Being the only African and oneÂ of the few recipients of the $650,000 MacArthur Foundationâ€™s 2009Â award for effective and non-profit organizations, Access to Justice (AJ), a human rights NGOÂ which advances innovative work, was one of the brains behind coroner lawÂ inÂ Lagos State in 2006.The executive director of AJ, Mr. Joseph Otteh, in this interview, speaks on human rightsÂ violation since Nigeriaâ€™s return to civil rule,Â the MacArthur award, the need to prevent police abuse, eliminate torture, andÂ extra-judicial killings in Nigeria Excerpts:
By Dotun Ibiwoye
You stand out as one of the few NGOS in the world to be aÂ recipient of the MacArthur Foundationâ€™s award and $650,000, due to your fight againstÂ human rights abuse. WhatÂ led to this?
We are very happy to be counted among those who received that award.Â The Macathur Foundation must have been happy that the level of prospects we had and what we achieved in working for the reform of the corner law in Lagos State. It was one of our modest level of success.
We are some of the early drivers for the reform of that law because we clearly pursued the connection that the coroner law had to the objective of reducing extra judicial executions in Nigeria and we made proposals to Lagos State government which starting from 2006 to reform the coroner lawÂ together with Prof.. ObafunwaÂ who is the chief medical examiner under the coroner law now, and also theÂ medical director ofÂ Lagos State University Teaching Hospital. Together with him ,we worked assiduously to bring backÂ coronerâ€™s in Lagos State.
MacArthur funded most of the work that led to the making of the coroner law and we have all seen how the coroner system has helpedÂ to expose the truth about killings that involve policemen. Infact, we also have seen howÂ Lagos State ministry of justice has bypassedÂ police investigations andÂ relied on the verdict of coroners to bring murder charges againstÂ policemen. A recent reference is the one involved in the killing of Mr.Awosika in Lagos.
The award went to other organizations also that are elevating the lives of their people. There wereÂ awardeesÂ fromÂ Centre for Independent Social Research â€“ St. PetersburgÂ Russia,Â Â Â Mahila SEWA Trust â€“ GujaratÂ India, Caribbean Natural Resource Institute â€“ Port of Spain,Â Trinidad and Tobago.
MacArthurÂ is interested inÂ improvingÂ human conditions, the environment and opportunities for people. They chose us on our clamour against the systematic use of torture in criminal investigations and our advocacy efforts resulted in the resuscitation of moribund coroner laws and procedures to ensure that deaths in custody or suspicious circumstances are properly investigated.
What is peculiar aboutÂ police brutality in Nigeria?
Police brutality is more peculiar to Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Nigeria also stands. Police violence is a problem in many countries and even developed countries. It is aÂ widespread problem in developed ,developing and underdeveloped countries. I think Nigeria stands out for so many reasons. Countries like Kenya and us stands out because these are democratic countries with highly skilled human capital.
These are countries with very intelligent people. These are not counties of the world at war. We are not like Somalia, Rwanda, Afgahanistan or Sudan. Nigeria is a country that has made far more advancement on the development spectrum but it is still a shock that we still haveÂ this kind of problem.
Different countries, different problems, when you come to some part of the world and you will find different sets of problems and different situations and people find different solutions that are peculiar to their own region.
Access to Justice defends the right to equal access to courts of law, attacks corruption in the administration of justice, and supports legal struggles for human dignity.
With theÂ emergence of democracy in Nigeria, how will you assessÂ human rights violation in the countryÂ which was initially termed with the military rule?
Whether there has been stability on the political firmament is debatable. Right now, we run a system as a result of some of the blundersÂ that ourÂ political leaders have committed. But let us hope and really pray that we donâ€™t find ourselves in messier waters.
An example is the coup that recently took place in Niger. These are things that give our soldiers and strength to interfere with the democratic dispensation. I hope that we will have put an end to unconstitutional take-over of government, whether or not there is political stability,Â in a democratic government.
To your question about human rights, it is difficult to answer this in a straight forward manner. There is betterÂ respectÂ to some rights of individuals since the transition to democracy. But, at least, where the rights of individuals have been disrespected, there haveÂ been opportunities to find redress.
Looking at it from that angle, it is aÂ fact that you actually do have access to forums where you can seek redress and those forums are actually able to do their work.
The courts are able to offer you the institutional interventions in that way- the way in which they operate without external influence from the executive and the legislature. That is something we can celebrate. But democracy is also, perhaps, if not more significant, when you are not just suffering these violations in the first place but also where you seek remedy for this violations.
There are also many areas, important significant areas where we have not seen any credible progress and some of these areas haveÂ to do with police violence.
In the area of police violence,Â we can actually expand this to extortion and harassment and extra- judicial killing by security agencies so that we can encompass other security organs of government like the military for example.
There hasnâ€™t been very much progress in this area. The number of people who are extra-judicially murdered in Nigeria are escalating by the day.