On Sunday, March 29, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari addressed the nation, outlining the policy direction for combating the new Coronavirus pandemic. The highlight of that event was the imposition of total lockdowns on Lagos, Abuja and Ogun State.
Legal luminaries, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN; Femi Falana, SAN; Ebun Adegboruwa, SAN; Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and others, tackled the Federal Government on this. They accused it of shutting down states with impunity and illegally trampling on the people’s constitutional rights. However, VP Yemi Osinbajo, SAN; defended the President’s use of the Quarantine Law which empowers him to act.
This is a routine face-off between the Nigerian State and our democracy and human rights watchdogs. The question really is: Why did the President go straight for the Quarantine Law rather than first invoking his emergency powers? If he had done the latter, the National Assembly would have been involved.
It is the intendment of the Constitution that the National Assembly must approve any emergency powers for the President to shut down any part of the country and temporarily interfere with the people’s right to freedom of movement in order to protect the nation.
We reiterate that President Buhari’s restriction of movements was in the interest of Nigerians. This pandemic portends great danger and demands extraordinary measures. But he should have invoked Section 305 of the 1999 Constitution to empower himself with the necessary legitimacy to act, including overruling the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who had ordered a partial shutdown.
This section demands that when there is imminent danger, natural calamity or breakdown of public order in any part of the Federation the President may invoke his powers of emergency published in an Official Gazette which he should forward to the heads of the Senate and House of Representatives. If members of both legislative chambers approve then the President can act.
The President avoided the National Assembly and only invoked the ancient Quarantine Law on Monday, March 30, just hours before the shutdowns.
Here is a reminder: We are now in a democracy. The due processes of the constitution and laws flowing from it must be complied with. Nigeria is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ICCPR, which prescribes globally-acceptable practices in taking away the people’s civil liberties. Our leaders are bound by the provisions of Section 305 in temporarily suspending our constitutional rights.
President Buhari has a battery of SANs within his reach, such as VP Yemi Osinbajo, Prof Itse Sagay, Minister Festus Keyamo and the Attorney General of the Federation, Shehu Malami. Some them are social advocates. They should guide him aright.
The National Assembly, our symbol of democracy, must be allowed to play its role.