COVID-19: Civil society group cautions security agents against using rights abuse to enforce lockdown

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ABUJA – A civil society coalition, the Action Group on Free Civic Space has expressed concern over human rights abuses perpetrated by law enforcement agents in a bid to enforce the coronavirus lockdown.

In a statement sent to Sundiata Post on Saturday, the coalition condemned the killing of Joseph Pessu in Warri, Delta and the shoot-at-sight order given by Governor Dave Umahi of Ebony state.

The full statement reads:

The Action Group on Free Civic Space is deeply concerned about the increasing records of human rights abuses of citizens by law enforcement agents responsible for ensuring compliance with COVID-19 lockdown and stay-at-home directives across various states in Nigeria. Substantiated media reports are replete with stories of shootings, police/military brutality, destruction of cooked food and other necessary wares, physical assaults, etc.  

With the way COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging the world, we recognise that these are not normal times. We particularly commend the efforts of the Nigerian government and relevant stakeholders doubling up to contain further spread of the pandemic. While we acknowledge the need to adopt stringent measures where necessary, we, however, must caution that COVID-19 containment measures implemented across states emphasize respect for the rights to life and human dignity guaranteed under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.  

Only yesterday (Friday, April 3) trigger-happy soldiers allegedly gunned down one Mr. Joseph Pessu in an unfortunate show of force to maintain COVID-19 lockdown in Delta State. A week ago, Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State ordered security operatives to shoot-at-sight, any person that tries to escape from quarantine and isolation centers in the state. Similarly in Rivers State, hasty lockdown directives like the shutdown of markets and businesses without palliatives to support citizens’ welfare, have precipitated unavoidable situations that have seen the state’s taskforce in a bid to enforce lockdown directives, ill-treat some residents caught outside their homes trying to source food and provisions for survival.  In other places like Lagos and Abuja, eyewitness reports and video evidence have continued to emerge, showing security forces brazenly using horsewhips and weapons to enforce discipline and compliance with lockdown directives. In light of the above worrying developments, it has become imperative to remind the Nigerian government that emergency situations and associated containment measures must align with the country’s national, regional and international human rights obligations. 

Section 33 and 34 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended, guarantees life and human dignity, for all citizens. The sanctity and inviolability of the rights to life and human dignity are further protected under Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Likewise, Article 4(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also reiterates that certain rights such as the right to life, freedom from cruel, inhumane treatment and punishments are non-derogable and cannot be suspended even in a state of emergency. As these provisions make clear, national and international law prohibit governments and law enforcement agents from using COVID-19 as an excuse to derogate from the right to life.  

Furthermore, we make bold to state that Nigerians on low-incomes have been worse hit by the shutdown measures.  Millions of citizens living in informal communities, also called slums, have little or no access to proper sanitation, clean water, qualitative healthcare, electricity, food, shelter, etc. Only citizens with a roof above their heads can comply with the government’s stay-at-home directive. Closed businesses not only mean loss of income for enterprises but also weakens the survivability of the self-employed and poor majority working in the informal sector, depending on their daily earnings for sustenance. Without daily income, they are unable to stock up food supplies needed to sustain a lockdown. 

Accordingly, the government must rise to its responsibility of providing adequate relief packages for these households in want. Intervention schemes and economic stimulus packages announced by both the Federal and State governments should be backed by effective distribution machineries to ensure that relief items reach those in critical need of food and medical supplies, especially in urban slums and rural areas. The much-publicised billions received as donations from philanthropists and corporate bodies supporting the fight against coronavirus, should also be deployed to assist those in need.  

To fill the reported gaps in distribution, we advise the Federal government, to as a matter of urgency, constitute an inclusive body of relief managers across the 36 states and the FCT. The relief managers should be duly selected from trade unions, civil society bodies, the private sector, community-based organisations, pro-people associations, and relevant government bodies. This democratic body of managers will not only develop a clearcut strategy for distribution of stimulus packages to all Nigerians but also report daily to citizens the expenditure accounts of how relief funds and items were distributed fairly, equitably, timely and transparently.  

The Action Group on Free Civic Space makes the following demands on the Nigerian government, to: 

•Officially call off Governor Umanyi of Ebonyi State’s shoot-at-sight order, and order the Inspector General of Police and his men to discountenance the directive.  

•Adopt humane, responsive and legally-binding measures to enforce public safety orders and correct members of the public who defy lockdown directives.  

•Investigate the killing of Mr. Pessu in Delta State, and for all other erring law enforcement officers to be brought to book.  

•Sensitise law enforcers on rights-respecting methods of carrying out their duties, including setting up complaints’ desks and hotlines for members of the public to report incidences of abuses. 

Finally, we implore Nigerians to stay strong in these challenging times and submit to all public health directives and guidelines intended for the overall public health and wellbeing of Nigerians.  

Signed: 

Emmanuel Acha:   
Youth Forum for Social Change 

FyneFace Dumnamene Fyneface:  Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre  

Obioma Agoziem:   
Centre for Corrections and Human Development 

Victoria Ibezim Ohaeri:  
SPACES FOR CHANGE 

Okechukwu Nwanguma:  
Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre 

On behalf of the Action Group on Free Civic Space 

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