Law & Human Rights

May 23, 2024

Tackling rights abuses requires more investments in justice system — Ojukwu, SAN

Dr. Anthony Ojukwu, SAN, is the Executive   Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC.

In this interview, he spoke on the challenges of addressing human rights abuses in the country, how citizens can fight for their rights and what resources are needed to reduce cases of rights violations in the country.

Excerpt:

By Henry Ojelu

How challenging has it been speaking out against rights abuses by government agencies while also heading one?

It’s not easy. Some feel very uncomfortable by some of the things I say, but what can anybody do about it? You have to speak no matter how uncomfortable the person feels because if it is the truth, then it is the truth.

Haven’t you heard of some countries where after somebody makes a statement, they are shot dead or taken away? That is the kind of risk we take by condemning what we condemn, by saying it where it hurts but it is the truth, otherwise we’ll not be re-accredited, because the world is watching us.

Why do you think Nigerians are usually reluctant in fighting for their rights?

If you must fight for your rights, you must be ready to put up with some inconvenience. I’ll give you an example. Police can arrest and detain someone. We would intervene and the person is released. We tell the person: ‘Let’s sue the police for illegal detention.’ Most would say ‘No. I’m out of detention. I’m okay.’ Some of our people are not resilient. Look at the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and others who fought for human rights. Was it a bed of roses?   The late Gani Fawehinmi was frequently detained and anytime he went out, he would carry his toothbrush and toothpaste just in case. He was ready to sacrifice for the common good. Fighting for human rights is not a tea party.

What is your reaction to the recent killing of soldiers in Okuama and the fleeing of residents?

What we preach is that the military must keep to its rules of engagement. In the first place, the military is not supposed to be in charge of routine investigations. However, we all know why the military is called in at times – the situation has overwhelmed the regular police. If such number of soldiers of that rank can be killed in a community, you can agree with me that it’s not a normal situation. However, what we preach is let there be no violation of human rights. We intervened immediately to make sure the situation did not degenerate into what we had in Odi and Zaki-Biam. However, there is a need to allow the law to take its course by making sure that whoever is behind the killings is arrested. But you must respect the rights of innocent people. You must ensure that while you go after the killers, you’re not killing innocent people or molesting anybody and that those who are innocent are allowed to carry on their businesses. And once the suspects are arrested, you’re going to hand them over to the police. The reality is that there will be some inconvenience. If there is an armed robbery in a neighbourhood, police will block the entrance gate and that may cause traffic. They’re trying to block the exit route of the robbers. Sometimes people have to cope with some inconvenience as part of the general good.

A recent United Nations report on human rights scored Nigeria low in several areas. What is your reaction to the report?

The issues raised, such as extra-judicial killings, are not lies. But even in the United States, there are also extrajudicial killings. You can never have a situation where there is no violation of human rights. That will be a perfect world. Other countries also deal with violations, they’re not peculiar to Nigeria. The only difference is that when it happens in the U.S., they will track you down and get you. But here, you can do it and run away. In this office (the new Ikeja office), there are no CCTV cameras installed yet. If I slap or shoot you and run into the street, before the police would respond, I would have left Ikeja. That is the difference. In the U.S., I would be trailed. There are means of identification. You cannot get away with murder. But more terrible things are also happening there. Someone would go to a school and shoot 30 people or more at a go. The point is that we can only try to ameliorate human rights violations. We can try to redress them, improve good governance and do the right things.

How is NHRC interfacing with the courts to address pre-trial detention which was one of the issues highlighted by the report?

It is not always the fault of the courts. For instance, if a judge has 50 cases on his list a day, even if he gives every case 30 minutes each, how many working hours do we have in a day? When we identify a problem, we must solve it. The judges write in long hand. Sometimes there is no power supply. Police will arrest you before investigation and to beat the timeframe for detention, they charge you to court so it will be the court holding you and not the police. If the investigation takes six months, the case cannot go on in court. Can you see how pre-trial detention happens? The court will adjourn. Next time, they will say prosecution is not ready and it will be adjourned again. So, is it the fault of the court? At times they send the case file to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP for advice and it will not be ready on time. So, a lot of things need to play together to have an ideal system.

 Way forward

We need to invest more resources in the administration of justice. Look at the Supreme Court. For so many years, it never had the full complement of 21 justices. They only had 10 or 11 justices out of the 21 for many years. If you file a case at the Supreme Court, before you get a date, it could take two years. And these justices are old men and women who are above 60. Right now, I know how much I can do. When I see people who are 70 becoming ministers, I begin to wonder how they cope. Maybe when I get to that age I will know. And we expect these justices to sit and listen to 30 cases in a day and still write judgments, some of which you can read for two days? We expect magic to happen. How is that possible?

Are the problems beyond solution?

Someone can get in there today and tackle most of these problems. I came in as Executive Secretary in 2018. Now, we’re talking of eight permanent NHRC offices in five years. This commission was established in 1995. Maybe those before me had other priorities or were facing other things. I prioritized permanent offices as a key factor in our independence, and we have been able to achieve something in five years. A president can say: ‘Even if I don’t achieve anything else in four years, I’m going to solve our power problem.’ You face it and deal with it. Another president can come and say: ‘This issue of refineries, I will deal with it.’ Another can decide to face the issue of roads and infrastructure. If you check all these developed countries, that was how they were built. Face one problem and solve it once and for all. So, these issues with the administration of justice – lack of courts, delayed trials by the police – someone can get there and treat them as a priority. It’s about the political will to address them.

What steps is your commission taking to strengthen its independence?

Some of the areas to further entrench our independence are adequate funding, construction of the remaining 22 state offices, resourcing the Human Rights Fund under the Act, amendment of the Act to reflect the 2023 observations of the Sub-committee on Accreditation that reviewed the status of NHRC, Practice Directions on the recognition and enforcement of NHRC decisions, provision of investigation vehicles for the 36 state offices, digitisation of the operations of the Commission, training and improved welfare of the officers of the Commission.

What is the commission doing with regards to educating Nigerians about their rights?

The setting up of a permanent office in Lagos is one of the steps taken. We try to create awareness for people to know that their rights are violated. Some people have accepted certain things as normal but they are not normal. Another thing is when your rights are violated, knowing you can go to somebody to assist you, is what the commission is also doing. Most people now know that the commission is there, and when their rights are violated, they are now more vocal in complaining than before.

What has the reporting rate been like?

I can tell you in a year, we receive more than two million complaints of human rights violations. Another thing is the ability to deal with these complaints. We are working hard on that, training our staff. We are trying to digitise our operations. We have established a toll-free number and a complaint response unit where people can call and we will be able to respond to them. For instance, if someone is arrested and detained for more than 48 hours or more than 12 hours as the case may be, we intervene and secure bail to enable the person defend himself. We visit prisons, police cells and correctional centres. We work with refugees in IDP camps. We settle cases for people who are suffering from domestic and gender-based violence. We try to ensure that children are taken care of by their parents, that they go to school, and that the child’s rights are not being violated. We also encourage the government to provide necessities like education, and shelter; to ensure that the people are economically engaged, that there is power supply and that other things are functioning, because these are things that will increase economic activities.