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25,000 await trial in NIgerian prisons – Human Rights Groups

By Chioma Gabriel, Deputy Editor
Penultimate Thursday, December 10 was International  Human Rights day. The activists were at Enugu to assess  the human rights record in Nigeria and their verdict is that a lot  still needs to be done to improve human rights issues in Nigeria.

In this interview with former President Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, and a chief campaigner for abolition of death penalty in Nigeria, Olisa Agbakoka (SAN), he answers questions on human rights abuses as it affects Nigerians and says government still needs to do more to improve human rights situation in Nigeria. Excerpts:

Agbakoba...Government should have people-friendly  policies
Agbakoba...Government should have people-friendly policies

Penultimate Thursday was the International Human Rights Day. What’s the human rights report on Nigeria?

The human rights situation in Nigeria has remained very challenging. I think the main challenge in Nigeria on human rights today is the socio-economic angle. In the olden days under non-democratic government, that was the IBB, Abacha days, our main problem was civil and political rights.

And this will tell you that there are different categories of human rights, at least four categories. So, depending on the context of government and depending on the nature of the administration, human rights situations change. We experienced very serious issues with human rights factors involving journalists in the military era.

Now, under our present pseudo democracy,we have other human rights issues because the electoral process is not proper. That is the first violation of human rights.

The government is not the choice of the people. That is the violation of the peoples right over the choice of who governs them. Then, there is a big problem in the field of socio-economic rights. And in the constitution, this is covered by Chapter Two.

So, Chapter Two of the constitution gives Nigerians a number of rights: right to medical treatment, right to education, right to employment and right to housing.

When you look at the context at which we are trying to survive in Nigeria, I think one of the greatest areas of abuse of individual rights of Nigerians in the field of life generally to provide for  well-being is employment.

In spite of the human resources that we have in this country, in the 2010 budget, we made provisions to build houses for the President of Senate and the Speaker of the House of Reps and that will cost N4 billion.

I’m not sure that a government that is concerned about the socio-economic life of Nigerians, suffering as we are will aspire to build two houses for N4 billion when that type of money could be used to provide for the general welfare of Nigerians. I think it is time to remind government of the Chapter Two of the Constitution about the need to provide for the well-being of Nigerians including access to schools; access to medical treatment and so on.

These are the things that we are lacking in Nigeria.

On the issue of political rights, things are not too bad. We have not seen the usual arrests of human rights people. So, we can says for that one, it is okay. But on the overall, the human rights record is not a good one.

Is there any record of detentions without trial, or people dying through torture?
If you look back to the last ten years, that has decreased. But we have a lot of people awaiting trial for a long time without having access to court.

So, that is also a fundamental abuse of human rights. But I’m making a comparative analysis which we always do every December 10, which is the International Human Rights Day. We do comparative analysis of the past ten years.

So, if you look at the broad picture, you will see that there is improvement on the political rights of Nigerians but the socio-economic rights has gone down and it is very bad now.

In other words, in the past ten years, human rights abuses has reduced in Nigeria…
No, no. It depends on which aspect. You have to look at the categories. Socio-economically, it is not good when you look at how government is responding to the well-being of Nigerians.

You hear Nigerians say that government is not concerned about them. Then, you ask them, how is government not concerned about you? They will tell you that they were not getting the right sort of attention across Nigeria, that government is not providing for their well-being.

The essence of government is to provide for the well-being of citizens. That is why when they are campaigning, they tell us the things they will do for us if we vote for them.

But they have failed in that aspect and I am saying  that in terms of socio-economic well-being, the human rights record of government is very bad and that is from the federal government to the states and local governments.

There are few exceptions like Enugu, Lagos where the state governments try to address the needs of the people but generally, the record of Nigerian government is a bad one when it comes to providing for the needs of Nigerians.

And then, coming to the last field which is civil and political rights, that is, personal entitlement to liberty except where someone  has done something wrong, in that field, I think there has been improvement.

It is the military that tends to violate that rights more than democratic governments. So, there is generally improvement in that area. One cannot say it is the best though but clearly over the past ten years, civil and political rights in Nigeria have improved.

Apart from the issues in the Niger Delta, riots in Jos and some ethno-religious crises in the North, generally, the pattern of civil-political rights is better than what it was in the military era.

What about decongestion of prisons. Has that improved?

The prisons are definitely much better because I have personally worked in the prisons for the past twenty years. The problem remains but it is not as bad as it used to be because there are some reforms of the prison justice system.

