Between COVID-19 and constitutional encroachment

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*Soyinka

Wole Soyinka

Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, in this statement reacted to President Muhammadu Buhari’s broadcast on Sunday, March 29, directing the cessation of all movements in the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun states for an initial period of 14 days in a bid to check the spread of the dreaded COVID-19 in the country.

“Constitutional lawyers and our elected representatives should kindly step into this and educate us, mere lay minds.

“The worst development I can conceive of us is to have a situation where rational measures for the containment of the coronavirus pandemic are rejected on account of their questionable genesis.

“This is a time for unity of purpose, not nitpicking dissensions. So, before this becomes a habit, a question: does President Buhari have the powers to close down state borders? We want clear answers.

“We are not in a war emergency. Appropriately focused on measures for the saving lives, and committed to making sacrifices for the preservation of our communities, we should nonetheless remain alert to any encroachment on constitutionally demarcated powers.

“We need to exercise collective vigilance, and not compromise the future by submitting to interventions that are not backed by law and constitution.

“A President who has been conspicuously AWOL, the Rip van Winkle of Nigerian history, is now alleged to have woken up after a prolonged siesta, and begun to issue orders.

“Who actually instigates these orders anyway? From where do they really emerge? What happens when the orders conflict with state measures, the product of a systematic containment strategy – `including even trial-and-error and hiccups – undertaken without let or leave of the centre.

“So far, the anti-COVID-19 measures have proceeded along the rails of decentralised thinking, multilateral collaboration and technical exchanges between states.

“The centre is obviously part of the entire process, and one expects this to be the norm, even without the epidemic’s frontal assault on the Presidency itself.

“Indeed, the Centre is expected to drive the overall effort, but in collaboration, with extraordinary budgeting and refurbishing of facilities. The universal imperative and urgency of this affliction should not become an opportunistic launch pad for a sneak recentralisation no matter how seemingly insignificant its appearance.

“I urge governors and legislators to be especially watchful. No epidemic is ever cured with constitutional piracy. It only lays down new political viruses for the future.”

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