Rivers governor, Nyesom Wike, on Wednesday announced the closure of land and sea borders in the state and a ban on vehicles entering or leaving the state.
The state is now on a complete lockdown as a preventive measure against the novel coronavirus.
A case of the virus was, however, confirmed on Wednesday in Rivers by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, raising the number of infected persons in Nigeria to 51 by Thursday morning.
“With effect from 6pm on Thursday, March 26, 2020, the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa will not be open to air traffic,” Mr Wike said in a broadcast to the people of Rivers state.
“While we may not have the right to stop flights from entering Port Harcourt, we cannot allow anybody coming from the airport to enter our State.
“We are confident that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria and other federal agencies will cooperate with us.”
Mr Wike said all land and sea borders are closed and no vehicle would be allowed to leave or enter Rivers State.
The lockdown of the state is coming a few days after the Mr announced the setting up of surveillance posts at the state borders to screen people coming into the state and a ban on burials, weddings, and other social gatherings in the state.
The governor, in his latest broadcast, said why it became necessary to lock down the state.
“It is with gratitude to God that I announce to you that our State would have been infected with coronavirus yesterday, but for the vigilance of security agents who, acting on a tip-off prevented an infected person from boarding a flight from Abuja to Port Harcourt.
“The infected person beat all security measures that were put in place at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja and Abuja and was to sneak into Port Harcourt before security agents stopped her.
“Based on this alarming Information, the State Security Council met yesterday and reviewed measures already put in place and decided that there was (an) urgent need to adopt stringent measures to protect those living and doing business in the state from the virus,” he said.
Lawyers react to the lockdown
Nigerian lawyers who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said the Rivers’ lockdown was “unconstitutional” and “unnecessary”.
Kenneth Ikonne, a senior advocate of Nigeria, said Mr Wike has exercised extreme power and has effectively cut off Rivers State from the rest of the Nigerian federation.
He (Wike) doesn’t have such power. Rivers is not a sovereign state and Wike is not a Commander-in-Chief,” Mr Ikonne told PREMIUM TIMES, Wednesday night.
The lawyer said the Nigerian president, according to Section 45 of the Nigerian Constitution, is the only person that can declare a state of emergency in any part of the Nigerian federation.
He said Governor Wike’s action could trigger a scarcity of consumer products and inter-state conflict in Nigeria. He said the governor was taking advantage of the “absence of authority” in Abuja.
“The reason why he resorted to this extreme measure is that there is an absence of authority in Abuja. The federal government is not giving the necessary direction and, therefore, there is a void. He is responding to that void but he doesn’t have that power,” he said.
Attah Ochinke, a lawyer and a former attorney general of Cross River, also faulted Mr Wike’s action.
“The constitution is very clear about the circumstances under which a person’s freedom can be curbed and it does not include the suspicion that you are sick. Being sick is not a crime in Nigeria. To say that your movement is impeded on mere suspicion that you are sick, I think it’s a bit outlandish,” Mr Ochinke told PREMIUM TIMES.
“It is only upon the commission of a crime that a person’s constitutional right to freedom of movement can be curbed. Being sick or being suspected to be sick is not a crime.”
Mr Ochinke said the authorities. while dealing with the crisis caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus, should endeavour to act within the provisions of the constitution.
“It is just like when Buhari said national interest would supersede the rule of law and people rightly castigated him for that.
“Why we are questioning it now is because rather than our rights being governed by the law which is the constitution as we know, we are now going to be impacted by the caprices of a single man which is the governor. Now, whether he is right or wrong in that exercise, we do not know.”
Another lawyer, Frank Tietie, said the Rivers’ lockdown is not only unlawful but that it constitutes a threat to the survival of the people in the state.
Mr Tietie said the lockdown would cause hardship and endanger people’s lives in the state.
“In Nigeria, everybody has to go out into the street to hustle in order to survive. You lock down socioeconomic activities, you are indirectly killing the people before the virus even gets to them,” he said.
The Commissioner for Information in Rivers, Paulinus Nsirim, while responding to the criticism against the state government, told PREMIUM TIMES, Wednesday night, that people in the world over are talking about health emergency and not the constitution.
“Well, this is Rivers state and that is the position of the Rivers state government!” Mr Nsirim said.
PREMIUM TIMES, Thursday morning, contacted Mr Nsirim again to ask if the Rivers government was aware of the confirmed case of coronavirus in the state before the governor announced the lockdown.
“I can’t say anything now, the health commissioner is yet to give me some information,” the commissioner said.
Increasing calls on government to lock down Nigeria
Going by the mood of the nation at the moment, there are many Nigerians who would applaud Mr Wike’s action, it appears.
“Wike has proven himself as a man with strong will and the courage to lead,” said a business man in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. “Other Nigerian governors should copy from him and take necessary action to save people’s lives.”
Nigerian scientists, under the aegis of the National Academy of Science, recently advised the Nigerian government to order a lockdown of the country to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
“It is now time for a national lockdown, especially now that the disease has invaded the highest level of our governance threatening our national security!
“While the effort of individual state governments is lauded, with a lockdown, all citizens are required (as much as possible) to stay at home leaving room only for essential activities that allow for basic functions such as feeding and accessing health care,” the president of the academy, Mosto Onuoha, said in a statement.
Akwa Ibom, another state in the South-South of Nigeria, on Thursday morning announced the closure of all its borders, except for the transportation of foodstuff and other essential commodities.