Monday, December 28, 2015

Human rights situation in Nigeria

The world celebrates the International Human Rights Day on December 10 of every year. This year was not an exception. The theme for 2015 was "Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always." There were roadshows and symposia organised by the National Human Rights Commission in Nigeria while a number of electronic media outfits also held discussions around the human rights situation in Nigeria. In a vox populi conducted by one of the television stations, many of the respondents said they do not believe there are human rights in Nigeria. They hinged their submission on the parlous state of the economy as there is raging poverty, unemployment, decadent infrastructure, insecurity, etcetera. If one reads reports from international organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, one would be tempted to say that there is absence of human rights in Nigeria. However, I beg to differ.

There are several international legal instruments on human rights. Some of them include, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of  1966; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of  1966; International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 1984; Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989; and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of 2006. Nigeria is a signatory to many of these legal instruments.

It is noteworthy that Nigerian 1999 Constitution, as amended in Chapter IV provided for a wide range of fundamental rights. Fundamental human rights, it should be noted, is one of the three pillars of Rule of Law as propounded by Prof. Albert Venn Dicey. The other two are Supremacy of the Law (Constitution) and Equality before the Law. In the referenced chapter of the Nigerian Constitution, the ‘grundnorm’ guarantees a number of fundamental rights. These include: Right to life in Section 33; Right to dignity of human person in S. 34; Right to personal liberty in S. 35; Right to fair hearing in S. 36, Right to private and family life in S. 37, Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in S. 38.

Others are:  Right to freedom of expression and the press in S.39, Right to peaceful assembly and association in S. 40, Right to freedom of movement in S. 41, Right to freedom from discrimination in S. 42, and Right to acquire and own immovable property in Nigeria in S. 43. Of course, no human right is absolute as where one person’s rights end is where another person’s begins. Thus, section 45 of the Nigerian Constitution sets limit to all the aforementioned fundamental rights. It says the rights can be restricted for the sake of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.   

I quite agree that Nigeria human rights situation could be better but it is a work in progress. We honestly cannot compare the present situation to what obtains under Nigeria’s 28 years of military rule. In case we have forgotten, during military era, the Constitution is suspended and court jurisdiction is ousted on many of the decrees and edicts they promulgated. There was flagrant disregard for human rights as there were indiscriminate arrest and detention without trials, gagging of the media through censorship and proscription, as well as assassinations and assassination attempts on human rights crusaders and pro-democracy activists. Under Nigeria’s past military juntas, life was in Hobbesian state – brutish, nasty and short.

Since the advent of the civil rule in 1999, our civil and political rights have been largely restored. We choose our leaders through periodic elections and thus far, we have had five general elections in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015. Initially, we used to ask if the votes do count. From the experiences of 2011 and 2015, we now know that votes count. Nigerian election are becoming competitive as contestants and their political parties have now learnt to campaign on issues rather than looking for short cut of rigging their way to victory.

The courts and election tribunals have stood like Rock of Gibraltar to correct whatever imperfections and errors are committed by the election management bodies. I say without equivocation that Nigeria is enjoying tremendous political rights. I must hasten to add that the EMBs can still better the conduct of elections by ensuring an inclusive electoral process that affords persons on election duties right to vote. The category of persons affected here includes the poll workers, the accredited observers, accredited journalists, accredited security agents and party agents. Early voting provision will ensure that such people cast their ballot at special polling centres ahead of the day for the general elections. There has also been clamour for Out-of-country voting for Nigerians in Diaspora. There is equally the need to provide the voting aids for persons with disability, especially the blind voter. Making these possible will guarantee a more inclusive electoral process.

I have earlier itemised the civil rights of Nigerians as encapsulated in Chapter IV of the Nigerian Constitution. Today, the country is a secular country with no state religion. As such people practice their religion largely without let or hindrance saves for the isolated cases of religious extremism. The recent march on the National Assembly by some civil society groups over what they termed anti-social media bill goes a long way to emphasize the presence of freedom of expression in Nigeria. Nowadays, as against during the military regime when there was pervasive cloud of fear, these days people freely express themselves. They ask questions and demand for answers. More often than not, governments have been compelled to respond to citizens need.  The passage and assent to the Freedom of Information Act is a further testimony that human rights are taking root in Nigeria. Our flourishing and vibrant media practice also lends credence to the enjoyment of freedom of expression.

We should also not lose sight of the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission 20 years ago by the military junta of late Gen. Sani Abacha. NHRC whose enabling act was further strengthened in 2010 now has wide ranging powers including the power to summon witnesses and equating her decisions at par with the decision of the High Court.  It would be recalled that in August this year NHRC summoned the military authority to produce within 72 hours some soldiers who asked a citizen to roll in muddy water along Mararaba Road in Nassarawa State. This was complied with.  That is unthinkable during the military era. 

It is on record that many individuals and non-governmental organisations have been engaging in public interest litigations. Many persons have also sought redress for the breach or abuse of their fundamental rights through different available mechanisms such as lodging complaints with the police, NHRC, NGOs, Alternative Dispute Resolution clinics, ombudsman, Office of Public Defender and even courts. Those who dare to fight for their rights have won while those who sleep on theirs privately lick their wounds. It bears mentioning that the former deputy governor of Enugu State, Mr. Sunday Onyebuchi, who was impeached on August 26, 2014 have had his impeachment nullified by Enugu High Court just last Friday, December 18, 2015.  

As earlier mentioned, Nigeria is not yet there in terms of having full-fledged observance of all fundamental human rights. However, we have made appreciable progress as I have pointed out. All we need to do as citizens is to continue to fight for our rights be they political, economic or social.

Follow me on twitter @jideojong