By CHIEF MIKE A. A. OZEKHOME, SAN, OFR, Ph.D, FCIArb, LL.D.
This write up becomes very timely as tomorrow (June 12, 2020) is Nigeria’s democracy day. Democracy, or at least, acclaim to democracy, is the new trend today. Nigeria, the assumed giant of Africa, cannot be left behind in this global movement. However, beyond mere rhetoric, any government worth its name must observe the tenets of democracy as propounded by Abraham Lincoln in his 1863 Gettysburg Declaration.
The entrenchment of fundamental rights in a country’s Constitution is one of the pillars of democracy. Some of the fundamental rights contained in Chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution include the right to life (section 33); the right to personal liberty (section 35); right to dignity of the human person (section 34); right to a fair hearing (section 36); right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, (section 39); among others.
However, Nigeria’s bane over time lies, not in the absence of adequate provisions for these fundamental rights, but in their disregard by successive governments. State actors who are ordinarily supposed to ensure the protection of these rights are the greatest tormentors of the citizens.
Activists, opposition and critics of governments in Nigeria are routinely repressed by agencies and agents of the state, with various governments looking the other way.
This is 2020, but it suddenly feels like we are back to the locust days of 1984. Echoes of Decree No. 4 are reverberating across Nigeria’s civic space. Free speech has been under siege and the constitutional presumption of innocence has since been turned on its head. The courts, which are supposed to be, no more appear to be the last hope of the common man. Nigeria’s nascent democracy appears brazenly endangered, more than ever before. Citizens’ rights no longer matter. There now appears to be a very thin dividing line between the genuine expression of citizens’ expectations from the government, and treason. Criticism of government’s policies is construed as insurrection that must be punished with the sledgehammer of state apparatchik. State governments and Governors appear to have taken hammer the initiative and a cue from a polluted centre.
Fear looms in the subconsciousness of the citizens, opposition, critics and activists alike. “Who is next?”, now seems to be a valid question amongst human rights crusaders, in the face of the shrinking of Nigeria’s civic and political space.
Human Rights activists who dare to speak truth to power and bring to the fore, governments’ inadequacies and failings have become endangered species. Cautious commentary, rather than frank talk about the state of affairs now appears to be the only way to remain safe.
To demand accountability from elected public officials has become an extremely dangerous sport, a mortal sin.
Security agencies are fully engaged in strenuous efforts by state actors to muzzle all known liberties, human rights and the plurality of voices. Security agencies which are supposed to birth an environment of safety for the citizens have instead, heralded anxiety, panic and fear in their lives. Police brutality, extortion and breach of citizens’ right have reached a crescendo.
No one needs the special mystical powers of a seer or clairvoyant, to see that fundamental rights in Nigeria are under siege and beleaguerment, especially from state actors.
DEFINITION OF HUMAN RIGHTS.
Let us start by taking a voyage into the history and concept of human rights as a global concept and as a Nigerian phenomenon.
The United Nations provides a comprehensive explanation of human rights thus:
“Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.”
Going by this definition, human rights form an integral part of every human, regardless of race, tribe, religion, or social status. This view was well echoed by David Kaluge:
“Human rights are those rights which cannot be said to have been given to man by man but are earned by a man for being a human because these are necessary for his continuous happy existence with himself, his fellow man and for participation in a complex society.”
Human rights are thus moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behaviour and are regularly protected as natural and legal rights in both municipal and international law. They are commonly understood as inalienable, because they are fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled (from birth), simply by being a human being. They are therefore inherent in all human beings. Human rights are applicable everywhere and at any time. They are therefore universal. They are also egalitarian because they are the same for everyone.
In OSONDU & ANOR v. A-G ENUGU STATE & ORS (2017) LPELR-43096(CA), Tur, J.C.A., discerned human rights as encompassing fundamental rights in the following words:
“Order 1 Rule 2 of the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 2009 defines “Fundamental Right” and “Human Right” in the following manner: “Fundamental Right – means any of the rights provided for in Chapter IV of the Constitution, and includes any of the rights stipulated in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act. Human Rights – includes fundamental rights.”
HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The United Nations traces the origin of Human Rights to the year 539 BC. When the troops of Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Cyrus freed the slaves, and declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. The Magna Carter of 1215 accepted by King John of England marked the birth of modern democracy.
