A patient with gunshot wound

The recent signing of the Compulsory Treatment and Care for Victims of Gunshot Act by President Muhammadu Buhari has put to rest one of the most worrisome public health issues in Nigeria. But like many, will the Act be enforced by healthcare institutions and the security agencies, Martins Ifijeh asks

When on September 20, 2009, Mr. Ogunbayo Ohu, the then Assistant News Editor of The Guardian was shot at multiple times on a Sunday morning in his house in Egbeda, Lagos, by suspected hired assassins, neigbhours believed he would have survived the gunshots if the nearby hospital he was taken to had offered to treat him.

But, like many hospitals in Nigeria, his neigbhours were asked to go get a police report before they would attend to Bayo, who was obviously in need of an emergency aid as he was getting soaked in the pool of his own blood, and gasping for breathe.

Noticing that the hospital management was not ready to budge, his neigbhours decided to rush him to the General Hospital in Ikeja. But Bayo died on the way to the hospital.

The 45-year-old hardworking political reporter was at the time said to be working on two sensitive stories; one was a certificate forgery report on the then Comptroller General of the Nigerian Custom Service, Abdullahi Dikko, while the other was on certain political developments in some Eastern states.

A popular Chairman of the National Union of Road Transport Workers Union (NURTW), Lagos Chapter, Alhaji Saka Sauladied from gunshot wounds when unidentified gun men stormed his house in Iyana-Ipaja area of Lagos State years ago.

He was rushed to a nearby hospital, but was rejected because his family members and sympathisers who took him there for emergency treatment did not have police report on them. He died before they could get a report from the police.

The cases of Ohu and Saula were even heard of because of their profession and the publicity following their deaths.

Several thousands of poor and innocent Nigerians have died due to rejection by healthcare providers and facilities because their relatives or sympathisers did not have police report on them when they brought them in for treatment.

Many Nigerians, including the same health workers, have watched innocent Nigerians reel in pain, and eventually die from gunshot wounds because police report was unable to be presented following proposed treatment.

While this represented an added burden on Nigerians who, already, are paying out-of-pocket for healthcare, controversy continued to persist on whether doctors and health facilities have an obligation under law to reject victims of gunshot wounds without police reports even when signs clearly show that if emergency aid is not administered to the victims they might end up dying.

Much awaited law enacted

But the recent signing of the Compulsory Treatment and Care for Victims of Gunshot Act, 2017, by President Muhammadu Buhari has somewhat put to rest the worrisome and controversial public health issue since 1960.

It is believed the law has been long over due as thousands of innocent Nigerians already, have lost their lives because health facilities have rejected them on account of not having police reports.

The President’s assent of the Act followed the passage of six bills by the Senate, and the House of Representatives, including the Compulsory Treatment and Care of Victims of Gunshots Bill.

The President also assented to the National Institute for CancerResearch and Treatment (Establishment) Act, 2017 that would provide national direction in cancer research, control and treatment; guide scientific improvements to cancer prevention, treatment and care, and coordinate actions for cancer care.

The rest are Anti-Torture Act 2017; Niger Delta Development Commission (Establishment) Amendment Act,2017; the Federal Capital Territory Water Board (Establishment) Act 2017.

The Gunshot Victims Act 2017 stipulates that a person with a gunshot wound shall be received for immediate and adequate treatment by any hospital in Nigeria with or without initial monetary deposit and shall not be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment or torture by any person or authority, including the police and other security agencies.

The Act, according to stakeholders has put to rest the issue of medical personnel rejecting gunshot victims because they have no police report on them. They also hoped that henceforth, appropriate treatment from medical workers and essential assistance from security agencies should follow treatment of gunshot victims irrespective of the cause of the shooting.

A public health physician, Dr. Ben Akharaiye believes the law has longed been overdue, adding that majority of victims of gunshot wounds were innocent persons. “What we have continued to reiterate then was that it is most like an innocent person that is shot than armed robbers, because these robbers or assassins are the ones holding the guns. Only few of these victims are armed robbers or assassins as the case may be.”

He said the Act is a right step in saving Nigerians from unnecessary and preventable deaths. “The idea of waiting for police reports before treatment is an obsolete idea by our past leaders. It is in itself inhuman to say the least. Imaging the lives that have been lost in this country because of the long wait for police report, or even an outright denial by health facilities!

Will this Act be enforced?

Like many laws that have been passed in the country, will this one be implemented by those concerned? Will hospitals and security agencies follow through with the public health feat?

Dr. Akharaiye believes while the signing of the Act by the President Buhari represents a major breakthrough, there still remains one more step to cross. He believes there must be increased awareness and enlightenment campaign so that those concerned will be aware of the new order. “What guaranty do we have that health facilities will not remain adamant on police report before they treat gunshot victims?” He asked.

Ohu and Saula died primarily from bullets of gunmen, but secondly because health facilities they were taken to rejected them on account of not having police report. This is despite several releases by the Nigerian Police Headquarters at the time that health facilities can treat gunshot wounds without police report.

One of such releases obtained by THISDAY, is the press statement by the Nigerian Police on July 4th,1996 and signed by the then Assistant Commissioner of Police, Force Public Relations Office, Tunji Alapini, where it said it had withdrawn laws against treatment of gunshot victims.

The nationally publicised release quotes: “The Nigeria Police is disturbed by various statements credited to medical practitioners as regard treatment of victims of gun injuries or motor accidents. Medical practitioners have the cardinal responsibility of caring for the injured and the sick according to the ethics of their profession.

“The Nigeria Police will in no way be an obstacle to this important duty. Accordingly, the Inspector General of Police has directed all Police personnel throughout the country not to molest any medical practitioner treating victims of gunshot or motor accident. Members of the public are also at liberty, as good Samaritans, to assist victims of motor accidents and gunshot wounds,” the statement noted.

But despite this widely publicised statement by the police at the time, health institutions and some security personnel continued to live in self denial thereby insisting that police report must be presented before gunshot wounds are treated.

Like the 1996 release, will medical practitioners and the Nigerian Police also live in self denial on this new and laudable signing by President Buhari? Will the Act be enforced? Time will tell.