•Babalola, others disagree on closure of universities
By Alex Enumah in Abuja and Victor Ogunje in Ado Ekiti
The COVID-19 pandemic continued its rage yesterday, claiming billionaire businessman and legal icon, Chief Bolu Akin-Olugbade.
According to family sources, he died in Lagos at a private hospital accredited to manage the killer virus. He was 61.
Known for his love for Rolls Royce, its largest collector, he was the Aare Onakakanfo of Owu Kingdom and had a massive business interest, spanning property development, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution, maritime and offshore services and investment banking.
His death coincided with a raging controversy over the constitutionality of the mass closure of Nigeria’s universities by the federal government as some Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) disagreed with the position of a legal luminary and founder of Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti (ABUAD), Chief Afe Babalola (SAN), who said the shutdown has no legal basis.
This is coming as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has kicked against prolonged closure of schools, stressing that schools are not the drivers of the pandemic and that “no effort should be spared” to keep children in school.
Babalola yesterday described as unconstitutional, the mass closure of Nigerian universities by the federal government due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Babalola said such action would turn out to be counterproductive and disastrous to the education sector, especially closing down of private schools without prior consultation.
He spoke yesterday in Ado Ekiti at a press conference espousing his views about an attempt by the federal government to defer the resumption of universities earlier slated for January 18.
He was reacting to the statement credited to the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, that the January 18 earlier set by the federal government for school resumption would be reviewed.
Expressing opposition to mass closure of universities, the Legal icon said: “I am of the firm view that mass closure of schools is unconstitutional, disastrous and counter-productive.
“It is certainly unjust to the parents, teachers, students and proprietors of schools and also violates the rule of natural justice.”
Babalola disclosed that the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention had put all these into consideration when it officially recommended that universities should be accorded preferential treatment under COVID- 19 in terms of operations.
According to him, “The USCDC said universities are different in terms of size, geographical location, structure and in their abilities to put in place measures that will guarantee minimum risk to students and teachers in their schools, which in turn will ensure undisrupted and on-campus learning for students.
“On the contrary, universities which do not possess these facilities are within the high-risk category.
“I hereby strongly advise that the federal government should stop mass closure of schools. All schools, particularly the private universities that have the required world-class health facilities and have complied with Presidential Task Force regulations, which will enable them to implement low medium risk measures ought not and should not be shut down.
“To shut them down with those which don’t have such facilities is unjust and violates the terms of natural justice and, therefore, unconstitutional.”
He said his 11 years old university has been having a smooth and uninterrupted academic calendar before abrupt disruption by COVID-19, thereby stalling operations and closure of the university in spite of the world-class facilities it parades to prevent the spread of the lethal disease.
“The federal government should know that schools in Ekiti are safer than those located in the heart of Lagos. We must consider the geographical location. Any worker here who goes to Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt goes for special test and seven days isolation. This underscored the level of our preparedness,” Babalola explained.
He urged the federal government to emulate foreign countries by paying the salaries of lecturers in the private universities, which were shut down because of COVID-19.
Babalola reminded the federal government that to make the low-risk private universities remain shut down to wait for high-risk one will make the ivory towers remain in comatose for a long time.
On whether he will approach the court to challenge the closure of private universities, he said: “I am not going to court, because we have not exhausted the option of negotiation and local remedy. I am a friend of the federal government and I know that the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) will look into it.”
On how his university has been affected adversely, Babalola explained: “We can’t even quantify our losses. We have been following international standard, which was September to July academic session before this global problem.
“We have done seven convocations in 10 years. We used to pay salaries on the 24th of the months and nobody has been sacked despite this suspension of work. But this has affected our purse. How can we be paying for services not rendered? This is unfair.
“That is why we are calling on the federal government to pay the salaries of workers in private universities if they still want to continue with this closure. That was the method adopted in foreign countries.”
SANs Back FG on Closure of Schools
Reacting to the government’s closure of schools over the COVID-19 pandemic, some senior lawyers, however, noted that protection of lives and property, which is one of the constitutional duties of the government should be paramount owing to the devastating effect of the pandemic.
The lawyers while calling for the understanding of Nigerians, however, advised the government to engage stakeholders on how to best mitigate the challenges posed by COVID-19 in the entire polity.
According to Mallam Ahmed Raji (SAN), the decision to shut down schools in other to contain the spread of the virus “is a reasonably justifiable step which can be accommodated under the constitution.”
