By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“If a chicken does not dig, it does not feed.”- Cameroonian Proverb
ON the 8th of December, 2011 the Senate approved the President’s request to appoint the Governing Council of the National Human Rights Commission.
In January 2012, the Secretary to Government of the Federal issued a letter of appointment for a term of four years to members of the Council.
The chairman of the Governing Council is Professor Chidi I. Odinkalu, an accomplished citizen who had earned his stripes in the difficult terrains of human rights activities.
With an Executive Secretary in place, and plans to recruit and boost the capacity of the Commission, it looked as if all was set for the nation to benefit from an institution it badly needs these days when governance issues and escalating threats to security make it necessary to accord priority to policing the rights of citizens.
Seven months since then, nothing. The Governing Council which should oversee the work of the Commission has not worked for a single day. Its members are required to subscribe to an oath of secrecy before assuming duties. It is doubtful if anyone of them has done this; and if they did, it must have been through the exercise of their own initiative.
The office of the Secretary to Government of the Federation or Minister of Justice could have arranged the oath taking, which would have required assembling the members. No one has done this.
The oath-taking could also have been administered at the point of inaugurating the Council, but it has not been inaugurated.
This inauguration itself is not, strictly, a requirement for the commencement of the work of the Council, but this ubiquitous Nigerian habit has become so much a part of our lives that very few people, Boards, Councils, or Commissions will dare take off without being inaugurated, whatever the law says.
So what started as a right step towards improving the manner the basic rights of Nigerian citizens are protected and enhanced has been frustrated by shocking tardiness and lethargy on the part of government, and unacceptable complicity or indifference on the part of members of the Council themselves.
There can be no acceptable explanation for the failure of the government to facilitate the full operation of the Council of the NHRC seven months after it was appointed.
But there could be reasons why the government has been indifferent to the take-off of the NHRC. These are very trying times for a government fighting daily to keep the hid on evidence of bad governance such as corruption, waste and impunity.
An active Commission led by competent and patriotic Nigerians will place the government very much on the defensive. The linkages between citizen and state are many and profound, and rights of citizens to live under honest and good leaders is fundamentally enshrined in our constitution and other laws.
An alert citizenry with access to institutions such as a working NHRC will take on governments at all levels on abuses, excesses, impunity, unlawful neglect and many other infringements on its rights. The last thing an incompetent and corrupt administration needs is a facility or avenue which empowers citizens to demand for answers over the conduct of leaders or agents of the state.
The security crisis the nation faces is, however, the most compelling reason why a vigorous institutional capacity needs to be deployed towards protecting the rights of Nigerians. The administration which is fighting an unfamiliar enemy on many fronts needs the NHRC to help it chart a course that minimises the flak it draws when security agents lean hard on citizens or communities.
The federal government short-changes itself in the manner it dispenses with all approaches that are not rooted in brute force. The sensitive nature of its engagements in and around communities should advise that earning the goodwill and cooperation of local populations is the best strategy for success.
But when lives and property are daily trampled upon by boots and bullets in an undeclared war, and citizens are caught between the state and an insurrection, and they are not sure which is safer, you know something is wrong. Government may believe that the peculiarities of the battles it fights entitles it to some collateral damage in the community. It will be wrong to do so.
The rights of citizens to life and security, their rights to live without harassment or undue threat are not surrendered automatically whenever the state chooses to dispense with them.
The battle against the insurgency in parts of the north will be that much more difficult to win with a hostile population in the middle. Now communities are waking up to the fact that they can challenge the government over unlawful killings, torture and other abuses by security personnel, as was recently demonstrated in Kano. This will make life for the federal government altogether more difficult.
The absence of institutions such as the NHRC are also hindering the search for solutions to stubborn issues such as the settler/indigene problem which are at the center of many conflicts across the nation. The on-going efforts to address the weaknesses of the 1999 constitution would have been vastly enriched with inputs from the NHRC.
The Commission would have had something to say on the recent controversy over the relocation of Fulani villagers in Plateau State. It would have something to say on the raging debate over the fate of Gonin Gora, that slaughter slab which sits on the Kaduna-Abuja highway.
There have been many wrongs done over efforts to improve or protect our rights. But for me, the biggest is the manner members of the Governing Council appear to have sat on their rights to work since being appointed. It is difficult to understand why good Nigerians will be appointed to perform very important and sensitive tasks, and will then sit back and wait for a few formalities and ceremonies to decide whether they do work.
If these people cannot demand for their rights to work in accordance with the law establishing the NHRC, then we should worry over the fate of our rights in their hands.