COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the enjoyment of human rights in various countries, particularly socio-economic rights such as the right to an adequate standard of living, right to work, right to an education and most important right to an adequate standard of health. Nigeria is no exception. However, in addition to the ordinary barriers to realising the promise of socio-economic rights, the lack of justiciability of socio-economic rights in Nigeria is a substantive barrier to holding the government accountable. This is an area ripe for reform.
The first case of COVID-19 was announced in Nigeria on February 27, 2020. In response, the Nigerian government announced various measures intended to safeguard the socio-economic interests of its citizens. On March 24, the Federal House of Representatives passed into law the Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill to support businesses and individuals through tax rebates and mortgage deferrals. On April 1, 2020, The government also announced the transfer of 20,000 Naira ($52) to poor households registered under the National Social Register. The Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs Disaster Management and Social Development likewise also announced that food rations would be provided to vulnerable households. Expectedly, problems of weak accountability systems, fragmented data, and information monitoring systems, have marred these processes and have rendered them inadequate and inefficient.
Further, the intended beneficiaries of these measures face a significant hurdle in holding the government accountable: the constitutional position on social-economic rights. While socio-economic rights are recognised under international and regional human rights law, there is no express recognition of socio-economic rights under the Nigerian constitution. Matters relevant to socio-economic rights are generally regarded as fundamental objectives of government policy under the Nigerian constitution. Accordingly, no legal action can be brought against the government for any failings regarding these policies. This implicitly suggests that any failures in the implementation of the social-economic measures outlined above cannot be the subject of any legal action.
Nigeria has incorporated the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights which recognises socio-economic rights into its domestic law through the African Charter (Ratification and Enforcement) Act. However, the domestic law incorporating the African Charter is also subject to this constitutional provision, rendering the rights under the Act fundamental objectives of government policy and contradicting the spirit of “ratification” regarding the African Charter. This position is similarly applicable to the Nigerian Child Rights Act, which outlines socio-economic rights with respect to children.
The prevailing low level of accountability for socio-economic rights protection is worrisome in a society with high levels of poverty and unemployment, and high infant mortality rates. Constitutional recognition of socio-economic rights as fundamental rights, while not necessarily the panacea to all problems deriving from socio-economic rights, gives greater room for judicial intervention in holding the government accountable in implementing socio-economic measures and provides an avenue for seeking judicial remedies for violations of such rights. A constitutional amendment, while important in itself, may not be sufficient. Socio-economic rights must be protected in the manner contemplated under international human rights law with the Nigerian government required to “respect, protect and fulfil” these rights. Compliance with such obligations would, for instance, imply higher budgetary allocations to health, education, social security and job creation.
The devastating socio-economic impact of COVID-19 brings to the fore the importance of legal protection of socio-economic rights. The current constitutional position on this subject is no longer feasible and must be reviewed.