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Nigerian Security Forces to Enforce Social Distancing

Law Enforcement Response to COVID-19 Should Respect Human Rights

A member of the Nigerian army performs a temperature check on a visitor at the entrance of the Nigerian Army Hospital in the Yaba area of Lagos, Nigeria, February 28, 2020. © 2020 George Osodi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nigeria plans to deploy soldiers and police officers to enforce social distancing as part of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The announcement came after the Inspector General of Police directed police to strictly enforce all legitimate orders made to contain the spread of the coronavirus, while urging citizens to voluntarily comply.

Authorities have banned large gatherings and shut down schools in Abuja, the capital, and other states across the country. In Lagos, the country’s commercial hub, officials have ordered night clubs and bars to shut down. Other states including Ekiti, Ogun, Osun, and Rivers have adopted similar measures.

The Nigerian security forces have consistently been implicated in gross human rights abuses including arbitrary arrests, extortion, illegal detention, and use of excessive force, including in large gatherings such as processions and protests for which there has been little or no accountability. Therefore, the authorities need to ensure that security forces do not commit abuses when enforcing the new measures, and any member of the security forces that does is held accountable.

On March 23, 2020, security forces fired live ammunition and teargas to disperse members of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), who took to the streets in Abuja to protest the detention of their leader Sheik El Zakzaky, who has been detained since 2015. One of the protesters told Human Rights Watch that police officers began shooting live ammunition without any warning as soon as they arrived at the scene and later shot at least three teargas cannisters at the crowd. Two people sustained gun injuries, one on the leg and another on the arm, the protester said. A leader of the IMN in Abuja said at least 10 protesters were arrested and are currently in police custody.

In his statement this week, the Inspector General of Police rightly warned police officers not to conduct unnecessary arrests and detention of suspects as they work to enforce social distancing. He should also affirm the commitment of the police force to respect human rights by cautioning officers against the use of excessive force and sending a clear message that there will be accountability for any such violation.

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