Policing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Nigeria: Matters Arising
By Ruth Eguono Olofin
Coronavirus pandemic is spreading like wildfire across countries in the world. The pandemic has brought to the fore the need to re-examine police response in COVID-19 affected countries and to possibly shape police agenda for pandemic policing. While, it is no longer news that the virus is fully in Nigeria since the index case was recorded on the 24th of February, 2020, what is of utmost concern for practitioners of police reforms and indeed for most Nigerians is the response of some operatives of the Nigeria Police who are enforcing COVID-19 directives issued by the government.
The thrust of this article is borne out of some disturbing reports of some personnel of the Nigeria Police who have been involved in corrupt practices, extra-judicial killing of citizens and the use of force on those who have violated COVID-19 directives. On the other hand, there is also the need to examine the rights of citizens in a pandemic like COVID-19. While we appreciate the enormous pressure the pandemic is placing on us as a people and agree that the power to enforce COVID-19 regulations are completely within the ambit of law enforcement agencies such as the Nigeria Police as the lead agency for law enforcement in Nigeria, the Police must also act within the confines of the law and must also appreciate the peculiarities of the pandemic and the need to uphold and protect citizens’ fundamental human rights.
Policing in a lockdown is a very complex task especially for first-line institutions like the Nigeria Police as this form of policing comes with profound implications for human rights concerns. A comprehensive assessment of police response across most hard-hit COVID-19 affected countries shows that policing the pandemic is an extraordinary task which is not necessarily peculiar to Nigeria. From complete misinterpretation of COVID-19 lockdown rules to dealing with citizens who just want to ‘test’ the law by violating them, to the high penchant for the use of force by the Police for very minor offences, it is safe to state that most police institutions were unprepared for a pandemic of this nature that fundamentally challenges traditional models of policing and law enforcement across climes in the world.
There is a need therefore for Police institutions to be informed of what is obtainable in a pandemic situation drawing from some experiences in the Nigerian context.
Chapter 4 (Section 33) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria presents a full bouquet of the rights of every Nigerian that must also be respected by personnel of the Nigeria Police. The right to life which remains sacrosanct is a clear indication that no one has the right to take another person’s life including operatives of the Police. The right to the dignity of the human person which connotes that no one should be subjected to torture or ill-treatment by security officials is to be upheld even in a pandemic. On the right to fair hearing, it is especially important for law enforcement officials to be aware of the fact that some residents may have very genuine reasons for stepping out of their homes despite these orders as in cases of emergency. Although the right to freedom of movement is guaranteed, the suspension of this in a pandemic situation is for the interest of the public excluding those who can move around on essential duties.
What the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has done in this case is to invoke his executive powers as enshrined under the Quarantine Act Section 2-4 to suspend some of these rights to further curtail the spread of the virus. These include the power to declare a place as an infectious area and to take necessary measures to prevent the further spread of the disease (including the deployment of law enforcement officials in this case). These measures include but not limited to restriction of movements.
Further, the Police by virtue of their constitutionally mandated functions have a duty to protect lives and properties if we take a look at their general duties as encapsulated in the Police Act Section 4. They have a duty to ensure that despite the preventive measures, properties & businesses are not looted and that the country does not experience high levels of crime in these peculiar times. The Nigeria Police leadership must be commended in this regard with the regular public notices from the Inspector General of Police ordering tight security around medical facilities, shops & markets, residential areas, financial institutions and Automated Teller Machine points and increasing the level of citizen awareness on possible cyber fraud.
These measures are in line with their duties to prevent and protect properties. As the economy must quickly get back on its feet post the pandemic. It is therefore important that the Police itself or other security officials do not become tools of destruction by destroying the businesses of citizens (who have violated stay-home orders) in the course of enforcing government’s orders.
Accordingly, in policing a pandemic, there should be guidelines on how the Police should operate at a critical time such like this. While there have been directives from the Nigeria Police leadership to its personnel on the need to comply with Standard Operating Procedures developed for the special task of policing the pandemic and to respect the rights of citizens in the discharge of their duties, COVID-19 especially presents a unique opportunity for the Nigeria Police and other police institutions across the world to develop robust codes of conduct for policing in complex pandemics. It has been said that the Police are essentially the face of the lockdown. They are the ones who restrict your movement, prevent you from your opening shops and businesses and ensure citizens generally comply with the various lockdown directives. It is therefore pivotal for the Police to develop such codes of conduct and train its personnel on such specialized protocols to ensure uniformity of response in any location towards enhancing police professionalism and integrity. Critically, training should focus more on the rank and file since they largely represent the face of the Nigeria Police and feature copiously in the daily experiences of Nigerians with the Police.
In light of the re-introduction of community policing initiatives by the Federal government and the Nigeria Police, it is essential that the Police continue to secure the trust of the community and ensure that modest gains recorded in specific locations are not rolled back. In light of these, activating accountability mechanisms whether internal or external in a pandemic for police-related crimes are imperative to securing public trust in the Police. While we have seen some commendable steps by the Police leadership in the swift arrest of its operatives involved in extra-judicial killings and extortion from citizens in this pandemic, the tempo must be sustained post-pandemic. Police oversight bodies have a duty to play their role in protecting the rights of citizens from violations by Police personnel.
Finally, there is a clear imperative for protecting officials who are at the front lines of curtailing the spread of the disease. The government and the police leadership should as a matter of fact protect police personnel involved in enforcing lockdown and curfew directives. We have seen pictures of law enforcement officials on COVID-19 duties without protective gears as if they are immune to the virus. It must be noted that Coronavirus is no respecter of persons. The provisions of protective equipment and gears, hand sanitizers, face masks, gloves and practicing social distancing are essentials of policing COVID-19 pandemic at this time. As corporate organizations and state governments across the country make essential donations and provisions of equipments to other critical institutions, the Police must not be left out to fend for itself. The duty to curtail the spread of COVID-19 should essentially adopt a whole-of-society approach.
Ruth Eguono Olofin is a scholar-practitioner in security sector reforms and gender. She can be reached on [email protected]