Following the birth of the United Nations in 1945, the need to prioritise the protection of human rights of persons, the world over, gained traction and this culminated in the proclamation of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. Perhaps, nothing more eloquently illustrates the intent and commitment of the United Nations to the promotion of human rights than the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948:
“Now, therefore, The General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
HUMAN RIGHTS IN NIGERIA IN THE LAST ONE YEAR
Perhaps, nothing best illustrates the premium placed on human rights in Nigeria than the fact that the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as altered, entrenches fundamental rights in Chapter 4.
Nigeria, through Chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution, has never been one to shy away from appearing to take the lead in embracing global best practices in constitutional provisions on human rights. Nigeria’s problem has always been more about the lack of political will to walk the talk. With regards to human rights, successive Nigerian governments have shown a grave aversion for respecting and upholding the rights of citizens. Indeed, it is ironic that most human rights violations against Nigerian citizens have been orchestrated by the same governments which are ordinarily expected to protect them.
a. Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.
In 1985, General Babangida took power and repealed Major General Muhammadu Buhari’s Decree N0. 4 of 1984, a law that made it criminal to publish any material that was considered embarrassing to the government. There was therefore renewed hope for freedom of expression both by the people and the media. Under the Babangida regime, political tolerance was briefly embraced. However, this momentary tolerance of human rights broke down when the regime began detaining and jailing its critics and dismissing from work, employees who disagreed with their warped views and ideals. The IBB regime closed down more newspapers and banned more popular organizations, perhaps, more than any other in Nigeria’s post-colonial history.
In 1999, freedom of expression became protected by the new Nigerian Constitution. However, defamation laws were afterwards passed. Nigeria was described as “partly free” in the Freedom of the Press 2011 Report published by the Freedom House (yearly rankings in Freedom House ratings, Nigeria section). The organization cited the killings, detentions and brutalisation of journalists alongside brazen attempts to shrink the civic space by the Nigerian government as reasons for the poor ranking.
On April 26, 2020, the Reporter without Borders World Press Freedom Index ranked Nigeria 115 out of 180 countries surveys. The organization cited the same reasons as were given by the Freedom House for the dismal ranking. However, this rank is higher than the 146 rank which Transparency International (TI) gave Nigeria earlier in the year with regards to corruption. The Reporters without Borders report further noted, “with more than 100 independent newspapers, Africa’s most populous nation enjoys real media pluralism but covering stories involving politics, terrorism or financial embezzlement by the powerful is very problematic.”
One glaring example of the Nigerian government’s concerted efforts to eliminate all forms of dissent emerged from the travails of the founder of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore.
Sowore was arrested by men of the Department of State Services (DSS), on 3rd August 2019, for organizing a protest captioned “RevolutionNow”, against perceived injustices being carried out by the Nigerian State against her citizens. In a display of extreme intolerance and paranoia that this government has since become accustomed to, he was promptly arrested, detained and accused of plotting to topple a democratically elected government. Sowore was only exercising his right to freedom of peaceful assembly as contained in Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, thus:
“Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.”
This right to a peaceful assembly which Sowore merely attempted to exercise has been upheld in a deluge of judicial authorities. For instance, in the case of IGP v. ANPP, Justice Adekeye, JCA (as she then was), held, among others, that:
“A rally or placard carrying demonstration has become a form of expression of views on current issues affecting government and the governed in a sovereign State. It is a trend recognized and deeply entrenched in the system of governance in civilized Countries – it will not only be primitive but also retrogressive if Nigeria continues to require a pass to hold a rally. We must borrow a leaf from those who have trekked the rugged path of democracy and are now reaping the dividends of their experience.”
Perhaps, the government hastily misled itself by the caption of the planned protests, “#RevolutionNow”. However, a mere glance at the demands made by Sowore and the protesters would reveal that there was nothing inherent in their protests that devoted any attempt whatsoever to topple the government. They possessed no arms or ammunition, not even bangers used by children during Christmas festivities. Sowore’s demands expressed through “The Coalition For Revolution” were merely for an “economy that works for the masses”, “an effective end to insecurity and insurgency”; “end to systemic corruption”; “immediate implementation of the N30,000 minimum wage at all levels in the public service as agreed with trade unions”; and, “education as an enforceable right and not a privilege.”
