The coming into force of the Compulsory Treatment And Care For Victims Of Gunshots Act may have been delayed but it is certainly gratifying that it is here now to put straight an illegal process of denying people with such wounds medical attention even if they were not criminals. The Gunshot Act specifically stipulates that a person with gunshot wound shall be received for immediate and adequate treatment by any hospital in Nigeria with or without initial monetary deposit. This particular clause, in our view, is the most important provision of the law that will help the poor and vulnerable who get caught in the line of fire. Furthermore, the law states that a person with gunshot wound shall not be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment or torture by any person or authority, including the Police and other security agencies.
At the enactment into law of the Robbery and Firearms (Special Provision) Act, Cap 398 of 1984, there followed an unfortunate misinterpretation of its provisions that led to the refusal of medical practitioners to attend to gunshot victims which often resulted in loss of innocent lives. The Police, in particular, insisted that it was an offence to treat a person with gunshot wounds without a report from them permitting the treatment.
However, there was effort by the Police during the tenure of the former Inspector General, Ogbonna Onovo, to put that legislation in its proper perspective. Medical practitioners and other operators of health facilities in Nigeria were advised to save victims of gun-shot wounds and accidents before contacting the Police. This position was in reaction to the controversies over allegations that the Police had banned the treatment of gunshot and accident victims without police report. It was also explained that all that the Police asked of the medical practitioners was to first do their duties, and immediately thereafter inform them of the presence of such wounded persons, as they might find reason to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the injuries or gunshot.
The issue of conditional access to medication by victims of gunshot in Nigeria generated thorny arguments among scholars, policy makers, medical practitioners and the general public because the central thesis of the argument from all sides revolved around the issue of saving lives vi’s-a-vis the provision of the extant law. But it was generally agreed that the refusal of hospitals and other medical facilities to attend to gunshot victims amounted to a negation of the fundamental human rights to life of those victims as enshrined in the relevant sections of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
In the process of that misinterpretation, innocent victims of violence in the society lost their lives because medical attention was denied them in time to give them life- saving succour. Even more ironic was the fact that doctors who, in obedience to the Hippocratic Oath they took to save lives, treated such patients on the basis of that oath, got entangled in the overzealous interpretation of a non-existent law as in most cases they were labelled by security agencies as accomplices.
By the provisions of the new law, victims of gunshots will now have a right to unrestricted access to medical services just as it also strengthens the legal provisions that guarantee their fundamental rights to life and dignity of their persons as enshrined in the Constitution.
The law covers all aspects of gunshot injuries and the circumstances in which they were incurred. However, it also makes provisions that states that it is the duty of any person, hospital or clinic that admits, treats or administers drug to any person suspected of having bullet wounds to immediately report the matter to the police who have powers under this law to immediately commence investigation into the circumstances surrounding the gunshot wound as soon as they receive a report from the hospital authority.
Even at that, the law restricts them from taking the victim away from the facility until it is certified by the Chief Medical Director of the hospital that the victim is fit enough to leave and is in no further need of Medicare. The law also makes provision for penalty for doctors who fail to notify the police of such cases or anyone who wilfully withholds information from the police authority in connection with circumstances surrounding the case.
We commend the lawmakers for facilitating this all-important legislation that will aid the process of saving the lives of unfortunate victims of criminal tendencies in the society. We also commend President Muhammadu Buhari for signing it into law. In our considered opinion, it is now up to the Police and other security agencies to do their bit to ensure that its provisions are implemented so as to enforce people’s rights according to the law.