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Human Rights Concerns Mount Over COVID-19 Measures

In recent times, Nigeria’s respect for human rights, has been a dismal one, with human rights and citizens groups pointing out the worsening abuses of human rights and disrespect for the rule of law and due process. Put that side by side with a national declaration of emergency, albeit, a health emergency, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the worry becomes palpable from what citizens are reported to be going through in the hands of usually overzealous security personnel, anxious to enforce the directives of President Muhammadu Buhari for a total lockdown of two of Nigeria’s most important parts – Lagos State and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

In 1977, the music icon and superstar, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, had sang about soldiers flogging civilians on the streets. It would appear that not much has changed.

While most Nigerians welcomed the broadcast of the President and the measures introduced to curtail the spread of COVID-19, its implementation may be rubbing off wrongly on citizens. On Sunday, March 29, President Buhari had announced a lockdown of two States and the Federal Capital Territory, to prevent the further spread of the Coronavirus disease. Some States had also adopted the order as a preventive measure against the spread of the virus.

However, the lockdown enforcement by security agencies is raising questions about respect for human rights.  On Thursday, April 3, there were news reports that a man who had gone out to buy medical supplies for his pregnant wife was shot dead by a soldier of the Nigerian Army, in Ugbuwangue community in Warri South Local Government Area of Delta State. The report further indicated that the soldier who perpetrated the killing was mobbed by a crowd and killed. This prompted soldiers in a video that went viral on social media, to threaten reprisal attacks against the community where the incident took place. In the video, the said soldiers threatened to besiege the community to rape the women and cause havoc. The Nigerian Army has however responded promptly, arrested the soldiers and promised investigation of the killing in the Warri area.

A few other cases of abuse of citizens have also been reported, including the report of a Governor in the South East region of the country, asking security personnel to shoot at sight, any person escaping from the State Quarantine Centre, where persons suspected to be infected are being held. In Imo State, the State government reportedly locked guests and staff of a hotel – Fancy hotel, in Owerri, the State capital, denying access to them or even their access to food or water, on the excuse that a suspected infected person, who is also the owner of the hotel, had lodged there earlier.

The Quarantine Act , under which the President issued Regulations for enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions, spells out offences and penalties, with the highest penalty stated to be a fine of two hundred naira (N200) or imprisonment not exceeding six months, or both fine and imprisonment. Some of the draconian penalties being implemented by security and government officials including the killing in Warri, clearly reveal the underlying challenge of human rights and rule of law in the country.

While these are extraordinary times in Nigeria, and indeed the world over, the actions being taken to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the restriction of movement of citizens and work from home orders, need to be measured and responsible, in order to avoid further hardship and increased citizen frustration and desperation. Legal authorities must refrain and restrain themselves from abuse of power.

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