Human rights and Nigeria at 49 - by Emmanuel Onwubiko


NIGERIA gained political independence from the then British Colonial masters on October 1, 1960 and enrolled as a member of the United Nations approximately one year after. This membership of the United Nations also meant that Nigeria had signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nigeria has also endorsed and domesticated several other human rights' instruments, treaties, conventions and resolutions that embody fundamental Human Rights' provisions.

As a founding member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) now known as the African Union, Nigeria is a major signatory and proponent of the African Peoples and Human Rights Charter which indeed has been domesticated and automatically transmuted to a local law meaning that the provisions are legally binding on all persons and authorities. The provisions of the African Peoples and Human Rights Charter are one and the same with the articles enshrined in the Universal Declarations of Human Rights. Nigeria's national law right from inception as an independent political entity has always embodied some of the finest human rights' provisions, which are also strategic components of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Human and Peoples Rights Charter.

But one major obstacle to the enforcement and implementation of these fundamental human rights provisions in Nigeria for most significant period since Nigeria gained political independence was the draconian, dictatorial and tyrannical military regimes that violently seized power from the civil and democratic regime that was installed soon after Nigeria gained political independence in 1960. It must be stated that the prolonged stay in power of the British colonialists encouraged some of the most serious cases of human rights violations including arbitrary arrest and trial of some of those considered as Nigeria's earliest pro-independence advocates and activists including but certainly not limited to great personages like late Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Alvan Ikoku, Herbert Macauley and Sir Ahmadu Bello.

But Human Rights infractions became much more serious during the successive military regimes that Nigeria unfortunately witnessed soon after the political independence. Some Nigerians considered as pro-democracy campaigners like late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Beko Ransome-Kuti, late Chima Ubani, and Chief. Olisa Agbakoba among others suffered one form of repression, imprisonment and severe rights abuses or the other. Journalists like the late Dele Giwa who was killed allegedly by some reactionary elements in the then General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida's military dictatorship and Nduka Irabor, and Tunde Thompson were at one time or the other incarcerated by successive military tyrants for their avowed commitments to ensuring that the civil- political rights of Nigerians were respected. The late General Shehu Musa Yar'adua was allegedly poisoned to death in prison where he was illegally detained by the then late General Sani Abacha's military dictatorship even as the likes of Comrade Shehu Sani among other pro-democracy campaigners were clamped into prison because of their campaign for the Human Rights of Nigerians to be respected. Ironically, it was the military regime of the late General Sani Abacha that spearheaded the establishment of Nigeria's National Human Rights Commission in 1996 which signposted a positive departure from the past whereby the issues of Human Rights were relegated to the background. But questions still linger till date on the institutional weakness and in-built incapacity and total lack of independence of the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria to be able to champion the promotion and protection of the Human Rights of Nigerians. The current administration further weakened the independence of the National Human Rights Commission by interfering with the Governing Council of the Commission by illegally announcing the dissolution of the Governing board even when the enabling law does not grant the president of the country the power to dissolve the governing council.

In 1999 when the military dictatorship for the first time in more than three decades decided to organize a democratic election, Nigerians were optimistic that at last, their fundamental Human Rights will be respected, promoted and protected, but more than ten years after, the opposite is the case because apart from the shameful fact that nearly seventy five million out of the one hundred and forty million Nigerians are living below the internationally acclaimed extreme poverty line of earning less than two united states of America's dollar a day, over sixty nine million Nigerians are illiterates just as over twenty million Nigerian kids of school age are out of school because of poverty afflicting their parents and guardians.

Institutionally, Chapter two of the 1999 constitution which is the supreme law in Nigeria which embodies the fundamental objectives of state policies, are said not to be justiceable meaning that a large chunk of the socio-economic rights of Nigerians are institutionally denied and are difficult to enforce using the instrumentality of the law. The most critical question being asked by a majority of Nigerians is that how can the government expect to fulfill the fundamental rights provisions enshrined in Chapter four of the 1999 constitution without recourse to the enforcement of Chapter Two? Putting the question differently, how can a government enforce the fundamental rights provision in Chapter Four which is justiceable and states that "every citizens has a right to life" when the same government claims that the ''right to health'' as embodied in Chapter two of the same constitution which is said not to be justiceable and therefore can not be enforced or implemented as of right?

Nigerians expect the National Assembly to clearly amend or alter the relevant sections of the 1999 constitution as they relate to Chapter two and ensure that a provision to make them enforceable is inserted in the new constitution in the making because Human Rights are interdependent, universal and inalienable. The Right to health can not be separated from the right to life if we are serious as a nation under God to promote Human Rights of citizens.

Nigerian government must acknowledge the universal truth that respect for human rights is an essential component of development even as development is seen as;" a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom."

As Nigeria marches towards the golden jubilee of our Independence as a political entity next year October 1, Nigerians are praying and should indeed actively work to ensure that their human rights are respected through the institutionalisation of the strict respect by all persons and authorities of the principle of the rule of law and not rule by brute force.

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