Due to the world-wide Covid-19 pandemic, many countries have initiated emergency lockdowns of their territories in an attempt to curb the spread of the disease. In Nigeria, many states have initiated the emergency lockdown of operations and restriction of movement with severe penalties for defaulters. In Rivers State, for example, Governor Nyesom Wike signed Executive Order No. 7 of the Quarantine (Coronavirus and Other Infectious Diseases) Regulations of 2020 requiring all hoteliers in Rivers State to temporarily cease operations as the government battled to prevent a wave of community infection from the virus. This executive order has recently caused a stir.
On May 10th 2020, the Prodest Homes, a hotel in Rivers State, was demolished by the Covid-19 Task Force on the grounds that the owners had allegedly flouted the lockdown order and violated Executive Order 7. While this action has led to much backlash on social media, we would like to examine the legality of the action taken by the Rivers State government for the violation of an executive order.
An executive order is a signed, written and published directive issued directly by the President or Governor of a state that manages operations in the country or state without input from the legislative or judicial branches. An executive order has as much power as an enacted law and will last and remain in force until cancelled, revoked, adjudicated as unlawful or expire on its own terms.
In the United States of America, from whom Nigeria copied the practice of executive orders, an executive order must have a solid basis in the Constitution or laws passed by Congress to have the force of law. So is Executive Order 7 signed by the Rivers State Governor constitutionally and lawfully valid?
While there is the argument that the lockdown directives are a violation of Nigerian’s fundamental human rights, in emergency situations such as that currently faced, the government may give such directives as necessary to protect its citizens even if it requires restricting said rights.
Penalties for violation of such directives are usually contained in the document issuing the directive. Does Executive Order 7 signed by Governor Wike of Rivers State outline the directives and specify penalties for violations? Unfortunately, a copy of the said executive order has not been made public so we are unable to determine the specified penalties for violations.
Despite this, it is doubtful that an executive order can grant the governor power to demolish a building for a purported violation. As stated earlier, an executive order must have a solid constitutional basis and be in furtherance of existing laws. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees citizens the right to fair trial. In the instant case, the manager of the hotel was arrested and the building immediately demolished. The owners of Prodest Homes were not given the opportunity to defend themselves from the allegations of flouting the lockdown directives in a court of law. There was no court that found them guilty of the allegation and judgment passed to demolish the hotel.
While in times of crisis, executive orders are necessary to protect citizens, they should not be used to encourage dictatorship and abuse of office. The executive order was made pursuant to the Quarantine Act and nowhere in the Act is demolition one the suggested sanctions for violation.
Whether or not the owners of the hotel were in violation of an executive order should have been determined by a court of law and, if found guilty, the penalty of such violation should have been determined by the same court of law. Whatever the crisis, Nigeria remains a democratic society and the government should treat its citizens fairly and accordingly. Punishments cannot be administered against citizens without the judiciary.