Social Action is coordinating the establishment of Civil Society Situation Rooms in the Niger Delta to monitor government interventions, public finance accountability, citizens responses, human rights during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, the first of the state-based situation rooms was inaugurated in Rivers State.
Social Action facilitated the setting up of the Rivers State Civil Society/Media Situation Room on COVID-19. The Rivers Situation Room monitors and reports on government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and advocates for citizens’ rights and livelihoods during the period of social restrictions.
Officers of the Rivers Situation Room include Sabestian Kpalap and Stevyn Obodoekwe (Co-Chairs), Karl Chinedu Uchegbu (Spokesperson), Prince Ekpere and Green Isaac (Co-Secretaries). Vivian Bellonwu of Social Action is the Convener
The Rivers Situation Room would interface with agencies such as NCDC, State Taskforce on COVID-19, State Ministry of Health, National Orientation Agency, NEMA, Nigerian Red Cross, National Human Rights Commission, NSCDC, Nigerian Police Force, corporate organizational and charitable individuals.
The Rivers Situation Room held an inaugural press briefing on April 2, 2021, and advocated for better engagements between the government, health personnel and the citizens. The Situation Room called for restraint on the part of security agencies and government officials in dealing with citizens as a result of new policies put in place. The group called for increased sensitization of citizens on the COVID19 virus, and the need for the government to make food accessible to the people while citizens adhere to social distancing directives.
Civil Society Representation in government interventions
Rivers State Government set up a Palliatives Committee to distribute foodstuffs to Rivers people to cushion the hardship caused by strategies to contain the spread of coronavirus. The Committee is headed by the State Chairman of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Ambassador Desmond Akawor.The state government also set another Committee to Purchase Foodstuff from farmers in the State. The government made available 2 billion Naira to empower farmers and fishers in the State to produce food for residents during the period of the lockdown. The Committee will purchase agricultural products, including crops and seafood, produced in the State for distribution to the less privileged.
The Rivers Situations Room questioned the role of leaders of the PDP in the Palliatives Committee. The group queried the non-inclusion of civil society representatives in the committees. In response, the Rivers State Governor, Chief Barr, EzebunwoNyesom Wike, in a press briefing on April 17, 2020, yielded to civil society call. Heagreed to add five representatives of civil society so they can monitor and record the process. The Situation Room commended the governors resolve to listen to the people.
Social Restrictions Fuel Rights Abuses by Security Agents
There have been gross violations of human rights by the security agencies enforcing the lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVD- 19 pandemic.Cases of extra-judicial killings, illegal extorting of money from citizens, forcing the lockdown of shops, closing of pharmacies, seizing of ATM cards, and harassing of citizens and media persons have been reported.
On March 26, 2020, the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Ezenwo directed the closing of all points of entry to the State in the State to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The state government set up a task force to enforce the directive. The taskforce, led by the governor, comprises of security agencies, local government chairpersons and other civilians.
However, some security personnel appointed as members of the Committee, instead of carrying out the governor’s order, resorted to extorting drivers of sums ranging from N7,000 to N10,000 to allow vehicles to enter the State. There were cases of security agents beating up civilians that tried to challenge the agents’ criminal activities.
Inundated with complaints and reports of these violations and in quick response, the Rivers State Civil Society Situation Room, through its releases and media engagements, demanded that officers involved in these inhumane acts be brought to book, and called on the government to take steps to prevent any further threats to human rights.
As reported by Okechukwu Wordu, Secretary of the Emuohua Local Government Area chapter of the Committee who was covering Ubimini. While preventing truck drivers coming from Awara in Imo State from entering the State, he was beaten up by a Nigerian Soldier that wanted to collect bribes.
The Rivers State Civil Society Situation Room on COVID- 19 could not reach the Civil-Military Human Rights Desk in the State for comments.