As the pandemic has forced governments to find ways to slow the spread of the deadly virus, several questions and objections have begun to surface around the willingness and ability of governments to abide by the law and not use COVID-19 as an excuse to operate outside of the rules.
After the President Muhammadu Buhari announced a lockdown in Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states in Nigeria, other state governors like Rivers and Kaduna states announced their own. Nyesom Wike, the governor of Rivers state, announced measures for a 4 May lockdown on Obio/Akpor and Port Harcourt Local Government Areas in the state.
Alongside the directive to lockdown the state, residents must abide by the “compulsory wearing of face mask in vehicles and public places, closure of all land, sea and air borders and entry routes into the state; and closure of all open markets, including slaughters, hotels, guest houses, cinemas, bars, and restaurants, etc.”
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He continued: “please note that our enemy is invisible. Stay at home, maintain social distancing, wash your hands regularly, and stay safe.”
Controversy headlines following lockdown
After announcing the lockdown in just two local governments in Rivers state, on 10 May the governor ordered the demolition of two hotels – Prodest Home and Etemeteh Hotel, both hospitality outfits in Eleme Local Government Area outside of the Obio/Akpor and Port Harcourt local government areas. For residents of the state, the governor is going against the directions of his executive order.
— Gov N E Wike Information. (@GovWike) May 10, 2020
“Wike was already gaining the support of the people as a governor doing his best to keep his people safe,” explains Chiamaka Nwobia, a trader from Port Harcourt. “Wike went around to arrest people and we understood why we had to stay home. [But] demolishing the hotels in a separate local government did not make any sense,” says Nwobia.
Several commentators from the state have claimed that Wike’s demolition order was politically motivated, after a member of the People’s Democratic Party claimed he was being targeted after flouting the lockdown order. Furthermore, the legality of the demolition ordered by the governor is being debated by lawyers.
“The executive order that empowers him to demolish the hotels is unconstitutional and undemocratic. The [executive] order was made pursuant to the quarantine act and a demolition is not one of the sanctions suggested. We have not taken a look at him becoming the complainant, prosecutor and judge,” Aniete Philip, a Lagos-based lawyer tells The Africa Report.
Nigerian law states that punishments cannot be administered without the judiciary.
Operations outside the law
“This case is very elementary and if it is pursued in the courts, the only problem they might have will be the delay in the Nigerian justice system,” explains Philip. He continues: “The executive order is illegal and infringes on what only the judiciary can do. There is a court case that says that executive orders cannot restrict movement.”
For example, in Lagos, the state government had restricted the movement of people every last Saturday of the month for compulsory environmental sanitation through an “executive order”. But after a lawyer sued the government of the state, the environmental sanitation exercise has since been abandoned.
Problems from the top
When President Buhari initially announced the lockdown for Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states, lawyers and legal experts debated the legality of the president’s lockdown. While the announcement of the lockdown was accepted by many Nigerians as a necessary next step in dealing with the pandemic, it was argued that the President had given an order that was not backed by the law and essentially made himself a god in the country.
According to Philip, the announcement of a lockdown restricting the movement of Nigerians without declaring a state of emergency is illegal: “The Quarantine Act allows the federal government to make regulations preventing the spread of contagious diseases, including restricting the movement of Nigerians in this time.”
The federal government has since adapted the president’s speech to keep it in line with the quarantine act effectively legalising the lockdown order.
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