• Thursday, June 13, 2024
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COVID 19: How human rights suffocate under curbing measures

COVID-19

After President Muhammadu Buhari relaxed the month-long restriction on movement in Lagos, basic human rights have been trampled under strokes of several violations, leaving adverse toll on Nigerians, Temitayo Ayetoto reveals.

Adeoye Quadri is one of several Nigerian youths squarely facing the economic challenges posed by the reality of COVID-19. In his late 20s, he survives on the proceeds of the collection of levies for the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and tailoring.

However, when President Muhammadu Buhari placed restrictions on movement to tame the escalation of the coronavirus outbreak, it plunged him into a financial mess. The public transport system was handicapped and paying for a new piece of clothing was outside the immediate priorities of his client base at Alakuko, a low-cost suburb of Lagos. It was truly a great relief, when on April 28, 2020, a gradual easing of the lockdown measures was declared.

Unfortunately, his joy was short-lived. On alighting at Oshodi to join a bus to Mushin, early in May, despite being masked, he was harassed by two officials of the Lagos Neighbourhood Security Corps (LNSC). Confused, he dared to query their actions but a couple of slaps crushed his courage. Fearing that more hesitation could attract severe injuries, he stopped struggling and was quickly moved to Olosan Police Division, where the officers were as indifferent about the nature of his offense, as they were oblivious to the dangers of the ever-spreading COVID-19.

After Adeoye had been unlawfully detained for five days, the divisional police officer marched him out with 20 others in preparation for transfer to the Nigeria Police Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCIID), Ikoyi. To fit the profile of a robber, he and some others were armed with incriminating items including cutlasses, daggers and torchlight, among others.

“I wasn’t found with anything incriminating when I was arrested at Oshodi, but they labelled us robbers and captured us on camera with conjured evidence,” Adeoye explains.

It took the persuasive intervention of his NURTW bosses two days to negotiate his release, bringing his incarceration time to one week.

According to Adeoye, “It was a stuffy room, where we had to line up before sleeping. I couldn’t bathe nor brush. Neither could I eat. We basically survived by depending on a new person who bought garri and groundnut. Some drank water from the toilet. They had to borrow money to bail me and when I was eventually released, I spent four weeks away from work, treating myself.”

Long before the novel coronavirus became a domestic affair, prolonged unlawful detention by Nigeria’s Police Force operatives has proven to be a social pandemic. The institutionalised anomaly that has become an established norm, features violent arbitrary arrests, extortion and bribery, with deliberate disregard for citizens’ human rights. Incessant police abuse is said to cost more Nigerian lives than the deadly virus.

While the Federal Government through the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) was, on one hand, scampering to curb the outbreak of the virus, police on the other hand have allegedly been practically undoing those efforts for pecuniary gains.

Right in the heart of a health crisis, many Nigerians like Adeoye were unlawfully arrested and crammed into cells that put them at risk of infection. For instance, when Nigeria had recorded only 407 confirmed cases with 12 deaths from COVID-19, security forces had killed 18 people in two weeks in overzealous enforcement of lockdowns, according to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

In a statement dated April 15, 2020, the commission confirmed that there had been eight documented incidents of extrajudicial killings leading to 18 deaths between March 30 and April 13, 2020. In the first two weeks of the lockdown, the NHRC received 105 complaints of alleged human rights violations.

“Most of the violations witnessed during the period arose as a result of excessive or disproportionate use of force, abuse of power, corruption, and non-adherence to national and international laws, best practices and rules of engagement,” the NHRC statement notes.

Those who have been victims of these abuses find it difficult to understand how police officers who neither protect themselves with face masks nor hand gloves chase citizens found wearing face masks and cram them in cells. The fact that some of these victims spend days in unlawful detention without trial or access to lawyers or families but didn’t contract the disease, has been a dangerous reinforcement of the thought that the coronavirus is a scam.

Segun Awosanya, founder of Social Intervention Advocacy Foundation (SIAF) and convener of a campaign to scrap the Police Special Anti-Robbery Squad over brutality, accused the DPO of the station in February 2019 of operating a kidnapping racket, “arresting innocent citizens for no just cause and insisting on N20,000,” which he described as ransom.

During the pandemic crisis in late April 2020, operatives from the same station marched Chijioke Udeh, a car and auto spare part dealer, out of his car at Ojekunle Street over trying to get drugs for his daughter who was suffering from a skin infection.

Under the guise of enforcing the lockdown, his evidence including a doctor’s report and lab test results were quickly destroyed before they dumped him at Olosan Police Station. His car was driven to a taskforce office where he would later negotiate for its release for N25,000. Udeh spent more than 24 hours in the cell while his daughter, nine years, was anticipating the return of her father.

President Buhari’s restriction on movement exempts hospitals and essential workers, implying that sick Nigerians can freely move to seek healthcare once they have proof of need. It took the intervention of his connection with a senior Nigerian Army officer, for him to be released.

“The restriction has just been an avenue for security operatives to make money, when many people are bleeding financially,” Udeh tells BusinessDay.

In a statement signed by 51 civil society groups including The Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN Foundation) and Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre, concerns were raised about the fact that some people are still held in police cells for offences such as misdemeanours, despite the Inspector-General of Police’s directive to State and Zonal commands to avoid unnecessary detention except for serious capital offences. They equally note that the lack of testing laboratories and isolation centres in most states could affect detainees in urgent need of healthcare.

