paramilitary organisations such as the National Security and Civil Defence Corp (NSCDC)?  Elsewhere such as Italy where the COVID-19 has completely shut down civil living, the army is pre-occupied with collateral functions convening victims of the pandemic to the morgues and distributing relief materials and not to abuse citizens’ rights.
 
It is therefore quite unfortunate that the Nigerian security forces have continued to function with a heavy dose of the “Glover Syndrome,” a mental attitude in which they see the people they are meant to protect as enemy and often glibly referred to the unarmed citizens as “bloody civilians.” In a republic and in ideal civil-military relations, the people are the boss and not the armed forces. It is high time they understood this. Nigeria is a republic and not a military dictatorship. Both the police and the army must have monitoring teams to curb cases of unprofessional behaviours and sanction those found wanting. Similarly, Nigerians should comply with the measures put in place despite their limitations in the interest of all. It is not about obeying government order. It is about maintaining public health. We must, therefore, conduct ourselves properly at this time too.

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