Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Richard Ayodele Akintunde, has said that Nigeria should increase its capacity to test citizens for the COVID 19 pandemic. In this interview, he spoke on various issues including projections for the 2023 presidential election and the need to investigate activities of security agencies.
Do you think Nigeria is doing enough about curtailing the spread of the pandemic considering contact tracing, quarantine and testing?
Nigeria was initially slow to respond, for instance when other countries closed their borders, we were still allowing flights into Nigeria from countries with high COVID 19 infection and death rates. That is why the index case and subsequent cases were people who recently arrived Nigeria from such countries. Nigeria has since taken steps to curb the spread of the pandemic. I must applaud the steps taken by the government towards curbing the spread of the virus and flattening the curve but more can still be done. Nigeria has to ramp up its testing capacity. Considering Nigeria’s population, Nigeria is not testing enough people. Nigeria has about 10 or so laboratories capable of testing for COVID-19 and Nigeria has so far tested about 6,000 people. Ghana, a smaller country has tested about 38,000 people and South Africa has tested over 80,000 people. Nigeria’s testing capacity is very low. Nigeria should also upscale its contact tracing and quarantine. A recent report by the Minister of Health that only about 10,000 persons suspected to have come in contact with COVID-19 patients seems considerably low. We cannot know the true figures of our COVID-19 infections when our testing is this low.
If you were the president of Nigeria, what would you have done?
The President of Nigeria has issued the necessary directives and necessary measures are being taken to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria. The initial lockdown of 14 days in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja was recently extended by the President by another 14 days and he has signed additional regulations in that regard.
Without blaming Mr. President, I probably would have closed the country’s air space, sea and land borders much earlier. I would have been in the face of Nigerians much sooner and more regularly on the government’s response to COVID-19. Irrespective, Mr. President is doing the best in the situation and we need to support the state and Federal Government to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria. I must also commend Federal Government for not locking down the whole country like India and some other countries have done.
What are your views about how government and security agents are implementing the lockdown directive?
Covid 19 is serious and every responsible government should take necessary action to curb its spread. The lockdown is therefore a right move in Lagos and Abuja to curb the spread. However, reports of how some government and security agents are implementing the lockdown directive is disturbing. Deaths have occurred, people injured, whipped and physically assaulted on account of the lockdown directive. There is report that there will be more deaths from security agents now than COVID-19. I commisrate with the families of those who have lost loved ones. Cases of highhandedness by security agents should be properly investigated and appropriate disciplinary action taken against erring officers. Families should also take legal action where appropriate to seek compensation. Except a person is engaging in acts of criminality, the lockdown should be implemented by security agents with a human face. A Yoruba adage says “As we seek our daily bread, may we never meet what will kill us”. Security agents should deploy rubber bullets, tear gas and the likes to quell riots and rarely use live ammunition except in extreme situations in self-defence.
I must warn that state governments should be careful in ordering lockdown because it is not a one size fits all. In some communities, many people earn daily and use their earnings to eat daily. Where these communities have few infections of COVID-19, they should be allowed to continue their lives observing physical distancing, wearing face masks and observing personal hygiene in order to flatten the curve. We cannot afford a complete lockdown of Nigeria.
What do you foresee as the implications of the pandemic on Nigeria’s economy?
Nigeria’s economy like the economies of many countries in the world will suffer the effect of the pandemic. Before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Nigeria was already feeling the effects of the fall in the global price of oil due to the Saudi Arabia and Russia oil price war and the benchmark price for crude oil in the budget was revised downwards. The pandemic will further expose all the weakness in the economy and the Naira. The value of the Naira against the dollar will likely fall further, inflation will rise, unemployment will rise. The ability to perform many contractual obligations will either be frustrated or impossible to perform. The economy like that of many other countries will shrink and go into recession. Government must therefore be proactive to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Government must come up with an effective stimulus package to gradually get the economy back on track and cushion the effects of the pandemic.
What are your suggestions as way forward; what can the government and the people do to prepare and avert the difficult times ahead?
Government consists of three arms, the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. Each of these arms have a lot to do to prepare and avert the difficult times ahead. The executive will need to present extra budgetary stimulus packages to the legislature. The legislature must ensure a swift and bipartisan passage of needed legislation. Nigeria has brilliant economists who can help government design a pathway to prepare and avert the difficult times. My hope is that government will listen to them and follow their advice. I will suggest that since small and medium scale businesses employ the largest number of Nigerians, government must immediately provide funding to assist them get back on their feet. Government should upscale and sustain palliatives by way of cash and food packages to ease the hardship of many Nigerians. Government should also support banks to defer loans and mortgage payments because of the high rate of defaults as a result of COVID-19. Government should allow small lenders such as micro-finance houses, cooperatives etc. access cheap loans. Regulatory bodies should stay action on all regulations overreaching and designed to kill businesses. For example, regulations on the recapitalization of the insurance companies or the revocation of Marginal Fields, should be shelved. People must brace themselves. Our consumption patterns must change
Corporates, philanthropists, NGO’s and well-meaning individuals should upscale their corporate social responsibility, philanthropy and social services. Law enforcement agents should improve security to ensure safety of lives and property. Government should support new vistas of opportunities that COVID-19 such as online/internet related businesses.
