Balance Of Rights During A Pandemic: Enforcement Of Lockdown Regulations And Law Enforcement Brutality

Mary Izobo and Folasade Abiodun

Since January 2020, COVID-19 pandemic, has held the world to ransom and has posed a threat to public health.  It has put a lot of pressure on available medical facilities with a record of over 2,500,000 persons infected and 170,000 deaths globally with numbers set to increase.

In order to stop the spread of the disease, several countries are taking such measures as the closure of airports, ports and land borders, isolation and quarantining of persons, banning of religious gatherings, closure of schools, restaurants, public spaces and a complete “lockdown” or partial lockdown of countries. 

Some of these  measures as well as the implementation, have implications on the right to freedom of movement, the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom of assembly. 

Almost all countries in Africa have been infected by the coronavirus. Most of the affected African countries have invoked restrictions highlighted above. The police, and in some case the army, have been called upon to compliance by citizens. However, the enforcement of these regulations by these law enforcement officials have generated a lot of controversies and public outcry as there have been severe violations of human rights.

As former colonies with long and difficult histories of war, several countries in Africa have had a history of violation of human rights and brutality by law enforcement officials. Two countries of note are Nigeria and South Africa. The arbitrariness and lawlessness perpetrated by law enforcement agents in these countries are not new nor peculiar to the present pandemic.

This can be traced to the culture of militarism in Nigeria and South Africa as both have long histories of military regime and apartheid rule respectively. It is safe to say that these law enforcement officials are locked in an aggressive mode where they suspend the rights of citizens whenever they are called upon to promote and defend national interests at the detriment of the citizens they are supposed to protect.

Thus, law enforcement officials in these two countries are used to forceful and violent means in enforcing the law and have adopted a muscular approach to alledged violators of the lockdown regulations.Nigeria is experiencing its longest uninterrupted democratic rule since it gained independence in 1960. From 1966 to 1979 and 1983 to 1999, Nigeria was led by the military junta who used the military as a tool to ensure and mandate cooperation from citizens by the use of force. 

These periods were marred by gross violation of human rights by the military in Nigeria. In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria took measures to contain the spread by making laws and policies to restrict movement in order to contain the spread. Laws were made to restrict movement in several states, including the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

The National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria (NHRC) received 105 complaints and eighteen people have been killed between 30 March 2020, the commencement of the lockdown and 15 April 2020 from law enforcement officials, more than the number of persons who have died from COVID-19 in Nigeria.

South Africa experienced a system of apartheid that upheld institutionalized racial segregation and white supremacy from 1948 to 1994. The military was used as a tool by the government to forcefully remove black South Africans from areas designated as “white” to the homelands, terrorised and violated the rights of Black South Africans with impunity.

The Apartheid period gave the military excessive powers and carte blanche to torture citizens. In South Africa, to curb the spread of the coronavirus, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national disaster and a complete lockdown of the country. The lockdown started on 27 March 2020, and three days into the lockdown, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) registered 21 cases of police brutality complaints and over nine people have been killed by law enforcement officials. 

The law enforcement officials in Nigeria and South Africa have assaulted, tortured, denigrated, unlawfully arrested, seized and looted properties, extorted and carried out corrupt practises in the enforcement of the compliance of lockdown regulations. Citizens going about their legitimate businesses without flouting the lockdown regulations are not exempted from the ruthlessness of these law enforcement agents. These law enforcement officials have abused power, deployed disproportionate use of force, and have blatantly undermined national and international laws. It is apparent that after years of military rule in Nigeria and Apartheid in South Africa, violence by law enforcement officials remains a confirmed way of treating the populace – a  sad reality of both countries’ bitter, barbaric, and dark past. 

Undoubtedly, those citizens who go against the lockdown regulations should be punished, but in the enforcement of the law, state actors must ensure compliance with the national and international standards. 

There is the need to strike a balance in human rights and the public interest that the restriction regulations seek to protect. This is in order to cause the limitation law to be effective and achieve the aim it seeks to achieve. 

With Nigeria and South Africa’s past, there should be a better way to deal with the populace. Reasonable and proportionate use of force should be used in7 ensuring compliance without having to violate the human rights of citizens.

Better accountability mechanisms should also be put in place in the event of an erring state actor who violates human rights. In addition, there should be transparency in the punishment of such state actor, as an avenue for reportage is not enough without an assurance of penalty that will serve as a deterrent of such acts.

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