COVID-19 lockdown and Governor Wike’s overzealous style of punishing violators (1), By Isaac N. Obasi

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Prior to the recording of an index case of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Rivers State, critics of Governor Nyesom Wike were describing his style of governance in many uncomplimentary terms. Some critics saw him as being draconian in his style, citing couple of measures he adopted to solve pressing public policy problems, as good examples. In the same manner, some other critics described his approach as simply despotic for lacking essential democratic credentials. Yet, some people (who may not even be his critics) just saw him as very temperamental, confrontational or provocative in his style of governance. These appellations have now gained greater acceptance among non-critics because of his dogged style and unrepentant manner of fighting against the spread of the coronavirus in his state.

It is on record that the governor was the first (in Nigeria) to announce the closure of his state’s land, sea and air borders in order to protect Rivers State people from getting infected with the ravaging virus. And ever since then, he has worked tirelessly and relentlessly against the spread of the virus, and also remained unapologetic when critics complained about the way he was going about it. He rather got emboldened and knowingly or unknowingly started being overzealous in waging his very serious ‘war’ against violators of border closures and lockdown restrictions. 

A good number of cases exposed his overzealous style of dealing with perceived offenders of the law in his state. Three of such cases are very noteworthy. The first was when he ordered the arrest of two pilots of Caverton Helicopters (with 10 other people onboard) who flew into the state without the Rivers State government’s knowledge and permission. Being a governor who is always alive and active (unlike some who are ‘sleeping’), Barrister Wike promptly ordered the arrest of the pilots and the 10 other people on board. Subsequently they were charged to court. Then his altercation with the Federal Government started with accusations and counter-accusations. But at the end, the pilots were released, but not without getting an apology from the company

In responding to his style of handling the Caverton Helicopters matter, the Federal Government accused him of ignorance of the fact that aviation issues belong to the Exclusive List of the Constitution. The Federal Government explained that it granted the authorisation to the company to make the flight to Rivers State. This clarification was in order but it failed to recognise that there is a Chief Security Officer called a Governor who needed to be informed and taken into confidence at a period when airports were closed. A good working Federal system recognises this fact and this is where successive Federal Government governments have been wrong since the bastardisation of our federal system by the military regimes. In this respect, Nigerians need governors such as Barrister Wike to be able to assert rights of state governments when matters of unnecessary jurisdictional conflicts arise. A new revenue allocation system in favour of the sub-national governments will no doubt enhance the assertion of such rights. This struggle for such should be kept alive. 

Although, one may not like his style, Governor Wike was right in the way he handled the Caverton Helicopters case. As he sarcastically put it: ‘you can fly, but as you fly and land, don’t enter our territory’. He might have been overzealous in the way he went about it, no one would fault his goal of protecting people of his state in bad times like these. He did what any right thinking governor would do, even though with less a confrontational style.  

The second notable case of Governor Wike’s overzealous style of punishing violators of the lockdown restrictions was the arrest of 22 ExxonMobil staff. Entering the state from the neighbouring Akwa Ibom State without permission, and violating the Executive Order (as was the case of the Caverton Helicopters), the governor ordered their arrest. He explained that since their coronavirus status was unknown, they constituted health risk to the people of the state. The governor remained uncompromising too. According to him, “even though security agencies advised that they be allowed to go back to Akwa Ibom State, I insisted that the law must take its course. This is because nobody is above the law,” (see Ben Eguzozie via…). Subsequently, the governor ordered that the 22 oil company staff should be quarantined immediately and charged to court thereafter.  

The third notable case of acting overzealously and in a draconian manner was the demolition of two hotels whose owners also flouted the Executive Order banning the operation of hotels for the time being. Although, the governor took great pains in the media to explain the true story and to justify his actions, he however, came under heavy criticisms for acting with a high dose of despotism. His army of critics compared him with his Lagos State counterpart, who faced with the same situation, simply closed down the hotels rather than demolishing them. Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State was consequently called a democrat, while Governor Wike was called a despot, by critics. 

In this particular case of demolition, it is my humble opinion that governor Wike’s overzealousness (which I had defended earlier in the two cases) sadly crept into despotism. The governor violated the rule of law himself never-minding his highly commendable legacy statement that nobody is above the law which is meant to check flagrant acts of impunity in both government and in the wider society. Nobody doubts the fact that many Nigerians are lawless and enjoy disobeying government directives knowing from experience that they would get away with such misbehaviour. So there has to be an effective way to check such reckless acts of impunity and lawlessness. The problem is how? 

I am among those who hold the view that to fight impunity in this country, there has to be some dose of high-handedness but this should not be at the expense of the rule of law. The use of draconian style and measures has no place in a democracy. I however, support instant dispensation of justice that acts as good deterrent measures for reckless acts of impunity that have messed up this country for a very long time. Does this justify Governor Wike’s style? We will explore this further in the concluding part on Friday, May 15, 2020 by God’s special grace.

•Prof. Isaac N. Obasi, a public policy expert (& former columnist in the Daily Trust, Abuja, March 2003 to October 2006, & Daily Champion, Lagos, April 2005 to December 2008), is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: [email protected]