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Human rights under the lockdown order

The report of the National Human Rights Commission issued April 15 on the first phase of the federal government lockdown order in Lagos, Ogun and…

The report of the National Human Rights Commission issued April 15 on the first phase of the federal government lockdown order in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja and replicated by the state governments cannot be a source of pride to us as Nigerians. It is a source of shock and shame really, for the country and takes something away from our robust claims on clean human rights records. Spotted human rights records are not good human rights records.

The report shows that our security and law enforcement agencies still have huge problems with the basic nuances of observing the rule of law and enforcing the law and still commit to protecting citizen rights even at trying times such as we are passing through, no thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. This is part of the social contract under which the people submit to the will of the government instituted by them. Disappointing.

Tony Ojukwu, executive secretary of the commission, said in the report that “Whereas COVD-19 has led to the death of about 11 patients to date (Wednesday, April 15), law enforcement agents have extra-judicially executed 18 persons to enforce the regulations. This speaks volumes of the protocols and rules of engagement for our law enforcement as well as the efficiency level and capacity of law enforcement agents to deal with civil population.”

Ojukwu said that the commission received “a total of 105 complaints bordering on rights violations” from 24 states during the period. It shows clearly how widespread the abuses and violations were. I am willing to bet that the violations would likely be worse in the second phase of the lockdown. I do not see an urgent government response to the report of the commission in order to make the agents correct course and act as civilised people.

The intent of the lockdown order is to help contain the spread of the virus and protect us from ending up as statistics notched up by COVID-19. No one disagrees with it. The lockdown is not a punitive measure imposed on the people. It is a necessary precaution and one that world leaders have adopted to protect their citizens. There is no excuse for the wanton violation of the lockdown order because doing so, even out of ignorance, puts all of us at a possible risk of contracting the virus. But shooting violators to death is not part of the legitimate process of enforcing the regulations. Neither the order nor the need to fully enforce it gives our security agents the right to traumatise and terrorise the people in whose interest the lockdown order was made.

It is a crass and inexcusable misuse of power. It is condemnable. We should not hesitate to condemn it. Condemning the violation of the rights of fellow citizens does not amount to our lack of appreciation for the work of our law enforcement agents who, to be fair, quite often work under conditions that dehumanize them. The law cannot take the law into own hands without doing violence to its integrity. It is an important our security men should bear in mind. They are the face of the law.

Punishment for breaching the lockdown order should be cautionary; a slap on the wrist to say, go and obey the law. Lagos State government has used this approach twice to chastise those who violated the order. The mobile court sentenced Funke Akindele Bello and her husband to 14 hours of community service for holding a birthday party in breach of the order. In a separate case, the court ordered 35 joggers arrested by the police to be quarantined for 14 days. In each case the people were punished to deter them and others from taking the order for granted. Killing people is not a punishment because the dead lose the right to repent of their errors.

I have seen videos of citizens selling fruits and foodstuff being whipped by law enforcement agents doing their duty. In one of them a homeless man who made the small market area his abode was so badly beaten that his face was drenched in his blood. The leader of the group ordered a goat tethered there to be taken away his men. It tells you the level of impunity of these agents who traumatize people and feel entitled to confiscate their property.

I recall that at a function somewhere in Kogi State during his first term in office, President Obasanjo watched in horror as security agents resorted to unnecessary violent crowd control. They whipped the people with horse whips. Obasanjo shouted them at them to stop it. The president stopped his speech, rushed down to where this was happening, collected the horse whip from one of them and whipped him. He gave him a presidential taste of his own medicine.

Our country has never quite made the grade with its human rights records. I would not know if that is the bitter truth but it is the truth. The violations are pretty rampant on small, medium and large scales. Both the United States Department of State and Amnesty International have regularly taken up issues with the annual human rights records under all administrations in our country. That nothing has dramatically changed to improve the records is a serious indictment of the previous and the current administrations and their avowed commitment to the protection of human and citizen rights under the rule of law.

The good book says nothing is hidden under the sun. Let me borrow that and say that today nothing escapes the eyes of the social media. The bare-faced human rights violations, the extra-judicial killings with impunity, the confiscation of the property of those who breach the lockdown order, the crass traumatisation of the people and the wanton rape of women are all invariably captured on videos that go viral. These pieces of evidence do something quite regrettable to the country’s human rights records. It puts the government’s human rights records in deficit.