By INNOCENT ANABA
In February 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law an amendment to the National Human Rights Commission Act to strengthen the independence, powers and funding of the Commission.
Among the provisions of the new Act were that members of the Council of the Commission shall be appointed subject to confirmation by the Senate and may not be removed during their four year term of office except with the consent of the Senate; the Executive Secretary is also appointed and subject to removal only with consent of the Senate; that the Commission is independent and shall not take directions from anyone; the Commission shall have powers to undertake unannounced inspections of all places of detention in Nigeria and afford appropriate remedies to detainees; the Commission shall receive and investigate complaints alleging violations of human rights, undertake mediation with respect to appropriate cases and afford remedies as appropriate; the Commission may intervene in human rights litigation; the Commission can recommend suitable human rights crimes to the Attorney-General for prosecution.
Also, the Commission has full powers of investigation, including subpoena powers and it is a felony to refuse to disclose evidence or documents required by the Commission for its work; the Commission may advice on pending legislation to Parliament or State Assemblies; decisions of the Commission shall enforceable, upon registration, as orders of a High Court and the Commission shall report annually to the President and to the National Assembly.
The signing into law of the new NHRC Act received commendation and applause from rights activists, civil society and non governmental organisations, even from ordinary Nigerians, who were happy, that at long last, the human rights commission had been given teeth to bite.
But interestingly, six months after the law came into force, following its signing into law, the Governing Council of the commission, which is the decision making of the body is yet to the put in place.
President Jonathan had early in the year, nominated members of the Governing Council, which was made pursuant to section 2 of the National Human Rights Commission (Amendment) Act, 2010, to include Dr. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu as Chairman of the Council.
Members include Mr. Sully Abu (media), Mrs. Euginia Abu (media), Kayode Komolafe (media), Mr. Dave Obidi Ezeigwe (NBA), Mrs. Ranti Bosede Daudu (NBA) and Mrs. Saadatu Mahadi (human rights NGOs). Others are Mr. Jones Osim (human rights NGOs), Mr. Olawale Fapohunda (human rights NGOs), Mrs. Maryam Uwais (women) she, however, declined the nomination), Mrs. Cynthia Ene Ogbe (women) and Prof Bem Angwe.
The nominees also included a representative of the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, and three nominees of the Justice, Foreign Affairs and Interior ministries as ex-officio members.
Till date, the Senate is yet to screen the nominees for no justifiable reason.
Carol Ajie, who expressed her displeasure over the development, said “I believe civil society organisations or just any or as many public spirited Nigerians will have to request the Senate to take steps to confirm the nominees.
A university don, Dr Sampson Ezekiel said, “six months after the President nominated members of the governing council, it is sad to note that the Senate is yet to screen these nominees and allow them to start the great work outlined in the law.
“As a matter of urgency, the President should liaise with the leadership of the Senate to make sure that members of the council are screened. Should there be areas of differences, both the presidency and the Senate should work together to reconcile their positions,” he added.
One must note that it appears the civil society has also gone to sleep, perhaps after ensuring that the law comes into force. It is time that members of the society, the same way they persuaded the President to sign into law the Act, to also nudge him on to push through his commitment to human rights.
They also have a duty to encourage the Senate to carry out the screening of the members of the Governing Council. After all, the human rights community will have their work made easier if the new National Human Rights Commission takes effect.
In addition to the clear provisions of the new Act, it is interesting to note that the commission now has power to investigate all alleged violations. It has power to enter any detention center without notice.
Or any premises where they may be violation of human rights (domestic violence). It has power to summon persons and evidence or evidence material. Failure to obey such summons may lead to sanctions. It can issue warrant to compel the attendance of witness.
The decisions of the commission can now be enforced through the Courts. Indeed, when it enters a decision, and the recipient does not carry out or implement it within a given period, the Commission can register such decision in any high court (like foreign judgment) and once that is done, it assumes the posture of the judgment of a high court. This is very important. It is no more a toothless bulldog that could only bark, and not bite.
There is a huge expansion on the functions of the Commission far beyond what the Paris Principles envisaged. This is a plus for Nigeria. The commission now has power to commence legal proceedings against any human rights violator.
The Chairman of the commission is no longer a ceremonial chairman. There are special functions now attached to his office. The new Act also establishes a human rights fund for research into human rights issues and perhaps compensation to victims of human rights.