The government characteristically refused to release him from detention even with a Federal High Court order granting him bail. Even when he was granted bail by the Federal High Court, Abuja, the highly excessive nature of the bail terms revealed a grand design to make dissent with the government, not only dangerous but expensive. The DSS, even on one occasion, invaded the hallowed courtroom of his trial, in a bid to re-arrest him, leading to the sitting Judge scampering into her chambers for safety.
The subsequent arrest of “Premium Times” journalist, Samuel Ogundipe, by the Nigerian Police Force, for refusing to reveal the source of information at his disposal equally illustrates the threats to free speech in Nigeria.
The case of Stephen Kefason also comes to mind. Stephen Kefason, a journalist was held in the custody of Kaduna State Police Command from 21st of May, 2019, on allegations of criminal defamation against Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai; a charge which was ordinarily bailable. Institutions, which should ordinarily provide succour for the citizens in the face of oppression, have become willing tools in the hands of the Executive. In Cross River State, similar acts of suppression against journalists manifested. The arrest of Cross River-based newspaper publisher, Agba Jalingo, on the ridiculous charges of treason and disturbance of public peace, easily comes to mind.
So also was the arrest of journalist and human rights activist, Chido Onumah, on 29th September 2019, by operatives of DSS. The reason for his arrest captures Nigeria’s slide to becoming a fascist and totalitarian State without recourse to human rights under the Buhari administration.
Chido Onumah was arrested for merely wearing a t-shirt with the inscription, “We Are All Biafrans”. This is actually the title of a book he had already written about Nigeria, which is a collection of essays by the journalist, focused on the need to restructure Nigeria in order to be able to build a united country. But, the Buhari government said this could cause disaffection, and thus made him a part of a group planning against the country.
The frivolous Petitions Bill, 2015, which was sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, seeks to criminalize the publication of any petition without a duly sworn accompanying affidavit. If this bill had been passed into law, any opposition from human rights Activists and civil society organisations who try to hold government at all levels accountable would have been severely dealt with.
Another attempt to weaken civil society organisations in Nigeria who hold the government accountable can be seen in the controversial Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Regulatory Commission Bill, 2016 (HB 585). If passed into law, NGOs in Nigeria will have to be issued licences to operate for only 24 months, after which, the Commission will decide on whether or not to renew such licences. The bill also proposed that the certificate of registration of any NGO may be cancelled or suspended if the Board of the NGO Regulatory Commission was satisfied that the terms or conditions attached to the certificate had been violated. Article 26 of the Bill also provides that a project formulated by an organisation for eventual implementation in the country shall first be approved by the relevant ministry and registered with the Commission before implementation. The contents of this bill clearly reveal an organised intent to subjugate civil society organisations in Nigeria.
Nigerian security forces are frequently accused of carrying out arbitrary arrests, torture, forced disappearances, assassinations and extrajudicial summary executions. These abuses typically occur within the context of the Nigerian government’s security operations or are directed against critics, Activists, political and religious organizations. Several instances of mass killings of political opponents and agitators by security forces have been reported.
The disappearance of some government critics also highlights the wanton disregard for human rights by the Nigerian Government. For example, a popular critic, Abubakar Idris, who is better known as Dadiyata, has been missing since August 2, 2019, when unidentified men seized him from his residence in Barnawa neighbourhood of Kaduna State. Bayelsa-born Journalist, Jones Abiri, also suddenly disappeared for months without any trace.
Routine disobedience to valid court orders, invasion of Judges’ homes and courts, desecration of the Rule of Law, have become common features of this government.
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATION BY THE NIGERIAN ARMY.
Aside from the 12th–14th December 2015 Nigerian Army massacre of 347 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in Zaria, Kaduna State, whose bodies were buried in mass graves, March 2020 also revealed that some Nigeria army soldiers took advantage of food shortages at refugee camps in Borno state and raped women at female-designated “satellite camps” in exchange for granting them food. These refugee camp food shortages also resulted in the death of “thousands” of people since 2015. On April 4, 2020, three Army soldiers were arrested in Lagos state for issuing threats to rape women. On 21 May 2020, two Lagos State Army deserters, Kehinde Elijah and Ezeh Joseph were arrested for their involvement in the murder of a Police Sergeant on 10th May 2020. The shooters, who were afterwards taken into military custody, were also assisted by a Nigerian Police Officer and were wanted for “violent crimes.”
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS BY THE NIGERIAN POLICE FORCE.
