Lockdown! It’s the word of utmost currency. It’s one of the episodic words, not for everyday use. Usually thrown up by episodes or events. In its current global context, a virus excavated it from the lexical dune. It simply means to be confined indoors for safety sake. And in the extant situation, it’s safety from COVID-19 pandemic. The world has been on a lockdown. Terrified and frazzled.
Law enforcers were drafted to enforce what normal humans ought to voluntarily adhere to for their own lives. But man is not always at his normal state. Thus, even when Coronavirus precipitated a lockdown, there are still some persons intent on confronting the terror on the streets. Virus or not, they just want out; to exhale; to breast the freedom tape. Even if it costs them their lives. This explains why law enforcers were directed to enforce the lockdown but with some exemptions.
Nigeria is participating in the global lockdown contagion. That’s what it‘s turned out, a contagion of its own kind. It spread from early bird nations in Asia, neighbours to China – the birthplace of Coronavirus – to Europe, Americas and Africa.
In Nigeria, the burden of enforcement naturally fell on the police. And because the nation is still somewhat militarised with all manner of uniformed professionals and quasi-military groups, the police found helping hands among these groups. I have always been a fan of the Nigeria Police (exposed to high risk without commensurate life insurance, underpaid and over-worked) but I never cease to rage at their predilection to the use of force and in some cases, clear lack of discretion. I stutter to defend them on this count.
For declaring a lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja, President Muhammadu Buhari, unwittingly served the police coffee on a very cold morning. And they are taking advantage of the presidential directive to prey on the people. Members of the Nigeria police are good at this; just pray you don’t become their prey. Intimidation, extortion and sundry unethical nuances are deployed to weary you, frustrate you and make you regret being their prey. But we still have a crop of damn good cops among them. Cops so pristine in values and preened in purpose.
And if you now add curfew to the lockdown as Mr President did recently, it’s akin to serving a beverage connoisseur hot coffee on a wintry morning. The police are simply lapping on the opportunity. Emboldened by the directive of their boss, IGP Mohammed Adamu, they poured into the byways and highways to enforce ‘total’ compliance. Curfew means “no movement” within a specified time belt. It means stay indoors wherever the curfew meets you. To be found ‘wandering’ on the roads or streets offends the law.
But President Buhari is no fool. He knew that in life and in cases of even the severest emergencies, there are categories of persons that must move just so others can keep living, keep breathing and not lacking in sundry existential demands. Like medical personnel who must attend to the sick and dying; like journalists who must gather information, process and transmit same via multiple platforms, including information from the Presidency, the police, the leaders and the led. Journalists do all this, at very high risk too. Like electricity workers who must be on duty to ensure that we all, including the police and their families, do not wobble in the blackness of darkness. The President in his wisdom exempted these categories of workers from both the lockdown and curfew. Good thinking!
Yet, in a moment of unreason, IGP Adamu, an appointee of the President, countered the directive of the Commander-in-Chief, his boss. What impudence! He gave a directive to all police formations to ensure total adherence by all, without exemption, to the curfew order. It’s just the tonic his men needed. In a matter of hours, they had rounded up hundreds of medical personnel, journalists and other workers on essential duty thoughtfully exempted by the President. IGP Adamu’s men simply obeyed their master. But it was the most damaging action from the police and by the police.
Though the IGP later beat a retreat by issuing a counter directive to his men to exempt some persons, the damage had already been done. And the cut is deep, not on the public but on the image of the police and reputation of IGP Adamu. He ought to know better. Even in a state of real war with well-defined enemies, medical personnel are still allowed passage to save lives amid flying bullets and booming bazookas.
There were reported cases of police harassment of journalists and medical personnel during the early days of the lockdown. But an additional restriction of curfew was like a topping of caramel on a coffee brew, further made worse by IGP Adamu’s moment of indiscretion. The police in Lagos, especially, took a cue from the IGP and went into overdrive: Arresting and detaining journalists and medical personnel. Unthinkable! You arrest a doctor for answering a distress call; you detain a nurse for going to or returning from work. Why would any police officer dream of arresting and detaining a journalist for closing late from work? The same journalist that toiled all day to communicate IGP’s message to the public? The same journalist that the same police depend on to disseminate their press releases and crime bulletins? There’s no valour in this. There’s no tincture of virtue in the actions of Lagos Police and other commands across the nation who in full consciousness stood President Buhari’s directive in its head.
Now you have provoked doctors in Lagos to stay away from work. Now you have piled up pressure on homes, on individuals whose loved ones are at various stages of health crisis in hospitals. Good perception management demands that IGP Adamu apologises to medical personnel, journalists and other exempted categories of workers who were detained on the roads by his men. That is honour. That is integrity.
Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Hakeem Odumosu, a ‘Lagos Boy’ of long standing, should share much of the blame. Odumosu has worked long enough in Lagos to know that no commissioner of police ever succeeded in Lagos without a healthy partnership with the media. Lagos is Nigeria’s Fleet Street. The media lives here. Ask your predecessors. Mike Okiro, M.D Abubakar were all CPs in Lagos. They had excellent relationship with the media and they rose to position of IGP. The incumbent police spokesman, ACP Frank Mba was a ‘Lagos Boy’ and he was both media-friendly and media-savvy. I’m not surprised he still speaks for the police at national level.
No Nigerian is the architect of COVID-19. Those who brave their way to work – medics, journalists and all – do so at very high risk just like the police. But unlike the police who bear arms, these workers on essential duty bear no arms. They are vulnerable. They deserve nothing but protection from the police, not badgering and harrying.