Human Rights activist and former 2nd Vice President, Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Monday Onyekachi Ubani, in this interview speaks on efforts by the state and federal governments in handling the Coronavirus pandemic among other issues.
What is your assessment of the way the government is handling the pandemic?
The Federal Government was lackadaisical in their initial approach. They should have closed the borders, land, sea and air the moment the pandemic started spreading around the world. But unfortunately, all the entry points were left open. The government officials waited for their relations outside the country to return and when they did, they brought with them the virus and we started having index cases.
However, they seem to have woken from their slumber and tackling the issue headlong with restriction and total lockdown in some states. The state governors are doing well especially Lagos State. Now, isolation centers are taking up spaces that would have been for normal hospitals sadly. Generally, the rules about observing personal hygiene and adherence to social distancing guidance are all laudable.
The first index case was a foreigner, an Italian who came into the country perhaps from his country. He was promptly quarantined and the story is that he has fully recovered. Other recoveries have been reported and happily too.
Daily, the index cases keep increasing in Nigeria with virtually all the states of the federation having one or two index cases. As at today, we have more than 300 cases in the country with 90 per cent recovery of the patients which is a cheering news.
Some of the countries in the continent have got it right with movement restrictions, stay at home policy and social distancing even though majority of the citizens are still of the view that the virus only infect the rich and the mighty and so it is not meant for the majority who are poor and have no travel history.
However, some of the African countries failed in providing seamless social intervention measures to cushion the harsh economic effect of stay in door policy of their governments. What makes this policy prone to failure is the economic lifestyle of the majority that depends on daily businesses, sales and trading for self survival. Demanding that they stay in doors without adequate palliatives as other advanced nations are doing, will lead to a sort of flagrant disobedience to the policy and what the government fears most may likely happen if this is not addressed urgently.
Already, there is a break down of law and order in some African countries on the sit-at home policy where the people are not getting any financial or food assistance from their government. They are disobeying the sit at home policy and going to their normal businesses even though the security agents are killing some of them as reported in the news media. It is reported that the security agents have killed more of the citizens than the virus itself.
If the national governments extend the total lockdowns in their various countries without addressing these defects and anomalies as enumerated, they should expect repugnant disobedience and criminality from the majority of the hopeless and hapless citizens.
In Lagos, Nigeria, many communities have not been sleeping due to the menace of hoodlums, armed robbery and other criminal acts due to hunger. Hunger has become more deadly than the coronavirus, pushing many into crime of robbery, house and store breaking for self survival.
So far, the government at all levels have failed woefully in the provision of adequate palliative measures. The social intervention scheme so far has failed woefully. The reason is simple. One is that Nigeria is full of corrupt leaders who are more interested in their personal gains. You won’t be surprised that at the end of the day, we will hear that billions of Naira have been expended in fighting the pandemic. By that time, all the money mapped out may have found its way into private bank accounts abroad and in their vaults at homes. The purpose for which the money was earmarked will be naturally defeated. Another thing that will make it fail is lack of proper data of Nigerians.
In other climes, the government has statistics of the citizens. My relative in Canada told me that on regular basi, the government brings food items to their door steps unless for people who don’t want. So, there is need for accurate data in Nigeria. It will help to reach the populace at any time the government needs to reach them.
Lockdown without corresponding palliatives and providing adequately for the people will make them to revolt. Already, people are defying the stay at home order. They are hungry. There are lots of robbery reports.
What is your assessment of security operatives approach in enforcing the lockdown directives as regards human rights?
The operatives are not doing too well. They should know that lots of people are under pressure before now. There is anxiety and desperation, hence the need to be more humane. Instead of being humane and professional, people are harassed and even killed. On April 2, Joseph Pessu, 28, was allegedly killed by a soldier in Warri, Delta State over alleged violation of lockdown order. It was alleged that the deceased was flagged down by security operatives for proper identification but he refused to stop. The officers chased and allegedly shot him dead. The officers must be properly briefed by the government and their seniors. They should not violate peoples’ rights. The military must not be involved in internal security. They have more strenuous responsibility of protecting the territorial integrity of Nigeria. Boko Haram is still there. The responsibility of handling the internal security should be left to the police. The police should be rather better equipped.
