By Adebayo Okeowo and Loui Mainga

The police in many African countries are known to resort to excessive use of force while carrying out their function of law enforcement. So, when African governments started deploying their security agents to enforce lockdowns imposed as a control measure against the spread of COVID19, some started getting worried at the prospects of increased police brutality during engagements with citizens, and organizations like Human Rights Watch cautioned against violations of human rights by security agents.

It soon became apparent that such worries were not misplaced as we have begun to see, through video footages, that the police will shoot first and ask questions later. With their draconian approach to imposing lockdowns and curfews, the police in African countries like Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria are only creating further distrust between citizens and the institutions mandated to protect them. At a time of global crisis when we should see humanity at its best, the police have instead turned it into another show of force.

Granted, this is a public emergency situation and extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. Nevertheless, human rights are meant to be protected even during emergency situations. It has already been stated that violators of the lockdown and curfew orders in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, will be fined or made to face jail time. These are the measures the police should apply against erring individuals and not an assortment of torture, beatings and inhumane treatment.

The notion that citizens have to be subdued into compliance through the use of force goes contrary to every element of the right to human dignity, which is a right that cannot be curtailed even during a time of emergency. Article 4 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights clearly stipulates that even though governments may limit human rights in times of public emergencies, there shall be no derogation from rights such as the inherent right to life and the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Sadly, these are the exact same rights that are presently being violated under the guise of enforcing lockdown and curfew orders.

In addition to the violence meted out against civilians, we are also seeing an attack on journalists who are filming the police in the course of their duty. These attacks go contrary to the African Commission’s resolution on the safety of journalists and is a contravention of the right to record which is duly recognized under international law. They also violate Article 66(c) of the 2015 Revised ECOWAS Treaty, which mandates governments to respect the rights of journalists.

COVID19 is a common enemy and we win by working together. During times like this, the actions of law enforcement agents must continue to be lawful, proportionate and in conformity with human rights. As video continues to expose the injustices perpetrated by some police officers, we urge governments to condemn such actions and hold the officers accountable, as we have seen done in Nigeria and South Africa.

We have created a video that highlights some of the violations carried out by security forces during the COVID19 lockdown in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. Watch here:


Learn more about documenting human rights abuses in the links below and at


Adebayo Okeowo is the Program Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa at WITNESS. Prior to joining WITNESS, he worked as the Advocacy Coordinator for the Centre for Human Rights based in South Africa, during which time he led continent-wide campaigns that addressed human rights abuses against marginalized and vulnerable groups

Loui Mainga is the Communications and Social Media Consultant for Sub-Saharan Africa at WITNESS. Prior to WITNESS, Loui worked at Malaria No More for 3 years as a New Media Strategist where he was very instrumental in raising the public interest component of the malaria conversation in Kenya through digital platforms. 

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