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Risk to Accountability, Human Rights, As Legislative Houses Remain Shut

In the last several weeks, legislative houses in Nigeria, at the National and State levels, have been shut down. Although no specific executive pronouncement was made to close legislative houses across the country, the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly are apparently on lockdown, in line with the rest of the country over the corona virus disease – COVID-19.

President Muhammadu Buhari had on March 30, 2020, announced the total lockdown of two States – Lagos and Ogun, as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. Under the lockdown, every non-essential facility and activity was shut and movement of persons for non-essential purposes restricted.

The lockdown has raised its own issues, with reports of widespread human rights abuse by security personnel, charged with the responsibility of enforcement.

A recent report issued by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), listed several cases of abuse of the rights of citizens by the police and security personnel.

According to the NHRC report: 18 Nigerians have being killed by security agents since the lockdown period – in Kaduna, Abia, Delta, Niger and Ebonyi States, resulting from attempts to enforce the lockdown. On Wednesday, April 15, the driver of a commercial vehicle conveying food items was reportedly shot dead by an official of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) in Umuikaa, Isiala Ngwa South Local Government Area of Abia State. According to news reports, an argument had ensued between the driver and the NSCDC official, who was trying to enforce the State government’s order on restriction of movement. The driver was reported to have accused the official of extortion, arguing that the restriction order did not apply to motorists conveying food items. The security official was said to have shot the driver when he attempted to drive off.

In addition to the human rights violations in this period, is the concern that the measures announced by the Federal and State governments to ameliorate the biting effects of the lockdown, may be largely ineffective. Indeed, the concerns are heightened by allegations of lack of transparency and misappropriation of relief and palliative measures, by those charged with the responsibility of managing it. Also, of concern, is that the measures, are not far-reaching enough.

In the light of citizens’ worries about the two major issues of violations of human rights and lack of transparency and accountability in the management of the government’s palliative measures, questions are being asked, why legislative houses at the National Assembly and in most States are on lockdown, without any process in place for them to carry out some level of oversight of the Executive, in this very critical period.

At the Federal level, officials of government implementing the social service scheme, including its cash transfer programmes, are not able to respond to questions about who is benefiting from the billions of Naira being disbursed under its cash transfer scheme; where the beneficiaries are located and why there are indications of blatant skewing of numbers, in discrimination against specific parts of the country.

Also, of concern is the manner in which the so-called palliatives are being distributed, with large stacks and piles of cash being openly handed out to citizens in public squares and market places, in violation of the principles of transparency, but also in contradiction of the health and safety standards of physical distancing, that is at the heart of current measures to halt the spread of the covid-19 pandemic.

Across the world, legislative houses are faced with the challenge of grappling with the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, on their Constitutional roles of oversight, lawmaking and representation.

It may be right and indeed, should be of concern, to get the National Assembly or State Houses of Assembly to continue to exercise some sort of legislative role and power, at this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet there is an overwhelming need that the role of the legislature at a time as critical as this, is not lost.

While members of the legislative houses at the National and State levels are not immune from catching the coronavirus disease, citizens expect the leadership of the legislative houses to devise creative measures and technology compliant devices, to carry out some level of legislative work commensurate with the demands of the time.

No one expects the Legislature to interfere with the measures that the Executive is currently implementing in this period, to curb the spread of COVID-19 and provide palliatives for citizens, yet, the Executive must not be left to conduct an ineffective and opaque COVID-19 regime, full of abuse and lacking in transparency.

The National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly should trigger some sort of oversight mechanism, so the Members can monitor the Executive implementation of COVID-19 measures, including respect for citizens’ rights and delivery of palliatives. The National Assembly, for instance, should designate its members as being on essential duty in this period of lockdown and empower them to exercise oversight powers, taking into account and respecting the regulations regarding physical distancing.

Individual legislators working on, and in their Constituencies and Communities, should be empowered and required to undertake constituency outreach and fact finding, to hold the Executive accountable for the transparent and accountable implementation of COVID-19 palliative measures, as well as the respect of human rights of citizens.

Legislative oversight does not always require that Committees meet or that Plenary sessions be held.

In carrying out their individual legislative oversight roles, legislators will of course be required to be physical distance compliant and wear protective kits to avoid being infected or infecting others, with much older legislators excused from direct physical engagement contacts. They may require to use the apparatus of their Constituency Offices and staff to carry out COVID-19 oversight tasks.

At this time, Nigerians are becoming worried about the loud silence from the National Assembly and several of the State Houses of Assembly. There is a need for the Legislature at all levels to consider putting in place, mechanisms for continuation of legislative responsibilities and Constitutional obligations in the COVID-19 era, should the current lockdown persist for much longer. Our legislative Houses must put in place the necessary technology and applications to enable virtual meetings of Committees and even occasional plenary sessions.

Our democracy is still so fragile, to be left untended for so long and without holding the Executive accountable.

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