A traveller sanitises his hands in Lagos, Nigeria, July 1 2020. Picture: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP
A traveller sanitises his hands in Lagos, Nigeria, July 1 2020. Picture: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP

Nigerian doctor Avwebo Otoide had just finished visiting a patient when a Toyota Hilux with flashing lights pulled her over. A man with a flak jacket jumped out, pointed a gun at her and demanded she show her identity document. As she rummaged in her bag to find her medical card, he slapped her on the head.

She was pushed into the car by men she later learnt were air force officers, driven to an isolation centre for coronavirus patients and ordered to sit on the floor. She was released after the intervention of colleagues after she managed to send them videos of her arrest.

The experience left her with a lingering headache and raging anger at the conditions Nigerian physicians face as they work overtime to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s degrading when people slap you,” Otoide said of the incident a month ago in the city of Port Harcourt. “I’m a doctor and that gives me certain benefits. What if this happens to a young lady who strolls to the pharmacy to pick up medication? What if this had happened to a man? They could have shot him.”

Harassment by the police and the military is nothing new in Nigeria, but it’s increased sharply since the government deployed additional security agents to enforce movement restrictions imposed under the outbreak.

That’s threatening the response to the pandemic in Africa’s most populous nation as physicians report incidents of extortion, beatings and arbitrary detention, according to the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors, which represents about 18,000 physicians.

“The issue of assault has been going on for a while but escalated during the Covid-19 period,” said Bilqis Muhammad, the association’s secretary-general. “This is not the most unjust thing to happen to people who are trying to save lives in a weakened health system, it’s also harming our Covid surveillance and response across the nation.”

Nigerian security agents killed more people in the first two weeks of March than the coronavirus did, according to data from the National Human Rights Commission and the Centre for Disease Control. While 11 people died after contracting the virus, 18 others were killed by members of the police, the army, the correctional service and special Covid-19 task forces.

Among recent incidents are a doctor who, while collecting samples from suspected coronavirus cases, was ordered to pay a levy to a mobile court after refusing to bribe a policeman. He then refused to pay the levy and was detained for eight hours. Another physician in the city of Uyo had his arm fractured by security forces on his way to work.

Nigerian medical practitioners already face the hazards of dealing with the virus that has infected at least 210 doctors and killed 10. Almost 900 doctors complained they didn’t have adequate personal protective equipment.

And, despite assurances from the health ministry that the government would get life insurance for medical personnel, none of the doctors who contracted the illness received an insurance policy, according to the association.

A strike last month to demand allowances and more protective equipment led to talks with the government that are still ongoing.

Information minister Lai Mohammed and Nigeria Police Force spokesperson Frank Uba didn’t answer several calls requesting comment. Mohammed’s spokesperson said he couldn’t comment on the issue of harassment because he doesn’t know if it’s still happening.

Advocacy groups including Amnesty International began documenting human rights violations by members of the Nigerian police and army years ago. In 2017 local activists started a campaign to draw attention to rampant abuse by a police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad urging the government to dismantle it and encouraging people to share stories of abuse by officers of the squad on social media. After months of denial, the government finally acknowledged the problem and in late 2018 pledged to overhaul the unit.

Yet there are few signs of change. A fresh outcry erupted in May, when a 16-year-old girl was killed at a bus stop in the country’s biggest city, Lagos, by a stray bullet from a police patrol enforcing the lockdown. The local police command arrested two officers and promised an investigation after the launch of an online campaign inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and backed by Nigerian celebrities.

For Imoh Onyema, who works at the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital’s emergency department, reforms can’t come soon enough. Onyema was stopped at a checkpoint after his evening shift and made to sit on the roadside for more than two hours by Covid-19 security personnel.

“Their team leader told me I was lucky that night — had I been a banker, he said, he would have seriously dealt with me because he hates them,” he said.

The following day, at the same junction, he was turned back by police and forced to spend the night in his car at the hospital’s parking lot. “This has been going on for far too long,” Onyema said. “You need to see the checkpoints to know it’s still happening.”

Bloomberg

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