By Femi Falana
INTRODUCTION: The Constitution does not recognize the rights of minorities or minority groups but the fundamental rights of every individual living in Nigeria. The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights has gone further to recognize the collective rights of the African people. Since there is equality before the law which requires that there shall be equal opportunities for all citizens the concept of minority rights is a misnomer.
For the avoidance of doubt, section 42 of the Constitution and article 2 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights provide that every person shall be entitled to the enjoyment of human rights without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnicity, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other circumstance.
I am therefore not going to speak on the human rights of minority groups because it is a fiction. On the contrary, I am going to speak on the dichotomy between the human rights of the members of the bourgeoisie and the masses of oppressed people.
Members of the bourgeoisie
In doing that I am going to demonstrate that the fundamental rights constitutionally guaranteed for all citizens are enjoyed by a few people who have the economic wherewithal to enforce them while the majority of citizens are perpetual victims of violations of human rights as they lack the means to enforce them. We shall conclude by asking the Nigerian people to struggle for the enforcement of socioeconomic rights enshrined in chapter 2 of the Constitution.
The origin of minority rights in Nigeria: In order to hide the ideological bias of human rights discourse, human rights are said to be inalienable, immutable, universally valid and applicable. This is totally misleading as human rights are a product of the collective struggles of oppressed peoples in various parts of the world. In fact, history has shown that human rights have been exploited by oppressors at different historical epochs to advance their class interests. In the case of Nigeria, the imperialists neither recognized nor respected the human rights of the peoples of Africa during the slave trade and colonial era which lasted for over five centuries in spite of the much proclaimed universality and inalienability of human rights.
But on the eve of political independence the departing British colonial regime ensured that the right to private property and other civil and political rights were entrenched in the independence Constitution. Contrary to the claim that fundamental rights were entrenched in the Nigerian Constitution to protect the interests of the minority groups in Nigeria they were entrenched to protect the human rights of aliens and the economic interests of foreign governments and companies. As I had noted elsewhere, similar bills of rights had been enshrined in the constitutions of India, Ghana and other former British colonies which obtained independence before Nigeria.
Apart from the independence constitution, the ruling class has entrenched human rights in other constitutions and ratified some international human rights treaties and conventions. Essentially the rights embodied in such instruments include the right to life, the right to human dignity, the right to personal liberty, the right to fair hearing, the right to religion and conscience, the right to property, the right to privacy of home, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of association, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to acquire property and live in any part of Nigeria, the right to adequate and just compensation when the properties of citizens are acquired in the public interest. Because these human rights which are civil and political in nature cannot be enjoyed without economic empowerment, majority of the Nigerian people have been denied the opportunity to enjoy them due to poverty and ignorance.
It is our submission that without adequate food the rights to life and human dignity are meaningless to the vulnerable segment of the populace. Similarly, the right to housing has no relevance to people who are displaced and expelled from cities due to the so called urban renewal projects carried out by governments. When the right to life of certain persons is terminated through extra-judicial killing by the police and other law enforcement agencies those who depend on them for their education and welfare are rendered vulnerable. Without access to education the right to freedom of expression is of no consequence to millions of illiterate people. In view of pervasive poverty in the society it is no longer in dispute that as long as socio-economic rights are not made justiciable majority of citizens cannot enjoy the civil and political rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Illegal deportation and displacement of citizens: Urban renewal has led to forceful removal and deportation of physically challenged people begging for alms in state capitals. Instead of rehabilitating such beggars state governments have deported them to their states of origin. But such deportations targeted at poor citizens who are Christians, Muslims and adherents of traditional religions cannot be justified under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended. Specifically, deportation of citizens constitutes a violation to the dignity of persons (Section 34), personal liberty (Section 35), freedom of movement (Section 41) and right of residence in any part of Nigeria (Section 43) the beggars involved ought to be rehabilitated by the State.
Article 12 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, Cap A9, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 guarantees the right of every individual to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of a State and has prohibited the mass deportation of nationals in any African country. In Director, State Security Service v Olisa Agbakoba (1999) 3 NWLR (Pt 595) 340 the Supreme Court of Nigeria upheld that the right of every citizen to freedom of movement including the right to live in any part of the country.
The right of poor citizens to live peacefully is often violated by many state governments which engage in the demolition of the so called illegal structures in the urban centres. While the illegal structures are demolished with or without notice the mansions of the rich built without approved building plans are allowed to be regularised by state governments. In Chief Jacob Obor& Others v Federal Capital Development Control & Others (unreported suit No CV/3998/2012) our law firm convinced the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory to stop the planned demolition of Mpape, a large settlement in the territory. Since Nigerian are entitled to housing state governments should not be allowed to embark on the demolition of the homes of the poor without alternative accommodation.
Although Governor El rufai was reported to have directed the Police to arrest the members of the Arewa Youth Congress for asking all Igbo people to quit the 19 states in the north within 3 months he lacks the moral right to enforce the directive. After all, he has engaged in the illegal demolition of houses and displacement of millions of citizens when he was the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory and now as governor of Kaduna state. In fact, after the brutalisation and killing of the 347 members of the Shia community the governor ordered the demolition of the houses of IMN leaders in December 2015 without any court order. Even though the federal government has assured the Igbo people of their safety in the north all men and women of goodwill must ensure that the quit notice is not carried out.
Illegal ban of civil society organizations: In violation of the fundamental right to freedom of association the government has banned some voluntary societies without any legal basis. The governor of Kogi state, Mr Yahaya Bello has just announced the proscription of the Kogi state university branch of the Academic Staff Union of Univeristies on the ground that its members have refused to call off an industrial action to compel the state government to pay arrears of salaries and allowances of almost one year. The ban is illegal as no state government has the power to proscribe a trade union registered under the Trade Union Act.
Before then, Governor Nasir El Rufai of Kaduna state had purportedly banned the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. This was after the state government had abdicated its legal duty to prosecute the armed troops who killed 347 unarmed members of the IMN. Since the action of Governor El Rufai was not authorized by any court of law the members of the IMN have rightly defied the illegal ban. Notwithstanding the illegality of the ban the Nigeria Police Force has attempted to enforce it by preventing the IMN members from protesting against the illegal and contemptuous detention of their leader, Sheik Ibraheem Elzakzaky and his wife.
The violent disruption of the peaceful rallies of the IMN members and other law abiding citizens is contemptuous of the judgment of the Court of Appeal in Inspector-General of Police v All Nigeria Peoples Party (2008) 12 WRN 65. In that case, the Court of Appeal upheld the fundamental right of Nigerians to convene public meetings and rallies without police permit. But the illegal action of the authorities of the Nigeria Police Force is not surprising in view of the illegal ban which they have placed on the Peace Corps of Nigeria. Apart from the fact that the organization is registered by the Corporate Affairs Commission under the Companies and Allied Companies Act our law firm had secured a perpetual injunction from the Federal High Court restraining the Police form harassing the members of the Peace Corps of Nigeria in any part of the country.
Unlawful killing of citizens: I have recently condemned the extra-judicial execution of criminal suspects by the police, the unlawful killing of unarmed civilians including women and children by the armed forces and deadly attacks on communities by violent militias and other armed bandits. To prove that the unlawful killing of unarmed citizens did not start under the current administration I referred to the military invasions of Odi in Bayelsa state (1999), Zaki Biam in Benue State (2001) and Gbaramotu in Delta state (2009) and other violent attacks on unarmed people by the police and the armed forces.