The numerous cases of police harassment of young Nigerians called “yahoo boys”, by men of the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) is another proof of the fact that the Nigerian Police Force has become a potent tool in the suppression and repression of the fundamental rights of Nigerians.
The Nigeria Police Force has been typically viewed as inefficient and corrupt. The Joint Task Force (JTF), rather than face Boko Haram attacks, has been involved in killing suspects without fair trial as well as randomly killing members of communities suspected of supporting the Boko Haram. This high-handed approach violates human rights, with its lack of access to a fair trial and use of discriminatory techniques to determine presumed perpetrators of violence.
Nigerian Police Force Officers are accused of corruption and serial violations that include extortion and embezzlement. They take advantage of the people by putting up roadblocks that require a fee to pass through. Within the Police Force, there is no equal protection under the law. The wealthy buy the Police for security. They induce the Police to turn a blind eye to illegal activities they precipitate.
In October 2018, eight Boipatong Police Officers were arrested for torturing and then murdering a Nigerian national in October 2017.
On 2nd August, 2019, two Officers of the Nigerian Police Force’s Anti-Cultism Squad, Insp. Ogunyemi Olalekan and Sgt. Godwin Orji, were arrested and charged with murdering a man during a raid in Lagos. On 21st August, 2019, four SARS operatives were arrested and charged with murder after being caught on film manhandling and then shooting to death two suspected phone thieves in broad daylight. The two suspected phone thieves were shot dead after they had been arrested.
On January 5, 2020, three Nigerian Police Force officers were arrested after beating a bus passenger, who also turned out to be Nigerian Supreme Court Justice Obasi, after he refused to unlock his mobile phone. On April 3, 2020, a Nigerian police officer was arrested for assaulting a port worker. On April 18, 2020, the Nigerian Police Force stated that two of its officers were arrested after being caught on film beating a woman at the Odo Ori Market in Iwo, Osun.
On April 28, 2020, Nigerian Police Force’s Rivers State Police Command arraigned former Sergeant Bitrus Osaiah in court for shooting to death his female colleague, Lavender Elekwachi, during a raid on street trading and illegal motor parks the previous week. Osaiah was dismissed as a police officer the previous day for killing Elekwachi, who also held the rank of a Sergeant. It was reported that Osaiah was in fact arrested for the killing. On May 21, 2020, Yahaha Adeshina, the Divisional Police Officer of Ilemba Hausa Division, was arresting for assisting Kehinde Elijah and Ezeh Joseph in the May 10, 2020 murder of Sergeant Onalaja Onajide. All three shooters were wanted for violent crimes. On May 30, 2020, two Lagos Police Officers were arrested for shooting to death a 16-year old girl.
On November 10, 2019, the Nigerian Police Force issued a statement revealing that Safer Highways Patrol officer Onuh Makedomu was arrested after being filmed accepting a bribe from a motorist in Lagos. On March 9, 2020, two Nigeria Police Officers from Lagos, Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Adebayo Ojo and Sergeant Adeleke Mojisola were both arrested on charges of extorting a woman. On April 11, 2020, another Nigeria Police Officer from Lagos, Inspector Taloju Martins, was arrested after being caught on camera exhorting a motorist. On June 3, 2020, the Adamawa State Police Command announced that one of its Officers was arrested for murdering a motorcycle motorist who refused to pay him a bribe.
Also earlier this year, Remo Stars Football Club’s player, Tiyamu Kazeem, was murdered in cold blood in Sagamu in Southwestern Ogun State by men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad division of the Nigerian Police Force, on the most suspicious and frivolous grounds.
The sad fate of Kolade Johnson, the unfortunate 36-year-old youth who was killed by the Police in the Mangoro area of Ikeja, Lagos on the last day of March cannot be forgotten in a hurry.
To drive home the point with respect to human rights violations by the Nigerian Police Force, the Head of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, Tony Ojukwu was quoted as admitting at a time, that “while the new coronavirus has killed eleven patients, security forces have extrajudicially executed 18 people to enforce orders.”
It is important to note that some of these instances mentioned above do not in any way address the extent to which the Nigerian Police Force sniffs life out of citizens in the most brazen examples of human rights violations. They are a mere tip of the iceberg.
