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COVID-19 and Wike’s Rivers of trouble [Feature]



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By Akanimo Sampson

Rivers State, one of the biggest oil and gas-bearing states in the Niger Delta, a vastly polluted oil region, is not one of the hot frontiers of the COVID-19 infection in Nigeria. Yet, the state is always in the news.

The trending news is the demolition of two hotels in Port Harcourt by Governor Nyesom Wike.

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Prodest Hotel, Alode, and Etemeteh Hotel, Onne, all in Eleme Local Government Area of the state have been reduced to rubbles, and critics are firing at Wike from all angles.

Compliance on measures put in place by the Wike administration to check the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has been suspect in the state with many troubles. For instance, last April 7, the Rivers CSO/Media COVID-19 Situation Room visited the state COVID-19 Isolation Centre situated at the Yakubu Gowon Stadium in Port Harcourt, the state capital.

The isolation centre is a 250 bed-space facility. The team also visited major community markets to observe citizen’s compliance with government directives on the strategies put in place by the governor to curb the spread of the virus.

On arrival at the Isolation Centre, the team was welcomed by Mrs Ighodalo, who set up the facilities. Mrs Ighodalo informed the group that the Isolation Centre was about 80% ready. She said they were expecting ten ventilators that will be supplied to the centre in a few days. She was very receptive after a formal introduction by members of the Situation Room team who stated the reason for their visit. She was willing to have a conversation with the Situation Room.

Mrs Ighodalo informed that Access Bank Plc Nigeria solely funded the setting up the Isolation Center. She further stated that the centre would be ready in two days as work was seriously in progress.

The CSO/Media COVID-19 Situation Room is, however, an intervention to monitor and report in response to the pandemic, from the angle of the civil society and the media. It has been following closely, with keen interest, the state government’s responses to the pandemic, including the provision and distribution of food palliatives to citizens aimed at cushioning the harsh impacts of the containment measures that involved a certain level of restrictions, social distancing amongst others.

‘’We note that these measures were stipulated by experts as being indispensable in containment and management of the pandemic and therefore encourage the public to endeavor to adhere to these rules. Thus, we appreciate the efforts of the state government, health and aid workers, corporate bodies, civil society organizations, the media and public spirited individuals aimed at controlling the spread of the virus.

‘’Findings from our monitoring of the COVID-19 responses in the state shows that the state food store has been stocked with large quantities of different types of valuable foodstuffs including beans, rice, garri, cartons of indomie and tubers of yam, in addition to gallons of oil and other edibles. This, we find impressive.

‘’We are however burdened to flag some issues we have observed in the distribution of the palliatives process, which constitute fundamental gaps in the process of which has the potential of rendering government’s good intention on the economic palliative null and void. These flaws centre round the actual distribution of the palliative items to citizens.

‘’When the palliatives ship anchored at Obio/Akpor and Port Harcourt City local government areas respectively on April 15, only Indomie and Macaroni that were given to the people, with some families receiving as small as one sachet/pack of Indomie which costs about N60.

‘’We wonder how one sachet of Indomie, which can be cooked just once, will quench the hunger of a family, irrespective of the size, whose sources of livelihood has been obstructed, cut short, if not destroyed in the process of fighting the covid-19.We note that the indomie noodles distributed at Port Harcourt and Obio/Akpor have little or no nutritional value, and therefore may have little or nothing to add in terms of generating, in the body, nutrients required for its nourishment and sustenance. IT IS WORRISOME and also curious, that those in charge of the palliatives and its distribution did not include other food items, but chose to distribute only Indomie and Macaroni.

‘’Furthermore, our findings reveal that, contrary to the government’s stated intention of ensuring non- discrimination in the distribution of the palliatives, non-indigenes were excluded in some areas, such as Rumuigbo, Ogbunabali, Rumuokalagbo, while in some communities like Okuru-Ama in Portharcourt Local Government, every family was given the Indomie, irrespective of whether they were poor or not. This implies that the palliatives only ended up in many wrong hands.

