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Poor Image: Amnesty International is not Nigeria’s problem

Today’s world is characterized by tyranny, dictatorship and impunity thereby justifying the ceaseless campaigns by Amnesty International (AI) for an end to abuses of human rights across the globe. In the last couple of years, Nigeria has been one of the countries to which AI has directed its searchlight, finding quite often a multiplicity of human rights abuses. For the period 2017 to 2018, Amnesty reported on insurgency attacks, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and torture and other ill-treatment, which, in some cases, led to deaths in custody.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari

It also revealed harsh conditions in military detention camps as well as communal violence occurring across the country culminating in the forceful eviction of thousands of people from their homes. Although these reports appear to reflect what we hear every day, the Nigerian government is not comfortable with the posture of Amnesty International whose reports she feels are concocted and unrealistic.

While it is fair for Nigeria to correct any misinformation about herself, we are however concerned about the trend whereby the Nigerian government has virtually turned the Amnesty International into an opposition political party as if Nigeria is its only subject. Meanwhile, it is publicly known that AI is a global movement of more than 7 million people spread over 150 countries and territories. In which case, AI is not just about Nigeria. Besides, what it has been saying about Nigeria is neither worse nor better than its findings in some other climes.

In its world report released earlier this year, AI had this to say: “Conflict, austerity measures and natural disasters pushed many into deeper poverty and insecurity; millions were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in their own countries or across international borders. Discrimination remained rife in all regions of the world, and at times had deadly consequences for the victims. Governments of all persuasions continued to crack down on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.”

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It therefore amounts to undue sensitivity for Nigeria to see Amnesty’s reports which the government itself does not fully disprove as a personal quarrel. We accept the wisdom in the principle of natural justice that both sides of a case ought to be heard; we also value the media ethics of balance and objectivity in information management but Nigerian government officials should not expect AI to function like their public media that are visibly coerced through ownership control into stating only what the government wants to hear.

At a news conference in Abuja a few days back, Lai Mohammed; our information minister, described the amnesty report on continued killings resulting from the farmers-herders clashes, and killings from cattle rustling and other causes as outdated because many things the government has done were not reflected in the reports. With due respect, it is not the duty of Amnesty International to highlight whatever the government claims to have done to drastically reduce the killings. That is the burden of the government. Her officials should therefore learn to appreciate the efficacy of Amnesty’s adversarial posture.

It is indeed a veritable posture which has over time checkmated government and all authorities to see people as the subject and not the object of governance.
Unfortunately, rather than seeing Amnesty reports as news for action, Nigeria often encourages its officials and some other interest groups to fault reality reports. In June 2015 for instance, a coalition of civil society organisations reportedly picked holes in the Amnesty International report which indicted some serving and retired Nigerian military officers for alleged human rights violations in the North-East geo-political zone.

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The coalition described the report as “lopsided and maliciously orchestrated by some disgruntled elements to distract the Presidency.” The group concluded that AI was looking for cheap popularity adding that it was too early to criticize a government that was less than one month in office. The group therefore called on all and sundry to allow President Muhammadu Buhari to settle down to face the fight against the on-going insurgency.

How can a report by an international body be faulty only because the nation concerned just inaugurated a new president? Painfully, such a posture merely helped to set a tone for Nigeria to be poorly represented internationally – a tone that is not ending as each report is vigorously condemned making the nation look insensitive to criticisms.

A major reason why Nigeria continues to be poorly represented is the mundane nature of its communication policy. Those who speak for the country quite often do not know when, where and how to speak. Indeed, some of them are not even mandated to speak on behalf of the country; they are merely attention seekers who are in search of official patronage.

Understandably therefore, what Nigeria does is to say the same thing repeatedly without pondering to identify if anyone is listening or if perceived receivers of such information are on the same page as the senders of the said information. At a public lecture a few years back, this writer was constrained to caution the Nigerian military on its stereotyped communication strategy of denying certain developments only to announce weeks after, that some successes of insurgency groups which it earlier denied have now been contained.

How can government-forces repel attacks which they claimed never happened? This confuses people and encourages them to negatively respond to Amnesty International’s questionnaire on the state of the nation, thus naturally producing negative findings.

What government tells her people is important. For this reason, Nigeria requires a more vibrant communication system where information is promptly given, that is, as and when due. Government and other authorities must never with-hold information and thus create a vacuum in a country where people hear only those things which validate their predisposition. Even at that, the country must dump its preference for the transmission model of communication where information is passed on to the public as a routine without a purpose.

It is obviously better to embrace the transactional model of communication where both the sender and the receivers are interacting by speaking and hearing each other. At the same time, it is fatal to adopt the “silence is golden, no comment” approach only to spend ample time on rejoinders to what is seen as inaccurate or false publications. As Amnesty International operatives have said severally, public officials hardly respond to enquiries.

We therefore call on government image makers and institutional leaders to note that undue concentration on rejoinders is ineffectual as the public would see such an effort as an after-thought. Indeed, rejoinders can hardly alter the damage which a bad publication has created. Amnesty international does not appear to be our problem.


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