Corruption of national institutions, as the present government has been involved, it is even more dangerous and corrosive than monetary gratification. Nigeria now has the unfortunate label of being one of the world’s most corrupt countries. This is especially seen within the public sector, including brazen larceny of public funds and bribery. The most recent rating, in January 2020, of Nigeria as the 146th most corrupt country in the world, out of the 180 surveyed countries under the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI), does not give room for comfort at all.
It is estimated that between 1999 and now, Nigeria has lost around $4-10 billion yearly due to corruption. Politicians often siphon public funds to feather their political nests and also remunerate armed gangs and political thugs to aid them in rigging elections. The elections held since the last five years of this administration have always been very bloody. They were mostly openly rigged. Ballot boxes were routinely visibly stuffed by paid gangs. Electoral results were simply falsified. Votes were neither properly counted, nor allowed to count. Citizens were routinely killed, maimed or burnt alive, during elections. Voters were intimidated, shot at and disenfranchised, especially by sitting governments and state actors.
In spite of the establishment of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in the early 2000s, there is still visible evidence of institutionalization of corruption. Thus, in January 2020, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) still gave Nigeria a low ranking spot of 146 out of 180 most corrupt countries in the world that were surveyed.
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS BY THE BOKO HARAM SECT AND ARMED BANDITS.
Boko Haram is an Islamist terrorist group that focuses its attacks on government officials, Christians, and fellow Muslims, who criticize their actions or are thought to aid the government, known as “traitor Muslims”. Attacks are primarily focused in Northeastern part of Nigeria. They cite corruption committed by the national government as well as increased Western influence as the primary reason for their often violent actions. This group which says it is engaging in “jihad” was founded in 2000.
In 2014, Boko Haram drew international attention from its 14 April kidnapping of approximately 230 female students from a secondary school in the northern town of Chibok, Nigeria. Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed the girls had converted to Islam. He threatened to sell them as wives or slaves to Boko Haram members at a price of $12.50 each. Most of them have never been found till date. This was reenacted in the Chibok school girls abduction case.
Boko Haram kill civilians, abducts women and girls, forcefully conscripted boys and men, and even destroyed homes and schools. Surprisingly, the government routinely pays the sect huge ransoms, free some of its members, reintegrate them into the society, and even recruits them into the Nigerian Security Forces. This is counter-productive. Armed banditry, kidnapping and ritual killings have been on the increase, making the Nigerian space quite unsafe for road travelers and peasant farmers. The government appears helpless.
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AGAINST WOMEN
Women in Nigeria often face various versions of human rights violations inspite of certain rights granted unto them in the 1999 Constitution. Some women are subject to degrading and obscene cultural practices that are inconsistent with human rights. In some Nigerian tribal cultures, a woman who loses her husband must initially go into seclusion. They are also forced to neglect their bodies. They must not shave, shower, or change their clothing. They have to rub cow dung and palm oil on their bodies and must also sleep on the bare floor. some are made to sleep with the corpses of their dead husbands, to prove their innocence. Widows must wear black, the colour of mourning, for two years, to properly show their deep loss and reverence for their departed husbands. This barbarism, which includes child marriage, child labour, forceful cutting off of female genitals (clitoris) vary in severity from one culture to another.
Till now, Justice Akon Ikpeme, a very erudite Judge, has been denied the position of Chief Judge OF Cross-River state by the State Governor, Prof. Ben Ayade and the House of Assembly, on the ground that she hails from neighbouring Akwa Ibom State, and would, therefore, constitute a security risk! This, in spite of the fact that she schooled and worked in Cross-River all her life, and that she had been duly recommended by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
HUMAN RIGHTS OF ETHNIC MINORITIES STILL IN DECLINE
Minority ethnic groups have been fighting for equal rights before and after Nigeria’s independence in 1960, leading to the 1959 Willinks Commission Report. Their rights continue to suffer under the major ethnic groups. This has been more emphasized under the present government that has elevated to a directive principle of State policy, the acts of sectionalism, prebendalism, cronyism, ethnicism, religiousity and favouritism.
The Buhari government must realize that human rights are inalienable, inviolable and indispensable to any democracy and that the continued assault on the fundamental rights of citizens makes a total mockery of the fallen heroes of the democracy which it presently enjoys.
To this end, the Buhari administration is charged to live up to its obligations to protect the citizens in fulfilment of its duties and responsibilities under section 14 of the 1999 Constitution, as well as the time honoured social contract theory, and international instruments.