‘’A holistic look at both the nature and manner of the said palliatives distribution in the state so far, shows that it is largely what can be considered as not just appalling but an embarrassment to, not only to the recipients, but also the state at large; Some specific mention of such scenarios might suffice here. In Borokiri axis of the old Port Harcourt town for instance, the palliatives distribution was as follows, one tuber of yam for five households, one tomatoe cup of rice for one household, one tomatoe cup of beans for a household, one tomatoe cup of garri for a household, two small pack of indomie for a household, and a pack of Macaroni for a household.

‘’At New Road axis of the old Port Harcourt township, each community was given two bags of rice, 100 cartons of Indomie and Macaroni, a bag of beans, five tubers of yam and a 20 litres of groundnut oil. These were in turn shared as follows: One macaroni per adult, one  Indomie per child. Nobody was given the beans, yams, rice or even oil’’, the group said in a statement.

The statement was however jointly signed by the group’s Chairman, Stevyn Obodoekwe, Co-chairman
Sebastian Kpalap, Spokesperson Karl Chinedu Uchegbu, Secretary Green Isaac, Co-Secretary Prince Ekpere, and Convener Vivian Bellonwu.

Disturbingly, the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) is already feasting on the situation, accusing Governor Wike of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of ‘’ massive power drunkenness and executive recklessness’’ in the discharge of his functions, in his purported fight against COVID-19. 

But, former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President, Onueze Okocha, SAN, says the opposition is blowing unnecessary hot air. For him, Wike’s Executive Orders that gave a bite to the demolition are in order.

Accordingly, the legal luminary has counselled those who are uncomfortable with the Executive Orders that made the bulldozers to tear down the hotels, to approach the courts.

For those who know better, Executive Orders are used to direct the Executive arm of government. From the US where Nigeria borrowed the idea from, Executive Orders state mandatory requirements for the Executive arm, and have the effect of law. They are issued in relation to a law passed by the Legislative arm of government or based on powers granted to the President for instance, in the Constitution and must be consistent with those authorities.

Executive Orders are given numbers and abbreviated as “EO XXXXX”. Executive Orders are numbered in ascending order, so a higher number means the order was given more recently. Executive Orders may amend earlier orders.

Though an executive order is a directive from the President or Governor that has much of the same power as a law, critics, however, say an executive order can have the same effect as a law under certain circumstances, and that legislators can pass a new law to override an executive order, subject to an Executive veto.

In the US, the constitutional basis for the executive order is the President’s broad power to issue executive directives. According to the Congressional Research Service, there is no direct “definition of executive orders, presidential memoranda, and proclamations in the US Constitution, there is, likewise, no specific provision authorising their issuance.”

In 1861, for instance, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War using executive orders. Lincoln cited his powers under the Constitution’s Suspension Clause, which states, “the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion and invasion the public safety may require it.”

But, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roger Taney, in his role as a federal circuit judge, ruled that Lincoln’s executive order was unconstitutional in a decision called Ex Parte Merryman. Lincoln and the Union army ignored Taney, and Congress didn’t contest Lincoln’s habeas corpus decisions.

Apparently conscious of the foregoing, the APC attack dog, Eze Chukwuemeka Eze, says Wike is seeing himself as a natural ruler administering over an alleged police state. 

While terming the alleged arbitrary exercise of power as ‘’anarchical’’, Eze adds, 

‘’the deliberate sufferings meted out on Rivers people on daily basis tend to show that Wike was forcefully imposed on Rivers by some evil forces who do not mean well for the state. No democratic leader installed through the instrumentality of the ballot can be so draconian, heartless and inconsiderate to the plight of the electorate whom he claimed voted him into office.”

In an interview on Monday, Okocha lauded the steps taken by Wike to fight coronavirus, claiming that they will help check the spread of the virus. 

‘’I believe strongly that the measures taken by the state government are well thought out, well advised and I believe that they will to a large extent, help us to avoid or at least minimise to the barest level the spread of this corona virus.

‘’I commend the government. I commend the governor for these bold and very laudable steps. And, the Executive Orders put in place by the governor are appropriate. Everybody accepts that they are calculated to secure our safety and to reduce to the barest minimum the spread of corona virus. So, I don’t believe that anybody has quarreled with any of these orders.

‘’What I have heard are people flouting those orders and Nigerians sometimes do not understand, some of these measures put in place, some of these regulations, these laws and orders are for their own good, and everybody should do each of their very best to comply with them’’, Okocha says.

