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State of emergency: The high stakes

Yesterday’s declaration of a state of emergency (SOE) in the strife-torn states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa is a culmination of measures aimed at taming the rising ogre of religious extremism and outlaw behaviour by members of the Islamist Boko Haram sect.

The insurgency which began in 2009, has so far defied several measures put in place by government to bring down the seeming intractable uprising in the North-East zone and other close outposts. The nation had witnessed emergency rule only twice in its odyssey. It was experienced in the western region during the First Republic following mass political revolts and violence in the area. Again, in this Fourth Republic, ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo had cause to declare emergency rule in Ekiti and Plateau states.

The emergency rule in Ekiti had major General Tunji Olurin in-charge, with the absolute dissolution of democratic structures. However, the S.O.E declared by President Goodluck Jonathan yesterday in the three states is a variant of the one we had in Ekiti and Plateau, but nonetheless conforms to international standards and conventions.

A state of emergency is a governmental declaration which usually suspends a few normal functions of the executive, legislative and judicial powers, alert citizens to change their normal behaviours, or order government agencies to implement emergency preparedness plans. It can also be used as a rationale for suspending rights and freedoms, even if guaranteed under the constitution.

Such declarations usually come during a time of natural or man made disaster, during periods of civil unrest, or following a declaration of war, or situation of international or internal armed conflict. Justitium is its equivalent in Roman law. Interestingly, this is the first time the nation is witnessing SOE due to internal armed conflict. Although, in this case, the democratic structures have been left in place, including the governors, who are ordinarily constitutionally situated as Chief Security Officers, the new SOE has far-reaching implications on their powers.

In some countries, the state of emergency and its effects on human rights and freedoms and governmental procedure are regulated by the constitution and/or a law that limits the powers that may be invoked. In line with yesterday’s declaration, rights and freedoms have been suspended and the security forces have been invested with far-reaching powers which include, but not limited to wide range searches of houses, impairment of freedom of movements, bans, restrictions and mass arrests etc, without recourse to the constitutional authorities in the affected state. It is tantamount to a war situation. In many countries, it is illegal to modify the emergency law or the constitution during the emergency.

A closer look at the SOE in the three states also shows that it does not automatically affect the operations of private enterprise. Travel is not automatically banned; businesses and schools are not automatically closed. In extreme circumstances, roads may be closed to all but emergency traffic, restricting normal travel. The security forces are authorized to exercise certain powers including the power to exercise any and all authority over persons and property necessary for meeting the state of emergency objective, including the taking and using of property for the protection of the commonwealth. Actions such as ordering evacuations, restricting access mass arrests, implementing curfews, are likely to be experienced.

Power in the balance In the new SOE, the governors are likely to provide a balance of support for military operations. These may include logistics, and other support services. With the massive control of vast areas of the affected states especially Borno, by the sect, the area in the last 11 months have witnessed unrestrained hemorrhage of political activities, and exodus of politicians from the enclave to havens. The new measures, may just be one step in restoring confidence to the people and stamping federal authority. Correspondingly, it leaves in the balance the much orchestrated granting of amnesty to members of the sect.

Under international conventions of SOE, granting of amnesty in a state of ‘war’ is akin to putting the cart before the horse. Where then is the place of the Amnesty Committee within the purview of the new comprehensive development? That automatically puts it in dire straits. The days ahead as well as political activities ahead of the 2015 elections will lead the way in the success or unimaginable failure of the plan.

The president, as is widely feared will periodically in line with general expectation, the constitution, and performance of the forces review the SOE in both extremes. The reviews, when, they come will implant the scars and possible booties. For now, the new measure underscores a firm and last gasp push for stability, and peace in the endangered states.