While noting that rights are not absolute, Raji said: “In a pandemic, the state must take proportionate extra-legal measures to secure the populace.”
He, however, stated that such measures must be proportionate and reasonable.
“If you look at the UK and other parts of the world on the same issue, I don’t think the government has acted wrongly.
“The pandemic appears real and we should all cooperate with the government to control it especially having regards to our state of medical services, which are already overwhelmed,” he said.
Apparently sharing similar views with Raji, another senior lawyer, Rev. John Baiyeshea (SAN), while stating that governors have the constitutional right to take any step(s), to protect children and students in educational institutions, stressed that with the ravaging effect of the pandemic, “governments whether federal or state must take proactive steps to protect their citizens and prevent disastrous consequences of massive loss of precious lives.”
He urged Nigerians to put aside sentiment, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic is a global phenomenon that governments all over are struggling to grapple with.
He said: “We have seen the closure of schools and lockdowns in the United Kingdom, Europe generally, here in America and other places.
“This is not the time to be legalistic. But even if we want to be, I will advise that we focus on what I call on my own, ‘legalistic reality.’ This is to the effect that we (the government and the governed), have to be alive to be able to take legal options.”
Saying everyone is from home or a family, he explained that the government officials, judges, lawyers, politicians have children or students in schools, and that no one wants to put the lives of their children at risk.
He appealed to Nigerians to tread cautiously and cooperate with governments for the safety and good of all.
Mr. Dayo Akinlaja (SAN) said: “It is not out of place for the government to take whatever measures necessary to protect all and sundry at the expense of business interests.”
According to him, the government has a responsibility to safeguard public health and safety.
He, however, urged the government to strike a balance with other imperatives like education and related activities in the country.
To achieve such a balance he advised that the government engaged all stakeholders in proffering solutions to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Taking these into consideration, what the government needs to do in my humble view is to interface with all stakeholders with a view to ensuring that all interests are duly protected.
“The pandemic is really terrifying at the moment. With proper interactions among all concerned, there will be understanding and mutual acceptability on the way forward,” he explained.
Schools Not Drivers of COVID-19, Says UNICEF
Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has kicked against the prolonged closure of schools, stressing that schools are not the drivers of the pandemic and that “no effort should be spared” to keep children in school.
In a statement posted to UNICEF’s website on Tuesday, the head of the UN agency, Ms. Henrietta Fore, argued that closing schools should be “measure of last resort,” as the pandemic continues into a second year.
“Despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of school closures on children, and despite increasing evidence that schools are not drivers of the pandemic, too many countries have opted to keep schools closed, some for nearly a year,” Fore said in a statement.
She highlighted that the cost of closing schools has been devastating, with 90 per cent of students globally facing shutdowns at the peak of the COVID-19 disruptions last year, leaving more than a third of schoolchildren with no access to remote education.
“The number of out-of-school children is set to increase by 24 million, to a level we have not seen in years and have fought so hard to overcome,” she said.
“Children’s ability to read, write and do basic math has suffered, and the skills they need to thrive in the 21st-century economy have diminished,” she added.
According to her, keeping children at home puts their health, development, safety and well-being at risk with the most vulnerable bearing the heaviest brunt.
She pointed out that without school meals, children are “left hungry and their nutrition is worsening;” without daily peer interactions and less mobility, they are “losing physical fitness and showing signs of mental distress;” and without the safety net that school often provides, they are “more vulnerable to abuse, child marriage and child labour.”
“That’s why closing schools must be a measure of last resort, after all other options have been considered,” stressed the top UNICEF official.
Assessing transmission risks at the local level should be “a key determinant” in decisions on school operations, she said.
She also flagged that nationwide school closures are avoided, whenever possible.
“Where there are high levels of community transmission, where health systems are under extreme pressure and where closing schools is deemed inevitable, safeguarding measures must be put in place,” the UNICEF chief added.
Moreover, it is important that children who are at risk of violence in their homes, who are reliant upon school meals and whose parents are essential workers, continue their education in classrooms.
After lockdown restrictions are lifted, she said that schools must be among the first to reopen and catch-up classes should be prioritised to keep children who were unable to learn remotely from being left behind.
“If children are faced with another year of school closures, the effects will be felt for generations to come,” she added.