The hard-hitting APC chief is not persuaded. Frowning at the demolition and auctioning of cars belonging to alleged defaulters of the governor’s executive orders, Eze insists that Wike acted beyond his bounds; citing Section 36 (12) of the Nigerian Constitution, 1999 (as amended), states that offences and the penalty for any offence must be clearly stated in a written law. 

He urged the governor to take a closer look in the matter of Faith V Governor of Lagos State & another (2016) LPELR-41066 (CA), where the governor issued a directive inhibiting movements of citizens during the monthly environmental sanitation exercise, and the Court of Appeal, in a unanimous judgment held that the appellant could not be arrested or prosecuted for non-compliance with an Executive Order of the governor because of the offence is not prescribed in a written law and is therefore unknown to law.

Eze is therefore, querying the foundation upon which Wike’s alleged ultra vires actions are anchored, and also pointed to Section 1 (3) of the Constitution that states, “if any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail and that other law shall to the extent of its inconsistency be void”.

Apparently rubbishing the opposition’s attack, the ex-NBA president said Wike had put in place a Quarantine COVID-19 and other Infectious Diseases Regulations No. 2 of 2020 which is also in line with Quarantine Act of the Federal Government.

‘’It’s not everything that is going to be on written law. By the authority of written law, some orders are made, some regulations are put in place and those flow naturally from the provisions of written law.

‘’This is why the state government passed a law recently and we also have the Federal Act, Quarantine Act and many other such regulations that are aimed at dealing with safety and security and then health and well being of the people”

‘’So, anybody that is arguing that the Executive Orders are unconstitutional should know his options. He should seek legal advice and if necessary go and challenge those orders in a court of law, duly constituted.’’

Backing the governor, Okocha says Wike’s action is justifiable given the several warnings to hoteliers not to operate within the period. 
‘’I do not blame the governor for his action because I’m aware that the regulation was put in place over two weeks ago for hoteliers and those operating drinking parlours and entertainment centres to close down at least temporarily until we get a grip on how to deal with this pandemic”

Insisting, Okocha said, 
‘’there was a regulation in place long before now regarding the lockdown we have had in Obio/Akpor and Port Harcourt City Local Government Areas. I hear that this happened in Eleme Local Government Area. Two hotels and they were warned to stop operating.

‘’Indeed, a taskforce was sent to remind them about the Executive Order put in place by the governor and they got their thugs and some local boys to beat members of the taskforce. So, the governor left with no other option, wielded the big stick.

‘’People are also saying the governor is impounding vehicles and arresting people on the roads for violating the law on Obio/Akpor and Port Harcourt City councils. What did they expect the governor to do? Fold his hands and watch people to openly and brazenly flaunt what we know are regulations put in place in accordance with law and order?’’

Tackling the senior advocate, Eze says Section 5 of the Quarantine Act provides for a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months or a fine of N200 or both as punishment for defaulters of the Act.

‘’The obvious implication of that section is that defaulters of any regulation made by the President or Governor of a state to curtail infectious disease is liable to a fine of N200 or a term of imprisonment for six months or both and nothing more. It is therefore disturbing to learn that Wike has arrogated to himself more powers outside the limit prescribed in the Quarantine Act.

There is therefore, no law empowering the governor to confiscate or order the confiscation of goods or demolition of any house or houses belonging to defaulters under the Quarantine Act because Section 5 of the said Act already provides for punishment for offenders.

It therefore amounts to executive rascality and sheer recklessness for Wike to confiscate and auction properties and demolish structures merely because their owners violated an order which punishment the law already provides. 

Continuing, the APC chief expressed disappointment over the alleged indolence of the state’s Attorney General whose responsibility it is to tutor the governor on issues touching on law to reduce constant exhibition of ignorance and crass cluelessness in the public space particularly now that the Governor have lost and forgotten all that he was taught in the Law School.

While appealing to the peoples of Rivers to remain calm, assuring that the challenges facing the state will definitely fizzle out, Okocha said, 
‘’I hope that all of us in Rivers will do our best to comply with these regulations because what is ultimate is to save our lives and save the life of our loved ones and other relations.’’

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