By Innocent Anaba
Mr Roland Ewubare is the Executive Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC. He spoke in this interview on the mandate of the commission, need for amendments to the law establishing the commission to make it more proactive in achieving its mandate.
On the need for those in power to do their best, he said, â€œit is common sense for us to go back to the basics and understand that the only way we can be at peace, reduce conflicts, live in a meaningful and orderly society is for those inÂ positions of responsibility to do their work, because they build roads, build hospitals and so on which keep the society and will ensure we have the Nigeria of our dream.â€
Considering the fact that government and its agencies are in the forefront of human rights abuse, how can the commission protect and promote the rights of Nigerians without its actions conflicting with governmentâ€™s position or interest?
There are about 45,000 Nigerians in prison out of 150 million. Every prisoner deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, but you cannot use the way the country treats 45,000 people as the basis to assert that the government is the single largest violator of human rights.
There are about 80 million Nigerians in the work place, to the extent that our women go to work in organisations where they tell them that they cannot get pregnant unless they work there for three years, that your sister, my sister, your wife, my wife, who we know are women, work in organisations where they tell them that they have to wear skirts of a certain length to mobilise deposits, to the extent that people work, both men and women, for 20, 30 years and retire without their pensions paid to them. These violations occur more frequently, they occur everyday.
It is just that we havenâ€™t diverted or focused attention on that component of humanÂ rights violations.
Given that the government established the commission, pays your staff, trains them, how are you going to protect the rights of Nigerians when it conflicts with governmentâ€™s interest?
The Act that sets us up and the amendments thereto, have clear stipulations as to how we engage the leadership of the commission in terms of appointment, training, promotion, and so on. So, at the end of the day, it is a personal character issue, for the leadership of the commission.
That is the same debate about the appointment of Prof Atahiru Jega as the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. People are asking,Â will he be independent, will he not be dependent? The truth of the matter is that it all depends on the people you have leading the organisations. No matter how independent they are by law, if they are spineless people, who are not courageous, who donâ€™t have character, there will be a problem. On the flip side, even if you say thatÂ we are a government parastatal, the most cynical Nigerian who interacts with us has to agree that there have been some changes in our focus under our current leadership.
They will also agree that, in the past, we have had very vibrant leadership at the NHRC even with the so-called government interference. It is a question of the persons in charge and their attitude to work.
What level of collaboration do you have with NGOs and CSOs, who campaign for human rights promotion and protection?
The NGOs and CSOs work very closely with us and we have an excellent rapport. We just finished a workshop recently with active participation from NGOs and CSOs. We have collaborated with them, particularly, on elections in Ekiti State and that of Anambra State. We do joint programmes on various rights areas, but our most recent success in terms of NGO, CSO collaboration has been on Senator
Yerimaâ€™s child bride matter. The way we put together the campaign and the level of awareness was not just from theÂ fact that a Senator married a 14-year-old child, no. Adult Nigerian men in responsible positions have behaved badly in the past, but we have managed to extract significant mileage from this and draw attention to this because the NGOs and CSOs working with usÂ kept this issue real on every level. We have drawn the attention of the appropriate government agencies to investigate the matter and make recommendations to the government as to what it should do.
We brought the judiciary into it as well by going to court to stand against the motion that our involvement in the matter is an infringement on Yerimaâ€™s right. We have engaged the media fully to also draw significant attention to the fact that all Nigerians, Senators and non-Senators are equal before the law. We have made a significant statement that no Nigerian is above the law and also that no Nigerian is below the law. So, every Nigerian is entitled to equal protection, whether a child or a disabled person.
So, the NGO/CSO collaboration with us is a very strong platform for our work and we intend to expand and deepen that relationship.
What is the mandate of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC?
The commission has dual mandates. One is to promote human rights while the other is to protect human rights in Nigeria. Simpliciter, that is what we are supposed to do. In specific terms, there are different requirements for the two components. The promotion aspect extends to human rights education, awareness-building, sensitisation of the public and all that. So we educate Nigerians, especially at the grassroots about their rights and what is expected of them as citizens and what the state owes to them as state. That is the promotion component. Then, the protection part is where we actively intervene on behalf of citizens, who have had their rights infringed or trampled upon by the government or private actors.
How does the Act which established the commission affect its operations?
The current law which we operate under is the National Human Rights Commission Act of 1995, which is a very flawed piece of legislation. It gives the commission very wide and very expansive powers but no teeth to bite when it comes to the protection of rights and helping Nigerians enjoy the full benefits of their rights. So, it is fundamentally flawed.
Why do you say that the legislation is flawed?
