A hasty, needless demolition!

The demolition of two hotels on the order of the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike has understandably attracted diverse comments, besides raising the legality and wisdom of such a drastic and irreversible action. We should say directly: it was needless, hasty and highhanded at this time.  
 
On its part, the government has maintained that the demolition of Prodest Hotel, Eleme, and Etemeteh Hotel at Onne was for violating the provisions of Executive Order No. RVSG 06/2020 that was issued to curb the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Besides that all persons are required to wear a face mask in the public space, the governor specifically instructed traditional leaders to ensure the closure of hotels, beer parlors, and markets as one step to limit congregation of people and the spread of the dreaded virus. This instruction was followed up with the creation of COVID-19 task forces in the 23 local government areas with a mandate to identify for demolition any of these facilities that breached the shutdown order. 

But why target these hotels? Governor Wike argues that the first case of the infection in the state emanated from a hotel guest, who in turn infected seven other persons adding that COVID -19 poses a serious enough threat to public health to warrant his personal involvement in the fight against it. Furthermore, “we said no hotel should operate within this period… but the PDP Youth Leader in Eleme, Princewill Osaronwa Osaroejiji said to be a guest at the hotel, joined others to flout the Executive Order. Therefore, the executive order rule will be applied”.  Furthermore, those who support the government’s position have put out a long list of the ‘sins’ of Prodest Hotel. These include that the hotel has been a den of criminals and a brothel, and has defied repeated warnings.

Indeed, it is alleged that a COVID-19 task force at the hotel to investigate the breach of the government order was chased away at gunpoint and one of its operatives (yet to be named) was shot and later died. So, while other erring hotels were subjected to due process of the law, Prodest and Etemeteh hotels were summarily dealt with.  But the point arises: if a hotel posed a threat to public safety, why did the state government wait until now to apply the full weight of the law?  It seems, therefore, that dereliction for whatever reason – political interest, personal connection – on the part of the Wike government emboldened some persons to continue to defy the law, the latest being the Executive Order. This is to say that, but for overreaching itself, Prodest would have carried on its alleged nefarious activities at the cost of the peace of mind of the Eleme community. That is not at all good governance.

Doubtless, these hotels were certainly wrong to open for business in defiance of clear and lawful instruction of the state government. And if, as alleged, PDP Youth Leader Osarojiji indeed challenged the COVID-19 team that visited the hotel, that was an irresponsible act by a leader. 

But was the outright demolition of the multibillion-naira buildings a reasonable first option for such a breach of the law?  Governor Wike asserted that irrespective of party affiliation “all we are saying is that nobody is above the law”. Very well.  However, we should think this irreversible destruction was a hasty, an overreaction on the part of the governor, and an act of highhandedness on the part of the government he heads. It stands to reason therefore that it would have been more sensible to take possession of the property for prosecution in a law court.  For example, the six flat structure seized from former Minister of Petroleum Allison Madueke, has, lately, been given to the Lagos State government to be used as a COVID-19 isolation center. Had it been demolished earlier, for whatever reason, it could not now serve so useful a purpose.  And what if the owners ever get judicial pronouncement against the Wike action, only the state government will bear the cost of a hasty decision. 

The legality of the governor’s act has been raised in some quarters. First, we should note that in recent times, citizens’ property has been demolished or more starkly put, destroyed. In Kaduna State, the property of a political opponent was brought down arbitrarily. In Oyo State, a former governor ordered partial destruction of a private radio station. In Anambra State, the incumbent governor once thought that one way to deal with criminality was to destroy the buildings that housed perpetrators.

It is difficult to find wisdom in these acts of destructiveness. Indeed, the opinion has been expressed – and we would not disagree – that wanton destruction of the structure at the whim of government discourages investment in property. Surely, these structures could have been used as exhibits in court to justify take-over by the government in the public interest. 
 
Did Wike act within his lawful powers?  Arguably yes. Section 14 (2) (b) says, “The security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government…” This is, ipso facto, the first responsibility of Wike as the head of the state government and acting, of course, within the powers granted by Section 5(2) and (3) of the Constitution.  No one will deny that COVID-19 threatens the security and welfare of the polity. And the state chief executive acted within the executive order – but not to be the prosecutor and the judge.  
 
But an executive order remains what it is. An executive order, as issued by the competent authority and not inconsistent with the provisions of the extant Constitution, has the force of law. But does Executive Order 6 cover the destruction of private property without due process? Did the hasty demolition of these hotels not violate the fundamental rights of the property owners?  

These are questions that can only be conclusively resolved by judicial interpretation. And the government has said that, “those aggrieved by its action should approach the courts for interpretation”. We are persuaded that the governor, a lawyer, should have asked for the justification of his action from a court of law before demolition. That is why we feel that the action of the governor is needless and reckless at this time that the nation needs local and foreign investors – who always rely on the rule of law, rather than the rule of one powerful man. 

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