What about the judiciary?
Access to courts and justice is a constitutional right. The judiciary must also be responsive and embrace technology to the fullest in the dispensation of justice. Policies to safeguard the health and safety of judges magistrates and judicial workers should be put in place. I have always advocated that innocuous applications do not require attendance of counsel and parties. They should be dealt with in chambers. Some other applications can be taken on video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Skype etc. Sometimes last year, I gave evidence on Nigerian law in a Court in Sydney, Australia via Skype. I was led in evidence and subsequently cross-examined. We have been effectively using video conferencing platforms to conduct hearings in arbitration proceedings for years. Some rulings and judgments can also be delivered on video conferencing platforms or by email. Kenyan judges have been delivering rulings and judgments during the lockdown in their country. Some aspects of the Constitution and other relevant laws to revolutionise judicial services in Nigeria may need to be amended. All stakeholders must adapt to changes that are now evident. I know the Chief Justice of Nigeria and other Heads of Court are putting in place the desired policies to address the situation.
The pandemic has exposed many things about the world powers like USA, Britain. What do you see regarding world powers at the end of the pandemic?
World powers have done little or nothing to prepare for a pandemic such as COVID-19. There will be more pandemics and other human existence threatening occurrences in future. This pandemic has shown how vulnerable we are to pandemics, plagues and diseases. World powers instead of spending billions of dollars to develop weapons to destroy each other and the world should come together to spend more on how to make the world healthier and safer place for us and generations to come. World powers should invest more on the eradication of poverty and diseases such as malaria in the world especially in Africa. The flipside of COVID-19 is that the earth is resting. Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have gone down as countries try to contain the virus by lockdowns and national restrictions. World powers particularly the United States should support initiatives by world bodies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment.
What is your evaluation of the palliative measures provided by the government? Do you think they are doing enough to cushion the effects on individuals and businesses?
The palliative measures provided by the government do not seem to be reaching those who need it the most. Before the lockdown, we had a high rate of unemployment and the lockdown has now further complicated the situation. Mobs are springing up, there is unrest in many parts of the cities and states under complete lockdown. Burglary, robberies and crime generally are on the increase. People are hungry and desperate because they are not feeling the palliatives by government. Government must be responsive and devise new strategies for the palliatives to reach the hungry and desperate. I commend the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the Ogun State Governor, Dapo Abiodun and their teams for listening and devising better strategies to let the palliatives reach those who need it. Time is of the essence. It is a ticking time bomb.
Government cannot do it alone, the private sector, NGOs, associations, estates, neighbourhoods should implement their own initiatives to support the government in feeding the poor. I must warn those who are in the habit of posting and reposting fake news on social media, they should be circumspect. This is not the time to be mischievous to attract traffic to your page.
What are your views about the clash of authorities between Federal Government, a helicopter shuttle service company and Rivers State government?
By authorising the helicopter shuttle service company to fly passengers into Port Harcourt after the Rivers State COVID-19 containment orders, the Ministry of Aviation and the helicopter shuttle service company breached the Rivers State Government COVID-19 containment orders irrespective of the fact that aviation is on the exclusive list as argued in some quarters. The helicopter shuttle service company should have taken cognizance of the Rivers State Government COVID-19 containment orders and sought appropriate guidance from the River State government on the implications of bringing people including the pilots into Rivers state. By the COVID-19 containment orders, Rivers State placed a restriction of “movement of people” into the state for the safety and health of its citizens including by air. You cannot fault the Rivers State Government for ensuring that its COVID-19 containment orders were not undermined. I believe the clash could have been avoided if the Federal Government liaised with the Rivers State Government on the matter and the helicopter shuttle service company had done likewise.
What do you think about 2023 presidential elections, do you think there are reasons it should be left for a particular region?
The Presidency should rotate between the North and South as distinct political zones and should not be left for a particular region. The 2023 presidential elections will heat up the polity if the Presidency is not rotated. On one hand, the South West political zone not only want the Presidency to move to the South, they want it zoned to the South West. On the other hand, South East, North East and North Central political zones which have