Well, to understand the nature of the flaw, you have to go back to the history behind the Act itself. That Act came into being in 1995 when General Sani Abacha was the Head of State. The commission was set up in reaction to criticisms and the outrage against the execution of the Ogoni six led by Mr Ken Sarowiwa. What Abacha did was to blunt the criticisms and the actions against his government at that time. He was not out to create any institution that would challenge his effective control as an autocratic military ruler. Hence, the legislation has many flaws. Though it has many positive parts in terms of the broad range of powers and scope it gives to the commission, but it is useless to the extent that we donâ€™t have the power to compel.
The security and tenure of the council members and key staff are not guaranteed, funding is not assured and is dependent on the will and volition of those who head the executive arm. The worst is that the commission is a parastatal in a ministry, that is not where an institution such as this is supposed to be. An institution such as this is set up based on a specific mandate from the United Nations, UN, arising fromÂ the Vienna Declaration of 1993 that all states should take steps to establish institutions to guarantee and assure the promotion and protection of the rights and liberty of their citizens, and that those institutions, should as much as possible be entirely segregated and independent from governmental control and interference. But that, we havenâ€™t achieved here because of the nature of the Act that brought us into being.
What has the commission done to ensure its independence and remedy the flaws in the Act?
Realising the flaws, after our transition to democratic rule, a bill was sent to the National Assembly, seeking to amend the Act. That bill was debated extensively and for a very long period, but we are grateful today that it has now been passed into law by both Houses of the National Assembly. I believe that the Clerk of the National Assembly is in the process of transmitting the bill to the President for his accent. Once this bill is signed into law, it will be a new ball game, and we can effectively secure and protect the rights and liberty of Nigerians as we will now have a national institution that has a broad mandate and the tools to achieve that mandate. We will now have the power to compel, we now have a basis to collaborate with the courts in getting enforcement of orders. You now have a true national institution that will be sui generis. It will not be an extension of the government, or quasi parastatal anymore. It will be an agency that is independent, strong and can assure the best protection of t
he rights of Nigerians. The Act has now been amended, the bill passed, awaiting the Presidentâ€™s signature.
What is the commission doing to make sure that we have credible elections and that every vote counts in 2011?
I personally believe and my colleagues in the commission share the view with me the that this debate about human rights, all these debates we make will come to zero and will be of no use, if we do not address the fundamental question of participation in a free and open democracy. We remain a very poor country in a very poor continent. The indices of development and progress are negative in this environment.
Available records which have not been contradicted by any person or authority show that one out of every four Nigerian children die before the age of five. This is frightening, 45 percent of the population have no access at all to water from a treated source. It means that almost half of our country donâ€™t even drink water that is treated with the smallest component of chlorine.
140 million of us live on less than $2 a day. The only way you can change that in a country where we have generated over $600 billion from the sale of oil between 1956 and now is by ensuring that those who are responsible for waste in our countryâ€™s resources and for diminishing our future are not allowed to remain on our political space, that only men and women who have real ideas on how to bring progress to our country can participate in the electoral process.
And when these men and women bring their ideas, and we line up to vote behind them, those votes must count, because we have stood on the line to say,Â it is Eze we want, it is Aliyu we want, it is Margaret we want. When this is allowed to take place, we will then have true accountability.
It then means that the Governor of a state, the President of Nigeria knows that every four years, he has to come back to you and I to line up behind his picture or candidate, in a ballot box. That kind of accountability will make him not to take us for a ride, because
you can now truly ask him, based on the last mandate we gave youÂ for four years, how many roads did you fix, how many schools did you build, how many hospitals did you supply drugs to? Unless you can hold them accountable, they cannot be answerable to you.
If I got into office as Governor, because I sorted out the chairman of the party in the state, then my allegiance is to the chairman of the party and not to the voters who â€œvoted me into officeâ€. So the only way we can bring development to our country is by fixing the electoral system and the only way you can remove all these human rights abuses and so on is by reducing poverty.
Poverty will only go out of Nigeria when we have leaders who understand that they have to fix the country for their benefit and that of the rest of us, because there is no way you can steal your way to wealth when everybody around you is poor.
Even if you have money to hire a private jet to fly you to London orÂ to New Delhi for heart surgery, when you have a hearth attack in Kuje or Maitama where you live, before the private Jet comes, they have got to stablise you in a nearby hospital for some time.
If the General Hospital in Garki has no drugs and the one in Maitama is epileptic, then it means that, even you, Mr Politician, with your bags of money are now facing a real risk of extinction. No matter how good your car is, if you donâ€™t have good roads to drive it on, you can never enjoy the car. So, it is common sense for us to go back to the basics and understand that the only way we can be at peace, reduce conflicts, live in a meaningful and orderly society is for those inÂ positions of responsibility to do their work, because they build roads, build hospitals and so on which keep the society and will ensure we have the Nigeria of our dream.