Charles Uche ESQ
I was recently asked how Civil Society Groups could contribute to the COVID-19 efforts. These are my thoughts;
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) can play key roles in monitoring, documenting and reporting multi-sectoral efforts such as ensuring human rights due diligence and equal access to health care; sensitisation (and combating fake news); tracking – accountability and transparency of measures with particular focus on fund donations; humanitarian intervention. They can also follow up with judicious distribution of relief items to low-income communities and marginalised people.
Although the lock-down is a welcome resolve to enhance social distancing, I am of the opinion that it should not have been extended to some or a coalition of Civil Society Groups working around COVID-19, just as members of the Press were given a free pass.
The restriction of CSOs limits them to advocating for digital accountability measures. This is limiting the call for transparency and accountability in the response to COVID19, knowing that public digital responsiveness and accountability is still quite alien to many Nigerian Ministries, Departments and Agencies.
Unlike in the USA, Nigeria has no Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) that mandates MDAs to digitally publish all public expenditures.
To compound this, the Freedom of Information Act would not avail anyone during this lockdown as there would be no one in the offices of these MDAs to take delivery or respond to such requests.
My concern is that there may be no neutral party in the field to track human rights due diligence; and transparency and accountability compliance. No third party to ensure all humanitarian interventions/measures comply with the humanitarian principles.
Furthermore, CSOs should be involved in the identification, implementation and evaluation of COVID-19 measures and relief disbursement in Nigeria, and also assessing government’s response strategies to the pandemic.
The job of many CSOs is akin to the 4th arm of government – the Press. Any undue restriction is fundamentally detrimental to our democratic and civic space.
Indeed, Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution that empowers the Press and other agencies of the Mass Media to hold the government accountable and uphold constitutional tenets should extend to NGOs.
Those who fail to see reason here may be reminded of the 2012 Flood Relief Fund/Donations which was void of transparency – and flood victims never accessing reliefs mobilised by the government – from private, local and international donors.
The duty of good governance and social justice does not halt in times of crisis. CSOs, same as the Press, are the bulwark of our fickle democracy.
By Charles Uche ESQ., Staff Attorney