There are now many new rules of procedures for making prisoners’ trials go quicker and there is a general awareness and more human rights groups that are focused on what is happening in the prisons.

But still, there are about 25,000 persons in prisons who should not be there and they have been there longer than they should be because the criminal justice system is slow.

When you look at the numbers over the last seven years, there were about 40,000.

So, there has been a decline from the numbers of old till date. So, while we have seen improvements, there have been substantial number of people whose rights are being violated because they have been in prison longer than they should be.

And they were not sentenced?

No. They are called awaiting trial, hanging in limbo because the system is slow either from police investigations or the courts are not working well, or the prosecutors are not there. So, the system is not working very well and their rights are being violated.

Would you say there is improvement in the way the Nigeria police treat the citizens?

The police is a special case. There is no improvement from my point of view. The police is just a lawless bunch. They display that they are not under proper control. I’m personally disappointed that the new IG has not shown the type of authority I thought he should bring to the police force since he became the IG.

The force is a complete disaster. We need a completely professional police force because as it is, I don’t think the police understand what that they should be doing.
What are your expectations from the government and Nigerians because if you ask me, Nigerians could be very lawless too…

What government should do is to go and look at the promises they made when they were campaigning to get elected.  A typical Nigerian politician promises all kinds of things. Now, if they can fulfil half of what is contained in their manifestoes, Nigeria will be a good place because we have a lot of resources.

For instance, in Venezuela, the government’s programme is targetted at lifting the people above poverty. So 90 per cent of their budget goes into education, well-being of the people, electricity supply, water, and all those things that make life more comfortable.

That’s what I will want government to do and  when you are doing four years and you know that you are going to come back and ask for votes a second time, then, you should do your work properly and fulfill the promises you made to the people.

It is the people that will now ask you to come back but in Nigeria, if a politician gets to power, the first thing he does is forget how he got there. And of course, he knows he didn’t get there by the people power.

So, my advice is that government should focus on the well-being of Nigerians. That is a big challenge. If you look at the newspapers, the comments of Nigerians is that they are dissatisfied. They read about billions  of money but it doesn’t get to them.

The money that government allocates, the budget that is now coming out, you hear about budget of goodwill, all manner of things but the people don’t smell any of these. If you look around, you will not see how the billions or trillions being rolled out every year have affected the lives of Nigerians.

We need to use our money to improve our lives, from federal to state and local governments. We should make sure that monies being mentioned touch the people. Government policies should be people friendly.

Overseas, Nigerians are being jailed or killed for one offence or the other and it seems the government has a laid-back position towards this. The government hardly intervenes…

That’s the point I have been making all these while. When you have the government that is not responsible to the people in Nigeria, how can such a government respond to the plight of those who have problems abroad? Our government is not responsive.

That’s is number one. Number two, I personally led the campaign to abolish the death penalty. But that has not succeeded.

So, it is for Nigerians to know the position of the law for particular offences and then be careful. If you go to Saudi Arabia and commit a crime that warrants being beheaded, they will behead you.

So, you should be law-abiding. But generally, our government has an active foreign policy through which they protect the interest of Nigerian living abroad. But that is not surprising because they have not done much for Nigerians who are here. If government has not protected me in Lagos, how can they protect somebody in Soviet Union?

What progress have you made on the issue of abolishing death penalty and what response did you get?

We went to court and the court said no, that death penalty is Constitutional and the only way we can change it is to amend the Constitution. There have been a lot of debates.

There are a lot of organisations, human rights, religious groups that I’m talking to till date but I think what has happened is that the government is responding to the debate by generally across Nigeria, issuing what we call a moratorium, that is, stopping death penalty, pending when the debate will determine whether it should be abolished or a new legal structure put in place.

So, I think we have made progress because as far as I know, some states are  not carrying the penalty.

But there are so many people on death row who are dying or afflicted with severe diseases…

But some of them have been granted pardon by governors through the prerogative of mercy system. But some of them are there pending the outcome of the debate on death penalty. It’s an emotional debate because under sharia law, death penalty is allowed.

In the North, they feel that death penalty is part of their religion.
But recently, some state governments just approved death penalty for offences like kidnapping…

That’s is why I said the debate about death penalty is a very emotional one. If people are kidnapping people, committing armed robbery, we don’t think death penalty is proper for that but there is the argument that if you kill somebody, you too will die.

So, there are those for death penalty and those against. But I personally, I’m against death penalty but I also understand those who say that death penalty should be imposed on very serious offences like drug trafficing, kidnapping and armed robbery.


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