Covid-19 pandemic appears to be a leveler, it affects both the low and mighty. But so far, it appears to have affected the elite more than the poor. Do you think it will change the way the elite handle infrastructural development?
I just believe and hope the elite will learn from this pandemic that there is no place like home. A time will come when the foreign countries can longer allow the prodigal elite in foreign countries. So, I hope we will all learn from this experience to fix our educational system, roads, light, transportation, public health sector etc. If Covid-19 had affected only the poor, who knows, maybe the elite may have cared less. But now, there is desperation because the disease has leveled everyone. We must learn to put our things in order for now and for our future generations. Before now, Lassa fever has for years killed more people, yet it never received the level of attention, Covid-19 is receiving now. Yet, Lassa fever has killed more people. We must make our system functional and up to the best international standard at all times for situations like this.
When the order for lockdown was initially issued, some lawyers said it was unconstitutional. What’s your view?
The truth is that the measures taken by some governors initially were totally ultra vires. But people ignored it because we were all interested in finding solution to the pandemic. What some human rights lawyers quarreled with is to avoid a situation where Nigeria will be turned into a banana republic where there is no rule of law. For instance, as at the time some state governors announced closure of their sea, air and land borders, it was outside their constitutional powers. The Federal Government has exclusive jurisdiction over some areas like aviation. However, the governors are the Chief Executives of their states. In Rivers State for instance, the governor being the chief executive said, you cannot fly people into my territory without carrying me along by virtue of his executive order that bars movement in and out of the state. So on both sides; there were some deficiencies here and there. My ultimate advice on Rivers State issue is that both need synergy to work together successfully by giving preference to the real objective of taking the measures they are taking over the pandemic. I will rather advise that the Attorney General of Rivers State should apply for nolle prosequi, withdraw the charges, release those pilots of the private company in detention and get them tested to determine their status. They should also unseal the company that is involved for a total healing. On their part, the Federal Government is advised to carry the state government along if they must continue to fly people into the state no matter the nature of the services they are rendering to the country as a mark of respect to the operation of federalism in Nigeria.
How much influence does your background have on what you do today as a lawyer?
I came from a humble home, so I am very humble person you know what I mean. You know that poverty humbles the wise. My father wanted me to be a mechanic. But somehow, destiny changed all that. So when I eventually had opportunity to go to school, I was admitted to study political science at University of Nigeria Nsukka. I was initially inspired by people like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Mbonu Ojike and Mallam Aminu Kano etc. I wanted to be a flamboyant political philosopher/politician in Nigeria. But somehow my motivation changed in my second year in the university. Mohamned Buhari, the current president of Nigeria had a role to that effect as he overthrew a democratically elected government that year in 1984. It is a story for another day. I became more attracted by what late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) and the rest of leading human rights lawyers were doing and I wanted to be like them. So I started all over again by enrolling for law in the same university and lost two years. But I am glad, I did otherwise, I won’t be where I am today by His grace. I am also a Masters Degree holder in Law from University of Lagos.
Does tutelage help a lawyer in legal practice?
I encourage every lawyer to go for tutelage, at least for some time before venturing into personal practice. Most people you see having issues with professional ethics did not go for tutelage. That’s where you learn ethics, research, legal drafting, managing a law firm, drafting charges, charging of fees etc. It is an opportunity to learn how senior colleagues manage successful law firms. Most times, cases are reviewed regularly and upcoming cases for the week are planned in chambers.
What are your guiding principles, are there briefs you cannot accept?
I am a Christian and strongly believe in the tenets of Christianity while practising as a lawyer. There are briefs I cannot take. For instance, a tenant who owes his or her landlord house rent and not willing to pay may want me to go to court for the purpose to delay. I will tell him or her that he or she came to a wrong lawyer. I will advise such a person to go and settle with the landlord by paying his or her rent. There are so many cases like that whether civil or criminal that I may not want to handle no matter how much the fees.
What challenges do you face as human rights lawyer?
I am passionate about human right issues. I am usually happy when I help people enforce their human rights. But it also comes with challenges. Poor people also have issues especially when money is involved. There have been instances where I helped a client win a case where money is involved and he went behind, collected the money without paying my legal fees. Aside that, people think that because you are a human rights lawyer, that you collect money from somewhere and should not charge for your services. They forget that you have family, dependants and bills to pay.