COVID-19 AND THE RIGHT TO HOUSING IN NIGERIA
‘Bunmi Afinowi LL.M (UNILAG), PhD (UCT)
Lecturer, Department of Private and Property Law, Faculty of Law, University of Lagos
In December 2019 the Chinese CDC reported COVID-19 as a novel coronavirus[i]. By the 11th of March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic[ii], and called on all countries to take ‘urgent and aggressive action’[iii]. In line with WHO advice, the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) on the 30th of March, by a Regulation made pursuant to the Quarantine Act, directed a restriction of all business and social activities (lockdown) within three states of the Federation. By this ‘lockdown’ (which was eased at the end of April) the FGN directed, amongst other things, that every person was ‘confined to his place of residence’[iv]. At the State level, Lagos State Government (LASG) made similar Regulations restricting movements[v]. The immediate implication of these Regulations was that all citizens and residents of the State were confined to their houses, or dwelling places in order to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other statutory provisions were also activated, such as the provisions of the Public Health Law of Lagos State which provides for ‘the evacuation of dwelling places’ in the event of the outbreak of an infectious disease[vi]. The law further makes it unlawful for people to continually dwell in a place that has been declared as requiring evacuation by virtue of an infectious disease.
The stay home directive is premised on the ground that people would be safer from the pandemic in their homes, that their homes are adequate to keep them safe and prevent the spread of the pandemic. The question then is, how adequate are the housing conditions for most of the citizenry in the light of the realities of COVID-19?
While the lockdown and stay-home directives are aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, it highlights the problem of the inadequacy of housing for the majority of the populace. The failure of the government to fulfil its obligations to safeguard the adequacy and the right to housing make the stay-home directive particularly unbearable for the citizenry, especially the urban poor. For instance, the lockdown makes remote working and learning an imperative. However, the lack of energy supply in most homes makes remote working a futile exercise, also, most people’s livelihoods entails leaving home. In terms of safeguarding public health, the absence of essential services such as waste disposal, water for sanitation and hygiene, sewage disposal and ventilation in most homes pose a major setback in this regard. The absence of these basic services not only makes housing inadequate but could also promote the spread of diseases between households, especially an easily transmitted disease such as the COVID-19 coronavirus. Particularly in houses where tenants have to share conveniences, kitchen spaces and other common spaces and facilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown directive by both the FGN and LASG make it imperative to consider the status of the housing rights of citizens as guaranteed by the government at various levels in Nigeria. Both the Federal and State Regulations have overreaching implications on the right to housing, and a meaningful and adequate standard of living. While the right to housing is not explicitly recognised in Nigeria, the need for adequate housing is implicit in the realisation of many other fundamental and socio-economic rights recognised in Nigeria[vii]. The right to housing is recognised as a component of the socio-economic right to an adequate standard of living which is provided for in the UN Charter[viii]. These two instruments, which Nigeria has signed and ratified cover a broad spectrum of rights including water, sanitation, healthcare, protection for the vulnerable and most importantly, housing. In the light of government obligation to ensure the adequacy of housing and living conditions, the African Charter provides for the right, amongst others, to the enjoyment of the best attainable state of physical and mental health, and the integrity of that human person[ix]. Furthermore, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides for the protection from unlawful interference with one’s privacy, family and home[x]. When these rights are considered in the light of social and economic factors, they create an obligation on the part of the government to protect human wellbeing and dignity.
While Nigeria does not explicitly provide for a right to adequate housing, it is recognised as a fundamental objective and non-justiciable obligation of the government under Chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria[xi]. In line with this government objective, there is the National Housing Policy (NHP) 2012, which iterates the need for qualitative, affordable and adequate housing. In line with international standards, the NHP recognises adequate housing as entailing factors such as accessibility, safety, comfort, functionality, affordability, and the provision of energy and other basic resources such as water for sanitation and hygiene all provided to ensure an improved quality of life and ‘continuous maintenance of the built environment for the daily living activities of individuals/families within the community’[xii].
During the pandemic, the living conditions of many inhabitants of the country made it impracticable to practice ‘social distancing’ or isolation (in the event of exposure to risks of COVID-19). In general, the present COVID-19 pandemic highlights the gross inadequacy of housing for many citizens of Nigeria. The pandemic further highlights the absence of basic resources that make for adequate housing, such as water for sanitation and hygiene. For instance, the living conditions of many inhabitants of the country – as a result of the inadequacy of housing and basic infrastructure – make it impracticable to practice ‘social distancing’ or isolation (in the event of exposure to risks of COVID-19).
What then is the way forward?
In the case of The Social and Economic Rights Action Center, and another v. Nigeria, Comm. No. 155/96, (2001). The African Commission held that there was a nexus between the right to health, the right to a clean environment, right to housing and the right to life. In the case above, the Commission highlighted the secondary obligations of the State to protect and fulfil these rights. Due to the non-justiciability of the right to housing in the 1999 Constitution, the decision in the above case provides a viable means for civil society and citizens to hold the government accountable to its obligations on housing rights by linking it to fundamental rights like the right to life and the enforceability of socio-economic rights. In addition to government action, self-help has become the order of the day as far as the provision of basic amenities is concerned in Nigeria. This is due mainly to the bureaucracy that characterises government action and slows down the provision of public services such as electricity and pipe-borne water. This form of self-help presents a system of informal governance structure that ensures that services are delivered.
For instance, in the thick of the lockdown, many communities received threats of armed robbery attacks, the communities formed vigilante groups from the members of the communities to provide security where it was lacking. Security of life and property contribute to the adequacy or otherwise of housing, especially during the lockdown. In extreme cases, people had to temporarily vacate their dwellings for fear of armed robbery attacks. The community-organised vigilante groups thus helped in the safeguard of lives and property. In the same vein, in the absence of/ in addition to/ regardless of government actions, through pseudo-nodal governance community structures can rise to the occasion to provide resources that would make housing more adequate, such as community efforts to sink boreholes for water provision, the grading of roads and provision of drainages for disposal of waste water.
The novel COVID-19 pandemic has brought to fore the relationship between the living condition of the citizenry and public health. It exposes the deficiencies in our urban governance, especially the housing sector of the Country. This calls for a rethink and upgrading of the status of the right to housing in Nigeria. It also highlights the need for the government to fulfil its housing obligations to protect, fulfil and respect[xiii], irrespective of one’s socio-economic status in the society.
[iv] Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 ‘Implementation Guidance for lockdown Policy’ Quarantine Act, COVID 19 Regulations 2020 of March 2020, and the ‘COVID’19 Regulations No 2, Quarantine Act of April 13th, 2020
[v] Regulations 7, 8, 9 and 10 respectively all made pursuant to Infectious Disease Law of Lagos State and the Quarantine Act
[vi] Section 21(1) of the Public Health Law of Lagos State
[vii] The Social and Economic Rights Action Center and the Center for Economic and Social Rights v. Nigeria Comm. No. 155/96 (2001)
[viii] Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights
[ix] Articles 6 and 14 of the African Charter
[x] Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
[xi] Section 16 of the 1999 Constitution of the FRN. By virtue of section 6(6)(c) the Constitution prohibits any action to enforce the rights provided for in Chapter 2 of the Constitution
[xii] 2012 National Housing Policy of Nigeria, adopted in June 2012
[xiii] UNHabitat, The Right to Housing, Fact Sheet No. 21/Rev.1
No 5 – This blog article is written under the auspices of the British Academy supported Critical Thinking and Writing Workshop for Urban Studies Researchers in Nigeria.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.