“We call on the Inspector General of Police to order state commissioners and divisional police officers to ensure urgent decongestion of cells by ensuring immediate release of persons still held in custody for minor offences,” according to the statement.

“We also call on the IGP to put in place mechanisms for effective monitoring of compliance with his directives against indiscriminate arrests and detentions and ensure consequences for non-compliance. If officers continue to make indiscriminate arrests after decongestion, the detention facilities will be congested again,” the statement notes.

Months after this outcry, Okechukwu Nwanguma, NOPRIN Foundation’s national coordinator, informs BusinessDay that police impunity has continued without caution. What is lacking, he says, is monitoring mechanisms and seriousness on the part of the police authorities to ensure that those who go against the directives are brought to account for deterrence.

He explains that the Foundation has engaged the intelligence response team, special anti-robbery squad and some other units of the police force, and in a few individual cases, it was able to secure the release of people who were unlawfully detained and sought a refund of monies extorted.

“We need to have the authorities to deal with this culture of impunity by police officers and ensure that victims are compensated for the violation of their rights. I saw the video of enforcement agents trying to arrest a couple while their children were in a parked vehicle. This shows you how heartless and determined these law enforcement agents are to make life miserable and frustrating for people in the pretext of enforcing lockdown. Apart from unlawful arrest and extortion, the police officers themselves are not protected. So, they become a medium of transmission,” he states.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a June 2020 report recognised police abuse as one to be addressed with an overarching view of fundamental problems fuelling it.

Some of its recommendations include establishing an independent commission of inquiry with subpoena power to conduct a transparent, comprehensive, and an impartial investigation into systemic corruption within the Nigeria Police Force.

It proposed that the commission should focus its investigation on determining the extent of the embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds by senior police officials and its impact on police conduct and services. It should prosecute without delay and according to international fair trial standards, any police officer implicated in corruption and other serious abuses.

HRW advises, “The Nigeria Police Force should publish quarterly financial reports of total fines collected for vehicular and traffic violations, revenue received from state and local government allocations and any funding received from private sources. Reduce political manipulation of the police by setting the term of the inspector general of police to one five-year term, and subjecting the confirmation of appointment as well as removal to a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, as recommended by the 2008 Presidential Committee on the Reform of the Nigeria Police Force. Propose a constitutional amendment to enshrine these provisions in the Nigerian Constitution.”

Other pronounced abuses

Just as police abuses paced up, there have been other human rights violations alongside the imposition of control measures against the pandemic. Although with good intentions, the right to education, free movement and peaceful assembly has been threatened with the collapse of schooling activities, lockdown and curfew emplacement and bans on religious and social gatherings.

Most significantly, sexual and gender-based violence has surged in a cascade of events that put victims in forced proximity with their abusers. On June 21, Chris Ndukwe, 39, tied up his lover, Olamide Alli, 25, stabbed her to death and poisoned himself afterwards. The tragedy that remains under police investigation has been the latest and grimmest of rising reports of domestic violence within this period.

According to the Lagos State Domestic and Gender Violence Response Team (DSVRT), cases of domestic violence increased by 60 percent during this pandemic, sexual violence by 30 percent and physical child abuse by 10 percent. Whereas, on average, the DSRVT receives 13 new cases daily, a total of 390 incidents were reported in March alone. From rape to molestation, defilement, sexual assault, early marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, or trafficking in persons, Nigeria continues to be swamped with incessant violations and abuses, which often leave victims without respite.

Abiola Akiode-Afolabi, executive director, Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre, in a monitored report on dealing with gender-based violence during the COVID-19 lockdown, said since the lockdown, in Lagos, Ogun, and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, the most common gender-based violence reports include spousal violence, landlord-tenant violence, neighbour-to-neighbour violence, parent-children abuse, homeowner-house help violence, boyfriend-girlfriend violence, violence on widows, police-sex worker violence, police-citizen violence and child rape.

In an advisory for the prevention of gender-based violence and the protection of women and girls during the COVID-19 lockdown, jointly signed by Abiola Akiode-Afolabi for WARDC, Saudatu Mahdi, secretary-general, Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), Joy Onyesoh, country director, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), concerns were raised over the failure of the presidential address on lockdown to touch on the issue of gender-based violence during this hard time.

They argue that the pre-existing economic hardships, where an estimated 91 million citizens live below the global daily survival benchmark, was already bad enough and it would be only a matter of time before the current index of one-in-three Nigerian women and girls experiencing SGBV in private and public spaces, would rise further. So, as the nation reels out measures to prevent the pandemic, the groups stress the need for support and protection services to be available and accessible so that women are shielded from the risks of transferred aggression in their homes.

They further note that focused sensitisation and information on essential services are important for women and other marginalised groups who may be in violent situations arising in family settings, neighbourhoods or from the actions or inactions of other state and non-state actors.

The groups equally advise that more efforts need to be driven by the government such as designating and strengthening gender desks and family support units within police departments and other departments of government.

Government needs to ensure that family support units and gender desks are provided with effective telephone hotlines that persons with disabilities and vulnerable citizens can report domestic violence or any other gender-based violence and get immediate help.

It should also ensure that within and beyond this COVID-19 crises, resourcing and access are extended to organisations responding to domestic violence to provide assistance, including shelter, counselling, and legal aid to SGBV survivors.

The advisory further urges: “We call on Nigeria’s Federal and State governments to monitor and ensure that restrictions taken in the public interest do not result in any gender-specific harm to women and girls who are already extremely vulnerable and at risk of being denied their basic human rights.”

This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check project.