By Innocent Anaba
Nigeria joined the rest of the world to celebrate the International Human Rights Day last week. Many civil society groups and non governmental organisations held meetings and events to commemorate the day. At all the events, the conclusions were the same, that the Federal Government urgently needs to do more for Nigerians to enjoy basic rights, citizens of more developed societies enjoy.
In Abuja, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, held its “President 1st Round table on the Review of the State of Human Rights in Nigeria.”
The event attracted legal practitioners, human rights activists and government functionaries.
NBA President, Mr Joseph Daudu, SAN, who spoke, particularly on President Goodluck Jonathan, human rights record, said “reference to the administration of President Jonathan must be seen in the context of a continuum, commencing all the way from the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, leading to that of the late Umaru Yar’Adua to that of the incumbent. I see the policies as the same, incapable of being differentiated from one another.
Secondly, the true test of leadership is supervision and a process for feedback. The administration lacks both of these measures.”
Speaking further he said, “since it is generally agreed from the basic definition of human rights that its objective is to guarantee human dignity and progress in life, it follows then that those rights in chapter IV cannot and indeed are not the only rights that the citizens are entitled to. Chapter 2 which deals with fundamental objectives and directive principles of State policy contains in mandatory language rights and expectations from the State to which the Nigerian citizens are entitled to and which ought to be enforceable in a court of law.
“But these rights and duties are not enforceable according to section 6_(c) of the 1999 Constitution, which provides thus: that judicial powers vested in the Courts ‘shall not except as otherwise provided by this Constitution, extend to any issue or question as to whether any act of omission by any authority or person or as to whether any law or any judicial decision is in conformity with the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy set out in Chapter II of this Constitution.
This provision viewed legally is lacking value and technically useless. What in my humble view it seeks to foreclose is a determination by the Courts as to whether the act or omission of any person or authority is in conformity with the provisions of chapter 2 of the Constitution.
“In other words, it forbids fault finding against any person or authority that may have acted or not acted under chapter 2. In other words, it seeks to avoid liability and damages for acts or omissions purportedly undertaken vide chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution. To appreciate the analysis it is appropriate to summarise the contents of Chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution. Sections 13 and 14 thereof make it mandatory that it shall be the duty and responsibility of all organs of government, and of all authorities and persons, exercising legislative, executive or judicial powers, to conform to, observe and apply the provisions of this Chapter of this Constitution,” he added.
Referring to a recent ECOWAS court judgment, in the suit by Socio_Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, against the Federal Government and UBEC, alleging the violation of the right to quality education, the right to dignity, the right of peoples to their wealth and natural resources and to economic and social development, he said that the decision of the court clearly and indeed explicitly debunks and demystifies the non justiciability of Chapter 2 rights, duties and responsibilities by government.
The Court held that the right to education can be enforced before the Court and dismissed all objections brought by the Federal Government, through UBEC, that education is “a mere directive policy of the government and not a legal entitlement of the citizens.
Speaking on awaiting trial inmates, he said “at the moment, there are not less than 65, 000 persons detained in prisons and police cells as Awaiting Trial Persons. Their continued detention carries with it unintended social and economic consequences.
Excessive use of pre_trial detention leads to chaotic, overcrowded and violent conditions where pre_trial detainees, who have not been convicted, are at risk of contracting disease such as HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis to name a few.
Apart from being a treat to public health, it promotes corruption at all levels of the criminal justice system by way of bribery of court officials and police or prison officials for a variety of benefits.
“Because of inability to pay bribes thousands languish in prison custody. There are other collateral consequences of excessive use of pre_trial detention. It includes the interruption of educational advancement for the youth, disruption in employment and the ability to earn money, greater costs of funding social programs. These are but a few of the negative effects of social justice,” he said.
Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Mohammed Adoke, SAN, who was represented at the event, however, was of the view that human rights abuses in the country had reduced.
He said, “recent developments in Nigeria do promise a drastic change from a passive human rights regime to an active regime, which indicates that human rights protection will be given priority. With the return of democratic rule in Nigeria, human rights abuses have been reduced greatly. The insistence of this administration on the rule of law in the administration of criminal justice is aimed at upholding the fundamental rights of all Nigerian and of every human living in Nigeria.”
He noted, however, that today, “Nigeria is at a cross road,” adding that the national desire to punish impunity arising from terrorist acts, kidnapings and corrupt practices conflicts with the national obligation to protect and enforce human rights.
According to him, “in this regard, human rights activists must realise that human rights regime is not a panacea. We must acknowledge the effects of economics, politics and illiteracy in the enforcement of human rights in Nigeria. Many Nigerians are not aware of their constitutional guaranteed rights and those who are aware of their rights often times, lack the capacity to enforce them.”
He said that human rights regime must be seen as one of the instruments for improving the lives and standard of living of Nigerians.
Olawale Fapohunda of Legal Resource Consortium, expressed concern over the absence of policy direction with respect to the promotion and protection of human rights in Nigeria
“Another major source of concern that we need to discuss is the situation of the National Human Rights Commission and indeed access to justice institutions in Nigeria. No one needs to be told about the important role the National Human Rights Commission can potentially play in the lives of the millions of Nigerians who have no access to justice.
Indeed at different fora, the government of Nigeria has committed itself severally to strengthening the institutional and legislative framework of the Human Rights Commission. This is more so after the local and international condemnation that greeted the removal of Bukari Bello its then Executive Secretary.
“No less important is our desire to transform the Commission from a recommendations only institution to one that is in the forefront of the protection of the Rights of Nigerians. It is tragic that as at today neither the institutional or legislative framework of the human rights commission has been strengthened,” he said.
Other speakers, spoke in the same vein and on the need for the Federal Government to do more to ensure that Nigerians enjoy their full rights.
Meanwhile, in Lagos, BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights, called on the government and media to ensure that human rights defenders were protected in the country.
Mrs Sindi Medar-Gould, Executive Director of BAOBAB, made the call at the launch of an International Fact-Finding Mission report to mark Human Rights Day.
“It is the obligation of the state and every citizen to ensure safety and security of human rights defenders. If Nigerians do not ask for their rights, nobody will give it to them. As long as we keep quiet, change will not take place,” she said.
Medar-Gould, therefore, called on everybody to be a change agent in their homes, offices, churches and the mosque.
She also urged the government not only to strengthen the courts but also its institutions to protect human rights’ defenders in the country.
Mrs Catherine Adewojo, who spoke at the event, said the human rights situation in Nigeria had improved significantly since the end of military rule in 1999.
Adewojo said findings had shown that legislative framework was insufficient to ensure adequate protection to the work of human rights defenders. According to her, organisations working on sensitive issues like corruption, good governance and the Niger Delta are at risk because of their documenting work.
Ms Favour Irabor, Coordinator, Legal Defense Interpretation of Laws, Bridge Building, said women’s human rights should be part of everyday life.
She explained that BAOBAB was established to promote and ensure the protection of women’s human rights.
Irabor said that the organisation was collaborating with four organisations, including the World Organisation Against Torture, in its work
She said this was in the belief that strengthened cooperation and solidarity with and among human rights defenders and their organisations would contribute to breaking their isolation.