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Covid-19, human rights and civic space in Nigeria

Lockdown, social distancing, contact-tracing, self-isolation, quarantine, testing, face-masks, and sanitizers: these are the buzzwords of the moment, triggered by the massive spread of Corona virus, popularly known as the COVID-19 pandemic. With the virus spreading rapidly and ravaging the world, causing thousands of deaths and incalculable social and economic losses, countries of the world are rolling out measures each passing day to both control the spread of the virus and mitigate the impact on affected populations.

 

Nigeria’s considerably low-infection rates witnessed in the early days of the pandemic dramatically turned around with over 80 confirmed cases and one fatality across 10 states recorded as of March 29, 2020. Not only that, 4,370 people of interest suspected of COVID-19 infection are being traced. The sharp rise in the disease toll saw the Nigerian government imposing restrictions and mitigating measures to contain disease spread, with implications on the fundamental human rights of citizens and the civic space in general.  The emergency doctrine in Section 45 of Nigerian 1999 Constitution has often been cited to justify the plethora of restrictive measures rolled out to combat the pandemic.

 

At SPACES FOR CHANGE | S4C, a policy research and advocacy non-profit organization, we have been tracking and documenting a host of COVID-19 disease control measures at the federal and state levels that have enormous potential for abuse, and shrink the civic space. Having extensively analyzed the Nigerian government’s COVID-19 containment measures within the context of the country’s human rights obligations, the following observations need to be emphasized:

 

Nothing demonstrates the tensions between rights and containment measures during health emergencies more than the blanket recommendation for the public to avoid mass gatherings and close contacts with people. Any State invoking Section 45 of Nigerian Constitution to justify derogation from constitutionally-protected guarantees must comply with rigorous due process provisions relating to proportionality, notification of derogation measures, exclusion of the non-derogable provisions, non-discrimination, and temporariness of exceptional measures and consistency of those measures with the state’s existing obligations under international human rights law.

 

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic fits within the definition of “a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” entitling the Nigerian State to invoke derogation measures. The federal government has yet to declare a state of emergency, but have gone ahead to implement measures that curtail rights and freedoms, putting a big question mark on the legality of governmental actions. Declaring a state of emergency connotes that the rights-derogating measures are temporary and limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.

 

As of March 26, 2020, Nigeria has reportedly conducted a total of 178 COVID-19 tests compared to South Africa’s 15,500 tests over the same period. Low testing figures, compounded by the lack of adequate databases for contact details, and has forced the government to trace suspected patients primarily through public appeals. Low response to public appeals is probably prompting the proposal to use the police and the military to enhance contact-tracing. The use of coercive action should be discouraged because of the potential to instill fear and anxiety, including social stigma.

 

While global borders remain shut, high-profile infected persons cannot travel abroad as they used to, and have to fall back on the health facilities abandoned for decades to rot and under-perform. While massive healthcare reforms are anticipated in the long term, the risk of preferential treatment for high-profile infects looms large. Substantiated media reports reveal cases of alleged preferential treatment for foreign nationals and high-profile patients. These treatment patterns fuel fears that COVID-19 response measures may perpetuate inequalities in access to health care in critical times like this. Urgent steps must be taken to restore public confidence in the health systems by ensuring all persons—irrespective of their social and economic background, identity, sex, religion, ethnic group, sexual identity—have equal access to healthcare.

 

The disease-containment approaches adopted across the country especially by state governors, reinforces fears of deliberate governmental clampdowns on civic freedoms using COVID-19 as an excuse. Closure of state waterways, air and land borders, fall within the realm of federal question jurisdiction. As the above make clear, various state governors are invoking the doctrine of necessity, exercising powers ungranted by the constitution in the name of containing the spread of corona virus. The right to move about freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part of Nigeria is a constitutionally protected right. (Section 41). Interstate state border closures not only breach the right to free movement, but could also hamper the rapid response initiatives to contain virus spread, including the delivery of essential food supplies, medical, humanitarian and surveillance services. Train services stopped, flights suspended and land borders shut will hinder medical personnel from reaching hard-to-reach localities in great need.

 

There is ample evidence that the pandemic may trigger states to enact a wave of restrictive legislations that shrink the civic space. The Lagos State Emergency Coronavirus Pandemic Bill 2020, sponsored by Speaker Mudashiru Obasa, scaled the first, second and third readings and eventual passage at lightning speed. There was little or no opportunity to engage the public or the broad spectrum of stakeholders that may be affected by the proposed law.

 

Tracing contacts or having contacts surrender themselves for isolation is meaningless where the state lacks the manpower or capacity to conduct testing on a very large scale. The plans by the Lagos State Government to set up more isolation centres across the state as well as 3 testing centres with the capacity to test 100 people per day, is forward looking. The federal government’s release of N10 billion grant to Lagos State and another N5 billion to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) for tackling the raging pandemic, is also a bold step in the right direction. It is hoped that these grants, including private donations from numerous stakeholders, would be judiciously applied towards the procurement of the critical medical supplies, ventilators including the technical, human and infrastructural resources needed to conduct large-scale testing, isolation care and treatment.

 

On 24 March, 2020, the Nigerian Presidency barred certain media houses from covering its activities. The actions were reportedly taken to contain the spread of COVID-19. The ban which will last for a yet-to-be specified period, will limit the ability of journalists to accurately cover and report presidential initiatives to defeat COVID-19. The ban represents a threat to press freedom, prompting stakeholders to warn that the pandemic should not be a ‘time for unnecessary pettiness, victimisation … (and adoption of measures) completely at variance with national interest.’

 

Documentation of arrests and detentions of citizens on a digital database (closingspaces.org) revealed over 279 cases of many citizens being targeted and punished by state actors for various flimsy or no reason at all. COVID-19 should not be used as an excuse to perpetuate these documented injustices. We reiterate that whatever measures taken by the Nigerian government to contain COVID-19 disease spread should be temporary and limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.

Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri

 

Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri is the Executive Director of SPACES FOR CHANGE

 

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